In 1983 struggling artist Kevin Eastman drew an anthropomorphic turtle wearing a mask and wielding nunchuks. Across the top of the page Eastman had written the words, “ninja turtle”. Eastman’s friend and fellow artist, Peter Laird, saw the sketch and elaborated on the design, drawing other humanoid turtles wielding other types of martial arts weaponry. He also added the words, “teenage mutant” to the title. The two thought they had something silly enough to market, so with a little bit of cash and barely any advertising, the partners created the first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Eastman and Laird’s humble, self-published comic book would become a hit, and their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would become a media empire, spanning animated shows, feature films, toy lines, and countless pieces of licensed merchandise.
The success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was largely due to the 1987 animated series, and for many fans, the cartoon was the first time they were ever introduced to these vigilante science experiments. But whereas the series and everything that came after it was lighthearted and goofy, the original vision of Eastman and Laird was less ‘Saturday morning cartoons’ and more ‘after 10 pm’ pay cable.
How were the original Turtles different? Read on to find out!
11. Pizza Loving Teens or Finely Tuned Instruments of Bloody Revenge?
We’ve mentioned how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle origin story is strikingly similar to that of another costumed vigilante, and for good reason. When co-creators Eastman and Laird first came up with the idea of mutated turtles who stood on their hind legs and happened to know martial arts, they recognized how the concept was incredibly silly. Seeing the opportunity to poke fun at some of the bigger comics out at the time, Laird and Eastman ran with their turtle idea and made it as over the top as they could. Which meant turning the violence up to eleven.
The turtles were originally trained to kill Shredder, as part of their sensei’s desperate quest for revenge. Along the way the Turtles would dispatch those who stood in their way, using their weapons with lethal force.
The idea of teenagers going on a thrill killing murder spree wasn’t going to sit well with parents, regardless of whether or not the perpetrators were giant mutated turtles or not, so when the animated series went to air, the human members of the Foot Clan were replaced with robots. Destroying mechanical ninjas in plumes of smoke was deemed much less offensive than eviscerating human beings with deadly weapons; however, this is probably why Skynet struck first.
10. Catchphrase Generators or Potty Mouths?
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series was essentially a ten season long commercial to sell toys by creating ridiculous storylines with goofy characters kids would love. The turtles also had a penchant for spitting out surfer lingo like “cowabunga” and “radical”, despite the fact that they spent their entire lives in the sewers underneath New York City, which isn’t exactly known as a hotbed of tasty waves by surf aficionados.
In the comic book they employ language that reflects the colorful atmosphere of the Big Apple. The 1990 film included some of this “edgy” language, something that Playmates (the company that had produced the animated TMNT TV show and all of the action figures) was vehemently against, so much so that they refused to produce any toys to tie in with the film.
Harsher language has been employed in comics and other forms of media that involve comic book characters – Age of Ultron features a running gag featuring the more conservative Captain America’s objections towards his team-mates’ choice of words. So when the Turtles were essentially censored from talking in a manner that would actually be more realistic given their age, it cemented fact that the Turtles were perceived primarily as wholesome fun for children; which didn’t sit well with the creators.
9. Color-Coded for Safety
The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book was published in black and white. The absence of color suited the dark tone of the book, however it made differentiating between the Turtles somewhat problematic. Designed to have matching red masks, co-creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman had each of the Turtles specialize in a different weapon, primarily so readers could tell the difference between them when they were all together on a page.
Playmates, the toy manufacturer who was bank rolling the cartoon, needed to market the toys and animated series towards children, so they naturally wanted to shy away from the over-the-top violence present in the books. In order to do this, the producers of the show de-emphasized the Turtles’ weapons, but without them, the all red masks would make the turtles indistinguishable from each other unless a character was directly referred to by name. The solution? Different colored masks for each turtle (and to a lesser extent, giant, gaudy belt buckles emblazoned with their initials).
The color-coded masks have since been one of the trademark characteristics of the Turtles, and have been present in all subsequent iterations of the characters, except for the Image comics run which sought to bring the darker storylines back into the Turtle mythos.
8. Realistic Fights Turn into Three Stooges Slapstick
Speaking of weapons: in the comic book the Turtles use their weapons to dispatch baddies in ultra-realistic fashion. The black and white illustrations did not shy away from showering panels with blood, something that obviously wouldn’t fly in the animated TV show.
The violence of the comic was toned down to something resembling slapstick when the cartoon premiered in 1987. When the 1990 film adaptation was being developed, the filmmakers decided to ground the movie in its comic book roots, as opposed to the cartoon which was entering its fourth season. The resulting film was much darker than anything the cartoon had shown before, featuring realistic violence, Splinter being tortured, one of the Turtles nearly succumbing to his injuries, and the gruesome trash compactor death of the Shredder.
As we’ve mentioned before, Playmates were not happy with the final product and refused to distribute merchandise based on the film (they would eventually relent over two decades after the film’s premiere), and parents were furious over the dark tone of the movie.
The sequel, 1991’s Secret of the Ooze, was then augmented to more closely resemble the cartoon show, going as far as to prevent the Turtles from using their trademark weapons for almost the entirety of the film.
7. Whitewashing April O’Neil
When reading a comic book about mutated New York City house pets learning martial arts to avenge a murder at the hands of a Japanese ninja, you have to learn to take everything with a grain of salt. Sure, the Turtles were never exactly grounded in reality, but the revelation that Turtle confidant and closest ally April O’Neil is a sentient drawing courtesy of a magic crystal is a stretch, even in a fictional world populated with a giant talking rat.
While it is certainly odd, what’s even weirder is April O’Neil’s amorphous ethnicity. Most Shellheads picture O’Neil as the yellow jumpsuit wearing, redhead reporter depicted in the animated series. While this version of April has become canon in all subsequent media including cartoons, videogames and movies, April O’Neil certainly looked different in the original comic book.
Although O’Neil’s race is never explicitly mentioned, it is said that the character’s design was based off of co-creator Kevin Eastman’s real life girlfriend at the time, who was black. It is also worth mentioning that while the animated incarnation of April was, without question, white, the comic book was still depicting her radically different. Fans and critics have been arguing this peculiar piece of of Turtle history for quite some time, with some going as far as saying that Playmates, who had creative control of the animated series, whitewashed the April O’Neil. Peter Laird has said that this isn’t the case, but we’ll let you decide.
6. Krang, or The Utroms From Another World
Krang was the cantankerous creature from another dimension that sort of resembled a brain with little T-Rex arms. It resided inside a giant robot who had a tuning fork on top of his head and was a strong supporter of the shoulder pad fashion movement of the late-80s/early-90s. Krang was often seen alongside his best frenemy Shredder, scheming about ways to defeat their Turtle adversaries and seize control of the world. The character became a fan-favorite, and is even going to appear on the big screen in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.
Even though a disembodied brain hellbent on world domination might seem a little disturbing, thanks to the animated series, Krang was just another weird, kind of cute villain who was completely incompetent. In the original comics however, the creatures that inspired Krang were straight up nightmare fuel.
Although the brain-like aliens known as Utroms were more or less benign, the soulless eyes of their robot bodies and their hideous appearance really crank up the creep factor. It’s also worth mentioning that they once kidnapped Splinter and subjected him to all sorts of tests. No word on whether they did any probing, but they did place him in suspended animation and just sort of forgot about him for while.
5. Mousers, Terrifying Kill-Bots
Baxter Stockman is often remembered as the mad scientist who went all Cronenberg and transformed himself into a Jeff Goldblum-esque human/fly hybrid. While this never happens in the comic, Stockman’s little robotic henchmen, the Mousers, do appear in both the comic and the animated series. Originally developed as rodent exterminators, the Mousers were later used used by Baxter to tunnel underneath the city and rob banks.
More of an annoyance in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series and the classic videogame beat ’em ups, the comic book establishes that the Mousers are incredibly efficient for their original intended purpose. The graphic way in which they are depicted hunting down helpless rats and chomping through their soft flesh with menacing steel jaws is downright sadistic.
The next time you play one of the Turtle beat ‘em ups and your Turtle is overtaken by mousers, just try not thinking about the Mouser’s mechanical jaws tearing into the Turtle’s green skin as their sprites cry in agony and try to shake them off. Not so annoying anymore, eh? Speaking of Turtle beat ‘em ups, how did the videogames get time travel so right when the third movie got it so, so wrong?
4. Shredder, Local Neighborhood Drug Dealing Assassin
The iconic villain of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle franchise was originally the brother of a man named Oruku Nagi, who had been killed by a ninja named Hamato Yoshi, over a woman. Yoshi and the woman fled to the United States (along with Yoshi’s pet rat, Splinter). Oruku Nagi’s younger brother, Oruku Saki, followed Yoshi after training with the Foot Clan to become a ninja himself. After rising though the ranks of the Foot Clan and establishing a criminal organization in the United States, Saki used his resources to track down Yoshi and his lover, and avenged his brother by murdering them both.
This left Splinter without his master, forcing him to roam the streets of New York City until he is mutated, along with four baby turtles, by radioactive waste. Splinter trains the turtles in martial arts, like his former master had taught him, in order to seek vengeance for his master’s murder.
In the comic book, Shredder is an imposing figure, a deadly warrior who runs a large criminal enterprise consisting of drug smuggling, gun running and assassinations.
In the animated series, Shredder was still considered dangerous, but was often portrayed as being completely inept. Case in point, instead of illegal arms deals and dope dealing, Shredder opens a pizza place as a front for his nefarious plans. The 1990 movie was a little more true to the comic, but even then the evil Foot Clan was only ever shown committing various acts of larceny. We’re still not sure how 13” televisions were funding a major crime syndicate.
3. Raphael is Insane in the Membrane
We all know that Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines, Michelangelo is a party dude and Raphael is cool, but rude. Thanks to Chuck Lorre (of Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory fame) the animated series’ theme song cemented the personalities of the turtles. These personality traits would go on to become canon, featuring in virtually every version of the Turtles.
In the cartoon, Raphael is a bit of a curmudgeon, but still manages to be somewhat endearing. In the 1990 film, Raphael is shown to be more of a loner compared to his brothers, embodying the typical example of “teenage angst”.
While Raph is the more contemplative turtle, his emotions tend to rule him, something that gets the better of him on multiple occasions. For example, in the film, he is ambushed by the Foot and is seriously injured. That’s pretty heavy for a movie about grown men trying to do spin kicks in giant latex suits, but it’s nothing compared to the comic.
In the original comic book run, Raphael’s emotional instability is borderline psychotic. One issue shows Raphael fly into an emo-rage that causes him to lose all control of himself. He is just about to bash Michelangelo’s brains in with a wrench before his other brothers stop him. When he snaps back to his senses, he can’t believe what he’s almost done. Instead of getting him the psychological help he clearly needs, Leonardo simply banishes Raph to the streets. Harsh.
2. Casey Jones Vigilante Thrill Killer
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles themselves originated as a parody of the vigilante superheroes like Daredevil and Batman (not to mention a healthy dose of irregular DNA a la the X-Men), but their human cohort Casey Jones is a blatant jab at the unhinged weirdos that took their frustrations out on the pulpy pages of comics.
The animated series didn’t give Casey much love, as he only appeared sporadically in a handful of episodes. The 1990 feature film did, however, incorporate the character and managed to stay somewhat true to his original depiction in the comics. While the wild eyed intensity of actor Elias Koteas made us believe that Casey Jones was slightly unhinged individual with a heart of gold, it still didn’t convey the crazy of his comic book incarnation.
Casey Jones, as he appears in the comic, is just a regular guy who watches too many cop shows on TV. They inspire him to don a hockey mask and brutally beat any petty thugs he came across with a myriad of sporting goods. In fact, his bloodlust is what causes him to run into the heroes in a half shell in the first place, as Raphael stops Casey from literally beating some muggers to death. Originally shown as incredibly violent, Jones calms down and becomes one of the turtles’ closest allies, but after he accidentally kills a teenage mugger he falls into a deep depression and battles alcohol dependency. We can see why the cartoon didn’t utilize Casey Jones all that much.
And don’t forget this.