There has been a lot of activity in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle world lately. Last summer at San Diego Comic-Con, Nickelodeon announced that a new TV series starring Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello would be returning to the small screen. Meanwhile, IDW secured the rights to relaunch the comic book series. When they did that, last fall, they brought back an artist familiar to TMNT fans across the world — Kevin Eastman.
Eastman co-created the series with Peter Laird inside a New Hampshire living room they called Mirage Studios twenty-eight years ago. Inspired by Dave Sim's Cerebus the Aardvark and Wendy and Richard Pini's Elfquest, they decided to self-publish the black and white comic. It was a an immediate success and, by the end of the 1980s, TMNT had become a bona fide pop culture phenomenon. But Eastman has had little to do with the franchise in the 21st century. He sold his ownership of TMNT years ago and has been busy working on cult favorite magazine Heavy Metal, which he publishes and edits, as well as other projects.
Recently, though, Eastman got a call from IDW. Soon he was working with writer Tom Waltz and artist Dan Duncan on the first four issues of the latest incarnation of the Turtles.
“It's really been a blast in a life-changing way,” says Eastman as we chat at Meltdown Comics. “I had honestly forgotten how much I love comics. I love drawing them. I like writing them.”
TMNT in its various forms is a big part of “Lost Angeles: 35 Days with Kevin Eastman,” the exhibit/pop-up shop currently open at Meltdown Comics. It's not everything in the exhibit, though. “Lost Angeles” is a retrospective and Eastman's done a lot of work since the first rough sketches of those four famous turtles.
The inspiration for the show was the recent Tim Burton exhibition at LACMA.
“I wanted to do this show where it would be something fun, even if every week you came back,” says Eastman.
For 35 days (“one for each year that Heavy Metal has been in existence,” says Eastman), fans can check out different facets of the artist's career. Eastman himself will be on hand many of those days, live painting inside the shop. There's also a studio filled with items from Eastman's own workspace, which will be auctioned, with some of the proceeds benefiting The Hero Initiative. Additionally, fans will have the chance to see, and even purchase, artwork and scripts from the early comic book.
Every Wednesday, a new piece of Eastman's body of work will be revealed to coincide with New Comic Book Day. Last night was dedicated to Underwhere, a kid-friendly graphic novel released back in the '90s. The following two weeks will feature projects Eastman currently has in development, including the “slacker comedy” Biz n Buzz and “a post-apocalptic warrior sort of story” called Lost Angeles. Beginning on December 28, the exhibit will focus on the 35th anniversary of Heavy Metal, which Eastman bought in 1990.
“Heavy Metal helped me create the Turtles so I could buy Heavy Metal,” says Eastman.
Eastman grew up in Maine and, by his own admission, was “the kind of kid who always drew.” He was also heavily into comic books.
“From the time I read my first Jack Kirby comic book, that's all I would tell my parents that I wanted to do,” he says.
But Eastman eventually sought something more than the superhero titles he had been reading. That's when he found Heavy Metal.
“Heavy Metal re-inspired me,” says Eastman. “I realized I could draw any kind of comic book.”
Because of Heavy Metal, Eastman discovered underground comic artists like R. Crumb, Vaughn Bodé and Richard Corben. He found out about people who were working outside of the mainstream, comic book industry.
Later on, Eastman ended up sharing space with fellow artist Peter Laird. One night, Eastman recalls, he sketched an upright turtle, wearing a mask and carrying nunchakus and called it a Ninja Turtle. He then told Laird that it was “going to be the next big thing.”
“He had to top my drawing and of course I had to top his drawing so I did a sketch of four standing in this dramatic X-Men pose or whatever,” says Eastman. “He inked it in and when he inked in my pencil drawing, he added Teenage Mutant.”
Eastman continues, “The next day — we didn't have any distracting paid work going on– we said, let's come up with a story that tells how these characters became the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
Thanks to a loan from Eastman's uncle, they were able to self-publish a small run of the comic. It was popular, so much so that their print runs increased dramatically with new issues. And because this was a DIY effort, they owned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and, when TMNT hit big, they profited. Then Heavy Metal went on the market and Eastman was able to buy the publication that had inspired him years earlier.
Throughout his career, Eastman has touched on a number of different audiences. With Heavy Metal, he's helped champion the finest artists working within the realms of sci-fi and fantasy. It's with his breakthrough work, though, that he's reached the widest audience. From its beginnings as an indie comic geared towards older readers, to its later incarnations as kid-friendly cartoons, toys and movies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has amassed a following that spans generations.
“After 28 years, different people's entry point into the Turtle universe comes from so many different directions,” says Eastman. “There are people who saw the cartoon and never realized that it was a black and white comic book.”
He adds, “A lot of people who found it as a comic book, we lost a lot of those guys. Those guys wouldn't follow the animated series or they felt that it was a sell-out of some kind. They like the original version.”
Still, TMNT has endured. And, like a lot of other characters with histories firmly entrenched in the 1980s, Eastman and Laird's four “heroes in a half shell” are about to hit the radar of a whole new generation of comic book readers and TV watchers.