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How Kevin Eastman Invented the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Kevin Eastman
Kevin Eastman

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."

The last Turtle story Eastman worked on, Bodycount, was a "love poem" to John Woo films. It pushed the boundaries of where Laird was willing to go.

The Turtles had always been swashbuckling adventurers. "When we had violence, it always happened off-camera. You allude to a violent act without showing it," Eastman explains. If one of the characters took a swipe at a bad guy with a sword, for instance, you might see a little bit of blood spray, "but you wouldn't see an arm flying across."

In Bodycount, however, you saw more than flying appendages. You saw kicks and punches and strikes, and heads and eyeballs exploding, and stomachs being stabbed. "We took it to an extreme that was probably inappropriate," Eastman says with a laugh.

They subsequently decided if they were going to do a violent story, they would do it with other characters. They would "keep the Turtles pure."

"You can't go too far out of bounds or fans get angry with you," he adds. "They want their Turtles served just right."

More importantly, Eastman realized that with great power comes great responsibility. "It wasn't just two guys sitting in a living room in Dover, N.H., anymore. It was a property being enjoyed by people globally, many of them very young."

Though Eastman quit the Turtles to focus on Heavy Metal, the Turtles wouldn't quit him.

Even now, the half-shell empire keeps expanding. Laird carried the Turtle torch solo for a while but eventually grew weary of it and sold his share to Viacom. Then, a couple years ago, IDW Publishing asked Eastman to draw a cover for its brand-new Turtle comic book series.

Essentially, it's a rejiggering of the old series: It begins with the Turtles crawling out of the sewers and venturing topside for the first time at age 15. Before Eastman knew it, he was drawing more covers, arranging layouts, co-plotting issues, advising on a new Nickelodeon TV show and whipping up storyboards for a controversial, Michael Bay–produced Turtle movie that may or may not recast the Turtles as aliens from another planet. "It's like Michael Corleone," Eastman says. "They kept pulling me back in."

Granted, he had not strayed too far. Turtle fans have been following Eastman around for nearly 30 years. At comic conventions, working the Heavy Metal booth, he's still known as the guy who created the Turtles. The lines are long — four to five hours a month ago at Wizard World in New Orleans.

With any long-lived property, such as Spider-Man or the Avengers, popularity waxes and wanes. Currently, we are in a Turtle waxing period. Eastman recently did a 60-page Turtles annual. Published in October, Big Trouble in Little Italy, as it was called in-house, is a crime caper with gangsters and ninjas. It is the first full-length Turtle story he's done in 20 years.

Yes, he still remembered how to draw them. It's muscle memory, to some extent: Eastman attends about one convention a month, during which he generates 200 Turtle drawings a day for fans. He used to joke that he could draw the Turtles with his eyes closed. A fan once put him to the challenge — so somewhere out there is a fan with a Ninja Turtle sketch that looks like it was drawn by Picasso.

Drawing the Turtles every day again as a regular job, Eastman says, felt "like coming home." He slipped smoothly back into Turtle headspace, to ask the old familiar questions: "What would Rafael think? How would he react?"

Remembering the flow, choreographing the panels, considering pace and action beats again, was exhilarating.

These days, the Turtles have "gone generational." Eastman notes that the older folks — and by "older" he means late 20s and early 30s — who grew up with the original series now watch the new series with their children.

Eastman's own sons, ages 11 and 6, have come down with a bad case of Turtle fever. Well, the younger son, Shane, more than the older. Shane walked into his mother's room while she was cleaning out her closet. She unearthed some Turtle toys and Shane picked them up. "What the heck are these?" he asked. Mom popped in a DVD. "And he was immediately destroyed for life," Eastman says. "It hit him to the core."

Eastman now has firsthand knowledge of what so many parents went through in those early years. Their child becomes obsessed. At signings he often sees a very young person standing in line waiting for an autograph, behind them a parent, usually a little pissed off. "Because they've spent an incredible amount of money on Turtle stuff, and more than a few Christmas Eves putting together a stupid Turtle blimp or Turtle play set until 4 am."

So is he sick of them? Never. Not in his wildest dreams did Eastman imagine his creation would have this kind of staying power. "It's just a perfect storm of ... something," he says, for once at a loss for words. "And a whole lot of good luck."