Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The co-creator of the popular series talks about the series' origins, the 25th Anniversary of the creation, the newly-announced film, Heavy Metal and more.

25 years ago, Kevin Eastman's idea that he co-hatched with Peter Laird came to fruition when the first issue of radical new comic called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hit the comic book stands. Soon thereafter, a licensing phenomena was born that spawned into the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated TV series, the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films, including 2007's TMNT. The series that Eastman and Laird started is celebrating its 25th anniversary and, in conjunction with the anniversary, a new DVD set is being released featuring four separate sets that form the animated series' seventh season with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 7, Pt. 1 - The Leonardo Slice, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 7, Pt. 2 - The Michelangelo Slice, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 7, Pt. 3 - The Donatello Slice and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 7, Pt. 4 - The Raphael Slice, which all hit the DVD shelves on May 12. I had the chance to speak with Eastman over the phone about this new set and the series as a whole, and here's what he had to say.

It's the series' 25th anniversary, so can you just talk a little bit about how this crazy creation kind of came to be?

Kevin Eastman: (Laughs) Well, to dispel a lot of popular rumors, there was no beer involved, hallucinogenic drugs or anything like that. The idea from the Turtles came out of simply a pure love of comic books. We were big comic book geeks as a kid. I mean, I was doing a paper route and I would go out to the corner store and get comic books. I just loved telling my own stories and I thought this would be the coolest job in the world. My parents tried to get me to get a real job, along the way, but I was very persistent and stuck with it and I couldn't say more how incredibly lucky and incredibly blessed that the first comic book that I ever worked on, became the thing that it did, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

What I was always curious about was how you came up with the names? I know they're all based off classic Italian painters, so how did you come to name these teenage turtles after Italian painters or sculptors?

Kevin Eastman: Well, it was really because, when you come up with a title like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it was really a parody, going off all sorts of popular ideas in comics at that time. So when you're working in an environment that's sort of silly and bizarre, you couldn't traditionally name them, like what, Steve, Bob, Mike and Doug? It didn't seem to be as funny so both Peter and I were both art history fans, so how about naming them Renaissance painters? It both made us laugh, so it stuck. We got Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael and we searched around for the last one and, Donatello was almost named for one of my favorite sculptors, but it didn't have that "o" at the end and then it was like, 'What's wrong with Donatello?" He was an amazing sculptor as well, so that fit, it seemed to all make the silliest of sense.

When you created the comic, it just immediately took off and turned into this licensing craze, and branching off into everything else. So when you first came up with this idea, how did you first imagine this whole series playing out?

Kevin Eastman: Well, it was a series of happy accidents. When we did the first comic book, we had two things in our favor. One was both Peter and I had been exposed to a bunch of underground and self-publishers. We didn't particularly want to work for Marvel because we didn't want to be telling stories with someone else's characters, you know? So, when we came up with the idea for the Turtles, we said, lets scrape together as much money as we can. I had a $500 income tax return, he had $200 in the bank, we borrowed $1,000 from an uncle and we had enough money to print 3,000 copies at a local printer and enough money leftover to do a $150 ad in the comics trade newspaper called the Comics Buyer's Guide. We mailed out a single copy at a time, $1.50 plus 50 cents postage through the mail. It was one book, one beginning, middle and end, one story and we'd go on to other stories, ideas and places. The first issue sold out very quickly and we did a re-print of that and we kept getting calls from distributors and other retailers saying, 'So, when are you going to be doing book 2?' And we said, 'Well, we never thought of that' (Laughs). So we did book 2 and I think by book 5, we were selling 100,000 copies an issue, in what was sort of an amazing/dream-come-true for both of us, Pete and I had always dreamed of writing our own comics for a living and we could now afford to pay our rent 24/7, so we couldn't have been happier. The first issue came out in '84, then in '85 or '86, we met with the first slew of suitors, licensing agencies and companies and said, 'Well, you know, you have an amazing idea. This could be a cartoon, it could be movies, it could be toys.' We laughed and were like, 'You're kidding right?' The fact that we own it, control it, we were well aware of trademark ownership and we were controlling our characters, so we took those steps and kept our reins held pretty tight and for anything that was done with the Turtles we had full approval. We worked intimately on the scripts for the first TV series and the movies and approving what sort of licensing materials the Turtles would be stuck on and sold, so it was really a great process to take a comic that was intended for a much older audience, re-write it, reinvent it, if you will, for a 6-12 year old audience, and see if it worked. We really didn't think it would. When the TV series came out, it was way up in the ratings and the toys came out and sold out. In 1987, I think, we were drawing 90% of the time and doing 10% of the business. The following year, it was the complete opposite, we were spending 90% of our doing business-related things and 10% of the time on the creative side.

When the animated series came out, it seemed that it had a few minor brushes with controversy. It was re-titled in the U.K. to "Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles" and I heard that Michelangelo had to use a grappling hook instead of nunchucks because they were banned. Were there any other absurd brushes with controversy along the way?

Kevin Eastman: That was actually, to me, the most bizarre. I remember that our director, Steve Baron, was British, and when I went over there for the first time, for the release of the first movie, the press junket, I went and did all the interviews. We became aware that the word "ninja" was banned in England, and we said, 'What?!' They said it's banned and they can't use it, so we said, 'Well, how about Hero Turtles instead?' It sounded retarded but they said all right. We were watching the movie and they still have that scene where Michelangelo is twirling his nunchucks, but they just took the nunchucks off the screen. They didn't crop it, they didn't change it, it was just this black shadow across the screen. I just thought it was bizarre, but that was about it. Oddly enough, one of the areas it didn't work well for a long long time was Japan and Asia, Japan in particular. A ninja is a mercenary soldier, would kill anything for money kind of character, and with them being portrayed as a hero, they just couldn't quite get their head around it. Everybody would say, 'You guys must be huge in Japan,' and we'd go, 'No, we've got nothing there.' The Turtles finally were released there, many years later, where somebody put it on the right TV broadcast and it was really successful for a really short period of time. It was huge and then it was gone. They just totally didn't get it.

It seems that everyone has their favorite Turtle - mine is Michelangelo because I always thought nunchucks were cool - but do you have a personal favorite?

Kevin Eastman: Yes, absolutely. Raphael has been my favorite. He was the most fun to write because, as a writer you sort of pull personalities either than impart on you, based on you, or based on people you know. Michelangelo was based off one of the funniest guys I ever met. He would crack you up in class when he shouldn't be, but Raphael I just seemed to relate with. Donatello was always Pete's favorite, because he was very sort of Zen-like, in keeping things focused and simple.

So this new Season 7 DVD set has quite a few special features and they have it separated into the "slices," so is this the kind of format they're going to keep for the remaining seasons of the animated show?

Kevin Eastman: I don't know. I just thought it was really exciting that they found a wonderful way to present this particular series of discs, that has some of my favorite episodes, but also I like the idea that it's the 25th Anniversary and get all the people to come in and do some commentaries and do some interviews and tell some stories. Being a big movie fan, my favorite part is watching the behind-the-scenes on just about any movie, seeing what they did or what it almost was before it became this. I just think that the timing is great and that if it works, maybe they'll come up with another cool idea for Season 8, but this one is wonderfully done and I think they'll be very well-received by some very impassioned fans.

So it recently announced that there's a new live-action film in the works for 2011, so is there anything you can say about that? Are you working with Peter again on this new film?

Kevin Eastman: No, no. The last series I worked on, actually it was without Pete at that time - Pete was taking a break - I did the live-action series and then after that, the Turtles kind of went in this valley, if you will. At that time, I was deep into production on the Heavy Metal 2000 movie and I had moved out to L.A. officially, where the home of the Turtles is still North Hampton, Massachussetts. So I said, 'Look, why don't you just buy out my creative imput and you can run the Turtles however you want and whenever it comes back or if it stays in a valley, I'm itching to pursue the world of Heavy Metal since high school when I first saw these. By that time, I was eating, sleeping, breathing Turtles for 15 years, and it was time to move on. But Peter was fortunately working with some amazing people to bring back the new animated series and Imagi brought us the Turtles animated movie, which I thought was fantastic, and they're piloting the live-action series. I've met with them multiple times on a bunch of related and non-related stuff, and those guys are going to do an outstanding job on the new film.

It was said that this would be a live-action and CGI hybrid, for this new film.

Kevin Eastman: I know it's still in discussion. I know that there's part of them that wants to do the rubber suits that Jim Henson did so well with the first one, maybe CG faces, but I know they've explored a number of possibilities but haven't decided what to go with yet.

So what's the latest on Heavy Metal? Is it being set up anywhere now with (David) Fincher?

Kevin Eastman: Right now, David has a grand plan and he's asked us to sort of keep those cards close to our chest until the right announcement comes out, but what I can tell you is that part of the frustrating part of going through the studio system, which David knows more than Tim (Miller) and I. Guys like Zack Snyder and Gore Verbinski and Mark Osborne have committed to come on board and direct sequences in this. There are three other directors, that I can't tell you yet, but will be jaw-dropping when we can tell you. David has put together a program that is pretty outstanding and it's sort of fascinating for guys like Tim and I, who have worked at the studio level, at a number of levels, but never at a David Fincher level. Whereas we would've probably agreed to the deal seven versions ago, David is still negotiating and it's like, 'Oh my God, we just want to do this movie,' but, all kidding aside, that's why we're working with David. Not only does he have just a brilliant vision, and a great sense of storytelling but he's very committed to doing this right, and that's what Tim and I have always had a bond between us. We don't want to spend $50 million and not blow everybody out of the water with this project. I'd guess within the next 30 days would be the official announcement of what's going on and where it's going, and then we can talk again.

So, finally, with the anniversary of the series, how do you think this whole thing has evolved from that first initial idea?

Kevin Eastman: Well, what I think is cool is that when we did the original comic books, we really just wrote the kind of stories that we wanted to read, that we thought were entertaining to us. We had no audience, no barometer to put it against. We were four or five years in when we started working on the first animated series and it's taken to a point where we had to write it down for a much younger audience, 6-12, probably younger than that, 6-8. We had to soften things up a bit and we had full approval, whether it was the color of the bandanas or the softening of the origin stories, or more specifically making it for a younger audience, we had approval. When you look at the comic book and the animated series, the two opposite poles, the movie was kind of right in the middle of that. There were lots of elements that were pulled directly from those first issues of the Turtles so we hit that cross-section of the best of all worlds, I guess. The movies are always an interesting process and a much longer process than the animated series. By the time we were at this season, we were actually in this wonderful environment where we were working with multiple writers covering a 26-episode span of stories where we can really sprinkle in these one-off stories, we'd have a couple of three-part episodes or parts that you can start in episodes 4, 5 and 6 and play out a little bit more in 18, 19 and 20 and then pay them off in the last episode, you know what I mean? I think the quality of people we got to work with was the coolest part, because it was all of these old established writers that had a classic Turtle story idea and all these up and coming young writers that were all like, 'Let's go there and have them do this.' So it was always good to mix it up creatively.

Excellent. Well, that's all I have for you, Kevin. Thanks so much for your time, and the best of luck with Heavy Metal and everything else.

Kevin Eastman: Much appreciated. Thanks a lot. Nice talking to you.

You can collect these four collectable slices - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 7, Pt. 1 - The Leonardo Slice, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 7, Pt. 2 - The Michelangelo Slice, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 7, Pt. 3 - The Donatello Slice and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 7, Pt. 4 - The Raphael Slice - that make up the seventh season of the popular animated series, when they hit DVD shelves on May 12.