New York Comic Con 2019: Interview with TMNT Co-Creator Kevin Eastman.
It’s now my third day of New York Comic Con 2019.
Unlike the other days I spent here, I had a specific plan. I already spent plenty of time on the main floor. I’ve already picked up the majority of what I was looking for. I flipped through dozens of comic book bins, looking for old issues of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I hustled through dozens of independent vendors searching for statues, toys, and rarities with the TMNT logo.
This Saturday, I had a ticket to meet Kevin Eastman, Co-Creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and have him sign 3 items. While I spent the majority of my weekend looking for what 3 things I’d have him sign, I spent that time also waiting for a text.
I got in line at the Planet Awesome Collectibles booth in Artist Alley. It’s in the back of the floor, and the line has already begun winding around. Fans in line discuss what they’re having signed and favorite issues. A CGC witness stands next to the booth waiting for signed comics. After waiting for the signing to start, Kevin Eastman arrives to applause. He is exactly on time.
After the line starts, I get a text from a number I was given days before. The conversation is brief, but get’s the point across.
“2:15 in the Artist Alley lounge?”
I quickly accept, in hopes this message gets delivered given the Javits Center’s terrible reception. I’m now in line to have some things signed by the person I’m set to interview in a couple hours. I shift through the line, watching Kevin shake hands and speak with every person he meets. Some people are going overboard, but Kevin is patient and kind to everyone. When it’s my turn, I shake his hand and thank him for all his work. He compliments my shirt and admires the print I’m having him autograph. He signs it and draw a turtle. He does the same with my 2 comics. I drop my comics with the CGC, and bring my new piece of art home.
I have 15 minutes to prepare for an interview with the person who created characters I grew up with. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are celebrating their 35th anniversary. I decided to start with how all Comic conventions began. Focusing on comics, and someone I know Mr. Eastman looks up to.
Kyle Tobey: Sitting at New York Comic Con, one of your early inspirations you’ve always said has been Jack Kirby.
Kevin Eastman: Yes.
KT: What drew you to his work initially?
KE: I think Jack Kirby’s work was super appealing to me because of the dynamic nature. It was, in many ways, a little abstract. But it felt like each panel can contain and convey so much power. Like, the movements were over-exaggerated, the things were more intense it was just like each one seemed like a little explosion of information. It wasn’t overdrawn it wasn’t under-drawn, but it was just enough that the pacing made you want to get to the next page, and get to the next page. So it was the intensity and his pacing of storytelling, and his creativity!
You look at other artists that I was a fan of, and so many of them were doing comics and stuff based on Jack Kirby ideas, with Stan Lee in many, many cases. But it’s like, his imagination just seemed endless and boundless, and he was just like a big kid, and that really appealed to me.
He was the one who made me realize, because he drew so many different kinds of things, that whatever I could think about, whatever I could dream about, whatever I wanted to create, if I could write it and draw it myself, I could go anywhere. Past, present, future, that was it. That solidified it to me.
KT: I read in an interview that, one of the things that sold you on Peter Laird and working with him, was that he had an original Jack Kirby piece. Have you been able to get any original Jack Kirby pieces?
KE: Yes! You know, I have a few additional pieces that I got from Jack Kirby, and Jack Kirby pieces over the years. Peter, bless his buttons and his awesomeness, he gave me that page!
KT: Really?! That’s cool!
KE: What is was, the first time we met he invited me over to his house- it was a studio slash apartment. I walked in and there was this pencil page that was an incomplete “Losers” page, the DC war comic, “The Losers”. And it looked like Jack Kirby had penciled most of it, and then decided to change his mind of what he wanted to do with the story. So he just, sort of, didn’t use that page, and that was hanging on his wall. I had never seen a Jack Kirby original before and it just blew my mind. And then, years later, he gave me that as a gift, and it still hangs in my studio now, at home.
KT: That’s great. Ninja Turtles started as more of an adult, mature comic, and you yourself bought “Heavy Metal Magazine,” right?
KT: What is it about that style of art that appeals to you, and that nature of comics that appeals to you?
KE: In Heavy Metal?
KT: Yeah, Heavy Metal, or even adult work in a more broad sense?
KE: Well, that’s a great point, because they almost coincided in that, with comic books, they were regulated by the Comics Code Authority. It had been decided, years before, comics were for kids, and at some point you should grow out of them, or you had problems, and carry on with your life.
So by the time that, to me, the kinds of books that I was reading, the kinds of movies and the things that I was watching as I grew older, the comics were starting to like- they kept for 12 year olds or younger. So, when I discovered Heavy Metal Magazine, what was interesting and eyeopening was that comics books can be for all ages. In fact, I didn’t know, for years, most European comics, the largest part of their audience is an older audience. They have kids comics, but its more for adults. So that really appealed to me.
Through Heavy Metal Magazine, I discovered guys like Richard Corben, and Vaughn Bode, and Robert Krumb, and a lot of guys that were doing comics intended for an older audience, but they were also self publishing, and that’s what became really appealing.
Kevin struggles over his words for a moment.
KE: I was not talented enough as an artist to get a job at Marvel or DC, and that was the only game in town!
If you wanted to do comics and you couldn’t get a job with them, well you were out of luck.
Then you find self publishing and it’s whatever I can think of. I can publish it and still work in comics. That was the appeal.
KT: You’ve been an independent creator for almost your entire life!
KE: Exactly! Funny, I just did a Spider-Man cover for IDW, which is a Marvel thing. And a Wolverine cover. So 35 years later, I finally did a Marvel cover.
KT: Has there ever been a story that you haven’t been to tackle because of ownership issues? Maybe you want to do a DC book but can’t because DC owns Batman, or Marvel, or any character that you want to tackle that you haven’t been able to?
KE: Well, it’s an interesting thing because, I know- I know where my artistic ability lies, what I can do and I can’t do. And I know that my style of story telling, and the things I like to tell. I see so many artists that do Batman or Daredevil, they draw better than I ever will. I appreciate their styles better to tell those kinds of stories. The kinds of stuff that I gravitate more to is more fantastical, more made up, more my own thing. It’s more like Jack Kirby, it’s like I feel like my style is almost more impressionistic in many ways. It’s not suited for the more mainstream stuff, its sort of the off beat stuff.
So it’s probably where I stick to, is doing my own stories, and doing stuff like that. It’s fun, you know! Creating Turtles/ Batman covers, and things like that. It’s been a childhood dream come true, to do that kind of stuff.
KT: Since the Turtles started as more of an adult comic, then the cartoon came out in ‘87. Was there ever any resistance about leaning more towards kids entertainment?
KE: We were very blessed in that, the fact that when we did the original comic series, again, never knowing that it would take off and and sustain itself and provide us the ability to make a living doing our own comic. So we continued that line of story telling based on where we started, which was writing stories for ourselves. Since we were a little older, they were a little grittier a little edgier. So when we were invited and asked “Do you want to develop it as a kids series?” we knew very specifically that it was going to be for a younger audience. And so we worked on it to adapt it to a much younger audience.
But the coolest part was that, because we owned and controlled it, nobody made us do anything. We made that decision to make it for a younger audience. Guys like Jack Kirby, and other people he inspired, never had say or control over their own characters. We knew how lucky we were.
And that’s something. The decision to do it- we knew what we were doing. We were thrilled to be able to have that opportunity. It was a fun experiment! We didn’t know if it would actually work! And it did, apparently! (laughs)
KT: Now that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are turning 35, what has it been like to see other artistic interpretations of the turtles and newer versions coming out? Has it been weird for you?
KE: No! No, actually, even over the years, because it started early on, and you figure by ‘87, ‘88, by ‘88 we were full on in to the other aspects of the turtle empire, if you will. Meaning, there were cartoon shows, and there were movies, and we were developing the toy line ever year. Pretty much everything that the world saw with a turtle on it, Peter and I worked on it in some fashion. Either had approval over it, actually physically hands on worked on it, or had guys in our studio at Mirage studios create the final artwork for it. So it was important to have that control over the entertainment part, but also, we found ourselves not having time to do the regular ongoing comic books.
So we started bringing in other artists, whether in house Mirage artists, or outside to do other stories. It was never an alien concept, because we grew up reading Batman or Daredevil, or the avengers, where the art teams would change and evolve. Different writer would come in, different artist would come in. Some you like more than the others, some you like a little less. Changing of the guard, so to speak to do that. So it wasn’t that difficult to make that leap. But, what our advantage was, especially in the early years, was that we had full control. We had final say. Whether we were working with an artist, or they were working on a story within the turtle black and white comic universe, or the Archie turtle comics, which were then done and produced in their own studio, so we had approval over those stories. At the same time working on the animated shows,and the other stuff where we also had full approval on. So we still could make sure people didn’t do something outrageous or insulting or out of line for our characters. It was neat! Actually, we had a lot of great writers and artists that brought in other aspects to our characters that we would not have thought of. Personality traits, or developments, or even new characters, things like that.
It was a wonderful time for creativity within the turtles universe.
KT: Even at this year’s San Diego Comic Con, Jim Lee drew one of the Turtles next to Batman, next to Spawn, Next to Captain Marvel, Next to Spider-Man, next to all these characters. What’s it like for you as a comic book fan seeing your creation on this upper tier of almost God-Like icons?
KE: (Laughing) I had no idea that was happening! When I saw it I was quite shocked, quite taken aback, and quite humbled because, the turtles originally were published in 1984, as you know. My first trip to San Diego Comic Con was in 1985. Both Peter and I came in 1985. I think that year they were hoping for 7,000 attendees! San Diego was a completely different planet! We watched the construction for a couple years of the convention center! Then moved in to the convention center. Just to be up there with the comic books that I grew up with, and have our characters up there as part of that was um… (pause) astonishing.
KT: Now that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are turning 35, what are you most proud of in 35 years working on the turtles.
KE: Its, it’s um…well, its hard to…
He stops to think. Understandably so. With a career spanning 35 years, there’s a lot to be proud of.
KE: What’s amazing to me is that we are turning 35. And what’s amazing to me is that, even though I sold my rights years ago, and the Turtles have gone through lots of different changes, it has still been a huge part of my life. And it’s still been something that I literally, make a living from. I’m still drawing on a character that I created 35 years ago.
It’s proud on the 1 hand, it’s humbling on the other hand, in that we’ve been able to captivate a fanbase originally, and they stuck with it all these years. Through all the different things. And then in 2011, I started working with IDW on the new comic book series. In 2012 I was doing consulting on the new Nickelodeon series. You put that out there, you can’t tell kids what’s cool. Kids will tell you what they think is cool, and what isn’t. The fact that not only have we found a whole new audience, but we’re still beloved by some of the original audience. That to me is mind blowing. It’s become generational now.
I’m proud to be making a living off my characters still!
KT: Are there any newer comic artists that you look to now that you really enjoy? What other artists keep you creating?
KE: There are some of the guys that are in the business now that I’ve known for years. It’s funny, for example, I did a convention in Mexico with Greg Capullo (best known for his work on American Vampire and Batman). I’m a huge fan of his artwork, but we both started out doing these practically dreadful swat illustrations for this horror magazine called “Gore Shriek” back in the early ‘80’s! It’s just funny, to be bonding, to be saying “Oh my god! You worked for Tom Skulan! Do you remember that!”
We all have our beginnings. So to be continually inspired by people that are still working that started out when I did, as well as a lot of the guys that I have a direction with. Artists who are very inspiring to me are the guys that are half my age and drawing Turtle comics books. And in most cases drawing better than I do. Whether it be Dan Duncan, who originally kicked off the series, Michalel Dialynas, Dave Wachter, who’s doing some amazing turtles stories, Mateus Santolouco, Ben Bishop-
KT: I love Ben’s work.
KE: Yeah, Ben’s fantastic. So as a fan of artists, all of it’s inspiring, in one form or another.
KT: For the last question, what will be the legacy of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles be, years from now?
KE: In many ways, I don’t know. I feel like it’s up to the fans to decide, because it is- I just finished a signing where some people waited almost 3 hours to get my autograph, and I ask them what’s wrong with them? Are they crazy? But it’s the fact that they’re willing to do that, and their love for the turtles runs so deep. I think that even, a lot of these young people are in their late 20’s, early 30’s, more like early 30’s, but that’s the original fan base! And they’re still as attached to their Turtles today as they were back then, and that’s fantastic! It’s a lifelong passion!
Like Star Trek for me. Or Star Wars. Or things like that, that I love, that were life changing to me when I discovered them when I was that age.
I think if the Turtles continue to be relevant, I think it’s up to new fans coming on board, but there will always be a soft spot for the original fans, and that’s pretty amazing.