Kevin Eastman was 21 when he created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He's 50 now, and the Turtles are still around. The past three decades have been a long, weird ride.
The Turtles' genesis story is a classic in the history of comics. Eastman was working as a short-order cook ("the best jobs were the ones where I could also eat") and sharing a house in Dover, N.H., with his friend and fellow graphic artist Peter Laird. Late one night in their living room, hopped up on too much T.J. Hooker and The A-Team, Eastman doodled a turtle. "I thought what would be the funniest animal to be a martial artist as skilled as Bruce Lee," he says by phone from vacation in Florida, his wife's home state. The couple is looking to move there from Los Angeles, where Eastman has spent the last 20 years.
"In hindsight I wish I could say we considered slugs or koala bears," he says, "but it really was just ninja turtles." No checklist of characteristics, no list of possibilities. Just turtles. Bam.
For sure it had something do with summering as a child at his grandma's house in Maine. Her house was near the outlet of a lake where Eastman and his brothers would go swimming: "There were these big snapping turtles. We'd put sticks in front of them and see if they'd bite the sticks."
That fateful night in New Hampshire, it was turtles with nunchucks. Eastman and Laird one-upped each other's sketches. One ninja turtle became four, each named after a Renaissance master, each with a different weapon. "It was, like, 'Here's the next big thing, ninja turtles. Ha-ha-ha,' " Eastman recalls. Laird added the "teenage mutant."
With "no distracting, paying work going on," they spent the next four months fleshing out the narrative. They borrowed $1,000 from Eastman's Uncle Quentin to print 3,000 copies of the resulting comic book in May 1984. Laird, who had worked for newspapers, sent out press releases.
After getting those initial 3,000 copies back from the printer, they made furniture out of the boxes, stacking them into makeshift tables and chairs. "We figured they take so long to sell, we'd have them around for a while," Eastman says.
They didn't. By fall, they were fielding requests for a second issue, which sold 15,000 copies. Eastman quit cooking at restaurants and, with Laird, began drawing full-time. Every issue thereafter sold a little bit better. By 1986, each new Turtles comic was selling well over 100,000 copies.
Cartoon and toy agents soon came calling. The Turtles weren't just a one-joke wonder. The story resonated with fans: four goofy misfit heroes who save the day. Eastman and Laird wrote the kind of characters they wanted to read — adventurous, not hyperviolent, not vulgar, "good clean fun." The Turtles didn't want vengeance. They just wanted to protect their friends, fight bad guys and eat pizza.
As Turtle lunch boxes and cookie jars flew off the shelves, Eastman and Laird became businessmen, spending 90 percent of their time managing their property and overseeing a worldwide licensing program. "We were very aware of the fact that guys like Jack Kirby made nothing off of their creations, while companies like Marvel and DC made millions and millions," Eastman says. To his chagrin, however, they weren't doing a whole lot of actual drawing.
Eastman eventually sold his interest in the Turtles to Laird. He did so partly because of a science fiction and fantasy magazine called Heavy Metal, which Eastman bought in 1990 and has been running ever since. Heavy Metal, which introduced American audiences to edgy, European-style comics drawn by underground artists, was a stark contrast to the superhero stuff saturating the U.S. market. There were H.R. Giger devils and Hajime Sorayama sexy android girls on the cover. There were tales about wimpy nerds who morphed into muscle-bound, monster-slaying, womanizing studs.
Eastman had first seen, and fallen in love with, the magazine as a high school junior. He is fond of saying, "I was exposed to Heavy Metal so I could create the Turtles, so I could buy Heavy Metal."
Many of the magazine's artists had been self-published. So when Eastman and Laird came up with the Turtles, they decided to self-publish, too, rather than sell to Marvel or DC.
The lucky result is that, when Hollywood came knocking, the pair was well-positioned to make decisions about the characters and to keep a healthy chunk of the profits.
While the magazine, and a movie inspired by it, were on Eastman's mind when he sold his Turtles share to Laird, so were some creative differences between the two men. "As time went on, I was more willing to push the Turtles into edgier kinds of stories," Eastman says. "My creative sensibilities were grounded in the Heavy Metal universe."