Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
We consider if Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles could be the next big thing in action figure collectables.
You may or may not be aware but a new Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles is currently showing in cinemas around the globe. Considering that the Heroes in a Half Shell originally appeared in their own comic book series in 1984, they’ve had a legacy that dates back almost as far as Star Wars, which was first released in 1977… teenagers they are most definitely not. Despite their age, as a collectable they haven’t had anywhere near the impact of Luke Skywalker and pals, although could this be set to change?
You see, although the mainly black and white comics first hit shelves in the early ‘80s, it wasn’t until 1987 when the Turtles came out the sewers following a deal between creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird and American toy company Playmates Toys Inc. At the time Playmates was a small Californian firm that was looking to shake up the toy market with a new range of action figures. Along with some other creative bods, Playmates created an entire cartoon series themed around the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and toned down some of the violence from the original comics, opting for humorous catchphrases like ‘Heroes in a Half Shell’ or ‘Lean Green Fighting Machines’ instead.
The cartoon series launched in America in October 1988 and became an overnight success, catapulting the Turtles into the limelight and making it one of the most popular children’s animated shows of all time. Of course, Playmates was ready to capitalise on the success of the show and had actually started releasing figures in the summer before it was first broadcast. Sales quickly spiked and the action figures were joined by all kinds of other merchandise, including soft toys, clothing, computer games and even Turtles-branded pizzas.
The initial range of action figures included Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, Michaelangelo, April O’ Neil, Shredder, Foot Soldier, Bebop, Rocksteady and Splinter, along with the following vehicles: Cheapskate, Knucklehead, Turtle Trooper, Turtle Blimp and Party Wagon. However, the range quickly expanded and by 1997 there were more than 300 action figures and that doesn’t include the numerous vehicles. Although the first wave of toys had clearly been inspired by the cartoons, the action figures became increasingly bizarre and there were some particularly unusual crossovers with other licenses, like the Universal Monsters series that saw Michaelangelo turned into Frankenstein, Star Trek Turtles and even a bizarre mix based around those Trolls with the brightly-coloured hair (we won’t feature them here as they’re enough to give you nightmares).
However, by the end of the 1990s, the Turtles and their ‘radical attitudez’ had become rather passé and the TV series came to an end in November 1996. The show had gone on to inspire a host of similar series (like Street Sharks or Biker Mice from Mars) that were more extreme or edgy for the action-hungry audience. Despite this, the Turtles continued to remain in the mainstream, with several live action films/television shows and a new cartoon in 2003. Although, arguably, it was the continued comic book series (currently published by IDW) and the hugely popular Nickleodeon cartoon in 2012 that breathed new life into the franchise, alongside the CGI Turtles film from 2014 (its sequel is currently in cinemas), which has ensured the green machines are currently riding a wave of popularity.
As such, we asked auctioneer Andrew Stowe from East Bristol Auctioneers whether he had seen this interest translate into vintage toy sales. “Absolutely,” he enthused. “It wasn’t so long ago they were just ‘old toys,’ now some top prices are paid for carded figures and vehicles. I think, as with all things, action figure related, it’s primarily the figures people collect, because they’re easier to display and look good on a shelf. The Turtles figure range was fairly extensive, but they were followed by an equally extensive list of playsets, vehicles and accessories. Usually, the larger sets are the ones that command more interest - mainly the Sewer Playset and the Technodrome (the two largest of the range) as many eager children ripped open the boxes on Christmas morning and instantly lost half the small pieces! They’re hard to find now.”
Of course, as you’ll know from reading the Collectors Gazette, Star Wars is the big name in vintage action figures but could the Turtles ever reach those dizzying heights? “That’s an interesting one. I don’t think anything will ever be as big as Star Wars. But, the world of toys is fascinating at the moment. Walk into any leading high-street toy shop (Toys R Us, Smyths etc) and it looks no different to how it would’ve 20 years ago. What’s on the shelves? Star Wars, LEGO, Turtles, Doctor Who etc. These are timeless collectables.
“Most collecting is nostalgia based - who are buying the classic Turtles toys? 20/30 somethings who want back a piece of their childhood. There have been two huge blockbuster Turtles films in the last two years, and there is still a popular animated series made and broadcast. Children today, love Turtles still. When they grow up to be 30 somethings with extra income, they’ll want to buy back a part of their childhood. Nothing lasts forever, but I think Turtles have at least two-generations worth of collecting time still in them.”
There’s also the sense that, definitely here in the UK, Turtles toys may be flying under the radar of some collectors, so we asked Andrew if there are any particular pieces people should be looking out for. “Scratch is somewhat of the ‘holy grail’ for Turtle collectors. One of the last figures made in the Playmates Turtles line, production numbers were very low. Although they come up for sale quite often, a mint on card Scratch can fetch anything from £200 to £600. Even loose figures can fetch into the hundreds, and the loose accessories that came with him can fetch a pretty penny. I’ve seen just the opened card backs sell online for around $150. For a piece of card!
“In the playset range - the large Technodrome set is one for the larger wallet. These can fetch anything from £200 to £600 for a good boxed one. Slightly left-field, one of the rarer pieces of Turtles memorabilia is the April O’Neil Channel 6 News Van. Probably not very high on many children’s wish lists, the van sold in limited numbers compared to the Turtles Party Wagon. Especially here in the UK, they are seldom seen and even loose examples fetch a premium.”