Two years before the comic book debut of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, illustrative adventures about a band of anthropomorphic terrapins first graced the pages of Towers. The comic was titled “Hardshells,” a creation of then-M.Div. student Tom Williams. A 1979 graduate of Samford University, Williams had honed his artistic talents for over a decade prior to his seminary enrollment. Before pursuing a ministerial vocation, Williams considered a career as a commercial wildlife artist, but he continued his cartooning as a hobby, stating, “When I’m doing it, I can relax. … It helps me keep a good attitude toward life and helps me keep a sense of humor.”
His affinity for turtles was deeply personal. While working at a summer camp, he rescued box turtles from roads so they could be adopted by campers. During his service in the Air Force, Williams included turtle cartoons in his family correspondence, using his characters to convey his own deeds and feelings in a creative way.
“Hardshells” became the seminary newspaper’s immediate replacement for Joseph Williamson’s endearing “Jericho Joe” comic, which ended its run in 1981. Williams’ “Hardshells” ran from January 31, 1982, until his graduation in May 1983. The comic reimagined the Southern Seminary community as studious turtles, with characterization focused upon Waldorf, an incoming student from Piney Woods, and Dr. Theophilus, a seasoned seminary professor whose personality quirks and high expectations kept students scrambling. The series maintained a light tone throughout its run, as Williams hoped the comics would “help us learn to laugh with each other and to laugh at ourselves.”
Topics included local church ministry, family humor, missionary calling, academic demands, book hoarding, faculty availability, campus maintenance and pest control, and the ever-elusive quest for a good reading spot. Produced during the early years of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Conservative Resurgence, “Hardshells” acknowledged the denominational politics and administrative changes at the seminary with humorous punchlines that stopped short of endorsing partisanship. Likely echoing the impressions of many seminary students of the era, the penultimate strip featured Waldorf observing, “I realize that I stereotype much too often, but we have all kinds here: Fundamentalists, Liberals, Moderates, and all the rest of us who are just plain confused.”
The series did not include many science-fiction elements like radioactive mutagen ooze, but familiar seminary personalities received turtley-transformations, including President Roy Honeycutt and librarian Ronald Deering. Even E.T. made an unofficial cameo, which was surely a hit with seminary students still marveling over Steven Spielberg’s 1982 summer blockbuster. Like its predecessor Jericho Joe, “Hardshells” provided a whimsical perspective on seminary life, while offering gentle encouragement for students to persevere through their multifaceted life challenges. Williams’ benevolent turtles may have helped many stressed students come out of their shells.
1 Trennis Henderson, “’Turtle’ Williams tells how it all got started,” Towers, January 31, 1982.
3 Tom Williams, “Hardshells,” Towers, May 2, 1983.