Saturday, February 1, 2014

What Happened to the "Teenage" in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"?

Have you ever noticed that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are rarely ever depicted as… teenagers?  I mean, it’s right there in the title so it ought to be a hard thing to overlook.  But by and large, that first “T” in “TMNT” is generally excluded from their portrayals.

When Eastman and Laird first published TMNT (Vol. 1) #1, it was as a one-shot parody of popular comic book trends over at Marvel and DC.  Daredevil is the most obvious:

But the “Teenage Mutant” is in itself a parody of the popular teenage superhero team books of the early ‘80s, such as New Teen Titans and Uncanny X-Men (where the “mutant” is concerned, anyway, as the X-Men weren’t so much teenagers anymore by the early ‘80s).  As soon as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles blossomed from a parody one-shot into an ongoing series that could stand on its own, the entire “Teenage” quarter of the title became an artifact of the book’s satirical conception and not something genuinely applicable to the characters.

I mean, looking at those early issues, outside of perhaps Raphael’s anger management difficulties, the Turtles were never shown undergoing any typical, clichéd conflicts associated with teenagers.  They were cited as being around age 14-15 at the start of the book, but these were teenagers in name only.  The Turtles didn’t have problems with school or girls or part time jobs or peer pressure or any of that other crap and, save perhaps Michelangelo, they all acted like miniature adults (and judging by the insane cut of their musculature, looked like miniature adults, too).

Obviously, the lack of those familiar teenage-related storylines is a necessity due to their being “freaks” and “outcasts”, but it goes beyond that.  Nobody they met ever treated them as teenagers upon interacting with them.  When April O’Neil meets the Turtles, she never once views them as teenagers and regards them as adults from the get-go.  Here she is in TMNT (Vol. 1) #3, fetching them beers from the kitchen:

By TMNT (Vol. 1) #5, the Turtles were hanging out at bars (albeit alien bars, which I guess don’t card):

It seems Eastman and Laird, in those early stories anyway, never had much of an intention of portraying the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as teenagers.  The “teenagers in name only” quality was built into the characters from their conception and it’s been a staple in nearly all their adaptations.

The Fred Wolf animated series from 1987 went a step further and eliminated the “family” dynamic of the characters altogether.  The Turtles were just “buddies” who roomed together, while Splinter was their sensei and nothing more.

They hung out in the lair all day, eating pizza and goofing off and with nothing to really associate them with what we think of as teenagers except for maybe an overall lack of maturity.  Heck, by the third season the show introduced a teenage sidekick for the gang: Zach.  The character was supposed to be 13, but he ACTED like a little kid and the Turtles, who were supposed to also be teenagers only a couple years older than Zach, regarded him as a child, too.

Fast forward to the 4Kids animated series from 2003 and we see much the same thing.  Although their family dynamic was restored, there was still little to connect them with being teenagers.  They still hung out with adults like April and Casey, which in itself could become a little weird and problematic.  You have the Turtles, 15, treating Casey, 23, as a bumbling tagalong.  All of a sudden the adult character is the sidekick to the teenage characters, who constantly regard him with sighs of exasperation or bemusement.  I mean, it doesn’t help that the 4Kids cartoon had one of the worst depictions of Casey Jones in any adaptation, but the point is that the 23 year-old characters were peers to the 15 year-old characters at best (April) or their worthless comic relief fuckup hanger-ons at worst (Casey).

Also, the Turtles in that cartoon were friggin’ jacked for 15:

And then there’s the Nick cartoon.

When the Nickelodeon animated series from 2012 began, there were some folks upset that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their supporting cast were being portrayed like, uh, teenagers.  All of a sudden April and Casey were made into genuine peers of the TMNT who attended high school and could invite that sort of setting to the formula.  Donatello now had a crush on April and had to deal with his own “girl troubles” because surprise-surprise, teenagers have libidos.  Raphael’s anger management now became melodramatic temper tantrums with a tinge of juvenile angst.  Michelangelo now had trouble making friends because he was weird-looking and unpopular.  Leonardo is now a more light-hearted, unsure and kind of crappy leader, but only because he’s so young and is still learning the ropes of the position.  Splinter now GROUNDS the Turtles when they disobey him and sends them to their rooms to cool off.

And when all this happened it felt… weird.  For the first time ever, someone actually noticed the word “Teenage” in the title “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and decided not to hand-wave it away.  And yet some people, even two years later, are still outraged and indignant at the idea of the Turtles being treated as teenagers just because it is so unusual for the property.  Ever since the beginning, the Turtles have been “teenagers” who swill beer, hang with adults, take their motorcycles on cross-country road trips and generally don’t do anything we associate with teenagers. 

So when they’re finally portrayed as teenagers and not miniature adults?  Freakin’ weird, man.  Freakin’ weird.

I really like the Nickelodeon cartoon and the emphasis on “Teenage” is a major reason for that.  It took nearly 30 years for an adaptation to treat the characters in this manner and it’s a welcome diversion from the usual stuff we’d been getting.  And if you step back, doesn’t it seem just a little bizarre that when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are treated as teenagers it seems “off” or at least “unique”?

The current TMNT comic from IDW hasn’t put much emphasis on their being teenagers, despite probably being the closest the Turtles have ever been connected to human teenage traits (having actually BEEN human teenagers before getting reincarnated as turtles, but that’s complicated).  IDW’s rotating artists tend to draw the Turtles wildly differently, too. 

Andy Kuhn draws them as gargantuan roid-raging tanks to emphasize their physical prowess:

Meanwhile, artist Ross Campbell opts to emphasize their youth.  His Turtles are smaller, skinnier and generally softer in countenance:

But the freedom of artistic interpretation has always been one of the better aspects of the TMNT comics over the years, whether they be from Mirage, Archie or IDW.  Different artists find different ways to accentuate the traits of the characters and it can lead to some stellar interpretations.

And some not-so-stellar ones:

As for why the Turtles have rarely, until now, been portrayed as teenagers, fans are often quick to come up with their own explanations.  Rationalizations range from “their mutation makes them smarter than human teenagers so they don’t act like human teenagers” to “their unique upbringing made them grow up faster psychologically so they don’t exhibit typical immature teenage attitudes”.  There’s any number of excuses, feel free to take your pick or come up with your own; I won’t judge.

But if you have to come up with an excuse as to why the “Teenage” in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” isn’t important, then that begs the question as to why the “Teenage” is even there in the first place.  If it doesn’t matter, why keep it?

Like I said earlier, it seems like a holdover from when the characters were nothing but shallow Marvel/DC parodies, and even if the “Teenage” was no longer of concern, it couldn’t exactly be dropped from the brand name.  Hell, Peter Laird published an entire volume of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles where the title characters were in their mid-30s:

Thrilling midlife crisis action!

Anyway, if there was a point to this article, I guess it’s to discuss something I always felt was a little strange about the characters, but never really gave much thought until all the whining about the Turtles “acting like teenagers” in the 2012 cartoon.  We’ve become so accustomed to the Turtles acting like adults at age 15 that when they’re portrayed like typical teenagers, people think that it’s “wrong”.  And isn’t that just a little silly?


MarkRodriguez09 said...

I remember in the OT there was a time the Turtles were bickering and Leo was like 'stop it guys, you're acting like a couple of teenagers', and Raph said 'maybe because we are a couple of teenagers?'. It was weird and a 'oh yeah' moment, because again it's easy to forget they're teenagers. It doesn't help that when they do have teenage humans on the show, they look and act like little kids, thus making the Turtles look older and more mature in comparison.

It also reminds me of a random comic strip gag in which April bragged about doing one of the Turtles, and Vernon is like 'that's sick'. April replies that she doesn't care that they're mutant turtles. Vernon ends the strip saying 'No I mean... they're teenagers, you're going to jail'.

Adam said...

Well said, sir.

"College-aged Mutant Ninja Turtles" has often been the vibe I've gotten from the various incarnations of the franchise.

Long live the Nick Toon.

Mark Pellegrini said...

@Mark Rodriguez

Great observation about Zach in the Fred Wolf cartoon. I'm actually gonna add that to the article since it's too good a point to pass up; thanks!

Rob Luther said...

Great article as always, Mark. Josh and I will be sure to talk about it on the next Turtle Flakes episode. I always thought it was interesting that the fourth volume tends to portray the Turtles in their mid 30s. It's an interesting take, but it's certainly something that takes getting used to!

John Pannozzi said...

"But the “Teenage Mutant” is in itself a parody of the popular teenage superhero team books of the early ‘80s, such as New Teen Titans and Uncanny X-Men (where the “mutant” is concerned, anyway, as the X-Men weren’t so much teenagers anymore by the early ‘80s)"

Don't forget about New Mutants.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, in the OT the Turtles acted like College students sharing a dorm or something. The 4kids series made them seem closer to 20 years old even though the first episode states they're 15.

The Nick cartoon is the first one that got teenage right.

Jarred Fouche said...

That's one of the key reasons I love the Nick show, I've been a hardcore Turtle fan for as long as I can remember, and I'm grateful for the Nick show representing them as teenagers for a change. They look like teenagers, act like teenagers and are believable as teenagers. Most incarnations could drop the "Teenage" part of the title.

The new movie (despite my many misgivings) attempted to credit them as simply Ninja Turtles, but people raised hell, but from the leaked images of the Turtles, it's obvious that there is no Teen in those Turtles.

Rowerowe Fightthepower said...

Wasn't the fact that Vol. 4 was set fifteen years after Vol. 1 and thus the turtles were in their thirties the reason they started calling it simply TMNT on the masthead? To draw attention away from the "Teenage"?

Dan said...

Personally I liked that they actually aged the turtles over the course of the Mirage Comics. But then again, that is probably since I have been a fan for over 2 decades.

Plus, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are/were not truly teens to begin with. The "teenage" came from the idea that it had been around 15 years since they mutated. But they did not mutate into infants. In most incarnations they seem to reach toddler stage in a matter of days. And there is rarely any indication of how quickly they develop after that. So they are probably at least a few years older developmentally than they are in terms of their "age".

Plus, any child that was raised in a situation like the TMNT, sequestered from the world and put through rigorous training and disciple is not going to act like a "normal" teenager.

BleedGreen215 said...

I love the new Nick cartoon and it's a breath of fresh air to see them act as teenagers finally. Don't get me wrong, I love almost everything the TMNT have been through over the 20 years of being a fan though I grew to hate the 2003 4Kids series with a passion after a while. The first cartoon had the most shallow representation of the turtles by far, acted more immature than needed to emphasize that they were "teenagers" and I hated how they dropped the brother concept for best pals. The 2003 series had a little more character though they seemed like full grown adults and even looked like it, ( I personally like the short, slim looking Turtle designs from the early Mirage books)I hated how overboard they went with Raph's sarcasm and Mikey's stupidity, I mean Raph was always pissed it seemed like and Mikey just comes off as a complete idiot. In the 1987 cartoon I kind of got the feel that April is clearly the adult when she is around the Turtles except for when they have to save her for the thousandth time. In the 2K3 cartoon this still feels the same way for the most part. As for Casey, he is just a homicidal maniac in the original Cartoon, and easily one of the most annoying characters I've ever witnessed in a cartoon the 2003 series, I hated his voice,and the overkilling of the phrase "goongala". As for the new cartoon it is nice to see Casey and April brought down to the teenage level, sure it's a radical departure from the last 30 years of what we are used to, but this is where these characters work best and can develope more. Donnie's crush on April is a cool direction, Casey and April's relationship really allows for some cool new things because of how Donnie feels about April. Mikey's goofiness is forgivable now that he is a young kid and not the typical seemingly older style Turtle. Leo feels the same as usual but see his uncertainty and being new to the Leadership role is fun, and his relationship with Karai kind of gives off that West Side Story feel, Raph is still a little too mean and sarcastic for my taste however, at some point you have to turn it down a bit and it seems like 90% of the time he is a hard-ass, I can imagine that if I knew him he's get on my nerves and I'd hate him. All in all and call it blasphemy if you wish, but being a Turtle fan for 20 plus years this new Nick cartoon is my favorite of the 3. As for the new IDW comics, I've fallen a little behind but I love what they've done and the Teenager aspect does show for the most part, I also love the reincarnation aspect much better than the Daredevil freak accident parody.

Great article, I've often wondered why they were still considered "teenagers" until the new show aired.

MarkRodriguez09 said...

No problem, though that also went for well.... ANY other teenage human character on the show. Even Zach's brother who was OLDER seemed like a kid in comparison to the Green 'Teens'. I mean that episode where Michealangelo fell for Buffy Shellhammer seemed so off since she seemed like such a kid, even though they're supposed to be the same age.

I guess Carter was the only human sidekick that fit in and was around the same age, but wasn't he college-aged?

Anonymous said...

Carter was in College. In Season 10 he says he was going to head back to College after his mutation was cured.

So Carter was supposed to be much older than the Turtles, yet they treated him like he was the same age.

Ioannes Paulus said...

Let's not forget about the Fred Wolf cartoon episode "The Gang's All Here", where Mikey transforms himself into a human. He is depicted as a teenager and even says: "I'm human... a human teenager.".
So there was at least one occasion when they acknowledged "Teenage".

Anonymous said...

I really love the way the nick toon represents the teen side of the turtles but I would argue that is was also there in the 2003 series just maybe not to the same extreme. From the way splinter treated them it was hard for to forget they were supposed to be teens. In the early episodes splinter is a doting father trying to keep them from going up to the surface. I think I even remember him grounding them at one point before I think he gets to the point where he just.decides its useless. And there are a few scenes I can recall where their immaturity (mostly mikey's of course)was on display. So yeah the nick show definately does it best but its not the first time I've seen it shown

snowkatt said...

i have no problem with the emphasis of the teenage in the 2012 tmnt series

i do have a few issues with the apparant episodic nature of the series ( im only 9 episodes in so this can change )

the monster of the week theme which tends to get awfully grating awfully fast

and above all its overal reliance on humor levity is fine but at times its a bit over wrought and over the top

its still miles better then the 87 series

i also still have to get used to the 3 toed design instead of two
and their weird rotund feet
i do wish they didnt use the same ricilous design for aprils feet who is apparantly wearing rotund uggs

having said all that i also agree with dan
the tmnt were not exactly standard teenagers to begin with

being a mutant turtle raised by a mutant rat in a sewer is not exactly standard teenager enviroment

throw in a blood feud the fact that they have been trained froma very young age to kill and were killing at a very young age ( tmnt 9) already it can clearly be seen why they didnt really behave like teenagers
they didnt have the time and oppertunity and had to grow up a hell of a lot very very fast

lets not forget that the tmnt KILLED a whole street gang on their 15th birthday in their very first apperance

so i never saw an issue with them not behaving as teenagers because they werent typical teenagers

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I mostly just watch the '87 cartoon (87' ? not sure which side to put the ' on) and I always thought they were 16, but going through now, they do seem to be 19 or older.

Evan said...

I'd say that the first movie is very much a coming-of-age story which treats the turtles as teens. Leo is very much the teacher's pet archetype, and that little scene when Donnie speculates about a future without Splinter and Mikey avoids the issue is VERY consistent with teens thinking about responsibility and mortality in ways they hadn't as children.