7 Shockingly Dark Origins of Lovable Children's Characters
Sometimes it's the people closest to us that we know the least. We've all had that moment when we first found out that our best friend prefers The Monkees to The Beatles, that our significant other believes wrestling is real, or that our favorite uncle once killed a homeless man in Kentucky over a bottle of Night Train. Well, fictional characters are like that too: With just a little bit of digging, you can uncover all sorts of messed up crap that'll ruin all the things you used to love. So let's get started on doing that!
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The ninja turtles have seen more incarnations than some Hindu gods. They've been in cartoons, comic books, movies and even a rock band with a bunch of guys in secondhand Muppet costumes. You know the gist, though: Wacky pals who spend their days skateboarding, eating pizza, cracking wise and jumpkicking morality into confused teenage Foot Clan members.
Including a young Sam Rockwell
But before that, they were:
Cold-blooded killing machines. If you've only seen the movies or cartoon shows, you're probably vaguely aware of their origin story. After being exposed to radioactive ooze, four turtles were raised as ninjas by their adoptive father Splinter, a giant rat who's basically like Yoda with parasites.
In the very first issue of the comic series, Splinter reveals why he's been training the turtles for 13 years: to kill Shredder. Not "bring him to justice" or "stop the evil foot clan," but specifically to murder this one man for Splinter's personal revenge. They were single-purposed hit-turtles, trained by their insane master for over a decade just to take one life. The comic doesn't show much of that lovable father-son relationship that the turtles have with Splinter in the cartoon, either. They are not a loving family obliging their master's wishes out of affection and duty; they're just Splinter's pre-programmed death machines.
The very first issue ends with the turtles searching out and hunting down Shredder (no long and storied rivalry for the turtles to build up animosity toward him or anything; they were total strangers up until the point the turtles jumped out of the shadows and tried to murder him). The encounter ends with a brief fight on top of a building, where this happens:
Turtle Power, motherfucker!
That's Leonardo -- the boring moral center of the group, the generic good guy, the default leader character that nobody wanted to pick when it came time to declare which turtle you wanted to be -- and he is straight up brutally murdering a man with a sword. After Leo stabs Shredder, the rest of the turtles surround the mortally wounded man and tell him in no uncertain terms that he can either be dishonorably murdered (by them) or else honorably commit seppuku, which is essentially suicide by disembowelment.
He refuses and eventually dies while trying to kill the turtles, but really picture that first scene: Wisecracking Raphael, nerdy Donatello, noble Leonardo and Michelangelo -- fucking Michelangelo with his surfer accent and cowabunga attitude -- are all standing around an injured man trying to force him to cut his own guts out. And this was not a weird, unique misstep in an otherwise harmless comic. Nearly all of the early Turtles books were absolutely filled with the kind of ultraviolence that would make Alex DeLarge dry-heave stomach bile onto his loafers.
Casper, the Friendly Ghost
The lovable ghost just wants to make friends, but always ends up scaring people's eyeballs out of their skulls, possibly leading to permanent retinal detachment. Like most forms of non-threatening entertainment, Casper the Friendly Ghost has silently persisted for decades even though literally nobody can remember ever watching the show.
"I don't know what that is."
But before that, they were:
Casper, the Friendly Living Child. Really stop and think about the implications there. This is a dead kid, forever haunting the Earth, unable to rest. That's the protagonist for your children's cartoon: a tortured apparition who spends all of his time in a graveyard, hanging out behind his own gravestone.
Casper kind of sucks at being a ghost.
It's all fairly disturbing and obvious once you stop to think about it, but Casper creator Harvey Comics won't cop to it: Its official stance since the 70s is that ghosts are simply supernatural creatures, like goblins, and friendly ghosts like Casper are born when two adult ghosts love each other very much. Except that explanation actually contradicts some of its earlier cartoons, like "There's Good Boos Tonight", in which Casper befriends a fox that is later killed by hunting dogs. Casper weeps over the fox's body and even puts together a little grave for it, but the fox immediately comes back as a ghost and they go right back to romping. That may be in competition with Futurama's "Jurassic Bark" episode as the most depressing cartoon plot ever, but it has absolutely no competition for Worst Lesson Ever Taught to Children.
"Go ahead and ride Waffles into the street, Billy! If he dies, he'll just come right back
and keep playing, but now he can run through doors! Yaayyy, Waffles!"
And if he's just a friendly, untroubled spirit who has always been that way, then why, in some of the early cartoons, does Casper seems less "friendly" and more "clinically depressed"? Half the shows follow the same basic format: Casper tries to make friends, scares friends away, immediately tries to commit suicide. In his very first appearance, titled "The Friendly Ghost" Casper fails to win lifelong companions within the first couple of minutes, so his next step is to go lie down on a train track. He did the same thing in the comic book series, too: trying to off himself by jumping from a cliff, and then again by tying himself to a rock and jumping into the ocean. It all kind of makes us question how Casper became a ghost in the first place ...
But don't worry! The 1995 live-action movie puts all those concerns to rest.
It flat-out says his name was Casper McFadden and he died of pneumonia.
A some-time enemy, some-time friend of Super Mario, Birdo is a recurring character in many Nintendo games, usually shooting eggs at other characters, but sometimes not. That's called "depth of character," folks. Look it up.
But before that, they were:
A dude. Birdo's a transvestite, or possibly even transgendered, and it has always been that way. When the pink, bow-wearing dinosaur first showed up in Super Mario Bros. 2, the instruction booklet claimed, "He thinks he is a girl and he spits eggs from his mouth. He'd rather be called 'Birdetta.'"
That's not an American translator having one last hurrah before they fire his ass for stealing forks from the lunchroom, either. That's a fairly accurate translation from the original Japanese booklet, where the character is called "Catherine" but prefers being called "Cathy." In fact, the Japanese booklet even uses the word "omoikomu" for "thinks," which more accurately translates to "wrongly believes." That's right: There was a small section in the Super Mario Bros. 2 handbook that was dedicated solely to passing judgment on Birdo's sexual identity.
The weirdness could have ended there if not for Nintendo's policy of sticking every character it owns into every video game it makes, and then pairing up said characters into opposite gender relationships: Mario has Princess Toadstool, Luigi has Daisy, Donkey Kong has Candy Kong and Yoshi has ... Birdo.
It's all the same in the dark. Right?
Hey, we're not here to judge. Maybe Yoshi's just kind of a freak like that.
But the prudes over at Nintendo of America have tried to downplay the transgender angle. They're too timid to make a final decision on what the sexually confused dinosaur really is, but in Japan at least, we know Birdo is definitely a guy. The Japanese website for Super Mario Kart Double Dash describes Birdo thusly: "It appears to be Yoshi's girlfriend, but is actually his boyfriend!? He participates in the race with eggs."
That's Nintendo for you: always prefacing descriptions of characters' special powers with complicated, unanswered questions about their sexuality .
"Bowser likes to pee on women because it makes him feel dominant -- is that bad?! Press B to breathe fire!"
Cubone is a Pokemon, and though its cuteness can never hope to reach Pikachupian levels of adorability, there are still millions of children the world over who would gladly never see their parents again if it meant getting a real-life whatever-the-hell-this-thing-is. Like all of its Poke-brethren, Cubone was given a hastily cobbled-together backstory, which was completely ignored by the kids because, turns out, they don't give two shits about story so long as you've got a cute animal that barfs fireballs.
But before that, they were:
An Oedipal lizard. The most distinctive thing about Cubone is that over-sized skull it wears on its head. It could be clever camouflage, or the skull of a vanquished enemy, or even the Cubone's own exposed bone. But it's not.
That's the skull of its dead mother.
The exact quote from the game: "It always wears the skull of its dead mother, so no one has any idea what its hidden face looks like." Originally, the game designers were going to name the creature "Orphan," but they wisely went with "Cubone" instead because it sounds like "cute" and "bone" and these kids -- they're not exactly discerning critics who want to appreciate the subtle lessons that tragedy teaches us, OK?
Although the video games and cartoon never explain why the mother of every single Cubone suddenly dies, it is accepted that it's a specieswide event. On the downside, that leaves a lot of worrisome, unanswered questions. On the upside, at least we're spared having to watch the darling little Cubone wrest the skull from its own mother's corpse.
Back in the swinging 70s, the McDonald's marketing campaign revolved almost entirely around McDonaldland, a fictional fairy land where French fries grew on trees. It was populated by characters like Ronald McDonald, Mayor McCheese and the Hamburglar, whose obsession with stealing and eating burgers quickly becomes unsettling when you realize that in McDonaldland, hamburgers are people.
"A census-taker tried to test me once. I ate his liver with McNuggets and a vanilla milkshake. Rabble rabble."
And then there's Grimace, Ronald McDonald's dimwitted, roly-poly purple pal, who tags along on Ronald's adventures providing the kind of comic relief that only the morbidly obese can pull off.
But before that, they were:
Pure evil. When Grimace made his first appearance way back in 1971, he wasn't the lovable moron we know him as today. Grimace was "The Evil Grimace," a four-armed monster with a milkshake lust equaled only by history's greatest monsters.
Back then, Grimace's modus operandi was stealing milkshakes from innocent, helpless, parentless children. And somehow, that was really disturbing. Possibly because all old McDonaldland commercials look like they were directed by David Lynch working through some rage issues while overdosing on mescaline. Just take a look at this early appearance by the evil Grimace. Like all horrible, soul-scarring things, it features a young Jodie Foster.
A few years later, McDonald's relaunched the character as simply Grimace, and he was now Ronald McDonald's friend. It wasn't until two years after that, however, that the ad people realized that his four arms made Grimace look like something out of a nightmare, and reduced them to two. Probably by chopping them off in front of a kindergarten class, if past performance is any indication.
Garfield's dog pal, whose hobbies included drooling, staring vacantly and being kicked off tables. God, there are just layers upon layers! This here is comedy Steinbeck, people.
"We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us."
But before that, they were:
Somebody else's dog. Pop quiz: What's the name of Odie's owner? If you answered Lyman, the guy with the beady eyes and thick mustache, then congratulations, you're correct! There's also a very good chance you don't exist. You may want to consult a physician about that.
But yes, back in the 70s, Jon Arbuckle briefly lived with another groovy bachelor named Lyman and his empty-headed dog, Odie. After a few years of bland, boring adventures, Lyman was slowly phased out of the strip. Eventually he completely disappeared with no explanation, leaving behind nothing but his dog.
Also, they used to look weird.
Minor characters in comic strips come and go all the time, mostly because they're unfunny or kind of hard to draw. But Lyman was one of the strip's three main characters for five years -- this isn't like Chuck Cunningham going off to college and never coming back. This is like George Costanza suddenly disappearing from Seinfeld, and none of the other characters ever mentioning him again. Even though his parents have now moved in with Jerry because they tested better with the audience.
Whenever he's asked about Lyman's whereabouts, Jim Davis usually quips, "Don't look in Jon's basement," which sounds like a joke until you realize that Davis kind of hates Garfield and has never been shy about it. Take, for example, the super-freaky 1989 storyline that implied Jon and Odie might just be figments of Garfield's imagination as he starved to death:
But that's all conjecture on our part based on the creator's morbid joke. There is an actual, official explanation for Lyman's disappearance: Davis says he left to join the Peace Corps and was never heard from again. That's right: Jon's only friend and Odie's former loving owner is most definitely dead, probably from some terrible, exotic disease if he was lucky; tortured to death by the Tonton Macoute if he wasn't.
The Tin Man
The Tin Woodman, or Tin Man, was one of Dorothy Gale's three companions in The Wizard of Oz. The movie tells us nothing about the Tin Man's origin, except that he has no heart and apparently rusts a lot. Even though tin can't rust.
THIS MOVIE IS TOTALLY UNREALISTIC
But before that, they were:
A clumsy RoboCop. According to L. Frank Baum's original novel, before he was the Tin Man, he was Nick Chopper: a regular dude and a lumberjack. Then one day he accidentally chopped off his own arm. Then another arm. Then his legs, torso and head. But while slowly chopping his entire body into ragged chunks, Nick Chopper was also replacing his missing flesh with tin, making him literature's first cyborg.
The only thing he forgot to replace was a heart.
That sounds like the tagline for McConaughey's next masterpiece.
Like most problems in Oz, the Tin Man's problems were all caused by a Wicked Witch: Chopper had fallen madly in love with Nimmie Amee, a Munchkin woman forced to work under the Wicked Witch of the East. Wanting to keep all the hot, awkward dwarf sex to a minimum (why would you ever want to do that?), the witch cursed Chopper's axe so it would turn on him when he swung it. Without a body and now without a heart, he was no longer capable of loving anyone.
He's got whiskey dick of the soul.
But it gets weirder. In The Tin Woodman of Oz, Baum's 12th Oz book, the Tin Man decides to once again pursue the woman he once loved. Unfortunately, he learns that she has already married someone else. Someone made entirely out of his old body parts.
Nimmie married a thing called Chopfyt: a Frankenstein-like monster hacked together by the same tinsmith who built the Tin Man's body. Since no one in Oz ever dies (except the Wicked Witch), the tinsmith was left with a whole pile of nondecaying body parts just sitting around in a barrel after fixing up the Tin Man. Rather than giving them a respectful burial or, you know, using them to rebuild the Tin Man's mortal body since he could have apparently just done that in the first place, the tinsmith decided to build a dude out of them to help out around the shop. A lab zombie, if you will.
"RRRAAAGHHH. BEAKERS ARE STERILIZED. LAB ZOMBIE TAKE 15 NOW. WATCH SOME CSI IN BREAKROOM."
The tinsmith decided not to use Nick Chopper's face on Chopfyt, though, as he had another man's dismembered head apparently just lying around the workshop. What? What's weird about that? Asking too many questions is what put the first head here, friend.
Oh, but you know that wacky tinsmith: He just can't bear to throw his dismembered body parts away! He kept the Tin Man's original head. He didn't do anything with it, he just kind of held onto it; it lays around the lab, occasionally chiming in with witticisms like a Billy Bass made out of bleeding meat. Later, the Tin Man had an existentially terrifying conversation with his own skull in the tinsmith's shop, and then presumably drank himself unconscious every day for the rest of his life.
Anthony Scibelli is a handsome stand-up comedian and comedy writer. When he's not thinking about cartoons, he's updating his comedy blog "There's No Success Like Failure."
For more bizarre origin stories, check out The Gruesome Origins of 5 Popular Fairy Tales and The 7 Most WTF Origins of Iconic Pop Culture Franchises.
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