KEVIN EASTMAN TALKS NINJA TURTLES

Thursday, May 14 by

In 1984, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird had a little idea for a comic book, pooled some money together to print a limited run, and inadvertently jump started a seismic shift in entertainment.  I’m speaking, of course, about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who are set to once more take pop culture by storm in this, their 25th Anniversary year

We’ve gotten the announcement that a new live-action feature is in the works for a 2011 release.  And just this week, Lionsgate released a brand new four-DVD collector’s set of the original TMNT animated series’ Season 7.  (Each box comes with a cool miniature reproduction of an original Turtle action figure, too.)

Much more is planned for the quarter-century "Shell-ebration," including some very special re-issues of classic Turtles comics, and new issues from familiar artists. 

Screenjunkies had the pleasure of speaking with TMNT co-creator Kevin Eastman, who currently runs Heavy Metal magazine.  During our phone interview, Mr. Eastman chatted quite candidly about the release of Season 7 of the animated series, new Turtles material yet to be released, his take on the phenomenon that’s lasted a quarter century now, and the new Heavy Metal film in development under David Fincher and James Cameron’s guidance. 

ScreenJunkies: So, Happy 25th Anniversary first and foremost.  At what point did you say to yourself, man, this got bigger than I ever thought it would?

Kevin Eastman: By the time we were doing the second issue [of the original comic series] and we had gotten the orders from distributors… the pre-orders were for 15,000 copies.  And [co-creator Peter Laird and I] sat there and did the math in our little living room/studio, and we figured if we did about six of these comics a year, we could make about two grand each per issue, thus pay rent and buy all the macaroni and cheese we needed.  And for a kid who dreamed about that all his life, that was monumental on every single aspect and level.

SJ: Some of our readers might not know that the original comic book series was so tonally different and darker than the cartoon, which was aimed at younger audiences, but when the original cartoon series came to fruition, what was your involvement in it?

KE: After we went from 3000 comics to literally 100,000 comics within the year, we started attracting all this attention from different kinds of Hollywood agents – most of them slimy – but we found one guy we really liked, this guy Mark Friedman (sp?) who convinced us and said "Gimme 30 days and I’ll see if I can shop it and pick up a toy and animation deal," and he did, to our amazement.  And we continued on for many years, but because Peter and I not only created the first comic and published the first comic, we also owned all the trademark copyrights… so whatever was done with the Turtles, we got to put our whole stamp of approval on them, in the final designs, etc. 

The original comics were a lot edgier, and we wrote those for ourselves, but when we did the cartoon we knew it was being written for a much younger audience, so we came up with the ideas for different colored bandanas, or changing the origin story to make it a little softer, so there wasn’t so much blood and death [laughs].

Every season throughout was always a really exciting process because we not only got to work with writers and communicate directly with them.  We approved treatments, we made notes on scripts, we designed a lot of the characters – first and secondary – that were included in the animation and it was neat that the animated series as opposed to some of the bigger productions like the live action movies – the production time was much shorter and you were doing them a bit more like you were doing a comic book.  You were setting up a one-off story and you would start and end in the same episode, or you could do a 2-3 part story or you could set up a couple things in episode 3 or 4 that you could pay off in episode 10,11,12.  So we were lucky enough to be in the position of creators and, having the approval.  Pretty much everything you saw with a turtle on it, we had some say, or gave our signature of approval on it.  It was a pretty cool position to be in.  

SJ: Who’s idea was it for the first part of season 7 of the original cartoon series to send the Turtles on a European Vacation?

KE: [Laughs] That was our tribute to Chevy Chase and the Vacation movies.  No, we just wanted to explore different parts of the world.  It was fun to have the Turtles go – not just in the cartoons but also in the movies – to go back to Japan… but also to go visit some of their namesakes.  Going through Europe was a really fun thing, and we tried as carefully as we could to not offend anybody by doing some cheesy French accent [laughs]. 

That was the neatest thing about working with so many of the writers on the animated series.  We had our own visions and ideas and I guess boundaries – things that we thought the Turtles should or shouldn’t do – but these guys were looking through their own eyes and they were like, "Well, how about if we did the Turtles like that?" and we said "Well, I don’t know, we’ve never thought of that.  That’s actually cool."  So it was a very exciting process.

SJ: Back in 2000, you sort of separated yourself from the property; have you been working in a consulting capacity in any way, or are you participating in other events surrounding this 25th Anniversary?

KE: Yes and no.  The last thing I worked on was the live action show, and when Turtles came off the air, around that time, we had shot a production on the new Heavy Metal movie… and I said to Pete, "Why don’t you buy out control over the Turtles and a good chunk of my interest, and send me checks if it ever does anything down the road?"  Fortunately for us, and kids, and all the fans out there that brought it back to life, Peter started working with them on the new series, and I had no input in that, which Peter put together and crafted wonderfully.  And I have always participated behind the scenes.  I helped put together the Imagi deal for the animated film, because I was actually working on a Highlander animated movie for them at the time. 

                                   

But Peter and I spent about 15 years together, and out of that 15 years, probably the first 25 issues of the Turtles that we worked on together… that really was the foundation that built everything that’s been done with the Turtles up to this day. 

I have the rights to publish a variety of Turtle-related projects.  I’ve got my own 25th Anniversary book coming out, and Mirage has a 25th Anniversary book as well.  It’s fun to see it from afar and not have to spend every day eating, living, breathing Turtles.  And I still get to enjoy all the good stuff, like doing interviews.  Seriously, though, I enjoy it; it’s very flattering that I’m doing an interview here and talking about a new DVD collection coming out.  It’s pretty phenomenal that there’s an audience for that still. It’s awesome.

SJ: What’s the title of the book you’ll have coming out?

KE: Well personally I’m calling it "Kevin’s favorite Turtles Stories," but essentially "A Quarter Century of Green Style," is what it’s called.  I’ve gone back and taken the original Raphael story which introduced Casey Jones, and Turtles [issues] #14, #18, plus stories I did with Richard Corben, and a lot of one-offs that I pretty much did all on my own.  It’s essentially my favorite Turtle stories.  And that’s all coming up for the San Diego Comicon this year.

                                 

SJ: So it’ll be available this Summer?

KE: Yep.  I’ll be set up [at Comicon] with Heavy Metal, so you gotta come down and say hi.

SJ: Recently, I was in Hi-De-Ho Comics (in Santa Monica, California) and I was looking for the compiled editions of the original Turtles series and they said they were out of print.  Are there any plans to reissues the original compilations?

KE: Yep.  Actually there is.  It’s perfect timing.  It’s something that was sitting on the shelf.  It’s something Peter had been considering maybe re-lettering, or remastering and maybe doing something with it, but ultimately, for the sake of them being classic stories the way they were originally published, that was the only way they should be published.  I think possibly this May or June, he’s coming out with the original 549-odd pages, which features the original run of Turtles, which is Turtles #1-11, plus the four one-issue micro-series, where we did one issue featuring one single Turtle.  So the original 15 issues… that’s coming out in a trade paperback in June.  Then my collection’s coming out in July, and I know they’re doing another collection – we did a second series that ran parallel to the Turtles called "Tales of the TMNT," which was mostly worked on by other artists, doing their versions of the Turtles’ stories.  Everyone from Steve Bissette (Swamp Thing) to Rick Veitch (Aquaman) and many others, and that’s coming out this summer as well.  So there’s a plethora of 25th Anniversary collections.  What I’m happiest about is the fact that they’re re-releasing the 550-page collection; that’s the real meat and potatoes.

SJ: Are you in communication with anyone about the upcoming live-action feature film?

KE: Galen Walker [producer of the TMNT animated film, and with whom Kevin worked on the Highlander animated film] will update me occasionally on what’s going on, but I have no input beyond Galen occasionally bouncing something off me.  It’s pretty much Pete’s show.  They’ve got a lot of cool stuff going on over there, and when Mirage is ready to let that cat out of the bag, it’s going to be pretty awesome.

SJ: Out of all your creations within the Turtles universe, what is your favorite creation that you’ve personally had a hand in?

KE: I would have to say Casey Jones.  Out of so many Turtles stories that I’ve specifically worked on, I’ve always gravitated toward Raphael – I guess I could identify with him more than the others – but Casey Jones… who was in the first five or six issues we did, so it was very early on. 

                                     

I had this idea; it was kind of a parody of all these vigilante characters that were in comics.  You have the classics like Batman and Daredevil and all these characters where something tragic happened in their past that helped them choose the path to go out and fight crime on their own, and I thought it was really funny if we had a character who was inspired to do the same, but just from watching too much bad TV, like "TJ Hooker" and "A-Team" and all that stuff.  So I came up with the idea of this character who would be called Casey Jones and he would have two bats as his mai weapon, and he would wear a hockey mask and sweats – just something he cobbled together.  And at the last minute, Pete said, "Well why don’t you give him a golf bag and he’ll have all kinds of weapons in it?"  And I’m like, "Dude, that’s it!"  But that’s the kind of collaboration we had; it was always that kind of spontaneity, and how so many of the characters came together.  But Casey and Raphael – they’re fun.  And they’re a little retarded like me [laughs].

SJ: What are you currently working on?

KE: I bought Heavy Metal magazine back in 1990, and right now, we’re in pre-production on a David Fincher-executive produced, 50 million-dollar animated Heavy Metal feature film.  We have James Cameron as co-executive producer.  We have directors like Zach Snyder, Gore Verbinski, Mark Osborne, and I think there are two or three others that are big names, but who I’m not allowed to tell you about just yet.  It’s gonna be an anthology film; it’ll be in 3-D stereo in 2011, done in Blur Animation studios right down here in Venice.  James Cameron and David Fincher will each be directing a sequence.  There will be seven, maybe eight sequences within the movie itself. 

                                   

The entire Heavy Metal staff is basically four people.  I run the magazine, pick all the material that goes in it, answer all the letters, and pretty much run the entire program with our partner, Howard [Juurofsky] in New York.  But developing the movie with Fincher has been about the last 16 months of my life.  Working with these guys is just about the coolest thing I’ve ever been involved in, and we’re pretty excited to roll that sucker out, if you will.

SJ: Have to ask this, but have you seen any bits of Avatar?

KE: [laughs] Tim Miller, the owner of Blur Animation, teases me about it.  He goes over to Cameron’s and it’s always one of those things where I say, "I wanna go!  I wanna go next time to see Avatar!" and he’ll call me and say, "We’re going to Jim’s today!" and I’ll say, "Dude! I’m chest deep in something."  So I have not seen anything, but he’s taunted me appropriately about it.

SJ: Well, that’s all I got.  I’m sure you hear this all the time, but what you guys started and carried out was a massive part of my childhood and something that really brought me a lot of joy growing up, and being an only child for the better part of my youth… maybe it’s weird to say, but I kinda had friends in these characters, so thank you for that.

KE: Oh, dude.  Well, first, thank you and highest respects for the compliments. I take it very seriously, and you know, I was the same way.  I had three sisters and me.  And I hid in my room all the time and read comic books and drew, and I found I was so inspired and emboldened and really got strength out of reading [comics].  One of my favorites was reading Jack Kirby’s Kamandi the Last Boy on Earth, and I was like, dude, if I was Kamandi... but you know it helps you get through some pretty [messed] up [stuff].  And so, point well taken and I appreciate that. 

SJ: I used to fall asleep every night on my Donatello pillow. 

KE: [Laughs] Well, make sure you come and say "hi" in San Diego.  We’ll be at the Heavy Metal booth and there’s lots of cool stuff; and I look forward to meeting you in person. 

That goes for all of you readers out there, too.  If you have the opportunity to head to Comicon this year, stop by the Heavy Metal booth, and tell ‘em Screenjunkies sent ya. 

– PATRICK SCHUMACKER

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