Played by Megan Fox in the live-action movies, April O’Neil received a significant makeover for the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot. In addition to being far less sexualized than the Fox version, she’s now portrayed as a Black girl voiced by The Bear actress Ayo Edebiri.
This casting has attracted a familiar brand of petty racist backlash—along with an unexpectedly deep dive into April O’Neil’s depiction in early TMNT canon. Basically, some fans argue that April was meant to be Black or biracial in the original comics, and was subsequently whitewashed in later canon.
Created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1983, the TMNT franchise began as an indie comic series parodying DC/Marvel superheroes. April is the most prominent human character, and in the first comics (which were illustrated in black and white) her appearance was racially ambiguous.
This week, as racist fans began to complain about April being Black in the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, several people clapped back with vintage art depicting April with dark, curly hair.
The story goes that April was partially inspired by Kevin Eastman’s girlfriend at the time, a biracial woman named April. However, the character’s two creators have different opinions on her ethnicity, with Peter Laird saying in an interview, “If you ask me, I always saw April O’Neil as white. If you ask Kevin, I suspect he would say—as he has in a number of interviews—that she was of mixed race.”
In other words, her ethnicity in those early comics was genuinely, truly ambiguous.
Later, when the comics were reprinted in color, April had brown hair and pale skin. Most adaptations depict her as a white woman with red hair, although Megan Fox stayed brunette for her movies. Further complicating the issue, some fans pointed out that April’s curly hair in the 1980s was canonically a perm. But at the same time, a few vintage comics were colored in a way that explicitly depicted April as Black. She’s also Black in the 2018 Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV series.
Right now there’s a lot of back-and-forth between TMNT fans on Twitter and YouTube, with both sides trying to disprove each other’s evidence from the same 40-year-old comics. But there’s no word-of-god correct answer on April’s “original” racial identity. Even the character’s own creators can’t seem to agree, leaving fans locked in a fruitless battle over canon forensics.
Unfortunately, even if those vintage comics did provide a gotcha response to the racist backlash, it likely wouldn’t make a difference. The people who post YouTube rants about “woke” children’s cartoons are not motivated by rational concerns. They’re not actually defending the sanctity of a franchise whose previous films average a 31% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In reality, they just don’t want to see Black people in a movie, and arguments like “it’s non-canonical” or “redheads are being erased from Hollywood” provide a convenient excuse for racism.
Judging by the trailer, the new TMNT movie may actually be the first good film in the franchise. The animation style is reminiscent of Into the Spider-Verse, and the turtles are voiced by real teens. It looks cute! As is often the case, the “fans” who get mad about diverse casting are probably just robbing themselves of a chance to enjoy a fun movie.