In 2009, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will turn 25, marking a quarter century of evolving "Turtle Power." The Turtles were introduced to the public in a comic book series created by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman in May 1984. Since then, the Turtles have grown into pop culture icons with no end to their shell-kicking ways in sight, and we have to say thank you to these guys for making it all possible.
Born in North Adams, Massachusetts in 1954, Peter was always interested in drawing. By the time he hit high school, where he discovered the work of Jack Kirby and Barry Smith, illustration became his true passion. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts with a B.F.A. in Printmaking, Peter desired to become a freelance comic book artist and illustrator.
Born in 1962 in Portland, Maine, Kevin began drawing as soon as he was able to hold a crayon. His discovery of comic books gave meaning to his crazed doodling. When Kevin discovered and studied the work of Jack Kirby, Russ Heath, Richard Corben, Vaughn Bode and John Severin, he began to hone his craft. His first published work appeared in 1980, a year or so before he met Peter Laird.
Having met briefly in the early 80's, Laird and Eastman's paths serendipitously crossed again when Peter moved to Dover, NH while his wife attended graduate school at the University of New Hampshire. It just so happened that Kevin was working directly over the border in Ogunquit, ME at a restaurant cooking lobsters. The two friends quickly reestablished their artistic collaboration and Mirage Studios came to life in 1983 at the kitchen table in Peter's house.
After a long day of work at their minimum wage paying jobs, Kevin and Peter were relaxing watching television and sketching. According to Laird, "We got real punchy and we started drawing cartoons to amuse ourselves." As the evening evolved, Kevin drew a bi-pedal turtle with Nunchukus strapped to its arms and called it a "Ninja Turtle." Peter, aware of a nifty idea when he saw one, asked, "Why not a teenage mutant ninja turtle?" And thus the legend was born.
Peter and Kevin liked the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle idea too much to let it remain idle in their sketchbooks. The creative duo wrote an original story that parodied Frank Miller's Daredevil and Ronin series, comics that they both held in high esteem. The lone Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle became a group of four terrapins who had a Ninjitsu sensei, a mutated rat named Splinter. Peter and Kevin experimented with drastically different costumes for each Turtle, but the artists finally settled on a singular outfit that the mutant quartet would share. This included a mask, belt and elbow, wrist and knee wraps. Each Ninja Turtle was named after a renowned Renaissance artist.
"We had all the Japanese fighting methods, but we didn't want to make up Japanese names because we thought they'd seem too strange to American readers," explained Kevin. "So we decided to go in the opposite direction and used distinctly European names. We both had studied art history, so we picked Raphael, Donatello, Leonardo and Michelangelo."
Back in those days, neither Kevin nor Peter owned a computer with a spell-checker, so Michelangelo was misspelled as "Michaelangelo." Fortunately, everyone seemed to get the point regardless of the additional letter. Once Mirage was able relaunch the Turtles franchise in 2003, Peter decided to right the old wrong, and Mikey now spells his name correctly as Michelangelo.
With the story written, Kevin and Peter began doing the artwork. Since the creative duo had similar styles, they were able to switch tasks back and forth. Some pages were penciled by Kevin and inked by Peter, some pages were penciled by Peter and inked by Kevin. Once the complete comic book was finished, they set out to find a publisher for it. Much to their dismay, the guys had no luck finding a publisher willing to take the title.
Kevin had just gotten a $500 income tax refund check, so the artists decided to self-publish the comic book. They borrowed an additional small amount from Kevin's uncle, Quentin Eastman and used the money to print 3,000 black and white copies of the first issue of the TMNT. The artistic duo still had enough money left over from the costs of printing to take out a single one-page advertisement in a popular comic book newspaper, the Comics Buyer's Guide ("CBG").
"We expected to sell them all as single copies through CBG," Peter remembered. "Instead, we got calls from distributors and learned about the wonderful world of discounts."
With the new information in hand, the TMNT comic was made available to comic book distributors, which in turn made it easier for comic shops to order the book. Retail distribution also relieved Kevin and Peter from the arduous task of individually packing and shipping their comic.
The first issue of the TMNT went to the printer on April 1,1984... no foolin'! The printer finished the job in time for Peter and Kevin to debut the title at a comic book convention in Portsmouth, NH on May 5, 1984. Oddly enough, the printer hadn't printed the Turtle comic in the usual comic book format. TMNT #1 was an over-sized book.
"We'd gone to a printer (who knew nothing about printing comics) who printed a local TV schedule giveaway, " Kevin commented. "We told him, 'This is what we want: a colored stock cover and black and white inside.' We never thought to specify size, so he printed the issue in the same dimensions as his TV schedule giveaway that we used as a sample!"
Kevin and Peter decided to name their new publishing company Mirage Studios. Because there wasn't an actual studio (only kitchen tables and couches with lap boards), they thought that "Mirage" was a fitting moniker. Peter had experience working with newspapers, so the pair made up a four-page press kit with a story outline and artwork that they sent to a number of local TV and radio stations. On a whim, they sent the package to the Associated Press as well as United Press International. This initiative proved highly valuable, as several local newspapers ran long stories on Mirage Studios and their weird creation, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. PBS radio also did a five minute story on the mutant terrapins. And, perhaps most significantly, a reporter from the UPI wrote a story about the Turtles that was picked up on the national wire service and ran in countless newspapers across the USA. This massive exposure created a demand for the interestingly titled comic that caught everyone by surprise. All 3,000 issues sold out quickly, much to Kevin and Peter's delight!
A second printing of the comic book immediately went to the print and sold out its run of 15,000 copies. This was followed shortly by a third printing that sold out its run of 35,000 issues. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were out of the starting gate not at turtle speed but at ninja speed!
The success of the TMNT comic book led to a few small licensed products including: Palladium Books' pen and paper role playing game; Dark Horse Miniatures' sets of TMNT lead figures for the RPG and collectors; and First Comics' full color reprint volumes of Mirage's first few original black & white comics. Kevin and Peter continued to produce Turtles comics as quickly as they could and the TMNT popularity grew.
"When we created the Turtles we wanted to spoof the world of super hero characters and poke good natured fun at the heroic but not-so-funny characters that dominated the business," said Peter. "The Turtles are fun heroes with an attitude. Basically, they act and think like average teenagers."
"They're always willing to lend a helping hand, but are constantly on the alert for the funny side of life," added Kevin.
It's a formula that has worked well.
As the popularity of the comics grew, attention outside of the industry blossomed. As stated above, the first issue of the TMNT had an original printing of only 3,000 copies, but by the time Turtles' licensing agent Mark Freedman came aboard in 1986, the comic was selling over 125,000 copies per issue (making it the most successful self-published B&W comic in the USA at the time). Mark Freedman caught wind of the Turtles thanks to Palladium's TMNT RPG book and was excited by the look and attitude of the characters. Believing that he could expand upon the Turtles' success, Mark contacted Peter and Kevin and became their licensing agent.
Through much trial and tribulation, Mark connected the TMNT with a small toy company interested in breaking into the boys' action figure market, and willing to take a chance on a concept that all the major toy companies thought was too risky (be wary of the opinion of "experts"). Playmates Toys agreed to produce the action figures if a television deal could be struck, and Mark pulled it all together upon meeting with animation producers Murakami, Wolf, Swenson, Inc. A five-episode mini-series was produced for syndicated TV release, and within days of the show airing, it was apparent that the TMNT would prove to be every bit as popular with the television audience as it was with the comic audience. From there, Mark's company, Surge Licensing, Mirage Studios and the TMNT formed an unstoppable marketing powerhouse that set new standards of excellence and success in the licensing and merchandising industries.
The TMNT have had truly unprecedented success and everyone of us at Mirage Studios wish to extend our sincerest thanks to you for your continued support of the Turtles over the years. We couldn't do it without you! With a little more luck, we'll be Shell-ebrating the Turtles golden anniversary in the year 2034. Cowabunga!