The History of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles refers to the four human-like superhero turtles, which grew into a popular and enduring franchise.

The turtles were born of a radioactive accident. They were adopted by a talking rat, Splinter, who later became their mentor (sensei).

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, named after the four famous Italian Renaissance artists, consist of:

  • Leonardo – the cool-headed and courageous leader;
  • Raphael – aggressive and hot-tempered but loyal to his brothers and Splinter;
  • Donatello – calm, bookish; the scientist in the brood;
  • Michelangelo – easy-going, mischievous, fun-loving but kind-hearted. In the original comic book series, Michelangelo is the only one among the brothers who loves pizza (which is different in the animated series, where all Turtles are obsessed over the food).

Together, these turtles deliver vigilante justice to New York City streets and beyond, fighting gangs, aliens, monsters, and other criminals and villains. However, their greatest foe is The Shredder, the main villain of the series, an evil master who is the leader of the Foot Clan.

teenage mutant ninja turtles lithograph

From a jokey sketch to a billion-dollar franchise

In 1983, struggling cartoonists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird came up with the idea of the warrior turtles. From a simple but humorous sketch during a brainstorming session, the two artists used money from a tax refund and a family loan to publish the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1984. The comic book was printed in black and white.

Eastman and Laird also put together an inexpensive press kit and mailed it to several media outlets. To their surprise, the kit generated a considerable amount of coverage, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became one of the early success stories of the thriving direct-retail comic book market. The two artists also founded their own company, Mirage Studios, to produce and market the comics.

Not long after, the Turtles began their rise in the mainstream market. A licensing agent, Mark Freedman, caught wind of the Turtles’ rising popularity. He approached Eastman and Laird with a proposal of wider licensing opportunities for the franchise. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The brand Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – also known as TMNT – has spawned several television series, feature films, video games, and several tie-in products. So far, the TMNT franchise has earned $15.4 million in revenues, putting it in the same league as the other franchises like Pac-Man and The Lion King.

This article explores a bit about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated television series since it’s under the Cartoons category (this excludes the only live-action TV series in the franchise, Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation)

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated television series:

teenage mutant ninja turtles 1987 logo

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987 – 1996) – The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television series and the first adaptation of the TMNT comic books by Eastman and Laird. The TMNT comic book series was often grim, gritty, and sometimes extremely violent, with the characters spouting curse words occasionally. In other words, the TMNT comics weren’t really made for youngsters. So, the tone in the animated TV adaptation was changed to somewhat softer and more comical for the children and the family’s lucrative market. Instead of cusswords in the original comic series, the Turtles shouted easy-to-remember phrases, including the famous “Cowabunga!” It began as a five-part miniseries before being moved to a Saturday morning programming schedule. The series helped bring the four crime-busting turtles into mainstream popularity and led to several merchandise tie-ins. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became one of the most popular animated series in U.S. television history.

teenage mutant ninja turtles japanese version

Mutant Turtles: Choujin Densetsu-hen or Mutant Turtles: Superman Legend (1996) – Apart from the original American TV series, there was also a Japanese anime version of the TNMT titled Mutant Turtles: Choujin Densetsu-hen or Mutant Turtles: Superman Legend. It was an exclusive two-episode animated series made especially for home video release.

teenage mutant ninja turtles 2003 logo

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003 – 2010) – The second TMNT was co-produced by 4Kids Entertainment and Mirage Studios, which launched the original TMNT comic book series. With Mirage being the co-producer, it allowed the company to have more creative control over the series’ material. As a result, it followed more closely to the TMNT comics than the 1987 cartoon, creating a darker and edgier feel but still appropriate for its young audience.

teenage mutant ninja turtles 2012 logo

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012 – 2017) – The third iteration of the TMNT animated series was produced by Nickelodeon. This time, the series used CGI technology for the 3D animation and incorporated anime-like iconography. While the tone was closer to the 1987 cartoon, there were some serious episodes as well.

rise of the teenage mutant ninja turtles logo

Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2018 – present) – The fourth and the latest TMNT animated series has gone back to 2D animation and presents lighter humor. It is also produced by Nickelodeon.