Everyone knows the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were named after Renaissance artists, but how many fans know the original plan for their names?
Everyone knows the names of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but how many fans know that Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael almost had different names? According to co-creator Peter Laird, the four Ninja Turtles only got their famous names by happenstance.
Created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles began as a self-published black-and-white indie comic. Following the release of the cartoon adaptation in the late eighties, the Turtles pretty much took over the world. The story of their creation is now almost as famous as the Turtles themselves, with Eastman drawing a sketch of a turtle with a pair of nunchaku, dubbing him a “Ninja Turtle.” Laird drew his own sketch, and added the “Teenage Mutant” part. After having a laugh, the pair further developed the concept, taking inspiration from Frank Miller comics of the day like Daredevil and Ronin. When it came time to name their characters, the pair looked to Laird’s copy of Jansen’s History of Art, naming each Ninja Turtle after their favorite Renaissance artists, and the rest is history.
However, this wasn’t always the case. According to quotes from Laird in a history of the franchise from mentalfloss.com, Eastman and Laird originally wanted to give the Turtles Japanese names, to go along with the whole ninja theme. After failing to come up with any names, the pair ultimately settled on naming them after Renaissance artists, with Laird saying, “It felt just quirky enough to fit the concept.” There’s no hint as to what the four Turtles’ Japanese names might have been, although early concept art by Eastman for Leo dated 1984 seems to refer to him as “Ken” – perhaps an homage to famous Japanese actor Ken Takakura.
Naming the Turtles after famous Japanese actors could have produced interesting results – one can only imagine a world where the other Turtles took their names from famed performers like Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai and Shintaro Katsu. Alas, while the Turtles themselves never got proper Japanese names, other characters did. Splinter was originally the pet rat of Hamato Yoshi, a ninja master who is murdered by rival ninja Oroku Saki, who later becomes the leader of the Foot Clan and adopts the name “Shredder.” Later arcs of the original comic series also introduced Karai, Shredder’s second-in-command of the Foot Clan, who – at least in some iterations – is actually Oroku Karai, Shredder’s daughter.
Of course, the names of famed Renaissance artists Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael will now forever be associated with the TMNT franchise, so perhaps Eastman and Laird made the right call in the end. Whatever the original origins of their names, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles continue to be one of the biggest media franchises in the world.