Three Decades of Turtle Power: Farago Recounts TMNT History

This month marks the 30th birthday of everyone's favorite mean green fighting machines, the ultimate heroes in a half shell, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird to blow off some steam during a brainstorming session in 1984, the Turtles rose to success in the '80s and "90s through action figures, comic books, movies, video games, animated TV series and an unforgettable rap by Vanilla Ice. Although Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael have been reinvented several times over the last three decades, the magic of turtle power still captivates audiences with an ongoing series at IDW Publishing, the latest animated series in its second season on Nickelodeon and a new live-action a movie from Paramount bowing in August. A gorgeous hardcover book from Insight Editions, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Visual History," arrives in stores June 24 and captures the entirety of Turtlemania.

Written by Andrew Farago, Curator and Gallery Manger of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum, the book features three decades of art, interviews with key figures from the Turtle's history and a foreword by Laird himself. Not only did Farago spend two and a half years working on the book, he has curated a TMNT retrospective running through mid-September at the museum to celebrate the history of the characters.

WATCH: Second "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" Trailer

Farago spoke with CBR News about his work on the book, including how he came to be involved in the project, his approach to collecting the Turtles' history and details from his interviews with Brian Henson, Fred Wolf and Vanilla Ice. What a party, dude.

CBR News: When did your relationship with TMNT start?

Andrew Farago: My introduction to the characters was the first animated miniseries, back in December 1987. I remember seeing the commercials on television, and my brother and I knew that we had to watch it. We were instant fans as soon as we saw it.

Not long after that, I discovered back issues of the original Mirage Studios series at Jamie's Flea Market in Amherst, Ohio. My first TMNT comic was the second print of issue #4, with a really great cover painting by Michael Dooney.

In 1988, the Turtles just exploded, and my brother and I loaded up on the toys from Playmates, the posters, the comics, the video games... they were just inescapable.

What do you think makes them such enduring characters?

For starters, it's such an unforgettable combination of words. Everything you really need to know about the characters is right there in the title.

Beyond that, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird (and people like Fred Wolf and David Wise, who were instrumental in developing the original animated series) hit upon a really fun combination of personalities in the group. Anyone who's watched more than a few episodes or read some of the comic books has a favorite character that he or she can relate to. It says a lot about the Turtles that you can immediately get a sense of a person by asking them to name their favorite. (If they answer Venus de Milo, for example, you know that you should back away very slowly.)

The Turtles have a really distinctive look, too. Dozens of artists have drawn them over the past 30 years, but the basic design elements are always there, and Peter and Kevin's original design is still at the core of everything else.

RELATED: Eastman Talks "TMNT Annual," Why Movie Will Make Fans "Incredibly Happy"

What are some of your favorite moments from the Turtles' history?

That first cartoon miniseries is near the top of my list. Seeing that first live-action movie in the theaters. Getting those first Turtles action figures for Christmas. The incredible "Turtles Forever" movie that celebrated TMNT's 25th anniversary.

And it all goes back to those first drawings of the Turtles that Kevin and Peter made back in their studio in 1983, trying to crack each other up while they were passing time between paying jobs. And their first convention appearance in May 1984, when they were just a couple of guys hoping that their self-published comic book could find an audience.

How have the turtles evolved since their creation, and what do you see as the trajectory for their stories?

Personality-wise, I think the Turtles of today would be a lot more fun to hang out with than the guys in the first issue of the comic book. They were really grim in that first comic book, but they gradually came out of their shells as time progressed. (Did I really say that?)

The versions of the characters that we've got today, in the IDW comics and the Nickelodeon cartoons, are essentially a "greatest hits" compilation, taking some of the best stuff from all previous incarnations of the Turtles. Creators like Tom Waltz, Dan Duncan, Mateus Santolouco, Ross Campbell, Ciro Nieli and some guy named Kevin Eastman are die-hard TMNT fans, and are doing really great work with the characters.

When did you decide to do the book and how long was your research process?

The book's editor, the talented and hard-working Chris Prince of Insight Editions, sent me a cryptic e-mail two-and-a-half years ago asking if I had some time to work on a new project. He told me that they'd secured the license to publish a complete TMNT history, and he asked me to write up a pitch.

The pitch was a really easy one, actually. I told him that I'd start by talking to Eastman and Laird, and I'd branch out from there, talking to Mark Freedman, whose company Surge Licensing turned the Turtles from a cult-favorite comic book to a global phenomenon. From there I'd go to the first animated series, and the Archie Comic book tie-in series, and the other artists who joined Mirage Studios, artists who handled the licensing, people who worked on the live-action movies, people who worked on the 4Kids animated series, the video game programmers, voice actors, on-screen talent, puppeteers, toy sculptors, artists and writers who worked on later versions of the comic books... simple, right?

Along the way, I tracked down artwork and photos for the book, everything from the complete original artwork from the first issue of the comic book to animation storyboards to rare photos from the Henson Creature Workshop. If I'd had another five years to work on the book, I still don't think I'd have been able to cover everything and everyone who's worked on TMNT over the past three decades.

You talked to every conceivable person who had anything to do with TMNT -- how did that go? How did you get that kind of response?

I think I interviewed nearly 75 people who worked on various Turtles properties, including about six months of trading e-mails with Peter Laird along the way to make sure I had my facts and timelines straight. Every conversation would lead to a few more potential interview subjects, too. It was like a giant spider web, with Eastman and Laird right at the center.

Nearly every single person I interviewed had very fond memories of their time with the Turtles, whether they spent years voicing a character on television or just drew an issue or two of the comic book. Even Ernie Reyes Jr., who had to spend an incredibly hot, humid summer in North Carolina wearing a fifty-pound foam rubber Turtle suit while filming the first TMNT movie had nothing but good things to say about his association with the Turtles.

RELATED: SDCC" Turtle Power Energizes TMNT

What's the best/weirdest anecdote you heard in the process?

Vanilla Ice was the hardest interview to land, since he seemed to be on tour most of the time I was trying to reach him, but his manager, Tommy Quon, went out of his way to arrange a phone interview, since Ice is still a huge Turtles fan and really wanted to be part of the book.

I really wish I'd been able to include the full transcript of that interview. And I really, really wish I'd been able to include more of the interview I did with Brian Henson. Getting the opportunity to talk about puppets with the head of the Henson Creature Workshop? How amazing is that? Brian had a lot of great stories about his time on the set of the first film, and there just wasn't enough room to include everything.

My favorite story has to be when I asked Peter and Kevin what their biggest "rock star" moment was. They'd gone to movie premieres in Hollywood and London, they'd seen their self-published comic book become a Broadway stage show, they had TMNT merchandise in every store in the world... but each of them said that their favorite moment was meeting Jack Kirby at the San Diego Comic-Con. Getting to talk to him, comic book creator to comic book creator -- that's as good as it gets.

You do an incredible job curating shows at the Cartoon Art Museum that feel inclusive, instructive and celebratory of comics -- how did you bring those curation skills to the book?

Thanks for the kind words. I've been putting museum exhibitions together for more than a decade, so it's something that's always in the back of my head, with any project. The Cartoon Art Museum always has at least three temporary exhibitions on display at any given time, and my goal is to always strike a balance between popular characters that the general public will recognize with lesser known artists and characters that deserve some time in the spotlight. The Turtles are paired with a retrospective featuring Mike Zeck's artwork and a show called Pretty In Ink, featuring highlights from comics herstorian Trina Robbins' personal collection, focusing on women cartoonists from the first half of the 20th Century.

With the Turtles book, I wanted something that any casual fan of the Turtles would be able to enjoy, but that would have more than enough substance for the die-hard fans (and I've met a lot of them over the course of writing the book). If you watched the 4Kids series and haven't kept up with the new cartoon, or if you read the original series but bailed before the Image Comics era, or if you're Will Arnett and you want to read up on all of the Turtles stuff that came along before Michael Bay asked you to be in his movie, you'll find something to like about the book. Even if you're one of the die-hard fans who's bought every comic book, toy and DVD, you'll be getting new interviews, artwork and photos that you've never seen before, and a copy of 1984's TMNT #1 shot from the original artwork.

Any other book plans in the works?

I've got a Mega Mini Kit coming out from Running Press later this summer, packaged with a Cobra H.I.S.S. Tank (G.I. Joe), and I'm writing my introduction to IDW's second collection of Bobby London's "Popeye." I've got some other small projects in the works, too, including some comic book scripts. Give me a call, editors. Operators are standing by.

So, let's say you were going to order a pizza with the Turtles. What would you guys put on it?

Michelangelo always went for things like chocolate fudge, sardines, chili pepper and whipped cream; strawberry with anchovy sauce; marshmallow and guacamole; and he seemed to be really fond of adding dessert toppings to pizza in general. As long as they don't order onions on their pizza, I'm up for just about anything. Even jelly beans.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Visual History" goes on sale June 24.

Bettie Page: Unbound #3

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