TCJ interviews tend to break the Internet. As such, due to the length of this interview, it's been broken into two parts. From The Comics Journal #202 (March 1998). Here is Part 2. And you can click here for a selection of letters to TCJ about the interview.
Kevin Eastman’s career — odyssey is more like it — is probably the most fascinating, tumultuous, and farcical in comics history. As everyone knows, Eastman co-created, with his collaborator Peter Laird, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1984. The series took off almost immediately and became a global licensing bonanza — with innumerable kinds of merchandise as well as three feature films — making the rather bewildered young men millionaires practically overnight. In this interview, Eastman describes the economic, legal, and emotional roller-coaster ride that followed the Turtles’ success, but the centerpiece is certainly Eastman’s candid perspective on Tundra, the alternative comics company he founded with Turtles money in 1990, which he collapsed into Kitchen Sink Press in 1993. Tundra was certainly, not to put too fine a point on it, the biggest and most absurd (as well as the most idealistic) publishing catastrophe in the history of comics — maybe in the history of the print medium.
I had only met Eastman once before years ago and spoken to him on the phone once or twice. Eastman had in fact canceled a Journal interview he’d agreed to during the period he “sold” Tundra to Kitchen in 1993; his cancellation was probably a bunker reaction to the Journal’s dogged attempt to ferret out the truth behind Kitchen Sink Press’ disingenuous press releases about the transaction, which, Eastman reveals here for the first time, clearly misrepresented it in both spirit and letter (in fact, Eastman bought a majority interest in KSP and in effect sold himself his own company). But, a year ago, Eastman called me and said he was ready to talk. My impression of Eastman, based on a very long day I spent with him at his Bel Air home in October, 1997, is that he is fundamentally decent and well-intentioned, but his combination of wide-eyed naivete, canniness, and good intentions was unanchored by any concrete philosophical, aesthetic, or intellectual disposition. He wanted to do good but hadn’t a clue as to how to do it, and only the vaguest conception of what “good” meant in the context of a publishing company.
There was certainly too much money at Tundra and too little of everything else. About money, the renowned economic philosopher Wyndham Lewis wrote, “Money spoils many things for it seems to most people who possess it so much more important than their poor humble selves, that they cannot believe, or trust their judgment to believe, that it does not overshadow them; and when their personality is called upon to compete with it (as is I suppose always the case with a wealthy person) they feel that it will master them forever.” Money was certainly more important than Eastman’s poor humble self, a reversal of priorities that proved disastrous. Tundra was both a managerial and a conceptual mess, but the managerial lunacy shouldn’t overshadow the fact that the company was editorially rudderless.
In the absence of a guiding editorial vision (or even coherent taste) Eastman glommed onto Creators’ Rights as the conceptual glue that held Tundra together. The problem was, neither infinite amounts of money nor a devotion to creator rights could manufacture talent out of thin air and as a result, Tundra’s output was all over the map. Such a variable editorial line-up would have put even a crack marketing team to the test, but to Tundra’s relatively untrained staff, it proved hopeless. To this, you can add other detrimental side effects, for instance, books that could’ve sold well and been profitable to other publishers (not to mention the creators), were sucked into the Tundra black hole and practically lost. Then, there was the rampant irresponsibility of creators who took huge advances and never turned in the work for which they were paid. Steve Bissette, a close observer and participant at Tundra, lamented that Eastman never learned anything from the fiasco of Tundra [in issue #185], but what lesson could Eastman or anyone else divine from this painful, tragical, and pixilated episode? Surely Eastman is not about to try anything like this again, and no one in his right mind who has the kind of money Eastman had at his disposal would repeat Eastman’s mistakes. The sad disaster of Tundra was uniquely Eastman’s own.
I had been warned by more than one person that Eastman was as slippery as an eel and that it would be difficult to get a straight answer out of him regarding Tundra; on the contrary, he appeared to be embarrassingly forthright and largely free of guile about his responsibility in the self-immolation of his own company. If you didn’t think it was possible to lose $14 million publishing alternative comics, read on.
— Gary Groth
THE LAST BOY IN MAINE
GARY GROTH: Could you tell me where you grew up, what your upbringing was like?
KEVIN EASTMAN: I grew up in Maine: in the country outside of Portland, in southern Maine. I attribute a lot of my creativity or imagination or whatever to that time period because there was really not much to do there. I had a paper route. There was a local drug store that sold comic books; that’s where I discovered things like Gene Colan’s Daredevil and Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, back when they were all still 20 cents apiece. And I used to draw. Constantly. From the time I first saw a comic book, that’s all I ever wanted to do as a career ... tell stories.
GROTH: This was a rural environment?
EASTMAN: Very rural. The most exciting thing to do in the neighborhood was hang around the store and gas station — which just happened to be the same place. We used to ride motorcycles or hang out in sand pits: lots of fields; trails through the woods. Build forts.
GROTH: [Laughs.] Hang out in sand pits.
EASTMAN: Hang out in sand pits. You ever do that?
GROTH: [Laughs.] No, I have to say I never have.
EASTMAN: That was a big thing for me. [Laughter.] It was wicked fun, all things considered; we hung out in sand pits probably until high school, because once you graduate from throwing rocks off the top of sand pits, riding motorcycles in sand pits, and discover drinking, then you hung out and drank in sand pits.
GROTH: Sand pits are versatile [laughter] places.
EASTMAN: Such was life growing up in Groville, ME.
GROTH: May I ask what your parents did?
EASTMAN: Well, my parents were separated. They separated when I was about 9, but my father was a tool and die maker and he used to draw a lot. I still have an old folder of cartoons of cars. My grandmother was a painter, so I think my talent is definitely inherited. Or ... what I call my talent anyway ... is inherited from them. My mother worked as a phlebotomist. She was a nurse in a hospital where she would draw blood from patients. So we called her the vampire. But they separated when I was 9.
GROTH: Was that difficult for you?
EASTMAN: Yeah, it was kind of weird. I remember coming from school one day and Dad’s packing. And he’s like “I’m going to live at Grammie’s for a while.” Shortly thereafter he moved out of state. For about four or five years, he was completely gone. My mother met a man that she’s been with ever since. Twenty-seven or 28 years they’ve been together. He used to pave driveways ... a real intellectual [laughs] just kidding: a goodhearted person.
I remember Dad calling; he’d call for Christmas and birthdays. It was kind of a weird thing. I really didn’t care for him that much then. When he finally decided to come back to the northeast and be with his kids, it was no big deal. I really didn’t like him that much for a long time. He used to take us, every Sunday, to do stuff, my sisters and I. Actually, he used to take me to life drawing classes, because I really loved to draw. That was kind of great. Introduced me to people like Heinrich Kley, N.C. Wyeth, and all these old-time artists, you know, books he’d seen when he was a kid growing up.
GROTH: Were you close to him before?
EASTMAN: Can’t recall. It was one of those things that fades away, I guess; what do you remember of your childhood? I remember stupid things: eating Twinkies at the store; the paper route; buying comics; drawing. I don’t really remember much more.
GROTH: It almost sounds like he left just at that stage in childhood when you would have become close to him.
EASTMAN: Exactly, when a boy needs a father figure. These days, all is forgiven, and we have a great relationship, but it was really rough for a while.
GROTH: So your stepfather took over that position?
EASTMAN: No, he couldn’t. My mother, she was the top dog: she ran the family, she ran the house, she ran Larry’s ass off ... she was the queen and she was very strict. On the one hand, she was supportive, but in a most interesting way. I remember ... it is kinda funny now, and still seems very clear today, one of the most inspiring things she said to me, when I was maybe 12 or 13, again drawing all the fucking time — in my room, comic books, everywhere ... she came up and she’d say, “Jesus, you better be good at that, because you’re not good at anything else.” [Laughter.]
She’s very much of the tough-love scenario. But she was supportive, and my dad was, in his own way. When I graduated high school I wanted to become an artist, a comic-book artist. Which was silly to everybody on the planet. My high school art teacher was very supportive but not — like, you really got to do something with your comic art. More like fine art. Even when I applied to colleges, like Portland School of Art, or Rhode Island School of Design, and these places were just insulted that my portfolio contained anything comic book-like, that wasn’t art to them! My father said he would help pay for college ... as long as I didn’t go to art school. He said, “I know you love to draw, but it’s not practical!” He was very old-fashioned. He was like: “Get a job ... a real job.”
GROTH: He didn’t think you could earn a living doing that.
EASTMAN: He was absolutely positive you couldn’t. His idea was, you get a job where you can support a family, so you can take care of your family. Then if you want to draw on the side as a hobby, you can do that.
At that age, when you’re getting out of high school, you’re pretty much, “Fuck you, I’m doing anything I want.” So I went to art school for six months. [Laughs.] They didn’t care for me there, either. [Laughter.]
I went to the Portland School of Art, because it was semi-affordable, and local. They had artists that graduated that could paint their asses off, yet working in 7-11s to pay back their fucking student loans and starving. You know what I mean? They were very much against what I wanted to do ... it was insulting that I would draw anything comic book-like. Or refer to that as an art form. And that was very weird to me. So I made up my mind, at that time, that I still knew that that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I figured that I will take from them what they can give me and apply it to what I wanted to do with it. A lot of it helped: life drawing, of course, and object drawing ...
GROTH: Can you skip back and tell me a little about your interest in comics? Were you just maniacally interested in comics, did you buy a lot of comics ... ?
EASTMAN: Well, there were only one or two other kids in the neighborhood that really liked comics. Most of them didn’t care or probably couldn’t read that well. Well, I couldn’t read that well either. I still can’t spell that well, but that’s another story — yeah, I loved ’em and as much as I could afford with my paper route money, I would buy comics. I liked weird shit. Well, what I called weird shit. Some kids liked Superman or Batman, and things like that. The closest superhero comic I liked and bought regularly was Daredevil. I liked Weird War. I liked Sgt. Rock. I liked The Losers, a lot of war comics. Not much superhero stuff.
GROTH: Did you escape into comics?
EASTMAN: Oh, definitely, big time.
GROTH: Do you think your fractured family life had something to do with your intense interest in, or escape into, comics?
EASTMAN: Yeah, I’m sure it did ... my room was a pretty safe place. I had all my comics there and all my stuff to draw on. You could sort of hide there for days if you needed to.
GROTH: You once said, “I remember reading my first Jack Kirby comic when I was very young, and deciding that was what I wanted to do.”
EASTMAN: Mm, that’s right.
GROTH: Kirby had a big effect on you?
EASTMAN: Huge. The biggest. I think that looking at Jack Kirby’s work made me obsessive. I’ll dig out, just for fun, if you want to show some of the stuff in the interview, all my early drawings were totally Kirby-inspired. His stuff was kind of manic. It was kind of abstract. It was really powerful. Simplistic, I guess? The stories were really never that complex. But very linear, simple, and I just thought exciting. Kamandi was my favorite. “The last boy on earth.” I was like, “I wanna be the last boy on earth.” Whatever.
But yeah, he was brilliant to me; I used to just pore over his stuff. I still have those comics that I bought from that time period today and they’re just beat to fuck, barely held together. He was a huge influence.
GROTH: So you went to art school immediately after high school? What art school was that?
EASTMAN: It was the Portland School of Art. In Maine, there’s not a lot of work opportunities, so I would cook lobsters during the summers in a restaurant, and basically, grew up in a kind of atmosphere where you work all summer long, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, because that’s when all the tourists are there, and you save all your money to get you through the winter. For four or five years, I still did that even after the first issue of the Turtles, I was still going back to Maine for the summers to cook lobsters. [Laughs.]
GROTH: You went to art school for about a year?
EASTMAN: It was six months, actually.
GROTH: And they tried to indoctrinate you into fine art, or they tried to move you into a direction away from comics?
EASTMAN: Yes. They preferred I paint things like this; they would tear up colored pieces of paper, put them inside of a box, and tell me to do a painting of that using a palette knife. I’d paint that, or other weird shit. I used to do stuff in design classes where you have this 12-inch by 12-inch gray scale, and these one-inch squares of gray and you’re supposed to arrange them in a pleasing, “most” interesting manner. I used to hang out with this kid, Peter Goodman, who also liked comics, and so, we’d bring in gray scales to a Tuesday lesson, and the teacher would critique them: “No, no, you’re close, you’ve almost got it, I think you really need to give it more thought ... ” and whatever. We’d never work on the fucking things, we’d bring them back the next class, and you’d just say to the teacher, “Well, I really thought it through and I did this, then I added more warms here, and I think the blacks really brought the whole thing together this way.” And she’d be like, “Yes, yes, I see it. You’ve really got it this time.” So to me it was kind of fucked up. [Laughs.]
GROTH: It was bullshit.
EASTMAN: Kind of bullshit. I got enough grants and student loans to go for a semester. I applied for grants for a second semester, but my mom and Larry were at the income level where you were poor enough to get some help, but were just making enough money that you couldn’t get more government assistance. I was just making too little to pay for myself. So I couldn’t attend second semester. I opted to just take night classes occasionally and work.
GROTH: Did they teach you figure drawing?
EASTMAN: Yes. And that was the one thing I stuck with even after school. I had figure drawing classes, and what they call a 2-D drawing class, which is object drawing. Drawing bags and couches and tires and things like that. The figure drawing is something I always went back to whenever I could fit a class in.
GROTH: So you were taking classes, but you also must have been working as well. What were you doing?
EASTMAN: Working in restaurants. I had this great philosophy that was taught to me in the first restaurant I worked in, in high school. As a freshman I used to work at this variety store that had a little restaurant in the back, in Westbrook. The owner said, “You know, kid, if you work in a restaurant, and I don’t want to catch you doing this here, by the time you get your own apartment, you can eat all your meals at the restaurant, while you’re working. On your payday, your day off, you come in to get your paycheck, and then, grab a snack while you’re there. That way it leaves you more money to spend on beer, chicks, and your apartment, because you’re eating all your food there.” And I’m like, “Oh, I can relate ... ”
GROTH: Words of wisdom. [Laughter.]
EASTMAN: Words of wisdom from Louie Audet of Westbrook, ME.
GROTH: When did you actually start drawing your own comics?
EASTMAN: In sixth, seventh grade. Me and a friend of mine, Jim McNorton, who was the writer, as he couldn’t draw — neither of us could do either at that age, but we tried really hard — he would write all these really outrageous scenarios, and I would draw them. Then ... remember the old mimeograph printers? You had like these two pieces of carbon paper and you could draw on one side of them these one-page comic strips, print them in the school office, and try to sell them around school. Didn’t sell that many, but that was my first experience with publishing. [Laughter.]
GROTH: Presaged Tundra.
EASTMAN: Same thing: we got extra credit, but they just didn’t sell.
GROTH: Just a loss on a lesser scale. [Laughter.]
EASTMAN: Yes, for sure.
GROTH: Now correct me if I’m wrong, you published the first Ninja Turtles comic in ’84. You would have been about 23-24.
EASTMAN: 21-22. I’m 35 now.
GROTH: It sounds like you didn’t have much support from parents or teachers or anyone else for your interest in becoming a comics artist.
EASTMAN: Not really, but one of my biggest inspirations after Jack Kirby, and definitely the experience in publishing that led me to the whole world of self-publishing was a gentleman by the name of Clay Geerdes. Did you know Clay?
GROTH: Yeah, yeah. I knew him. We corresponded.
EASTMAN: He passed away last year, which was heartbreaking for a number of reasons: one, because he passed away; two, because I really lost touch with him over the years and it makes me sad. I grew up reading comics and wanting to draw comics. I discovered Heavy Metal in 1977, when I was still in high school; I graduated in 1980. Heavy Metal led me to look for people like [Richard] Corben, which led to undergrounds by Kitchen Sink, Last Gasp and Rip-Off Press. When I used to work cooking lobsters, this friend of mine, we used to drive to the Million Year Picnic down in Boston and scour the racks for all these old underground comics. So by the time I thought I was good enough to start submitting my work, I submitted all my early stuff to publishers like them. Denis Kitchen was the only one that wrote back a note saying, “You still have a long way to go. Keep trying, you’ve got something there, but you should try Clay Geerdes or Brad Foster ... these guys do minicomics. They may point you, help you along and whatever.” So then I wrote to Clay, and Clay ended up being my first publisher.
GROTH: He published some minicomics for you?
EASTMAN: Yeah. There were just these little 8 ½” by 11”, photocopied pieces, folded twice into minicomics, but he also did a little bit slicker ones, photocopied also, folded in half, with a slightly heavier cover. I did a series of probably 50-60 drawings for him. Different covers ... they’d all have the Clay Geerdes Comix Wave logo worked into them, and all these different artists would do renditions of his logo. Then he used to send me newspaper clippings, of bizarre little anecdotes from the newspaper like “Man Gets Ticketed 113 Times, Even Though He Was Dead And Slumped Over The Wheel Of His Car.” I’d illustrate that, and he’d put it in one of his minicomics. I remember to this day getting my first check for $7, for a published drawing on the cover on one of his comics. That was my first paid published work, and it really flipped me out.
ENTER PETER LAIRD
GROTH: When did you hook up with Peter Laird, how did you meet him, and how did you guys form a partnership?
EASTMAN: While I was cooking lobsters I met a waitress who was also going to school at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, near Northampton. So once Labor Day ended, there’s not much work left in Maine, and I couldn’t afford school, so I followed her down to Massachusetts. There I found a local free newspaper called Scat. It was very similar to Clay Geerdes’ type of stuff, only newsprint, a little bit bigger, 8 ½” by 11”. They had these local artists do these underground-like comic strips, and their offices were in Northampton. So I got on the bus, went over to Northampton with my portfolio of stuff, and tried to sell work to them. Around this time, they figured out that this magazine was supported by local businesses advertising ... and that they were starting to make more money designing ads for these businesses than doing comics! So they said, “We’re not really doing Scat anymore, but hey, you should meet this guy Peter Laird. He draws the same kind of weird shit you draw: Kirby-inspired whatever, babes and guns and fucked-up creatures, that kind of stuff.”
And they gave me his address. He lived in downtown Northampton. So I wrote him a note. He said, “Yeah, come on by. Let’s get together and show off our portfolios.” I remember going into his apartment, his tiny studio apartment that had 50,000 comics in it, toys, shit, and junk, but the first thing I saw when I walked in was this unpublished pencil page from The Losers that Jack Kirby had done. That was the first original Kirby I’d ever seen and I just about wet myself, as you can imagine. He was equally a huge fan of Jack Kirby, and we just hit it off Big Time. That day we said we should really try to work together, we should each go home tonight and pencil something that we’d trade off the next day and ink each other’s work. We published those first two stories that we did in a book called Gobbledy-Gook much later at Mirage, back in the black-and-white days when you could sell a whole lot of black-and-white comics.
GROTH: When would that have been?
EASTMAN: That was 1981, when I met Pete. I moved back to Maine that following summer to cook lobsters again, and he ended up meeting the lady who is now his wife, Jeannine. She got a job teaching at the University of New Hampshire. So they moved from Northampton to Dover, N.H. I was working in Ogunquit, which is 20 minutes from UNH. That was 1983. So when I finished work that summer, Pete said, “Come on. Move in. We’ll form a little studio, and try and sell our work together.” At that time, we weren’t thinking self-publishing; we were going to sell things to Marvel or DC. Pacific Comics was just starting up, Capital Comics the same, and there were a few other people publishing, so we thought we had lots of options.
GROTH: And what was Peter doing at this time?
EASTMAN: He was supporting himself through his illustration. He was doing gardening drawings for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the newspaper back in Northampton: a few greeting cards; a few TSR, Dungeons & Dragons spot illustrations. It was very tight, he was barely getting by, but he was making a living.
I worked in a restaurant, and we drew every night. I’d get off work and we’d hang out and draw. It was in the fall of 1983 that we formed Mirage Studios, and, as the story goes, it was a mirage because it wasn’t a studio, it was our living room. We’d sit there, and Pete’s favorite shows were The A-Team, TJ Hooker, Love Connection, really bad TV shows, but he liked them. My goal in life was to annoy him as much as possible while he’s watching his shows. We’d done some work on a robot concept, sort of a misunderstood rogue robot story, as he was a big Russ Manning fan also — called The Fugitoid. While we were working on that one night, I did a drawing to make Pete laugh, of a turtle standing upright. He had a mask on. He had nunchucks strapped to his arms, and I put this Ninja Turtle logo on the top and flung it over to his desk. He laughed, thought it was funny, and did a drawing to top my drawing, changed some things, fixed some things, and then I had to top his drawing. So, I did four of them all standing together with different weapons, and when he inked it, he added “Teenage Mutant” to the “Ninja Turtle” part, and we had this one drawing. Literally the next day we get up and we said ... at the time we didn’t have any distracting paying work going on ... “Let’s write a story to tell how they got to be the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” So we did.
We started working on that. And around February or March we’d finished 40 pages of a fleshed-out story, trying to justify why they got to be these mutant turtles. We borrowed some bits from Daredevil’s origin, and we created the rest. I was getting an income tax return back for five hundred dollars. Pete had two hundred dollars that he cleaned out of his bank account, and my uncle, who used to sell us art supplies during that period, loaned us a thousand dollars to print 3,000 copies on newsprint, with a two-color cover of the first Turtles book. We didn’t know anything then. We said, “OK, we’ve got 3,000 comic books in our living room.” Some were used as a coffee table, some were used to put a lamp on in the corner, and we had enough money left over to put an ad in the Comics Buyer’s Guide, to sell them at $1.50 plus postage. We sold a few, but from that ad distributors started calling and said that they’d like to carry our book. I guess they’d had some comic stores that called about it. So we’re like, “OK, we’ll call you back.” We said, “Well, what do we do?” “How about if we try this; I think they usually give a discount so, tell them we’ll give them 10 percent off cover, and they have to pay up front, and so on and so on ... ” So we called them back, and when the guy got done laughing, he said, “Well, this is how we do it, kids.” And explained to us how they work. Within a couple weeks we had sold out of the first 3,000 copies, and before paying my Uncle Quentin back, we still had orders coming in, so we printed another 6,000, and those sold.
This was in May of 1984. Then I had to go back to work cooking lobsters for the summer. So we took a little hiatus.
GROTH: So the first issue made a profit, then?
EASTMAN: The first issue made some money, yes.
GROTH: You sold 9,000.
EASTMAN: After paying my uncle back and all the other bills, it was maybe a hundred bucks, two hundred dollars profit-wise we split. Maybe a little more.
GROTH: Did you see the possibility of earning a living from doing this?
EASTMAN: Not at that time, but to us, it was just amazing. We had our own comic! My parents were like, “Yeah, yeah. That’s really nice.” Then you give copies to your friends and other people and it’s like “Yeah, well, great. Congratulations.” It wasn’t until that fall when Pete ended up moving to Connecticut with his wife, who got a teaching job there, and I moved back to Portland, ME that we started working on the second issue. That is when we realized the possibilities. I made a couple trips down to Connecticut to visit and work. A long bus ride. You used to live in that area, didn’t you?
GROTH: I lived in Stamford.
EASTMAN: Stamford. He was up in Sharon, the Torrington area. So, I made a couple trips down, and we finished issue #2, then solicited for it through the direct market, and we got orders for 15,000 copies. I remember I was in my apartment in Portland, and Pete called, flipping out. He was like, “Do you realize that we’ll make about two thousand dollars each on a 15,000 press run, after everything’s paid, and if we did six of these a year, we could get by just doing comics?” About three days after that conversation, I packed and I moved to Connecticut, and we started. I found a little apartment there. We lived in Connecticut for, let’s see — that would have been ’84 and ’85. I think we did three or four issues that year, and it went from 15,000 copies for the first printing of #2 to a re-solicitation of #1 that sold almost 30,000 copies to a re-solicitation of #2 which was higher than that, to the first solicitation of #3 which was 50-55,000 — it was making incredible jumps like that, and by the end of ’85 into early ’86, we were filthy stinking rich. In our own minds. We were paying our rent, we were putting money in the bank. We were still doing everything ourselves, doing the whole thing, and the dream had come true.