The fascinating origin story of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The heroes in a half-shell began as a late-night goof between two friends
One night at Mirage Studios in November 1983, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were hard at work on the latest chapter of their Fugitoid comic when Eastman, struck by some unknown inspiration, drew a masked, nunchuck-wielding "ninja turtle." He showed it to Laird, and the two of them shared a laugh at the sheer goofiness of the premise.
"Pete drew a cooler one," remembers Eastman. "Then, of course, I had to top his sketch, so I drew four of them standing in a dramatic pose. That was in pencil, but Pete inked it, and added 'teenage mutant' to the 'ninja turtle' part. We were just pissing our pants that night, to be honest. 'This is the dumbest thing ever.'"
The more they thought about it, however, the more potential they saw in the offbeat concept. With their work on the first Fugitoid story coming to an end, the pair decided to make the Teenager Mutant Ninja Turtles their next comic book project. Drawing inspiration from some of their favorite contemporary comics, including Frank Miller's epic samurai adventure Ronin and his celebrated run on Marvel Comics' Daredevil — along with their mutual love of Jack Kirby — they set to work developing the Turtles universe.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' origin story paid homage to the first issue of Daredevil from 1963, in which young Matt Murdock is blinded by a radioactive isotope while pushing an old blind man from the path of an oncoming truck. Eastman and Laird extrapolated that after the canister containing that isotope struck Murdock, it collided with a bystander who was carrying a fishbowl containing his pets — four baby turtles. The turtles and the canister, which bore the initials T.C.R.I., fell down a grate into the sewer below, where they were discovered by an inquisitive rat, Splinter. Splinter had been the pet of the exiled ninja warrior Hamato Yoshi, who was slain along with his lover, Tang Shen, by the treacherous Oroku Saki, who blamed Yoshi for the death of his brother, Oroku Nagi.
"Splinter's name was a tip of the hat to the Daredevil supporting character Stick," recalls Laird, discussing the ninja master created by Miller who provided young Matt Murdock with the skills he would require to fight crime as Daredevil. "I think we chose a rat because as we began working out the story for the first issue of TMNT, we knew a lot of it would be set in the storm drains and sewers and back alleys of the city, and we figured that a common denizen of those places was the humble rat." Since The Hand menaced Daredevil during Miller's tenure, it was only natural that the Turtles would find themselves in conflict with The Foot, a clan of ninjas whose leader, the Shredder, was none other than Oroku Saki. The Shredder took his design inspiration from a metal cheese grater that struck Eastman as a potential weapon in the hands of the wrong person.
Using Laird's copy of Janson's History of Art for inspiration, the pair chose names for the Turtles from four of their favorite Renaissance artists: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael. As the four Turtles were virtually identical in appearance, particularly as the book was to be published in black and white, Eastman and Laird differentiated the four through their choice of weapons: Leonardo would wield a pair of katana blades, Michelangelo used nunchucks, Donatello mastered the bo staff, and Raphael favored the knife-like sais. And it was Master Splinter, the mutated rat, who took credit for naming the Turtles in the very first issue. Master Splinter, however, wasn't a master speller, as he dubbed his nunchuck-wielding student "Michaelangelo" — a misspelling that stuck with the character for years to come.
Reprinted from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Visual History by Andrew Farago, published by Insight Editions. © 2014 Viacom International Inc. All Rights Reserved. Nickelodeon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and all related titles, logos and characters are trademarks of Viacom International Inc.