TMNT creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird took many inspirations from ’80s era comic books, specifically those being published by Marvel and DC.
Every now and then, words that wouldn’t typically go together somehow manage to pair up perfectly – maple bacon donuts, Killer Klowns From Outer Space, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Typically shortened to the acronym TMNT, the seemingly random amalgam of words has spelled dollar signs for its franchise owners, launching toy lines, Saturday morning cartoons, and live-action blockbusters. But where did the so-crazy-it’s-genius idea come from? What inspired the creation of such a unique franchise? The answer: their creators were huge fans of Marvel and DC Comics.
Series creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird first met in the early 80s while struggling to break into publishing in Dover, New Hampshire. The two instantly bonded over their love of legendary comic book icon Jack Kirby, Marvel’s founding artist and creator of DC’s Kamandi (Eastman’s favorite comic book series). The dynamic duo moved in together and formed Mirage Studios – a cheeky reference to the “studio” being nothing more than the small studio rental they lived in. While brainstorming ideas for their comic book Fugitoid, Eastman doodled a sketch of an anthropomorphic turtle sporting nunchaku and an eye-mask. Awed by the sheer goofiness of the creature, Laird drew his own version of a “ninja turtle,” and soon the two began feverishly sketching out of sheer glee.
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Though their initial conception was a joke, the two quickly realized they had a bizarrely fascinating idea on their hands. Their anthropomorphic turtles had an enchanting quality to them, reminiscent of Dave Sim’s Cerebus the Aardvark. Eastman and Laird began drafting their first TMNT story in 1984, drawing inspiration from one of the biggest comic book rockstars of the era, Frank Miller, whose 1980s Daredevil run in Marvel Comics is still praised by many to this day. Not only did they parody Miller’s villainous ninja clan the Hand with their own clan called the Foot, they even borrowed from Daredevil’s origin story. As it turns out, the same mysterious canister that blinded Matt Murdock also collided with a bystander holding the fishbowl of his four pet turtles. They also named the wise and noble rat sensei in TMNT Splinter as a nod to the Daredevil character Stick. And that is not even where the Frank Miller references end.
The same year Eastman and Laird were struggling to get Mirage Studios off the ground, Miller had another popular comic book series about urban ninjas being published over at Marvel’s rival, DC Comics. Miller’s dystopian New York samurai epic Rōnin came about as a result of his deep-dive into Japanese pop-culture while researching story ideas for Daredevil. Laird and Eastman were heavily inspired both by Rōnin‘s art style as well as its themes, incorporating both into their first issue of TMNT.
But the Marvel connections don’t stop with Daredevil, as Eastman and Laird also added a dash of “mutant coming of age” to their creative cauldron, courtesy of the 1980s series The New Mutants. It was a smart move, as teenage superhero ensembles were big in comics during that era (The New Teen Titans also happened to be selling well over at DC at the time). And from where did the Turtles get their Renaissance-inspired names? From Laird’s copy of Janson’s History of Art, which happened to be lying around.
Though Turtlemania will never be as big as it was in the late 80s and early 90s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles remain relevant figures in pop-culture to this day. After a heated falling out in the 90s, Eastman and Laird eventually reconciled, thanks in part to the Netflix series The Toys That Made Us, and the two are back to publishing TMNT comics for the first time in 2 decades. Their latest series, The Last Ronin, takes place in a dystopian future where the sole-surviving Ninja Turtle seeks justice for his slain family in a totalitarian version of New York. Though the first issue (out now) suggests the end may be near for our heroes in a half-shell, Eastman has promised that this is far from their last story.
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