TCJ ARCHIVE

The Kevin Eastman Interview Part I

THE GOOD OLD DAYS

GROTH: Let me skip back. How did you guys collaborate? How did it break down?

EASTMAN: What we did was unusual. I guess Pete was more of an illustrator, very finely detailed, amazing stuff. And I was more into telling stories, he hadn’t done that much of it. So what we would do was sit down and basically flesh out the issue. We’d talk it through, I’d make notes longhand. We’d figure out where it starts, a basic beginning, middle and end, and some detail, and then I would do the breakdowns and the layouts for the entire issue. Some were as simple as a lot of gestures and flow on legal pads for each page, to some more detailed drawings.

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

So, we would work in this manner, talk out the stories, I would do all the breakdowns, then Pete and I would go through them together, and he’d say, “We should change this, this doesn’t work, we should try to improve this,” or whatever. We’d clean those up, and then Pete would go through and do the final script based on whatever crazy notations I made. Besides, he was a much better speller. [Groth laughs.] And, a better writer … probably still is. Then we’d each take half the stack and start penciling. All the early pages were very small because we did them on duo-shade, you know, that graphic tint paper? It was $22 a sheet for a 17″ by 22″ sheet, and especially in the early days, we could get three pages if we made them small. So, we’d each start penciling, swapping back and forth. The idea was to try and get half of each of us on each page. Once it was all penciled, I would letter it all and then we’d again divide up the stack and it would be a race to inking. We’d both go through the pages, again trying to get half of our styles on each page. It was always this manic process as there were these really cool panels and then there were the boner panels — you know, the “nothing going on” panels. And so I’d rush through and try to do the cool poses, and Pete would do the same thing. We kept swapping them back and forth, until the fateful last few weeks when we had to go in and draw scenery and backgrounds. Then we’d duo-shade together. Sitting in the same studio, literally passing the pages back and forth.

GROTH: A very organic collaboration.

EASTMAN: Exactly; the Good Old Days.

GROTH: Is the Ninja Turtles owned 50/50?

EASTMAN: Yes. It’s always been that way. Since the beginning, we had always known that without the other person, it never would have evolved.

GROTH: So you publish the first issue in ’84, and it took off almost immediately. The second issue came out how long after the first?

EASTMAN: January of ’85. So it was a while.

GROTH: Seven or eight months afterward. Then it really took off after you did #2. And you realized you had something.

EASTMAN: Yeah, we realized we had something then, and we were sort of figuring it out as we went along. We didn’t know how long it was going to last, but at that young age, you sort of go for it.

GROTH: How long did the sales keep climbing?

EASTMAN: The sales actually peaked a year later. The biggest-selling Turtles issue was Turtles #8, which was the Cerebus/ Turtles crossover. It was a story I wrote. Pete had very little to do with that one. He was working on something else at the time. I did all the layouts and the pencils, and then Dave Sim went in and inked Cerebus throughout.

This panel is from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #8 (1986) by Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, Dave Sim and Gerhard. ©1986 Mirage Studios and Dave Sim

GROTH: And what did that sell?

EASTMAN: 135,000 copies.

GROTH: [Laughs.] Image would love that today.

EASTMAN: [Laughs.] Yeah, a lot of people would.

GROTH: DC would love that, too.

EASTMAN: I think around that time we ended up moving back to Northampton. We really felt that we were making good money, around seven, eight, nine … ten thousand dollars an issue each, black and white, still newsprint with color covers. Actually #5 was the first full-color cover. We could afford to live wherever we wanted to.

GROTH: And you actually chose to live in Northampton?

EASTMAN: We chose Northampton. Pete grew up in North Adams, which is pretty close to Northampton, and he’d been to school for four years for printmaking in that area. He had a lot of friends there. I really had no attachments and thought it was cool because that was where we met. The short time I had lived in Amherst in ’81 and ’82, I used to hang out in Northampton — Amherst was really boring — but Northampton was a hip, kind of cool, kind of grungy, little mini-city. But very small. It’s changed somewhat today. It’s more like Disneyland, Main Street U.S.A.

GROTH: I heard it’s the lesbian capital of the country. Is that true?

EASTMAN: If it’s not the capital, it’s definitely got an inordinate amount of lesbians in it. I think Smith College, which is one of the original seven sister colleges, you know, Wellesley, and all those others. Smith is right in downtown Northampton. Actually, there are seven or eight colleges in a nine-mile radius. UMass is there, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke, Hampshire College, and there’s a very young population. Anyway, there’s some statistic that I read, and whether it’s correct or not I don’t know, but it said 30 percent of the women that go to Smith end up either coming out a lesbian or have had a number of experiences but, yes, it’s very much a part of downtown. There are a lot of kids, obviously, with all of the schools, there’s a lot of tourist traffic. With Smith College being downtown, and whereas it’s a very expensive school, there are some nice restaurants to lure the rich parents that come to make sure their daughters aren’t becoming lesbians. [Groth laughs.] When I was 18 or 19 living there, it was very different. Very grungy. I used to be able to get served in bars downtown. There were some pretty dumpy little bars right off Main Street, which are parks and gardens or more upscale restaurants now.

“LET’S DO LUNCH”

GROTH: So when did you move back to Northampton?

EASTMAN: In the first part of 1986, I believe.

GROTH: Now in 1986 you signed with licensing agent Mark Freedman. Can you tell me how the Turtles fortune was built and how you decided — how did you know to sign with a licensing agent?

EASTMAN: In late ’85, with the now more widely known success of the Turtles, we started doing a little bit of licensing. We did a role-playing game with Palladium Books, Kevin Sembieda; we did a couple T-shirt things, these were people that just called us and said, “We want to do glow in the dark Turtles T-shirts,” so we did a deal. We also did a deal with Solson comics. Remember Solson? Rich Buckler and Sol [Brodsky]’s son?

GROTH: Yeah, my God.

EASTMAN: Yeah. We licensed the Turtles training manual to them and got ripped off.

GROTH: You were one among many.

EASTMAN: Unfortunately one of many. [Groth laughs.] We had been approached by a couple of different agents that were like, “We can make toys and movies if you sign with us for five years exclusive; we’ll make you millionaires.” For us, one: we were making good money, and two: we had learned a few things. We all remember Siegel and Shuster, and around that time, there was a big fight to get Jack Kirby’s artwork back, which I think you were pointing to a lot of. A lot of the industry people like Frank Miller were doing a lot of speeches regarding creative rights, and creative ownership, which was kind of interesting and weird to us at the same time. We were aware of it, we knew Steve Bissette and what he’d been through and all the evil stuff that had been happening to other people who were trying to retain and own their rights. We started going to conventions around this time, meeting folks like Dave Sim, Mike Kaluta, and many others, all of which had corporate horror stories. We were aware enough to file copyrights and trademarks. Well, we had copyrights just by publishing it, but we filed trademarks to protect ourselves.

But we never experienced their side of it. We always had complete say and complete control over the whole thing. So when agents came along, we were like, “No. We’re happy. We’re making money; we’re doing what we want. Besides, you feel really slimy to us.”

And I know that sounds silly, but you know how you get weird vibes from a person.

GROTH: Were they real hustlers?

EASTMAN: Yeah, these guys … New York/L.A. types. “Come on. Let’s do lunch.” Mark Freedman actually approached us in the same manner. It was in ’86, he had heard about us through this person and that person and whatever. So, he called us up and said, “I want to come talk to you about licensing.” And we were like, “Yeah, yeah, sure. Fine. All right, come on up.” He was in New York. To give you an idea of how important this was to us: We had finally moved out of our living rooms, and gotten a little space. We were literally painting it that day. It was two rooms. So Mark shows up and we’ve got paint all over us. We’re in shorts as it’s in July. He does one of these — we open the door, he takes one step and freezes solid. He’s got his thousand dollar suit on, his leather briefcase, the perfect hair, the whole thing and looks, and says, “Eastman and Laird?!” And we’re like, “Yeah, come on in.”

He went through his spiel. “I can make you millions, blah, blah, blah … five year contract … blah, blah, blah.” We said, “Look. Tell you what. If you really think you can do something with our Turtles, we’ll give you 30 days.” And we literally signed it on a napkin: 30 days non-exclusive to see if you can get any nibbles, and if it works out, we’ll go from there. In 30 days, he had letters of interest and commitment from Playmates Toys. We said, “All right.” He said, “Look, I want to take you to California, we’ll go to Playmates, and hear what they have in mind.” So the toy company paid our way. It was our first trip to California, which was pretty funny in itself.

GROTH: Why was that funny?

EASTMAN: It’s just that [laughs] I’m sure we looked like a couple of fucking country bumpkins, you know? [Groth laughs]: which we were. Sitting in this corporate office with all these weasels in suits. But they got it. They got the Turtles, I guess. They liked the moralistic side of them, which I don’t think Pete and I really ever saw in the Turtles in those days. We just tried to make them do the right thing, and we created this little mythology of honor within the Ninjitsu, which there isn’t any. [Laughs.] Ninjas were ruthless mercenaries. [Groth laughs.] They worked for anybody that paid them to kill or assassinate or do whatever dirty deed.

Eastman provided this publicity photo.

But, they liked the characters and wanted to develop them to see if they could work as toys and cartoon shows. Playmates had had some successes, and this was their first venture into boy’s action figures. One of the reasons why Mark selected them, as he told us, was because companies like Mattel and Hasbro would regularly buy concepts and “sorta” develop them, while intending to bury them for a year or two so they wouldn’t compete with other things they had on the shelf. But Playmates believed that the Turtles could be really huge, and they were willing to invest millions of dollars into making toys, and millions of dollars into making an animated five-part TV show. So, we eventually signed with them, and signed with Mark for a three-year contract.

GROTH: Now let me skip back just for a second. Am I correct in assuming you were influenced by Miller’s Ronin comic?

Ronin #1 (July 1983) is by Frank Miller. ©1983 DC Comics

EASTMAN: We pretty much blatantly ripped off the cover and its style, the jagged balloons, the Miller style. The roughness of the drawing, I probably pushed that on Pete. Pete … he’s eight years my senior, and he already had a very distinctive style: very linear and highly detailed. I was without a doubt an absolutely huge Frank Miller fan and I don’t think Frank’s ever forgiven me for that. I mentioned when I was a kid I used to read Daredevil when Gene Colan used to do it, and Bob Brown did it for a while, and you had a bunch of other in-house staffers do it, and then Miller came on the scene, I think Roger McKenzie was writing it … it was like #158, and I thought it was just brilliant. Miller always experiments and tries different things and really is one of those people that moves the comics industry along, pushes the limits, and creates new heights that it should rise to, with Ronin, and Dark Knight, and even Sin City. But the coolest thing even today when I look back at the growth period of Frank Miller between #158 and #191 or #192, his last issue on Daredevil, it’s pretty phenomenal. He was, I think, very Kirby-esque in that he had a very dynamic style of storytelling. I was very inspired. Ronin … Pete hates [laughs] … Pete’s never really liked Ronin that much, but I just loved it. I really flipped out over what Frank was doing.

TONING DOWN

GROTH: According to an article in something called Continental Profiles, July 1989, written by Frank Loveche, it said, “All agreed to soften the Turtles for mass consumption. And so Playmates underwrote a five-part cartoon mini-series that turned the Renaissance Reptiles into pizza-snarfing party guys.” [Eastman laughs.]

Is that accurate?

EASTMAN: Yeah, that was the one from the airplane. Continental Profiles: an interview from the peak years.

GROTH: That sounds right.

EASTMAN: [Laughs.] I’m laughing because I remember more people saw that than anything else we did! It was one of those in-flight magazines, and we had all these people saying, “Oh, you’re really in the big time now, because we saw you in the in-flight magazine.” [Laughs.]

GROTH: A captive audience.

EASTMAN: A captive audience. But yeah, from day one, the first meeting at Playmates they wanted changes, I mean, in the early issues of the Turtles, we had violence but not graphic violence, but there was definitely some hardcore action. We had the Turtles swearing, drinking beer! In issue #3, they go into April’s apartment, and she says, “Do you want something to drink?” And one of the Turtles goes, “Yeah, you got any beer?” [Laughs.] My influence, I know, Peter never really drank.

GROTH: And they all pass out.

EASTMAN: And then they all pass out, end of story. [Laughs.] Playmates said, “Our specific audience is 4- to 8-year-olds, and this is the audience we need to shoot for.” In the origin story there was death, murder and revenge — that was softened considerably. A lot of the violence was toned down, obviously, to fit broadcast standards and practices. When we did the first color cover to Turtles #5, the only way you could tell the Turtles apart was their weapons. They all had red masks; they were all green; they all had yellow chest plates. They said, “What do you think about coming up with a way to differentiate them a little bit more?” Pete came up with both the different color bandannas and the belts with the letters on them. I even think it was suggested at one time that they even be different shades of green, which in the world of toys and animation just was not doable. They can’t get that finely tuned.

©1987 Mirage Studios

But yeah, we worked literally hand in hand with Playmates and Fred Wolf, who was the animator. We had complete say, and complete approval, under our contract with Mark and Playmates. Every licensee from day one to now goes through us. Nothing gets put anywhere without our approval.

GROTH: How did you feel about toning down your creations for mass consumption?

EASTMAN: It probably affected Pete more than it did me. He was really upset about it and even today he’s very much of a purist as far as the Turtles go. I think he has much more of an attachment to the Turtles than I do. I may have had more in the beginning, can’t say as I really do now. It’s like they never stopped!! I never really thought they would go beyond issue #1. I’d come out of Heavy Metal, and Corben stories and underground stuff where every story could be something different and more fucked up than the last one, or more interesting or whatever … I had a lot of other stuff in my mind that I wanted to do comics-wise. To me it felt like that any day the whole thing could just fall apart, and then “boom!” you’re on to something else.

So there was some difficulty there, again I think more for Pete than me. But, it was something we both agreed to. We’d have long, long talks, and ultimately say, “We can live with this.” You know? All this stuff was done in 1986 and the early part of 1987 while developing the toys and the cartoons, even through that whole period, we never really believed that it was going to happen. So when you get the first TV Guide that actually says, “Ninja Turtles, playing five days through Christmas Vacation of 1987.” It sort of hits you with a hammer. Just like, you know, is this really happening? The show came out, and it became #1, and everybody’s freaking out over it. We started working on more Turtles shows right away, and the production time with toys, it takes a while to gear up and ship, and the toys finally shipped in like June of 1988, and they’re fucking flying off the shelves, and it ends up being this huge hit. Then the TV becomes the #1series in the fall, and the toys go crazy, people are fighting over them like Cabbage Patch dolls. I remember, even though this was going on, it was like: it’s outside yourself? It’s almost like you’re really watching somebody else going through it. You don’t really feel it’s you, but you’re right in the middle of it. So, we walk into the local Toys “R” Us, in Springfield, Massachusetts, and — I swear to God this is true. We’re going down the aisle and there’s this kid pitching a fit, “Ma, I want the Ninja Turtles!” Screaming: “I want one, I want one, I want one!” And the mother’s going, like, “I’m not buying one of those stupid Ninja Turtles.” And we’re like frozen. Like, this was weird! It was very, very, very fucked up.

GROTH: Do you have any second thoughts about it?

EASTMAN: There was definitely an “Oh my God, what have we done?” thing. It just sort of like, ripples through your whole body like when you’re about to meet somebody you really admire, you know that kind of weird feeling, you get hot flashes, and you’re just going like, “Wow, this is really happening. I need a drink!”

GROTH: But there was never really a strongly held contention that you were not going to violate the integrity of the Turtles? It sounds like you pretty much did what had to be done to mass-merchandise them.

EASTMAN: Yeah. Absolutely. The resolution at the end of the day, even when Pete and I both agreed that, well, there’s some stuff we really don’t like, and some stuff that we wish we hadn’t said yes to, stuff that they wanted to do … But we said, look, you know what? We don’t think this will work anyway, and we’ll always have our black-and-white comics to tell the kind of stories we want to tell. So that was that little bit of space where we said, “OK, we’re still OK, because we still got our comics.” Which ultimately, because of the success of the Turtles, we could no longer do. Kind of a trip …

GROTH: Is that true?

EASTMAN: Absolutely. When the Turtles hit, that’s when the drawing stopped. We stopped with — we call it issue #15, but in actuality it was 11 regular issues, and then four one-issue micro-series. Because everybody was doing these four-issue miniseries, we did these one-issue micro-series, one on each of the Turtles. Pete and I really couldn’t find enough time — because he was handling part of the business, and I was handling part of the business, and we’d be juggling a lot of things as well as trying to work out a regular schedule of sitting and actually drawing together like we used to, which became impossible, and just drifted away. It was like, now, working on a licensing program, working on scripts for shows, working on the movies, working on all aspects, and [knowing] nothing about this kind of business! The licensing world is a whole planet in itself, the world of cartoons and what can and can’t be done, that’s another completely different planet, with a whole different set of rules. The same with movies, worldwide copyright and trademark programs, working with agents in countries we’d certainly never been to, some we never even heard of, in managing this whole program by the seat of our pants! We asked a lot of questions, and we paid a lot of legal bills, and figured it out as we went along. We tried to create a system out of a lot of things that were beyond us!

TRUCKLOADS OF LAWYERS

GROTH: Now at some point you had to hire lawyers.

EASTMAN: Yeah, by the truckload.

GROTH: You signed with Mark Freedman. Was he Surge?

EASTMAN: Yeah. He was Surge Licensing.

GROTH: So you signed with him. Now, you must have had a lawyer to confer with before you even signed with him.

EASTMAN: Yeah. We actually had two. Pete had an attorney that was working with him and his wife as they were buying a house, a local, small-town Northampton attorney. Interestingly enough his lawyer, Fred Fierst, used to work in New York in the music business, as well as TV, so he had some entertainment experience. He moved to Northampton for the quality of life, to raise his family and things, so we started with him. I went out and found an attorney, by literally looking in the phone book. His name is Michael Weiss. I still utilize Michael today for certain things. He’s down to earth. They consulted with other counsel, and together we sort of figured it out.

GROTH: And as it grew did you acquire more attorneys, more specialized attorneys with greater experience in that area?

EASTMAN: Some; a lot of them were on Mark’s side: the licensing agent. He had two or three key attorneys that he used that did all of his licensing deals, his movie deals, his toy deals, and TV deals. We had a copyright/ trademark attorney in Waterbury, Connecticut, Bill Crutcher, who helped organize and do the whole copyright/ trademark program worldwide. There were a variety of New York attorneys that Fred Fierst and Michael Weiss would consult on certain things that were sort of beyond their expertise. But our lawyers read every contract. Pete and I, in the early days, definitely in the first four or five years or so, were still reading all of these contracts and asking “Why are there 350,000 whereases, and what ifs, and hereins?” And once we started figuring out the contracts, that’s when they started changing them, you know. Gotta keep those billable hours up! [Laughs.]

But at times, especially when the crazies started popping up, the “I created the Turtles,” ones we’d use more, to help with those, and all the other lawsuits. We would have anywhere between 15 or 20 lawsuits going at any particular period of time in those days.

GROTH: Lawsuits … people were suing you?

EASTMAN: Yeah, seemed like everybody was.

GROTH: For what?

EASTMAN: Anything! Buffalo Bob from the Howdy Doody show filed a five million dollar suit because he said we stole “Cowabunga” from him. He used to say it in the Clarabell the Cow segment, I guess — I’ve never seen a Howdy Doody show, to be honest — but I guess he used to come out and say, “Cowabunga!” Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon used it through all the big beach blanket bingo movies as a surfer term, and I think Bart Simpson — which I hear he also sued Matt Groening for stealing “Cowabunga” … It was what our lawyers called strike suits, basically they come in and they say, “We have grounds for a case, and we’re suing you for five million dollars, but after a couple months of due diligence and sorting it out, they’d say, “Look, we’ll settle for fifty thousand dollars.”

We had a lot of people saying they created the Turtles. One guy said that God told him about the Turtles, and he didn’t act on it fast enough, and we did, so now he’s suing us. There was a guy, a street person, that Pete actually helped out a bunch of times. In one instance, he created this thing called Presidents in Outer Space that Pete drew for him. He had George Washington in a space suit — that looked like a Turtle to him! So I guess if you put a guy in a space suit, like an Apollo space suit, next to a Turtle, to him there was enough likeness that he said Pete stole the idea of the Turtles from him. He filed a suit that went on for years! Then there was Fred Wolf, the animation company, that we worked with, hired by Playmates, a work-for-hire animation studio, that basically said they created everything about the Turtles that made them such a big phenomenon. So they sued for half the royalties that we’d made in the entire history of the property. That was a big suit: millions and millions of dollars to deal with that. I mean, this guy’s deposition had stuff like “He put the Turtles in the sewer.” We put the Turtles in the sewer in issue #1. He put our character April in a jumpsuit. That was issue #2; it was ludicrous! It was phenomenal. Anybody that wanted to sue you could sue you for whatever grounds, and did!

GROTH: Didn’t you vigorously fight all these suits?

EASTMAN: Yeah. Yeah, we had to. We were told, understood and believed we had to set a “precedent.” In a lot of cases, especially trademark suits, you really need to have a legal presence, and enforce these, to show that you are protecting the property or you’ll lose your rights! There are still a number of what they call “First to File” countries, a lot of Middle Eastern countries are still this way. There was one guy, and I’m not kidding, this guy’s name is Abu Shady. I guess he would look across the ocean to the United States, and if there was a toy concept that was becoming popular, and his being a “First to File” country, he would file trademarks to your creations in his territory! So, when a year or so later, we go in as it starts becoming popular there, to license, and the guy says, “Excuse me, you want to license my characters here? I own the copyrights and trademarks of these!” He knew exactly how much it cost to fight it in court, and he had already figured out a settlement, which was less than legal battle costs. He said, “You want the rights back to your characters in my territory? Pay me x-amount of dollars and you can then license in my territory.” I heard he was doing this to The Simpsons, Warner Brothers, and lots of other companies.

GROTH: You told me a funny anecdote over lunch earlier and I’d like you to repeat it: about licensing the Turtles to Russia.

EASTMAN: Oh, God. I think I was talking about how crazy the Russian program was in comparison to the insanity that we’d already dealt with. We had done a licensing deal there with this sub-licensing agent named Peter Tamm. We said, “Well, we’ve looked into it and there’s no real government system, there’s no way we can protect our copyright and trademark or enforce anything to protect your rights as we normally to do everywhere else.”

He said, “Don’t worry about it.” Because he had this arrangement where he would manufacture all these goods in factories in Turkey, where we had licenses already, so we’d get percentages of royalties from the increase in factory production in Turkey as well as this guy would import all this Turtles merchandise — comics and toys and you name it — drive ’em in big 18-wheelers into these Russian markets, open up the backs, and sell ’em off the trucks. He said that if anybody infringes on his rights as our agent in that territory, I’m going to send some of my guys over there to kick the shit out of ’em. That’s how I’ll protect the copyright/trademark. Period. [Groth laughs.] I found that to be almost as funny as the Abu Shady thing I was telling you about.

GROTH: Did you find that to be a satisfactory answer to your question as to how to protect your trademark?

EASTMAN: [Laughs.] We were like, “Is that really what it’s like there?” And he said, “You know what? To describe” — and I guess we’re talking 1992, ’93, when the Turtles were really hot — and he said to describe the climate in Russia after the wall had comedown and all these changes were going on, he said it’s sort of like a cross between the wild, wild West and Chicago gangland in the ’20s and ’30s. It was really a free-for-all that all these capitalist ideas were coming in and people were just going nuts.

So satisfactory? I don’t know.

GROTH: Did you sign with him?

EASTMAN: [Laughs.] He was interesting, and he made us a little nervous.

GROTH: Did you sign with him?

EASTMAN: Yeah, we signed with him. [Laughter.] We signed with him and he paid us the money. It was pretty decent money. It was a lot of — Christ, you know, are we dealing with Russian Mafia? Who knows? It was kind of scary at the same time.

WILLING VICTIMS

GROTH: At some point, and I don’t know when this was, it seems to me that you got sucked into the Bissettian and Simian orbits.

EASTMAN: Yeah, but we were willing victims.

GROTH: And I know that you attended one or two of the Creators’ Rights summits.

EASTMAN: At least two of them, maybe more. There was one in Springfield and then we drove to Toronto to do another one with Bissette, Zulli, Pete, and Murphy — Steve Murphy — and most of the Mirage guys.

Kevin Eastman provided this publicity photo of Stephen Bissette at Mirage Studios

GROTH: Earlier you said that at some point you had known Bissette. Can you tell me how you met Steve?

EASTMAN: I — Oh God, now we’re going back, to where those drug years affect me more. [Laughter.] I believe we met Bissette at a convention or something. There were always lots of little local conventions, like a couple in New Hampshire, some in Boston, and God … we ran into Steve somewhere and got chatting about this and that and figured out that he and Veitch lived just about an hour north of us in Battleboro. They used to come down to Northampton for the record stores and what not, so we just started hanging out. They’d come down to the studio, have lunch, and chat about art, the business, etc. Steve used to come down more often and, as we got to be friends, he’d come to the studio and draw. For a while, when it was in my living room, I’d have a bunch of artists over when we were jamming on an issue deadline. Once Pete and I had done most everything, we’d have Michael Dooney helping with backgrounds, and Bissette would do some duo-shading, and eventually did stories. We probably met Bissette, Veitch, and Sim around the same time. Sim’s philosophies were … interesting and bizarre to us in one sense — and the same with Steve’s in another — to be honest, we were very spoiled, we didn’t pay dues. The Turtles were always “ours,” we’d never worked for anyone else. I mean, I did some stuff for Clay Geerdes, but the Turtles was my first comic effort.

GROTH: You hadn’t been fucked over by big corporations.

EASTMAN: We hadn’t been fucked over by big corporations. We were somewhat aware of that going on, we’re talking ’85, ’86, into ’87 whatever, and there were a lot of people self-publishing, we had the black-and-white boom and bust. Which I think there’s some people that still kind of blame us for that in some way. Which is kind of funny. I mean, I see it as once people figured out that a couple of guys out of their living room can publish a comic that can be worth $25 or $30 on the collector’s market, that anybody could do it.

It was the same thing years later when they were selling millions of Image comics and “Death of Superman” — we’re still not over that crash — but on a much smaller scale. When people were doing Radioactive Black-Belt Hamsters and Kung-Fu Kangaroos. There were 21 adjective-adjective-adjective-noun titles at the high point there, ant they were doing a 100,000+ press runs. The shop owners and the collectors were looking for the next Turtles, the next big collector thing. That’s always been a problem in our industry, that people have short memories. You know, all those shops that probably went out of business in the black-and-white boom and bust, never came back to live through the multiple millions of double cover bullshit that we came through years later.

So Dave Sim was self-publishing: and he was intrigued by us, I think, because we were successful, and we self-published. We were selling more comics than him, and I remember that’s the first thing he said when I met him, “I always wanted to meet someone who sells more black-and-white comics than I do.” Which is kind of a weird thing to say but I grew quite fond of Dave. He has very strong opinions, right or wrong, they were his opinions and I respect that. So with Bissette’s extreme difficulties through the Swamp Thing years and Veitch was just starting to go through some really difficult shit — again, I’m not positive of the time period, but I know Swamp Thing #88 was around then, but maybe down the road.

GROTH: Yeah, it was: ’89/’90, something like that.

EASTMAN: ’89/’90, right.

GROTH: After Bissette got fucked over, Veitch had to get fucked over.

EASTMAN: Yeah, yeah. It was sad, heartbreaking. I think Alan Moore was dealing with the Watchmen issues around that time. I think he was just getting ready to jump because DC had been selling all these promotional things, saying they were promotional and even though they were making profits, they weren’t paying him a royalty!

GROTH: It was around then, yeah: much fucking over and much discontentment.

EASTMAN: I think we felt that it was amazing that this could go on and we realized our good fortune. We didn’t go through all that shit. We felt a kinship in that, although we realized that what they had gone through was horrifying, like other people we admired so much, Jack Kirby and many more that had to deal with corporations that were making millions from their creations and they weren’t receiving any of the profits. Or even getting their fucking original art back. We felt that we were in a like crowd; we could be sympathetic — even though we’d never been there. That, and it was always interesting to listen to Scott McCloud and Dave Sim argue at great length!

GROTH: What would they argue about?

EASTMAN: Everything.

GROTH: The weather.

EASTMAN: The weather, what they’re gonna order for lunch … no, I’m kidding. Scott, as you probably know — and I have a lot of respect for Scott as well, for many different reasons — but he’s equally opinionated: he’s very, very set in his ideas. I couldn’t name a specific. But Dave would have an opinion “A.” Scott would have opinion “Z” and they would never meet. But they would argue … and their arguments were epic U.N.-style debate quality. But relating to points in comics. [Laughs.]

GROTH: And that would go on at these summits.

EASTMAN: Yeah. What we were trying to accomplish, or my understanding of what we intended to create out of the Creators’ Bill of Rights, was a manifest of rights we felt creators should be aware that they have! We learned from going to all these different conventions and meeting so many people within the business that already had great difficulties, but had become more experienced in how not to get fucked over, to be careful, what to look for, but there was a whole new crowd of people, younger people like us coming through that didn’t have a clue! Wanting to live that dream as well. Creators that really would do anything to ink something for Marvel or whoever; to be in the business, because it meant that much to them, like us in the beginning. Or worse yet, give away something that they created, or sell it without being aware of what they were doing. The idea with the Creators’ Bill of Rights was to create a list of rights that whether you adhere to them all or not, you were at least one, aware of them, and two, if you went into a company, and you decided to give up all those rights, to work for that company, at least you knew them and you consented to giving up all those rights, and that was your decision. I remember it was really badly received for a number of reasons. We put out this Bill of Rights just sort of saying that “This is what we believe in, and this is what we want to make you aware of, and whether you decide or not to adhere to them, this is a statement by us.” Just about every artist we sent it to said that they were insulted by it because they weren’t part of its creation process and how dare we tell them their rights?! We did not intend it to be “This is the end.” It’s like with a constitution: it wasn’t the end; it was the beginning, something that’s still being re-written and adapted today. Not that this is a constitution, but it was intended to be sort of a growing thing, or just a “how to start” thing.

You see, the Turtles could have taken a very, very wrong turn if we had been less savvy. There was a time early on, Peter David, and Archie Goodwin took a meeting with Pete and I to consider bringing the Turtles in-house at Marvel. Which, you know, there’s still that boyhood fantasy thing inside us that was like, “Marvel! WOW!” And even though we knew fucking better we still went down to the meeting. They said, “Well, you know, we’ll put it in our Epic line, really glossy covers, full color, very slick, we’ll give you an editor, and of course we’d want 50 percent of the profits, and the merchandising.” We were just like, “Fuck that.” But, if that offer had happened really early on, it’s entirely possible that the Turtles would have been another big profit center for Marvel to make millions and millions of dollars on, or perhaps they would have fucked that up, too, who knows.

GROTH: It would be in liquidation today.

EASTMAN: [Laughs.] Yeah, it would be in liquidation today. Yeah, so we had a series of summits that were trying to move this along so we could put it out there for everyone to use or not use. After that it faded away, although a copy hung on my office wall at Tundra. As far as the group went, everybody sort of went on to different things, and even though we still sort of believed in it, and those thoughts were put down for what we thought were good reasons, like a wish list, it never went any further, it was just like, “These are the rights that I think you should have.” End of story.

THE GROWTH OF MIRAGE

GROTH: Rich Veitch says you and Sim got into a pretty pointed argument during one of the summits. He said, “Dave Sim very pointedly began to criticize Eastman and Laird and Mirage Studios. He saw the studio set-up they were building, which was bringing in a lot of young artists from all over the country to Northampton and hiring them to do Turtles comics and merchandising. Dave saw this as a dead-end road. He thought they were getting away from being self-publishers, and it got really intense. And Eastman and Laird took it very personal, and didn’t want to hear it. And the meeting kind of broke on that sour note.”

EASTMAN: That’s probably entirely true, and I think that I’m sure Dave was very vocal about that stuff, and he’s very much a purist that there is no other option than self-publishing, and he’s always believed that even though he’s veered off himself a couple of times, [with] some of his own publishing ventures, which he sort of corrected or whatever. You know you sort of fall off the wagon, you go to Betty Ford, you get back on, and you’re OK again as in, no publishing other than your work. Dave believes self-publishers should be “You write it, you draw it, with or without an assistant, you publish it and that’s it, period. You have complete say and complete control.” The End. There should be no variation or deviation. When some of the artists originally came on board at Mirage Studios, it was because we were expanding publishing, evolving. Michael Dooney would want to do a Turtles story: “I have this little Turtles story I want to tell.” And we would put it in Turtle Soup. But at the same time, Michael was doing Gizmo, Jim Lawson was doing Babe Biker and a couple of other projects. Ryan Brown was doing Rockola. This was in the days when — I mean, the first issue of Gizmo sold like 100,000 copies or something, black and white. It was very profitable. By issue #6, when we stopped publishing it, it was only selling 3,000 copies: the end of the boom and bust. A lot of these guys ended up moving into the area to work with us, doing this and that, came into Northampton just when things, publishing-wise, were collapsing for projects other than the Turtles.

Gizmo #1 ©1986 Michael Dooney

GROTH: Were these Turtles spin-offs, or were these completely separate projects?

EASTMAN: These were completely separate. At first Michael Dooney created Gizmo and we published it through Mirage, Jim Lawson created Babe Biker, and we published it through Mirage, and Ryan Brown’s Rockola as well. And a lot of these guys, we’d become friends with, they were living in our area, they were our bros, and their books were now getting to the point where they weren’t profitable for them to even do: because at first we didn’t pay them page rates. They did ’em, and we gave ’em, whatever, half or better of the royalties and that was plenty. Everyone was making out. This was at a time when the Turtles licensing stuff was going through the roof and we needed quality control. We designed or assisted with the licensing art for the whole TMNT program whether it was a T-shirt designs for somebody in Paris, or toy designs at Playmates, or a number of other products that came through the studio. They all came through our office because we had full approval rights. Even though the licensees would have their own in-house artists, a lot of times they’d send us really shitty drawings. So we figured our own guys could do much better work, and that’s where we sort of evolved into this company that would not only approve this stuff, but we’d also provide art creation services as well. If you want a six-page comic for Turtles Cereal, we would do that in-house, and it would be pre-approved, and the process would be quicker for everyone. It would be done under rates that were their industry standards, which was a lot higher than any comic company page rates, so the guys were very happy. Mirage would take like 10 percent as a sort of trafficking fee, and then the bulk of that fee for doing that service would go to the artist. So they ended up being able to make a lot more money doing Turtles licensing art.

GROTH: But that certainly would have compromised you among the Creators’ Rights purists. Because all this work is work-for-hire, right?

EASTMAN: This is where it gets complicated, and starts getting fucked up. They were, we were caught in the middle. They knew they were drawing Turtles but didn’t own them, and we know they were starting to create characters that we didn’t own which lead to a variety of agreements and work-for-hire contracts. This was all new turf for us. So we just did what we thought was fair. As an example of how we handled the licensing artwork was: if there was a T-shirt that was done for a guy in Paris that they would pay five hundred dollars on, and then that same T-shirt was used by somebody in Brazil, the artist would get paid again. And then if it was used in Japan, they would get paid again. We kept paying them for re-use of their stuff, trying to be fair. They would be paid reprint fees, almost full page rates for reprints of the comics, both Mirage and the Archie versions, even letterers got a full reprint fee when we did collections of Turtles books. Artists that penciled an issue or did other stuff on the Turtles were paid full page-rate fees up front, plus royalties, plus full reprint fees. It sort of evolved into a system from there. Dave, I think, once said, but to me it was very, very awkward argument if you think about it, that “Well, these other cartoonists aren’t doing their own stuff any more, they’re doing all this Turtles shit.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but we’re not putting a gun to their head and saying ‘Do this Turtle Shit.’ They were making really fucking good money.’ Most of them were on the company payroll, and we helped with their taxes if they were on a freelance status. They had health insurance. A lot of them had families now and houses and in the really successful days, they were paid lots of royalties, and outrageous year-end bonuses. Hell, we cared a lot for the guys then!

They were also given a lot of creative freedom and around this time we started this program. They were bringing a lot of great creative elements into the Turtles universe, and when you have to start drawing “lines” of ownership, and copyright and trademark protection, it’s starts getting really kind of crazy! When things are done within the universe of the Turtles, we have to work out in painful legal detail, “These are things that are created within the Turtles universe that we own, and that we don’t own.” Ryan Brown, Steve Murphy, a lot of the guy created characters within the Turtles universe that they still, to this day, own, and they can go do whatever they want to do with them. But there are so many other issues that when it becomes a toy, or a cartoon show, you have to do to legally authorize “around the world” our rights to license it! It costs better than a one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to do a worldwide copyright and trademark filing on a toy concept and name of a character in multiple classes. You have footwear and apparel, you have toys, you have books and other publications, you have movies; there are dozens of classifications! And in order to warrant to the toy company, or to the movie company or the TV company that they can utilize this on a worldwide basis, you have to take all these protective steps or get sued! You have to search it, and you have to file in a hundred-plus countries, and protect it and make sure it’s being utilized properly. So what we devised was this plan, it said, “Look, you create characters within the Mirage Universe, fine, but you have options. If they’re going to become a toy, which means if they’re usually going to become a toy, then they usually become part of the TV series, and so on and so on.” Because those 22 one-minute commercials sell a lot of toys, you know? The plan was, “At the point that it goes from your creation to becoming part of the Mirage Universe, the toy line, you have a decision to make, you can either say ‘Yes, I want it to become part of the toy line, and I’m giving up all rights to my character, but I’m getting 50 percent of everything that’s earned on that character in royalties’ or, if you don’t want to do that, then you keep the character yourself, it doesn’t become a toy.” So they chose and these guys did very well. Ryan Brown designed 20-30 things that became toys and made … well, do the math. The numbers were phenomenal. We were selling a lot of fucking of toys. These guys could get thirty, forty, fifty thousand or better royalty checks on just their share, four times a year. So of the money that came to Pete and I on any specific toy, the toy company accounted for each separately, and we’d cut a check to the creators for their share. So, like I said, out of the multiple characters that are in the Turtles universe, when Steve Murphy, Ryan Brown or any of the guys who were packaging, or designing in-house, producing the Archie comics series, they had options and there’s still a lot of those characters that they still own! Sorry, I’m starting to repeat myself!

GROTH: It seems to me that with a mass phenomenon like the Turtles, and the fact you have to hire God knows how many artists to crank out the comic books, the newspaper strip — wasn’t there a newspaper strip?

EASTMAN: Yep. Dan Berger was one of the few who used to do the newspaper strip. GROTH: Character studies for various merchandising, you’re on a real slippery slope that eventually you can’t control. I mean, Rick Veitch said, I don’t know if you read his interview …

EASTMAN: No, I missed that one …

GROTH: … he said, “I’d just gotten an after-the-fact work-for-hire contract from Mirage. Some crazy maniac at Mirage I never met in some strange position of power down there was calling me up and threatening me that if I didn’t sign over work I’d done years before I would never see any more royalties. Worse, the contract is more wretched than anything that even DC had ever done to me.” Bissette said, “The fact that Mirage necessarily embraced work-for-hire contracts towards the end says it all for me.” I think what he means by that is that eventually the Turtles became part of the corporate system that employs work-for-hire contracts …

EASTMAN: That’s correct and there were a couple of reasons why that was done. Even when I think about that now, there was probably — not probably, it was definitely done — inappropriately. In the sense that Pete and I sort of passed it on to Gary Richardson at Mirage to send out these documents that — it’s pretty pathetic — these were people that were “our friends,” and it was very difficult for us to be an asshole. To be a real boss, I guess, whatever: to do that to them. But at the same time, there was a very specific reason, at least in my mind. I think it was because we were doing so much “business” work and back-tracking because the company had grown so fast, and we were spending so much fucking time dealing with just the most minute details. Every day, the drawing board got further away, and there were a million issues like trying to put more real corporate structure to this organic thing. With the case of Rick Veitch, and I think Bissette as well, they did work for the black-and-white comics that we needed to track so they could be paid. For example, each time we reprinted TMNT #8, Dave Sim was paid a fee and royalties, but then Dave forbid us to do any more reprints of Turtles #8, which had Cerebus in it: because he didn’t want us to do it any more, period. We were doing lots of reprints, and collections, around the world, and we agreed to pay these guys, the original time out, then they were paid again for reprints, plus royalties, if any, but we were getting scenarios where there would be deals in multiple countries where people wanted to reprint the “original comics” and it just got to be a nightmare of keeping track of all that stuff. Like with Veitch — there was a 500-page book printed in Italy that Veitch’s three stories were a part of, that now had to be divided out of this 500-page book, figure out what was owed him, as well as every single other person in that collection down to the letterer, and pay them those amounts. So we tried to create a simpler system. So a lot of these people were sent work-for-hire contracts, and if they didn’t sign the work-for-hire contract, it was their option, then we would not reprint their work ever again in any territories: so, no money for anyone because it was just too hard to track.

Panel from “River Hymn” in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #25 by Rick Veitch (September 1989) ©1989 Mirage Studios

GROTH: But their signing a work-for-hire contract wouldn’t make it any easier to track. There must’ve been a legal reason apart from that.

EASTMAN: Both in the sense because then we’d only have to track fees for “us.” I’m trying to remember this clearly. There were two kinds of contracts, work-for-hire type stuff that we used that related to specific areas of creation, and, hopefully I won’t fuck this up too bad because, for example, there was a buy-out contract for incidental characters. It was a way of saying to certain artists that had created characters, say, for the Archie series. [Laughs.] You have to keep in mind that here are Pete and I, sitting in a room, trying to figure out how to do this, and to do this fairly. All the while, you have the lawyers, on the one side, saying “We’ve gotten so many lawsuits, over the most insane things you could ever imagine; we have to protect you.” We were probably paranoid beyond belief — I mean, who the fuck is the next lawsuit coming from, a family member, for Christ’s sake? It was that paranoid and pathetic. We wanted to clearly delineate which characters the creators owned and which characters were part of the Mirage Universe, period. No gray areas. We would be like, OK, there’s two characters fighting in a scene, and there’s these three guys standing in the background. Now if those three guys, and it could be a guy in a business suit, a guy with a weird hat, and something else, showed up in something else, is that theirs, or is that ours? And who owns the rights to it, and could we get sued for it, could this be a problem?! Fuckin’ “A”! Lawyers are great for doing this, freaking you out, and I think our paranoia was getting this better of us so we tried to delineate everything after the fact. These are things that you own, and again, under the concept of “if they become toys,” then you have to option to decide. But everything else is ours, just so that we have that said and agreed to in writing. I think one of the types of contracts was for comics artists and I think the other one was a full buyout on licensing art, T-shirts, package designs, etc. I know, it’s really fucking nuts. Had we become corporate assholes? Seems so. Was Bissette done with us? Or me? Seems not.

GROTH: But didn’t it at some point become obvious that it was simply impossible to honor the ethos of creators’ rights once an economic infrastructure had to be created to accommodate this kind of enormous mass phenomenon?

EASTMAN: Absolutely, but I’d like to think we tried …

GROTH: A single creative vision is at odds with this kind of franchise culture that you had gotten involved in.

EASTMAN: Absolutely: a million percent. It was an organizational nightmare in a way that fairness didn’t always apply, and I say, “against our better judgment,” We did the wrong thing and sent out creator work-for-hire things trying to clean up everything and wipe the slate clean and say, “OK, now we know what is ours, and what is yours. And maybe we can sort of re-start from there and go ahead.” And it just ended up getting really more fucked up.

GROTH: Obviously one of the reasons corporations insist upon ownership is pure, unmitigated greed but the other reason is probably because it’s impossible to divvy up anything fairly. It’s just impossible to determine what’s fair and what’s unfair when you start trying to determine whether some guy in the background with a hat on is owned by some schlub in a studio who drew him on Tuesday.

EASTMAN: Right. And again, I’m certainly not trying to justify it, but when you have goofy shit like a guy saying that a president in an astronaut suit is like a Turtle and can sue you and have you spend hundreds of thousands — well, that one was a small one, probably only about a hundred thousand dollar lawsuit, only Pete and I couldn’t bear one more deposition, one more settlement issue. We used to do weekly partnership meetings with three lawyers, and an accountant, and Pete and I, who would sit in the fucking conference room for 10 hours and be bludgeoned by worldwide copyright trademark issues territory by territory for starters, and would move on from there. So yeah, I think it was definitely trying to apply corporate attitudes for perhaps the first time to this thing. It was wrong.

Where we’ve ended up today is that we aren’t reprinting Veitch’s three stories for that reason, without permission, and under terms that are fair to him and to us on how to do it. A lot of the artists that designed toys that became cartoon characters that Mirage owns, if those things are re-launched or re-sold as toys, still get their 50 percent, forever. Some of the guys that work for what we call Turtle Style Guide these days, are paid a large fee up front — say, five or six thousand dollars — for something that could be sent out as a tool for licensees to uses around the world, the T-shirt people, or Frisbee people or whoever, use that drawing without a fee, but we paid our artists up front so we wouldn’t have to track the use of that image on a Frisbee in Jamaica, a sock in Italy, and who knows what in Haiti.

GROTH: So there’s a huge accounting department somewhere in this country, that sorts out all this stuff.

EASTMAN: [Laughter.] NASA does it for us.

GROTH: It’d really get screwed up then.

EASTMAN: Yeah, we had a lot of accounting people for a while there that tried to keep track of all this stuff.

NO MEANS NO

GROTH: You said that Dave Sim forbade you to do any more reprints of Turtles #8, which has Cerebus in it. Why was that?

EASTMAN: I never really knew exactly the reason why. We’d done reprints; we paid him for all of the reprints. At that time we were selling very well and he was getting some nice checks, and he just said, “I think people have seen enough of that issue, and enough of that story, and I really don’t want to see it out any more.” And that was it, period. So whatever reasons he had, he had ’em. And it was just, “OK, that’s banned.” And you know, when a creator or Dave Sim or whoever is involved in it has say and they say “no,” it’s “no.”

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #8 (1986) by Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, Dave Sim and Gerhard ©1986 Mirage Studios and Dave Sim

GROTH: No principled opposition to the Turtles or to your work-for-hire policies with regard to the Turtles, though?

EASTMAN: No, I don’t think he said “no” because of something else we had done or were doing or anything like that. I guess I don’t want to believe that that was why he did it. I think it was just one of those things. He’s an interesting character. [Laughter.] An interesting personality, and he just, for whatever reason, he just decided, “No, that was enough.” And that was it.

It’d be a good question to ask him, though. I’d like to know. It was one of my favorite issues. [Laughter.]

(Continued)

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10 Responses to The Kevin Eastman Interview Part I

  1. Pingback: TIME CAPSULE: Tundra | Jim Rugg

  2. Thanks for putting this up, but part 2 is broken, there’s only the first page and it just ends.
    It’s fascinating for me to read this because I worked at a comic store on Main St. in Northampton during the early 90’s when the Tundra thing was happening. The Mirage guys came in all together once a week for their comics. I was fairly oblivious about what was going on though because at the time I was only interested in stuff from Fantagraphics, D&Q, RAW, etc. I hung out with a few Tundra-related people and knew there was some drama, but nothing like this…

  3. … not that I didn’t like some of Tundra’s stuff too. Jim’s link above reminded me of ‘Trailer Trash’, loved that!

  4. Dan Nadel says:

    Thanks for pointing that out. Post fixed.

  5. I met Kevin at Tundra’s height, and he was modest and gracious. But I could see the enterprise around him was overwhelming.

    He said it was only his sketchbook that was keeping his spirit afloat, creatively. It was the perfect inoculation against envy.

    Reading this I realize I understood hardly any of the craziness he was enduring.

  6. Pingback: Interviews, interviews, interviews….. Comics Journal with Kevin Eastman | The Forbidden Planet International Blog Log

  7. Nick Marino says:

    Amazing stuff. It’s even more unreal than I’d imagined! I’d love to read a thorough follow up with Eastman nowadays.

  8. Jesse Post says:

    Me, too — I’d really like to know how the spaghetti of character ownership played in to the sale to Viacom.

  9. Samantha says:

    Wow, I loved reading about this because I used to live in Sharon. My dad claimed that one time he went down to mudge pond and they were busy looking at turtles and now I think I have to believe him

  10. Joe harper says:

    What a fun read this was!
    I remember the Turtles coming out at my local comics shop with that Ronin-inspired
    cover. This inspired the whole indie, funny animal craze. Comics were coming to market
    and everything was going up, up, and up.
    I really liked those black and white comics with the duo-colored covers.
    It was really well rendered and drawn.

    And then the cartoon and the Henson movie.

    This Comics Journal story rivals that of the one I read about Big Numbers by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz with
    Bissette providing key information.

    I hope Eastman is doing well now.

    My girlfriend applied to work on the Turtles recently. She really didn’t recognize the significance of this. Didn’t get the job.

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