Saturday, February 3, 2018

Was April O'Neil Originally Black in the Mirage Comics? (Spoiler: No, she Wasn't)

There has been a long-standing misconception within the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle community, and especially those outside of it, that April O'Neil was originally introduced in the Mirage comics as a black woman and then later "white-washed" into a Caucasian by subsequent media (including the Mirage comic, apparently).  If you don't feel like reading the whole article, I'll save you some time and give you the answer now: April was white in her first appearance.  If you're interested in finding out where this misconception originated from, then by all means, read on.

I suppose that I'm obligated to provide a disclaimer before we continue.  The purpose of this article isn't to determine if "April has ever been black" (she has been at certain points throughout the franchise) or if "April should be black" (because what kind of a question is that?).  The purpose of this article is very specific: To answer whether April was ORIGINALLY black in the Mirage comics.  So please, put down those goal posts.  I see you, over there.

April O'Neil was introduced in TMNT (Vol. 1) #2, published in October of 1984.  Here is how she was drawn by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in that first appearance, including panels where she is next to Baxter Stockman, who most definitely is black:

And here she is in TMNT (Vol.1) #3:

Notice that she has straight hair and a fair complexion (that will come up later in this article).  If your argument is that she might still be black because this comic isn't in color, here is how she appeared on the cover of TMNT #2 in its third printing, art by Richard Corben:

If your argument is that Eastman and Laird had Corben color April white as synergy with the TMNT animated series produced by Fred Wolf (first aired December 28, 1987), the TMNT #2 third printing was released June 10, 1986 (no month in the indicia, but the News section in the back of the book cites June 10th, '86; as seen below).  And furthermore, here is Kevin Eastman's own account of when he and Laird were first approached by Mark Freedman to license the TMNT for toys and cartoons (as seen in his Comics Journal interview), which he cites as July, 1986.  This means that April being colored white for the TMNT #2 third printing cover predates even the mere idea of a TMNT animated series and its subsequent version of April:

If your argument is that the cover wasn't drawn by Eastman or Laird so her being white doesn't count, here is the colorized version of TMNT #2 as it appeared in the First Comics TMNT Vol. 1 trade paperback (1986):

If your argument is that the colors in that trade weren't provided by or overseen by Eastman or Laird, then here is the credits page:

If your argument is that Eastman and Laird meant to draw a black woman but drew a white woman by mistake, then meant to color a black woman but colored a white woman by mistake, then meant to ask Richard Corben to draw a black woman but accepted his drawing of a white woman by mistake… then I don't think this article is for you.

So now the question is, why do so many people think April was originally a black woman in the Mirage TMNT comics?  Where did that get started?

Well, two issues after making her debut appearance, April got a makeover in TMNT (Vol. 1) #4: 

April went to a New Wave hair salon and got herself a perm.  So from TMNT #4 through about TMNT #28, April sported this look:

Then in TMNT #28, she gave up on the perm and let her hair get straight again:

Those black and white panels of April with the '80s perm are usually what you see when someone endeavors to present "proof" that April was originally black in the Mirage comics.  Now, ignoring that it's a look she acquired artificially through a deliberately spelled out plot point, so the curly hair is not natural, it also ignores the fact that all of those issues of her with the perm came after her first two appearances.  So that's hardly "how she originally looked".

And furthermore, for those who aren't that well acquainted with the trends of the '80s: Big, permed, curly hairdos were fashionable across all ethnic fields at the time, both black and white.

It was a style popular among many white women in the '80s and April was staying trendy (she even mentioned that she went to a New Wave salon).  When the big hair trend faded away toward the end of the '80s, April lost the perm and went back to having either straight or slightly bouncy hair (TMNT #61 below).

Admittedly, if one were to just look at some of the panels she appeared in with the perm, having not read any of the previous issues and with no other context than "Look, April's a black woman!" then yes, I can understand coming away with the impression that April was black.  Because in addition to the perm, she also infrequently sported a tan, as seen in Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 1) #7:

But having access to a curling iron and a tanning bed does not make you a black person.  Then again, there was that one time in the Mirage comics where April WAS black.  For real.  TMNT (Vol. 1) #32 was part of the "guest era" of the series, a span of the comic where freelance indie creators were invited to contribute issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that did not rely on continuity.  Many of these stories were goofy, surreal comedies, others were wholesale reboots of the origin story, and some did endeavor to follow the continuity of the canon Mirage series.

TMNT #32 by Mark Bode' was not one of those issues that tried to follow canon.  Instead, it was a surreal comedy that deviated from continuity in most aspects: The sewer lair was in Northampton instead of New York City.  April was a news reporter like her cartoon counterpart (an occupation her Mirage incarnation never had in-canon).  And April was also black:

Albeit, that was in the 2nd printing of the issue, with colors by Bill Fitts.  Here is what she looked like in the 1st printing, which was released in black and white:

And for the record, when the issue was recolored for IDW's TMNT Classics Vol. 4 trade paperback (colors by Digikore Design Limited), April looked like this:

But the point is, in at least ONE of the three versions of TMNT #32, April was black.  Or, then again, that could be a really, really nice tan, so who's to say?  But nobody thought much of it, because this was a guest issue from a freelancer that did not follow the continuity of the main series and was considered non-canon.  Still, that hasn't stopped select panels from this issue from being passed around as "proof" that April was black in the Mirage series.  I mean, she WAS, yes, but only in this lone, non-canon, out-of-continuity guest issue.

But there is more to the origin of this misconception than just confusion over out-of-context visual samples.  In Kevin Eastman's 2002 retrospective book, TMNT: Artobiography, he spoke briefly about the origin of April as a character:

"Originally created as an Asian character in Pete's notes, but named after an African American woman I once knew, the character of April O'Neil was introduced in issue #2, and would have a bunch of different 'looks' throughout the TMNT history."

That single sentence, often misremembered, paraphrased and misquoted, has been part of the confusion, going from "April was named after an African American woman I knew" to "April was African American".  Incidentally, no one ever talks about how April was conceived by Peter Laird as an Asian character.  I wonder why?

Also, the woman Eastman was referring to is the late April Fisher, whom Eastman was also married to for a time.

Lending some credence to the idea that April's redesign in TMNT #4 was inspired by Fisher, Eastman does have a history of designing female characters in his comics in the likeness of his current spouse.  In the period in which he was married to actress Julie Strain, many of the women he designed (usually in conjunction with artist Simon Bisley) looked similar to her.  Below you can see Midnight from the TMNT miniseries Bodycount as well as Julie from Heavy Metal 2000 (incidentally, voiced by Strain in the film, and also incidentally, her love interest was designed to look like Eastman).

Currently, Eastman doesn't insert his wife Courtney into too much of his work that I can find.  He and Courtney appeared on the cover to the Capital City Comic Con edition of IDW's TMNT: 30th Anniversary Special (art by Paolo Pantelena), and Courtney provided the voice for April O'Neil in the 2016 TMNT short film "Pizza Friday" (though April was not redesigned to look like Courtney):

So it would certainly be na├»ve, or deliberately obtuse, to ignore the possibility that April's redesign in TMNT #4 was inspired by Fisher.  But the takeaway should also be that it was a redesign removed from April's first appearance; it was not her original look.  It was also a design that was only temporary and faded away when the big hair trend of the '80s ran its course.

As for Peter Laird's take on the subject, he had this to say in an August 6, 2009 edition of "Ask Peter" at his blog:

"...It depends on which co-creator of the TMNT you ask.  If you ask me, I always saw April O'Neil as white.  If you ask Kevin, I suspect he would say -- as he has in a number of interviews -- that she was of mixed race, much like his former girlfriend (then wife, then ex-wife) April."

That does lend some further confusion, as Eastman has said he named April after his then-wife and Laird suspects he saw April as either black or mixed, like his wife.  But that doesn't change the fact that Eastman drew April as white in her first appearances and colored her as white (or oversaw and approved the colors) in the First Comics trade paperback reprints.  If he personally saw her as black, that isn't something that made it onto the page in her earliest appearances.  And if it was the intention with her new look beginning with TMNT #4, it was an intention that didn't stick, as she lost those aesthetics 20 or so issues later.

The question has apparently been posed to Laird on several other "Ask Peter" Q&As.  Here's one from November 18, 2013:

"As the co-creator of the character of April O'Neil, and as someone who has always imagined her as white, and very likely of Irish/Scottish/English ancestry, I was not at all "unsettled" by the depictions of her as such in the various adaptations.  Kevin may have had a different view, and I can't speak for him, but that's the way I always saw her.  As for the coloring of her skin in the color reprints of the Mirage comics, Kevin always had a lot more input on that end of our business than I did, and in fact I'm pretty sure he did the colors on the initial such reprinting from First Comics, the one in the graphic novel form.  Make of that what you will."

So, at least from the mouth of Peter Laird, April being colored white in the First Comics graphic novel collections was a deliberate choice made by Kevin Eastman.

And here's an interesting one, a bit removed from this conversation about origins but worth noting, from April 23, 2013, inquiring about a story from Turtle Soup #4 (December, 1991).  The story is "Raphael: Snapper" by Rick McCollum with colors by Peter Laird which depict April with a dark/tan skin tone:

"I believe that is the one I colored in Photoshop -- my first such experience with doing that.  I've never envisioned April as black, so if she looked like that to you in that story, it might be because of the way the artist drew her, or some failure in my part in the coloring, or just something about the way you perceive it, or some combination of the above.  It was certainly not my intention to color her in a way as to make anyone think she was black."

Further creator commentary on April's origin can be found in IDW's TMNT Ultimate Collection Vol. 1, in the annotations of issue #2:

Laird says, "Apparently, at the time these sketches were done, two important things had not yet been decided upon, Baxter Stockman's race and April O'Neil's name."

Evidently, there was no confusion as to April's race when the comic went into production, with Kevin apparently having settled the issue of her name (as previously brought up).  Interestingly, it wasn't April who seemed to have a discrepancy regarding race, but rather it was Baxter Stockman.  Scroll up to the photo from Eastman's Artobiography and you can see thumbnails from issue #2, where Baxter is clearly a white guy.  By the time the final art for issue #2 was produced, Baxter was made a black man.  Would anyone argue that Baxter was "originally white" because of those thumbnails, when the actual final, published issue made him black?  I've never heard anyone suggest so.

Regarding those sketches Laird was referring to in the quote, here are his early designs for April (then referred to as "assistant") and Baxter.  You can see that he had multiple ethnic options in mind for Baxter, though April's design was more or less settled on from the getgo (and thanks to the Anonymous poster in the comments section for sharing these with me!).

And you know what?  All this talk about April's race in the Mirage comics is kind of moot, anyway, as Laird revealed in TMNT (Vol. 4) #22 that she was never human to begin with.  Mirage April is, in fact, a drawing brought to life by a magic crystal.

I don't think there's anything more to say.  This misconception has been floating around for years, though it seems to have kicked into overdrive with the reveal of the upcoming Rise of the TMNT animated series from Nickelodeon, in which April will be black.

Some folks are questioning the change in her ethnicity which has elicited the counter argument that "April was originally black in the Mirage comics", followed by panels from TMNT #4, the cover to TMNT #11 or pages from TMNT #32.  Oddly, never TMNT #2, her first appearance.  If you're of the opinion that April being black is fine, or that her race doesn't matter, or that her glasses look stupid, then that's A-OK.  I'm not here to argue with you.  The purpose of this article was to correct a misconception that's been spiraling out of control recently.

To summarize: April was conceived by Peter Laird as an Asian woman in the early concept stages, but ultimately developed as a white woman in her first appearance.  She was named by Kevin Eastman after his then-girlfriend (and future-ex-wife), who was of mixed heritage, but if he had any ideas of April being black or mixed, he never implemented them on the page beyond a perm which she only had for a couple of years.  April has been black in occasional comics and cartoons over the years, and for all we know, someday she may be Asian, Hispanic or Indian.  But she was originally white in the Mirage comics.