Friday August 31, 2012
Kevin Eastman: Co-creator of TMNT cartoon
Worlds of Wonder
By Michael Cheang
We met Kevin Eastman, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, at the San Diego Comic Con.
IF you were the child of the 80s like me, the names Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael were more than just the names of some dead Italian renaissance artists. They were also the names of the most awesome pizza-guzzling, butt-kicking half-shelled heroes ever.
I was a kid when I discovered the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) cartoon on television, and I remember thinking at the time, “Wow, teenage turtles who are mutants and ninjas as well! And they all have different weapons! How awesome is that!”
More than 20 years later, while wandering around the recent Comic Con International in San Diego, I saw an announcement about a new TMNT cartoon to be released soon. It got me wondering – what sort of twisted, strange mind does it take to come up with a concept as brilliantly twisted yet awesome as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
Fortunately, this being the largest comic convention in the world after all, there was no problem finding the answer to that question. I managed to set up an interview with one of the people responsible for coming up with the TMNT in the first place – Kevin Eastman.
Before they were a worldwide phenomenon with their own cartoon shows, toy line, feature film franchise and thousands of other Turtle-y stuff, the TMNT were just a funny sketch that Eastman drew on his sketchpad one day in 1984 while brainstorming with his then-partner Peter Laird.
That sketch led to the two young artists/writers self-publishing a 40-page, black-and-white, oversized comic featuring the four turtles kicking butt in surprisingly violent ways. It introduced us to the four turtles, their rat sensei Splinter, as well as their arch-nemesis Shredder, and garnered a cult following that just grew and grew.
“The Turtles were a love poem to all the stuff we loved as kids. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, (Marvel’s) New Mutants, X-Men, Daredevil, Bruce Lee ... everything that I saw as a kid and influenced me, I put into this big blender, spun it around,” explained Eastman.
But why turtles? And why name them after Italian Renaissance artists? “Why is Mickey Mouse a mouse, not a rat or a duck? We just thought it was funny! As for the names, when you’re working on an idea that absurd, traditional American or oriental names just aren’t funny enough. So what’s the furthest thing away from what people would expect? Italian Renaissance artists!” he said with a guffaw.
“We didn’t know if it would work, but it made us laugh, so we did that! It was a joke to us, a silly parody, but it was a joke that just kept on going and going.”
That joke is still going strong today, with the aforementioned new cartoon version of TMNT (the third version of the cartoon so far) due out later this year, and a mooted fifth feature film currently in development.
The 50-year-old Eastman may have sold off all his rights and associations with the TMNT property to Laird and the Mirage Group in 2008 (the entire franchise was subsequently sold to TV network Nickelodeon in 2009), but he just can’t seem to escape the monster that is TMNT – last year, he was roped in to co-write a brand new TMNT ongoing comic published by IDW.
Even Eastman finds it fascinating that the Turtles are still so popular after all this time. “I think the Turtles are a timeless, evergreen concept. It’s comforting and familiar, and generational because parents that grew up with it are sharing it with their kids, and the kids come back and enjoy it as well,” he said.
Considering how kid-friendly the Turtles are today, it can be quite jarring to see how ultra-violent and bloody the early TMNT comics were. Eastman explained that when they created the Turtles, they were writing for themselves, hence the more violent and grittier approach of the early TMNT comics. But once the toy companies came in, they had to change their characters to be more child-friendly. “We knew going in that we were going to be writing for six-year-olds, so we had to take out the murder scenes, take the blood out, and kept toning it down to the point where it would be good for kids.”
Of course, it helped that at the time, Eastman and Laird kept a tight grip on all the rights to their creation. “When we did the turtles, we controlled it and owned it, so everything the world saw with the TMNT logo on it was approved by us,” he said. “We were fortunate to have had enough early success that the TV and movie people had to come to us and negotiate.”
The success with TMNT convinced Eastman that artists and advocates should be fighting for creator rights and ownerships, and in 1990, he set up the now-defunct Tundra Comics to help people do just that.
“Self-publishing creator rights are very important to me. I would never have been able to create and own the Turtles without a system that allowed me to do so. If I could take it further and help the next guy create the new Turtles ... well, that was the dream (of Tundra),” he said.
Tundra was set up with the purpose of providing a platform for independent comic artists and writers publish their own creator-owned properties. Unfortunately, while the endeavour produced several classics such as Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and Dave McKean’s Cages, it ultimately proved to be too unprofitable for Eastman to sustain (it reportedly lost US$14 million in three years of operation), and closed down in 1993.
Considering the growing popularity of self-published independent comics and increasing number of creator-owned properties by artists such as Mark Millar these days, Eastman’s vision for Tundra may have been very much ahead of its time, something he admits to readily. “The timing was bad. The material we published had a more European comic kind of feel to them, and was more mature. The audience (back then) was just not ready to enjoy them yet – they were still in the mindset of ‘I want my monthly Spider-Man comic’,” he lamented, citing as an example the critically acclaimed Cages, which won numerous awards but didn’t sell as well as expected.
“Dave had (previously) done a Batman book called Arkham Asylum that sold 300,00-400,000 copies; and then he did this book for me with a philosophical, esoteric tale of multiple characters living in an apartment building connected by a cat wandering between the different apartments, which only sells 15,000 copies. It’s like a Batman (movie) versus an independent film!”
On hindsight, Eastman reckons he would probably have done things a little different business-wise if he had opened Tundra today, though he doesn’t regret it one bit.
“My grandma used to say you can’t un-ring a bell, so I can’t change what happened. When you’re younger, you take more risks and fight for things you believe in at all costs,” he said. “If I opened Tundra now, I would have done things differently as a businessman, but the intent would be the same.”
Today, he has his hands full running and editing Heavy Metal magazine (which he has owned since 1992), and also has his fingers in several projects, including being the executive producer for War of The Worlds: Goliath, an animated science-fiction feature co-produced by Malaysia’s own Tripod Entertainment Sdn Bhd.
Does it bug him though, that despite all he has done, he will always be remembered as one of the guys who created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
“That’s the most awesome thing ever! That’s a huge thing – to be remembered for something like the Turtles is awesome, and occasionally gets me free coffee at Starbucks!” he finished with a laugh.