Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Richard Rosenbaum

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Richard Rosenbaum

Broken Pencil editor and freelance journalist Richard Rosenbaum has made himself a hero to the now-grown children of the 1980s with the publication of Raise Some Shell: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (ECW Press). The book is a clever, critical examination of one of the most long-standing and beloved franchises in comic, cartoon and toy history.

Richard speaks with Open Book today about how Raise Some Shell goes beyond nostalgic charm, which turtle is the best and what's next for him.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Raise Some Shell.

Richard Rosenbaum:

Raise Some Shell is my attempt to explain what’s so great about Ninja Turtles, why they’ve been so successful — from the original black-and-white self-published comic, to the original cartoon, the movies, and all the subsequent adaptations over the past thirty years.


What is unique about the Ninja Turtles? Why do you think people have been so enthusiastic about them for so long?


The Turtles are the ultimate postmodern superheroes — they deal with issues of hybridity and identity, unconventional families and oppression, and all these topics that are so much at the forefront of what people in western society have been struggling with from the time the first comic came out to today. And they do it with humour and sincerity and a scrupulous moral code.

A lot of other characters do some of these things, but usually they come at it from a position of privilege and with the potential for social force — the X-Men, for instance, have a dream of making the world safe for mutants and humans to live together peacefully, and they have the resources to make that seem achievable. But the Turtles don’t have that option…they’re not a bunch of students at an exclusive boarding school like the X-Men; they’re giant turtles who live in the sewer! So they have to live by their own moral code even though they don’t envision it really making a difference in how they’re treated by the world in the long-run. I think a lot of people can sympathize with that feeling.


Why was this the right time to write this book?


In 2009, the Ninja Turtles property was bought by Nickelodeon, and they immediately re-launched it with new comic books, a new cartoon, and a new live-action movie coming out this summer. 2014 is the thirtieth anniversary of the Turtles (the original comic was published in the spring of 1984), and so now is the perfect time to reflect on the Turtles’ past, try to understand why they’ve been so popular and continue to succeed in adaptation after adaptation, and imagine what might happen in the future to these characters that we’ve cared about so much for so long.


As you mention, the original Ninja Turtles fans (children of the 80s and 90s) seem to be embracing nostalgia for the cultural products of their youth in a very enthusiastic way. Why do you think this is, and do you think the Turtles' resurgence is part of this?


I think nostalgia has always been a natural part of getting older, but kids who grew up in the 80s especially were part of the first generation that had an entire industry devoted to getting into their heads so that they’d beg their parents to buy them, like, Pac-Man Cereal and stuff. So we love those things that remind us of when life seemed shinier and our imaginations still worked.

That’s part of what’s going on with the Turtles’ resurgence, but at the same time TMNT is different because it always had a lot more going on than the other shows and toys in its category. He-Man, for instance, only ran for two seasons — but the original Turtles cartoon ran for ten seasons; it was the longest running American cartoon ever at the time it went off the air. If the appeal was only nostalgia, then the new cartoon and the new comics would only appeal to fans of the old cartoon and comics, and only in a kind of ironic way — but that’s obviously not true. The new stuff is popular with kids today who weren’t even born when the original cartoon was on. And that’s because it’s really, really good. The new creators get what the Turtles are about, and they’re telling stories that everybody can relate to, not just weirdo children of the 80s like me.


You've stated you're partial to Donatello amongst the four. Why is he your favourite?


Because he’s the best! He’s the most intellectual of the brothers, which sometimes alienates him from them, but he’s also the one who’s most at home with the high-tech stuff their enemies use, the one who can come up with a dimensional portal or sabotage the Technodrome to save the day. He’s the most introverted Turtle, but he can also totally kick butt when he wants to.


As a writer, what did you find most pleasurable, and most challenging, about this project?


The whole thing has been super fun. Being able to write about this subject that I’ve loved for so long was a dream come true. I went back and reread a bunch of the old comics and a lot of the stuff that the Turtles’ creators (Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird) were influenced by, and it was great finding all these connections and tying things together and expressing why the Turtles mean so much to me and so many other people. The most challenging part was keeping it to the word count — I could have written a lot more, but I don’t think anyone but me would tolerate that level of detail.


What are you working on now?


I have a novella coming out in the fall with Quattro Books — it’s called Revenge of the Grand Narrative and it’s kind of about how and why stories work. It’s got some adventure and some humour, and hopefully people will like it.

Editor Richard Rosenbaum has been the Assistant Fiction Editor at Broken Pencil since 2005, and lives in Toronto.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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