There are certain words I’ll always remember hearing for the first time. “Divorce,” for instance, used in relation to friends of my parents who split up when I was in elementary school. The word sounded so harsh, so foreign, an unfortunately appropriate fit for the concept of a family splitting in two. My young brain must’ve been particularly susceptible to “v” sounds and words ending with a jarring pop of consonants, because I also recall learning the definition of “violent” from my mom—as in, “I don’t like you watching Bugs Bunny because he’s too violent.”
Lots of things were “too violent” for the house I grew up in, at least for a time: Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies (until Tiny Toons came along), Tim Burton’s Batman movies (though that verdict didn’t come down until after we saw the first one as a family), Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (a good call, in retrospect). I wasn’t allowed to play with G.I. Joes or any similarly military-themed toys; playtime weaponry was strictly forbidden, unless it was fantastically exaggerated (like a lightsaber) or playfully antiquated (like a pirate’s sword). Anything with a gun was right out. My parents shouldn’t have been surprised when I started speaking out against the Iraq War in high school: They pretty much went out of their way to raise a pacifistic peacenik.
When Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo leapt from the comic pages to the TV screen, they too were deemed too violent. It was an easy judgement to make: The perma-sneers and pupil-less eyes of Playmates’ original Ninja Turtles action figures looked plenty menacing, as did their arsenal of blunt and/or pointy objects. Eventually, Mom relented, probably because she actually caught an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the animated series that ran from 1987 to 1996 in syndication and on CBS. From what I’ve seen while trying to reconnect with the third cornerstone of my pop-culture childhood—after Batman and the Ghostbusters—there was never much reason to be concerned about Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s reptilian creations inspiring their viewers toward acts of martial-arts aggression.
A message of responsible ninjutsu is spelled out from the earliest episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The six-episode miniseries that launched the show is careful to explain that “the world’s most fearsome fighting team” only puts its training toward the ends of justice and enlightenment. Or destroying heavy machinery: Following the same production standards that provided sci-fi weaponry and standard-issue ejector seats to every G.I. Joe adversary, the animated Turtles are most brutal toward robots and the robotically inclined. It’s funny to think that my preschool self was told never to mimic the Turtles’ actions; at worst, the show’s Mousers, Knuckleheads, and robotic Foot Soldiers might’ve inspired me to put a few dents in the washing machine.
Even so, those are laxer rules than those handed down by U.K. regulators, whose fright at the word “ninja” prompted the British broadcasts of the series to be retitled Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. Those cuts also downplay Michelangelo’s use of the nunchaku, ironic considering Eastman and Laird introduced the Turtles’ weapons of choice to differentiate the characters in the early, black-and-white issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In the process of sanitizing the world of those frequently dark, spectacularly violent panels, the animated series took a page out of the DuckTales playbook and color-coded its otherwise identical main characters. The weapons remain, but they’re turned most often on the series’ other major addition to the Ninja Turtles mythos: Pizza. It’s those additions that make these iterations of the characters distinct, as sticky in the collective conscience as the personality types summed up in the show’s theme song, co-written by a songwriter-turned-TV scribe named Chuck Lorre. It didn’t matter that Mikey rarely swung his nunchaku, because everybody knew him as the “party dude” (Everybody: “PARTY!”) in the orange mask.
The dirty little secret of Turtle Powered nostalgia is that those surface qualities are the most memorable part of the cartoon. When anyone says they remember Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, what they’re really remembering is the whole Turtles phenomenon: the Pizza Crunchabungas and “mutagen-goo”-filled Turtles Pies; Konami’s classic beat-’em-up arcade game (and its vastly inferior NES predecessor); the concert tour that produced the weirdest episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show’s 25-year run. I was young at the height of the franchise’s popularity—hardly a toddler when the first six episodes of the animated series debuted in 1987, and just entering kindergarten when CBS began airing the show on Saturdays. And yet, while I have vivid memories of the other shows that aired around it—I can still recite Muppet Babies gags verbatim and recall specific Garfield And Friends segments—my memories of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a fuzzy mishmash of Turtlemania.
More distressingly, I discovered that I’d thrown my lot in with the wrong Turtle way back when. Mikey was my guy: His was the Ninja Turtles pajama set I had (with corresponding headband), his was my most prized action figure. It makes sense for a kid to gravitate toward Michelangelo, the hammiest, most childlike of the show’s heroes. He’s the first to reach for a slice of pizza! He says “cowabunga!” He’s friends with a skateboarding gecko! And yet: He’s spectacularly annoying. A few months ago, I found myself defending Michelangelo to a group of co-workers who’d identified most closely with Donatello or Raphael. (Nobody ever goes with Leonardo, the vanilla ice cream of Ninja Turtles.) “But he was funny!” I countered. But I was wrong. So very, righteously wrong, dude.
My co-workers, meanwhile, were right: Raph and Don are the best, the former benefitting significantly from the wiseass performance of Emmy-winning vocal-booth veteran Rob Paulsen. (Who, coincidentally, voices Donatello in Nickelodeon’s current Ninja Turtles series.) But in this incarnation, the Turtles can hardly prop the show up themselves. The six-episode origin story that forms the show’s first season can be deadly dull, hampered by the most primordial version of the formula that became the series’ bread and butter during its peak popularity: The Shredder and Krang hatch a plot. The Turtles seek out Shredder and Krang in order to foil that plot. Some aspect of that plot becomes the latest scoop for the Turtles’ reporter ally, April O’Neil. The good guys find the bad guys, a big fight ensues, a bunch of stuff explodes, Shredder and/or Krang vow revenge. Then the heroes in a half shell go out for pizza.
A robust supporting cast, then, becomes a major asset to the series, even if it was a reinforcement of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ raison d’être: The show was created because toy manufacturer Playmates was wary of pegging a line of products to a cult comic and it wanted to see if the characters would be popular with a television audience first. And so the later introduction of recurring players like Casey Jones and Usagi Yojimbo (both of whom have comic-book origins) is a double-edged sword. They liven up the episodes they appear in—eliminating the need to return to the well of fantastical tropes for another shrink-ray episode or personality-swap saga—but those installments still play as blatant cross-promotional efforts. A new character wandering into the Turtles’ sewer lair may as well be represented by the amount of revenue its action figure brings in.
Maybe that mercenary emptiness is why I don’t have much in the way of concrete memories of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The strongest ties I have to the franshise are the pieces of it that I could hold in my hand: The action figures, the trading cards, the officially licensed Retromutagen Ooze that I could only play with at friends’ houses because it would ruin the living-room carpet if I had any of my own. For that matter, it’s telling that Lionsgate’s full-series DVD release from 2012 was packaged as if it rolled off a Playmates assembly line, 23 discs contained within a replica of the Turtles’ signature ride, the Party Wagon. The parts of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles media blitz that crossed over into our world continue to be the cartoon series’ lasting legacy, as evidenced by the excitement drummed up by the IRL Pizza Thrower that came to Comic-Con to promote Platinum Dunes’ live-action TMNT reboot.
The Ninja Turtles cartoon was but one cog in a major media machine, but it and the merchandise that spawned it retained the elements that made the concept compelling in the first place—to people of all ages. It’s a franchise predicated on a punchline of a sketch, a joke based on the irony that ninjas are fast and agile, and turtles are not. But that image, of a masked turtle—ninja or hero—remains compelling and versatile, burned into our minds so that we might see it even when it isn’t really there. Turns out it’s not wacky animated adventures that stick with us as we grow older, but rather ideas that can be boiled down into a single representation—be that a clever little image or a word we’d learn and never forget, like “violent” or “cowabunga.”