TCJ ARCHIVE

The Kevin Eastman Interview Part 2

From The Comics Journal #202 (March 1998)

TCJ interviews tend to break the Internet. Due to length, this has been broken into two parts: Part 1.

TUNDRA

GROTH: Next up is Tundra. I’m not sure where to begin with Tundra.

EASTMAN: Let’s skip the whole Tundra thing! [Laughs.]

GROTH: Let me start off by asking you this. You had virtually unlimited resources, at least relative to what an alternative comics publisher needed. And yet Tundra crashed and burned in three years. I’m not sure how that’s possible.

EASTMAN: With me, anything’s possible. No, that’s a bad joke. Where to begin: Like you said, it’s a good question. Tundra was started as a follow up to the Creators’ Bill of Rights, coupled with this concept I had mentioned to you earlier, like when I would meet artists at conventions — comic creators, artists, writers — that were always sort of hacking out all this stuff for other companies to pay the bills, to support wives and families. They’d say, “I really just wish I could get ahead enough where I could devote the kind of time I want to do the ultimate thing for me, the most creatively satisfying thing of my career!” And I really started to fall in love with that concept of “What if?” So after a lot of these same kinds of examples, that’s where I decided that I had the financial resources, and I felt that I had learned so much from Mirage, and I felt I knew everything, which was obviously the first mistake. I had resources to put in place a first-class facility with the ability to bring in qualified key people that could run it, instill a “philosophy,” to give the creators a home, a place to go to, where they could get the financing to explore this great creative novel that was inside of them, and see it through to completion in a well-done, potentially well-publicized sort of venue! They would have approval over very nearly every aspect, and they would be totally involved. They would realize that if we wanted to run a series of ads, then those ad costs would come out of the share of the profits, until the book recouped its costs. I wanted them to feel in control. They would sign off on everything, every step of the way. They approved everything from pre-press to ads. They would have total say over their projects, and profits. All of the earlier contracts were an 80/20 in their favor —

GROTH: — this is 80/20 of net?

EASTMAN: … 80/20 of net, at recoupment of cost. What they wanted, for the most part, and what we tried to do, was make them aware of every cost. “Everything in the front window.” It was like, OK, we’ve got a couple bids on pre-press, and this is the lowest one, and this is the one we recommend, you choose one. It’s going to cost $120 a page for that bid, and we want your OK now that you know it’s going to cost that much. This is what we’re going to spend on advertising, and it’s going to cost this much. Do you approve? Because it’s “your money” as well that we’re spending here.

Bratpack ©1992 Rick Veitch

GROTH: You would tell creators this?

EASTMAN: Yeah, in nearly every case. That’s how Rick [Veitch] worked on Brat Pack. All of the early ones were done that way. Steve [Bissette] worked like this on a number of his projects. We did the same with Dave McKean, with everyone, all the creators. Tundra was something I created — I wanted it to be the Apple Records of comics, done with that kind of a philosophy of giving complete creative freedom to the artists. You allow them the best studios and support to put out these great things and it should succeed, right? But I didn’t want it to end like Apple Records ended. Well, it’s still around today, but you know, when it ended the first time or whatever.

GROTH: Yeah. For all intents and purposes, it ended.

EASTMAN: What basically happened was, I let it get out of control, in every aspect. I took on way too many projects, way too soon. With the staff — I had this great idea, and even today, as stupid as it sounds now, I still think that it had some merit. I thought if I found people that would be put into specific positions within the company that had experience in outside business, but not experience in comics, then they wouldn’t know the limitations that “comics” people know. If you went around and got Bob Schreck from there and you got so-and-so from here, they would only know comics stuff. So if you said, “OK, Bob, we need to promote this.” Or whomever. And they’d go, “OK, we’ll go to the Journal, we’ll go to CBG, we’ll go to Wizard, and who’s the other one? End of list.” Those were the limitations I wanted to move beyond. I felt that someone that wasn’t from within the industry wouldn’t stop there. What would stop them from going to Rolling Stone, or from going to other places that might really find this work interesting and find us that “new” audience. So, I hired my uncle Quentin, as the president — I mentioned him earlier, he lent us some money to start the Turtles. As much as I might say that I know it was a wrong choice now, for sure, I’d like to think I made the decision on the guy for his qualifications. He had been a sales rep for printing companies, he knew the printing industry, he knew pre-press, he’d been in those business for four or five years. Then he’d been in computers for a few years. He was running an office of 70 people when I hired him away from a consulting company. I feel and believe that I hired him because I felt he brought in some real-world business knowledge, and not just because he helped us out and I wanted to thank him. But even in my own mind, it’s a pretty fine line there.

GROTH: It’s hard to know.

EASTMAN: It’s hard to know. Ultimately he came in and he had a set of his own rules on how to run a company. He’d say, “You can’t give 80 percent of the profit to the creator, because we can’t run a company on the 20 percent.” I said, “Well, look. We’re going to monitor all the costs. We’ll be able to recoup those costs, all of them, so why can’t we be satisfied with 20 percent of the profits!?” I really threw him into an environment and set up rules that no normal business can survive under.

GROTH: Did he explain that to you?

EASTMAN: Yeah, a lot of times.

GROTH: He told you that no business can survive adhering to these rules?

EASTMAN: Mm-hm, but “I knew everything,” right?!

GROTH: So then, what did you do with that advice?

EASTMAN: I believed that it could. I said, “How do you know?” He said, “You know, you’re just not leaving enough margin for errors.” And I said, “These books are going to be really successful. And these books are going to be really profitable. These books will be able to, through this company that we’re building, be taken into Hollywood, and we’ll be able to exploit them into properties where we can receive a portion of the revenues if they become movies, TV shows, or toy concepts. It’ll all work out. It’ll balance out.” [Laughs.]

GROTH: So you hired someone for his knowledge, and then refused to use his knowledge. [Laughs.]

From Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 (1984) ©1984 Mirage Studios

EASTMAN: Exactly. I really crippled him. A lot of this was — and I certainly take all the blame for it — a lot of this was Steve Bissette, and Rick Veitch and other people, who were helping design this new thing that would break all the rules. With me leading, and saying, “Well, what else should we do, guys? How should we make this really fair?” And they would give input, of like, “Well, this is all the bad stuff that happened to us. Let’s find a way around this. Let’s find a way to do it right this time!” Now there’s no fucking way possible you can give a freelancer in Minnesota health insurance from a corporation in Massachusetts. We tried to do stuff like that, and it was just … [Groth laughs.]

GROTH: You tried to do that?

EASTMAN: We tried to insure these people, and give them benefits, things they needed but couldn’t get with any other company.

GROTH: I guess in retrospect it’s better you didn’t or the company would have only lasted two-and-half years. Tundra’s fascinating. I want to go through it, and I don’t want this to be just a litany of horror stories. But one thing I don’t understand is why … it appears to me that from the very beginning it was disastrous. But what surprises me is that steps could not be taken over the course of three years to slow down this runaway train of losses. It’s just hard for me to comprehend at some point that you, or someone you hired, wouldn’t step in and say, “OK, this has got to stop. And these are the concrete steps you have to take to stop it.” I guess you know that we have a lot of internal documents from Tundra.

EASTMAN: Oh, cool! I have all of mine as well!

GROTH: Minutes of meetings and year-end reports and things of that nature … and they’re grimly hilarious in the sense that everyone is floundering around. Everyone knows there’s a crisis, but no one knows what to do about it. Let me just start from the beginning. One of the criticisms I’ve heard is that there was a lot of nepotism involved.

EASTMAN: There was a lot of nepotism because I hired my uncle?

GROTH: Well, you hired your uncle to be president. And then you hired your cousin Michael to be production assistant.

EASTMAN: Yeah, that’s correct.

GROTH: And then you hired your brother-in-law to be in charge of sales and distribution.

EASTMAN: That’s correct also.

GROTH: And your sister to be the director of the Words and Pictures Museum. And none of the relatives had any experience in comics or publishing. That seemed like a bad move. [Laughs.]

EASTMAN: Not to justify any of those moves, because I made them and still stand by them, but in the case of Kelly Meeks, who married my sister Maryann, besides being an extremely bright, hard worker, Kelly was troubleshooting computers for Union Mutual and major companies like that. He knew how to set up systems, how to manage systems, he’d been an office manager where he worked, and yes, because he was related for sure. But, he had the exact skills we needed for Tundra, “computer networking,” big time.

Michael Eastman, he was actually brought in in a different way, as a summer intern at first, and it evolved from there to a full-time office position, and it wasn’t working out. At the point when he was going to be fired, Mark Martin said, “Look, I really think Michael has some merits, and I like him as a person, and I want to try and make a place for him in the company.” So Mark moved him to the art department.

Maryann, as far as hiring her for the Words and Pictures Museum, it’s something that she approached me on and I was very excited to work with her. I had started actually with another person that wasn’t working out; it was floundering around. I basically felt she could do anything she put her mind to and she grew up around my art. She was the best person for the job in my mind. The Museum would not be here if it wasn’t for Maryann or Fiona Russell. They pulled it out of my dreams and made it a reality. But yeah, there was some nepotism there for sure.

For Tundra, whether there’s nepotism or no nepotism, you have a leader that’s unclear about his message and is saying yes to projects when people are screaming at you that you have too many already! Tundra was growing in a way I thought was appropriate, but in reality it was way too fast, and I never got the foundation solid. Under any rules, it just doesn’t fly.

I had this crazy plan of building this empire that would ensure success. We’d have Heavy Metal in the States; that would reach one specific audience, a big one, of older comic readers. Plus, there were a lot of European creators that I wanted to work with as well as to be able to sell Tundra’s projects overseas for reprint rights that would help offset some of the costs. There also were a lot of British creators that I was already working with, when I met Dave Elliot, and founded Tundra U.K. There was a recording studio in Maine, the story of my life: when I looked at it, it was making money so I bought it, and suddenly it became something that was losing money! I bought it to interact with some “comic meets music” projects I wanted to do to reach another new audience. We were going to work on this project with George Pratt called See You in Hell, Blind Boy, which would have a blues track recorded along with it. A graphic novel not unlike the Voodoo project Bill Sienkiewicz did. We were also doing some adult audio books; we wanted to do some children’s audio books. We were trying to look at things that worked in the real publishing world. Christ, we had Ian Ballantine, who was consulting for us, pointing to things that were working “out there,” and I desperately wanted to do something to make the jump into bookstores, which was probably the biggest fucking joke.

From the Tundra edition of Understanding Comics ©1993 Scott McCloud

The only Tundra thing that I actually got through to bookstores was the first printing of Understanding Comics. But, fuck. I believed I was armor-plated and unstoppable. I thought I would have all the resources I needed with some of the finest work from some of what I thought were some of the best creators in the field, and that this would be the “comics company” that would break down some of those barriers. By the time I arrived at the cold “reality” of my “fantasy,” I’m killing myself for something that’s never going to work: it’s too late! This whole time, as long as I’m physically awake, I’m working. Either related to Mirage or related to Tundra: In a bed that I made myself, for sure. And I was just getting fucking tired. I really thought that Tundra would be something. But it was ludicrous. I thought I would spend a year forming this brilliant company that would break all the rules. I’d bring all these talented people in and then expect them to climb inside my head, read my mind, and try to make these impossible things happen. At the same time I’m a poor leader crippling them. Quentin would say to the staff, “We can’t do this and this and this,” and the staff would come and see me, and say “Quentin said we couldn’t do that.” And I’d say, “Fuck it, go ahead. Yeah, you can do that.” And it crippled his ability to be a president, to do his job. So there I was in the middle of it, fucking it up, but still thinking I’d spend a year, and get it underway, and then I could go back to drawing, and be one of the creators working for this amazing company. It was an epic clusterfuck.

FROM DAY ONE

GROTH: Let me skip back for second. When you first were forming Tundra. The first thing you did was hire your uncle Quentin.

EASTMAN: Yes. Quentin then hired Susan Alston, who went on to the Comic Legal Defense Fund, and Dave Sim’s better half. [Laughter.]

GROTH: That’s redundant.

EASTMAN: [Laughs.] And then Kelly: Kelly Meeks was brought in. He was there setting up the computer systems. Then I hired Mark Martin who was definitely one of the first four or five. I wanted somebody that knew the process of finish art to finished book, and he could do it all.

GROTH: At this point, you were pretty hands-on. You were hiring people, you were telling them what you wanted done …

EASTMAN: Yes, and I was working out the brilliant business plan mentioned above.

GROTH: Because I’m curious as to how hands-on you were throughout the three years, versus what was delegated.

EASTMAN: I would bring in employees and artists. The creators would talk to me, and we’d set a deal. And I’d pass it off to legal, and for various reasons it wouldn’t get done, so then I wouldn’t hold up the creative work, I’d pass it off to the crew — we didn’t have an editorial staff. I had this idea that we’d have people that would be straw bosses, that would help shuffle the project through the “process” the way the creator wanted to see it done, without giving editorial comment, but they ended up becoming editors if the creators wanted feedback. And that was clearly fine. So I’d bring them in and try to make everything agreeable and then sort of pass it on, probably ill-informed, and without enough detail, without enough personal follow-up, to a staff that I expected to do miracles.

GROTH: One of the things that Steve Bissette said in his interviews was, “Some things were askew from day one. Much of what was set up at Tundra was set up with this kind of fishing rod philosophy. ‘We will take ideas that sound good, or look practical from different sources. For instance, Dave Sim says editors are bad. We won’t have editors.’ That’s clearly nuts.” And I guess you discovered that it was indeed clearly nuts after a while. [Laughs.]

EASTMAN: Yeah, that’s one of my favorites, and Dave Sim wasn’t the only one complaining about editors, by the way.

GROTH: You actually thought that you didn’t have to have editors?

EASTMAN: Yeah. I didn’t think we needed that “intrusion” on a creator’s work, and the reason for this was how many horror stories have we all heard from somebody that’s working for DC, or whoever, that would describe this: “You’re dealing with an editor that’s a fucking frustrated writer because they’re not good enough to become a writer, so what are they? They’re an editor. So then you have this editor person who is perceived to be, in their own mind, a very talented writer.” Then you have this writer who has to deal with this, say, “Man, I had to put in three sex scenes, and two other crazy scenes, that I knew the editor would take out so they could justify their salary and wouldn’t fuck with the rest of my story. Now, if you just let me do it without an editor, I would get the exact kind of story I wanted.”

So I said, “I don’t want an editor as far as what the traditional comics sense of the editor is. I want somebody who’s going to proofread the work, to make sure that there’s no spelling mistakes, that all the pages are in the right order, that this work is shepherded from creator to pre-press back to creator for approval, to printing with their approval, to advertising with their approval, and out the door.” So we called them straw bosses. I didn’t want an editor saying, “Jeez, Dave McKean, I really hate that scene on page 24 of Cages #3, where you have this character saying, “Blah, blah, blah … You’ve really got to change that, or I’m not going to let it go through.” That’s what I perceive as an editor. And I don’t agree with that. Dave can write his own stuff. Period!

GROTH: So it took you a while to realize you needed straw bosses: to get the work in, organize it, move it through production, and so on.

EASTMAN: Well, there were straw bosses from early on. Mark [Martin] was a straw boss for a number of projects. Paul Jenkins was brought in to be a straw boss for certain projects. Quentin shepherded Brat Pack through. That was one of the first ones that went through our own pre-press company, we bought ourselves part of a full blown pre-press operation because we were trying to save money and doing this pre-press thing in house would be cheaper, so there’d be more profits all around! Have you got notes on that?

GROTH: Oh, yeah.

EASTMAN: That’s a good one, too! But, anyway, that’s the straw boss thing. Also, F.Y.I., there were a lot of different kinds of straw bosses. Steve Bissette was a straw boss, at least for Taboo and a couple other projects he brought in; so he was editor, art director, and called himself the publisher.

From “Cable” by Bernie Mireault, collected in Taboo ©Bernie Mireault

GROTH: But clearly not a centralized … one person to report to the production department to say, “We have four books we need to do.”

It sounds like you had four people all descending on the production department saying, “Here, here’s my book.”

EASTMAN: Exactly. I’d have a meeting in my office with somebody, and I’d really love their book and say, “OK, you’re in. Let’s do it.” So I’d go out and say, “Here, you guys, it’s all yours, so make sure it happens and put it on the schedule.”

GROTH: And then you basically wouldn’t have the support staff necessary to do that.

EASTMAN: Not even close, so then we’d start hiring more people to create a support staff, which then caused the office overhead to go through the roof. But I’m still like, “It’s OK, it’s OK, we know for the first year there’s going to be a lot of investment, and a little bit of a learning curve, but once the books start getting out there, then our “percents” of the profits will help offset those losses, and we’ll run hopefully even-steven.” But, by now it’s 70 projects and counting. Fucking epic.

GROTH: Getting back just briefly to hiring your uncle Quentin, Bissette told this anecdote about Quentin. He said, “The first month of Tundra operations in their new offices, Quentin said to Veitch and me. ‘You know what? What Tundra needs is a good superhero property that we would own.’ Rick and I went to great lengths to explain to Quentin that the notion was contrary to Tundra’s whole creator ownership promise. This schism continued to eat at the shaky foundation of the company. On the one hand, you need to publish profitable comics in a superhero-driven industry, which was, you’ll recall, absolutely opposite Kevin’s original stated intentions, became more and more attractive and by the second year imperative.” It sounds like one of the problems is that the president of the company didn’t fully understand the mission, as you saw it, of Tundra.

EASTMAN: Right. Well, it’s two-fold. It’s actually he didn’t understand completely the “unrealistic” mission [laughs] I wanted for the company, but also, as I said, he was trying to bring in some “basic/evil” corporate structure. He felt if we had a superhero thing and stuff that we owned, like the Turtles, it would help bankroll all that stuff that wasn’t working. So again, I would cut him off at the knees. I’d say one, look, we have the Turtles already, and that’s helping fund “this” company so don’t worry. Now, I have two projects that I own, Melting Pot, number one, and Underwhere, number two, that I’m putting through this company. “Look how brilliant I am” — thinking, “I did it with the Turtles, obviously my next two things are going to be fucking huge, right?” We won’t even need the Turtles because we’ll have my “really profitable” new stuff!

GROTH: Uh-huh. [Laughter.]

EASTMAN: Hello! And so I said, “These two projects of mine will be that foundation, like the Turtles are for Mirage. I will have those for Tundra and Tundra will “own” my projects and keep all the profits because I’m already filthy stinking rich, and that will help make everything OK. So, we’re OK, because they’re my properties, and it’s my company, and they’ll support and offset all these losses for all the other things that we were doing and it’s Fat City time. But, that’s where Quentin came from perspective-wise, the corporate world. He understood that if you have something like the Turtles that the company owns, a structure like DC or whatever, plus he was trying to learn a business that he didn’t know. The first logical thing was to apply some 666 Madison Avenue-style practices, when they used to be there, anyway. And I’m like, “No, no, no! We don’t want to do that. We want to do something kind of similar, but it’s with my stuff, not with the other creators’ stuff. We want to keep their stuff off to this side so only they own it. That is what we do with their stuff. But my stuff will be the ‘part’ of the company. You know what I mean? It’s cash cow.”

MUST HAVE!

GROTH: About the very beginning of the company, Bissette said, “In our first meetings, Rick and I understood that Kevin intended to start a small, select roster of projects and build it slowly, year by year, without needing to turn a profit to nurture Tundra. By the time he went to his first convention as Tundra, he returned with something like 70 projects. It was mind-bogglingly out of control in its first few months.” And Veitch basically corroborates this by saying, “Steve and I and Kevin sort of worked out a plan for what we thought Tundra could be. The original plan was to do five titles the first year, and 10 the second year, and then cap it at 15. Kevin lost control of it very early on.”

EASTMAN: Totally, that’s totally correct.

GROTH: “That first summer at San Diego he bought into 65 projects.” [Laughter.]

EASTMAN: That’s right. I blew the fuck out of that plan.

GROTH: Didn’t you realize … wasn’t there a sense that if you brought back 65 or 70 projects that that would overwhelm the modest infrastructure you had built?

EASTMAN: I guess, but you know, it was like this. OK, Dave McKean comes to you with a project and it’s Cages, and you flip. “Fuck. This is amazing. All right. This is a name and we’ll look great with him on board!” Then Neil Gaiman comes to you with Violent Cases. “Holy fuck! That’s really amazing. We can’t pass on this. We really can’t.” Then George Pratt comes to you hot off the success of … the … Enemy Ace book, why can’t I think of the title? And he wants to do No Man’s Land. It’s beautiful and I’m like, “Must have!”

Cages is ©1990 Dave McKean

GROTH: How can you turn it down?

EASTMAN: If it’s not going to go to me, it’s going to go to somebody else who’ll publish this — I want it! So I said, “Look, all right. We can staff up to handle this in my mind, and I don’t want to see these slip to another publisher. Yeah, let’s take it on. We’ll figure out a way to make it work.” I mean, we got this pre-press house to save costs, and, all these other pieces are coming together, we’ll make it work. Besides, these are guys that are selling great number of books for other publishers. I’m saying, “Look what they’re doing elsewhere in the business, if we apply that thought to the Tundra world, how can we lose?” You justify it almost logically, like OK, it’ll work the same here. We’re going to lose more money the first year than I intended by investing in all of these projects, but when they start coming out on a regular schedule in the second year, we’re going to be twice as rich! Or 65 times as rich and profitable because you’ve got this base of so many amazing things that are all going to work!

GROTH: You just said you didn’t want it to go to another publisher.

EASTMAN: Yeah.

GROTH: Why is that? Because if it went to another publisher, it would get published, and the purpose of Tundra was to publish work that would have trouble finding a home elsewhere. Right?

EASTMAN: Right, for the most part.

GROTH: So why did you care if it went to another publisher?

EASTMAN: Uh, probably greed or “project” envy or something. I thought this Tundra thing is going to be amazing and I wanted it to be the coolest fucking company on the planet as well. I thought those projects embodied what I wanted coming out of Tundra. I didn’t want people to say, “Tundra is this kind of company, or, Tundra’s a superhero company, or no, no, no wait, Tundra’s a company that does really fucked-up, esoteric art books.” No, no, I wanted Tundra to be a company that was doing all of the above. I didn’t want to pigeonhole it. Thus we did things like we never put the logos on the front cover like an Image or Marvel or DC book. Our logos were on the back, or on the inside or not on the book at all at first. We did all these different things that I thought were important. And they were important, they were important because I wanted a Tundra book to help define what I wanted Tundra to be, not its logo. And ultimately, they all suffered because of my over-zealousness.

GROTH: When you say “greed” you don’t mean greed in the economic sense.

EASTMAN: No, I wasn’t saying, “Let’s do this because we’re going to make a load of money.”

GROTH: You just wanted to be …

EASTMAN: Tundra to be really cool and yet self-supporting. Also to be looked at and respected. I’m certainly not saying it because you’re here, but Fantagraphics, Kitchen Sink, a few other publishers were doing stuff that was original and cool: the stuff that I was buying. They were doing the stuff that was of true merit and artistic quality and that was interesting. They were pushing the boundaries of what comics were. They weren’t selling for shit, but they were winning awards. And I said, “Well, you know, I have a place in here.” Perhaps there’s a way that we can all continue to age up our audience by putting out such great work. But “they” didn’t want comics to grow up. When Maus won a Pulitzer Prize, it was downplayed by critics of its origins by saying, “Well, that’s not really a comic.” Well, it’s a fucking comic. You know? And I’m thinking, “Well, let’s put this all together.” And I wanted to be part of the “changing tide.”

GROTH: It sounds like you were a kid in a candy shop.

EASTMAN: That’s correct, and with all my Christmas money to boot.

GROTH: When you started Tundra, you would have been 28.

EASTMAN: Close; I was 27. I’m 35 now. I turned 35 last May.

GROTH: Let me ask you this. I don’t mean to criticize you, but do you think you had a clear conception … a really concrete conception of the kind of material you wanted to publish? I was looking over the Tundra list, and it’s all over the map. You’re publishing Paul Mavrides sketchbooks, a lot of horror stuff, underground stuff, quasi-superhero stuff. I couldn’t see a cohesive aesthetic.

EASTMAN: No, there wasn’t. The aesthetic was that it was creator-owned, creator-driven, something that they believed in. I tried not to set any boundaries or limitations. I would try to look at things that I liked and publish them, because I liked them. I would say, “I would like to read this.” I read a lot of different and weird shit. What I think is cool stuff, cool shit, weird shit, whatever, it’s the same thing. And I didn’t really want the company to be pigeon holed as a specific kind of publisher. I wanted people to be intrigued like, “Jeez, what are they going to do next.” So I would publish things like Barron Storey’s Marat/Sade.

GROTH: [Laughs.] That must’ve sold 12 copies.

The Marat/Sade Journals ©1993 Barron Storey

EASTMAN: I bought six of them, I think. No, I’m kidding. It sold very little, but I loved that book. I love that book to death. I love Rain. I love Bonesaw and Cages. I loved all of them a lot, and you combine that with the feeling of having someone I admired like Bernie Wrightson doing Captain Sternn again. It was incredible. It was very much a high. It was hard for me to say, “No.” When I’d have George Pratt hanging around the studio working with one of the designers putting together No Man’s Land. You could feel the excitement in the air, that sort of thing.

GROTH: I guess what I’m trying to get from you right now is a sense of what it was like to live through this. Trying to deal with this runaway train.

EASTMAN: Here’s a good analogy. We just stole a bank truck full of money, we’re going down a really steep hill, drunk, the breaks are gone, and it’s like, “No point in steering now.” [Laughter.] No, I may be kidding but sometimes it felt like that.

About the time I realized what I had done [laughter] a lot of people that were working hard at Tundra really believed in what we were doing, even though they weren’t exactly clear on what it was beyond losing money, at times, and that’s because they didn’t have a very strong leader. By then I was starting to lose it. By this time, I had let Quentin Eastman go, and I was in the president’s chair myself, trying to bring under control a wide variety of projects, and each one had a million individual problems, whether it was delays, artists not turning work in, artists that were pissed off and needed extra T.L.C., so many things that needed attention, and the proper amount of catering to. That plus the process of getting projects in the door and out in a timely fashion to create a “following” and it was impossible! We would have to bring in another 50 or 60 people: you know what I mean? The legal stuff wasn’t getting done; the accounting stuff wasn’t getting done. It was too big. I had created something that was too fucking big.

Not to fast-forward into the second half of Tundra’s history, but well into the first 24 or so months, it was, “I need some help here,” and I need somebody because one, I had gone through with this thing because I had this “damn the torpedoes” idea but I wanted to eventually get back to the drawing board, which was now light years farther away than it was when I only had Mirage. But you know, even to this day I debate whether I created Tundra because I was scared to get back to the drawing board. I was doing all this business stuff and Tundra was certainly no way to get back to drawing. I started feeling those pangs that I want to be a creator again. I want to make things simple again. But at the same time, I want Tundra to work. And I had a brief meeting with Mike Richardson at Dark Horse to find out if we could bring the two companies together. Mike never cared for me for whatever reasons, I don’t know why, but I just got that weird vibe from him, it’s like, “I really don’t like you, you little pissant”: but whatever. Not that he ever said that. It was a feeling and it was probably my own paranoia. But I got a very bad feeling from him. He was like, “I only do stuff for profit. And that’s it. None of this esoteric shit.” So I was like, “Next.” Probably because I was embarrassed — if he ever looked at our year-end statements, he’d shit purple Twinkies!

GROTH: That was pretty much the end of that conversation?

EASTMAN: That was pretty quick: a breakfast meeting at San Diego, over at the Westin. Then I thought about Denis [Kitchen]. I knew that he was scraping to keep his business going, but at the same time, like yourself, he’d been in the business for a long time, and I felt that a lot of people respected Denis, that perhaps, I felt, he was the figure-head I couldn’t be. A survivor. I thought that if we brought the two companies together, he’d be able to fix everything and set it right and then carry on to see this dream completed. And I still felt I owed him something. Denis turned me on to my first publisher; he was one of the few people that wrote me back. Maybe this was an omen, like, my chance to pay him back for that inspiration so long ago. I don’t know, but I felt he was the right guy for the job. So that’s when I started talking with him. I flew out to Wisconsin, and started a series of meetings with him. And that’s where it started.

SIX MONTHS IN

GROTH: Let me ask you this: by my reckoning, about six months into Tundra, you must have realized things were chaotic, that you required better organization and so on. But, six months later, you actually started expanding the Tundra empire to include Tundra U.K., a movie production company in L.A. that might be called Limelight …

EASTMAN: That’s correct.

GROTH: … a recording studio in Maine, invested in a pre-press house called Pro-Media, as well as something called Cleare Communications, or Cleare-Com.

EASTMAN: Cleare Communications. It was a PR and design company that was helping with our catalog and advertising work.

 

Eastman pin-up for the 20th anniversary issue of Heavy Metal (Vol. 11 #2) ©1997 Metal Mammoth, Inc.

GROTH: And buying Heavy Metal. Now that all sounds insane. [Laughter.] Or at least imprudent, when you’re already in over your head.

EASTMAN: Shock therapy: help me please, really. Actually it was —

GROTH: Why would you actually increase the bureaucracy and multiply the labyrinth of problems at that point when you couldn’t even manage the ones you were being overwhelmed by?

EASTMAN: You can’t see the forest through the trees sorta thing. It’s like when you’re in the middle of the fire, you don’t realize you’re burning to pieces. But at the same time, I justified in my own mind doing those things. Heavy Metal was the best thing to come out of that [laughs]. How it came to be is a good story. Fershid Bharucha, do you know Fershid?

GROTH: Yeah, and love him.

EASTMAN: He’s great. He called me from Heavy Metal one day and said, “I’m sitting here with Howard Jurofsky, and did you know Heavy Metal was for sale?” And I was like, “No way!” I bought Heavy Metal for five hundred thousand dollars. It was making three hundred thousand dollars a year at the time. Net profit. A company called J2 Communications owned both National Lampoon and Heavy Metal because they were joined at the hip, so to speak. He had a video company, and wanted to use the National Lampoon name to do more Animal House-style movies and that kind of stuff. But the crazy part was that National Lampoon was losing money, quite a lot at the time. Geez, I should have got into business with him … [chuckled]. No, just kidding. So, National Lampoon was losing money, and Heavy Metal was making money, but he didn’t want both. He was like, “I just want National Lampoon for my movies; I don’t want this Heavy Metal thing.” That was around the time I stepped in and started looking at it and I thought, wait, there has to be some legal problem hidden somewhere, some massive lawsuit, because I wondered why is this guy selling this so cheaply? It turned out he didn’t know what he had. So Heavy Metal has been not only satisfying for me as a publisher, and as an editor, but it’s been a profitable thing. Actually, it supports half of the Museum today.

But my big idea was that we’ve got x-amount of projects in here. And this is what we want to accomplish, exposure to a wider audience! So I think, we’ve done some work in Hollywood with the Turtles, and we know that some of these things that we’ve contracted could be potential movies, or TV shows and could be exploited in so many other ways. We’ve got to jump on every option and, in Hollywood, there are sure to be plenty! It was around that same time I was pitched by the director and the producer of the first Turtles movie, Steve Barron and Simon Fields, to invest in their company Limelight, which they were trying to expand. It was a company that was grossing $33 million a year at that time, with four to five million dollars in profit and they wanted to expand to TV, and they were looking for new properties. It seemed a natural fit for me to invest in this company, and try to get some of Tundra’s properties on the “fast track” in Hollywood, and exploited with the creator’s approval. Those would profit the company and the creator. So I justified it in my mind as a good thing and could already smell the bank account swelling! The purchasing of Heavy Metal was already perfect, which then in part led to, or ran parallel, to the investment in Tundra U.K.

There were two reasons for Tundra U.K. We were already working with Alan [Moore], Dave McKean, Neil Gaiman, and a few other British creators, and it was a long way across the ocean. I felt that Dave Elliot, who I had known for a short while, a year or so, and who was working for Deadline at the time, had some respect and he’d be perfect to head it. Dave knew all the British creators; he brought Simon [Bisley] to me. He said he wanted to start a publishing company that could have access to a support company in the U.S. and at the same time I wanted support for our British creators, to have an office they could go to get things done there, whether it was pre-press, or funneling checks through, or approvals. I also thought a support staff in the U.K. for properties from the States would help because perhaps they could get better distribution by being there than we could from here, and it would again, “up profits all around.” I also wanted to reach across the channel into the European markets for reprint book rights and selling serializations of projects like Cages, From Hell and all these others that we thought would work well in foreign territories. We were already doing business with a lot of these publishers through Heavy Metal and I really thought …

GROTH: — it was a good idea at the time.

EASTMAN: It was a great idea! To me it seemed to be perfect. We can solve our British creator issues, expand our penetration, and we’d have somebody that can sell our rights all over Europe. It sort of evolved on a number of different levels all at the same time, in the sense that we already wanted to work with these guys, and it was a long way across the ocean. It was difficult. It was very expensive [laughs] which sounds funny, but Fed Ex-ing a lot of approval stuff back and forth … etc.

GROTH: [Laughs.] Uh-huh.

EASTMAN: I recall there were some issues where there were a variety of issues. For example: there was some more adult-oriented stuff, and there were some creators, like Melinda Gebbie, who was doing The Lost Girls for us, was very concerned about taking her work of an erotic or more adult nature in and out through [British] Customs, because she was afraid it might be seized for whatever reason.

GROTH: [Laughs.] So start a company in England. That’s the solution!

Cover of a Titan edition of Swamp Thing

EASTMAN: It goes further. We started seeing a lot of — around this time you had Steve Dillon, you had Garth Ennis, you had Neil Gaiman, you had some of these British creators who were doing stuff for DC and a lot of other companies here, and we wanted to have access to those creators. Then also I looked at this bizarre system of distribution vs. publishing. You had companies like Titan, for whatever reason, which were publishing instead of distributing. They’d take rights to a Swamp Thing graphic novel or some other American already-printed-in-English novel and reprint it there, and exploit it there, and sell copies there. I said, why does it have to be that way, why can’t we have our own company there to handle our distribution there, instead of “rebuilding” an already finished book? It might be wiser to know why, “let’s talk to this distributor, that distributor,” and perhaps that would up our orders, and increase our sales and penetration throughout the U.K. Make some business sense, right?

GROTH: Did you own Tundra U.K.?

EASTMAN: Yes.

GROTH: You didn’t just invest in it?

EASTMAN: No. I owned Tundra U.K. And so, again, hindsight’s 20/20, and I know that all of this could have been done with a smaller, more well-managed company or with persons within our office, but …

GROTH: Can I ask you how you went about opening an office, or how you structured it? You hired Dave Elliot to run the office.

EASTMAN: Yes. He was president.

GROTH: Did you have an annual budget drawn up? How did you proceed to open an office 3,000 miles away?

EASTMAN: Um … [Laughs.] in the same glorious [Groth laughs] fashion that I did it in the United States.

GROTH: Hard to believe.

EASTMAN: Hard to believe, you know? This was towards the end of year one that we started pulling together Tundra U.K. So I still hadn’t figured out how fucking bad everything had gotten yet. That we again started with a concept of “OK, we’re going to have a few people here … three, four, five people, max, that would have a few projects to start. And slowly we’d build from there.” And again, like I said, in the very same pattern that we’d get this project, and then that project, and then the floodgates opened. It seemed like every artist in all of the U.K. suddenly had something they wanted to do and I at first didn’t have as much control over Dave as I should have. I said, “Look, you are the best, because this is your home, this is your country, you’ve been in comics most of your adult life, in the business, you’ve been reading them, that you know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work and you’ll make decisions on projects that would be profitable for the company.”

GROTH: So he had a lot of autonomy.

EASTMAN: Yeah, he had a lot of autonomy. So we took on too many projects too quick, the budget got out of control … on and on, you know? The same story, different country. [Laughter.]

GROTH: Thank God there were only so many English-speaking countries in the world.

EASTMAN: Thank God there’s only 180 countries in the world, right? [Laughter.]

GROTH: Was Tundra U.K. meant only to publish U.K. talent, or was it also going to reprint American talent printed in Tundra U.S.A.?

EASTMAN: It went sort of like this: They were to be “on the pulse of the hot existing and upcoming British talent.” They would bring in projects to be published by them, but distributed by us in the States. In the States, it was just in reverse, we wanted everything that we published here handled/distributed through Tundra U.K. or at least more tightly oversee its distribution through existing companies, to insure everyone who wanted to buy one, could. Titan was one of the big distributors and we wanted to ensure that they had the right information, in the right way, so that advance orders, as well as back stock, would be available. One of the things we were finding in the U.S. was that a lot of times our initial orders through Diamond or whoever would sell out because they only ordered four [laughs] and we’d get some calls from people, “Well, we can’t find the second issue to this, or the first issue of that,” or whatever, and would like to get it, so we started this mail-order company. We’d sell back issues through this, or if a store somewhere needed five copies of this or six copies of that they could get them, as we desperately needed faithful customers. We wanted to have that same type of thing in the U.K., that would be able to get them, and that would already be there, and would make them available for the 11 people that wanted to buy them.

GROTH: Now you were aware that the U.K. market for alternative comics was considerably smaller than even the U.S. market for alternative comics.

EASTMAN: Um … I didn’t then.

GROTH: [Laughs.] I guess you do now!

EASTMAN: I guess I do now! [Laughter.] It was one of those things that I didn’t know, and I trusted Dave to let me know what would work there and what wouldn’t.

GROTH: What is your assessment of the job he did?

EASTMAN: Um … the company went out of business. [Laughter.]

GROTH: Doesn’t sound like you want to elaborate on that. [Laughter.]

EASTMAN: Well, I’ll elaborate in the sense that I put Dave in a position that was similar to mine. I think he felt that there were unlimited funds. That he was a kid in a candy store. I think he felt that he had a lot of friends in the business. I think he took on projects that even though he wasn’t sure if they would do well or not, probably took them on hoping they would do well. God knows I did a lot of that, too. I think he probably really believed and liked them. I guess sometimes I look at my tastes for what it is in comics … I grew up reading Daredevil, Kamandi, whatever; Weird War, and that evolved into Heavy Metal, and then into undergrounds and my taste was on a different level when I grew up. The kinds of things, like I said, that I was reading were Kitchen Sink or Fantagraphics or other type of stuff that was written for an older, more [laughs] mature reader, intelligent reader. Somebody that had outgrown superheroes but still loved the medium of comics. I think that perhaps Dave was on that level, that some of the stuff he was selecting was stuff that he really liked, but wasn’t selling at all.

GROTH: About how many books did Tundra U.K. ultimately publish?

EASTMAN: Um …

GROTH: Because I know nothing about their publishing output.

EASTMAN: Yeah … I think, actually, to be honest, it was probably less than a couple dozen, you know. Probably under 20.

GROTH: Under 20.

EASTMAN: Maybe a little bit more, because what ended up happening is Tundra died, Tundra U.K. died at the same time that Tundra U.S. died. But it was started almost a year or so later than Tundra U.S. So what you ended up having happen was a lot of stuff was started there, and we only published a third of it before it closed up shop, at which point, most of the rights were returned to the creators. It was like, “Look, it’s over. I’m not going to hold up your project, I’m not going to hold it hostage, go take it wherever you can find a home for it.” And that’s pretty much it.

GROTH: There was a column in a British fanzine by someone named Clive Scruton, where he talked about Tundra U.K. and he levels a number of charges as to how the company was run, and there’s a nationalistic fervor to it, so I feel I owe it to the guy to read this to you and see if you can answer some of the questions he asked, or respond to some of the accusations he levels.

He writes, “And what did the dear chaps given the job of running Tundra U.K. allegedly do with the money that Eastman donated? They decided they were going to be super-cool and set up shop in a plush, high-rent London-based office block. They took on loads of staff, even though there wasn’t a need for them yet, as there wasn’t enough product in the pipeline. It’s said that some of the ‘staff’ were even provided with company cars. Allegedly, 50,000 pounds was spent on a Press Launch, with lots of yummy goodies and plenty of bubbly for those thirsty press types, even Kevin Eastman himself turned up. Of course, once the crisps and booze were finished, those ‘journalists’ buggered off and forgot all about the reasons they were invited in the first place, mainly to give Tundra U.K. some publicity!”

EASTMAN: Yeah, that’s not far off the mark at all. [Laughter.] Here I go, trying to justify it. Initially, we had an office space in this run-down section of London that was awful. There was water coming in, and so on and so on. So we started off with this very small office with a very few people. The bunch of times … I used to go over every six or seven weeks …

GROTH: To not eat the food.

EASTMAN: [Laughs.] To not eat the food. “To go to the theatah.” [Groth laughs.] The project list was growing, the staff was growing, you had people, three or four people stuffed in these little rooms, and I really felt that the office, much like with the Tundra U.S. office, should represent the high-brow seriousness of what we were trying to do. So I had to do something. I figured that Tundra U.K., much like Tundra U.S., was going to last for a long time. So why don’t we invest in more of a condo-type office space under one of these long-term leases that we’d end up owning. So we did that. We then relocated to another place, which was a lot more expensive. Neither Helen nor Dave had a car at that time, and they needed to get around for business reasons, so, OK, we have a company car. There was a big press launch for the first couple books that came out from Tundra U.K. We wanted to announce, “we’re here” in a big way. We invited all the British creators to show them that we were very serious. So [laughs] we leased a night at the Museum of Natural History [Groth laughs] A lot of U.S. artists were there because there was a convention going on.

GROTH: UKCAC?

EASTMAN: UKCAC, right. It was in coordination with UKCAC, or … you know what? It was Fred Greenberg, actually, who was starting a convention over there to compete with UKCAC.

GROTH: Good God.

EASTMAN: [Laughs.] Poor Fred, he tried hard, right? [Groth laughs.] He was inspired by Tundra.

GROTH: Yeah, I was going to say.

From “D’ants Fever” in Shell Shock Vol. 1, by Eastman and Laird ©1989 Mirage Studios

EASTMAN: So he was starting a convention. He got a lot of American publishers and artists to go over there. We coordinated it with this launch for Tundra U.K. So there were U.S. and British creators and they could all mix and mingle. And yeah, pretty much the journalists left really quickly [laughter], I do remember that. [More laughter.]

GROTH: Did that party actually cost 50,000 pounds?

EASTMAN: I don’t … you know, it’s quite possible. Sure. I mean, 50,000 pounds is what? A hundred …

GROTH: It’s almost …

EASTMAN: No, no! 50,000 pounds, Christ, that’s a hundred thousand dollars.

GROTH: That’s almost a hundred thousand dollars, yes.

EASTMAN: I don’t think … [Laughter.]

GROTH: Maybe. What the hell?

EASTMAN: Maybe, what the hell … [laughter] I mean, that sounds like a God-awful lot. I can’t imagine.

GROTH: That’s a lot of food.

EASTMAN: That’s a lot of blood sausage. [Laughter.] But I could have totaled that; there were a lot of flights and hotels. I’m sure I flew a number of U.S. artists for the convention. There was a lot of advertising, and office staff, and yeah. Right in the Natural History Museum. And I don’t know how cheap that comes, but I’m guessing it’s not that cheap. [Laughter.]

GROTH: OK, you did the party, you bought him a car, or leased him a car or something like that, you had reasonably …

EASTMAN: Bought it. It was cheaper than leasing. And you’d own it at the end.

GROTH: Now, did you expect Tundra U.K. to eventually reimburse those costs?

EASTMAN: Yeah.

GROTH: You did? [Laughs.]

EASTMAN: I expected them to recoup those costs from the profits of their distribution, from the profits of their percentage of foreign sales, and from their profits of the books they were publishing — whatever profit share they retained. I expected all those costs would be 1) recouped, and 2) covered on a month-to-month basis. Yeah.

GROTH: Jesus. That starts to make Tundra U.S.A. look positively sane and frugal by comparison.

EASTMAN: No, it was pretty much the same. [Groth laughs.] I expected the same miracles as my intents and thoughts with Tundra U.S.; we would, after recoupment of costs and our share of profits, I expected we would cover Tundra U.S.’s week-to-week, month-to-month nut and my capital investments to stop as the company grew in value or profitability, that eventually those could be recouped in some corporate, fucked-up manner.

So if Tundra U.K. was insane, they were both insane. We certainly have established that Tundra U.S. was insane.

GROTH: You were an optimist. [Laughter.]

EASTMAN: I should get a special optimist award.

GROTH: Or something.

EASTMAN: But I don’t know if I will or not.

ANOTHER INVESTMENT

GROTH: You invested in a pre-press house. Let’s get back to that.

EASTMAN: I skipped that one.

GROTH: Pro-Media. And apparently, that was a disaster.

EASTMAN: Oh, yeah. I’m batting 1.000 at this point …

GROTH: Now, you didn’t own Pro-Media. You just invested in it? Explain why you did that.

EASTMAN: My idea was, considering the volume, and wide variety of what we were doing; we were looking at options that saved time and money with our pre-press. Around this time, a lot of neat machines were coming on the market, and the closest decent pre-press company, with high-quality reproduction abilities for the color stuff that we wanted to do was in Hartford [Connecticut] an hour away. We also had this local little pre-press house that only had very outdated mechanical sep[aration] capabilities. They were helping do little things … The simple stuff. These two guys that ran it said, “You know, if you invested in a Syquest Machine” — which was like a five hundred thousand dollar machine — “we can use it at least half the time to do outside business that could help our company grow, plus, these other clients could help us pay off the machine. At the same time, we can provide to you on an at-cost basis, all of your pre-press service.” To us, the best price we could get for a pre-press was like $140 to $160 a page for full-color in Hartford. With this deal, it could be done for like $60 a page with proofs in-house including all costs and labor. I felt that that made sense. You balance the time they spend doing separations where they can make money, and the time they spend to give me cheaper pre-press which lowers the costs of my books which will help the books become profitable! Ultimately, they did start to make money selling services for the Syquest machine to other people, they were getting some big jobs, which was great, but then they wanted to dedicate all of their time to do those jobs right, which then started fucking up schedules on all our stuff, and now our stuff was running late. So now, the yelling, the “we misunderstood” and the threats started. What ultimately killed the company was they fucked up a couple of major jobs, like blew huge deadlines for two catalogs, and the company was being sued, it was going down, it was a done deal. So I ended up losing everything there also.

GROTH: Did you own the Syquest machine?

EASTMAN: No. It was purchased by them. I loaned them the money. The idea was I loan them money to do this and when they made the money back on the machine, I would get paid back. Their idea was to own the machine so it would be part of the assets of their business. But, when the company’s filing for bankruptcy, everybody loses. I was one of the people in line as a creditor. So much for cheap pre-press [laughter].

What’s even funnier is I actually thought about buying a printing company at one time.

GROTH: Is that right?

EASTMAN: Mm-hm.

GROTH: You mean a web press? [Incredulous.]

EASTMAN: Like a web printer. Yeah. I was looking for something like that, that could lower the printing costs, and again up those profits!

GROTH: How did you go about looking for a printer to buy?

EASTMAN: I looked at some local printers that we had dealt with. None of the major ones, or anything like that.

GROTH: Local web printers?

EASTMAN: Yeah. The Daily Hampshire Gazette was one of them, and they did both publishing and printing. They had their newspaper/editorial side, and they owned presses to print the newspaper and outside stuff. They could upgrade to a higher quality paper on the same web press for color work, plus they had offset for other things that we did, like posters. I was thinking about half the time having a company make money the other half of the time lowering the cost of us printing stuff in house like the pre-press deal. Our production department said, “Look. The best printing prices we’re getting are in Hong Kong, Canada, and Europe, which were half of the Gazette best price.” So it just made no sense for us to do that.

Art and story ©1988 Mark Martin; it appeared in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #16 ©1988 Mirage Studios

GROTH: You also bought or created a recording studio.

EASTMAN: Yes.

GROTH: I think this was located in Maine.

EASTMAN: Yes. That’s correct.

GROTH: But it was connected somehow to Tundra, right?

EASTMAN: Yeah, exactly: a separate sub-company within the empire. At the time we looked into this recording studio in Maine. It came through a friend; that had a recording studio that was doing these wonderful things with local bands. At that time, it was profitable. “The story of my life.” It was profitable at the time that I looked into it. It was covering all its costs, and it was putting away like five thousand bucks a month or something like that. [Groth laughs.] So at the same time we’d actually been talking with George Pratt and this children’s book artist also from Maine, a guy named Rick Charette, and both of these things had a music side to them. There was another one, too. Jon Muth had done Mythology of an Abandoned City, and had proposed this music soundtrack to go along with the graphic novel. So we had a number of compatible projects and we thought this might be a way, in the never-ending quest to find a new audience — because Goddammit, I knew that they were out there — to play with both mediums.

The idea was that See You in Hell, Blind Boy was this graphic novel about a blues guitarist and George had shown drawings and things to Johnny Winter, who was interested in recording some stuff for it. George himself was a musician and he had written some songs for it so it would be a graphic novel by George, with a soundtrack. Rick Charette was one of these Raffi-type guys. A children’s storytelling/music performer type. And in the Tundra’s publishing format, we wanted children’s books to adults-only books and everything in between. So Rick Charette ended up bringing us a project. This kid’s book/record/tape that we thought would be a great, profitable thing to get into, as well as a few others.

So going back to the studio purchase, I said, “Here’s a safe investment.” We’ll buy a recording studio that’s covering its costs, we can utilize it for a couple of projects and perhaps more, and we’re going to conquer yet another whole new audience that we can funnel all our other books to. Because they’ll probably want a whole Tundra library once they see this [laughter] one CD and graphic novel combined.”

GROTH: Of course.

EASTMAN: I was trying to create a new market. And the frustrating part is I’d like to think it was brilliant because the Voodoo book, the Jimi Hendrix/Bill Sienkiewicz painted graphic novel that was accompanied by a CD, was very successful. But that came after we tried to put together the George Pratt project but the recording studio instantly started losing money for some reason after I had purchased it, and it died before we could get Blind Boy off the ground.

GROTH: The magic Eastman touch.

EASTMAN: The magic Eastman touch. [Laughter.] Man, imagine if George Eastman, who started Kodak, had my luck; it would be a different world today. [Laughter.] No. Actually, I’ve been very, very lucky. Obviously, the Turtles were a blessing, and Tundra wasn’t.

GROTH: It’s like 10 steps forward, one step back: so it’s not too awful.

EASTMAN: Or one step forward, 10 steps back. [Laughter.]

GROTH: That’s what it might have felt like … but …

EASTMAN: [Laughs.] I’m not hanging around L.A., on street corners, trying to pick up extra cash in a hat [Groth laughs], but certainly there’s more days than not that I wish I had the money in the bank I spent on Tundra.

LIBERAL POLICIES

GROTH: Certainly one of the things that crippled Tundra financially was your liberal policy toward creators. You paid enormous advances. And sometimes never even saw the work.

EASTMAN: I felt bad about that sometimes. It felt really like a personal insult. And it didn’t make sense. I want to say on one hand it was an exception to the rule, there were certain people that were paid, say, a ten grand advance for a book, and they would have that book done in seven months, because they poured themselves into it but others, six, seven months go by, and nothing is showing up and we find out they haven’t even started it. By then they’ve gone through the advance and they have to do other work to support their lifestyle again but at the same time they haven’t completed the work for me, which then delays the project longer. But I operated under the concept if somebody tells you they are going to do something, I believe them — and that’s probably one of my greatest character flaws, I guess. I take somebody at their word, because I want to believe that’s good enough. If you told me, “Look, I really want to do this,” and you seem to have the heart and soul that says, “I really, really want to do this, and if you give me this money, I will produce something that is my dream that you can publish it; it’s going to be fabulous.” And I would say, “You know, I believe you. Why would I not?” Then you get fucked and then you start toughening up your heart a little bit. That’s probably what made me, at times, feel bitter about Tundra, because it forced me to become more of an asshole. I didn’t feel that I deserved that lesson, but in every sense I guess I did.

GROTH: One of the Journal news stories reported, “For Eastman, the worst part of the job became calling up creators he respected and muscling them over projects. He agonized over how to approach such matters and ‘lost many nights of sleep when he mapped out what he was going to say to these people.’” Did you have to do a lot of that?

EASTMAN: Yes, some … I tried to, anyway, because I felt that if it came from me, it might mean more to them. But for some of them I guess they could lie as easily to me as they could lie to a straw boss, you know? Which made it more of a personal insult. I felt that if somebody worked out a deal with me, I’d like to think that I’m a man of my word, and if I tell you that I can deliver something, then I will put everything I’ve got into doing that for you, because you put your trust in me. So I would feel bad and would think, “Jeez, I really thought that we had an understanding.” And sometimes it was just a handshake deal, because the contracts continued to be fucked around with in legal, and a handshake deal should be as good as a contract, better even, right? A contract is just something you can use to figure out what you didn’t cover when you sue each other: so that the same lawyers who wrote it can find loopholes. Contracts completely suck for the most part, but not as much as it sucked to have to call somebody that I respected and say, “You broke your word. What’s the deal here?”

Sequence from “Return to New York” in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Collected Book Vol. 4 by Eastman and Laird ©1990 Mirage Studios

GROTH: Now, I understand your motivation for doing this, giving creators money: you wanted to support them. But it does seem that after a while, that after you’ve done that enough times, and not gotten the book, you would say, “Well, this practice has to stop. Because Tundra can’t keep losing money like this, and this is a wasteful strategy.” But that doesn’t seem to have happened.

EASTMAN: You know, in a small way it did. In the sense that we started doing, say in the year two, as I recall, much smaller advances and more “paid on delivery” kind of deals. Panic probably started setting in to a point, because a lot of the books that we funded in year one were drastically behind schedule with no hope of publication any time soon. So we’ve tied up a lot of money. Then, the ones that had come out have had such disappointing sales. I’m talking extremely disappointing sales. To the point where we had to get a bigger warehouse for all the unsold copies and I was getting pissed off! It seemed that everyone that sold a hundred thousand copies of a book through other publishers were now doing ten thousand or less through Tundra. Of course, at the same time, I didn’t think, “OK, they were doing X-Men before and now they’re doing a story about a guy living in a trailer park that quotes Russian poetry and likes to shoot gerbils.” You know what I mean? I didn’t think anything about the content. I just sort of went on what I liked and the merits of the artists. So, we started doing more contracts that were a 50/50 profit split, as well as started looking for more mainstream content. Superhero stuff. Trying to look for things that could be more profitable, but still be fair. Still be done under the same Tundra system. We tried to toughen up on advances and page rates. It was very difficult. We had set a lot of precedents, something I couldn’t sit and explain away to a creator was, “Well, I’m paying somebody else this, and you’re the same level creator and I only want to pay you $300.” So you dicker, and I’m not good at it. It was dreadful. [Laughs.] It was very hard. We tried to make some changes and I couldn’t be strong enough to one, either stop it, or two, bring projects in under a more traditional sense. It was like trying to do something traditional in a completely non-traditional company, which was spiraling sideways, and in full panic mode. We had to stabilize the ship, and stop the bleeding, and try to get things on a regular schedule. We’d have crazy shit going on like creators calling in, saying, “Why isn’t my book coming out monthly?” And we’re like, “Well, because you’ve been turning it in every three months is one of the reasons.” [Laughs.] There was tons of fucked up stuff like that going on. I was just like, “Oh my God. Help!”

(Continued)

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