Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Cocreator Kevin Eastman Went for a Modest Underground Comics Career. He Started an Independent Pop-Culture Dynasty Instead. | Arts Feature | Indy Week

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Cocreator Kevin Eastman Went for a Modest Underground Comics Career. He Started an Independent Pop-Culture Dynasty Instead.

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You can't create a comics dynasty on purpose. In fact, it seems helpful not to try. Spider-Man, Superman, Batman—all were cranked out by middle-aged day-jobbers on deadline. They were intended to fill a bit of newsprint and then make way for the next fantastical character, not to permanently lodge in the pop-culture pantheon.

In the eighties, Kevin Eastman set out for a modest career in underground comics, which is a reasonable goal when you've co-created a book about anthropomorphic turtles who learned martial arts from a talking rat and who hang out in a sewer with a pretty TV reporter. Imagining that this premise might birth an enduring multimedia phenomenon would not have been reasonable, to put it mildly. But that's what happened.

Kevin Eastman - PHOTO COURTESY OF NC COMICON
  • Photo courtesy of NC Comicon
  • Kevin Eastman

Eastman and cocreator Peter Laird revolutionized the comics industry by ducking around the superhero monopolies and self-publishing in black-and-white with wild success at a time when this was unheard of. They still own the characters to this day, after all the movies and cartoons, the toys and costumes—and the Turtles are still in print, now in color and published by IDW.

Eastman is one of dozens of creators, also including indie stars like Brandon Graham and mainstream fixtures like Walt and Louise Simonson, who is heading to the Raleigh Convention Center for NC Comicon: Oak City this weekend. We reached Eastman at his home studio in San Diego, where he was working on sketches for a Batman-TMNT crossover. He discussed how Heavy Metal magazine inspired the Turtles before the Turtles bought him Heavy Metal, getting sued over the word "cowabunga" by Buffalo Bob from Howdy Doody, and his favorite bits of Turtle-abilia.

INDY: You were a reader of self-published comics before you took self-publishing to a new level with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. How did you discover independent comics at a time when they were less easy to find than they are now?

KEVIN EASTMAN: I grew up with what was in the spinner racks at the local drug store, but then along came Heavy Metal magazine. In 1977, I bought the first issue. Heavy Metal published some amazing European talents, but they also published American underground comics. I really flipped out over Richard Corben, who's definitely my number-two influence after Jack Kirby. It was such a fantastic and bizarre style, it pushed and stretched the imagination in so many ways. In my search for Corben material, I went to The Million Year Picnic in Harvard Square and they had this massive underground comics selection. Most important, I found Dave Sims's Aardvark-Vanaheim, publishing Cerebus. Reprints of underground comics from the sixties and seventies, coupled with what the new guys like Dave Sim were doing, throw in a dash of Heavy Metal—that really pushed me toward what I wanted to do in comics.

You bought Heavy Metal in 1991 and edited it for fifteen years, and you're still the publisher. Was that like a childhood dream come true?

Oh my goodness, yeah. I joke that if you think about it, my discovery of Heavy Metal in 1977 led me to self-publishing, and then when Peter and I created the Turtles together, because we owned and controlled all things Turtles, we also profited from it. Heavy Metal helped me create the Turtles, so I could then buy Heavy Metal.

When you and Peter Laird started publishing the Turtles comics, did you have any inkling they might become multimedia pop-culture icons, or did it just seem like this totally niche and crazy thing you were doing?

Oh yeah, we definitely knew. [Laughs] No, of course not. If you look at the first issue, it was a complete story. We didn't think we'd sell that many copies or do another issue. We just deeply loved the idea and had so much fun doing the kind of comic book we wanted to read. We thought it was a fun homage and parody of comics, something we had to get out of our system. When it started selling, people at comic shops and fans started writing us saying, when are you going to do issue two? It came out in January 1985, and we made enough money—I think we sold about fifteen thousand copies—to pay rent and draw comics full-time. I point to 1985 as the year the dream came true, this lifelong fantasy we used to tell our parents about, drawing comic books for a living, and they look at you with that mortified look, like, oh my goodness, we're going to have one of those kids who never moves out of the basement. By the time Hollywood came knocking, at the top of the black-and-white-comics boom, we were selling about a hundred thousand copies an issue, which was mind-blowing.

You didn't make up the word "cowabunga," but you might as well have. How did that phrase enter the Turtles' lexicon; how did you make up their slang?

It really came out of the animated series. If you look at the comics, there were kind of funky pop-culture references, like Casey Jones saying "Goongala Goongala," which is something Tarzan said whenever he wanted an elephant or a lion to do something. I remember watching Beach Blanket Bingo and these Saturday morning matinee movies with this California surfer-dude thing going on. Growing up in the woods in Maine, it was about as alien as you could imagine. We just riffed on that. "Cowabunga" evolved with David Wise, the writer of the early animated episodes, and became the catchphrase that caught on. We got sued by Buffalo Bob from Howdy Doody.

Right, I read that's where the term first came from?

Yeah, he said we basically stole it. I had never seen it, it was before my time. We were like, no, we stole it from Annette Funicello! I don't know if it had transferred into public domain or common usage, but the case was dismissed, let's put it that way.

A lot of our readers will know the Turtles from the movies and the cartoon more than from the comics. How are the comics different?

The original comics were really written for Peter and myself, intended for an older audience—though neither of us are huge fans of really gory stuff and swearing—but it had a bit more edge to it than what mainstream comics were doing. When we adapted them into the first cartoon series, we knew this was for a much younger audience and a number of things were softened. The first cover where I painted the Turtles in color, they all had red bandanas. When they wanted to do them as toys and cartoons, they said, can we come up with a way to tell them apart better? Peter came up with the idea of different-colored bandanas, which I thought was awesome.

The kids version reached a much wider audience. It was years and years until a lot of those initial fans of the cartoons discovered the comics. We kind of got them at a young age when they were buying the toys and watching the cartoon, and when they got older and still had passion for the Turtles, they discovered this older-audience Turtles. It's so humbling and cool when we do conventions and see parents who were fans of the original series, and their kids have now discovered the Turtles through Nickelodeon's cartoon series, all dressed up together.

With the incredible amount of Turtles stuff out there, do you have any favorite toys or properties?

Absolutely. The first live-action movie, directed by Steve Barron with incredible costumes by Jim Henson, I thought was a perfect blend of the original black-and-white series and the humor of the animated series. And the first round of toys in 1988. I remember when Peter and I stumbled into a Kay-Bee Toys in Springfield, Massachusetts, and saw them for the first time. They would do Turtles as different characters, and the Star Trek Turtles—I was a huge Star Trek fan growing up, so I loved that. And of course, nothing could take away from what Peter and I originally did, working in the same room passing pages back and forth, because that's where it all started.

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