Raise Some Shell: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Raise Some Shell: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

by Richard Rosenbaum


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Raise Some Shell critically and cleverly examines the origins, evolution, and impact of the Ninja Turtles phenomenon — from its beginning as a self-published black-and-white comic book in 1984, through its transformation into a worldwide transmedia phenomenon by the middle of the 1990s, and up to the sale of the property to Nickelodeon in 2009 and relaunch of the Turtles with new comics, cartoons, and a big-budget Hollywood film. With the eye of contemporary cultural studies and the voice of a true lifelong Turtles fan, Rosenbaum argues that the Turtles’ continuing success isn’t mere nostalgia, but rather the result of characters, and a franchise, that mutated in a way they survived and thrived in a post-modern world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781770411791
Publisher: ECW Press
Publication date: 04/15/2014
Series: Pop Classics Series , #2
Pages: 152
Product dimensions: 4.70(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.50(d)
Lexile: 1380L (what's this?)

About the Author

Richard Rosenbaum is a fiction editor at Broken Pencil (Canada’s magazine of the underground arts and independent culture) and a regular contributor to OverThinkingIt.com. He received his Master’s degree in communication and culture from Ryerson University, and this is what he’s doing with it. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 2

Teenageness itself is an utterly postmodern idea. While obviously adolescence is an inherent biological and psychological period of transition and transformation, the romanticizing of the thirteen-to-nineteen-year-old age group as a unique culture unto itself can probably trace its roots only back as far as 1955, and the profoundly influential movie Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean. The world’s moral certainty was badly shaken; “question authority” became a mantra, but outright rejection of any and all authority developed into a full-blown fetish. In the post-WWII world, the generation gap became itself practically a kind of Cold War, which Rebel strikingly illustrated. The film itself probably didn’t intend to lionize rebellion for its own sake – instead it was a criticism of the perceived rise of juvenile delinquency and the breakdown of effective parenting. Teenageness as a cultural force and state of mind began there and persists to this day, and it was a major factor in the popularity of teenagers in media, including comic book superheroes like the X-Men in the 1960s. Teenagers became synonymous with rebellion, as the front-line soldiers in the fight against conformity as represented by “the grown-ups.” It was a self-imposed Otherness that gained more and more traction as young people saw that the world didn’t work the way they felt it ought to.

So the fact that the Turtles were teenagers was critical to understanding their position as the ultimate outsiders. Teenageness carries with it a ton of cultural associations, including the image of guerrilla warfare against hegemony, the romance of its methods in perfect proportion to the hopelessness of its goals. More than this, teenageness was marketed as aspirational. Kids who were, say, ten, when they started watching the sixteen-year-old Turtles on TV could vicariously fight evil by association, doubtless already feeling cramped by their parents’ apparently arbitrary restrictions, thinking: soon I’ll be a teenager too!

The original Turtles cartoon goes farther with the teenager trope than the original comic did mostly because it was aimed at a younger audience. That was where the pizza obsession came from – teenagers like pizza, right? – but also the evocations of skateboard and surf culture, which is where Michelangelo gets his trademark catch phrase, cowabunga. The cartoon also pays direct homage to the genesis of the teenager trope in the fourth episode of the first season, “Hot Rodding Teenagers from Dimension X,” in which a trio of elfin aliens called The Neutrinos accidentally come to Earth via the Technodrome’s dimensional portal; the three Neutrinos are late-1950s-style beatnik-hipsters from outer space, in the mold of Jet Screamer, daughter Judy’s rock star crush from The Jetsons. They drive rocket-powered lowriders through the sky and execrate their war-torn home dimension as “like, Squaresville, daddy-o!” The Neutrinos are conscientious objectors in a dimension of comprehensive conscription, in which heavy weaponry is required by law even for civilian vehicles. In one particularly overwrought moment, the female Neutrino, Kala, moans, “You don’t know what it’s like, living in a place where everybody wants to do you in just for the crime of being young!” Michelangelo rushes instantly to her side to comfort her, because he’s totally trying to get in there, but while we might watch that scene and roll our eyes, the thing is that’s how teenagers actually feel: as if the whole universe is against them. Their values are different, their experiences are different. The Turtles, teenagers themselves, naturally sympathize with the Neutrinos’ plight and their rebellion against the polymorphous oppression of their world, and so does the audience — the kids watching at home, within whom the first stirrings of adolescent rebellion have maybe already begun to burgeon. Yet the Turtles also subvert this trope; in stark contrast to the James Dean archetype, the Turtles can love pizza and skateboarding and horror movies and getting into fights without rejecting the moral teachings of their parental figure and the society that he represents. Their rebellion does have a cause.

Mutantness is obviously the strongest conceptual force throughout the TMNT multiverse. A mutant is something that has been changed from its original or natural form – it’s no longer one thing, but also not yet quite another. Mutation symbolizes Otherness in all kinds of postmodern literature – as aforementioned, Kafka and Rushdie have used the trope to great effect. In superhero comics, mutants typically represent the conundrum of newness – the potential and danger that accompanies progression, gaining freedom from old ideas and prejudices coupled with the threat of losing the stability and meaningful traditions of the past. Marvel comics’ biggest stars, especially, are mutants. The Marvel Universe’s mutants are often described as being the “next step in human evolution,” even given the designation of their own subspecies of humanity, homo sapiens superior. In the 1960s, the earliest X-Men comics explained the emergence of mutants as a result of prenatal exposure to atomic radiation, and while later this was retconned into radiation only being the trigger for ancient genetic engineering, the association of mutantness with nuclear decay is significant: the dawn of the Atomic Age and of Postmodernity have both been tied to the first use of atomic weapons by the United States against Japan at the close of the Second World War. Those bombs were the end of the old order and the start of something new, something unprecedented and terrifying. It was the breakdown of what we thought we understood about the world, the first shot across the hull of what would become a baffling war of conflicting identities existing within the same body.

The flood of post-war immigration to Western countries, a new distrust of authority, plus post-catastrophe secularism taking hold throughout the world shattered the sense of identity that most people felt had been so solid before. People had to start hyphenating their self-descriptions to include their parents’ or their own country of origin, their religion or lack thereof, and increasingly their ideological and sexual orientations. The second and third generations down that line, with greater incidence and acceptance divorce, of interracial marriage, blended families, single-parent families, and other sorts of “post-nuclear” families, were increasingly commonplace, more and more people – maybe even the majority – were no longer capable of (or interested in) fitting themselves into one simple census check-box.

Across the world there was new and ever-evolving technology, new political realities, and entirely new kinds of people, and nobody really knew how to deal with these things or what to expect. The mutant was a perfect metaphor for this: born alongside the detonation of a Gamma Ray Bomb or exposure to a mysterious radioactive substance, transfigured from something common and easily intelligible into something different, bizarre, incomprehensible.

Think about it. Your dad is an orphan, a refugee, arriving in the New World with literally nothing. He loves you unconditionally, but you’re not even biologically related to him; you’re adopted. You’re a crazy mixture of everything that’s come before you and everything all around you that you’ve absorbed growing up. There’s never been anyone like you before, but who can understand that? No one but your siblings, because in the whole world, in all of history, they are the only ones who share your unique background and circumstances, all the various strains of cultural DNA battling it out for control of your identity.

You aren’t one thing, but you’re not quite another. What are you?

You’re a mutant.

The other mutant and mutated superheroes, from the mainstream comic publishers, did some of the same thing, as we’ve seen, but there are two major differences in the mutantness of, say, the X-Men, and that of the Turtles, that made the relatability of the Turtles able of eclipsing even the Uncanny X-Men in the late 1980s-early 1990s.

One is that for most of the X-Men and other superheroes, their mutations are invisible, or almost invisible. When Wolverine’s claws are sheathed, he just looks like a short hairy dude. Cyclops is just some guy wearing red sunglasses. Rogue has a white streak in her hair. Big deal. This can make for very good storytelling when your primary metaphor is an unpopular political affiliation, or sexual orientation (as Bobby “Iceman” Drake’s parents unironically asked their son in the second X-Men movie: “have you tried…not being a mutant?”), which generally do not confer visible minority status on a person, but nevertheless can and do marginalize them.

The Turtles are not like this – it is immediately apparent that they do not fit into whatever pre-existing categories conceived by anyone who might encounter them. Just like many multi-racial kids, or immigrant kids with foreign accents, or religious kids with unusual styles of dress, the Turtles too struggle with sticking out – when they allow themselves to be seen at all, that is.

Some of the X-Men are less than presentable in polite society, too, but their identities tend to compensate for that in other ways. Hank McCoy, The Beast, is a big blue fuzzy thing, but first of all he only became that way years after enrolling in Xavier’s School, as a result of a scientific experiment – his original mutation was just that he had really big hands and feet (not kidding). Plus, he has an M.D., and a PhD in mathematics, granting him definite social status. Warren Worthington III, originally known as Angel, then Archangel, then Angel again, has huge feathered wings that grow from his back and are difficult to conceal – but he’s also a multimillionaire trust fund kid, which probably makes things easier. The Turtles have no such compensation for their freakish, hybrid visage. Trench coats and cheap, Halloween-costume human masks don’t cut it.

The other major difference that sets the Turtles’ mutantness apart from the X-Men’s, and makes them more appealing symbolically and as characters, is their aforementioned lack of the potential for political influence. X-Men, and mainstream superheroes in general, function most primarily as political metaphor; mutant rights is a big thing in the Marvel Universe. The Turtles, though, aren’t political. They’re almost inherently apolitical; they don’t actively pursue equal rights with humans, they pretty much just want to live their lives and be left alone. But they can’t even venture to the surface without getting called out for being different. X-Men is not so much about identity as it is about affiliation – being a mutant in the Marvel Universe locates you as a member of an oppressed subculture, but a subculture whose members, individually and as a group, are explicitly superior to the oppressive majority. TMNT is much more strongly about identity in the literal sense, particularly hybridized identity; the Turtles aren’t members of a group of others who are like them, beyond their immediate family – they don’t necessarily have any more in common, biologically or culturally, with other mutated animals than they do with humans – and they’re pretty much okay with that. For the Turtles, the personal is not political. They recognize that a hybridized identity, including the alienation and challenges that come along with it, is no more or less than an inevitable condition of living in the modern world, and coming to terms with that fact – not attempting to overthrow the status quo by violence or persuasion – is what mutant heroism looks like in the world of TMNT.

Ninjaness is yet another factor contributing to the relevance of TMNT to the postmodern generation. On one level, it represents a further level of hybridization of the Turtles’ identity: they were born and raised in the United States, they are utterly American, and yet the traditions that their parent taught them is thoroughly Japanese – not even cool, contemporary Japanese stuff, either, but an ancient and mysterious tradition that has been basically extinct (or maybe just very, very, very well-hidden) for over two hundred years. Their Western identity is totally at odds with their Eastern identity, in terms of values but also just in terms of their methods of assimilation: Japanese tradition was actively instilled in them by Splinter, but their American education came entirely from their passive absorption of pop culture. And it’s their Americanness that certainly seems to dominate their personalities and their day-to-day behaviour: they prefer pizza to Splinter’s sushi, and they don’t even speak Japanese very well. Leonardo, eldest brother and the Turtles’ de facto leader, is closest to Splinter in his identification with their Eastern roots, to the point where Raphael mockingly nicknames him “Splinter Junior.” But even Leo prefers a slice and a good scifi novel to ramen and anime. This is surely something shared by the second- or third-generation Westerners reading and watching the Turtles’ exploits, whose parents or grandparents have attempted to impart a heritage to which the kids, craving Westernization, are largely indifferent or even hostile. Yet it’s not a part of them that they are free to ignore, either. It’s just one more piece of the hybrid identity that is, paradoxically, becoming dominant in the postmodern condition.

The other thing about ninjaness is the requirement of hiddenness. A ninja who can’t hide, or who doesn’t hide, is no ninja at all. And, of course, the Turtles have strong cause to hide from many of the people, and not-exactly-people, in their world. The ninja must be able to move undetected, do whatever needs doing, and then vanish instantly. Of course, this is easier when you’re a human being indistinguishable from any other anonymous human being. For a quartet of giant Turtles, if you want to sneak around without being noticed you’re going to have to be pretty effing good at stealth tactics. And if you’re, say, the only kid at your school who’s a shade more whole wheat than Wonder Bread, or even just dress funny, or eat weird food, you’re probably going to feel like perfecting your disappearing act may be of more immediate utility in your life than fractions, too. You learn the best ways not to stick out like a big green thumb, and then you do that. And if it’s not possible to hide, a bit of ninjitsu training would certainly come in handy.

You can see the Turtles acknowledging the tension of their ninjaness in the way they dress. Well, okay, so mostly they go around naked (Turtles are cold-blooded and have retractable, uh, limbs, so there’s no sense in them wearing clothes that restrict their movements), but besides the belts where they store their weapons, they all wear ninja masks. What for? It’s obviously not the same reason that human ninjas wore masks, i.e., to conceal their identity. Clearly, tying some cloth around their big green heads is not going to fool anybody. In the cartoons, the Turtles’ masks are all different colours, to make it easier to tell them apart, but in the original comic that doesn’t work for two reasons: in the Mirage series, the Turtles all wear red masks, and anyway the comic is in black-and-white! So what’s the point of the masks? It seems like it must be a joke about the paradox of being a ninja turtle, the contradiction between these two seemingly incompatible yet mutually inseparable aspects of their identity. They’re ninjas, and ninjas wear masks. The purpose of the mask is rendered void by the creature behind it, and that gap, the disconnect between the mask’s intended function and its complete irrelevance when it’s a giant turtle wearing it is the whole point. They also rarely take the masks off, further reinforcing the point that they haven’t got any secret identity – they are always themselves. Superheroes with secret identities don’t wear their costumes when they’re just relaxing at home. It’s all thoroughly postmodern, a little like shirts with the stitching all on the outside for no reason, or teenagers swiping their parents’ clothes, the fashionability of which derives from how consummately unfashionable they are.

But the Turtles did it first! They’ve been teenagers since like before you were born, son.

Table of Contents

Introduction: TMNT & Me
Origins and Evolutions
Coming Out of Their Shells
The Rise and Fall of Turtle Power
Remixed and Reincarnated
Turtles All the Way Down

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Raise Some Shell: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So, which Shredder is the best? The ORIGINAL Tengu Shredder, Shredder from the old 2003 series, or Cyber Shredder? Yeah! Tengu Shredder's the best to me! What's your's?!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love these shell kicking dudes
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My mask color: red My wepon: 2 si My name: Loreta My age: 11 I gusse i am more of the tough person pon the team so like Rahp
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My favorite is Raph! Hes kind of like me when my sisters bother me. P.S boys girls can like the TMNTs to!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My name is Kosi and I am your leader for this group and you have joined a great group. First read these rules fellow ninjat Rules 1 Never be part of the foot 2 You will listen to Splinter's Shoutouts or you shall get punishment 3 You have to pledge that forever you will become a ninja turtle until the end( you can make up your own pledge ;) ) 4 Bios must include: name age mask color weapon(s) appearencewhat is your job in our team (Jobs:brawler,brains, party dude, trainer i am the leader) and appearence. Bios will be at result 4. We will fight together no matter what happends. Both male and females can join our group.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is &<_>psi.)) Keep going!! It's ok if you spelled it wrong.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are the best. My two favoirte are Michelangelo and Leonardo. To be completely honest I love all four of them. Even though Donnie has that adorable smile and Raph has that awesome hot smile I really love Mikey and Leo for there cute and big smile. Which ones are your favoirte?