Retro:Respect Vol.1// Playmates’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Action Figures 1987-1997

Welcome to the first volume of our latest feature, Retro:Respect. Each month we’ll be bringing you an in-depth look at some of the art toy/low-brow scenes’ biggest influences, their history, and how they’ve affected the industry today.

In our first issue, we delve into the world of Playmates and their original TMNT range. One of the most popular toy lines in the late 80’s-early 90’s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles helped define the sheer scope and creativity that could be achieved with the action figure medium at the time. Setting trends in the toy industry that have filtered through to the modern art toy scene, the “Heroes in a Half Shell” have had a lot more influence than you’d originally believe…

Starting life as a comic book in early 1984, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were the creation of two upstart comic artists, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Originally intended as a parody of some of the 80’s finest comic series’ including Marvel Comics’ Dare Devil and New Mutants, Dave Sim’s Cerebus, and Frank Miller’s Ronin, the self published strip was soon signed to Mirage, going on to sell thousands throughout the 80’s.

Approached by licensing agent Mark Freedman after a second printing of the comic, the Turtles were finally heading into mainstream culture. 1985 saw the first spin-off in the form of Palladium’s licensed role playing game, with the agent securing a range of cast lead figures from miniature industry leader, Dark Horse, the following year. Looking to push the brand out of the niche worlds of miniature figures, RPGs, and comics, Freedman began pitching the characters and story to major toy manufacturers across the states. Unfortunately, the project hit upon deaf ears to all but one company, a little known Californian based toy manufacturer called Playmates.

Unwilling to back the IP based on just it’s comic credentials, Playmates negotiated a deal whereby a cartoon series would be produced to coincide with the release of the toys (a first of it’s kind). Eastman and Laird agreed to the show, and began talks with established animation house Murakami-Wolf-Swenson. With legendary animator Fred Wolf at the helm of the project, Playmates were effectively working as executive directors; their marketing crew working side by side with Wolf’s team all of the way. It was this closeness between the two parties that would see the TMNT brand into 9 series and over 50 toy lines across the 80s and 90s…

(Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles original core lines, 1988-92)

The first episode of the cartoon aired in December 1987, with Playmates releasing the first series of toys a few months later in the summer of 1988. Consisting of 10 figures including the four turtles, Splinter, April and Shredder (plus four vehicles), the toys set the standard for action figures at the time, characterised by their high levels of detail, vivid colours, extensive articulation, and quality production.

Whilst the cartoon adapted the gritty approach of the original comic series to appeal to a wider audience, Playmates decided to stay faithful to the source material when the toys were concerned. Lacking pupils, and with bulging muscles and veins, the first series of turtles had a certain “edge” that was missing in a lot of late 80s action figures. The blister pack art, whilst colourful, also carried over a lot of the visual appeal of the comic too- some (including Shredder’s) lifting art directly from it’s pages. Each of the figures came with a variety of accessories, a cut out bio card, and in the vehicles’ case, a catalog and turtle themed joke book(!). The series went on to be a huge success for Playmates, paving the way for some of the most creative, beautiful and down right crazy toys of the 90s.

Playmates went on to create four core series’ of TMNT toys between 1988-92, featuring well over 50 different characters, vehicles and playsets from across the IP’s extensive universe. As the company expanded, toy designs became more creative, with figures including General Taarg, Mutagen Man and Pizza Face’s intricate designs utilising innovative production techniques that hadn’t yet been seen in the mass market toy industry.

(Early TMNT package designs, 1988/89  Centre- Turtle Party Wagon/Blimp)

Vehicles, Accessories and Playsets

One element of Playmates’ TMNT line that really stood out in it’s day was the sheer variety and scope of it’s many vehicles and accessories. Often expressing the show’s humorous take on the IP, Donatello’s vast array of gadgets were commonly made out of sewer lids, trash cans, plungers, and even toilet seats. Alongside faithful recreations of the cartoon’s Party Wagon and Blimp, Playmates expanded the range outside of the show, with the hugely popular Psycho Cycle, Turtle Pizza Thrower, Technodrome and sewers diorama all offering a diversity of play features that were rarely seen in early 90s toys.

By far the most popular accessory in the line came in the form of the Retromutagen ooze. One of the most famous components of the TMNT realm, this was the radioactive slime that mutated the Ninja Turtles from common house pets to “mean, green, fightin’ machines.” The green slime was sold in a small container which also included a glow-in-the-dark Ninja Turtle in mid-mutation. Aside from the classic “Turtle Green,” a “Purple Foot” variation would also become available in 1993. Ooze was an essential component to playsets such as the Flushomatic, and action figures like Muckman, who could have it run through a reservoir in his head and out his mouth. Depending on their features, occasional figures and accessories came with their own smaller canister of Ooze to fulfill the playtime experience.

(Retromutage Ooze / Flushomatic)

Themed Lines & Variants

Whilst the likes of Kenner were happy to re-paint old figure designs and pass them off as new, Playmates were not content on resting on their laurels. With four successful TMNT series under their belt, including various other merchandise, the company set about working on several new and increasingly creative lines. With the help of the various other licences they had accumulated since the start of the Turtles’ success (including both Star Trek and Universal Studios), Playmates set about reinventing the turtles and their foes in the role of monsters, cowboys, sport stars, astronauts, sumo wrestlers and even lucky trolls, drawing from every last pop culture reference they could think of- a trend that has had a massive impact on the contemporary art toy scene.

(TMNT x Star Trek, 1994)

By the Turtles fall in popularity in 1997, Playmates had created a staggering 48 extra lines for the turtles, making it one of the most extensive toy ranges of all time. We’ve delved into a few of our favourites-

(A selection of the more quirkier TMNT ranges, 1990-95)

Star Trek x TMNT: By 1995 Playmates had amassed a number of big licenses, Star Trek being it’s most important. To commemorate the show, the company released the four turtles as a limited set in Next Generation garb.

Universal Studios Monsters: Released in 1993/94 (2 series), the Monsters series saw the turtles re-interpritated as various horror classics including Swamp Thing, Dracula, and the Werewolf.

Jim Lee’s TMNT: Taking the edgy approach of the original comics to the next level, legendary comic artist Jim Lee’s dark and twisted toy interpretations are some of the strongest designs from Playmates’ long running franchise.

(Jim Lee TMNT Series)

Toon Turtles: Ironically, it took Playmates five years into the cartoon’s life to create a range that could be likened to it’s on-screen characters. Featuring the huge pupils, bubble like muscles and cartoon proportions of the show, the figures all implemented “animated” action moves.

TMNT Movie Stars: Strangely, it wasn’t until the release of the second TMNT film, The Secret of the Ooze, that Playmates began producing movie tie-ins. With the range’s aesthetic taking it’s cue directly from the movies, softer plastic and higher levels of detail were used to reflect the animatronic turtles of the film.

Contemporary Production and Custom TMNT Influenced Toys

Fast forward to the present, and it’s easy to see how much Playmates’ toys have influenced and inspired both the art and mainstream toy industries. The culture of collectible variants, pop culture references and licensed collaborations are now the backbone of collectible toys, something we can at least attribute a little to the legendary heroes in a half shell…

Aside from the marketing trends that the TMNT toys established, the turtles themselves have also had a major influence on the art toy scene. Toy houses including Ci Boys, Real x Head and Toy2r have featured their iconic designs in several production toys, whilst custom Qees, Munnys, and Trexis from the likes of Stuart Witter have paid the ultimate homage to the oversized amphibians (pictured)…

(Various TMNT inspired production and custom art toys, 2006-11)

NEXT ON Retro:Respect- The lowdown on the wonderful rubber world of Keshi/M.U.S.C.L.E/M.I.M.P toys!

(TMNT photos from the extensive collection over at Virtual Ninja Turtle Museum)

Published by Niall Anderson

Owner of ShinGangu, a UK boutique toy brand specialising in self-produced Japanese soft and keshi toys...

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