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SYFY WIRE Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' co-creator picks the 'definitive' TMNT comics at Comic-Con@Home

By Matthew Jackson
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1990

In 1984, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird released the first issue of an indie comic called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which promptly exploded into one of the biggest pop culture events of the 1980s. Over the next few years, the Turtles grew into a multimedia mega-franchise, spawning more hit comics, a hit animated series, and truckloads of merchandise, but they still weren't done. In 1990 Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael hit the big screen for the first time in a live-action movie packed with action, sewer skateboarding, and lots and lots of pizza.

Comic-Con@Home fans got a double dose of the Turtles and the people behind them on Sunday over the course of two separate panels. In the first, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film producer Kim Dawson and writer Bobby Herbeck reflected on the making of the film 30 years later, and a common theme emerged: Just about everyone turned this movie down. 

"Howard the Duck had just been in the theaters and had completely tanked, and secondly I think Garbage Pail Kids had been made and it tanked," Dawson, who later noted Jeffrey Katzenberg himself told him repeatedly that TMNT would never work, recalled, "So live-action pictures made from comic books were not at the top of the studio heads' lists. And we just kept getting one rejection after another. Every time I told young people about it, they all got it, so we just didn't give up."

Both Dawson and Herbeck told stories of everyone from New Line Cinema head Bob Shea to Golden Harvest owner Raymond Chow — the companies that distributed and produced the film, respectively — turning around on their opinion of the film after hearing from children who enjoyed the Turtles.

"What I was finding out is that it was the kids' secret," Herbeck said of his time pitching and writing the film. "I realized... most of the parents didn't know what it was, until the TV show started building and drawing the kids audience, which was becoming a massive audience, and then the merchandise started growing along with that, and all of a sudden that's on the shelves."

The main takeaway from the panel, which was moderated by Chris Castaneda of The Old Turtle Den YouTube channel and featured some other horror stories from the making of the film (like the animatronic costumes that kept breaking) was a celebration of perseverance. 

"When I go talk to young kids and stuff, because they're interested in the story of this or the success of this, I tell them that if you really believe in something, you don't give up," Herbeck said. "Because we got a lot of No's."

Later in the day, it was Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman's turn in the spotlight, as the writer and artist hosted an hourlong chat with his TMNT collaborators Tom Waltz, Ben Bishop, and David Avallone on the current era of Turtle comics, and what's on the horizon.

In the time since last year's Eastman spotlight panel at San Deigo Comic-Con, the Turtles team has released Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #100, and Eastman reflected on the milestone by dubbing the IDW Publishing era of the franchise the "definitive" version of the universe and its characters.

"It strung together so many amazing parts of so many different Turtle universes into one singular platform, with enough idioms and nuances to tell so many fantastic stories and bring so many fantastic characters in and out of that story," Eastman said.

Eastman also took time to single out Waltz, who scripted all 100 issues of the run leading up to the anniversary, before turning it over to writer Sophie Campbell for a new era beginning with #101.

"It's funny how time flies. But now, being outside of it, I can look back on it now and it seems amazing to me," Waltz said. "Not just my part, but the entire team — that we stayed together that long, that we told the story we wanted to tell."

Then came a discussion of the much-anticipated upcoming TMNT: The Last Ronin miniseries, which allows the creative team to jump into the future to tell a Dark Knight Returns-style story in a TMNT way. Eastman revealed during that panel that original artist Andy Kuhn had to leave the project for "personal reasons," but longtime TMNT artist Ben Bishop — who's also collaborating with Eastman on his semi-autobiographical creator-owned project Drawing Blood — will be stepping in to take the reins. The Last Ronin is now slated to debut in December, and Waltz emphasized that the delays are also a chance to make sure the miniseries is built to last.

"This is one of those things where we want it to be right, from the publisher all the way down to us as the creators," he said. "Even if this is the only thing we do in this universe, this is something we want to be evergreen. This is something we want to sell forever, and we don't want it to be something that if — excuse my French — we half-ass it, then it'll sell for five months and then that's it. We want this to be a complete package that is something people want to pick up when it's 30 years from now."

Click here for SYFY WIRE's full coverage of Comic-Con@Home 2020.