All right, it pains me to do this. I’m a guy who collected every conceivable bit of Ninja Turtle merchandise available circa 1990. I’m certain there was a day when I rode my bike to school wearing a Ninja Turtle helmet and then ate a Ninja Turtle branded snack treat out of my Ninja Turtle lunchbox while discussing the new Ninja Turtles movie with my friends (all of whom were wearing at least one piece of Ninja Turtles clothing) before we broke for recess to play, you guessed it, Ninja Turtles. I was obsessed with those heroes in a half shell like everyone in my generation. Hell, I even went to the Coming Out Of Their Shells live rock concert when it rolled into town and I loved it (note: it’s horrible). So, I have deep nostalgia for all the hours I spent lost in that universe and I recall those days fondly. However, I ask you now as a former Turtles superfan who was there from the beginning: can we all please stop it with the Ninja Turtles? It’s enough already. This franchise isn’t built on the back of 20
century mythmaking like Stan Lee’s marvelous universe. It’s built on the back of toy companies and we all got duped.
It wasn’t always that way of course. There was a time when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a very personal and even alternative creation. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird dreamed them up as comic book fans and self-published the original books to amuse themselves. They were created as a gentle parody of the 80s comic book obsession with dark, gritty, and brooding superheroes. Eastman and Laird came up with the most ridiculous concept that they could imagine by pulling together buzzwords and then treated it deathly seriously as an homage to Frank Miller (initially it was implied that the ooze that made the turtles mutant was the same that turned Matt Murdock into Daredevil and The Foot Clan was a not-so-subtle homage to Miller’s ninja clan in Daredevil, The Hand). The books were practically meta comics that built an absurd mythology and played it straight as deadpan semi-parody. Sure, as the sales unexpectedly grew the tone became more sincere., but the book was very much intended to be underground; something that only the deepest of comic book nerds would appreciate as a loving tribute to the adult seriousness with which they treated kiddy picture books about costumed crime fighters.
Then the toy companies got involved.
As the popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles grew in comic book shops, toy companies took notice. He-Man and Transformers had created a new industry where toy companies could manufacture a popular IP by launching Saturday morning cartoons to advertise their new toy lines, pretending that they were merely merchandising a popular program. It worked like gangbusters and when Playmates decided to take a risk on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because they liked the easily marketable name, they refused to crank out toys unless there was a TV series, so they commissioned a cartoon. The first thing that the showrunners did was smooth out all of the edges of Eastman and Laird’s tongue-in-cheek underground publication, keeping only the turtles, Splinter, Shredder, Casey Jones, the Foot Clan, and a few other loose characters/ideas because they were all action figure ready. Every other character and element in the cartoon that has become iconic was created because it would make a great figure or playset—that was the only motivation anyone involved with the property had. Like candy companies repackaging chocolate and sugar, they knew they had something that could sell. The rest was just packaging and marketing, nothing creative.
It worked. In fact, that’s an understatement. There wasn’t a single mode of merchandise in the 90s or today that hasn’t at some point been tainted by the Turtles. We all fell for it at the time, and that’s fine. We were kids. The designs were imaginative. Teenage slang was cool. Who didn’t like ninjas and pizza? It all added up. However, as time went on and we all grew up, the Ninja Turtle love remains in spite of reason and rationality. New TV series and movies pop up every few years like clockwork and the trend kicks off again. However, this isn’t a case like Star Wars, Star Trek, or DC/Marvel comics where the art at the center taps into classical storytelling, mythmaking, and human ideals/obsessions. It’s just some cool looking fast food that tastes the same every time. There’s a reason to dig back into re-occurring cultural obsessions like Batman or Darth Vader: they can be analyzed on deeper and more personal levels with age and perspective. They’re myths that grow along with their audience. There’s nothing in the Ninja Turtles that warrants deep thought beyond the ways in which media can manipulate childhood fantasy into advertising dollars. Pretending that this mythology and universe holds any artistic value is a fool’s errand. It’s empty nostalgia and it needs to stop.
Look, obviously there’s nothing wrong with feeling nostalgic for childhood obsessions and clinging to them because of how they make you remember a simpler time. That’s fantastic. Just don’t aggrandize things. There has yet to be an iteration of the Ninja Turtles that didn’t run out of steam narratively because there aren’t really any stories to tell or themes to explore. There are just compelling images and characters, made iconic by generations of children who fell in love with a product custom designed to appeal to them. There’s a new Ninja Turtles movie coming out this week as well as a new videogame. Both will be successful with a variety of ages. None of that success will be determined by quality. It will all be a result of brand loyalty and we need to get ourselves off of this consumer treadmill. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a wonderful 90s phenomenon defined by all of the excesses and low culture obsessions of that era. Since we’re in the middle of the 90s nostalgia movement, it makes sense that the Turtles are part of that. However, can we please let it die when all of this is over? It would be so much more fun to look back at the Turtles and think about what a weird phenomenon it was rather than breaking down all the ways that the new Megan Fox vehicle tarnished a half-baked continuity that didn’t make much sense in the first place. More importantly, if we let the Ninja Turtles go and don’t force another generation down that particular rabbit hole, then the kids of today can find their own absurd franchise to obsess over as they grow. Isn’t that better than recycling old stupid ideas? New stupid is at least fresh and original in its vapidity. Let’s leave room for a little more of that and keep the Ninja Turtles to faux-faded t-shirts for folks enjoying their quarter life crisis, please. It’s for the best.