Kevin Eastman: The Man Behind The Turtles
In the early 1980s, two lifelong comic book fans, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, launched their own comic business out of the home they shared in Dover, New Hampshire, calling it Mirage Studios, because as Eastman recalls, “It was a mirage — we didn’t have a studio, it was just our living room.”
During one nighttime work session, they were just doodling around and drew four turtles standing upright with masks and weapons. From there, they created a backstory — the turtles gained super-powers after being mutated by a mysterious substance — and a series of adventures for these characters. Once the first comic was finished, Eastman and Laird cleared out their bank accounts and borrowed money to publish it, even though, as Eastman admits, “We didn’t think we would sell a single copy.”
But it did sell — and in fact, it’s still selling. Those initial drawings became Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which has gone on to spawn countless iterations as cartoon series, live-action feature-length films, action figures and more.
Now more than 30 years old, those turtles have become arguably some of the most recognizable comic book figures ever. Eastman, who still has a hand in current versions of the series, will be among the featured artists at Amazing Hawaii Comic Con, taking place at Hawaii Convention Center Sept. 18-20 (see sidebar for event details).
At his Amazing Hawaii Comic Con booth, fans can expect to find rare posters, prints, collectables and other TMNT paraphernalia. Mostly, though, Eastman says that events like this are all about “meeting and greeting and getting a chance to spend time with each person who comes through the line.
“It means as much for (fans) who want to stand in line to meet me as it does for me to meet them and thank them for giving me the greatest job on the planet,” Eastman says. “I still get to get up every day and draw comic books.”
Only in his early 20s when the first TMNT comic was published, Eastman already had had a lifetime’s worth of studying comic books. As a kid growing up in Maine, he got a paper route just so he’d have money for comics.
“I just loved the escapism,” Eastman says. By age 9, he was drawing his own characters and crafting his own story lines — he knew he wanted to be a comic-book artist.
“I figured out early on that whatever you can imagine in your mind and whatever you wanted to see done, you could do it, there were no limits — and I think that was what was so exciting to me,” he says. “I loved being able to create these fantasy worlds — characters going back in time and having to deal with a dinosaur, or going to outer space and having an adventure on some lost planet in the middle of the universe.”
“I told my parents that I wanted to be a comic-book artist when I grow up, and from the looks on their faces, they were thinking, ‘Well, he is never going to move out of the basement his entire life,'” Eastman adds with a laugh.
And perhaps there were times that Eastman may have wondered if his parents were right. After all, those early years were punctuated by rejection letters from publishers and paltry part-time jobs. But he kept at it — taking art classes at night and submitting his work to various outlets.
It was through a small newspaper in Massachusetts, where Eastman had submitted a comic, that he was introduced to Laird — and it seems it was kismet. Both men had grown up reading and drawing comics, and both particularly enjoyed the work of Jack Kirby, who’d had a hand in creating many iconic Marvel characters like the X-Men and Avengers.
“With the Turtles, we thought, ‘Why don’t we put all of our favorite things that we like about comic books — ninjas, animal characters, superheroes, fantasy elements — and throw it all into a big bundle?” Eastman says.
Those first Turtles drawings are maybe not entirely recognizable as what TMNT looks like today. The first sketch, for starters, more closely resembled an actual turtle, but over time, they became much more human-like. The initial comics also were darker — filled with violence, and Turtles that are slightly more menacing than the joke-cracking, pizza-loving heroes that general audiences would be most familiar with.
And since those original comics, there have been various versions of the characters. Three different cartoon series, a few different strings of films and TMNT video games.
“We just couldn’t believe our good fortune,” Eastman says. “We always expected … people (would) grow out of the Turtles and move onto something else, but it kept going and going.”
TMNT, it seems, has aged well. So just what is it about these characters that seems to resonate so profoundly with audiences?
“(That’s) something that we asked ourselves so many times over the years,” Eastman says. “What is it that allowed me this incredible opportunity that 30 years after the Turtles were created, I am still talking about the Turtles?”
And he’s not only still talking about them, he’s still working with them, too. He serves as a consultant on the latest TMNT cartoon, which has been airing on Nickelodeon since 2012, and also contributes to the ongoing comics series via IDW Publishing, working with a team of other artists on plot development and drawing.
Eastman has stated in previous interviews that through all of TMNT‘s various adaptations, it has remained true to what he feels is the heart of the story, and of these characters. Perhaps, he postulates, therein lies the long-term appeal — maybe it’s that they are a family that doesn’t always get along, that they are not any particular race and thus universally relatable, or that they strive to do the right thing.
“The fact that (the audience) is still connecting with (TMNT), that they are still enjoying and wanting to be part of that universe is just the biggest compliment,” Eastman says.
While much of his time is consumed with TMNT, Eastman does have a few other projects in the works, including a new comic series called Lost Angeles, which he has been developing for a few years and is set to be released next spring. Here’s how he sums it up: “It’s a love story, but it’s also an action story, that takes place in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. It’s about people who fall in love and want to find a better place in this harsh environment.”
Looking ahead, Eastman still has a stack of other story ideas and sketches that he’d like to pursue at some point.
“I just want to enjoy what I enjoyed when I was 9 years old and to keep doing what I love,” Eastman says.
“It’s too much fun,” he adds. “It doesn’t feel like a real job.”
THE ARCHITECTS OF POP CULTURE
The Amazing Comic Con series has been taking place in cities that include Phoenix, Houston, Oklahoma City and Las Vegas for the last few years — but founder Jimmy Jay says that the lineup for the first-ever Amazing Hawaii Comic Con is one of the best it’s had.
“Considering the guest list that we are bringing out there, we are bringing the architects of pop culture,” Jay says. “Whether you go out and see the big summer blockbuster movies, or you buy superhero shirts, or you play video games, whatever your entry into comic books and superheroes is, we are bringing out those creators, people who actually are responsible for the characters, responsible for their creation and their storyline.”
In addition to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman, Amazing Comic Con also will feature Stan Lee, a former Marvel writer, editor and publisher whose credits include iconic comics such as The Avengers, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four. There’s also New Teen Titans creator George Perez, who has worked on Wonder Woman and The Avengers, as well as Rob Liefeld, the creator of Deadpool, which is set to be released as a feature film starring Ryan Reynolds next year.
The Amazing Comic Con series stems from a family-run comic book retail business that Jay started alongside his brother and mother more than 20 years ago. They spent years selling their products while touring comic cons — but in more recent years, they sought to create their own con, partly was a way to offer a more intimate alternative to other, bigger events.
“The Amazing Comic Con brand … is very much like those early cons that we used to go to — where it was primarily about the creators and the one-on-one iterations that the fans would get, as opposed to this big Hollywood production where you are just a number in the crowd,” he explains.
For all of the cities that it goes into, Jay explains, Amazing Comic Con strives to work with the community and help strengthen comic culture. In putting on the event, Jay has been collaborating with local comic book stores and has a number of Hawaii-based artists and groups slated to make an appearance — including Roy Chang, Jon Murakami, Free Isabelo, Bryan Makana Revell and more.
Amazing Hawaii Comic Con takes place from 3 to 8 p.m. Sept. 18, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sept. 19, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 20 at Hawaii Convention Center. Ticket prices start at $25 per day and also include weekend passes for $60. For more information and purchase tickets, amazinghawaiicomiccon.com. Tickets also can be purchased at the door.
When now-famous cosplayer Jessica Nigri dressed up as a sexy version of Pikachu at San Diego Comic Con in 2009, she didn’t know there was a name — let alone a whole subculture — for what she was doing. But when she returned home after that weekend, she found she had thousands of friend requests from strangers who had seen pictures of her at the Con.
“It was a really accidental fluke!” she explains. “I had to Google cosplay after I had cosplayed … and it just kind of went from there.”
Nigri, who grew up with a Resident Evil and Dungeons and Dragons-loving father, had always been into gaming and comics. So she took quickly to cosplaying, and since has served as a correspondent at various conventions and has attracted millions of followers on her social media accounts.
Nigri will be at Amazing Hawaii Comic Con all three days and will be available for pictures and signings. On Sept. 19, she will present an award to the winner of a cosplay contest.
“I really like … coming together with individuals who like the same thing,” Nigri explains. “You can be like, ‘Oh, you like Pokemon? I like Pokemon!’ and then talk for hours. Nothing beats having a good conversation and forming great relationships with people over common ground.”
Nigri is set to unveil three new costumes at the convention. She can’t reveal what they are yet — but she does offer this tease: “One will be from League of Legends, one will be from Final Fantasy, and one will be a Disney character — so you can guess what kind of aquatic Disney movie I am going to take advantage of being on the beach in Hawaii.”