Trying to find a specific age group for the Turtles probably isn’t an easy decision for marketers to make. Kids over a certain age want nothing to do with talking animal characters, and parents of younger kids probably don’t want them watching violent martial arts action (even the ultra-sanitized TMNT cartoon of the ‘80s came under fire for the old “promoting violence” twaddle that parents’ groups love to trot out). The original TMNT comic book had a large following amongst teenagers, but it’s important to remember the context of the times. The book started out as a one-shot parody of the popular trends in comics of the day, and one of the fads post-Cerebus was talking animals. A teenager who was into comics in 1984 could get the joke, but a teenager removed from the hobby, and existing during any other time period, isn’t going to get it. Their initial reaction is probably going to be the same one I had at age nine: I’m supposed to care about talking turtles?
After fading away from pop culture in the ‘90s, the Turtles were revived in 2003 for FOX’s Saturday morning block. This version of the Turtles was very loyal to the original comics, and overseen by co-creator Peter Laird. This is the cartoon I’m sure the fans wish they could’ve seen back in the ‘80s, and as someone who watched it as an adult a few years ago, I had the feeling that I would’ve preferred the new version to the original even as a kid. The characters are more fully developed, the action is very intense (so much so I wondered how they were getting away with it on Saturday morning), and the stories demand to be taken seriously even though they maintain outrageous elements. Maybe ten years from now, TMNT nostalgia will consist of twenty-somethings who view the Turtles as a legitimate science fiction/comic book property and not just camp. It’s obvious the new cartoon wasn’t targeting younger kids, which I’m sure is a major reason why the merchandising furor of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s wasn’t repeated. It’s a lot harder to sell the cutesy plush Michelangelo dolls when he’s starring in a cartoon aimed at kids who are too old for stuffed animals.
While reviewing my old issues of the Archie series, probably the biggest TMNT story in twenty years broke. Nickelodeon now owns the property; apparently not just the merchandising rights, but everything TMNT related. As I write these words, I believe they’re taking over the official site, which I hope they just leave alone. Ninjaturtles.com is an extensive archive of all things TMNT, obviously put together by people who really love the Turtles. It also has many of the early Mirage Studios comics available to read for free, which I have an unfortunate suspicion Nickelodeon won’t keep around for long. No one knows what exactly Nickelodeon will do with the Turtles, but I imagine they’re going back to the late ‘80s for inspiration. There’s something to be said for niche marketing, but in general, a property is tailored to reach as large an audience as possible. As fans, we might hate it when marketers screw around with a property we care about, but the Turtles have already gone through their “mainstream sell-out” phase, and it was wildly successful. It would be tempting to think that men in business suits have no clue what really interests kids, but it’s obvious that these guys retooled TMNT to make it more commercial in the ‘80s and kids ate it up. “Cowabunga!” might make you cringe, but millions of little kids pumped their fists in excitement every time a Ninja Turtle shouted the catchphrase.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures was an early attempt to incorporate the “real” Turtles of the black and white comics with the much more commercial, mass-merchandised version. Doing research on the history of the book, I learned for the first time that it was actually produced by creators at Mirage Studios and published by Archie. Apparently, Archie itself only produced the comic at the very end, after the editors had a falling out with long-time writer Stephen Murphy. Under Archie, the book limped along for a few months (with Dan Slott of all people writing material) before the company finally pulled the plug. The evolution of the title is fun to watch, as it goes from straight adaptations of the cartoon, to stories in the same style as the cartoon, to darker, more complex stories that incorporate political issues and philosophy from world religions. It’s often preachy and one-sided, but you can’t deny it’s coming from a strong point of view. This is not a bland comic, which isn’t something you normally associate with a merchandised series.
Reading these issues as an adult, you have to wonder how exactly the Archie editors felt about this material. Not surprisingly, they didn’t like it (in Murphy’s words, “they flipped their toupees”), which is why the craziness eventually had to end. Exactly how crazy this series got I don’t know, but I do know that one of the later storylines involved Hitler’s brain. When you consider that Marvel Comics went years without acknowledging that the Red Skull was a Nazi, you’ve got to admit that putting this stuff in an Archie comic was pretty ballsy. I’m sure I would’ve been more willing to stick with the book if it didn’t have the “kid’s comic” stigma attached to it. How exactly to keep older kids interested in the Turtles was an obvious problem the merchandisers ran into, since the starting point of their potential audience was around three years old. Apparently, CBS tried to revamp the TMNT cartoon as a more action-oriented series for older viewers in 1994 (the same year they aired Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.S. and tried to compete with the superhero line-up on FOX), but it was unsuccessful. Even though I knew Adventures wasn’t a dumb kids comic, I still felt like I should be moving on from the Turtles by the time I reached thirteen.
I hope Nickelodeon takes its lead from the Adventures series, since it managed to be kid-friendly while maintaining the elements that made TMNT so popular in the first place. TMNT walks the line between serious and absurd, and while that’s hard for some creators to understand, Adventures figured it out long ago. It’s a shame that most of the stories have never been reprinted, because I think the book really is one of the better examples of how to do an “all ages” comic. I’ve had fun looking back on Adventures, and I hope you’ll join me in a few days as the ‘90s nostalgia tour continues.