It's a great time to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan! The movie did stellar box office numbers this past weekend, knocking Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy out of the number one spot. It did so well, Paramount announced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 for 2016. And not only that, there are a ton of new toys on shelves everywhere and an animated series on Nickelodeon that is quite popular. Bringing it all into perspective is the release of Turtle Power: The Definitive History of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a new documentary that is in stores this week.
Turtle Power takes a look at the entire history of the phenomenon. From the first black and white comics created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, to the 1987 cartoon series, to the Playmates toy line, to the first live action movies, the video games and everything else in-between. It's a comprehensive and very entertaining look at how this crazy idea stormed the imagination of the world, delivering something unique and exciting to fans young and old alike.
To usher in the release of Turtle Power: The Definitive History of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, we caught up with one half of the team responsible for this institution, Kevin Eastman, who, working equally alongside Peter Laird, was able to pull in all of his past influences and love for the comic book medium to create something the world had never seen before: Four brothers from the sewer raised on martial arts. And they all just happen to love pizza.
Even though it's been thirty years since pen first hit paper in creating the independently published Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles books, it feels like things are just getting started. Here is our exclusive conversation with Mr. Kevin Eastman, who even offers a review of the new movie:
I was a comic book collector as a kid. You're one of the few names my parents actually knew in terms of writers and creators of any specific title. Which I think speaks to how big of a rock star you guys were in most kids' households growing up.
Kevin Eastman: Ah. Well first, thank you. When I first told my parents what I wanted to do for a living, I showed them the first published book I did with Peter Laird, which was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I think they were a little afraid that I would be living in their basement for the rest of their lives. They never thought I'd make a living from this. Peter and I never thought we'd sell the first issue. We're pretty surprised it did as well as it did. We are humbled to still be talking about these Turtles now, thirty years later.
The movie hit last week. Do you have an official review?
Kevin Eastman: When Jonathan Liebesman came on board, on day two, he called me from the set and he wanted me to be involved. He wanted me to represent all things turtles. He said, 'I want something that relates to the older fans, as well as the new fans.' So I worked with the writers, the fantastic writers, Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, and we worked on early versions of the script. I helped with character designs. I have been involved with that for the last three or four years. I adore the film. I think the film is representative of what Nickelodeon did with the animated series. It sets a foundation and platform that they can tell other stories from. It sets up a new turtle universe, while embracing the old turtle universe. I was excited to see the film several times. It was great to see it again with a fan-based audience. Those are always the toughest critics. I wanted to see how they responded to it. I loved that, because they seemed to respond really well. The fans are the ones that gave me the greatest job in the universe. If they love the film, I sincerely look forward to making another one for them. I'm pretty psyched.
What aspect of the movie are you happiest with? And which aspect do you think the filmmakers got wrong?
Kevin Eastman: My favorite part of the movie is the tone. The movie really embraced the essence of what we did in the original black and white comic books. Where it has a nice edge to it. There is, what I call, serious martial arts. There is that aspect of teenagers respecting their father, studying martial arts, but wanting to be kids first and foremost. But we really wanted to make sure they included all of the humor, which is something we had from the very first earliest issues and going onto the earliest cartoon series. Humor was always a very important part. I feel that both Michael Bay and Jonathan Liebesman, and the whole team, really paid respect to all the turtle history, if you will, and they made a nice hybrid of hitting the reset button. Respecting everything that came before it, and taking a new direction. I know there has been some fan discussion about the looks of the turtles. My goodness, over the years, we've had many different looks for the turtles. What's always important to me is that the heart and soul of the turtles is always there. I can't say I have a least favorite part. Though, I would have loved to see Casey Jones. Hopefully we'll see him in the next installment, hint, hint, hint that he does show up...But I think they did a great job of turning this into a family friendly movie that pays respect to the entire turtle universe, if you will.
You want to know my least favorite part of the movie?
Kevin Eastman: Uh...Sure, please tell me!
The fact that there is no such thing as one hundred cheese pizza. When I saw that, I wanted that pizza so bad. Walking out of the theater to realize this does not exist was kind of a disappointment.
Kevin Eastman: (Laughs) You know, a lot of people ask me, where did the pizza thing come from? When I was in high school, so I could still buy art supplies, and eat at the same time, I worked in a pizza place growing up. I did some pretty crazy concoctions of pizza toppings. But a hundred cheese pizza is something I'd be first in line to try!
Now, talking about Turtle Power...Watching the history of the Turtles play out in this movie wasn't entirely accurate for me. I was 13 in 1984, and I got the original second issue of the Ninja Turtles, and I was hooked. But I never felt like I had discovered something the rest of the world knew nothing about. I lived in the small town of Philomath, Oregon. We weren't exactly on the cutting edge of hip new phenomenon. Other kids there knew the turtles. It was already a thing before the cartoon series ever hit. But the documentary makes it sound like this was some underground cult movement that no one really knew about before the cartoon series debuted. Maybe that was necessary in setting up the Turtle Power narrative. But watching the movie, I suddenly felt like I was special: Hey, I knew this before anybody else! But that wasn't really the case back in 1985. In my little world, everyone already knew about it...
Kevin Eastman: Well, you know, that's a really great question. What's fantastic, and almost unimaginable to us, was the highest number of comic books that we sold was about a hundred and ten or twenty thousand comic books. We had fans from the shelf. Fans that picked it up for the first time, and followed us. Many of them are still following us today. I call them the original fans. But when we did the cartoon show, suddenly we were going from 100 thousand comic books to millions and millions and millions of kids, from the ages of four and a half, five to ten. They got exposed to the turtles. That's where most people discovered the turtles, through that animated cartoon show. The video games. The new versions of the comic books, which of course out sold our original black and white comic books, and the movies. So, the original fans saw it in black and white, then the rest of the fans saw it in all the other entertainment stuff we did. I'm grateful to have them all, if that doesn't sound too weird. But the original fans, some of them rediscovered it through the cartoon show. They chased it back to the original comic books. That's even cooler. To bring it back down to a focus point, its amazing that whether we did the original black and whites, the animated shows, the movies, the video games, there was something in the turtles that seemed to attract fans and stayed with us. That is bewildering, cool, humbling and awesome all at the same time.
What is that like walking into any given store thirty years later, and still seeing this wall of merchandise? In the movie, the guy at Playmates says you have three years, tops, before the action figures disappear into the dustbin of history. That obviously didn't happen.
Kevin Eastman: The best way to relate to that? Back in June of 1988, when the first Playmates Toys hit the toy stores, Peter Laird and I were living in North Hampton Massachusetts, and we drove down to the big toy store chain at that time, it was called KB Toys. We drove down to the store, in Springfield, Massachusetts, and we wanted to see if the toys were actually on the shelves. We didn't believe that it would actually happen. As we're walking to the action figure isle, a mother is dragging this young child out of the store, and she's saying to this little person, 'No, I am not buying you one of those stupid Ninja Turtles!' Peter Laird and I looked at each other and went, 'My, god! What have we done?' From that day on...It always takes me by surprise. Again, it's with a humbling sort of awesomeness that I can mention to a young child or fan that I co-created the Ninja Turtles, and they react in such a great way...Its such a fantastic and humbling thing, as you can imagine. I was a kid growing up reading comic books, and the guys that inspired me to draw, I would tell them, 'You're the reason I was inspired to draw comic books. You're the reason I'm doing what I do.' They would react in a way, 'Thank you!' It is amazing and humbling to them. I always say that I feel like I stand on the shoulders of giants. The guys that inspire me. And now I am able to do that for young people...It's something that is hard to take. And its something I take with a great compliment, and I'm so grateful.
In the Turtle Power movie...I don't think the movie touches on this...You guys don't bring up the fact that after those first couple of black and white issues hit, and hit big within the comic community, you had so many imitator comic books hitting the shelf. I don't remember the full title, but my favorite was Adolescent Hamsters...I remember that one because I think it was the first 3D comic book I ever saw. What did you guys think at the time about all these rip-offs that just arrived at the comic book store in this gigantic tidal wave?
Kevin Eastman: Again...That one you mention is called Radioactive Adolescent Blackbelt Hamsters. It was awesome. I think we counted during that time period, 21, in the first three years that we hit. What they call the black and white comic boom and bust...A lot of people who saw us have success with the turtles, they parodied us. Which, we were a parody of all things comics. We parodied New Mutant, Ronin...We parodied Daredevil. We parodied all of the favorite things we loved about Jack Kirby, and everything else. It all went into this one comic book. We poured in our heart and soul, because all we wanted to do was tell our stories. So, we saw a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon. A lot of people were doing Adjective, Adjective, Noun, Noun titles. We found it flattering. We felt that their inspiration came from the same place that our inspiration came from, that we just wanted to be cartoonists, we just wanted to tell stories. I loved all of the parodies. I thought they were fantastic. Like I said, there were 20 or 21 of them.
Here in my office, I've always kept the rabbit. I think his name is Usagi Yojimbo. I know he wasn't part of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles original series, but he was brought in for a crossover. He's a more obscure character. I'm wondering, aside from Casey Jones, and Krang, and Rocksteady and BeBop, the guys we always hear about, are there any obscure characters you want to bring into TMNT 2?
Kevin Eastman: For sure! Stan Sakai is the one that created Usagi Yojimbo. We met him in the early days, when we were going to a lot of comic book conventions. And he was of that same crowd. Self-publishing, loving comic books. We love the medium. We wanted to write and draw and tell stories. We ended up falling in love with this Usagi character, and we ended up doing a series of crossovers in the original black and white comics. They went onto be included in the Turtles animated show and the Turtles toy line. We have just been a huge fan of Stan's forever. But yeah, there are characters [I'd like to see in a sequel]. One of my favorites is a character called Flaming Carrot, which was created by Bob Burden, who is a great friend of mine. A self-publisher. He did a lot of obscure characters. Dave Garcia did a character called Panda Khan, which we also included in some of the original comic books. I think there are a lot of worthwhile characters that would fit well within the new turtle universe. I think they would be great to see sometime. Maybe in a future cartoon show or a future movie we will see them added. That would be nothing more than superbly awesome to me.
One last thing before you go. Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation...How obscure is this live action TV show? I don't ever hear anyone bring it up when they talk about the turtles. It's not mentioned in Turtle Power. And it's pretty weird. What's the story behind that? I think it's available right now on Netflix...Is that like the hidden gem in the Ninja Turtle universe?
Kevin Eastman: To me it isn't, only in the sense that Peter Laird and I had come up with the concept of a fifth turtle named Kirby. When we developed this live action series with Saban and Fox Kids, they wanted to change our fifth turtle, who was a boy turtle, into a girl turtle. Peter was uncomfortable with that, but he allowed it to happen. We did 26 episodes. I was cleaning out the garage recently, and I pulled out a bunch of ratings. The show was rated number one and number two throughout the entire 26 episodes that it ran. Adding Venus De Milo as the fifth female turtle in that live-action series...It has some fans, but it is ultimately the least favorite, I think, of a lot of hardcore turtle fans. We had a lot of fun doing it, and we told some great stories in that series. I love it. It is known, but a lot lesser known than some of that other stuff.