By Kylos Brannon
Kevin Eastman created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a 22-year-old in 1984. For over 30 years he’s been living, breathing and merchandising all things TNMT. He’s also had a hand in getting books like The Crow, From Hell and American Splendor into graphic novel fans hands. We had a chance to chat with the Turtles’ creator before his appearances at this weekend’s Awesome Con.
Brightest Young Things: On Monday I had a conversation with a man in a bar who drunkenly tried to tell me and my friends about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as though we wouldn’t know the story. This was a person who I wouldn’t expect to be talking about comic book characters, and he knew the story as well as he knew Spider-Man.Why do you think, after all these decades, the Turtles are still so prevalent in the zeitgeist?
Kevin Eastman: Well you know that’s what the crazy thing is. Honestly here we are nearly 31 years later, still talking about the Turtles. They’ve resonated with popular culture and fandom and stuff, it’s mind blowing to me in so many ways and so many levels.
The Turtles are familiar, in a sense, you look at popular comic books and there’s mutants, there’s ninjas, there’s animal characters, there’s camaraderie, there’s family. Much like you know, you work at Starbucks or Microsoft or whatever, you kind of make this adopted family with the people you work with. So there’s a familiarity with that type of context. And then, the fact that they’re not, I guess, any race or religion or anything specific, they can be accepted by a wider range of people, in so many ways. They’re misfits, they just want to be teenagers and they end up being heroes when the chips are down. They want to fit in, I guess. I especially remember when I was growing up that I always wanted to find my place to fit in and I never did. I had to tread my own path and I think the Turtles tread their own path. A lot of people gravitate toward that sort of energy, that spirituality and that concept. They’re an adopted family and they’re a misfit family and a mutant family. It’s serious to me, you know. I can’t believe I’m so blessed at the end of the day, we’re here 31 years later still talking about Turtles and it’s become the thing that it has.
BYT: Working in media, we’re always very curious about creator controlled work. The Turtles have kind of gone off and become their own thing. I know you’re working with IDW on the latest series, but how does it feel to have it go off out there, be it’s own thing, and you’re not controlling it?
KE: I always like to start those kind of questions with a very specific point. Both Peter [Laird] and I with the creation of the Turtles, solidly stand on the shoulders of giants. That being guys like Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and so many other innovative creators that inspired us to want to become comic book artists. We live off their legacy and their dreams and that’s what made us share the same dream of wanting to write and draw and tell stories.
When Peter and I started the Turtles it was a self published comic book. We owned and controlled all the rights, we were able to say what was to be done and not to be done with the Turtles, every decision over 300 cartoon episodes, 3 live action movies and you know, thousands of licenses world wide. We had absolute control over our characters, which we knew guys like Jack Kirby and so many others that worked under the system at the time, which was work for hire. They didn’t get to have a say or even participate in the profit or success of their characters. So we kinda knew how lucky we were and when the decision came for me to sell my interests to Pete and then for Pete to sell his interest to Viacom. It was a very conscious decision of what we were willing to do and consciously made under the control of our characters. As you said, I’m back now. I’ve worked on the Nickelodeon animation series, I’ve worked on the live action movie.
My fondest new Turtle experience and when I say new it’s been 4 years now, I’ve been working on the IDW comic series. It’s fantastic. I’ve always loved the Turtles, I will always love the Turtles and I have so many more Turtles stories to tell. The fact that I get to work with such creative people and the energy is infectious. We have a lot of fun and the best part is that we’re doing stuff that the fans seem to gravitate to and enjoy. That’s the most pleasing thing as a creator, you write the stories you want to read and that you feel are strong and good and solid. If it’s accepted by the fans, that’s the blessing cause we get to keep doing it. So I get to get up every day and draw Turtles, thanks to the fans.
BYT: Sounds a little like the children, or Turtles, grow up and you let them be their own thing and you involve yourself when you can.
KE: It’s so true and it’s easy for me to answer a question like that, cause it’s sincere. I appreciate questions like that, cause again, my life is drawing cartoons and comics and stories. Especially the Turtles which I was lucky enough to create with Peter Laird, and the fact that I’m still doing it after all these years. I get to pay my rent and support my family and have as much fun as I do. It almost feels a little guilty cause I’m living the dream. It’s an amazing blessing.
BYT: I was reading comics in high school in the early 90s and the idea of creator owned work was a big deal. You were at the forefront of that in the late 80s with Tundra and Kitchen Sink Press. What do you think is the difference between then and now with creator owned work?
KE: What’s interesting is when I read comic books growing up I loved them and I knew there was Marvel and DC and along came Pacific Comic Books and Capital and Dark Horse. When I became aware of Heavy Metal Magazine, I bought the first issue off the news stand in 1977 and I was introduced to guys like Richard Corben and a lot of European creators, most specifically to Corbett who was a self publisher. Those were really inspiring cause they were writing and drawing the stories they wanted to tell and they were publishing them themselves.
Further on down the line, guys like Dave Sim, who was a huge influence on me, with his character Cerebus, of course, in 1976, I think the first issue came out. Of course Wendy and Richard Pini with Elfquest and it was a real movement in the late 70s and early 80s not only for creating more intelligent and adult themed stories but they were also creator owned stories, which inspired Peter and I to self publish back in the early days. You know, that was what was a real drive force. I have to take a step back and say we never though we’d sell a single copy. It sold enough to pay back my uncle who lent us the money to publish the first issue. When we did issue 2 and the orders were high enough we realized not only could be support ourselves, but if we did 6 issues a year we could pay our rent and eat all the macaroni and cheese we wanted. That was when the dream really came true for us. We found ourselves in a great position and we were well aware of how lucky we were to own and control our characters and we had complete say.
BYT: The turtles are so much more than comics too, the transmedia and merchandising is enormous. Believe it or not, I have here in my office my original Nintendo Entertainment System and I have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game from the late 80s. And it still works. Most of the time.
KE: (laughs) I love it.
BYT: You gotta blow on it and knock it on the side a few times! Do you have any merchandising or licensing products or moments that are your favorites over the last 3 decades?
KE: I think the earliest days were the strongest, when the Turtles became a success as the black and white comic, we were approached by Hollywood, who said “hey we think this could be, you know, cartoons and movies and toys and that kinda stuff.” Peter and I kinda laughed and said “look this is just a silly little comic book and we’re amazed the comic book has had the success that is has. Do you really seriously think this could work in these other entertainment mediums? So we went into full control negotiation and production on the toys, we worked with the writers on the animation and even on the first movie. We worked on it, never truly believe it would go forward. But my most favorite moments are one, when the first Turtles cartoon came out in late 1987 we saw it in TV Guide and we were like “Oh my goodness it’s in TV Guide, this is really going to be on TV.” And later in 1988, June of 1988, when the first toys came out, Peter and I drove to KB Toys, the big chain before Toys R Us and as we were walking down the aisle there was a mother dragging her young son out of the action figure aisle saying “I’m not buying you one of those stupid Ninja Turtles.” Pete and I were like “oh god what have we done.”
Another highlight is when we did the first movie with the amazing director Steve Barron and writer Todd Langen. It’s like look, it’s a comic book, it’s a toy, it’s a cartoon, is this going to work as a movie? You know, there’s no way in hell. But Jim Henson came along to help create the characters and bring the characters to life. When the Turtles did the box office that it did, it was mind blowing, it was humbling…. well, mind blowing and humbling.
Those are some early milestones and here we are 30 years, 31 years later, talking about the Turtles. That to me is testament in itself, like holy smokes, they’re still here and still resonating with fans both young and old. You know the original fans and now a whole new group of younger fans who’ve discovered the Nickelodeon series or the IDW comic books, or even the movies. It’s pretty fantastic and quite a trip.
BYT: My personal anecdote is that TMNT 2 was a first date for me. When I was 13 or 14.
KE: (laughing) I love it.
BYT: Let’s say they decide they’re going to reboot the Turtles in the movies. Michael Bay is out as producer. They want to start completely from scratch. They come to you to ask, “who should direct it?” Who do you pick?
KE: Oh my goodness. That’s a good question.
BYT: Anyone. Dead or alive.
KE: (laughing) Dead or alive? John Huston should do a Turtles western. ‘
BYT: I’d see that!
KE: That’s a really good question cause I think my favorite director of all the Turtle movies and I love them all for their individuality and for what each movie did, from the 2007 animated movie to the first 3 original movies. Hands down, Steve Barron, especially teamed up with Jim Henson, that will always stand as my favorite Turtle movie. If you asked me in what version in the world of entertainment was my favorite version of the Turtles, I would say Turtles movie 1. I’d love to see what Steve Barron could do again, but at the same time there’s so many other good recent directors out there, but I’d like to give it back to Steve Barron and see what he could do.
BYT: Before we go, can you tell us a bit about Lost Angeles?
KE: Lost Angeles is a new series I’m doing with IDW. I’ve signed an exclusive contract with IDW and they’re giving me a platform to release some new projects kind of stewing in my mind for a couple years. Lost Angeles is sort of a post – apocalypitic Warriors – like series set in Los Angeles. It’s gonna be 6 issues and I’ve co-created the concept with Simon Bisley. There’ll be a few other series about that, but it’s fantastic, it’s a love story, it’s an action story, an adventure story. If some of the fans of the Turtles want to follow along to what I’m doing with Lost Angeles, that’d be super cool.
BYT: I have to admit I have it on my reading list and have to get to it, but I can say those Bisley covers are fantastic.
KE: I appreciate it, Simon’s been a friend of mine for 20 years. We have a bizarre creative connection. Let’s plan to talk again after you’ve seen the first issue and we’ll go from there, my friend.
BYT: Do you have a recommendation of what would be a good first Turtles story to check out for any of our readers that aren’t familiar but want to give it a try?
KE: Oh man, it’s tough cause it’s like I’m so proud of the new series. Just a couple days ago I finished the cover for issue 50 of the IDW series. It’s a lot of fun and a reinvention of the whole Turtle’s Universe which has been so much fun. But the original series, to me it’s like, you know, the stuff that Peter Laird and I did are treasures and moments that I’ll never forget. If you had to read one issue, I’d say read the first Turtle issue and then if you like that look for the second one. IDW has done these wonderful huge hardcover collections, I believe the first two volumes collected the entire run of 16 issues that Peter and I did together. That really gives you the foundation of everything turtles today has really been built on.