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The Untold Truth Of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is the most successful independent comic book of all time, one that series creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird could never imagined journeying from black-and-white parody to global pop culture phenomenon. Nowadays, everybody knows the Turtles — many having grown up loving a version of them from the cartoons, films, or comics.

Indeed, the Heroes in a Half-Shell have seen numerous reboots, iterations, and reinterpretations over the decades. At their core, however, they've always been the same, regardless of whatever fictional universe they're in: four heroic, anthropomorphic turtles trained in Ninjutsu who "strike hard and fade away into the night." While the story of their genesis and rise to international success has been told time and again, there are many peculiar (and little-known) facts about Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo that make the TMNT phenomenon even more fascinating.

Here is the untold truth of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the world's most fearsome fighting team.

The Turtles have been published under numerous comic book companies

The Turtles made their debut in May 1984, in the pages of their self-titled comic. Eastman and Laird self-published it under the banner of Mirage Studios, a name they reportedly chose because they had no actual publishing company. In 1987 the Turtles got their own cartoon show, and their popularity began to boom; a year later, Archie Comics launched a comic book series ("Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures") to capitalize on the show's success.

The Turtles' original Mirage series ran for two volumes. A third volume — which was brutal, violent, and largely considered by fans as non-canon — would be published under Image Comics in 1996. The series returned to the Mirage fold with Volume 4, which ran from 2001 to 2014. A tie-in comic to the 2003 TV series was published by Dreamwave, which only lasted for seven issues. Since 2011, IDW Publishing has been putting out a TMNT comic, which has had more than 250 issues.

Aside from their different ongoing series, the Turtles have also made team-up appearances in comics published by Dark Horse (a crossover with the Flaming Carrot), Boom! Studios (when they met the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) and DC (multiple pairings alongside Batman). The Turtles have yet to officially appear in the Marvel universe — ironic, considering how their very first story was written in a way that tied in to the Marvel hero Daredevil's origin.

The Turtles have added a fifth member - twice

Any TMNT fan knows their origin story: Four turtles end up in the care of martial artist Hamato Yoshi (or his pet rat) in the sewers of New York. A canister of ooze falls into the sewers, transforming the Turtles and their master. The ninja warrior teaches his reptilian "sons" how to fight, and names them after Renaissance artists. However, there have been at least two significant occasions where the crime-fighting quartet welcomed a fifth mutant Turtle to their team — and in both instances, that new member was a girl.

1997 saw the release of the live-action TV show "Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation." This introduced a major change to the TMNT mythos in the form of Venus de Milo, the fifth Turtle. Venus actually mutated alongside the other four, but was adopted and raised by a Chinese Shinobi master. She wore a braided light blue mask, and was a skilled magic practitioner. She didn't quite catch on; in fact, legend has it that Peter Laird hated her with such a passion that he banned her from appearing in any future Turtles adaptations.

About two decades later, the idea of a fifth Turtle would reappear, this time with a twist. First appearing in 2015's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" #51, the IDW series introduced Jennika, a former assassin who was mutated when Leonardo and Donatello gave her their blood to save her life. She wears a yellow bandana and uses a pair of claws evocative of the Marvel hero Wolverine.

The Turtles became a Pizza Hut-sponsored rock band

When the TMNT became a pop culture juggernaut, it seemed like the franchise could do no wrong. The cartoon was a mega-hit, the movies made fans happy, and toy sales were off the charts. That's likely what brought about the idea of a live concert tour, sponsored and promoted by Pizza Hut.

In 1990, the "Coming Out of Our Shells" tour featured the four Turtles trading in their ninja weapons for musical instruments. Leonardo was on the bass guitar, Donatello was the keyboardist, Raphael was the percussionist, and Michelangelo was the guitarist and lead vocalist. An actual band — dressed up in infamously bad TMNT costumes with denim vests — went on a year-long tour across the United States, performing original songs on stage. Their first performance was a live pay-per-view broadcast from Radio City Music Hall in New York.

The central story of the musical tour revolved around the Turtles' nemesis, the Shredder, and his plan to steal the world's music. Needless to say, the "Coming Out of Our Shells" tour certainly wasn't a highlight of the TMNT fandom. At the very least, however, the tour was successful enough to merit a smaller follow-up tour in 1992. Then again, their short-lived musical career did earn the brothers a guest spot on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," resulting in perhaps the single most cringe-worthy moment in TMNT history.

Chuck Lorre wrote the Turtles' 1987 theme song

Most people know Chuck Lorre for his work on popular sitcoms such as "Roseanne," "Two and a Half Men," and "The Big Bang Theory." However, one of the lesser-known accomplishments of the "King of Sitcoms" was his major contribution to the TMNT fandom: He wrote the iconic theme song from the 1987 cartoon.

In an interview with IndieWire, Lorre shared how, three decades ago, he and his co-writer were faced with an incredibly short turnaround time for the song: "[I]t got written by me and my [then-writing] partner Dennis Brown. We wrote it in an afternoon and we recorded it in an evening." At the time, Lorre wanted to kick-start his career writing songs and scripts for TV shows, and was particularly interested in the TMNT theme song gig (via Archive of American TV). As it turned out, someone else got the job; however, they didn't complete the task, leaving the production team with no choice but to contact Lorre and give him the assignment on a tight 48-hour timeline. Lorre and Brown read the Mirage comics for inspiration, then made the most out of their meager $2,000 budget by booking a studio in Los Angeles at midnight until 8 AM (via CBR).

Lorre also revealed that originally, the TMNT cartoon was only going to last for six episodes. "The fact that the song still means anything to anyone anywhere is just wonderful[...] It's become this phenomenon I'm very proud to be attached to."

The Turtles became anime stars with transforming abilities

The worldwide popularity of the TMNT franchise has allowed for some truly diverse interpretations of the characters. Perhaps one of the best examples was the Japanese animated special "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Legend of the Supermutants" (or "Mutant Turtles: Superman Legend"). This two-part, direct-to-video OVA (original video animation) was released in 1996, and was created as a companion cartoon to the Metal Mutant and Supermutant action figures. The limited series also brought back some of the voice actors from the Japanese dub of the 1987 cartoon.

"Legend of the Supermutants" sees the four Turtles gaining the ability to transform into lean, armored "Super Turtles" through the use of mystical stones called MutaStones. Their cartoon villains — the Shredder, Krang, Bebop, and Rocksteady — could also transform using the MutaStones; the Shredder in particular had a striking dragon-like alternate form as Devil Shredder, complete with gigantic wings. Further strengthening the comparisons between "Legend of the Supermutants" and standard tokusatsu/Super Sentai fare is the four Super Turtles' ability to merge into a stronger entity called the Turtle Saint.

The second episode was even more bizarre. It depicted the four Turtles as having the power to shift into elemental animal forms through the use of mystical suits of armor called Metal Beasts.

To enter the British market, the Turtles made some huge changes

The Turtles successfully took the pop culture world by storm in the '90s, but that doesn't mean the franchise didn't have to make some compromises along the way. One of the most infamous examples is the retitling of the series — and the replacement of one of the leads' signature weapons — in order to make it past censors in the United Kingdom.

According to Mental Floss, the British government was particularly iffy about portrayals of violence in various media. For some reason, the idea of the ninja — a "popular subject matter in Western entertainment" in the '80s and '90s, as Lifehacker put it — just didn't sit right with UK sensors. Thus, in the UK and other European countries, the name "Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles" was on the title card of the TV show, and was all over books, toys, and other merchandise.

That wasn't the only adjustment that TMNT had to make for British audiences, though. UK censors also weren't keen on Michelangelo's nunchucks, which were strongly associated with ninjas. That's why Michelangelo's main weapon in the cartoon became a grappling hook. This censorship rule also necessitated a rather odd edit in the movie "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze": Censors mandated that a scene showing Michelangelo swinging sausage links as makeshift weapons be cut from the final film. An amusing note from the censors read: "Reduce to minimum dazzling display of swinging sausages indistinguishable from chainsticks."

In the comics, the Turtles unknowingly helped end World War II

The cover of Marvel's "Captain America Comics" #1 features the Sentinel of Liberty punching Adolf Hitler in the face, a powerful image that immediately told the reader what the character stood for. Interestingly enough, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle had a similar encounter in the comics — one that, in the Turtles' reality, actually helped put an end to the second World War.

In an issue of Archie Comics' "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures," the future versions of Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael used a Time-Slip Generator to go back to the past and stop a human brain in a robotic suit from wreaking havoc. They landed in Nazi Germany, coming face-to-face with none other than Hitler himself; it was also revealed that the brain powering the robot belonged to the mad tyrant.

A scuffle quickly ensued, during which the one-eyed future Raph got the opportunity to deck the dictator. Upon retrieving the brain, the Turtles quickly opened up a portal to their own time, but not before convincing Hitler that they were brain-snatching "demons." In a vain attempt to foil their plans, Hitler promptly responded by pulling out a Luger and blowing his brains out.

TMNT's popularity played a role in a real-world invasive species crisis

The most popular species of pet turtle in the world is arguably the red-eared slider. According to Inverse, their cheap price and availability made them easily obtainable in the U.S. until 1975, when concerns about salmonella negatively impacted the turtle trade. However, less than two decades later, the demand for pet turtles soared anew because of the TMNT craze — and this worsened a major invasive species problem that continues to plague the world's ecosystems to this very day.

Based on reports cited by the U.S. Geological Survey, there is, indeed, a direct connection between the TMNT "television cartoon craze" and the sudden boom of red-eared slider populations worldwide. U.S. turtle exports from 1989 to 1997 experienced a staggering 257 percent increase as more children across the world wanted to have their very own turtle pets at home. Here's the problem: When young pet owners would often decide that they no longer wanted the responsibility of caring for their turtles, they would release them into nearby bodies of water. 

This is a terrible idea, because red-eared sliders are infamous not just for their tendency to carry disease, but also for being bigger and more competitive than many native turtle species. When an invasive species is introduced into a new environment, it usually spells doom for other species in the ecosystem; in fact, invasive species are the second greatest driver of biodiversity loss worldwide.

Michelangelo is both the first AND the last Turtle

The seeds of the TMNT franchise were planted in 1983, thanks to a random illustration that Kevin Eastman sketched while he was hanging out at Peter Laird's place. At the time, they were working on a different comic; however, the ridiculousness of Eastman's doodle — a turtle wearing a bandana and standing on two legs, with a pair of nunchucks strapped to his arms — prompted the two to hilariously outdo each other with one drawing after another. That is, until they realized that there might be potential in this goofy concept. In other words, Michelangelo (formerly misspelled as "Michaelangelo" in the cartoons and assorted merchandise) became the prototype Turtle. 

Michelangelo is often portrayed across various media adaptations as the least serious among the Turtles, the comic relief that balances out Leonardo's stoicism, Raphael's ill temper, and Donatello's awkward nerdiness. In most iterations, he's also the least skilled fighter, despite his tremendous unrealized potential. Perhaps that's why Eastman and Laird thought it would be appropriate for him to be the lone surviving Turtle, in a dystopian future story that they'd been planning since 1987.

2020's "TMNT: The Last Ronin" features a much older Michelangelo, on a mission to avenge his brothers after the Shredder's descendants killed them. Armed with his brothers' weapons, this Michelangelo is violent, fearless, and determined to take out the Foot clan. There's something very unsettling about seeing the class clown in a different, brutal light.

Donatello keeps getting cyborgized; Raphael keeps losing his left eye

Donatello has traditionally been portrayed as the tech-savvy Turtle, and so it makes sense that the brainy mutant would figure out how to cheat death by upgrading his mortal shell. What's interesting, though, is how frequently this has happened to him in various continuities.

For instance: The third volume of the TMNT comic (published by Image Comics) opened with Donatello gunned down and barely hanging on to life. He survived his injuries — and being dropped from a helicopter — by merging with one of his cyborg assailants. Meanwhile, the IDW series showed Donatello nearly being killed by Bebop and Rocksteady; he avoided death when his soul was transferred into the robot turtle Metalhead. This cyborgization was temporary, it would turn out, and he was eventually restored to his fully-healed body. The 2012 "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" cartoon showed a similar fate for Donatello in the future: When a mutagen bomb destroyed his physical body, he transferred his consciousness into his Metalhead robot and adopted the identity of "Donbot."

Raphael, on the other hand, seems to have a knack for losing his left eye. In the alternate futures of the Mirage, Archie, Image, and 2003 cartoon continuities, the hot-headed Turtle is seen sporting an eyepatch.

The Turtles' iconic catchphrase earned them a lawsuit

Ask any fan of the 1987 TMNT cartoon to tell you a word that they connect with the series, and there's a good chance they'll respond with a single, iconic catchphrase: "Cowabunga!" A nonsensical term that was coined by Buffalo Bob Smith (initially as "kowabonga," according to the Chicago Tribune) in 1949 for "The Howdy Doody Show," surfers in the 1960s started using the phrase more frequently until it became strongly associated with surfing culture. There's no doubt, though, that the Turtles' use of "Cowabunga!" helped cement its popularity in the eyes (and mouths) of the general public.

According to David Wise, head writer of the 1987 TMNT series, he wrote "Cowabunga!" into Michelangelo's dialogue because he saw the Turtle "as this Harpo Marx-surfer type floating above everything like Sean Penn in 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High.'" When the party-loving reptile uttered the phrase in the pilot episode, it just clicked — and "Cowabunga!" became the Turtles' battle cry.

However, this prompted Buffalo Bob to sue Eastman and Laird for their use of the term he invented. Eventually, they settled out of court for $50,000, but due to its enduring popularity in the TMNT mythos, the phrase continues to pop up in different TV incarnations of the team.

The Shredder wasn't supposed to be a recurring Turtles villain

Aside from serving as a love letter to the various versions of the TMNT, the 2009 animated film "Turtles Forever" made one thing clear: In every universe that has the Turtles, there's an iteration of the villainous Shredder to serve as their foil. However, this wasn't always meant to be the case, if the first-ever TMNT story is any indication.

In their 1984 debut, the Turtles faced off against the Shredder (a.k.a. Oroku Saki) in a rooftop battle and the armored ninja was thrown off the building while holding a thermite grenade, resulting in his off-screen death. Some time later, the villain returned to pester the Turtles anew, resurrected by the Foot clan. In a final showdown, Leonardo managed to cut off the Shredder's head, apparently killing him for good. The Shredder's specter would continue to haunt the brothers, however, with Raphael even adopting the villain's mantle at one point.

Of course, in virtually every other incarnation of the Turtles, the Shredder has been portrayed as their main antagonist. Nowadays, many recognize the Shredder as the yin to the Turtles' yang, like the Joker to Batman or Lex Luthor to Superman. Not too bad for a guy named after an office machine and covered with glorified cheese graters.