KSP TO THE RESCUE
GROTH: One obvious solution occurs to me, which would have been to have downsized. Reduce your ambitions down to the company’s original plan: five, 10, 15 titles … was that ever an option you considered?
EASTMAN: Around that time I said to myself, “OK. Yes. That is what we should do.” I know this will probably sound ludicrous, it does to me even saying it — I’d given my word to a number of people to support their projects: for the ones that it did really mean the world to. And they were turning the stuff in on time, and were desperately hoping Tundra would really work despite my shortcomings. They realized that this was an amazing shot for them, and they had a chance to be published and fulfill a dream. To me, that strength and that belief in those few helped me overlook, say, some of the less caring ones. Around that time, I knew that downsizing and acting more like a traditional publisher in a sense would help, but I still wanted to maintain part of the dream that we initially started out with, a la the Creators’ Bill of Rights, but to do it in a little more realistic way. This was also around the time I started talking to Denis Kitchen, and felt that, literally the merger of the two … if these two companies were pulled together … I would then have a person that wants to be a publisher that will take over the publisher/director/presidential duties that I’m one, doing badly, and two, be willing to spend the kind of time, in my opinion, to do them correctly. Plus, he had the respect of a lot of creators in the industry. So I would pull the two together and use Denis as the way to say, “Look, we got off on the wrong foot and now we’re going to look at this realistically. Here’s a guy we all know can do it.” We’ll then let Denis decide what projects stayed, what projects went, what staff stayed, what staff went, what location the business would be in, and I would commit to two, or three things. One is financial support. Like $1.5 million for the first year, to allow him to make the transition as well as to competitively bid for previously financially out-of-his-reach top talent and projects he thought he would solidly rebuild Kitchen Sink/Tundra into an industry power: then a half-a-million dollars for year two as padding for mistakes, and further project investment.
GROTH: How much for year two?
EASTMAN: Five hundred thousand. Additionally, I would, if there were any projects that Denis said he did not want to do for financial or creative or editorial reasons, and they were something that I personally wanted to see completed, then I would fund [them] personally, off to the side, out of my own pocket.
GROTH: What were you funding with the $2 million? One-point-five million in the first year and five hundred thousand in the second? What was that supposed to fund?
EASTMAN: That was supposed to fund the re-structuring/stabilization, acquiring profitable properties, that he could pay people like Mark Schultz a more standard industry fair page rate, for a change, or if he wanted to bring a talent in from another company that could produce a better-selling, profitable book for his company, that he would have the resources to do that. That was my commitment to the new company.
GROTH: Jesus. Well, that proved ultimately disastrous. Because nothing of Tundra remained, I don’t think.
EASTMAN: What do you mean? There was a lot of Tundra that remained.
GROTH: What books remained?
EASTMAN: There was Captain Sternn, he completed. The Crow, he completed, which turned out to be one of his most profitable books. A whole lot of things stayed.
GROTH: But those were profitable books; they didn’t need $2 million worth of capitalization to continue.
EASTMAN: No, no, no. A lot of Tundra projects stayed but only a very few became profitable under the Kitchen Sink imprint, to all our frustration. And again, separately the big money losers that I wanted finished were completed. I personally funded the ones I knew would never make money, like the collection of Rain. John Bergin’s Bone Saw. Denis was like, “Send it back to John. I don’t want it.” And I said, “No, I carried it through this far, and I want to see it done as a collection. And I’ll pay for it.”
GROTH: I’m talking on a long-term basis. Once these finite projects were finished, nothing of Tundra remained.
EASTMAN: Right, after a while nothing that was started by Tundra remained.
GROTH: Except maybe The Crow. No ongoing series remained.
EASTMAN: Well, Captain Sternn was around for five issues, but right — everything ended.
GROTH: From Hell remained for a while. But, of course, that would’ve been profitable.
EASTMAN: Madman remained for a short period of time before Mike Richardson acquired it. Also a lot of the contracts were not assignable, and Denis had to re-negotiate with many creators to keep them within the company. As you know, everything was intended to favor the creators in my Tundra, so as the president of the new company he must call all the shots. And rightfully so. It was all his now. He wanted to put everything across the board in the “real world.” He said that we can’t operate under the standard Tundra contract anyway, nobody could. I think even Madman was, if it wasn’t an 80/20 split, it was definitely a 50/50 split. Denis said that we need to renegotiate with some of these creators to make these work profit wise, and editorially. At this point, Denis had made a selection of what staff stays, what projects stay and what goes. It was his baby, and I’m going to Disney World.
GROTH: I still don’t fully understand what you gave Kitchen two million dollars for. Since it doesn’t take two million dollars to move to Northampton and fire people and cancel titles … I’m not sure exactly what that was meant to pay for and why you even did that. You could’ve canceled titles and fired people for, oh, nothing.
EASTMAN: It was very straightforward. I know it may not sound like that, but what I wanted to accomplish was two things. One was to facilitate the move, but that was, in my mind, to be the smallest part of the expense of the relocation. And overall it wasn’t a huge expense to relocate. But it was definitely an expense. The most important thing, in all the discussions with Denis, as far as where does the company — companies — go from here, and how do we put it into a position to be successful, one of Denis’ complaints was never having the financial resources to be competitive and bid on a certain project page-rate wise, or whatever. To bring, say, more mainstream, successful, typical to what was working in the industry at that time, kinds of projects. So the million and a half that was committed for the first year was for that, to bring in new projects, give the company cash in the bank, a safety net, of four or five or six months, eight months of really bad sales, at least they wouldn’t be completely wiped out or strapped for cash where they’d have to start firing people or remaindering books or whatever. But it was really more intended to be for proactive activity of acquiring projects that would be more financially profitable for the company as a whole. Then my thought being that year one, there could be, at least I’d learned through the Tundra years, there were so many surprises, let’s have a little padding here, so there was a larger amount in the first year to get situated, take care of any surprises, bring in some new projects, invest in them, because if you’re going to do a four-issue series on time as our industry demands, you want to get three issues done and in-house before you solicit for it. That takes an investment of three hundred dollars a page, soup to nut, plus pre-press, plus etc., etc. It was for that padding. And then the five hundred thousand dollars for the second year was again assuming that in the first year you’d have stabilization, you’d have investment in new properties. By year two, you’d be launching a lot of things that would be successful so you’d need less money to, say, wrap up some things or invest in a few other new properties. And you’d be on your way.
GROTH: Does the proposition that you need a lot of money to outbid others for hot-selling properties accord with the aesthetic goals of alternative comics publishing? It’s my experience that there’s just not a lot of money in alternative comics publishing on either end: the expenditure involved in publishing them or the income derived from publishing them. So, how could Kitchen even have pragmatically and shrewdly spent all this money on alternative comics?
EASTMAN: I’d agree. And I think Denis knew this, I certainly, at least [laughs] began to realize that you don’t need a lot of money for alternative comics. And at the same time, alternative comics aren’t selling enough to keep a creator and a publishing company alive. And so if you wanted to put a marquee name — a Simon Bisley cover or a Bill Sienkiewicz cover, or the same “name” artist on the interior of a book, and you have Bill or Simon or an artist of that same caliber that is getting large page rates and large cover rates, and they have their lifestyle and their families or whatever to support, they’re going to go to places that pay what they’re worth. As opposed to going to somebody that can only pay ’em … pennies on the dollar. If they’re used to getting a thousand dollars for a cover, and we can only pay a hundred and they have the same level of bills each month, and the same 30ish days to make it in, it’s not a hard choice. So that money was to be used to be competitive.
GROTH: Now you’re talking about a strategy of, for example, putting a Bill Sienkiewicz cover on a book drawn by someone else in order to help sell it?
EASTMAN: It was some of that, yeah. It seemed to be working for everyone else.
GROTH: But isn’t that …
EASTMAN: It was trying to be more commercially minded, so you could create a scenario, say, that perhaps if you established an editorial publishing policy that 50 percent of the books published, they’d have to be in a commercial vein that could be profitable so that they could support perhaps the 50 percent of the books would be published for artistic reasons or creative reasons or other reasons. But we’ll be OK, perhaps it will break even. Perhaps the profits will offset the losses from doing other kinds of books. More ground-level books.
So that sounded like a sound business plan at the time.
GROTH: Now did Kitchen follow through and essentially do what you guys had talked about?
EASTMAN: To my recollection, yes. To a point. I’m trying to think, I can’t actually think of one project that he brought in, commercial or otherwise …
GROTH: I can’t either. That’s why I asked. [Laughter.]
EASTMAN: That’s a good question.
GROTH: No comics, but a lot of Crow hats.
EASTMAN: A lot of Crow hats. [Laughs.] The Crow was something that was working, so do more of it. It was one of the few things that was actually working very, very well. I think a lot of money went into the Captain Sternn series that was thought to do very well commercially. I think that only completed work and payment on one of them. And that was a total of five, 48-page books that were very commercially disappointing. There was the Crow stuff. I think there were a couple of other things that were talked about, discussed, internally and with creators that for one reason or another didn’t pan out. I can’t recall, I kinda bailed A.S.A.P.
GROTH: Let me make sure I get this straight. In addition to two million dollars that you gave Kitchen within a 13-month period, you actually also paid for the completion of certain projects?
EASTMAN: That’s correct, yeah.
EASTMAN: You know, it’s one of those things regarding my commitment for financially disastrous comics that, is it stupid? Maybe. Did I honor my word with people I felt strongly about, like Rolf Stark and John Bergin and I wish I could think of others because there were a few more. Like we completed a couple additional issues of Trailer Trash. We completed the final issue or two of Hyena, mainly because those were Mark [Martin’s] babies, and I really respected what Mark was doing there. I still felt I had to resolve some creative commitments for my peace of mind, and to truly pass the mantle onto a company that was going to fix everything else by acquiring Tundra. Taking over all of its properties, its creators, its staff, and I got the best of both worlds. I had the feeling that I was able to say I kept my word to a number of creators even on things that I knew would lose money, and really sent it on its way with, in my opinion, in the best possible way to succeed.
GROTH: Let me ask you one important question. It is my understanding that you told people who worked at Tundra that you were going to commit to Tundra for five years. But you actually committed for no more than three years. Susan Alston said, “A lot of people moved from great far away places. The Martins came up from Birmingham, Alabama. People got married, bought houses, had babies, based on the fact that Kevin was going to give it five years. That’s what he told me on more than one occasion. Even in January1993, before the deal was finished with Kitchen Sink, I specifically asked him in a meeting, “Are you committed to this company for two more years?” And he said, “Yes. Absolutely. I’m in it for the five-year plan.”
EASTMAN: Yie. That’s probably something I said. And if I did, I apologize. [Laughs.] I lied! Just kidding!
GROTH: Why do you feel like you couldn’t commit for another two years?
EASTMAN: I think at this time I’d just had it. It was end it or die. Really, I felt like I had allowed myself to be drug around behind a truck for a period of time. Although, it was my own decision. I know I was trying to resolve in my own mind, what to do with someone like Mark and Jeannie Martin, who sold their house, moved to the Northampton area, on my word, and I felt fucking awful that I let them down. Kelly Meeks actually left a great job in Maine when he moved to Northampton with the same expectation. My uncle Quentin did the same thing. He moved his whole family. He ended up divorcing shortly thereafter. So I guess I felt like the biggest piece of shit in the universe on a thousand levels. But yes, it’s a good question, because at the same time I want to say I felt like I justified all of my actions to see this company on its way the best way I could, and would make everything all better. I did let a lot of people down. And that was wrong.
GROTH: Well, let me ask you if I can a few questions about the merger.
GROTH: I don’t know how you want to characterize it today.
EASTMAN: It’s a Watergate! [Laughs.]
GROTH: Why was there so much weaseling and dissembling about what actually happened? I never understood that. Of course, the more weaseling there was, and the more Kitchen evaded questions, the more interesting it became, the more intriguing it became, and the more buzz there was in the professional community, who realized it couldn’t possibly have happened the way the Kitchen press releases said it happened.
So why all that? I never understood why there was all this smoke and mirrors.
EASTMAN: I would say two things. One is that a contract between two parties can be written to say anything you want it to say. So on the contractual side, a contract was written where Kitchen Sink acquired Tundra. I agreed to a number of provisions, as part of the deal, which we just discussed, funding the company, supporting the company for a period of time. Ownership participation [by me] actually initially was 51 percent, but for control issues with Denis as president and publisher, we re-worked it so it was actually 49 percent. Another person, I would like [them] to remain unnamed, took 2 percent, so it put me at 49 percent, and Denis had this control position, which I fully supported. That was the whole idea. From that point on, it was simply Denis’ baby. Whatever he chose to do for whatever reasons, in early discussions he said — and I agreed — he said we will stage it as Kitchen Sink will acquire Tundra, as we want to make it clear that I am the president, and I am the publisher, and I am now taking over control, so that we can perhaps get over the stigmas of what everybody thought … and was true … Tundra was a fucking nightmare. I wanted Denis to have the full power to try to straighten it out. Put him in a position of strength to bargain with creators, and deal with it on every level. The world needs to know that he’s the guy in charge. I’m not saying this because this is a great opportunity for me to say “Blame it on Denis,” but when Denis came in, it was a complete fucking mess, and I was like, “Fuck, man. I’m out of here! And it’s all yours. Go, brother. And good luck.”
GROTH: Now Kitchen told me in a letter that this was your idea. [Eastman laughs.] What he said was, “Whether it was Quixotic or playful on Eastman’s part, or a simple and modest desire to misdirect attention from himself, Kevin asked and required in our contract that our transaction be described as KSP’s acquisition of Tundra.”
EASTMAN: I’m not going to say, “Denis, you fucking liar.” I will say that my understanding of what we agreed upon, and certainly not wanting to get into a pissing contest, but it was Denis’ position from day one that he should come in in this total control capacity and to make it clear up front for PR, creator relations, media attention, whatever, to reinforce his position of strength as president and publisher, that we agreed that this was the best way to word it, so people would know he wasn’t a Kevin Eastman puppet.
In fact, when we discussed it, in reality-based detail, again I’m reaching back a few years here, that Denis had just launched Cadillacs and Dinosaurs in Hollywood. It was going to be a toy line: it was going to be a TV show, and so on and so on. I vaguely remember discussions, saying, “Well, no one will think it’s completely unrealistic. We will have Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, and that’s sure to be the next Turtles.” You know what I mean? That public opinion would be that KSP will have all kinds of money from licensing, and this won’t be an issue. You also have to realize that my business frame of mind was thinking that, with my money and Denis’ savvy, the company would be properly re-launched, combined with the potential success of the launch of Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, if those had both played out, bringing revenue into the company, they would have been theoretically in a very strong position. A stable, financially sound publisher that could compete with some of the biggest, I guess. Denis has always said he was under-capitalized. You are, he is, so having an opportunity to have some real support to compete with all the “market share” publishers, that for the first time in its history, KSP would really be in the game. So, off he went, with my cheering him on. In the meantime, or years later, Denis is saying it was my idea; I’m saying for the record it was his idea. So. [Laughter.] We can have a big public debate and pull out all kinds of graphs, chart, evidence, and documents to prove who is right, for the one person out there who gives a fuck, my friends, sisters, pets, you know? Who cares? I know Denis keeps very good records, and I’m probably at minimum as big a packrat as Denis is, and I’ve got very detailed records as well. So we can get a team of specialists in, we can all sort through the papers but probably should end up just arm wrestling for it.
GROTH: We’ll assign an independent counsel to investigate this.
EASTMAN: Jury of arbitration. Twelve creators, we can get Scott McCloud and Dave Sim on the panel, and ultimately we’d decide it by Denis and I arm wrestling. Then we all get really drunk.
GROTH: So what really happened, then? Finally, to set the record straight. You bought 51 percent of Kitchen, and then Kitchen technically bought Tundra?
GROTH: For a dollar or something like that?
EASTMAN: Yeah. It was, I can’t exactly remember but, say I bought 51 percent (which then as discussed above was adjusted to 49 percent). Two points were given to another person so that Denis could have control, which was important, but at the same time my lawyers convinced me I should have a strong position, in case he did something really fucked up, and decided to take acid for a year, I could step in and fix things. Which is pretty ludicrous if you think about that concept. Him taking acid and me coming in to fix things. He was brought in to fix them.
GROTH: At least half of that is ludicrous.
EASTMAN: Let’s wait ’til the polls come in to decide which is the ludicrous one …
EASTMAN: So, that’s basically how the merger or the acquisition/merger, however you want to put it, and I don’t care either way, because it’s the same thing, happened. I committed to x-amount of funding, Denis then came in and selected between his own staff, my staff, his own projects, my projects, cleaned house, re-located everything in Northampton, had taken over the commitment to sell and account to creators anything that was in the warehouse so that royalties from previously published books were honored and paid. If there was anything he didn’t want, the inventory or that responsibility, at that point it was offered back to the creator to purchase at printing cost, or then, if the creator did not take them back, they were pulped or recycled. He took over the management, completion, re-negotiation, and ongoing interest in projects that he selected for Kitchen Sink from the Tundra library. End of story.
GROTH: So basically you coughed up two million dollars, plus a fairly substantial amount of money, no doubt, to complete some projects, and in return you got 49 percent of Kitchen. Essentially.
GROTH: Was that a good deal for you? [Laughter.]
EASTMAN: Sounded like a good deal at the time. In the sense that one, I had a publisher with a 25-year history … was it 25 at that time? No, because they turned 25 during this time. Well, anyway he had a very long history, a well-over-20-year history, that was well respected in the industry. They had a property that was just going Hollywood that could be financially rewarding. He was willing to come in, was dedicated to the art form, the medium, and he wanted to see some of these projects completed in a fashion that he felt was better structured in logical business terms and that eventually the company, if it was put on the true and narrow road, could possibly be a profitable company, which at that point, I hoped to be bought out for a fair price and perhaps recoup a tiny percentage of my total Tundra/KSP investments. Never expecting to recoup more than a quarter of whatever I’d invested in both at this point, which is about 14 million.
GROTH: Holy shit.
EASTMAN: Holy fucking shit. Yes. It was respectable, yes.
GROTH: Tundra cost you $14 million?
EASTMAN: That’s including Tundra U.K., and that’s including Tundra Recording Studios, that’s including Pro-Media, that’s including the investment in the Hollywood company, where we had the affiliation I told you about. The investment in the company in Hollywood alone was a million dollars. It was epic … I was trying to build an empire, and thought I had the skill and the money to do it. For a while there I at least had the money and I watched it all go. All the money I made with the Turtles, and I could tell you almost to the penny where every bit of it went, was reinvested in the medium, at least 70 percent. Which is nice on the one hand, because I can account for it, but extremely sad on the other.
GROTH: OK. Well, moving right along. Fourteen months later, Ocean Capital Corporation bought Kitchen Sink. So I guess what I’m … and I don’t even know if you can shed any light on this, you gave Kitchen 1.5 million dollars the first year, and committed yourself to a half-million dollars the second year, which apparently he’d blown through.
EASTMAN: What had happened was that with my luck of all luck, I think that the market started taking a major downturn at this point. The great stigma of Tundra continued on through Kitchen Sink in the sense that projects that creators did for other companies that sold well, for whatever reasons, sold a lot less through Kitchen Sink/Tundra. Even things that Denis took on fairly confident that they would be profitable were not profitable. The company continued to lose money at a fairly alarming rate. There was a learning curve of merging the two staffs; there was some people he brought from Wisconsin that ultimately ended up departing, which caused production gaffes and problems. There was definitely a lot more holes than he anticipated, the bleeding continued. The money flew out the door. It was hard. I think he tried very valiantly to stop the bleeding.
GROTH: You refer to a downturn in the market at about the same time as Kitchen and Tundra merged. And that the new Kitchen company continued to lose money notwithstanding the fact that he was canceling unprofitable books and so on. Nonetheless, how could Kitchen have lost two million dollars in 18 months even with a bit of a market downturn? That strikes me as utterly impossible.
EASTMAN: If you … [Laughs.] Well, we did it, Goddamnit. [Groth laughs.] No, of course …
GROTH: But he was supposed to not do it. That was the whole point of his taking over Tundra.
EASTMAN: I think some of the problems Denis faced as well as he probably traveled down some of the roads I did with respect to, say, if you do a series of color books that you’re paying respectable industry standard marquee name creator prices for. Which then brings expensive printing and expensive pre-press, so what you lose on something like that you lose big, and if you want to blame it on a downturn of the market, I guess there was one. Either way, they just didn’t sell. That if you looked at it in the sense that books he thought that would really sell well, didn’t sell at all, or very little, and so you combined the two and the losses were epic. You know? That’s where I thought he ended up with some of that leftover Tundra residue or bad apple stigma that you would literally lose money just about on every book sold. Perhaps it wasn’t evaluated properly; perhaps the break-evens weren’t done properly …
GROTH: [Laughs.] The Tundra curse!
EASTMAN: This is the Tundra curse, continued. [Laughter.] So if you look at like, say, five … I’m sure that Denis could cut you a deal on a bunch of Captain Sternns that are still in the warehouse. I figured that each Captain Sternn issue lost thirty thousand dollars or more per issue, times five, I mean, bam! You’re over a hundred thousand dollars in fucking losses right there. Believe me, Tundra cost me $14 million. I was aware of every penny I was losing. And it’s amazing how quick it goes. It’s like: it’s like a rock star with a nasty coke habit. It’s like, “Fuck. Where did all my royalties go?” It’s scary.
THE NEW KITCHEN
GROTH: Whose decision was it to move to Northampton?
EASTMAN: Denis’. He had lived in Wisconsin for a long time. He felt that for the way that his company was moving businesswise, that the option of being close to New York, close to Boston, was important, as was the quality of life, time for a change, all of the above reasons. He just felt that it was time for him to leave Wisconsin and try out Massachusetts. Besides, he liked our offices, which I’d spent a fortune on. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to his Wisconsin [offices], they were beautiful as well. They had a great barn that was really beautiful, and in this rural countryside plot that he owned. So anyway, it was his decision to come. So at a point when my commitment of two years worth of income had been used, it was my decision to either come up with more money to fund it or say, “Find your own sources to keep the company alive, or continue to downsize, do whatever you need to do to restructure this entity so it can continue. It’s your baby.” I had shoved in his lap, so to speak, from day one when he set foot in Northampton. Prior to packing his trucks in Wisconsin the contract was signed as a done deal. So, the company’s back in a tough spot and he talked to a number of investors that he had an association with in Hollywood, without much luck. I had an attorney that had done a lot of work with the Turtles that had connections with investors, so I introduced this attorney to Denis, and Denis negotiated the deal he ended up with, with Ocean Capital. All I agreed to was that I had a position of stock, and to restructure this company to bring in other shareholders my stock was required to be diluted down, it went from 49 percent to, eventually, five or less percent.
GROTH: Forty-nine percent of nothing —
EASTMAN: — is nothing! Yeah. But Ocean Capital came in, and they were like, “We love what you’re doing. We love the projects. We love the possibilities. We have offices in Hollywood. We see ways that this could be a big thing, with your library, so on and so on. We’re going to give you financial support, and get behind this and give this the push that’s going to put it over the top. They saw all possibilities, in publishing and a world of possibilities within Hollywood. They had The Crow, which was going great at this time. Kitchen Sink made three to four million dollars off of Crow merchandise I understand from the occasional report I would get from my lawyer, who I had proxied to sit in on the Board of Directors meetings. The Crow was a very profitable program they put together. Denis and Scott Hyman created this merchandising and support program that was unparalleled to anything Hollywood had ever seen. They were putting out T-shirts and posters, and they had deals with Musicland, and they were getting penetration into bookstores now with the Crow graphic novels, and they were selling them by the truckload. To a company like Ocean Capital, which says, “Holy shit almighty! Look how smart we are! We’ll take things like Captain Sternn, From Hell, whatever, and those things can be shopped in Hollywood and potentially become hugely profitable vehicles, then you can take the company public and everyone just bathes in money.” You know what I mean? And ultimately —
GROTH: But this was all an illusion, right?
EASTMAN: Yes and no. An illusion in the sense that what I’ve learned in Hollywood, trying to launch some of my own properties since the Turtles, and you’d think that some “kid” with a track record like mine could sell anything. Like, “I did the Turtles and so my next thing is probably going to be amazing.” Needless to say, I’ve never sold anything. It takes months and months of development. I developed this project Underwhere and did this deal with Sony Wonder Entertainment and for four years that project went fucking nowhere. They wouldn’t commit money, there were contractual misunderstandings, it was labeled as dead in the water and no way am I going to fuck around with Sony’s army of lawyers. So to put together anything, fast-track deal wise, is a joke, unless you’re Spielberg. It’s an absolute miracle that any movie ever gets made in Hollywood, if you consider the fucking suits in these corporations that lamely try to justify their salary by stomping all over anything that comes through the door.
My philosophy on Hollywood suits is that if “you don’t make a decision, you can never get fired.” What you do is, as you arrive in an executive a position, and say you’re getting a hundred thousand dollars a year, a car, phone and benefits from Company A, you run around for a year, trying to look good, and if you never make a decision, you can’t get fired. But if before that year is up and before they really figure out you’re not doing anything, what you do is you go over to Company B, and you tell them anything good that ever came out of Company A, you did. Then you make the jump to Company B, with a higher salary, keep your car and your car phone, and you’re alive in Hollywood for another year.
So the point is that the development term on projects is huge. Years, years … Forrest Gump was kicking around for six years, I understand.
GROTH: Did the Ocean Capital Corporation not realize this, not understand this? Weren’t they insiders in this field, so that they should have known?
EASTMAN: They should have known. I honestly believe that they tried to look at it realistically, but they also tried to believe that they could perhaps speed things up by saying, “Look, it’s the company partially owned by the Turtles guy so there’s some successful clout, and we’ve got some additional clout with investor-types, and we’ve all got a few projects that have been successful in the entertainment industry, and we’ve got Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, and we’ve got this Crow thing happening. We’ve got tons of other stuff here. Come on, we’re taking bids!” They got some bids, and got in development, and it got turned around, and their plan to launch a bunch of projects, and take the company public was really shaping up. It seemed to be working. Christ, they had From Hell at Touchstone for a while, and something else was over here, and they had The Crow with Paramount, which then went to Miramax, and then they had all these things coming together. It just seemed like a natural vehicle for them to take it public, raise a whole lot of capital, and really go into the 21st century with this amazing company. All the while, losses continued at the company, they were unable to stabilize, and Denis was caught up in a corporate nightmare. At minimum, they thought these projects would only take nine months to negotiate and get underway because in Hollywood everybody says, “Yes, this is great! Let’s do it!” So KSP has to fork money out of their own pockets, to protect their project rights, and corporate shares, and keep the company going, until some of these things hit. Then, as bad luck continued, deal after deal sort of fell through. The company was then forced to restructure further with another financial corporation thing.
GROTH: Thing is the right word.
EASTMAN: Eventually, Disappearing Inc. stepped in and the company was saved.
GROTH: A great name for a company that’s been disappearing regularly for the last three or four years …
EASTMAN: A great name sure, as good as any. [Laughs.] I was forwarded some documents saying that the company was being sold and they legally had to send me notice. I had an interest and a share in the company that was nothing at this point. It was just a letter saying, this means it was taken over … goodbye. So Denis for the third time has backers, has people funding his company, and believing in him to carry on with it.
GROTH: What was your involvement, if any, with Kitchen after you sold it? Did you still remain in contact? Were you involved in any way?
EASTMAN: Little or none. I mean, I was at least aware of the damage I had done in the Quentin years, if you will, or even in the department head years where if I had any say, there wasn’t one person that was in control. Except me screwing stuff up so I would do damage to that person’s ability to be an active president. So if Denis made a decision “yes,” it was “yes.” And if Denis made a decision “no,” it was “no.” He was the final line. You know what I mean? The line had to be drawn there. I hung around the Kitchen Sink/Tundra scenario mainly to see through some of the projects that I personally funded there were a number of projects once Denis had decided, “Yes, I want to continue with these Tundra books under the Kitchen Sink imprint. And these I don’t.” And if I had already invested, say, one, a substantial amount of money in them, and two, still wanted to see them done for personal reasons, I hung around to see those books through. But I would deal with an editor, I would deal with whoever, just to see it through. The front office, when a bill came in related to the pre-press on one of those projects, they would pass the bill to me and I would pay it. But as far as direct involvement, there was little or no hands-on … Denis was a friend and a publisher from Wisconsin. So when I would see him, sometimes it would be for a beer. Or go to lunch, and just say, “Well, how’s everything going?” I think, at a time that I sort of started getting down on Denis’ shit is when things weren’t panning out. It’s like you’ve gone through …
GROTH: When did you realize things weren’t panning out?
EASTMAN: I’m taking a wild guess at probably … maybe a year into it?
GROTH: A year after …
EASTMAN: The year after he took over. Maybe a little less, but I can realistically say it was about a year.
GROTH: And what would you mean by “not panning out”? How was it supposed to “pan out”?
EASTMAN: Well, that the company would be publishing books that would be more profitable, that would offset expenses to run an expensive office.
GROTH: And you realized at that point that was not happening.
EASTMAN: Yeah, that it wasn’t happening.
GROTH: Of course, you weren’t at any risk, but was it disappointing that it wasn’t happening?
EASTMAN: It was disappointing and frustrating. I’m sure as much for Denis as it was for me. Again …
GROTH: Well, you still owned 49 percent of the company.
EASTMAN: Yeah, I owned 49 percent of the company, exactly, and I saw my ownership participation in KSP as one of those business practices that is good to have, to have an ownership if Kitchen Sink become something, majorly successful, if I wanted to sell it, I could recoup a percentage of my losses overall at Tundra, and my capital investment at KSP.
GROTH: Which would have been nice — to recoup something from Tundra.
EASTMAN: Which would have been nice. Yeah. I kept thinking [laughs] each time after that, at the time I realized Denis had gone through my commitment to the company, and I wasn’t willing to subsidize it any more, he was on his own. It would have to go into another investment company situation by taking over ownership of stock, at which point my piece was steadily diluted down to nil. Even in those transitional days of going from one scenario to the next, I still wanted to see it survive. And probably believed that more and more as time went on that I wasn’t going to see that money back anyway, and it was just a matter of KSP’s survival or not.
GROTH: Now why did you agree to continually dilute your ownership, through one sale after the other?
EASTMAN: Mainly to support Denis. To support Kitchen Sink.
GROTH: I’m sorry, how would that have accomplished that?
EASTMAN: Because I could have been a real asshole, and said, “No, I don’t want to dilute my stock down to that. No, I want a bigger percentage.” I was removing myself from it and said, “Look, whatever you need to do to close this deal, to get people that are willing to spend money and invest money, into the company, is good for the company. The company will be capitalized, and it will continue on until it gets out of this rut, if you will, to something that would be successful. But I said, “OK, I’m not going to make any waves, just do it. Just do what you can to see that it’s going to survive.” Now I’m not getting x-amount in return when it’s taken public, I’m only getting a third of that, but a third of that is better than a third of nothing. [Groth laughs.] And then a third of a third is a third … you know. I just wanted to see it survive.
GROTH: Were you essentially giving up ownership for nothing? I assume you weren’t being compensated …
EASTMAN: No, I wasn’t paid for them. When you re-organize the stock percentages of who owns what stock, it gets diluted so new investors can own bits. I was willing to do what it took so, you start at 49, and then you do a deal where you end up at 20, and then somebody else comes in and it’s further diluted, and then suddenly you’re down to five, and then whatever.
GROTH: Let me just re-capitulate what seems to an outsider like me this ludicrous financial history. You gave him $2 million when he took over Tundra. You said he made between $3 and $4 million in Crow merchandise subsequently. The Ocean group presumably pumped in money. He got a bank loan in 1996 for $1 million. Now that’s $7 million plus whatever Ocean gave him.
Now previously this was an alternative publisher that survived off his cash flow. But within the space of three years he had at least seven million dollars or more to play with and blew through it and more.
EASTMAN: I want to say that I wish I could pull out the exact numbers so I could give you exact amounts. Whether they specifically made those amounts, or what he was given, I’m not one hundred percent sure, but at the same time, I’m also not sure what Ocean Capital put into it, or the other investment group, I’m not sure what they put into it, financially …
GROTH: Probably more than $1000.
EASTMAN: That’s a safe bet, sure. [Laughter.] At the same time, when these additional partners came in, I think they also brought in additional expenditures. I think they opened a west coast office of KSP. KSP Entertainment, perhaps? To handle some of the KSP properties in Hollywood had, I’m sure, significant expenses to it. I think they tried to do other things like that, investing in other business things, that probably cost more money equal to what they put in. The Crow merchandise I know did very, very well for them and was something that helped cover some of the losses of the company, but after license fees, productions costs, and taxes … what was the net? All the while you still had the week-to-week, month-to-month losses on sales of other books or overhead or whatever, was the probably $4 million in gross enough to cover all that?
GROTH: That’s astonishing.
EASTMAN: I don’t know the costs involved to create $4 million in gross over that period.
GROTH: Still, $4 million gross must yield a decent amount of net.
EASTMAN: I’m sure, yeah. But as far as what you’re asking, I’m not exactly sure or clear.
GROTH: What I’m asking is where did all that money go? You owned part of the company. How does one spend $7 million in three years?
EASTMAN: That’s … [laughs] it’s really, I guess, a question for Denis. I know this probably sounds ludicrous from a point of view that I had a stake and share or whatever in the company, but I was so far removed from whatever they were doing day to day, month to month, week to week. They would have Board of Directors meetings, a couple of times a year, I sat in on some, but mostly I would proxy my attorney to sit and listen to whatever they were talking about. I had no interest in what they were doing or how they were doing it. If it was a major emergency, I’d be made aware of it, or whatever, “They now are doing this.” And it’s like, well, “Good luck. I hope it works.”
GROTH: It certainly seems once you have to start generating enormous sums of money, you have to continually keep coming up with schemes that get farther and farther removed from publishing comics based on their artistic merit.
EASTMAN: That’s probably true.
GROTH: And this is a disease in publishing in general these days, which is rampant.
EASTMAN: Yeah, look at some of the properties that are supporting some of the companies that are struggling: Aliens and movie adaptations and the Star Wars license. I also think that when Kitchen Sink and Tundra merged, Denis was getting his first taste of intellectual property licensing and merchandising and what potentially those revenues can do. And what they can mean, with his Cadillacs and Dinosaurs project. I was trying to do a number of things in Hollywood — which if they worked they could have been very lucrative, and very profitable for the company’s bottom line, and make even a company that’s losing money in three or four other areas of business, if you have a hugely profitable property, it can put the company into profit, still. It can take all those losses and still be profitable. I think that was a direction that he was eager to explore more of.
GROTH: I heard a rumor that Kitchen bought your Ferrari.
EASTMAN: Yes, he did. I made some money on the deal, too. [Laughter.] Actually, at one time I got into collecting a few cars with my dad, and I was around that time looking to sell a few of them.
And yeah, Denis bought a Ferrari from me. And I think he later sold it.
GROTH: Well, enough expenditures like that and I can see where that seven mil could go. [Laughter.]
EASTMAN: Now don’t you allude to him doing something illegal with the company’s money.
GROTH: No, no, no. Certainly not.
EASTMAN: Certainly not.
GROTH: I would never do such a thing. [Eastman laughs.] Have you kept a five percent share through to the present?
EASTMAN: No. God, no.
GROTH: So you’re actually completely out.
EASTMAN: Oh, yeah. I’m completely out.
EASTMAN: [Laughs.] Am I going to get a plaque or something?
GROTH: You deserve one.
EASTMAN: So I’ll wait by the mailbox …
GROTH: How’d you get out of it? [Laughs.] With Disappearing Inc.’s acquisition?
EASTMAN: If my recollection is correct, even during the Ocean Capital days, my stock had been reduced to a point where I could easily be outvoted by any one or a number of persons within it. So it really didn’t matter. I think at the time that it was sold I was literally sent a notification saying, “Oh, by the way, it was voted that everybody’s going to lose whatever interest they have in Kitchen Sink because it’s been sold for whatever agreed terms.” End of story. I wasn’t asked. I was just notified that this had happened. And I was like, “OK. There you go.” End of story.
GROTH: Let me ask you something slightly more serious. Isn’t buying a Ferrari a bit profligate?
GROTH: A bit profligate?
EASTMAN: What’s profligate?
GROTH: A bit … um … well … [groping for a synonym] a bit excessive.
EASTMAN: Well … God, you know, I’m probably the wrong person to ask.
GROTH: But you have it. [Laughter.] If I went and bought a Ferrari, my employees might start worrying about the company, which they would be well advised to do.
EASTMAN: Or if you bought a tank. I can cut you a good deal on a tank.
GROTH: Do you own a tank?
EASTMAN: Yeah, I have a tank. I’m currently selling it.
GROTH: After this interview comes out, I might need a tank. [Laughter.]
EASTMAN: Maybe after the interview comes out, I should keep it.
GROTH: I was going to say, you better keep it.
EASTMAN: No, I don’t … I’ll really need it. You know, it’s funny. My desire in talking to you in this interview was to be as brutally honest … I would want to answer the questions to you as I would answer them to myself or anyone else. I certainly don’t regret anything I said or how I said it, because in my opinion, it’s the hundred percent truth of that’s what I felt or that’s what my knowledge is. And if anybody has issue with it, then they’re either going to write you and it’s going to appear in the next or subsequent issue or they’re going to call me directly, and I’d be glad to talk to anyone about any discrepancies or any concerns they may have.
But going back to the Denis and the Ferrari situation. [Laughter.]
GROTH: As it will be called.
EASTMAN: “The Great Ferrari Scandal.” No, seriously, when KSP and Tundra came together, it was just prior to the launch of the Cadillacs and Dinosaurs TV series and toy line and a number of other things that, in my opinion, he believed were going to be very, very profitable. And whether it be going through a mid-life crisis or “I always wanted a Ferrari,” whatever, that he thought that he would 1) have the money to do it, and 2) it’s something that he really wanted. And it wasn’t a big deal to me. I didn’t force him to buy it. I said, “I’m letting go of a couple of cars. If you see anything you like … “ And he liked the red Ferrari.
GROTH: Sounds a little extravagant for an alternative comics publisher.
EASTMAN: Extravagant. Well, yeah, I guess. You may look at that in a number of different ways. As buying an original Harvey Kurtzman that’s a five thousand dollar painting. Is that extravagant? Or is that really cool? For somebody that always wanted a Ferrari, it’s probably really cool.
GROTH: Well, one thing that occurs to me is that by moving to Northampton, he must have increased his overhead substantially.
EASTMAN: I’m sure he did.
GROTH: In your opinion, would he have been in financial trouble if he had stayed in Wisconsin?
EASTMAN: I’m sure Denis has thought about that a lot himself. You’re going from a rural Wisconsin setting to what we lovingly call “Tax-a-chusetts.” I’m sure it posed some problems, which is why I barely charged him rent for the period that he was in Northampton. That was sort of my final “please continue the good fight” wish, sort of like, “Look, I know you’re struggling, I know you’ve had to give up ownership shares and you had to work very hard to restructure the company, and you really had to take some hard knocks to keep this company alive, and I respect that. I know that you do want to see Kitchen Sink survive, and you know what? I won’t charge you rent if it will help.” We had a contract for rent that he was supposed to pay small to start and build so on and so on, that was during the Ocean Capital days, when they were going to be going public in 12 months. Then we would up the rent to above fair market value, sort of for taking low rent in the initial, amortize it, and make up for it when they got loads of dough. And I said, “Look, it’s the least I can do.”
There were periods I’d get angry, and I’d say, “Fuck you, I’ve got my own financial problems, I’m going to charge you rent,” and get a few checks and then I would feel bad, and I’d say, “Look. I’m sorry. Look. Just do the best you can to straighten yourself out and we’ll worry about it later.”
GROTH: I can’t figure out why he would move to Northampton.
EASTMAN: He needed the change, and it made some business sense.
GROTH: He could have bought a penthouse in Manhattan cheaper than what it costs to relocate an entire company to Northampton.
EASTMAN: You’re probably right. He relocated several key people as well as his brother Jim, his wife and their whole family. She quit her law practice to follow Jim to Northampton. Jamie Riehle came and I think a few others.
GROTH: The cost of living is greater, so the salaries are greater …
EASTMAN: Salaries are greater, yes.
GROTH: Everything costs more.
EASTMAN: Yeah, I’m sure, Northampton is a different world. They don’t call it “Tax-a-chusetts” for nothing. It’s not a cheap place to live. But I think, again, it was a Denis call. I think he was just ready to get out of the farmlands, cheese country.
GROTH: [Laughs.] There’s gotta be a cheaper way to do that.
EASTMAN: [Laughs.] Yeah, like I said, I’m sure he’s probably thought about it a lot.
GROTH: Well, you must certainly be happy to be out of there.
EASTMAN: [Laughter.] Um … well, it’s funny. Of course, I want to make a great joke here [Groth laughs], but to be honest, for the last year or better of Kitchen Sink before it became part of Disappearing Inc., I had really given up on it, since before the Ocean Capital days. I never really expected to get anything back out of my investment. It was long since gone, I’d really already written it off, and it was like really down to a matter of wanting to see Kitchen Sink survive. So at the point when it was taken over by Disappearing Inc., I’m sure that the company was probably not in the best position, and probably was teetering day-to-day whether they’d be able to stay open. And it was probably a blessing that it got this chance through Disappearing Inc. to continue. I’m of the mind of “God bless you, go ahead and I hope that something works for you down the road. Maybe you’ll own another Ferrari someday.” [Laughter.]
So there’s the joke. But I really hope that it works.
GROTH: You told me before that you admired Kitchen Sink as an alternative publisher and looked to that company as an exemplar of what you wanted Tundra to be.
EASTMAN: Mm-hm. [Giggles.]
GROTH: Do you feel any guilt over what’s happened to Kitchen over the last four years?
EASTMAN: Yeah, I do. Honestly, I do. In a … but it’s a weird kind of guilt.
GROTH: It’s got to be hard to feel guilty about something after pumping $2 million into it.
EASTMAN: Yeah, you’re right. And that’s why I said it’s kind of weird that I would feel guilty. I can’t help running Tundra, Tundra U.K., Tundra Records, Limelight, all those things through my mind, and trying to actually pinpoint at each different day where it went wrong, or where I fucked up or where I said “yes” when I should have said “no.” Hindsight is 20/20, that I feel guilty about what I did at Tundra. Because I feel I let myself down in a way, because looking back I know that I knew better even when some of those decisions were made. And it was this armor-plated, invincible, you know, “Fuck everyone, damn the torpedoes, this is going to work because I’m so incredibly fucking lucky. And rich.” And felt that’s what damned those companies. And maybe the residue of that or that attitude spilled over, whatever, I have guilt for perhaps having been part of what brought Kitchen Sink, from cheese country to this level where they, where he, I don’t even know what he owns or if he owns anything in the company anymore, I only know that he’s been on the front lines of for almost 30 years to arrive at its current state today. And that makes me feel bad.
And of course, at the same time I want to say, “Well, I had nothing to do with that fucking mess.” You know? [Groth laughs.] But you know …
GROTH: Which technically is probably true.
EASTMAN: Which, you know, is certainly debatable. I’m sure that perhaps from Denis’ chair, he may have a very different opinion. Even myself, I sometimes wonder, I don’t know how much of a direct hand I had in its evolution to its current state, but I’m sure there were some side effects. People may have started looking at Kitchen Sink the way the way they probably were looking at Tundra: “Wow, look at Denis now. Now he’s got a big fatcat rich guy sitting on the Board with 49 percent of his company that’s going to support some really crazy antics.” And that stigma, I think, turns people off. If you’re struggling you’re a hero, everybody loves an underdog. But they only love an underdog when they think the underdog has a chance to win. After they win, it’s a whole other ball game. I think they saw Kitchen as an underdog before the merger. I think a lot of people see Fantagraphics as an underdog. It’s somebody that they want to win.
GROTH: Until I find somebody to give me $2 million, I will remain an underdog.
EASTMAN: Would you buy a Ferrari with $2 million … ? [Laughs.]
GROTH: I might hold off for a year, or so. To see if I still had it.
EASTMAN: Or at least lease one for a couple of months. Try it out first. [Laughter.]
GROTH: I’d ask to borrow yours for just a little while. [Laughter.]
EASTMAN: But um … it’s a difficult question, and it’s a difficult, you know, it’ s one of those stupid things I think of late at night when I should be sleeping sometimes. [Groth laughs.] There’s always “What if?”
GROTH: I think that’s a great title for the interview. “Kevin Eastman: Guilty.”
EASTMAN: [Laughs.] As long as I can’t be taken to court on it.
GROTH: Right, right.
EASTMAN: That’s actually kind of funny.
GROTH: Um … so the Ocean Capital Group basically bought a pig in a poke.
EASTMAN: Yeah, in hindsight …
GROTH: This company didn’t really have a realistic chance of making millions and millions of dollars from their investment.
EASTMAN: In their minds, and on paper, they really believed they did. Corporate posturing for a public offering is way beyond me, so, if they did have any reservations, perhaps they sort of looked the other way.
GROTH: If somebody came to me, and said “I’ll give you millions and millions of dollars for part of Fantagraphics,” I would know that these poor bastards were not about to get this investment back.
EASTMAN: Right. But what would you do? Would you take the millions and millions of dollars?
GROTH: I should hope not.
EASTMAN: It’s a bridge you’d have to cross if you ever came to it. Much like any other crazy, outrageous deal until it’s in your face, what would you do? I know we talked about over lunch, it’s like some days I fucking never want to see another mutant turtle as long as I live. Other days, I still think I’ve got some fun stories to tell. But if there was an opportunity to sell the Turtles, both Pete and I have agreed to do that. For the right price, it’s shit or get off the pot. I would say the same for Heavy Metal. I adore Heavy Metal, it’s one of — besides my wife — it’s one of the greatest pleasures in my life, as is the Museum. The magazine was such an inspiration to me when I discovered it growing up, and to be running it today, and having the sales increase since I purchased it, has given me a nice sense of pride. But at the same time, if there was an opportunity to get a fair price for Heavy Metal, I would sell it. Why? Because I just would, I guess. There’s other things I want to do.
GROTH: Such as?
EASTMAN: Well, if I get rid of some of these other businesses, there would be no more excuses for me not drawing. [Laughter.]
ART VS. COMMERCE
GROTH: Every time Kitchen was sold, you were quoted as saying that it’s sold because you want to get back to the drawing table.
EASTMAN: Yeah! Which is really sad, and a big personal issue for me. I think if I had a therapist, they’d have a fucking field day. Because every time I’ve created a scenario where quote/unquote it’s going to get me back to drawing, I’ve avoided it like the plague. I’ve filled it in with other shit that consumed all my time, and that’s certainly my problem. I know this will sound funny, I don’t consider myself that much of an artist.
GROTH: I wanted to ask you about that.
GROTH: At this point, aren’t you more of a businessman than an artist? Was there a point that you felt that you had become a business- man [Eastman laughs] and relinquished being an artist? It seems like there had to have been.
EASTMAN: I’m just laughing because if you think about a businessman with my track record [laughter] Good Lord … !
GROTH: Well, it’s a good thing those Turtles made money!
EASTMAN: It’s a good thing, yeah, well, God bless the Turtles. At times I think I do enjoy parts of the business. I believe I’ve learned some things from the Mirage days and the Tundra days and beyond, particularly with respect to certain things I’m doing today. I’m doing those a bit more intelligently, and trying something like spending other people’s money to make a project happen, all the while keeping control of it but then again, look at the Underwhere example. Old bait. I do like the business sides to a number of different things I’m doing right now. But at the same time, I really created a bizarre scenario in my own mind regarding my art, and artwork. It’s that I’m such a fan of what I call “people with real talent.” And, trust me, I’m not sitting here saying, “Woe is me” and belittling myself and my art or whatever. I do enjoy what I do. But I enjoy it for me. And only me. I’ve had the chance to work with people like Mark Martin. I did story layouts and breakdowns for the Underwhere graphic novel that Mark Martin made beautiful. When you see my drawing that then became Mark Martin’s artwork, it’s night and day, it’s something I never could have done or dreamed of doing. The same in working with Simon Bisley, that there’s no way I’ll ever be able to draw like Simon. And I have a huge amount of admiration for what Simon does. Besides him being a completely fucking lunatic wacko that I adore and value his friend- ship, because he makes me laugh. We have a good time, even though he fucks up a lot of stuff. He’s not much on consistency [Groth laughs], and some day I’ll point out to you with Melting Pot some of the greatest fuck-ups ever. But that’s a whole other thing. Another interview. So when I have somebody like Simon Bisley finishing things that I start, I feel like I really need to start all over, almost make myself go back to square one and learn to draw again. Learn to tell the kind of stories I want to tell not ones influenced by any Turtles or work-related scenario or deadline, anything but the pure enjoyment of drawing. I started doing that a little bit the last year and a half. I’ve been doing storyboards for the Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K.2 movie. I did about, I guess 500 pages of drawings, but not all new drawings, they were some cut and paste from the original Melting Pot layouts. F.A.K.K.2 and Melting Pot storylines were merged into what’s become Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K.2. I’ve sort of started getting the feel for drawing again. Doing layouts, doing roughs. I was always very safe in my layouts, because they were gestures, they were extremely simplistic because I knew that Mark was going to fix things and Simon was going to fix things, or even working with Pete, things would be corrected — a way of getting around my inabilities to draw so many things well. I’ve gotten too comfortable in that zone. For me it would be a dream to get to a point where I could really have the time and go back and start all over. And I will. [Laughs.]
GROTH: Right. Well, to bring this full circle, there seemed to be an incongruity between a lot of the rhetoric surrounding Tundra and your own work on the Ninja Turtles. And I couldn’t reconcile these two things. I don’t know if you can. There was a press release specifically that came out about Tundra, and it was headlined, “Kevin Eastman announces the Creator’s Edge.” And it read, “Words and Pictures, the sequential art popularly called comics, mean and increasingly are more than genre-bound sub-literature. A rich combina- tion of a mature narrative and accomplished illustration can produce works of remarkable scope and depth. Wedding the instant visual gratification of television and film with the resonant satisfaction of literature. Imagine the astounding rewards if Brueghel the Younger had complimented his work with that of Cervantes. And not just with single illustrations, but with a symbiotic synthesis [Eastman laughs] of significant image with significant word.”
EASTMAN: That had to be Greg Baisden! [Laughs.]
GROTH: I was going to ask you if that was Greg Baisden.
EASTMAN: I don’t know what half that shit means. [Groth laughs.]
GROTH: Well, I had a list of questions here that I wanted to ask you about that. One of them was, “Do you believe that?” [laughter] “Is that what you tried to do with the Ninja Turtles?” And so on. But you created the Ninja Turtles, and there’s an incongruity between all of that rhetorical posturing — which I really couldn’t believe you wrote.
EASTMAN: Oh, absolutely not, I can barely spell, for Christ’s sake.
GROTH: I’ve only talked to you a few times on the phone, but you don’t seem the kind of guy to bring up Cervantes and Brueghel the Younger when talking about comics.
EASTMAN: I think I saw the video on both of those things, but I missed them at the theater. [Laughter.]
GROTH: Did you ever feel that there was a conflict between the kind of stuff you loved and the kind of claims your press releases were making under your name? The kind of posturing that was going on? Under the Tundra rubric?
EASTMAN: Wow. Yeah, I guess that’s a hard one to answer. You know, look, you got a 22-year-old kid, me, and a 30-year-old kid, Pete, that both loved Jack Kirby, that loved comics, that wanted to tell stories, the kind of stories that we’d enjoy reading. Whether nobody ever bought ’em or whatever, that was the kind of stories that we could tell. They’re very simplistic, probably crudely-drawn, but they were the best of our ability at that time and throughout that time. Probably the thing that amazed me the most was that I was actually getting paid to learn. I was making enough money to pay my rent and eat and draw, and that to me, no matter what else has happened, or whatever else will happen, that was when the dream came true. I look at what I’ve learned, and I’ve learned countless things — what I learned from Pete Laird alone as an illustrator and of storytelling and drawing, I couldn’t have learned in college. You can see a growth from issue #1 to the time that we stopped working together. And I think that I continued to grow somewhat when I was doing it semi-regularly thereafter. But I did more drawing in one early year of Turtles then I’ve done in the cumulative years since. From the success of the Turtles, to whatever I wanted Tundra to be, and whatever the person who wrote that text thought Tundra was, probably thought and believed my lofty and noble although unrealistic goals and dreams might work. I thought I could and it sounds so corny, but I thought, could change our industry. And perhaps make it a little bit better with Tundra. Whatever “that” says, and if that means the same thing, then that kind of posturing is correct for Tundra. But I would never put it in those terms. It was just I wanted to the take the embodiment of Mirage, the fact that myself, and/or myself and Peter could sit down and we’d control every single aspect of our creation, through to its success or non-success. I tried to apply that dream and the feeling of that dream with Tundra so others could feel it as well. It was a good idea at the time. But the way it was handled, my handling of it, it was doomed.
And there’s times, “If I knew then what I know now,” looking back at the Tundra adventure, perhaps a whole different thing could have happened. But then I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Which, aww, fuck it … Whatever. It’s crazy.
GROTH: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
EASTMAN: I’m just rambling at this point. I’ve talked about stuff with you that I haven’t talked to anyone about since the days at Tundra. Between all the Mirage years, and my relationships with the guys and the relationship with the people during the Tundra days, it’s sad sometimes that it’s all changed so much. But I guess it’s as much me as them, that’s probably changed. I may have put distance between myself and them as much as they may have put it between me and them. Because maybe it’s something we both want, we’ve lived it and now we both want to forget and move on. Today I’m grateful for Heavy Metal. I still get enjoyment out of working on the new Turtles live-action series, and doing some of the things we’re doing with the Turtles, and I dearly want to see the Museum survive. That to me is probably my biggest commitment right now: to try and figure a way for the Words and Pictures Museum to survive. It’s tough for everyone these days. I don’t want to see the Museum of Cartoon Art in San Francisco pass. I don’t want to see Boca Raton pass. I wish we had 25 more museums in the country of this type. But Words and Pictures, if ultimately I can’t continue to fund it, we can downsize it, we can do some things to keep it intact, but ultimately if I can’t singularly fund it, I will be the one to take the responsibility to close it. Like the people that I hired at Tundra that Denis opted not to continue on in Kitchen Sink, I personally fired. It wasn’t a very happy day in my life, especially considering Mark Martin was one of the ones that had to go.
GROTH: You said earlier that this statement, notwithstanding its pomposity, does more or less represent what you think, but on the other hand, Simon Bisley isn’t remotely, even by popular standards, an equivalent of Cervantes and Brueghel, as ludicrous as that combination is.
EASTMAN: If Cervantes got really stoned and really drunk, he may be something remotely as cool as Bisley. Bisley’s my hero and he’s a fucking maniac. He’s an explosion of this twisted, fucked-up energy that gets blasted out on his canvas, derivative of Frazetta and even a bit Sienkiewicz and sprinkle on some Corben, and sometimes he’ll even admit to that. Other times he’ll say it’s all him. But he’s the greatest. I love him to death. He’s a total, original character. We need more Bisleys. And I know that sounds funny. Whenever I try to explain to somebody what kind of person Simon is and why I like him so much, it’s like your best friend. You have a best friend for a certain reason, undefinable, but it’s there.
GROTH: But you like his work, too.
EASTMAN: I love his work. I own as much as I can get my hands on.
GROTH: I’m not sure I understand that.
EASTMAN: What’s that?
GROTH: I said I’m not sure if I understand that. What is it you like about his work?
EASTMAN: His ability to me is astounding. Unearthly. And as much as I would put him sort of at the very top, I can’t because one of my biggest idols is Richard Corben. But with both of them, I can’t fathom how that ability can come out of human beings and look that amazing. I look at Bisley’s work that way. To me he’s one of the best ever.
GROTH: He’s sort of Corben taken to the nth degree.
EASTMAN: Corben on steroids and acid!
GROTH: Right. [laughs] Right.
EASTMAN: And to watch Simon paint is breathtaking. A lot of people don’t realize how incredibly fast he really is. It’s like paint, paper, shit, cigarette butts, junk strewn from one end of his studio to the other. Cigarette hanging out of his mouth. A plate of curry, eating while he’s painting and talking, looking like it’s as natural as breathing. For me, every painting’s a fucking war, a struggle of an almost painful nature to try and accomplish one-sixteenth as good. And he’s just doing it by accident. And goofing around while it’s all happening, just flowing out of his brushes.
GROTH: You see him as the quintessential wildman.
EASTMAN: And natural artist. It’s very easy for him. I’ve been able to purchase from Simon amazing bodies of his work to preserve it, all of Judgment in Gotham, most of the pages of Slaine. All the stuff he’s done for me, through Heavy Metal, Melting Pot, a hundred-page Body Count Turtles book, which is the best ride I’ve had in a long, long time. All of it will show up in the Museum exhibits some day.
LIFE’S BEEN GOOD
GROTH: This must cross the mind of someone in your position, but do you ever worry that you were liked for your money and not for who you are or what you are?
EASTMAN: Yeah. And that’s a tough one. A lot of paranoia to deal with.
GROTH: Because Tundra almost seems like it could have been the institutionalization of that dynamic.
EASTMAN: Yeah. I guess I would totally agree. That’s probably what I meant when I spoke earlier of that Joe Walsh song, “Everyone’s so different, I haven’t changed.” The joke is me, when I have to say, “Well, does this person like me for me, or like me for my money?” And it definitely has changed and affected how I look to new people I meet. And it definitely has changed and affected the way I look to new people I meet, so who’s the fucked up one here? Old friends that I’ve had and lost. Like I said, I’ve probably left them behind from the Mirage days or the Tundra days because that distance is the best for everyone involved. And it’s not like I hate any of them, why would I? I love to see George Pratt when I can at conventions and stuff, and I love George, he’s great, and I think he was really a friend, and I think he believed in the Tundra thing. But I’m not saying that Jon Muth didn’t or Dave McKean didn’t, or Kent or any of those guys didn’t. And I don’t respect any of them any less. They’re going to be doing some of the most important stuff out there. There’s a lot of people out there doing really important stuff, and it’s very frustrating, especially I’m sure for you as a publisher right now, for stuff that I believed in at Tundra, that I found the stuff had great merit, and so few wanted to read it.
GROTH: No, it’s awfully frustrating.
EASTMAN: And when it doesn’t sell, it just breaks your heart. I’m glad to have … Heavy Metal it is this really great little safe working entity that I enjoy as much as it seems, to the people that seem to be reading it. And as far as publishing goes, that’s about as close as I’m going to get to it. You know?
GROTH: [laughs] Can’t say I blame you.
EASTMAN: At least I’ve learned something, Goddammit. All right?