Cowabunga! Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles creator part of Memphis Comic Expo

Lovers of pizza and adventure, the half-shell heroes known as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — immortalized for close to 40 years now in comic books, cartoons, merchandise and live-action movies — generally put smiles on the faces of their fans, not frowns or furrows.

Yet the Turtles owe their existence, in part, to an anxiety-inducing science-fiction film about some very different talking animals — a film with a famous shock ending that served as a warning about nuclear annihilation.

“The first movie I ever saw in a theater was ‘Planet of the Apes,'” said Kevin Eastman, 61, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “It was a big influence.”

We don't want to suggest Kevin Eastman's mind is a sewer, but look what's emerging from it: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

Four years later, in 1972, legendary comic-book artist Jack Kirby created “Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth” for DC Comics. The series imagined a post-apocalyptic, post-human Earth in which not just apes but all types of animals had evolved into the masters of the world. “Jack Kirby was a huge hero of mine, and that was my favorite comic,” Eastman said.

A writer and artist, Eastman loved comic books and he loved the idea of talking animals interacting with humans; so when he and his friend, Peter Laird, also a writer and artist, created and self-published their own superhero parody comic book in New Hampshire in 1984, it was natural that it would riff on this theme. The result, a black-and-white comic titled “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” was intended to be a one-off, but it was so successful it spawned a multimillion-dollar entertainment franchise (now owned by Nickelodeon) that continues today.

The most recent animated feature film, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” opened Aug. 2 and is still in theaters; and on Sept. 7, the Turtles — or at least costumed representations thereof — added their three-fingered handprints to pizza slice-shaped slabs of wet cement at the historic TCL Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Leonardo, from left, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo with creator Kevin Eastman, center, appear at a hand and footprint ceremony on Sept. 7, 2023, at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles.

The Agricenter International complex on Walnut Grove may not have the name recognition of Hollywood Boulevard, but Eastman is following up his Chinese Theatre appearance with a visit to the Agricenter as one of the celebrity guests who will be in attendance at this year’s edition of the Memphis Comic Expo, Sept. 23-24.

Founded in 2014 by Donald Juengling, manager of Comics & Collectibles at 4730 Poplar, the Expo bills itself as “The Mid-South’s Largest Creator Con.” In other words, Juengling’s aim has been to celebrate the creators — the artists and writers, especially — who transformed comic books into an artform as well as an industry.

To this end, the Comic Expo has recruited some of the most respected creators in both mainstream and “graphic novel”-style comics, including George Perez (“The Avengers”), Chris Claremont (“The Uncanny X-Men”), Peter Bagge (“Hate”) and the Hernandez brothers (“Love and Rockets”), to name a few. Expo guests also typically included voice actors and other media personalities. In addition to Eastman, a few of this year’s guests include comic book artist Howard Chaykin; Marty Grabstein, the voice of “Courage the Cowardly Dog”; and Renae Jacobs, the voice of reporter “April O’Neil” on the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” cartoon series.

Eastman, who now lives in San Diego, will make his first trip to Memphis for the Expo. He said he attends 12 to 15 conventions a year and is always eager to meet “Turtles” fans.

“It continues to be mind-blowing to me that every time the Turtles are reintroduced, we pick up a new fan base,” he said. “This is very humbling and also complimentary, because as I always say, you cannot tell a child what’s cool.

“When I was a kid I had a paper route, and every month I would buy as many comic books as I could with my paper route money. Captain America, Batman, Daredevil, Superman — that, to me, was what I decided was cool. A kid decides what’s cool and what’s not, and year after year we have new kids deciding the Turtles are cool.”

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ popularity

As explained in the comic books, the TV shows (the first cartoon series ran for 10 seasons, starting in 1986), and the seven feature films (the first, in 1990, featured Turtles costumes created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles began life as four normal baby turtles. Exposed to radioactive ooze, they mutated into humanoid turtles and were taught martial arts by a similarly mutated rat, named Splinter, who also gave the Turtles their Renaissance-inspired names: Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo (the most happy-go-lucky turtle, Mikey’s movie catchphrase is “Cowabunga!”). The Turtles’ primary nemesis is a criminal ninja named Shredder.

The Turtles, generally, are rambunctious and sometimes reckless wisecrackers — in other words, teenagers. Eastman credits the group’s popularity to this sort of Everykid quality, which has made the Turtles accessible to generations of audiences in the years since their initial comic-book debut.

“The Turtles weren’t of any specific race, creed or color,” Eastman said. “They weren’t white, they weren’t Asian, they weren’t Black, so anybody all over the world could imagine themselves as this funky green turtle mutant. We didn’t alienate anybody. It was very open to interpretation.” (To that end, the Turtles in the movies and cartoons have been voiced by actors of multiple ethnicities.)

Eastman said he and Laird borrowed elements from some of their favorite comic books for the “Turtles.” “We were very inspired by the Fantastic Four, which is kind of an adoptive family,” he said. “Each one has a particular power, and they bicker and are at odds with one another, but when they come together they are stronger as a unit.”

L-R Donnie, Raph, Mikey and Leo in

Also, “One of the comics I loved growing up was Spider-Man,” Eastman said. “He was a teenager, and a bit of a misfit… And who did not grow up loving animal characters? Daffy Duck, Droopy, Huckleberry Hound… We really did pick all the most popular elements of that time and put them in a blender, and then came up with a silly title.”

But despite these popular elements, “that first comic was really written for only two fans, Peter and myself. We figured we’d only sell a handful of copies, so we wrote a book thinking only we would read it.”

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Of course, that proved not to be the case. Turtles fans are not only legion, they’re celebrities. Influenced by the success of the “Spider-Verse” movies, the most recent “Turtle” movie, “Mutant Mayhem,” is a highly stylized animated feature with a voice cast that includes Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan and Ice Cube, to name a few. So far it has earned $161 million at the box office.

In comparison, the cover price of the first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” comic book, in 1984, was $1.50.

Memphis Comic Expo

10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sept. 23 and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 24, Agricenter International, 7777 Walnut Grove Road.

Vendors, panels, “cosplay” contests and more, plus appearances by more than 40 comics creators and voice actors.

Tickets: $50 two-day general admission; $40 Saturday only; $35 Sunday only. Free for children 12 and under, accompanied by an adult.

For tickets and more information, visit memphiscomicexpo.com.

For more on Kevin Eastman, visit kevineastmanstudios.com.

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