One of the underrated anniversaries that wasn’t as widely celebrated as it should have been at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con was that of a certain team of terrapins trained in the mystical arts of the ninja. Yes, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles turned 35 this year and over the decades, what started as a lark between two cartoonists has become one of the biggest media franchises in the world.

SDCC is almost like a second home for the Turtles. Whether dominating the exhibition floor — through interactive booths, new toy displays, or colored bandanas affixed on thousands of faces — or simply being present through hundreds of comics pages, the power and pull of TMNT is always hard to resist. 

Archival Photo Peter Laird (L) and Kevin Eastman (R).

Once the admitted strangeness of the concept is overcome, the heart of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has always been its core elements: its primary characters, the ability to place said characters in any multitude of story situations and media, and the nimbleness of appealing to different generations of readers and viewers. As the brainchild of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, what started off as an amusing goof quickly became a multimedia monster of merchandising, cartoons, and memories. It’s these memories—the unyielding lure of nostalgia—that not only has propelled the Turtles through the years, but has kept long-time fans interested while new fans accrue through new movies and television programs. 

This year, Nickelodeon celebrated the Turtles’ milestone anniversary by taking a holistic view of the brand’s legacy. On hand to gaze into the past and peer into the future was none other than Eastman himself as well as Ciro Nieli, the executive producer of the 2012-2017 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles iteration of the dudes, as well as Andy Suriano and Ant Ward, the co-executive producers of the network’s current show, dubbed Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which debuted in 2018.

At SDCC, I started our interview on a broad note, asking what the Turtles mean not only in a business sense but as an ongoing entertainment entity.

“It’s amazing,” Ward said, “It’s a testament to not only the fans for giving all these different generations a chance, but it’s a testament to the characters holding up so well. Kevin and Peter created something iconic in its inception.”

The 2012 TMNT iteration at SDCC ’13

Adding onto that point, Suriano remarked: “It’s very clear this is bigger than all of us as individuals. We’re part of something that’s in perpetual motion. It’s bigger than an idea. It’s shoulder to shoulder with huge things like Star Wars or Batman. It’s humbling.”

“I was fortunate in my slot where I got to contribute,” Nieli reflected. He went onto to say that the Turtles are “still early in the pantheon of the life that the Turtles are going to have. They’ll around for hundreds of years… if the planet exists.”

As the co-creator, Eastman sees the Turtles through a more direct manifestation of understanding. “We wrote it for ourselves,” Eastman said, referring back to that momentous timeframe of the early eighties when he and Laird were still struggling to find their footing. “If we sold a couple of hundred copies back in those days, that that would be pretty much it and we would have been thrilled. When it became something that we could actually make a living on and follow that dream with all our passion, it was a dream come true. There could be nothing better.”

Over the course of talking with these keepers of the Turtle flame, it’s plain to see the elementary, eternal, and ever-expanding appeal of such a strange concept. It’s not only the gadgets or the weapons, the mash-up of different genres, or even the technology that brings the Turtles to the screen. It all goes back to the openness of the characters themselves, where any individual fan can ascribe meaning to the Hero in a Half-shell of his of her choice.

It doesn’t matter where Eastman may go, because the “fanbase is the same. It doesn’t matter where they are or what the background is. They’ve found something in the Turtles to love.”

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