Growing Up Turtle

June 11th, 2008

Indulge me with a favorite childhood memory: It’s 1989. I’m 8 years old, in third grade. It’s probably winter break. My father takes my 6-year-old brother Benny and I to the movies.

We see “The Wizard,” a 90-minute Nintendo commercial disguised as a Fred Savage movie.

First, the trailers: Dark ominous music. Thugs cheering. A familiar silhouette of a samurai-esque helmet and cape. A deep voice.

“It’s the new ‘Star Wars!’” I say to my brother.

“No,” he says. “It’s better.”

Then the gradual reveal: a shot of green feet, skateboarding through a dark sewer. There they were, live and on the big screen: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I don’t know if I’ll ever get as excited at the movies as I did that day when I was 8, the perfect target audience for a Turtles movie (which I had no idea existed until that point).

Comic book Web site Newsarama.com has been running a series of articles on the 25th anniversary of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. OK, the math is a little fuzzy: the first Turtles comic debuted in 1984, putting the Heroes in a Half-Shell at 24, not 25 (one article mentions a “Shell-abration” in 2009, the correct date).

Maybe they messed up, maybe they are preparing for an actual 25th anniversary feature next year (but doing a bad job of making that clear to the reader). I don’t care. 24 or 25 I’ll use any excuse I can to write about the Turtles.

The turtles were created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as a black and white parody comic, poking fun at popular Marvel titles like X-Men (mutants) and Daredevil (ninjas). A few years later the turtles became a pop-culture juggernaut: cartoons, video games, movies, cereal, even a musical show (“The Coming Out of Their Shells Tour”).

I was probably first exposed to the turtles watching cartoons at my grandparents’. Then, the toys. Once I got the principal characters out of the way (and into my toy chest) I became a marketer’s wet dream. I’d watch the cartoon every week; learn about a new mutant character (Napoleon Bonafrog! Mondo Gecko! Zak the Neutrino!) and need to make an emergency run to Toys “R” Us after soccer. It took me three weeks, at an allowance of about a dollar a week, for a new addition to my collection.

I’d get the vehicles for birthday presents; build sets out of wood scraps at my dad’s work bench (I suspect my parents thought this would spark my imagination more than a $60 Technodrome). I discovered the comics. Some were cartoony, in the same vein as the show, but even then, I preferred the originals, the darker tales of urban vigilantism, where all the turtles wore red headbands.

Then, the movie.

I think that’s all my friends and I talked about for months.

Paul, an excitable neighbor in my class, claimed he saw the movie before it came out. He spoiled it for me: Michelangelo has sex with April. At the end of the movie, she gives birth to four more turtles, prompting an incredulous Shredder to exclaim “Eight of them!?!” and set up the sequel.

Obviously, that’s not what happened, but I wanted that movie to be good, and really believed Paul that Hollywood could screw up that badly. Paul moved to South Carolina later that year and I never heard from him again (there he is on Facebook.com … hmmmm…). In fourth grade I went as Raphael for Halloween. I saw the movie sequel, tried to keep up with the toys. My cousin Andrew had an arcade birthday party — pizza and unlimited lives on the Turtles game.

In middle school my parents told me in so many words that I was getting too old for the Turtles. It was much more acceptable to swap X-Men cards in the lunchroom than it was to play with action figures on the bus.

Still, every menorah or wine goblet I got for my Bar Mitzvah I secretly wished was the Turtle Blimp or a sewer playset. They’d finally made a toy of Raph’s girlfriend Mona Lisa (a lizard girl). She was the last of the characters I wanted; even I knew I was too old to ask my dad for a ride to the toy store.

I said good-bye to the Turtles, getting rid of most of my action figures, saving only my favorites, the important characters, in a box in the basement. My parents encouraged my comic book hobby — it inspired me to read, draw and write (all the Turtles ever did was inspire me to buy more toys).

When I was in high school, Image Comics released a new Turtles series, a more violent, mature title, getting the characters back to their black and white roots. I bought every issue — Raphael became the new Shredder, Donatello became a cyborg and Michelangelo actually had sex, for real this time, with some dinosaur girl. (This series has since been written out of continuity).

I never bothered after the Image series ended. I didn’t watch the new cartoon, check out the new video game or even the more recent comics. However, I met co-creator Peter Laird at a comic show and got a signed illustration — now framed and hanging in my bedroom (Laird also told me this tidbit: there was almost a fourth live action movie. The probable plot? Turtles in space). I saw the new animated movie last year with my friends, but it was more a nostalgia trip than anything else.

So happy birthday Mike, Don, Leo and Raph, whether you’re 24 or 25. Thanks for the pizza and memories. Cowabunga.

(Oh, that Mona Lisa toy? I totally Ebayed that fucker in college.)

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072.

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