Even though we were “too old” for themed birthday parties, my 11th birthday had a definite undercurrent of comic books. My mom had taken me to the local comic shop so we could dig through back issue bins and pick up three or four cheap comics for each of my guests as party favors. While the rest of my friends were busy reading “unrealistic” comics like the Chris Claremont run on X-Men, I was really into the “realism” of Marvel’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. So the gifts that day included an awesome G.I. Joe poster based on the cover of Yearbook #2, a handful of Joe back issues that were missing from my collection, an action figure or two (I was, oddly enough, never into the toys), a pristine copy of #1 that my parents paid $35 for (and is now maybe worth $5), and…eight issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
If this was a trailer for a terrible movie, there would be a record scratch right here, strategically timed for the middle of the “Oooooh” part of Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger”. The soundtrack would go silent, and maybe a Great Dane lying on the floor would cover its head with its comedically massive paws.
As I read the title of the comic books in front of me – each bagged and boarded, of course – I laughed. So did the rest of the guys gathered around my dining room table. Even the guy who gave me the comics, Josh Banner, thought it was funny. He didn’t buy them for me as a joke, but there was no question that a concept as absurd as turtles that were ninjas was funny. He tried to convince us all that they were actually really cool, but none of us believed him. Until that night when I sat down and read the comics. And was instantly hooked.
Before TMNT, I was force fed my entertainment. I lived in a small town two hours south of Chicago, two hours west of Indianapolis, three hours north of St. Louis, and, well, there’s nothing west to be east of, so I guess that’s irrelevant. But you get my point – I was physically and culturally in the middle of nowhere.
My toys were sold to me through TV commercials and the Sears Wish Book.
I bought the occasional comic book off the spinner rack at the drug store uptown.
The only places to buy music, movies, or books were corporate-owned stores in the local shopping mall. I could check-out books from my grade school library – even during the summer – which consisted mostly of Encyclopedia Brown and multiple copies of every book Dr. Seuss had ever written. The closest thing we had to edgy content were books on Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman, mostly cribbed from the Universal Horror era of films.
Speaking of movies, the only access I had to movies were two racks of VHS tapes stuck in the corner of our hometown appliance store. And most of those movies were rated R, back when that actually meant something to the person at the check-out counter, so that meant I had roughly a dozen PG- and PG-13-rated movies to choose from. To make matters worse, until about 1987, we were a Betamax household. Renting Beta videos meant a 30-minute drive to the same specialty home audio/video store where my dad bought the player. That also meant a 30-minute drive to return the video in three days. My parents only agreed to do this on very special occasions, such as a birthday/slumber party, or if they were going out of town for the weekend and I’d be left in the care of my older sister. Instead, I survived on Betamax copies of movies my aunt would record for me off HBO, which she was able to get out in the country thanks to a satellite dish so big it would give a pterodactyl wingspan envy.* Not to mention the “making of” documentaries for Return of the Jedi and Dark Crystal that we recorded off PBS, and all of those Disney cartoon clip shows they used to do back in the ’80s.
*Side Note: I don’t know if my aunt just had good taste in movies or what, but somehow I was fortunate enough to grow up on – and wore out my Betamax copies of – movies like Watership Down, Cloak and Dagger, Time Bandits, Wrath of Khan, and Buckaroo Banzai. So things could have been much, much worse.
Long story short, my options were limited when it came to entertainment. If it wasn’t on TV or it wasn’t handed to me by my parents after they heard about it on the national news or WGN radio, then I didn’t know it existed. I suppose this is true for a lot of kids at the time, but it was especially true for me.
Then came along these teenage, mutant, ninja turtles. They weren’t on Saturday mornings. They weren’t at my local library. I couldn’t buy the latest issue at the drug store. They weren’t published by a company that had licensed the characters as cartoons, toys, Underoos, or bubble bath. They were new, different, strange, and, for an 11-year old, the perfect mix of childish absurdity with an adult-like edge. But more importantly, they were the first thing that I could call my own. I (with help from Josh) had discovered them. Not because of some massive corporate marketing machine, but through my own curiosity and willingness to go outside of the typical venues I used to consume entertainment.
So, like any geeky 11-year old, I became obsessed. I read and re-read the issues. I had no way of knowing when a new issue was available, so whenever my mom was kind enough to take me to the comic book store that was 30 minutes away, I’d immediately ask the clerk if there was a new Turtles comic. If there was a new issue, I’d devour it on the car ride home. I drew Turtles constantly, copying Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s artwork. I worked for a month on the logistics of a Turtle Halloween costume with my handy father, but hit a roadblock on the best way to build the head so that it wouldn’t be totally lame. (I had to abandon the idea at the last minute and go with some generic store-bought 1930’s gangster costume that came in a plastic bag.) I used our family’s black-and-white hand scanner to copy images from the comics onto our computer so that I could color them in Printshop and make posters for my school locker.
I owned the Turtles. They were mine. In my mind, only me, my small circle of friends, and the two guys who made the comics knew they existed. They were, without a doubt, the defining comic book of my youth. G.I. Joe might have been my first crush, but Turtles were the first girlfriend I’d always remember.
And then Josh had to go and ruin it all.
Josh was much more into comics than the rest of us. He actually followed the industry by reading the occasional issue of the trade papers that came out in the pre-internet era. He went to little comic book shows whenever he visited friends and family back in St. Louis. He would pick up a couple of issues of something just to see if he liked it, regardless of who the publisher was. The rest of us were very focused and set in our ways – we bought these Marvel comics (and their related spin-offs, of course) and that was it. We lived in a comic book bubble and were perfectly fine there. But Josh was an explorer and was much more willing to take a chance and see what else the medium could do. Aside from Turtles, he was the first of our group to discover Elf Quest, The Tick, and Watchmen.
I don’t exactly know where Josh heard that they were going to make a Turtles cartoon, but I know he was excited to tell me about it as soon as he could. My first thought when I heard the news was, “This will be…the greatest cartoon…ever.”
I had visions of a Turtles cartoon in the same vein as Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards (a movie my aunt recorded off HBO for me when I was little because, hey, it’s animated, so it must be for kids, right?). In my mind, the voice of Raphael would be played by none other than Clint Eastwood. Pat Morita would have to play Splinter, right? The Foot Clan would be sliced and diced in every episode, the Turtles and the Triceratons would take out the TCRI aliens in epic, violent space battles, Shredder would be the worst/best bad guy since Darth F’ing Vader, and Casey Jones would out-brood Batman any day of the week.
A lot of people blame George Lucas and The Phantom Menace for ruining their childhood. George Lucas didn’t ruin my childhood. My childhood was beaten and left for dead on the side of the road by Playmates Toys in 1988.
I don’t need to tell you how different the cartoon Turtles and toys were from the comic book Turtles. But I had a whole laundry list of differences ready to go at the mere mention of those “Heroes in a Half-Shell” after Turtle Mania took hold. I thought if I could just convince these “fans” that the “real” Turtles all wore red masks, that they weren’t obsessed with pizza, that they actually killed the Shredder in the first issue, that the Turtles didn’t run around saying “Cowabunga!”, that maybe, just maybe, I could make these “fans” want – nay, demand! – that these imposter Turtles be replaced by the Turtles I knew and loved.
In case you haven’t noticed, I failed in my mission to convert the unwashed masses.
In hindsight, I get it. I really do. From the signature-colored costumes that de-emphasize the weapons as a character identifier to the robot Foot Clan that can be fought without any repercussions from concerned parent groups to the catch-phrases that could be splashed all over t-shirts, backpacks, sleeping bags, and delicious Hostess Pudding Pies, it all makes sense now. Today, I can stand back and admire the genius of the changes that were made in order for the Turtles to be a viable property to market to kids. And, more importantly, the cartoon Turtles represented a positive, creative influence on the kids they were marketed to. There’s a reason why they are now a cultural touchstone for people in their late-20s and early-30s in much the same way that Star Wars is for my generation.
But in the mind of a 13-year old, the cartoon, the movies, the toys, the merchandising, it wasn’t just a betrayal to the characters I loved – it was a betrayal to me. I had purchased all of the comics, I had sketchbooks filled with drawings of three-fingered ninja assassins, and I had preached the Turtle gospel to anyone that would listen before anyone knew who they were. I was a proto-TMNT Hipster. And then this is how they repaid me.
I can honestly say that the first cynical bone in my body was produced in 1988. Before then, everything, no matter how terrible, was the cat’s pajamas.
Knight Rider – David Hasselhoff is my hero.
The Snorks – How can you say they’re a Smurf knock-off? They live underwater!
GoBots – Yeah, but, are they cars that change into robots? Then they’re awesome!
Return of the Jedi – Those Ewoks rule!
Huey Lewis and the News – It’s hip to be square!
But after 1988…not so much.
Now you could make the argument that growing cynical of corporate America is pretty typical as you enter your teen years. But not everyone can pinpoint the exact moment when they became cynical. For me, the Turtles cartoon kicked me out of the unabated joys of childhood entertainment and into the world of wait-and-see pessimism.
Even today, 25 years later, despite the fact that I now understand the genius behind the marketing and appreciate the wonderful influence the cartoon Turtles had on an entire generation of kids and am genuinely excited about the new Nickelodeon cartoon, whenever I see those heroes in a half-shell, with their non-red masks, and their visible pupils, and their first initial belt buckles, taking a bite of pepperoni and grape jelly pizza, while singing along with Vanilla Ice, and yelling, “Turtle Power!”, I still, for a brief, brief moment, hate them.
And I probably always will.