Traditionally, super-heroes follow certain guidelines. They're tall, masculine, look like they breezily bench-press a few times their body weight, and, in apparent admiration of medieval knights, wear tights. These days, however, a whole new breed is attracting the cartoon-watching generation. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a quartet of short, green, two-toed terrapins armed with martial-arts weapons, laconic wisecracks, and the catchiest name in merchandising history, are stomping all over the caped crusaders. With the opening this week of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a movie featuring human-inhabited Jim Henson puppet versions of these heroes-in-a-half-shell, fans are being deluged with a commercial campaign that makes last year's Batman blitz look like a backwoods tag sale.
The Turtles hit as comic-book heroes in 1984 and became TV stars in the fall of 1988. Two years ago their toy line took off like a perp in the face of twirling nun-chucks, and the green gaijin have been at the center of a merchandising maelstrom ever since. They are slapped on everything from boxer shorts and backpacks to blow-up blimps, baseball cards, and sleeping bags, and their weekday syndicated, animated TV show is so highly rated that CBS is adding a Saturday morning version this fall. The movie is just another product; there are some 600 Turtle products.
It's hard to believe that back in late '83 the Turtles were still humble lead in the pencils of a couple of unknown illustrators in Dover, Mass. It had been a night of bad TV, and Kevin Eastman, a fast-food chef and grocery bagger, and his friend Peter Laird, a free-lance illustrator, were giddy. Eastman doodled a sketch of a turtle with a mask. Laird did a few versions of his own. Then Eastman quadruplicated the prototype, giving each a martial-arts weapon. They christened their creations ''Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.'' It had a ring.
The Turtles' tale: At a tender age, four pet-shop turtles slopped out of their owner's fishbowl, fell into a manhole, and landed in a blob of ''retromutogen'' ooze. They were found by a sewer rat named Splinter, who named them after his favorite artists in H.W. Janson's History of Art: Donatello, Michaelangelo (sic), Raphael, and Leonardo. As a result of the ooze, Splinter and the Turtles grew to more than twice their normal size. They stood upright. They began to speak. They developed a passion for pizza. Splinter, former pet of a ninjitsu expert, took the Turtles on as his pupils. With time and patience, the Turtles became (drumroll) ninja warriors.
The team drew all of this into a comic book an adult comic book in which the Turtles split six-packs, for example. The likes of Marvel and DC Comics failed to appreciate its genius, so Eastman and Laird published the dark, black-and-white strips themselves using $1,200 from a tax return and a loan from Eastman's uncle Quentin, to whom the first issue is dedicated. The Turtles caught on. The strips inspired a book of collected works and a Dungeons and Dragons-style role-playing game, and reeled in a loyal audience of 10-to-20-year-olds drawn to the offbeat story.
Then, thanks to licensing agent Mark Freedman, the Turtles became cash cows. It was in 1986 that Freedman first heard the words ''Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.'' ''The name was exciting and weird and silly and brilliant all at the same time,'' says Freedman, president of Surge Licensing. ''People thought I was crazy, but I believed in the characters.'' Freedman paid a visit to Eastman and Laird. ''He was in a three-piece power suit,'' Laird remembers. ''Kevin and I were in cutoff jeans and sneakers.'' But they crossed cultures to talk Turtles. ''Their concept had fun, humor, and a lot of action-adventure,'' Freedman says. ''They were warped, but they were brilliant.'' There was only one thing left to do. In ''a very famous handshake deal'' written out, nonetheless, on a napkin over an ice cream cone and coffee-Freedman vowed to ''set out to market Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a property.'' And flying in the face of the toy industry credo that green doesn't sell, lo, he did sell it.
One of Freedman's first stops was master toy licensee Playmates Toys. In June 1988, Playmates put out the first line of plastic Turtle toys. By year's end it had sold $25 million worth. Since then, the Turtle business has divided and multiplied beyond biblical measure. Playmates' tally now nears $150 million, and Surge Licensing oversees an empire of some 250 licensees in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and ''some places I can't even pronounce,'' Freedman says.
The weekday Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV show, aimed at an audience of 4-to-10-year-olds, spurred a parallel color series of Turtle comics (put out by Archie Comics) for the same young fans no six-packs here. Eastman and Laird's black-and-white comics are still published by Mirage Studios, which they co-own with Jim and Cheryl Prindle. But the Mirage books generally are drawn by free-lance artists so the originators can turn their attention to new comic projects and the Sisyphean task of approving new strains of Turtlephernalia.
''We get about 30 calls a day for new licenses, and we turn down about 99 percent of them,'' Freedman says. ''Turtles is a phenomenon in the marketplace. People are after us to license everything from folding musical pens to underwear that turns into shoes.'' But, Freedman maintains, ''I'm going to control the production and try to keep it lean.''
''Lean'' is a relative concept ever more relative as the movie approaches. Adding to the substantial promotional value in the Turtles products already out there, a smorgasbord of snack foods will advertise the movie on their packages. ''K mart went crazy,'' says Sandra Ruch, president of marketing at New Line Cinema, the movie's distributor. The store is hosting a Turtles sweepstakes, and 72 million ads folded into newspapers will litter as many households to promote the movie and Turtle products. ''Everybody wants Turtle,'' says Ruch. And just about anyone can get it.
Merciless marketing aside, Larry Carlat, editor of Toy and Hobby World, figures that the martial-arts mutants are popular because ''they're against type. Most action figures are heavy-duty good versus evil, geared toward little boys who want to play violent fantasy-adventure games. Teenage Mutants are the first to say, 'This isn't so serious, let's give it a humorous twist.' ''
Not everybody is laughing. Critics accuse the Turtles' toy and cartoon makers of being racially insensitive. Two villains, Rocksteady (a punk mutant commando rhinoceros) and Bebop (a punk mutant warthog) who were described by The New York Times TV critic John J. O'Connor as ''dim and cloddish African-looking beasts,'' are named after Jamaican and black American music styles. Laird calls the accusation ''nonsense.'' Hard Copy, a tabloid TV newsmagazine, suggested that a Random House Turtle puzzle now recalled was anti-Semitic, citing a swastika in its design. ''It's a city scene and an artist, hired by Random House, drew all this graffiti on a wall,'' says Laird. ''The swastika is about 3/8-inch big.''
Still, ''Turtles are one of the hottest properties around,'' Carlat says, ''so I imagine they'll do well on anything they're plastered on for the next few months.'' The toy line beat out perennial best-seller G.I. Joe 2-to-1 last December and, according to a survey by Playthings, an international toy trade publication, the Ninja Turtle gestalt the whole product range was No. 3 on the 1989 toy charts. (Nintendo and Barbie products were Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.)
Of course, the thought is that the movie will burnish the golden Turtle egg to a blinding brilliance. It's geared to appeal to the cartoon set as well as to older comic-book fans. ''We decided it would be nice to have certain elements of the animation,'' Laird says. (The Turtles wear their color-coded headbands, for example, designed so children can easily identify them.) ''But it steers clear of a lot of the weird, goofy sh-- they did in the cartoon.''
The army-green and brown Henson creatures are much more like something out of Labyrinth, say, than Muppet Babies. And the movie, rated PG, has more violence than the TV show. It also dares to dabble with romance a potential yuk for the cartoon cartel. Still, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle event is an event that few ticket-purchasing parents of young fans will be allowed to ignore.
While most merchandisers are reliant upon a movie's success for their product sales, in this case, because the movie is the product, the biggest thing riding on the box-office grosses is the sequel which is already in the planning stages. Even if the current flick is a flop, Freedman and company can simply flog the TV shows to support the assembly lines. ''Done correctly, and kept in the popular eye, the Turtles could establish a Disney sort of presence,'' Laird says. ''Our agent keeps telling us this isn't going to last forever, but who's to say? The odds were against us even getting the toy line in the stores. When we started, the action-figure market was dying.'' Now it's going strong in the sewer.