There’s a lurking evil waiting to consume New York City and the only ones that can save the day have been training their entire lives, ever since they were changed by a radiation accident, ever since they became masters of the ninja arts. They are … The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
If an 80s-born comic about gritty superheroes fighting waves of deadly ninja assassins sounds more Daredevil than TMNT to you, well, that’s because it is.
While the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have become a massive franchise and one of the biggest indie comics successes in history, they really owe much of their original DNA to Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s revolutionary Daredevil run. That’s because, for all their mythology, movies, and waves of toys, the turtles began their lives as a satire of Daredevil, not just playing off the gritty ninja noir stories that had risen to prominence in the pages of the Marvel Comics sensation, but directly playing off multiple key aspects of The Man Without Fear to create the core of the heroes in a half shell.
The style, the atmosphere, the weapons, the villains, the turtles would have never existed if it wasn’t for Daredevil. But where does satire end and invention begin?
If Daredevil represents the flexibility and longevity possible, maybe even mandatory, in the world of big-studio-owned IP, then the Turtles represent the creative and financial possibility of the independent comic. A possibility that has been the driving force behind TMNT’s constant reinvention in comics, on TV, and on film over the decades.
All the while, that little bit of Daredevil DNA has remained within the Turtle franchise, sometimes receding far into the background to appeal to as many kids as possible, sometimes coming to the foreground to help return an often-goofy series to its roots. In either case, Daredevil and TMNT are forever tied together, helping to reinvent and reinvigorate both the mainstream and indie sides of the comic book world.
And it all started with a dark, gritty, extremely tongue-in-cheek satire of The Man Without Fear.
Let’s take it all the way back to the beginning.
In 1983, young hopeful comic book creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman made Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 using money from a tax refund and an uncle’s loan. The comic, published by Laird and Eastman’s self-made company Mirage Studios (Mirage, get it? Because it wasn’t real?), had a little more than 3,000 copies printed. Not a ton by major publisher standards, but you try printing your own comics, ok? The thing is, the creators got their little comic advertised in the Comic Buyer’s Guide Magazine. And so, the oversized magazine-style black and white comic printed on cheap newsprint was picked up by stores, immediately sold out, and became in high demand. Suddenly, Eastman and Laird were the makers of a hugely popular series in the booming 80s.
The original comic may be serious, but all you have to do is look at Eastman and Laird’s original concept drawings to see how silly the creators thought the whole thing was. The designs may have changed slightly, but the idea of awkward, slow turtles fighting like ninjas was designed to make people laugh at first glance.
“Pete drew a cooler one,” said Kevin Eastman. “Then, of course, I had to top his sketch, so I drew four of them standing in a dramatic pose. That was in pencil, but Pete inked it, and added ‘teenage mutant’ to the ‘ninja turtle’ part. We were just pissing our pants that night, to be honest. ‘This is the dumbest thing ever.'”
Just as superhero stories were beginning to embrace a darker side, along came a comic that was self-aware, violent, and instantly recognizable. Unlike later incarnations, these original turtles brought bloody violence to the page, willing to kill in their search for vengeance where Daredevil vowed to never take a life. The dark, bloody style of the comic was just what readers wanted as the era of the superhero became ripe with deconstruction and disillusionment.
It was edgy! It was gritty! It was mean! The thing is, the turtles were a total parody. And a parody of Frank Miller’s Daredevil, specifically.
By the time the book was published in May 1984, Miller and Janson had already wrapped up their iconic, redefining run on Daredevil, and with it, they had brought the elements that Eastman and Laird would use for their own heroes in a half-shell. It’s all there if you know what to look for.
Specifically, Eastman and Laird have cited Miller’s work on both Daredevil and Ronin as the major elements of their central concept, but also Chris Claremont’s “New Mutants” for their teenage mutant element and Dave Sims’ “Cerebus” for its anthropomorphic animal look. Once you know it, the bald-faced DD homage is right there, only a single step removed from the Daredevil DNA.
The ninja heroes? Just Miller’s ninja reinvigoration of DD without the Stan Lee superhero elements. The evil Foot Clan? That’s just The Hand on a leg. Master Splinter? Just a rat version of Matt’s sensei Stick. But the biggest connection is that Eastman and Laird explicitly show young Matt saving a blind man from a speeding truck, only to be struck across the eyes with a radiation canister. Instead of staying with the suddenly blinded boy, they continue to follow that can, which bounces across the street, smashes into a container of 4 baby turtles, and transforms them and a rat in the sewer below. That’s right, the same thing that gave Daredevil his powers transformed the turtles.
Of course, with Eastman and Laird expecting TMNT #1 to be just a single self-published comic, they weren’t too worried about being sued by Marvel for copyright infringement. But as soon as the series became a true franchise, Matt Murdock was never seen again in any recreation of the turtles’ origin. And it’s probably why the two properties have never, strangely, crossed over, even though the turtles have seemingly met everyone in existence by now.
The sudden, massive success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 not only meant that Eastman and Laird turned what was meant to be a one-shot comic into a massive franchise, but also that countless imitators sprung up in their wake, hoping to grab a piece of the money-making action.
Some of TMNT’s copycats are extremely obvious – Samurai Pizza Cats, Battletoads, Street Sharks – but the example of a cheap to produce, unique black and white indie comic made without the help of a major publisher gave rise to many well-loved series that had nothing to do with animals, mutations, or ninjutsu. As the ‘80s went on, more and more hopeful comic creators saw independent teams like Eastman and Laird succeed and knew that they could do it for themselves. The industry boomed, independent voices rose up, and the push for more and more creator power would result in Image Comics.
Just like Daredevil had given rise to TMNT, the turtles had spawned another generation of comic books.
Most importantly, the Turtles’ franchising rights showed what crossover appeal was possible with the right idea, even for the most high concept story. But it also meant the gritty, Daredevil-copying killer ninjas had to change.
If TMNT starting as a Daredevil parody is news to you, that’s because the continued evolution of both franchises have majorly divided them in the years since the turtles were first created. While the original comic become less parody and more whole-hearted embrace of the TMNT world, the grim hardcore approach of that first TMNT issue didn’t last for long as the success of the comic propelled Eastman and Laird to not only continue the series, but change its tone for a broader appeal.
It wasn’t long until the turtles were fighting the mouser robots of Baxter Stockman, sent into space to fight the Utroms and the Triceratons, and met an increasingly strange array of mutant villains. The Foot would eventually work their way back into the lives of the turtles, but, unlike the constant threat of The Hand in the pages of Miller’s Daredevil, the death of Shredder in issue 1 left that particular threat with no real direction forward. Over the years, TMNT would be rebooted in comics again and again as companion books were published, the series was taken to Archie Comics and then Image, and eventually rebooted at IDW. Each providing fundamental differences in story and tone.
But really, it was TMNT outside the comics that forced the greatest evolution.
Eastman and Laird licensed the Turtles to Playmates Toys in 1987, who quickly made an animated series with Murakami-Wolf-Swenson. Like He-Man, Transformers, and more before them, Playmates needed more than just a comic book to sell toys, they needed a cartoon beamed into the homes of children around the world every week. But those murderous black and white ninjas wouldn’t do the trick. In their place were the colorful, fun, silly heroes that millions of fans identified as the one true Ninja Turtles. These heroes didn’t kill anyone, barely used their weapons, and loved pizza. (Hey, me too!)
The live action movie in 1990 sort of splits the difference between the original comic and the cartoons, but the sequels leaned harder into the kid friendly tone. More Vanilla Ice, less Shredder being crushed to death in a trash compactor.
For a time, TMNT was the biggest comic franchise on the planet. But where was Daredevil?
In the comics mostly. Miller, Nocenti, Chichester, Kesel, and more had kept The Man Without Fear on a path into darkness, the same one that had spawned the turtles. The important thing is that where the turtles zagged into lighter mainstream appeal, Daredevil never really did. And while other Marvel heroes like Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, and The X-Men got their own TV shows and video games in the ‘90s, Daredevil was lucky enough to get a cameo.
That’s part of what has made Daredevil such a unique character within comics – a hero blessed with some of the all-time best creator runs in history but never one with mainstream recognition until recent years. Whereas the Turtles have changed to meet mainstream demands and become bigger than DD could ever be, earning an estimated $15.4 billion since their creation, Daredevil has waited until the mainstream has caught up with it.
Daredevil may go through new iterations with every new creative team that comes on board, but that’s nothing compared to how many reinventions the turtles have gone through. It’s the name of the game for TMNT and their corporate overlords at Nickelodeon, who bought the franchise after Laird and Eastman split up. Start a brand new series every five years to appeal to a new generation. If a series is doing really well, then it might hang around a little longer than that. Doing worse? Put out of its misery with extreme prejudice, fans be damned.
And much like Daredevil, not every interpretation is going to appeal to everyone. That’s the challenge of constantly giving life to a world that has had die hard fans for decades. You like Bendis and Maleev’s Daredevil? You might despise Waid and Samnee’s take (even though it’s the best DD run). You love that hardcore original Mirage TMNT? Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might make you tune out of the franchise for years. (Just don’t yell at other people on the internet because of a kid’s cartoon, ok?)
The thing is, you give it enough time and all these different interpretations become folded into the larger concept of what Daredevil or TMNT or any other long-running, ever-changing franchise really is. They all meld together into something more vibrant, more varied, more exciting than just that original vision. Only the great ideas are both strong enough and flexible enough to survive so many interpretations and remain compelling.
Each interpretation chooses which pieces of lore to emphasize and which to forget, but they’re all simmering in the back of audiences’ minds. Which is what I love so much about the long-running IDW reboot series started by Kevin Eastman and Tom Waltz and now being written by Sophie Campbell. Any and all pieces of the hodgepodge TMNT mythology can come into play at any moment, and the surprise of when and how they do is what continues to make the series so exciting.
It’s just like how any great Daredevil run builds off of everything that came before, letting readers know that Matt Murdock’s vast history weighs on his shoulders and could come back into play at any moment. Will The Kingpin reassert his power? Will Typhoid Mary return to mess with Matt’s mind? Could Mike Murdock himself somehow come into play? The answer to all of these is, yes, eventually. We just never know when or how. Even you, Mike Murdock. I don’t like you, man.
For me personally, the turtles were some of the first heroes I ever loved. I watched that original goofy animated series, played the video games (Turtles in Time is still a banger), and had my parents buy so many toys that I helped Kevin Eastman buy his third house. All the while, I had no idea that the heroes I loved would have never existed if it weren’t for another character that I would become obsessed with years later.
Today, TMNT are distant favorites to Daredevil for me, but there’s an innate love I have for the franchise that can never be extinguished.
So why is it that a franchise that takes an aspect of my favorite character that I care the least about – ninja lore and The Hand – is something that I deeply love?
I think it comes down to a consistency at the core of the story.
To me, Daredevil will always be a swashbuckling hero first, a tormented noir antihero second, and a mystical ninja a distant third. TMNT always have their ninja action and mythology front and center, informing even the silliest of plot points and side characters. It’s what makes The Foot Clan and Shredder so much cooler and more exciting than The Hand and what makes someone like Raphael’s search for inner peace through meditation more emotional than Daredevil magically healing himself with dark arts.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles may have been created to poke fun at a popular concept by translating it through the goofiest lens its creators thought possible, but the result was magical. Daredevil will always be the key to unlocking the core of TMNT, but all these years later, and Leonardo, Donatello, Michaelangelo, and Raphael have not only become worthy heirs to Miller and Janson’s world of ninja noir, but have become their own totally unique world. And all the while, The Man Without Fear has remained his powerful, inspirational self.