My Relationship with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

July 15, 2009

I’ve been avoiding this topic for what seems like years.  I didn’t think it was possible to string together a series of words, sentences and paragraphs together that could ever accurately reflect the impact that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had on my early development and my now adult personality.  This needs to happen though.

To give you a starting point as to where I hold the Ninja Turtles in my heart, I’ll share with you my very first memories, the ones that happened decades ago but I still remember vividly.  All are from when I was three years old in 1987.

1) Going with my Dad to see my Mom in the hospital after she had just delivered my sister.

2) Watching that same sister fall down a flight of steps after she had just tried to walk for the first time.

3) My Mom buying me two Ninja Turtles action figures at Hills Department store.

I remember that I didn’t have to coax my mother too hard (as I would later on) and she gave in with relatively low resistance.  There wasn’t a very large selection of Turtles on the peg walls in the toy section.  They had been picked clean by other toddlers just like me.  Only two characters remained: Michelangelo and Splinter.

We got to the car and it was there in the back-seat where I started the tradition of opening action figure packages right away.  I was amazed at the amount of accessories that spilled out.  Ninja stars, nunchuks, and walking canes that turned into swords were all tiny plastic tools that my imagination would soon put to good use.  I didn’t know Splinter was a good guy at the time, so when I got home, I put the nunchucks in Michelangelo’s three-fingered hand and the two did battle.  It would be a preview for the next ten years of my life.

I practiced a naive type of idolatry with the characters throughout my grade school years.  I placed them in reality rather than fantasy.  Each characters’ personality was a real as my teachers or my grandparents or my friends.  Though really, the action figures became as dear to me as anyone of those people.

For example, in 2nd grade during recess I lost my Donatello figure, the smart one who wore purple and wielded a bo staff.  I cried incessantly as though my uncle just died.  I used to pack a few action figures in my lunch box too; just in case none of my friends were at school that day, I could play with my Heroes in a Half Shell.

I was not alone in my obsession however.  In fact, I found that I was just one of many children swept away by Turtle-mania.  And through my play with other kids, I was able to delineate between acquaintances and friends.

There were two ways to play with action figures, you could smash them together and throw them at stuff, which the majority of my unimaginative classmates tended to do.  Or you could make intricate movements utilizing the joints that the manufacturers designed to make the fight look as real as possible.  The kids who took this much care into their play, the ones who developed miniature story lines to act out, were of my ilk and I gravitated towards them.  These people became my friends.

In 1990, I was six years old and in first grade.  My dad told me that he would take me to opening night of the Ninja Turtles movie.  He still believes that it was the best money he ever spent in his life.  “I’ve never got more enjoyment out of ten dollars than taking you to that movie and watching you and all the other kids go nuts .”

He said that the place was crawling with school children my age and their fathers who, either excitedly or begrudgingly, had taken their sons to the theater.  “When that first scene came and they showed the Turtles’ faces it was like an explosion.  Kids were in aisle mimicking the karate chops they saw on the screen.  A bunch of kids started crying when the Turtles thought Splinter was dead.”

To this day the movie is still a favorite of mine.  It still holds up; it’s gritty, funny and most of all it was a shell of a good time.  I’ve tried to watch other films that I used to like when I was younger and they just don’t keep after all that time.  For instance, I used to love The Crow with Brandon Lee back when I was in 8th grade.  When I sat down to watch it in my twenties it was laughably terrible (watch for the part where he plays electric guitar on the roof in the rain).

Soon the marketing machine took full swing and the TV show went from a new episode being shown once a week to four times a week.  The action figures became more varied and more obscure: Mondo Gecko, Ace Duck, Baxter Stockman, Slash, Usagio Jimbo, Ray Filet, Groundchuck, Dirtbag, Muckman, Napolean Bonafrog, Ghengis Toad, Screwloose and Wingnut. That’s not even including the “themed-turtles,” where they would be dressed in sports attire, squirt water out of their mouth, talk, or store weapons in their shells.

Needless to say the whole phenomenon got a bit overwhelming.  If my parents had only bought me only half of the Ninja Turtles I wanted and put that saved money into a mutual fund, they probably could have retired by now.  I remember my house being so cluttered with Turtles paraphernalia that my dad came home from work one day, tripped over the giant “Sewer Lair” play-set (commercial below) right when he stepped foot in the door.  He picked it up, walked into the garage and hurled it against the back wall, shattering it into a million pieces.

Though generally speaking, my parents handled my obsession very tactfully.  One of the toughest decisions I ever had to make was based on action figures.  Batman: The Animated Series was gaining popularity and the action figures were so cool.  My mom was having a garage sale and, in a great parenting move, said that if I got rid of 5 Ninja Turtles she would buy me one Batman figure.  I poured over the decision for days of which one I would sacrifice.  I loved them all.  I ended up getting rid of ten figures and in return I got a Batman and a Two-face.

As I got older, the movies got worse and the marketing people started running out of ideas.  Their ploys to drain money out of the pockets of parents became a bit too transparent when they launched a joint venture with Pizza Hut to have a concert tour called “Coming Out of Our Shells.”  Still though, the songs were great.

My family moved when I was in second grade and I did not handle the adjustment well.  I had a tough time making friends because I was so shy and would often cry on the way to school because I hated it so much (you can probably tell by now, but I was a bit of a pansy back then).  I had no idea who or what these new people would want me to be.  So to cope with that fear, I used to play the tape from that tour, specifically listening to “Walk Straight,” as I walked to school.

“Walk straight.  Don’t need to mutate.

No need to if you’re walkin’ straight.

You may not be green and have a cool shell,

but you be you and you’ll do it so well.”

Call it silly or whatever, but to me, a frightened seven-year old, hearing the most heroic characters I knew tell me that if I’m just myself I’ll be fine was a pretty powerful message.

So what is the lasting impression here?  What is the impact on my adulthood?  Well, all I have to do is take a look at the things around me.  I still have a poster from Secret of the Ooze hanging in my room that has all the Turtles huddled around a sign that says “Recycle Dude!”  In my other room, I have an animation cell from the original series that my dad got me for Christmas one year.  I attribute my initial interest in martial arts culture to them, and consequently, I became involved in Karate, Jui-jitsu and Judo (all of which I’ve discovered are actually useless in a real fight).  The title of my High-School thesis was: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Sigmund Freud.  The paper was a self-reflection of my personality and how I could relate it to childhood influences.  I felt that the Turtles are partially responsible for my disposition.  I’m a mix of all four: Leonardo, rational and deliberate; Michelangelo, idealistic and light-hearted; Raphael, sarcastic and skeptical; and Donatello, curious and questioning.

Despite having seemingly run the course of their relevance, today they seem to be fading back into popularity.  It gives me hope.  In an age where video games have kids thinking in only linear paths, the Turtles are surviving on good old fashioned imagination.

And imagination rules the world.

God, I love being a Turtle!

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