The year 2009 brought about a seismic shift to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: after twenty-five years as a mom-and-pop property–albeit a ridiculously successful one–the intellectual property was sold to Viacom, and more specifically Nickelodeon, an entity that would not, and did not, waste any time capitalizing upon it. Only an entity like Nick could have been able to take a cartoon series that lasted six years and almost a hundred and fifty episodes and make it seem like a footnote in TMNT history, but that’s precisely what happened; with the turtles once again in comic book stores, tv screens and movie theaters, the last few years have been like 1991 all over again.
However, this is not, in fact, 1991, a time when Eastman and Laird were willing, if not always happy, to let almost anyone play with their toys: Nickelodeon appears to keep the turtles on a much shorter leash. Even when characters like Karai get radically reinvented, it feels like a boundary exists; the turtles must not pass this point. They can’t be radical, just Radical (TM). Therefore it is not surprising to see that April is once again and three times over, a white woman.
More interesting for the purposes of this series is the fact that IDW Publishing’s license to create and publish TMNT books gave them the ability to reprint the old Mirage and Archie material, and that the company has thus been making books that were out of print for decades available once again. More interesting still, the reprinted Mirage material, much of it originally in black and white, is being recolored, meaning that various colorists have been tasked with looking at the various looks of April O’Neil and drawing conclusions about just what it was the original creators intended, and deciding whether or not they’ll stick to that original intent.
So yeah, lots to cover here. One note before we begin, though: these images are organized in more or less chronological order, and while that’s easy enough to establish with the books, I’ve had to rely on some educated guesswork when it comes to the images relating to the cartoon and film. So there’s that.
Before we head of to our exploration of the Nickelodeon era–with its three new (white) versions of April, and, more importantly given the subject matter of this series, IDW’s color reprints of old Mirage issues–I want to devote this section to some random stuff: additional images, information on related concepts, and clarifications on some of my thinking on the various topics dealt with here.
Despite the obscene amount of variant covers offered by IDW for their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 30th Anniversary Special, there was no question which one was the coolest. Drawn by Ozzy Fernández and inked by Tony Kordos, the Heroes Haven wraparound variant cover, featuring the turtles and their allies about to do battle with the franchise’s most popular villains, was pure nostalgia porn. The Shredder, Baxter Stockman, the Technodrome, the Rat King, Casey Jones and –ing Ace Duck, all in one official image, and all in their most iconic looks? It seemed too good to be true. And it was, because lost in the shuffle was one character who most definitively should have been there : April O’Neil, the property’s most prominent female character and arguably the most iconic character in the franchise after the turtles themselves, is nowhere to be seen in the cover (*). Without her, the image felt incomplete; worse, it meant that the cover featured some twenty male characters and no women .
And so, despite being lucky enough to be present at the event where this limited-distribution cover would be first sold—Puerto Rico Comic Con—I wasn’t sure I’d get the cover. Not only was April’s absence pretty much a deal-breaker, I wasn’t too enthusiastic about having to spend twenty dollars on a book I already owned, fantastic art or not. Fortunately, I didn’t have to, as cheaper prints of the image were also available for sale—prints where April O’Neil was very much present and prominent.
Something was up.
I’d originally intended to ask the people there on Heroes Haven’s behalf—which included the artists for the cover in question, there to promote their work—just why April was absent from the cover. Now aware of the print, I had an idea of what the reason was, and a quick conversation seemed to settle it: apparently Nickelodeon, who owns the turtles and has to approve every bit of licensed art, had asked that she be removed. A post located on Fernández’s Facebook page makes the same claim.
I had my awesome print, and two new questions:
1) If the claim is true—and I have no reason to doubt that it is—why had Nickelodeon asked for April to be removed from the cover?
2) Was this the only time it had happened?
There’s reason to believe that this wasn’t a one-time deal. A few weeks back, IDW released the cover image for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures Volume 8, the latest in their trade paperback collection of the comic book series originally published by Archie during the early nineties. Again, April was nowhere to be seen, despite the fact that the stories collected in the book all prominently featured her. The absence was glaring enough that it made me think back to previous covers, only to remember, rather effortlessly, that she had, in fact, been absent from all of them (**). One of the most well-known characters in the franchise, and one who was more prominent in the collected stories than many of the (male) characters who did show up in the covers, and she appeared to have been neglected multiple times by multiple artists. And while the reason for April’s absence is self-evident in some cases—either she wasn’t prominent in the stories collected in the book, such as with Volumes 2 and 3, or the scene depicted in the cover didn’t include April in the original story, such as with Volumes 1 and 7—no single explanation that I could see existed to explain all the absences. The cover for Volume 5, for example, depicts a scene from the book which originally featured April along with the turtles; why, then, isn’t she there in the reproduction?
Before Puerto Rico Comic Con, it was impossible to say why this was the case: there were too many potential whats, whos and whys, and too little available information. Is April’s continued absence the result of a mandate, or had different artists with different biases all independently realized that they didn’t care to feature her in their covers? Had April just been unlucky enough to fall victim to a series of what are essentially coincidences? Now, at least, some light has been shed on the situation—enough to make it clear that we need more.
(*) It’s also worth noting that April is not just absent from the Special’s covers; she is absent from the covers, absent from the stories, and absent from the pin-ups. If the book were a person’s first taste of the TMNT, that person would have no idea that a character called April O’Neil ever existed, or that she is nearly as old as the turtles, being introduced in the very second issue of the original comic book.
(**) She’s not the only one, as so far only one of the series’ handful of prominent female characters has ever appeared in a collection cover. See if you can spot her.
The stars aligned in 2002, and production began on a second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. Two things stood about about this effort at the time: 1) it would actually come to fruition, and 2) unlike the first cartoon, it planned to take many of its characters and storytelling beats directly from the Mirage comic books.
If there ever was an opportunity for April to appear with something resembling the look she sported through most of Mirage Volume 1–or as a Woman of Color, period–this was it. While the producers seemed to feel no particular need to adhere to characters’ comic book looks–as best seen in the Shredder, who now sports a full suit of armor–they also seemed to feel a certain commitment to racial diversity in the show, if the reversal of Baxter Stockman’s whitewashing and the various original characters of color introduced in that first season are any indication. If, like other people in the past, the showrunners saw Mirage April as a woman of color, it seems it seems reasonable to surmise that they would have at least been amenable to at least discussing the idea of depicting their version of our favorite gal-pal in a similar manner. The fact that the primary audience for this show would likely not be familiar with April from the original cartoon meant they could have done so with a minimum of uproar.
And yet, this didn’t happen, and there are several possible reasons why. It may be that, like many people, the producers at 4Kids never interpreted April as being anything other than a white woman. It might be that Peter Laird, who definitively sees April as a white woman, and who had something akin to a veto power when it came to the show, stepped in and insisted that the TV version follow suit–which frankly, I’m kind of okay with, being as he helped create her and all. It might be that the decision was made by people outside the creative circle. Or, in what seems to me the most unlikely possibility, given the show’s output, they might have interpreted Mirage April as a woman of color and consciously decided to whitewash her without requiring any additional input. I’ve asked Laird for context, but, unfortunately, he turned out to be less than forthcoming. Still, no matter the details, in the end, another generation grew up knowing that April O’Neil is white, making future interpretations where she isn’t even less likely.
Buoyed by the new interest in the turtles brought about by the cartoon and its merchandising tie-ins, Mirage decided to publish a second iteration of Tales of the TMNT as a companion to the Laird / Lawson TMNT Vol. 4. The second book, an anthology title featuring the work of several creators, hearkened back to the guest creator era, as various people put their stamp on the turtles, including some new faces like Tristan Huw Jones, who attempted to weave together several disparate plot strands into his own mini-universe within the universe. It was also the first time since 1992 that we’d see how Mirage April looked under different artists.
Hollywood loves a remake, and eventually a fourth TMNT film, titled simply TMNT and serving as a pseudo-sequel to the first three, was produced and released. Done entirely in CGI, it featured an April that was less Lois Lane and more Lara Croft, and was voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar. While a success in some respects, it was not successful enough to merit follow-ups. It did, however, influence the larger turtles-verse, as various other incarnations would begin to draw from its visuals.
In 2009, Peter Laird, by then sole owner of the franchise, decided to sell the turtles to Viacom, and specifically, Nickelodeon. A new era was set to begin.
As the TMNT franchise approached its fifteenth year, it seemed as if there wasn’t all that much to celebrate. The first cartoon was over. Attempts at a fourth film had long since been abandoned. Mirage wasn’t producing any new material, and Image series, lasted only twenty-three issues. The turtles had returned to television in 1997, in the live-action Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation, but that only lasted one season and appears to have little to recommend it. It also didn’t feature April, which is why it doesn’t factor here.
If this fall into semi-obscurity had one benefit, is that it allowed Peter Laird, now older, more media-savvy, and completely in charge of the turtles, to have a greater say in what his characters should look and act like. In 2001, the turtles returned in a very low-profile way, as Mirage Studios released the first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ fourth volume, with Laird as writer and Jim Lawson as artist. Ignoring the stories told in the Image run, he moved the action forward more than a decade, showing the turtles as adults. It would be the only regular turtles fans would get until 2002, when a company called 4Kids entered the scene.
Note: If you can help fill in the gaps in the data–the artist for the Palladium April image (which I think may have been by the Paulo Parentes Studio) and the year for the CGI pilot, for example–it’d be much appreciated.
The year 1992 marked the end of the Mirage TMNT‘s guest creator era: after three years of mostly non-canonical stories by a bevy of creators, Mirage staffers once again took reins of the book, with a new focus on featuring a more stable tone and in moving their characters forward. This latest phase in the book culminated with “City at War”, a thirteen-part mega arc which featured the return of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird to active creative duties and ended on the book’s last issue. It also gave April some much-needed focus, as the writers had her decide to move to California in order to recenter herself.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this era of greater focus on April also saw the beginning of the end of depictions of her based on her issue #4 redesign, as the physical features she had sported since then–by no means limited to skin color–began disappearing. What one may draw from this is unclear, and the fact that there’s only one artist drawing the character for the duration of the era doesn’t help.
The years from 1993 to 1996 saw waning interest in the Ninja Turtles. The third film received a tepid reception. Mirage’s second volume of TMNT, which debuted shortly after the end of the first one,would prove short-lived, its final issue hitting stores on October 1995. The Archie series, TMNT Adventures, ended that same year. After seven seasons of sausage-making, Fred Wolf retooled the original cartoon for its eighth season in order to deal with a shifting children’s television landscape; old characters were written out, new characters were written in, and the series’ aesthetic got a face lift, but none of these changes were enough to stop the series from ending, after ten seasons and 193 episodes, in 1996. By January 1997, the flow new material featuring the TMNT had slowed down to a trickle, and existed mostly in the form of a comic series published by Image, continuing the adventures of the Mirage versions of the characters…but that’s something for another entry.
Note the first: While I’ve tried to be comprehensive as possible here, any help obtaining any relevant images I might have missed is much appreciated.
Note the second: Despite not having much in the way of comments, I still plan on moderating any discussion with a heavy hand, should it become necessary.
The year 1987 brought us our second ever incarnation of April, one that, while visually faithful to the character as originally depicted, was at odds with what had become the norm. As the new franchise’s popularity continued to expand, two more new incarnations were introduced: April as seen in the films, who like most things in the movie was conceived as an amalgam of her comic book and cartoon incarnations; and April as seen in the Archie comic books, who was ostensibly the cartoon version, but like most things in the book quickly became her own distinct character. While the people over at Mirage were still depicting their version of the character as a Woman of Color, by 1990, it was White April who had become the norm.
Note the first: While I’ve tried to be comprehensive as possible here, I have not been able to obtain several relevant images, most notably, images of film adaptations after the first one, and of the colored reprints of the Mirage books released during this time period. Any assistance in obtaining them is appreciated.
Note the second: Unlike the first time around, I will be allowing comments here. That said, as always, please keep common courtesy in mind, and note that I will moderate with a heavy hand, should it become necessary.
ETA: I*just* realized that I hadn’t actually enabled comments. Fixed.