The years between the ‘20s and the ‘70s may be the Golden Age of Animation, but for all the young adults today, you can’t deny that the most iconic cartoons we still remember came from the ‘90s. Sure, the ’80s had great hits like Thundercats and He-Man, but the ‘90s cartoons was a culmination of both animation and story-telling brought to the relatively new colored television.
While I’m sure you can name plenty of ‘90s TV series you used to watch on Saturday mornings, one hero franchise most people seem to forget after all the DC and Marvel hubbub are the four anthropomorphic turtles living in the sewers of New York City: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The original comics featuring these four turtles first graced the public when creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird self-published their creation in 1984. It proved to be a success, but before they could create their own action figure line, they wanted to get a television deal on their franchise. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But there may still be some facts that you don’t really know about these ninja turtles.
Here are some you may not know.
1. The Ninja Turtles are named after Italian Renaissance Artists.
The four ninja turtles are commonly called Leo, Mikey, Donnie, and Raph on the show, so it may have slipped your memory that these are their nicknames, not their full names. And if you know their names, you might notice that all the names are a reference to some of the most popular artists and thinkers of the Renaissance period.
Leo is named after the Italian Leonardo Da Vinci, arguably the most popular Renaissance thinker of his time. Aside from painting the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, he was a painter, inventor, and sculptor, and anatomist who is a true model of the “Renaissance Man” who dabbled in both science and art.
Mikey is named after Michelangelo (though Eastman and Laird misspelled the name as “Michaelangelo” in their first publication), an Italian artist who heavily influenced Western art during the Renaissance period. He’s argued to be the greatest artist of all time with only Da Vinci’s work rivaling his own.
Donnie is named after Donatello, an Italian sculptor who invented a new method of sculpting during his time. Overall, he had a long career sculpting major artworks, influencing architecture and sculpting in Rome, Padua, and Siena.
And Raph is named after Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino or Raphael, an Italian painter and architect active during the peak of the Renaissance era. He furthered the Neoplatonic movement of the time and, along with Michelangelo and Da Vinci, is usually cited as one of the great Renaissance men of the time.
In an interview with co-creator Peter Laird, Laird admitted that he and Eastman were planning to make the turtles and Splinter (their adoptive father/sensei who taught them ninjitsu who is also an anthropomorphic sewer rat) Japanese, but they couldn’t come up with authentic-sounding Japanese names. Instead, they used names they knew and named them after Renaissance artists instead. At one point, Donatello was supposed to be named Bernini, after the Italian sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, but it didn’t have the same ring to it and was eventually changed to Donatello.
In the franchise’s universe, however, Splinter ended up giving the ninja turtles their names after picking up a discarded book on Renaissance art from a sewer drain and named them after the artists featured in the book.
2. All Ninja Turtles originally had red masks.
You can tell the ninja turtles apart based on their distinct personalities and the color of their masks. Leo, with the blue mask, was the responsible leader figure. Mikey, the free-spirited jokester, sports an orange mask. Donnie, the smart one, has a purple mask. And Raph, the aggressive and sarcastic one, has a red mask.
In the comic books, however, all of them wore the same red masks. While we don’t know for sure why the series did this, but it’s likely for the audience to tell them apart. You can easily tell the ninja turtles apart by their personality, voice, and the weapon they hold, but when they’re not holding their weapons, you can’t visually tell them apart, which could be confusing for some viewers.
3. The franchise tried to make the ninja turtles non-biological brothers because of a fifth female turtle.
If you weren’t actively watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles during the late ‘90s, you might have missed the short-lived series, Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation.
The series changed a lot about what the audience knows about the show’s universe, including the fact that, despite other media saying otherwise, the ninja turtles aren’t biological brothers. Although they’re all raised to see each other as brothers by their adoptive father Master Splinter, the show makes it clear that none of the turtles are biologically related. Why?
Because of Venus de Milo.
The series introduced Venus, a fifth mutated turtle that Splinter accidentally left behind when he found the original four ninja turtles. Instead, Venus found her way to Chinatown where she was adopted by a magician named Chung I who raised her in China as his adopted daughter, Mei Pieh Chi. Chung I and Splinter continued to communicate with each other in the realm of dreams until dragons fatally attacked Chung I, who sent Venus to New York.
Eventually, Venus met the other four ninja turtles and they teamed up to defeat the dragons. She earned her name Venus after taking home a statue that resembled the Venus de Milo status after the battle. Unlike the other ninja turtles, she is not trained in ninjitsu and uses mystical orbs in battle, though she has a proficient level of fighting skill.
But why the need to remove any hint of biological relation? Because the writers of the show wanted to have the possibility of a romantic relationship between Venus and one of the male turtles. In the show, it was hinted that either Raphael or Leonardo would become her romantic interest. This would have been much creepier if the audience assumed that they were biologically related.
4. A new fifth ninja turtle has been introduced.
Venus was a creation for the late ’90s live-action series. But a new female badass is in town and her name is Jennika, the new fifth ninja turtle.
Jennika has a pretty interesting past, having started out on the TMNT franchise as a human being. She was stabbed with a katana sword; fatally almost until the ninja turtles used some of Leonardo’s blood to save her. She lived, but mutated like our beloved heroes.
5. They’re known as “Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles” because ‘Ninja’ was deemed too violent.
When Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ television series became a hit in the United States, it was aired in the United Kingdom, but only after certain changes. Instead of the word “Ninja” in the show, it was called “Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles” because BBC thought the word “ninja” had violent connotations. Since then, anything related to the franchise being released in the UK and other European countries had to be renamed “Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles” before it could be released.
And the efforts to reduce the amount of violence in the series when launched in the UK didn’t just stop with the franchise’s name. One line in the theme song, “Splinter taught them to be ninja teens” was replaced with “fighting teens.” Because nunchakus were banned from appearing in films, Mikey’s nunchakus were taken out of season three, while the rest of the series until its end featured him carrying a grappling hook instead.
The Other Characters from the TMNT Franchise
Leo, Mikey, Donnie and Raph — and (original 5th turtle) Venus, aren’t the only characters that inhabit the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle animated series. Yes, Master Splinter, adoptive father of the turtle ninjas and April O’Neil are also household names in homes where the mutant turtles are beloved.
Other characters you may have forgotten, or not known about:
Helps the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and April fight crime
She’s in charge of the foot clan
Leads the Purple Dragons
The alligator who’s a mutant
Master of martial arts and from whom Splinter mimicked his skills
The villain; commander in chief of the foot clan
Remembering Beyond the Ninja Turtles Names
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is an iconic animated series that surely plenty of us have watched and enjoyed as children. And it’s not just the TV: the comic books, manga, action figures and movies became a staple for kids in the ‘90s and ‘00s. These were characters that both girls and boys of the time could watch for hours as these four saved New York City. But did you know these interesting facts about the show?