It was more than 30 years ago that Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird came up with the idea for crime-fighting reptiles known as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” And, to this day, the franchise is still going strong. Currently, there’s an animated Nickelodeon series in its fourth season, with a fifth on the way; IDW Publishing is running a comic book series in which Eastman is involved; and there’s a new feature-length sequel to the 2014 film – subtitled “Out of the Shadows” – hitting theaters later this year.
During the Jan. 1-3 weekend, Eastman made an appearance at the semi-annual SacAnime convention In Sacramento, Calif. to meet fans, sign autographs, and discuss his past work with the “Ninja Turtles,” as well as some of the things he’s doing now with the franchise. While at the event, the Chico Movie Examiner participated in a roundtable interview with Eastman. Other journalists at this roundtable included Jay Snook of The Good Men Project and Jeff Baham of the Disney-based podcast, Mousetalgia.
The conversation was recorded after Snook had a one-on-one interview with Eastman, and Baham had asked another question. But you can find both of their reports on their respective websites when they are published.
Not only did Eastman talk about the “Ninja Turtles” during this discussion, but he also talked about the current state of the “Star Wars” franchise, and how he, like George Lucas, had stepped away for a brief period of time from his own creation. And while the prequels aren’t as beloved as the original trilogy, Eastman is not ashamed to admit that he found enjoyment in them to whereas most fans did not.
David Wangberg: With all the movies that come out and all the cartoons, how much say do you have going into each and every single project, and how much time do you have to contribute to each and every single project that comes out?
Kevin Eastman: In the early days, everything. Pete [Laird] and I had complete control. We had the final say in approval of all the first 300 cartoon shows. We worked on every script and we had full approval of the likeness of the turtles and how they portrayed everything in the first three movies. Pretty much anything from probably to 1989 until 1997 or 1998, anything the world saw with “Turtles,” we saw it first and approved it or physically worked on it in some capacity. The live action series and the 2007 movie were the final ones, and then I stepped away because I bought a company called Heavy Metal Magazine in 1991, and I was doing a lot of work there.
So Pete managed the 2000 Fox Kids series, and he had full approval over that. Eventually, when it was sold to Viacom, that was the end to having approval rights and that kind of stuff. And then Pete basically retired and stepped away and relaxed. And, oddly enough, for the new IDW series, the Nickelodeon series, and the new movies, they brought me back to consult. I don’t have approval, but I consulted heavily on the first movie. I still do a bunch of consulting. In fact, I wrote an episode of the “Turtles” cartoon show for next season, and then I work intimately on the IDW series. I sit with them and plot it out. We just finished issue 50 in October. I do a cover for each issue and more for that. So, it’s more directly involved with that. Again, in the early days, everything that was involved was “Turtles” went through us.
Jeff Baham: As the creator of a universe of characters that you’ve had to step away from, do you have any resonation or sympathy for George Lucas and the “Star Wars” situation?
KE: Oh, yeah. That’s a good question. But what I think is… look, I’m one of the people that like the first three episodes, and I know everybody hates them – not hates them, but… to me, the “Star Wars” universe was… I grew up as a “Star Trek” fan in 1977 when the first “Star Wars” movie came out. I think I saw “Episode IV” five times at the theater, and I still have every single toy and all that stuff. Then the first three… the visuals are great, the story I wish was a little stronger and a bit different, but it was still “Star Wars.” So, it’s like, “Man, this is awesome.”
The new movie, looking from a creator’s perspective, I can see if [Lucas] is having some difficulties with it. I think he likes it in some ways, and there are some other things that he would not have done with it. And that’s the way that I look at it, even the most recent “Turtles” movie that came out. I did a lot of consulting on it, and there were things in that movie that, if I had approval, I would have done differently. But that was director’s vision, that was the writer’s vision, and, again, it may not be my favorite version, but I still like a lot of what they did with it. Unless you’re doing it, and that’s the beauty of doing what I do as a comic book writer and artist and everything. When I’m sitting down and doing comic books, I am in full complete control of whatever I write and whatever I draw. Every time you take it to… even with the early “Turtles” animated series, we adapted a lot of things for a younger audience. There was some stuff in the show that I loved, there was some stuff in the show that I didn’t like as much. But it was a different version of the “Turtles,” a different universe.
Each version of the “Turtles” has stuff that [is different]. For me, the best “Turtles” movie was the first, because it’s a perfect blend of the animated and the original, black and white series. The second movie of the original series, I like that a bit less, because they changed so much from the original script that we approved, and they made it more like a live action cartoon. The third movie was sort of like… the first one is my favorite, the third is my second favorite, and the second is my third favorite. It’s tough, but I grew up on Marvel comics and DC comics and things, and they were always changing creative teams. I remember I was a huge Gene Cullen/Roger Mckenzie “Daredevil” fan, and I remember when they brought in this new penciler for “Daredevil #158” named Frank Miller, and I’m like, “Hey, this guy’s not bad.” Then for the next 30 issues, it was like, “Ahh, s***.” Batman has multiple versions and incantations, and there are some I like less and some I like a lot more, and the same with the “Turtles.” There are some I like a lot and some I don’t like as much, but I still like them.
DW: In the 90s, they had the Jim Henson costumes for the “Turtles” characters, which I loved, and now they have it to where they’re more CG. For personal preference, would you prefer them to do the puppets again or is it OK with the CG?
KE: Well, what’s crazy is when you think about it, when we worked on the first “Turtles” movie, that was the make or break thing; it was how to pull these off to make them believable on the big screen. And thank goodness for Jim Henson’s movie magic and what he did. I mean, they created a lot of the technology and a lot of the stuff they did for that first “Turtles” movie was done for that movie. It was literally created to make those [things] happen. The first time I saw them on set, it was like, “Holy s***, this could actually work.” It’s one thing drawing them, it’s one thing animating them, but for live action, I think that movie holds up very, very well.
DW: It does, yeah.
KE: But then, when you get to the technology that’s available today, and you think when the first “X-Men” movie came out, it’s like, “Finally, technology has caught up to where they can bring comic books to life.” “The Avengers” movies, to me, are perfect superhero movies because you believe, thanks to CG, that all those things can happen in the real world and really take that fantasy and that suspension of believing to a reality. With the new “Turtles,” there was a discussion for a long time, because we had met with the Henson company, and one of the things they had been doing with not only “The Muppets,” but in some early development of some other things, they were doing part puppetry and part CG enhancement, sometimes physical bodies with CG for acting in the faces and some other enhancements and things like that.
But ultimately, it ended up being cheaper to do all CG and they felt they could do more with it in bringing these characters to life in a way that seemed to fit. I thought there was some great stuff, some great designs. It wasn’t so much the design of the turtles; I just think it was, for the most recent Paramount movie, some of the story flaws were the things that really bothered me more than the effects.
DW: I remember when the trailer came out, and people were like, “They don’t like turtles.” I mean, they’re green, but they’re not the characters that you designed back when the comics started and when the movies came out, and it threw a lot of people off.
KE: [laughs] What’s funny, and I laugh because, when we did the original cartoon series in the late 80s, people were like, “Oh, my god. They look terrible; it’s nothing like what you guys are doing. These are the worst version of the ‘Turtles’ ever.” And then it becomes the most popular version. And you look at different versions of the “Turtles” along the way. Even when Nickelodeon put out the first images of the new cartoon show, the fans were all up in arms like, “You’re destroying my childhood” and “Why do the turtles look like that?” Now, it’s like, most of the people I see at shows and stuff, they go, “When I saw the first images of the turtles in full CG, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to hate this show.’ But then I watched it, and I really love this show.” They get past the look of them, which I think is really awesome.
And the development on the new movie, the director really gravitated to this… we did a three-issue series with an artist named Michael Zulli back in probably the late-80s. He’s a cartoonist, but he used to do a lot of nature art. His version of the turtles looks almost exactly like the new ones. It was a more realistic version of the turtles, and out of all the different versions the director looked at, he said, “I really like that; it’s a look that hasn’t been seen,” and he thought it was a good direction to go. The fans saw it and were like, “Ugh, we hate this!” [laughs] And a lot of those fans say that once you get past the first time you see them, and you start getting into it, it’s still the same turtles. Their character, personality, and heart and soul are all there. Once you get past that and you go for the ride, I think a lot of people went, “Well, it’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be.” [laughs]
Jay Snook: At least they weren’t aliens; that’s always a plus. There was one time Michael Bay was going to do that.
KE: See, what’s funny about that is that it was not really a thing. Michael Bay, when they made that announcement… it was the turtles’ ooze that created them. We did that in the original comics, issues four; five; six; and seven. It was the Utroms that became the Krang, our alien origin, and the ooze is from an alien origin. The liquid that mutated them is alien, but Michael Bay just came off finishing one of the “Transformers” movies and showed up after working for 36 hours straight and was sent right up on the stage, and he said, “So, what’s the movie going to be about?” And somebody was like like, “Well, we’re focusing on the mutagen and the alien origin of it…” And it was one of those where [Bay] is like, “OK,” and he goes up to say it, and he’s like, “Oh, yeah, they’re going to be aliens.” And people were like, “What?” [laughs] People working on the movie were like, “What? No, no, no! It’s the mutagen that’s alien.” [laughs]
JS: That’s one real good thing they did in 2005. They did a real good origin story with the utron there, and even with like Master Yoshi and his friend. That was really cool. I liked that a lot about the 2005 one.
KE: Yeah, that series was good.
DW: With keeping the “Turtles” going for so long, how do you keep it to where you can keep the fans from the beginning happy still, and also attract new fans? What are the challenges you have to face in order to make that happen? What do you have to change from what you started with to now?
KE: That’s a really good question, because if you think about the reason the first comic book sold, the fans somehow gravitated to it and liked them and bought them. At its most successful, I think we had 100,000 comics that we were selling. Then when it came out as the animated series, that’s where most of the world discovered it, and what was adapted and what became the known universe where millions and millions of people saw it. That was really… and even now, it’s like, I see people at shows sometimes who go, “I first saw it as the cartoon; I didn’t even realize there was an original black and white series.” So, you fast forward through each different version of “Turtles” even up until today with what we’re doing. The Nickelodeon series is now five seasons; I’ve been working on the IDW series for five years. The fans will basically tell us… essentially, you can’t tell a child what’s popular and what’s not. And that’s what’s kind of neat about going to shows these days, especially in 2014, which was our 30th anniversary year. And we’ll go to these shows and there’d be a mom or a dad or both who were fans of the original series that are enjoying the new series, and they’ll usually have a child that’s four, five, six, or seven [years old] dressed in a turtle costume. And it’s like, “No, so-and-so discovered it and fell in love with it. And now they’ve worn the turtle costume for three Halloweens in a row.”
And that’s the thing. You have to write the best show you can and keep the heart and soul of the original characters, so you don’t turn them into aliens and p*ss off the original fans. So you keep the heart and soul there, the comedy there, and the brotherhood. All of the components that were there from day one in the new series, but they might look different. Some of the adventures might splinter off into different areas. The fans will let you know if they like it or don’t. In the new IDW series, we changed a bunch of things that I thought the fans were going to go nuts over. We had a reincarnation story where Hamato Yoshi had four sons and they were killed in Ancient Japan, reincarnated as the turtles. The turtles were lab experiments, and they were named by April, not Splinter like in the original series. When they first went into the sewer and got exposed to the mutagen, Raphael gets lost and separated from the group initially over the first bunch of issues, and they finally get together. I thought the fans were going to have a lynch mob outside of the house. But when they started reading it, it’s like IDW’s second best comic book line. We just finished issue 50, and we have this whole legion of fans that have come onboard and really dig this version. That’s the key component; they’ll let us know if they like it or if they don’t. And it’s tough.
I think about, talking about George Lucas and “Star Wars” at this point, J.J. Abrams has really had a tough nut to crack. I thought he did it really well when he redid “Star Trek,” which I was one of the original fans of that. It’s like you have to find that place in space and middle ground where you can really recreate that same feeling from guys like me that saw [“Star Wars”] five times in the theaters in 1977. You have to have those, and then you’re introducing it to a whole new world of fans. It’s tough. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing it.
KE: No, we actually have a friend of ours in the military – we live in San Diego – and they rented out a whole theater. We were invited, but that was the night of our work party. Our son went opening night and saw it, and we didn’t get to see it. And then every time we’ve tried to go over the Christmas holidays, we just had a bunch of family in and stuff, and it was sold out, sold out. We just couldn’t get tickets. Again, I’m one of the guys that found something to love and enjoy in “The Phantom Menace” and the original three. I’m sure this one’s going to be good.
JB: I’m glad that, as a creative professional, you’re willing to say that, because I also grew up – I was nine when “Star Wars” came out – so it was the sweet spot. I saw it multiple times, and those prequels, yeah, I could see the acting was poor. But I couldn’t get past seeing the Jedi in action. It was my life growing up.
KE: To me, Jar Jar was annoying, but he wasn’t that annoying. Some of the acting, some of the other stuff wasn’t what you hoped it would be. But the visual sets and the experience, and the Jedi are back, and the whole thing; you get those massive shots of the battle scenes and Yoda fighting. It was like, “F**k, that was awesome. I don’t care; it was still great.” It hit that spot, but a lot of fans were like, “Ugh, he ruined it.” Well, it’s his version. And you think, you know, Lucas got away with Ewoks and some of the stuff that he did, and some of the stuff which… that whole thing wasn’t my favorite part of “Return of the Jedi,” but it was part of the whole thing, and it worked.
Thanks to Kevin Eastman for taking the time to chat about “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” at SacAnime.