GROTH: I don’t know exactly when this point was, but at some point you made the decision to hire writers and artists to actually write and draw the stories.
GROTH: Now, interestingly enough, I interviewed Charles Schulz last month, and no one has ever done that strip but him. So why did you make the decision to actually have other people do the comic as opposed to you and Peter doing the comic?
EASTMAN: Two reasons. One is that it actually slowly evolved with Pete and I that it was too hard for us to both get together for both the business schedules because of the amount of work we were doing, and to do the comic together like we used to. So we decided you do an issue, with perhaps somebody you want to work with, and I’ll do an issue with somebody I want to work with, and then we can still keep one person on the pulse of the business, I guess, if you will, and the other person spends a little extra time drawing that month. And we’d stagger them, so I would do some, and he’d do some. So we could try to keep the books on a regular schedule. Because we always wanted to try and keep this regular schedule of the Turtles issues coming out because that’s what started this mess. Then as we met other artists, like at a convention, in the bar or something, somebody’d be like, “Oh, man, I’d love to tell a Turtles story!” For example, Zulli proposed: “I want to do this Turtles story that has this totally realistic take. They look like real mutant turtles,” and so on and so on. We started getting excited by the idea of what other people saw within our characters, as well as being admirers of their styles. Having Corben do a Turtles story to me was like ...
GROTH: Ultimate fantasy.
EASTMAN: [Laughs.] Ultimate fantasy. So we started that to enable the issues to stay on a regular schedule and continue coming out, since Pete and I couldn’t do it anymore.
GROTH: If someone told Charles Schulz that he really wanted to draw a realistic Snoopy, I’m sure Schulz would have said that’s completely preposterous, because his vision of Snoopy is what it is, it’s inviolable and no one else can do it, because it’s his creative vision that animates that strip.
And I get the impression, I mean: I think we both know the Ninja Turtles is not Krazy Kat.
GROTH: What I’m trying to ask you is, was the Turtles always nothing more than a malleable commodity?
EASTMAN: That’s a good question. I see what you’re saying. I think that it probably wasn’t so malleable early on when Pete and I were drawing 90 percent of the time and dealing with distributors and ads in the CBG 10 percent of the time. When that was completely reversed, we were drawing less than 10 percent of the time, the rest was all business; we loosened up. We had already, probably, made the biggest jump: allowing them to be transformed into another entity in Hollywood, so it’s like we had two schools of Turtles: the animated school, and the black-and-white comics school. Then when the movie came along, you had a merger — part of the animated world and the black-and-white world sort of met in the first movie. The second movie completely sucked, the third movie was a little bit better, but that’s a whole other boring story. I think that we, for the lack of a better analogy, opened the floodgates and agreed that there were all these different worlds of Turtles, and I think we got excited seeing different people doing all kinds of exploratory things with them. There were guys in the studio, like Jim Lawson, who had ideas for Turtles stories that we really liked. We were like, “Wow, that’s really kind of cool.” And with Veitch and Bissette with some of their stuff, all of this applying Swamp Thing “Anatomy Lesson” bizarreness to the genesis of this creation, it was like this whole other twisted take on our characters, and it was enjoyable to us. At least until the legal side fucked everything up.
GROTH: I don’t want to criticize anyone’s motives here, but the whole context seems to me to be corrupted by money. Did Bissette do Turtles stuff, too?
EASTMAN: Bits and pieces. I mean, a lot of it, much of it was never finished [Groth laughs]. Some was actually drawn in his car on the way down, which is a really funny! [Laughs.] Bissette is probably the first to admit how slow and deadline dreadful he is.
[Groth laughs.] He’s at least a realist in that way; for sure. He would do these nutty things, like when he was delivering this eight-page story for this Turtle Soup thing we were doing, he held up production about three months doing this, and we’d call him and say, “You gotta bring that story in.” And he’d say, “I’m bringing it down tomorrow.” And every trip from Battleboro to Northampton, there’d be a mysterious breakdown or there would be a huge delay in why he couldn’t get there. When he’d actually make it down and have only two more panels done than he had the two weeks earlier. So, we sort of figured out after a while that he was pulling off the side of the road [laughter] and probably inking a little bit on the way down, and then showing up and saying, “Next week, it’ll be done for sure.”
GROTH: That’s one of the best Bissette stories I’ve ever heard. [Laughter.]
EASTMAN: Once there was a big snow bank in the road that he ran into. And then, the next day, a car broke down and he stopped to help and time ran short ... And then something else ... God bless him, we love him for that: because he wasn’t fooling us as well as he wasn’t fooling himself.
GROTH: I guess my question was there seems to be a law of sorts that creativity is corrupted in direct proportion to how much money’s involved. Specifically, it’s hard for me to believe that all of these artists were so enthusiastic and so excited about doing something specifically related to the Turtles that they couldn’t do elsewhere. This strikes me as rationalization. It seems that Veitch and Bissette or whoever could have done what they wanted to do in a different context had they really wanted to do it. It seems more likely that there was a lot of money involved and that this was simply an easy way to make money.
EASTMAN: Yeah. I would not disagree at all. I think that we paid as good or better page rates than they had been getting. We had a full repayment on reprints at that time, I believe. Plus I think there was a royalty share of sales for artists that did issues that went into profit. I’m not sure how many other companies were doing that.
GROTH: So for the labor they put into it, they probably made more money doing this stuff than they could doing anything else.
EASTMAN: Probably, yeah. I mean, I couldn’t say for sure: but yeah. Probably. It was a very aggressive program, and I think Veitch did the Turtles story after he had just had a big exhaustive cluster-fuck over at DC with the Swamp Thing #88 and the Turtles story was a no-brainer. We liked these guys, even Bissette who had a billion problems, and who fucked up a lot, we considered these guys great friends. We cared about them, and we cared about their families. We were taking care of our own families and doing things for them that were important to us. We had the dough so we probably looked the other way. We paid Steve very well for certain things, and that probably carried on into the whole Tundra thing. But it was definitely a different set of rules there. But we cared about these guys, the whole strange lot!
GROTH: Let me follow up on the thesis that all this money was corrupting.
EASTMAN: It was insane, totally corrupting!
GROTH: Bissette said about Mirage: “The business interests that come in and oversee most publishing entities, it is the nature of the beast that they are driven to push the creative individuals to the periphery of the publishing company. As those business interests insinuated themselves into Mirage, they began to seize more and more control of the company. Those business interests were given more and more control by Peter and Kevin. Meanwhile, the guys who were actually doing the nuts and bolts work were being pushed further and further to the periphery. This started crippling the friendship between all these people. Crippling the friendship between these guys and Peter and Kevin. The genuine ethics and issues became lost amid the chaotic, ever-expanding business demands.” Is that pretty accurate?
EASTMAN: I think it’s pretty accurate to a point. I think that for a variety of reasons, Pete and I were spending 90 percent of our time running a business that was completely overwhelming. You could never fucking comprehend what we had to do and how we had to do it. And it was our responsibility: these were our creations, we controlled them, and if we wanted that control, we had to spend the time we had to spend. It started getting to be that the guys that were drawing a lot, and they were making great money, were like “Come on, come on, come to the movies with us.” Or “Let’s go hang out.” And it’s like, “Well, that would be really great, but I’ve got seven fucking interviews, and I’ve got to spend the next four days in meetings with lawyers because I’m getting sued by four different people this week,” all the while wondering why am I sitting in this room with these fucking lawyers getting sued by these fucking assholes that have no right to sue us!?! It was eating us up, and we were both getting extremely tired, and extremely pissed off, and were drawing little or none, and probably jealous of the guys having the free time. And it wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Sure, we had two legal advisors plus Gary Richardson, Jim and Cheryl Prindle, and a couple other assistants to help run all those worldwide licensing programs. Tim and Deb Toflee were overseeing the publishing thing, but there were a million other issues resting only on our shoulders. If we broke down, everything right down to their lunch money broke down. We were dealing with day in and day out, the details, and it was killing us, to an extent ... Did we allow more control by these business interests?! We really needed help, so sure, bring on the help.
GROTH: Did you and Peter share these responsibilities?
EASTMAN: Yeah. We were there every day. You’d leave the office and 10 minutes later your ass would follow, because it was there from morning until the night. Occasionally, if you valued any personal life, which neither of us had much of at that time, you’d make some time for that. Then again, maybe you’d get caught up on a couple of memos or something that night instead, and if you were really lucky, maybe do a little drawing. But I think that perhaps to us, we thought we were being incredibly fair. There were business demands we had to deal with for the good of the whole machine. The process you have to go through for each character to exploit it on a worldwide basis is so complex, and we were trying to be fair to everyone on the artist side and be professional on the business side, all the lines started to blur! This process is critical so we could warrant all rights or we would get sued, especially if the property wasn’t researched or protected properly. This wasn’t their problem, it was ours, and we were starting to hate it. If we lose, it could be big enough to wipe us out — to them it would be “Bummer Dude. Catch you later!” Through this all, we were trying to be fair, but what is “fair”!?! I definitely think that animosity started to grow on all sides. They were making really, really good money, but Pete and I were making insane money. [Groth laughs.] It was off the scale. It was silly.
GROTH: What kind of money were you making at this time?
EASTMAN: There were years, probably in the peak years of ’91, ’92, that we probably grossed, pre-tax, $50 million.
GROTH: $50 million.
EASTMAN: $50 million probably over those years. That’s probably pretty accurate. Figure you lop off half of that for taxes and we were spending 10 percent of that money fighting lawsuits, and there was probably five or six or more percent that was used to run a 21-person office staff with full benefits and aggressive royalty and bonus programs. Today, it’s down 90 percent from what it was then, [laughs] and I think there was just a lot of envy. I can’t remember when and where, but to me it started to feel like, despite what they were making, they still felt that they were slighted, because they didn’t have their own Turtles, they weren’t making enough. Even though they were making more than any other person in the entire industry, in probably what I would debate would be the fairest, aggressive royalty-sharing program to date, it wasn’t enough. I don’t think there’s anybody else that really — perhaps there is now, I don’t know, that does or did it that way. The sad thing was I used to think about that Joe Walsh song, where, I forget how it goes, where he says, “All this money, fortune and fame/everyone’s so different, I haven’t changed.” I would look at things in that way, and the way that he was parodying it, and the way he was saying it. “We changed, they changed ... money changes everything.” Money fucks up everything. I’d have people approach me over the most fucked-up stuff. For example, I had somebody come up to me in a parking lot at a gas station in Northampton that said, “Hey, remember me?” And I’d say, “No.” And they said, “I was one of the carpenters that put the roof on your garage. I was wondering if you’d re-mortgage my home because I’m having a little trouble with the bank ... ” And I was, like, stunned. I didn’t know what to say. There was always lots of this kind of thing: I know it’s pretty sad.
Today I wouldn’t say I have a friend left from that period. I see some of the guys around Northampton. And it’s like, “Hi, how’s everything going. Good, I hope.” A lot of them still hang with Pete. But I wouldn’t play the games any more.
GROTH: Why do you think that is? Was the only thing you had in common basically employing them? The “friendship” was purely financial?
EASTMAN: Perhaps. And I wouldn’t want to put words in their mouth, because they may perceive it differently ... but perhaps I don’t. I don’t know, they may say it was a great friendship, all I saw was us doing a lot, a lot of things which I thought were way above and beyond for anyone. Perhaps they didn’t see it quite the same, perhaps they did. But that’s my opinion. I don’t talk to any of them or care to. I don’t see them much. I don’t write. It’s all water under the bridge now. They don’t call once a week, and if I see ’em around, it’s nice, and it’s “Hi, how you’re doing?” “Great. Take care.” Some of them are still doing piecemeal work for Mirage: a lot of them are working with Pete in a toy scenario called “Fanatics.”
THE CRAZY FILES
GROTH: I assume that kind of money-saturated context could create a lot of specious camaraderie. When the money runs out, so does the camaraderie.
Veitch said, referring to you and Laird in the early ’90s, “the buzz was all about how much money they made, and within weeks they were inundated with every kind of lowlife, rip-off scumbag and legal beagle in all of New England, if not the whole country.” Is that pretty much true?
EASTMAN: That’s true. And probably times two.
GROTH: So did people just call you with screwball projects, with requests for money?
EASTMAN: There was probably a time when we were tracking 25 to 30 requests each day of pleas for money.
GROTH: What kinds of ... ?
EASTMAN: From every known real charity on the planet, to the guy who wants to add on to his house. Letters, letters, letters, mostly completely ludicrous but everyone, whether it was, “I’m losing everything, and I need help,” had an angle. God, I’m trying to think of the most bizarre ones. Let me think ... I’ll come up with a good one.
GROTH: Did you keep a file?
EASTMAN: Yeah, we did. It’s immense! [Laughs.] Some of the other files we kept were the crazy files. We used to have a psycho of the month club. A couple actually showed up at the office ...
EASTMAN: Crazies. Like they would call up and say ... actually one of the worst ones, still pops up today. His name is Chris Vigrin. He has a story that goes like this: He was riding on a bus with Peter Laird and our licensing agent’s wife, Renee, and he told Pete and Renee about the Turtles, and they gave him a hundred thousand dollars in cash on the spot. He had no idea they were going to be this successful, and he’s coming to Northampton to get half his money. “I want a check for 40 million dollars, I expect it when I show up.” And made a bunch of other threats. Then he showed up in Northampton. Actually, he made it as far as a bar and grill right on the corner near our office we used to frequent a lot — it was kind of a sports bar. So he was walking around asking questions, saying, “I’m the president of Mirage, I forgot where my office is.” They were looking at this guy, because they knew all of us, and they were like, “This guy’s fucked up,” and they told him to get out. Then he pulled half a sharpened garden shear and started waving it around. A couple of guys tackled him to the ground, the police came, arrested him, took him to jail and he called Mirage for bail. [Groth laughs.] And he still to this day calls or writes crazy notes — in the last one he wrote, he was the President of General Motors!
There was another guy, Alan Goldman, that was writing letters. He had a crush on Pete. There was this girl from France that had all these sexual fantasies who we ended up meeting later on. She showed up State-side and Molly Bode ended up befriending her! This girl had these explicit sexual fantasies with the Turtles. She would send drawings and these really detailed letters about what she and this Turtle were doing. We used to pin those up. Those were pretty funny.
GROTH: [Laughs.] She didn’t want money. She just wanted sex.
EASTMAN: Just wanted sex. Yeah. Sex with a mutant.
GROTH: That’s probably easier to accommodate than money.
EASTMAN: Yeah, so we kept files on that kind of stuff. You know, the fun stuff. For example, the first proposal for a Turtles movie we got was from Roger Corman’s New World video. And this guy, and I can’t remember his name, had this idea that he pitched which was Gallagher, Sam Kinison, Bobcat Goldthwait, and perhaps Billy Crystal — I think they were all sort of young, upcoming comedians at the time — they were going to have these characters in pseudo-Turtle suits, like a Turtle shell and chest-thing, then they’d paint their arms, lets, and faces green, and the movie would be those comedians cracking jokes! We also have a treatment that was to be R-rated. There’d be all these roller-skating, semi-nude nuns with guns, battling the Turtles!
GROTH: That doesn’t sound bad: I mean, [laughter] I saw the first Turtles movie, and that might have been better. Semi-nude nuns, did you say?
EASTMAN: Yeah, pretty cool actually ...
GROTH: Can’t really go wrong with nuns on roller-skates.
EASTMAN: Maybe we should have put the roller-skating nude nuns with guns, and Gallagher all in the same picture! I’m probably incorrectly telling the story, but it would be one of those things that if I could dig it out and show it to you would ... well, we found it funny, anyway.
GROTH: During the period where it sounds like things were becoming more and more difficult at Mirage and more and more pressure was put on you and Peter, was there ever a point where you thought, “This is no longer worth it”? A point where you felt the quality of life was not what it should be, and that you had to tame this beast. “We’ll stop merchandising, we’ll stop licensing, we’ll whittle this thing down to a manageable level.”
EASTMAN: If there was, it was probably more from Pete’s side. Like I said, he’s about eight years older than I am, and definitely eight years wiser. I think when he wanted to start slowing things down, and even though, I think we were starting to get a better handle on the business by trying to put some structures in there that would perhaps make it easier for us to go back to drawing, I wanted to expand. This is the humorous part because after everything I bitched about above, that was around the time I started Tundra.
GROTH: Which did not get you back to drawing.
EASTMAN: Which did not get me back to drawing. It was actually completely fucked in one sense, but made perfect sense to me in another. I felt I had this great education with the Turtles where we learned self-publishing and then we learned licensing in planet Hollywood, as well as TV shows and its rules, movies were a whole other kind of deal, animation being another one ... I really felt I could apply all this to other projects, and they too would be successful. Combine that with this complete say and complete control and complete ownership Bill of Rights stuff and you’ve got a way to change everything! Ta da — Tundra! Mirage was part one, and I was paid very well to learn, Tundra was where I paid severely and dearly for the second part of my education. Now I’m onto my third part. Hopefully, it won’t be as expensive. [Laughter.]
GROTH: I was going to say. By the eighth part of your education, you’re going to run out of money. [Laughter.]
EASTMAN: Looking back at the point when things were out of control, we tried hard to make it simpler so we could get back to drawing. Pete opted to go back to drawing, and I opted to do Tundra, and the nightmare began ...
GROTH: You’re saying that at some point Pete made noise to the effect that maybe you should slow this thing down, and you were opposed to that? Because you were young and full of piss and vinegar?
EASTMAN: [Laughs.] I was young, with probably a lot more piss than vinegar. As I said, about the time that we were getting control and a better handle on it as a business, if you will, I wanted to expand and do some other kinds of publishing. I thought there was a lot of other cool stuff going on out there and wanted to be part of it so this was the time to expand the publishing company and put that education to good use. Especially where I felt we could afford to do that. Pete said, “No, I don’t want to work that hard. I don’t want to have something else come through Mirage that I have to worry about every legal thing, things I might have to spend another two weeks in depositions over, or get sued over, or have to account for or be responsible for.” And he begged off. He said, “No. I don’t want that for our company.” And I said, “I respect that. And that’s great. And I’d like to start this other company.” And he said, “Go West, young man! Go ahead.” Sort of with his blessing.
GROTH: About the period you’re talking about now, Veitch said, “The accountants had told Kevin to invest his fortune or pay out in taxes and profit. Kevin really took that to heart. He started Tundra, and he bought into a number of other companies. Kevin was also planning his museum, so it was a way of funneling more money into the community that would have gone to taxes.” Was that a fair summation?
EASTMAN: No, that’s probably a view from an outsider looking in! That’s a really good guess with the museum where there were definitely a lot of tax advantages to starting that, but I didn’t really look at Tundra as a tax advantage. More as something I believed in and had enough money to do. I started a company with money that came through Mirage, that we’d already been taxed on it. To the extent that you invest it and start another business, there are tax advantages to putting capital into a company, but the intent was that this company would make more money. It was intended to be a company that I would put x-amount of millions to start up, that would then be profitable and be able to support itself. Much like my hopes with the museum: to start it up, send it on its self-supporting way, and be able to spend the time to enjoy it, I guess!
Tundra ended up being an accidental, incredible tax write-off when it went down, as a complete loss. [Laughter.] But again, that was not the intent.