Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles describe both a fictional team of four mutated turtles that stand roughly the height of a human and have a variety of martial arts skills, as well as a large collection of movies, toys, television series, and perhaps best of all, comic books that revolve around them. They were an extremely popular fad for pre-adolescent youngsters between 1987 and roughly 1995, but their origin is in an older comic book line targeting adults.
In 1983, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, both fledgling comic book artists, conceived of the idea of a fighting, human-sized turtle that borrowed heavily in concept from Frank Miller's legendary Daredevil comics, which are to this day widely considered to be one of the best written and best drawn comic book series of all time. As the idea progressed through the fall of 1983, the one turtle evolved into four, and they acquired a sensei, a large sewer rat named Splinter, and the look of the four turtles became somewhat uniform, each of them donning a open-eyed bandana and fighting gear strapped across their shells.
Since both Eastman and Laird were fans of art history, especially of the Renaissance period, they decided to name the four turtles after their favorite Renaissance artists: Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michaelangelo (a mis-spelling of the artist Michelangelo). The duo conceived of a story that laid out the background for the characters and proceeded to work together in drawing and inking the book.
In early 1984, the first edition of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was complete, and the two searched for a publisher. They didn't find one, so the pair used Eastman's tax return that year along with some family loans to publish the comic themselves and pay for a single one-page advertisement in a popular comic book newspaper. Several comic book distributors ordered the book, and the first issue went to the printer on April 1, 1984, which I guess would be considered the birthdate of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Interestingly, the printer made a mistake and the book came out not in regular comic book size, but in an oversized format. As a result, the first issue was unique in a lot of ways: it was not a regular comic book size and it took the unusual step of being entirely black and white on the inside, a very unusual look at the time. They debuted the book at a comic book show on May 5, 1984, and used the proceeds from that show to start a company, Mirage Studios. They put together a four page press kit and shipped it to every media outlet they knew, and as a result, a story was written about the new studio and the Ninja Turtles for UPI, and a lengthy radio story was done about them on PBS radio in mid-1984. This caused the entire press run of the first issue to sell out, all 3,000 of them. If you have one of these 3,000 originals, it is a very, very valuable collector's item.
It should be noted that, rather than the fun-lovin', pizza-eatin' Ninja Turtles of their later fame, this book was entirely black and white and was done in a very gritty style. It was more of a hard-boiled crime comic than anything, but it was definitely unique in look and style. One major visual difference is that all four Turtles had the same color of bandana: red. A second printing of the first issue was done of 15,000 copies, which quickly sold out; a third printing of 35,000 copies was done, and it sold out as well.
Each subsequent issue of the original black and white Mirage Studios run had a very high demand of about 125,000 copies per issue, a huge success for a totally independent comic book shop and perhaps the most successful black and white comic of modern times. This rampant success led to a role playing game published by Palladium Books in early 1985 and several other TMNT related products and eventually led to Mirage hiring a licensing agent for the Turtles, Mark Freedman, in 1986.
Mark hit upon the idea of turning the Ninja Turtles into a toy line, but only if a television series could be made along with it as well. It was at this point, in early 1987, that the Turtles began to mutate again, this time into the pop culture icons that are much more widely known. The image of the Turtles was altered in several ways; most important was making them less actively violent. They also each adopted a unique headband color: Leonardo wore blue, Raphael wore red, Michaelangelo wore orange, and Donatello wore purple. This was so that they could easily distinguish between the action figures of the four turtles. Another change was that the character of April Hunter was significantly softened, changing from a hard-nosed urban beat reporter to more of a generic "damsel in distress." The original villain, Shredder, was revived as well.
The original cartoon series and toy line appeared in the fall of 1988, and it quickly took off like a rocket ship. Eastman and Laird licensed the comic book rights to Archie Comics, who turned the comic into a style similar to the television series, since it was so quickly popular. And the merchandising machine took off. A home video game for the NES was made in 1989, with two sequels to follow in 1991 and 1992, and a Super NES sequel in 1992 as well. Two very popular arcade games were developed as well as a pinball game. There were countless lines of toys produced, some even still appearing as recently as 1998.
Perhaps the pinnacle of the Turtles' mainstream success came with the release of the first of three movies, aptly named Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was released in 1990 and it featured a surprisingly clever script and well-executed filming, making this a much better film than its' marketing might have indicated. The film's stars included Corey Feldman and Judith Hoag, but the real success was the well-made costumery for the Turtles. It was a huge success, and it spawned two quickly made sequels: 1991's The Secret of the Ooze and 1993's Turtles in Time. A fourth movie was in the process of being made in 1997, even going so far as to have print advertisements, but it was never made.
The franchise also spawned countless products, including posters, bedsheets, food items, and other miscellaneous products. Sales were very brisk until 1992, in which they slowly started to slip. By 1996, the franchise was clearly dying, and so a "revival" of sorts was attempted, with a new live-action television series (TMNT: The Next Mutation), hints at a fourth movie, and a new comic book line from Image Comics starting in 1996. These were of high quality (especially the first few issues of the new comic book), but it failed to recapture the magic of the earlier works, and it passed on.
Lately, interest in the Ninja Turtles has been picking up again, with many fans now coming of age and interested in nostalgic memorabilia from an earlier time. The original 1984-1987 comics are also experiencing a great revival, with strong rumors of a gritty John Woo-directed martial arts film based on these early comics. Many Ninja Turtle fans wait with great anticipation.