Why Did Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Become So Popular?

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle art by Tony Mora.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle art by Tony Mora.
Shannon Cottrell

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and iam8bit was ready to pay homage to the underground comic that begat a kid-friendly cartoon, which in turn spawned a pop culture phenomenon. Paintings and prints depicted those "heroes in a half shell" — all of whom are named after Renaissance artists — on the walls of the Echo Park gallery. Crocheted works, and even a sculpture made of cardboard, stood perched on podiums throughout the venue. The art was clever and the line to score a piece of the exhibition was constant.

However, that wasn't the most spectacular aspect of the event. One might expect throngs of Generation X and Y types to pile into a gallery ready to fork over money for a bit of nostalgia. Unlike other events dedicated to the TV touchstones of the late 1980s and early 1990s, this one was popular with the kids too. Even the tiniest tots in the venue had caught Turtle-mania and were decked out in pint-sized TMNT apparel. At least one child turned up in a full Ninja Turtles costume. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aren't simply celebrating an anniversary, the popular franchise is experiencing a revival.

"My son is only four and he loves it," says artist Tony Mora, who contributed a few "mash-up" pieces to the show that envisioned the famed turtles in the style of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.

Perhaps the signs were there back at San Diego Comic-Con in 2011  when Nickelodeon announced that it would bring back the heroes, this time in CG form, for an all new series. Flash forward a few years and the latest incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a hit, earning rave reviews and even an Emmy nomination. Add to that the impending release of a new, big-budget movie starring Megan Fox and Will Arnett and it's clear that the characters have hit big with a new generation.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Art by Guin Thompson.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Art by Guin Thompson.
Shannon Cottrell

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started out life in an independently-made comic by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman  It wasn't a series for children, but after a couple of years of rousing success on an underground level, the Turtles went mainstream. By the end of the 1980s, a kid-friendly animated series— and loads of toys— made the franchise a hit. If you were a child in those years, you likely knew the names Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello as something other than artists.

"It was not just the show, it was everything that was around it," says Travis Chen, who contributed to the iam8bit exhibition. Chen's piece was inspired by the toy Party Wagon that he had in his formative years. Chen, now 30, says that the toys were a huge part of his childhood. Also huge: The 1989 arcade game released by Konami. "It's just a great, multi-player, cooperative experience," says Chen, who raves about the game's artwork and the ability to have four players work together to get through the course.

"My college tuition might have gone into one of the video games," says Durwin Talon, an illustrator and comics creator who teaches in Vancouver, British Columbia. Talon was one of the artists in the show and his own appreciation of the franchise goes back to the comic books. "It's just so humble, " says Talon of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles DIY years. "I think the stories that they were telling are also very humble, four orphaned Turtles that got hit with radioactivity and got mutated. It's the ultimate underdogs."

But, it's not just the turtles who caught fans' imagination. "I pretended to be April," says Guin Thompson, now an illustrator and teacher, who latched on to the original cartoon series during her own youth. She's speaking of April O'Neil, a human character who appears throughout the franchise's various series. In the original cartoon, April was a reporter who helped out the turtles. In Thompson's 3D piece for the show, the character is seen searching for the turtles.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has taken a lot of forms over the years, all to varying degrees of success. Whether they were comic book characters or cartoon heroes, the four protagonists retained their archetypical personalities. Some say that's part of the continued allure of the franchise. "Every person you meet pretty much falls into one of those categories," says iam8bit co-curator Jon Gibson. "I think that people tend to associate with different turtles."

And then there's the title. Thirty years on, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is still catchy. "You hear that name and you have to see it," says Mora. "All those words together, you're drawn to it and you have to find out what it is."

See also: Photo gallery of the "Cowabunga! 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" event

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