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A collage of an image of Seth Rogen smiling and an image of the four Ninja Turtles in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. Graphic: William Joel/Polygon | Source images: Rich Fury/Getty Images Entertainment via Getty Images, Paramount Pictures

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Seth Rogen quietly and carefully became the biggest producer of indie comic book cinema

A chat with the producer behind The Boys, Invincible, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

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Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

What does this summer’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated movie have in common with 2011’s oddball superhero flick The Green Hornet? A name: Seth Rogen.

And while that might not seem like a feather in Mutant Mayhem’s cap, all the other Seth Rogen-produced comic book adaptations between the two do: There’s Preacher, The Boys, and Invincible, with more seasons and spinoffs of the latter two on the way. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem looks to follow that streak.

The four wisecracking, pizza-scarfing turtles have featured in cartoon shows, movies, and toys for so long that it’s easy for their comic book origins to be eclipsed. In 1983, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird assembled their lightly parodic comics series from bits of every blockbuster superhero comic of the time: the teenagers of New Mutants and New Teen Titans; the mutants of the X-Men; and above all, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, from which they borrowed ninjas and martial arts, an origin story involving weird chemicals, a mentor named after a piece of wood, and a faceless horde of bad guys named after a bodily extremity.

Their self-published comic was the kind of sales and licensing success that rocked an industry still stretching its muscles from decades of publishing consolidation. So it’s not merely that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are an evergreen brand — they’re also a shoo-in for Rogen, who has quietly made a second career of racking up hugely successful comic book adaptations not based on Warner Bros. or Disney properties.

Polygon sat down to chat with Rogen in anticipation of the film, which he co-wrote and executive-produced (and for which he recorded the voice of Bebop), and which features the work of director Jeff Rowe (The Mitchells vs. the Machines) and a cast that includes Jackie Chan, Ice Cube, Maya Rudolph, and Giancarlo Esposito. Paramount has already announced development on a sequel and a Paramount Plus TV spinoff, making Mutant Mayhem the dawn of a new era of the ever-mutating franchise.

[Ed. note: This interview was conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike against the AMPTP went into effect.]

Polygon: My favorite way to talk about TMNT’s arc from comics to a transmedia franchise is to point out that it started with making puns about Daredevil. What do you think it is about this really unique comic about altered reptile karate kids that keeps capturing different generations’ hearts and minds?

Seth Rogen: Someone smart once said all the best ideas start as jokes. And I think that this firmly falls into that category. It started as a way for two comic book writers to make each other laugh, literally. They were they were doodling in their sketchbooks, trying to crack each other up, and that’s where the first images of this came from.

Four turtle brothers in identical red masks pose on the cover of the first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Image: Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird

But, like great writers, they imbued it with something that is undeniably relatable and resonant, which is the teenage part. That word is what makes it go from being a silly thing that is disposable, to something that weirdly has resonated with people for 40 years. It’s because they’re teenagers, and they feel this desire to be a part of the normal world, and this desire to be understood, and that they’re fun and kind of reckless and immature. That is really the thing that has made them resonate for so long. To me, it’s the thing that I thought was also the most underexplored. But it started, literally, as a comic book, and then became a Saturday morning cartoon and became toys — a lot of toys.

And I loved the toys. The toys themselves honestly had so much creativity put into them, and so many weird details and artistic elements. Something me and Jeff [Rowe] always talk about is how the Mondo Gecko toy — his tail had a roller skate tied to it, suggesting that [laughs] it was too heavy for him to drag around and so he, like, thought to put a roller skate on it to roll it around behind him. Little things like that were so imaginative, and they really have stuck in my head for 35 years.

And then the movies! I skateboarded because of the Ninja Turtles, and I did karate — it really tapped into a lot of things that were really popular in the ’80s, and ’90s as well. I felt like I was constantly the recipient of their goals; everything they were trying to do was really landing on me.

You’re quietly one of the biggest producers of indie comics adaptations in Hollywood. Preacher, The Boys, Invincible, and going back to The Green Hornet. How do you define your taste in comics? What kind of comic is the comic that grips you so hard that you go, Yeah, I think I want to make this my job for a year?

Well, first of all, it’s everything that is not Marvel and DC. [laughs] So that eliminates a lot right away. I grew up going to comic book shops, and it’s funny, video stores are making a slight comeback in some ways. This idea of browsing and not having things fed to you — as I think people feel we are now when it comes to entertainment — but instead entering the fair market of entertainment and just wandering around and seeing what catches your eye.

That’s what I always did with comic books; I would go to the comic book shop and I would just walk around. And you see this comic book and it catches your eye, and you see that comic book and it catches your eye. Those have been the things that have really inspired us and made us want to work on these things for a long time — coupled with the inclination that you have something to add to it. There are a lot of comic books I love and things I love, but I’m like, What would I add?

Like, I love Akira — what am I going to add to Akira? Things like that, where it’s out, and it’s good, it’s a movie and it exists. That’s something we think of also. For [Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem], honestly [co-writer Evan Goldberg and I] felt like there was an unexplored facet, and as people who have written a lot of teenage films and have been cinematically linked to that genre a lot over the years, we were like, Oh, like, that’s totally different for this, is if we do a teenage version of it. A lot of it is just thinking, Could we bring this to life well and do it in a way that, as fans of it, we wouldn’t be annoyed with ourselves if we were watching it from the outside?

Seth Rogen in a green suit looking up off screen while talking in a microphoone
“Seth Rogen as Bebop” characters poster with a mutant pig wearing sunglasses for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Mutant Mayhem Photo: David Becker/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures | Image: Paramount Pictures

What has turned you off from Marvel and DC?

Honestly, probably fear. [laughs] We really have a pretty specific way we work; me and Evan have been writers for 20 years at this point. It’s a fear of the process, honestly. And I say that knowing nothing about the process. There are a lot of Marvel things I love.

It’s mostly a fear of how would we plug into the system they have in place, which seems like a very good system, and a system that serves them very well. But is it a system that we would ultimately get really frustrated with? And what’s nice about [Mutant Mayhem] is that we’re the producers of this. So we dictated the system, and we dictated the process in a lot of ways. And that’s what’s also appealing for us about The Boys and the other bigger franchise-y type things we’ve done, is that we are creating the infrastructure and process for them, not plugging into someone else’s infrastructure and process. We’re control freaks!

Working on those bigger-budget, bigger-scope projects can be a real beast, and so can animated films. Are there specific lessons that you took from them for Mutant Mayhem?

I approach them very similarly. That’s something that I realized I used to think was a bug, and now I think it’s a feature. [laughs] A lot of people who make animated movies really approach them like animated movies, and they are constantly, from a writing standpoint, thinking of how to use the medium of animation, in the cutting pattern, in the scene patterns and all that. I’m firmly from the live-action world and so I very much write in the style of a live-action movie.

To me, I’m trying to bring what I would consider a traditional cinematic sensibility to the structure and the flow and how the scenes are, and not play too much into the medium in that way. And then to give the whole thing a look that is just, like, insane, was really a fun way to shade the whole thing.

It was unexpected to me, and I was honestly a little worried at what a big swing the look was at first. But the more I saw of it, I just started to get more and more excited about, and then started writing towards it, and thinking, OK, we have this crazy look. What do I want to see executed in this look? [laughs] What would be fun to watch?

Do you have comics on your bucket list for adaptation? Or, alternatively, what comics are you reading these days that you can’t put down?

That’s a good question. What have I been reading? I read old comics, from time to time. There’s these Green Lantern comics I’ve been reading, I love all those Grant Morrison Superman ones, I was rereading those because I heard that that’s what the James Gunn Superman movie was gonna be inspired by. I read them when they first came out, but I feel like I was distracted, so I went back.

Are there any that I wish we could make or adapt? Every once in a while? Yeah, those Grant Morrison ones are really appealing. We3 is something I’m a big fan of. It seems maybe just too sad honestly; it just bummed me out.

[Ed. note: We3 is a comic series written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Frank Quitely about a trio of weaponized cyborg-animal hybrids. It’s infamous for its extreme violence and extreme pathos.]

We’ve kind of been down that road — and we know Grant a little bit, we’ve talked to him. That’s what’s nice, is we’ve done well with things that were traditionally considered unmakeable, essentially, for a long time. But also we don’t want to ruin things we love. So we’ll have very honest conversations with Grant and just talk about it and where his head’s at, and where our heads are at. Things like We3, we’ve talked to him about several times over the years. And we’re kind of always like, Yeah, I just don’t think this is the thing right now. There’s things like that — we really talk to the creators to make sure that we all think it’s a good idea, at that moment, in that way.

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