Most of the action-figure/kids’-cartoon juggernauts of the Eighties were developed the old-fashioned way: by corporations. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe began in the design department of toy behemoth Mattel. Its rival Hasbro teamed up with Marvel Comics to revive its old G.I. Joe concept, this time making its toy soldiers the same size as the smash-hit Star Wars action figures to which Mattel had passed up the rights several years earlier, with their “Real American Hero” relaunch. The Hasbro/Marvel team-up found similar success when it rebranded several lines of robot toys Hasbro had licensed from Japanese toy company Takara as the Transformers.
By contrast, the Turtles literally started out as a joke. Co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were comic-artist wannabes when they spent a November 1983 evening doodling the masked, weaponized reptiles to entertain themselves. Each adjective in Turtles‘ title represented a hot superhero-comic trend at the time — mutants were the stars of Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men; DC’s New Teen Titans had teenage protagonists; and future Sin City impresario Frank Miller had stuffed his groundbreaking run on Daredevil full of ninjas. By throwing it all together atop a funny-animal framework — which, from Carl Barks’ Donald Duck to Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck, had long been a route to comic-book gold — Eastman and Laird simply obeyed the Spinal Tap doctrine of cranking it to eleven.
This here is a snippet from the history of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I wrote for Rolling Stone. The gist is that the Turtles began as a literal joke shared by creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, and came to prominence as a comic that existed halfway between Frank Miller parody and Frank Miller homage; it was only when Eastman & Laird hooked up with a toy company that hooked up with an animation studio — i.e. the same basic process that birthed He-Man, G.I. Joe, and the Transformers — that it became the durable pop-culture phenomenon it is today.
I got to work in all kinds of fun factoids — the “black-and-white boom” that followed TMNT’s success in comic shops, the bonafide alternative-comics ventures funded by Eastman (Tundra) and Laird (the Xeric Grant) with their Turtle fortunes, “Turtle Power” going to the top of the pop charts in the UK. I hope you enjoy it!