This post recycles some bits of previous posts I wrote on Brontoforumus (2013-11-15) and the Avocado (2017-11-06).
There's a new TMNT cartoon series coming, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Here's a video introducing the cast:
I don't recognize any of those people except the guy who plays Big Head on Silicon Valley, but they look like a good group, assembled by new voice director Rob Paulsen (who played Raphael on the 1987 cartoon series and Donatello on the 2012 one).
An E! article aptly titled Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Makes History With Kat Graham as First African-American April O'Neil had this to say:
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are back—with a historical twist. Nickelodeon is returning to 2D for the new animated series Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a new voice cast including The Vampire Diaries' Kat Graham as April O'Neil, marking the first time April has been portrayed as an African-American.
And while this is a first for cross-media adaptations of TMNT, and a milestone to be celebrated, it's not quite the whole story. In the original Mirage comics series, April's race is ambiguous.
In her first appearance, in issue #2, she looks like this:
That look is clearly the basis for her design in the cartoon a few years later, which every subsequent version has been based on.
But in #4, she got a redesign:
And that's more or less what she looked like for the duration of the original Mirage run.
I cribbed both of those scans from Ian Pérez Zayas's website, Chasing Sheep, which has a seven-part series on this subject called A Visual History of April O'Neil. Those pieces are exhaustive and I recommend you read them; they go into far more detail than I'm going into here.
At any rate, many readers saw April's design in the Mirage comics and inferred that she was African-American.
So was that deliberate? Well, yes and no. Here's what co-creator Peter Laird had to say about it:
[I]t depends on which co-creator of the TMNT you ask. 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, much like his former girlfriend (then wife, then ex-wife) April.
Unfortunately, I can't find any of those "number of interviews" online. (Warning: do not search for "April O'Neil" at work.) But here's the best reference I can find, from the Talk section on the April O'Neil Wikipedia entry:
I found a blog in which the writer talks to creators Eastman and Laird about April's look in the early Mirage comics. Eastman says that he thought of her as a fair-skinned Black woman like her namesake (and his first wife) April Fisher. The last name O'Neil and the later comic/other media look as a white redhead was Laird's vision. Eastman's drawing was what we saw due to his being better at drawing women. Source? http://the-5th-turtle.blogspot.com/2007/12/pieces-of-april.html?showComment=1199129280001
The 5th Turtle was Steve Murphy's blog. Unfortunately, it's been down for years, and the post linked above is not available at archive.org.
But there's a 1991 article from the Greensboro News & Record that says this:
[Eastman] settles into a sofa beside girlfriend April Fisher - the model for one of the characters in his comic books - and chats about how the turtles have changed his life.
So it seems pretty clear that Eastman based April's name and appearance on his then-girlfriend, April Fisher, and intended for her to be African-American, but that he apparently never mentioned this to Laird, who always thought of April O'Neil as caucasian.
Now, it does seem a bit odd that Laird wouldn't make the connection given April's name, but I've got a theory: he knew that April O'Neil was named after April Fisher, but didn't know that she was visually based on her. So, why wouldn't he have made that connection? Well, here's a picture of Kevin Eastman's second wife, Julie Strain:
So I'm thinkin' dude has a type.
At any rate, Kat Graham will be the first African-American actress to play April O'Neil. Congratulations to her, and I look forward to the new show.