The life and career of Kevin Eastman should be well known to long-time readers of The Comics Journal. In his 1998 interview with Gary Groth, Eastman was extremely forthright about his early days with Peter Laird on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the rollercoaster ride that was Tundra. At that time, he was well into act two of his career, focused largely on Heavy Metal magazine and the Words & Pictures Museum of Fine Sequential Art in Northampton, Massachusetts.
But that was over two decades ago. In the years since, the Museum closed, the rights to TMNT were sold off once and for all, and Eastman was pushed out of Heavy Metal, the magazine that he says changed his life forever. His current career may not have the same dizzying swings or Hollywood swagger, but these days Eastman has far more time for his true love: writing and drawing comics.
I sat down with Eastman over Zoom to talk about everything he’s been up to since that last interview. And, as with Gary Groth in 1998, he held nothing back.
* * *
JASON BERGMAN: This is the first time you've talked to the Journal since your 1998 interview. I don't want to retread any of that because you were very open and went into a lot of detail, but I do want to try and connect the dots between where you are now and where you left things in 1998.
KEVIN EASTMAN: Of course, yes.
At the end of that interview, you expressed your love for the Words & Pictures Museum, and you specifically said, "I dearly want to see the Museum survive. That to me is probably my biggest commitment right now: to try and figure a way for the Words and Pictures Museum to survive." Unfortunately, that didn't happen, so I was wondering if you wouldn't mind going into that a little bit.
Sure. But to generally recap the original piece for context, part of my interest in doing the interview with Gary [Groth] was that there were a lot of people talking about the things that I was doing, or more importantly, what they thought I was doing, or even what they thought I had done around that time. Whether it be Turtles and Tundra or other business ventures, they were spinning some very interesting versions of that reality in my opinion, mostly that of an outsider looking in. I just felt, I have nothing to hide, why would I need to lie about anything I was doing within any of my companies? Why would I need to say anything other than exactly what happened according to the person that started, managed, and ended all of these - me? I'm not trying to pad my part or make myself seem more grandiose in anything that “actually” happened, I put myself out there exactly [as] it was. It was just important for me to speak up and just say, look, this is what I lived, this is how I remember what happened. If anybody out there has a different version than what I'm telling you, call me, call Gary, and speak your mind. Otherwise, this is what it was, to me.
The fate of the Words & Pictures Museum, much like other businesses I owned, specifically Tundra-- unfortunately, when the Turtles money ran out, the opportunity to keep those things going as philanthropic dreams and desires ran out too.
Like the construction and structures I created and put in place for Tundra, which were flawed, there were easily 10 to 15 better ways to organize a system that needed to be in place to support Words & Pictures, which I did not do. I was (1) not aware enough; or (2) not smart enough. In hindsight I should have structured something more like what Peter [Laird] did with his creation of the Xeric Foundation, which was an award-based, self-publishing program. He set aside designated funding in an investment account and then used the interest income to support it. Anyone interested could submit a project proposal to be self-published, a panel of judges would select the winners, and those were the projects that were funded through completion and release.
There are a lot of ways I could have done Words & Pictures better, had I been more careful and more thoughtful. The worst part being it wasn’t just me involved in the Museum project, there were a great many people, amazing donors and volunteers, that put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that dream. Co-directors Fiona Russell and Maryann Meeks especially, they were on the front lines from the first stage of construction to the final show, they gave me 1,000%. They all believed in me, and then it was over. If there are any regrets from that time—and there are very few—that one, hands down, is the biggest. That I didn’t plan carefully enough and to make sure that that institution survived.
Is it as simple as the money ran out and you just couldn't keep it going?
Pretty much, yeah, exactly that. It was a huge investment. Starting with buying the building and donating it. Everything I funded from that point on was donated. The exception would be the artwork that I bought, which I kept but was on permanent loan to the Museum for display and exhibits like the main Museum collection on the top floor. Towards the end it got to the point where I was selling artwork to keep the rest of the Museum going. And when that too started to run out... that was basically it. The end.
It's tough to fundraise for a commitment like that when you’re me. There's still people I talk to today, who believe the hype from the press at that time. “Oh, well, the Turtles made a billion dollars [back] in the day. Then what do you need any of my money for?” Like I am still just sitting on stacks of money piled in a back room or something. The funny thing is one, the kinds of amounts publicized back then were often [(1)] doubled, and (2) inflated further beyond that. Totally, completely and grossly exaggerated, certainly, [from] what we actually earned.
Although we are of the new generation of creators that often are lucky enough to hold onto rights and receive royalties from our creations, they are still pennies on the dollar. A lot of those pennies added up significantly, and that was awesome. After I got my share, and paid my taxes, I was able to spend them on what I wanted to, like the Museum. But when people hear the TMNT’s made a billion dollars - they assume we made a billion dollars. That simply was the farthest point from reality. So, when the money ran out, the money ran out. That was just unfortunate.
Do you still own that artwork?
You sold it all off?
Yes. It was piece by piece over many years. I've kept a few pieces that meant the most to me, but sold the rest to keep other personal adventures going. By the time Tundra and Words & Pictures and everything was winding down, on pace with the Turtles' reducing income, I basically didn't have a job or any real income for the next 20 years. I never took a salary from Heavy Metal. That was always running on a shoestring, and then there were other business opportunities I was exploring through Kevin Eastman Studios, which repped my non-TMNT projects. Mainly trying to sell another property, another IP to keep income flowing. I wanted to direct a movie. Entertainment-based things that I wanted to do, to continue expanding on my brand based on the history I had with my association with the Turtles. I could certainly get any meeting that I wanted to in Hollywood, pitch stuff, because people needed to fill their dance card with important meetings, so when they reported to their bosses they could say, “I had a great meeting with that co-creator of the Ninja Turtles guy.” But nothing would ever come of it.
I say with very little exaggeration, in the years I spent in Hollywood pitching projects I thought and still think were good projects, and good entertainment opportunities - I honestly believe [I had] a very minimum of 10,000 meetings over 15 years or more. And not one of them produced a single real job or any real opportunity to do anything entertainment-wise, so it finally got to the point where I couldn’t afford to do that anymore either. That’s it, I’m done. I had enough, and I left. I realized I needed to go back to doing what I should have been doing throughout all that wasted time, which is sitting and drawing my own stories.
You briefly mentioned Heavy Metal. In that [first] interview, you say your first love was Heavy Metal. You did own and run that for many years, but you say you didn't take a salary at all during any of that time?
No. Early on it was a stipend, but I really didn't need a salary from Heavy Metal. I still had plenty of TMNT money, so I stopped. After I paid the employees, any extra money it earned-- it never really made money beyond that anyway, but what little money it did make, I invested back in the company. We only did one promotional event a year, San Diego Comic-Con, [where] we'd break even occasionally, but usually it was a money-losing event. So any profits we spent to expand the publishing: more Heavy Metal books and collections, new concepts to expand the readership base.
I also explored many other Heavy Metal entertainment opportunities, which were just brutally heartbreaking exercises of time and investment that never launched or amounted to anything substantial. [Chuckles] The most unfortunate example, actually, was this: I had finally gotten a deal in place with Columbia TriStar to do a direct-to-DVD, $5 million Heavy Metal animated movie. My writing and producing partner at the time, Robert Mandell, had put this concept and deal together, it was in the final stages of closure when I met a guy named Tim Miller. Tim runs a studio called Blur [Studio], a fantastic company, fantastic guy and a big fan of Heavy Metal. So he came to me one day wanting to know if the rights to do a film were available, and I told him we'd pretty much all but signed the deal with Columbia TriStar. Everything had been agreed to.
We actually were in the process of wrapping up the final financing with a bank. At that time it was common to take the contract from the studio to a bank and then they discount it for a fee and give you a loan to fund the film. And he said, "Stop the deal! Stop the deal! David Fincher wants to do a $50 million Heavy Metal movie." Now, I'd already been in Hollywood for years with no luck getting anything off the ground, so anybody telling me anything that they want to do with any property I had been pitching means basically fucking nothing. So here’s David Fincher, and I'm a fan of his work, but I said, “no.” I said, “I've got a deal on hand. It took me a long time to get this deal, I'm going forward with it.” And Tim said, “Well, how much will it cost to have you stop those deals? We'll write a check.”
I set a number, they wrote a check, we stopped the deal, and they took out a one-year option that lasted for four years. It was originally optioned by Paramount, we developed it visually, but they ended up passing. We all thought it should be a slam dunk somewhere else, as David Fincher could take it to the tippity top of any studio, directly to any of the studio heads. So this is awesome, we have a shit ton of killer visuals, we’re pitching to the studio heads with Fincher, right? It was going to be an anthology, Zack Snyder came on board to direct one—actually one that I wrote—Tim Miller would direct one, Fincher was going to direct one, Guillermo del Toro had agreed on to direct one, as well as Jhonen Vasquez, who created Invader Zim and others. No brainer, right?.
I remember hearing James Cameron and Gore Verbinski were the other two?
Gore was interested, but James was definitely in. We had meetings with James, because we had a couple of ideas that we had developed that he liked, but he also said, "Well, you know I'm a writer too." We were like, "Yeah, James, whatever you want to do." [Chuckles] But we could not raise $50 fucking million to do this film. Scores of pitches and it just died on the vine. Everyone passed. It just could not be moved forward.
That was when I really said, you know, if you can have that kind of talent, with a studio like Blur behind it, and this can’t go as a film, this is a problem. I lost all faith in all things Hollywood. Basically, it ended up-- and not to blame anyone, but I put all my eggs in that basket. That was the final straw for Heavy Metal. Everything went away with it. Nothing in Hollywood made sense to me, and I was out of cash.
The one that you did make, though, was Heavy Metal 2000. Which was before that. The version with Fincher, that was like 2008-ish, right?
Yes, the option with Fincher and Miller ran from around 2005-2006, and we pitched it into 2010-ish.1 When that ended, Robert Rodriguez picked up the option for a year. We pitched it for another couple of years and [it] never happened either, but Robert and I remain good friends. The Heavy Metal 2000 movie, which was just an unfortunate series of events that I take full responsibility for-- I choreographed it as best I could, but in the end I didn’t know what I was doing. We didn’t have a real director, the first one left after six months of frustration, and in the end [it] was just a complete and utter mess. Probably why we never got the others made.
How involved in that were you?
Considerably. It was based on an idea that I created, and [I] wrote the treatment with a few other writers and producers in Hollywood. We finally partnered with a Canadian company, which ended up being a huge mistake. I fell for the oldest trick in the book, which is when you produce a film with a Canadian partnership-- and again, not really deflecting blame on anybody else, but when you produce in a Canadian studio, the Canadian studio has final say, period, no matter who you are and what they promise you. All key personnel on the film must be Canadian, except for a few non-Canadian voice actors. No one outside of Canada can have any final say over the finished film.
But I was assured this would be different, I would have that say, and I believed them. I was aware of this risk after discussions with several other Canadian-based companies like Nelvana. So with CinéGroupe, and I’m sure I repeated it to great annoyance to everybody in every meeting: “I will have full control over the final script, visuals, designs and everything, right?” I said, “If I have to move here to do it, I will. I don't know what it's going to take, but I want to be involved every step of the way.” It ended up, throughout the years of production, I would fly in like every two weeks to do battle.
They were like, "Sure, absolutely - 100% this is your film. However you want to do it." Then once the deal was signed, that was it. Bye! Every two weeks for two years I would go up there for screaming matches. I'm surprised they let me into the country after a while. It felt like having the foresight to know you were getting on the Titanic. You know what is going to happen, and still getting on it and still carrying through - and still yelling about it as the ship's going down. It's too bad. There were a lot of people that worked hard on that film, that believed in it, but--
I did watch it this past weekend, as a matter of fact, because it’s on Amazon Prime. I hadn't seen it in 20 years. It’s not all bad! Some of the voice acting is pretty good, especially Billy Idol, oddly enough.
I'll give you a couple of quick examples of the problems that kind of sum [up] the whole journey up quite easily. CinéGroupe could have worked with any animation studio out there. The budget was comfortable, they could have found a reputable final overseas animation production partner. A lot of the Japanese studios used Korean studios back in the day, trained them, and they were now very, very good, and affordable. There were several different options like this that they could have explored, but they had a different plan.
They came up with this idea to build their own animation studio in Manila, a startup. The problem with building your own studio in Manila, is that nobody was doing animation in Manila, and nobody knew how to draw and produce animation in Manila at that time. The first six or seven months of production, there were nearly 96% retakes. Everything that was sent in was literally thrown away. It was so fucking bad. We already started the train down this track and it just kept getting worse. It was like one of those moments where you’re like, “Why is this happening? Am I on crazy pills?”
There were other seriously frustrating moments. For example, I grew up in Maine, I've had experiences with Canadians, Quebecois especially-- we used to go there when I was a kid. And Quebecois Canadians to me seem stricter about being French than the French. It seemed to me like they dislike most of the European French, telling me they are not pure French like they are. In one meeting I had with a new script supervisor, we were talking, and I said, "With the script, we're trying to accomplish this, and we're trying to create this kind of overall feel, so when we start storyboards we’ll have a strong focused direction to move in.” And she responds, "Oh yeah, I'm going to read the script pretty soon."
I was like, "Okay. We've been working on this for a couple of months, you haven't read the script yet?” And she said, “No, they haven't finished translating the final version into French.” So I said, "Okay, it was written in English, yes, and you speak English, and you can read English, right?" She said, "Correct." So, I continued, "But you're not going to read the script until it's translated into French, yeah?" She said, "Oui." That's how it started! And then it just got worse from there.
To be fair and clear, so many of the people that did much of the direct hands-on work on that film in the studio there, were wonderfully talented Canadian artists, illustrators and designers who really put their heart and soul in the project. It just felt like we were all going over the waterfall, and no matter how hard we paddled, it was too late. They tried their best, but it was unfortunate in the end. Then after the collective frustrating experience with Fincher and Miller, the efforts of Robert Rodriguez, the failure of getting anything else entertainment-wise going at that time-- I gave up all hope on doing anything ever in Hollywood. I felt like I should have never ventured out of my yard, stuck to what I knew best. Hindsight is always 20/20, right?
You stuck with Heavy Metal for quite a few more years though.
Yeah, I always loved Heavy Metal. Unfortunately, my situation with Heavy Metal changed suddenly and dramatically a few years back, when I was shown the door in a most unpleasant way, so I'm not willing to associate with those folks anymore.
Without breaking any contracts or NDAs or anything, how did you come to leave Heavy Metal?
Well, not a lot to be said, really. Without being specific, there was a change in ownership, and with that comes more changes. Although I had a contract that I felt allowed my percentage of ownership to continue through all of these changes, a bunch of the chess pieces were moved around, and suddenly the Heavy Metal I had an ownership in doesn’t exist anymore, although another version of it does. In short, I tried the best I could, for as long as I could, to make Heavy Metal all that it could be, and I couldn't achieve it. The new owners felt the best direction for the company was to remove me from the mix without being asked, and in the end, I agreed. I personally felt it was time for me to walk away.
I haven't really seen what they've been doing lately, and I wish them all the success they deserve, because it was a magazine that I found in 1977 that changed my life. [Like] a lot of people. It introduced me/us to underground artists like [Richard] Corben and [Vaughn] Bodē and all those cutting-edge and brilliant European artists and writers. My work within that company was all-consuming for decades, such a huge part of my life for such a long time. When you finally decide to let something go, whether it was your idea or not, it’s like the weight of the universe has been lifted off your shoulders. I was like, okay, that just happened, but now I don't have to take up any more brain space to worry or think about that thing anymore. I can go back to drawing again.
Was it really a burden in the end? I get the impression that Heavy Metal was your dream gig.
100%. Especially as a huge fan of the magazine, it was a dream gig. The overall fan support for the magazine, for the company, spans more than 40 years now - the people that loved it, loved it. People like me. It's like a classic rock band that used to be able to fill a stadium. Now they can fill a casino somewhere, but the real fans show up and support it. They're hardcore 'til the end. I really do wish them well in whatever direction they take the company. In the end, I’m a fan of the medium, the art of it - the conduit that delivers it can be anybody.
We won't go into what the new owners are doing, but they publish a lot of books these days. And they have gone into some controversial areas, like NFTs.
Again, good luck to them. As long as nobody's getting hurt and they're doing the right thing by everybody involved, then God bless them. It's a tough market out there for all of us in the comic book business, but it's still alive and thriving, which is the most important thing.
Another major milestone since that 1998 interview - you sold your share of Turtles. What brought that about?
Well, it was a multitude of things. Peter and I had explored, before then, selling the property outright. Together, selling it outright. We took it to some interesting opportunities to see if there was a deal to be had, someone to buy it, roll it into a bigger corporate company - say, under Disney or another big studio. But the numbers we were looking for weren't there, the money wasn't there, and it was basically well after the height of the Turtles, so late ‘94 or ‘95. From the early ‘90s to that time, you could see a steady downward trajectory of income, which isn't a bad thing, just a timing thing - was it going into a resting period, or the end? Certainly the revenues and the Turtles as an intellectual property at that time were low, but [it] lasted much longer than a lot of people thought. Us included.
Our agent at the time said, "Oh, this is going to be one of those evergreen properties that's going to continue on and on and on." We were like, “Sure, we'll see.” [Chuckles] We were still processing the idea that we never thought we'd sell enough of the first issue to do a second issue in 1984. As well as my mindset at that time, [which] was that of one of my earliest inspirations, Jack Kirby-- Pete’s too, we really bonded over Kirby, our love for Jack Kirby, and one of the things I liked the most about Kirby was his diversity. He worked on a lot of different creations, created scores of characters, he wasn’t known for just one creation. Some might not have been as successful as others, some were really successful, and many others were co-creations. He did it all.
Without taking anything away from all the positivity and all the awesomeness of the experience of all things Turtles, and the fan support that gave me this incredible life, this entire incredible journey so far - without taking anything away from that, because it is a gift to the point of humbling, I just wanted to do other things.
Pete and I spent 20 years managing all things Turtles. Heavy Metal was moving in a lot of directions, and there was other entertainment stuff I was interested in, and I was feeling like I wanted to spread my wings. I wanted to work with [Simon] Bisley, and I wanted to work with this kind of project or that kind of project - it was just time to move on. So the revenues weren't there, we didn't get an offer that was acceptable to either Pete and I, and we discussed a buyout and did the overall sale in two parts. The first part, Pete bought out a controlling interest, creatively. He took over full creative control, and I had a backend that reduced my royalty percentage every year for X number of years, until a fixed retained percentage. After a couple more years went by-- I was living in Hollywood at the time, and I just said, "Why don't we just put a bow on it and wrap everything up?" And he agreed, and I agreed, and [I was] happy for the deal we made.
I had an insanely successful experience with Pete, we had made a lot of money-- I spent a lot of the money, but at that time, it was time to move on for both of us, I think. Hindsight is always 20/20. But it's exactly what I wanted to do at the time. I don't look back and go, “Ah, I screwed that deal up!” I have a long list of those. [Laughs] If anything, I should have been more protective of our friendship than any of our business dealings.
Well, it's interesting because you did come back to Turtles. You're doing Turtles again.
Yeah. Listen, my love for the Turtles never changed, not one iota. I simply wanted to do other things for a while. But it’s a completely different situation now, I’m not needed to deal with the massive amount of the day-to-day business work, it’s all creative. In the heyday I feel like people thought when the Turtles became a success—because we had 3,000 licensees around the globe, and we were working on 300 animated shows, and movies and more, the outside looking in thing again—they just had visions of us carrying on like Scrooge McDuck, diving in large [bins] full of gold coins and drinking martinis and stuff, that it was all fun and games.
Speaking honestly and correctly for both Peter and I, we never worked so hard in our life. Yes, we were (1) very lucky that, unlike our predecessors, the giants that we stand on the shoulders of, we had full control over our property and we were able to profit from it. But (2) that required us to do the work. Under our control, there was never a Turtles item released that was not seen and approved by us, had our involvement in, control over - and on a global basis. 90-hour weeks were not unusual. Throw into that endless agent and lawyer meetings and never-ending lawsuits, and it was just so much stuff, too much stuff. Once all of that went away, I could go back to just creating without the pressure of the rest. That was where my head was at, and that's where it's still at. That's my true heart.
So after the Turtles had completely sold to Viacom, there was this resting period, before Nickelodeon started discussing and getting down to developing what they wanted to do with it, in all forms of entertainment, including comics. That was when I was asked to come and give my two cents and get involved again, on the comic book side at first.
Once IDW picked up the rights to do the comic series, they called, and I said yes, which was exactly where I wanted to be: writing and drawing comics again. There were other comics, creative opportunities I was working on, but this was TMNT. So, when they asked and invited me in, I jumped at the chance to go back. I never hated or disliked the Turtles, they are the greatest gift I've ever known. There wasn't any animosity at all, I just needed to put them over to the side so I could work on something else for a while. Since coming back on the Turtles, it's been the best time ever - in many ways it feels like it did in the early days with Pete: exciting, creative and alive.
I’m thrilled I get to work with these kids—and I call them kids, because they're half my age—and they can write and draw better than I ever did or ever will. It's incredibly inspirational, I get so much energy from it. It feels really good. It feels like coming home. Before I got on the phone with you, I was drawing Turtles [chuckles] and when I hang up, I'm going to go back to drawing Turtles. I'm still doing other stuff besides the Turtles, but mainly it’s Turtles, and it is the greatest time. It's the greatest gift to be in that creative space with them again.
So, The Last Ronin then. Is that an older story that just never got made? Or where did that one come from?
Yep. The original concept that became The Last Ronin evolved shortly after Peter and I wrapped up Turtles issue 11, which basically became the foundation of all things TMNT, issue 1 through 11, plus the four one-shot stories.
So we arrived at that ending point and we were like, well, where should we go from here? And we started bantering, kicking around the idea of, well, let's look down the road and come up with the ending - say, the final Turtles story, if you will, again set like 30 years in the future. Then once we come up with that, we can develop that, which would give us something to zigzag and navigate towards should we be so lucky to continue drawing Turtles comics. That was early '87. That was also the year we signed the deal with Playmates [for toys] and started working on the cartoon series. It was the school holiday break in 1987, between Christmas and New Year’s Eve when the first five cartoon shows aired, and then six months later, June of 1988, was when the first toys landed in stores.
Suddenly, the time to tackle this big idea we’d write and draw together in a 100-page graphic novel disappeared. A million business things suddenly happened, time passed quickly, with all that nuttiness getting in between-- the hands-on storytelling vaporized, and 10 years passed, then 20, and it was too late. Another decade and change later, after working with the incredible team at IDW, Tom Waltz in particular, the chance to do that story again arrived. Tom is an incredible talent - it takes a village to produce a comic book, and IDW and Nickelodeon are the foundation of that for sure, but at the end of the day there's one person that had to write all 100 of those issues, and that was Tom. Also need to mention Bobby Curnow, who was the series editor, an amazingly creative and top shelf editor, as well as just a wonderful guy. That was the dream team, the driving force of these brilliant 100 issues.
So yeah, we found ourselves in the same position, coming to the end of 10 years of stories and arcs and character development, and looking a year down the road. It was late 2018, the release of issue 100 was scheduled for December 2019, and we were like, well, what do we do after issue 100? Well, I’m an archivist, a glorified pack rat. I still have some of the very earliest of original doodles, sketches, even the original first Turtles drawing in my collection, as well as all my original layouts and notes.
I said to Tom, “I have this story that Peter and I came up with back in '87 and I think it's time to dig it out and take a look, come up with a way to adapt it into a very specific Dark Knight-esque final Turtles story.” I showed it to Tom and he loved it, [he] ran it by Pete and said, “Hey, I don't know if you want any involvement, but I want to take our original 20-page outline, and other handwritten notes, and expand it into something new.” [Pete] passed on any involvement, but gave me a thumbs up.
As Tom was deep into finishing the heavy lifting and the final writing on the last 10 issues leading to 100, I went in and sketched [the story] out in more detail, taking all the key elements out of the original 1987 idea, and then expanding them into a more detailed treatment - more of a structured foundation for us to create the final building blocks that would become The Last Ronin, including the title. After that, over a series of brainstorming sessions, we broke the rest of it down and got a final pitch off to Nickelodeon.
It took a while to get the green light from Nickelodeon, because I wanted us to be able to go as big as possible, five oversized issues, printed like the original Mirage issues, 40 story pages per issue, full-color, a complete 200-page story. I also wanted as much autonomy as I could get. I wanted to do all the final layouts, final sets and character designs, all final details would be Tom and I on everything. We wanted it to be a major event, and they finally agreed and gave it 100% support.
Going in, Tom and I hoped that if it would sell at least what the ongoing Turtles series was selling, then we could break even, but the overall response has been more than we ever hoped for - overwhelming, really. We could not be more thrilled, more happy and more grateful to the fans that have come out and supported it big time. I feel like it's completing what Pete and I started in 1987. We very carefully choreographed it to be 100% respectful to what I wanted to see then and what I felt Peter would have wanted to see then, and balance that with what we wanted to say now, with this adaptation, this version of the story.
From the ongoing series to The Last Ronin, Tom and I basically switched seats. He was solidly in the driver's seat for so long, killing it with the ongoing series, but for this run I took over driving and Tom took shotgun. But throughout the process, it felt very much in the same spirit as how Peter and I worked back in the day - we often started with a fairly detailed outline, and then the rest of the story developed as I worked, building it through the final layouts.
For Last Ronin, it was the same. We had built our outline, and I did the final designs and layouts, and we’d polish the final script together and pass it on to the artists we’d picked. I had worked with the Escorza brothers before, they had done stuff for me at Heavy Metal. I wanted them to do the big framing sequences of the story, the here-and-now parts, and then Ben Bishop did the flashbacks. My vision was Dark Knight on the edges with Batman: Year One in the middle, with some of the short flashback sequences that I personally would draw. Man, what an intense ride. It was easily the toughest story I've done in quite some time, and a lot of that was the personal pressure. The want and desire to create something, write something solely for myself, exactly the way that I wanted to see this story done. As I get older, I can get to be more of a perfectionist, I guess, and I wanted it to be perfect. 1000% perfect.
Well, without going into spoilers, it does end with a pretty wide-open future. Is that something you plan to continue?
We had thought about leaving that door open at the end of the series, more or less from the beginning, but it was only a fleeting thought at first, as we weren’t sure what the response would be to the series as a whole - people just as easily could have hated it. It is obvious that I've been chasing Frank Miller most of my life, especially with the Turtles in so many ways, so Last Ronin was our version of Dark Knight. I'd always wondered, after first reading Dark Knight Returns—and I've never asked Mr. Miller personally—if his ending was always that Bruce Wayne would survive… or had he originally planned to have him not survive, and needed to change it for a corporate reason? Obviously, I think that he might have had the power at that time, that if he wanted to end it differently, he would have ended it differently.
For The Last Ronin, the story ended the way I wanted it, and Tom agreed to end it exactly how it ended. I wanted that ending to be final for all the original Mirage Studios Turtles, a resolution to what Peter and I created, but I wanted that door open because of where it could go. There are some pretty cool story options to dig deeper on, given the chance. The Turtles easily could have a part of its universe end and start again in this space, because before [what] everybody calls a multiverse today, the Turtles have always had a multiverse. But so have a lot of comics, this is not really anything new. In the past, they've had five different Spider-Man books going at the same time, multiple Hulks and Batmans, Iron Mans and Supermans. Certainly, we didn't invent it or anything like that, but we had the animated Turtles, we had the black and white Turtles, and we had the movie Turtles which were somewhere in between - so there was room for more.
So, over the course of the project, as the world of The Last Ronin was designed and built, we really started falling more in love with it. If the fans wanted to see it—and even more important—if we had stories that we wanted to tell and that were worth telling in that universe, then definitely, let’s keep the option open.
Before we could even seriously consider any of that, it was an immediate jump back from wrapping Last Ronin to the ongoing series, and we’re both still heavily involved with that. Tom moreso, and he has had a long gestating plot for a sub-series called "The Armageddon Game", and so that, along with some other important story arcs and plot threads previously developed before the jump to Ronin and balanced with the continually evolving events in the ongoing series that the incredible Sophie Campbell has taken the lead role on-- we needed to interweave both, expand both, and grow both as a whole. Much to do in all the TMNT universes for sure.2
Since you mentioned Sophie Campbell, I have to bring up, I assume you've seen the Free Comic Book Day issue.
It’s a loving tribute to your work. What did that mean to you?
Oh, everything. She’s the greatest, a huge TMNT fan as well. I'd met Sophie a few years back and had been a fan of her work for some time. In fact, one of the first meetings that we had, we traded a piece of my original TMNT pages for one of her covers. It’s one of our favorites, Courtney [Eastman's spouse] and I, and it’s hanging on a wall in our house. A beautiful Michelangelo moment cover [where he’s] sitting on a tree stump with his notepad. At IDW we were all well aware of Sophie's longtime passion for Mikey, and that story was just wonderfully executed. Overall, her take on the stories she’s telling are personally reflective of TMNT moments she grew up with, as well as her personal life experiences and story interests now.
I think she has been in love with the world of the Turtles her whole life and has clear ideas as to where she wants to take them and who she wanted to see more of in them, this character, or that character - many from different older TMNT universes, and many more created specifically for the series. Most recently, by bringing the character Venus [the first female mutant turtle] back into the storyline. Which was not the Venus that I worked on in the mid-'90s, who fans hated—but I liked!—but she had a great, fresh idea to bring Venus back in a very unique way and it's just turned into a really fantastic story. Yeah, all her stuff comes from such a place of pure love and passion for Turtles, the tribute was killer, and what a great way to introduce even more new characters in our ever-expanding universe, she’s doing a really great job.
It definitely comes through in that issue. It's a shot-for-shot redraw of TMNT #1, except it has that twist at the end.
Because we’re all working on different parts of the IDW TMNT universe-- they all need to also work together as well. Tom and Sophie came up with the key plot points for what they wanted to say with the Free Comic Day book, as it addresses many other plot points that needed to be replanted to carefully set up where and how it would all intersect. The ongoing storyline crosses into the Armageddon Game series, and they will both be moving forward together. But, yeah, man - the Free Comic Day issue was fantastic, and the re-imagining of all those historical panels and drawing style was perfect. I always look back at those original pages, what we all sort of think of as iconic images 37 years later, and all I can think of is we didn’t really know what we were doing back then, we just gave it our best shot.
I think the longest story that I had done on my own up to that point was 10 pages, and I believe it was the same for Pete. With that first 40-page issue, at least, we had two of us working on it, looking for our path, but that was the longest story we'd ever done. We were just stealing Frank Miller panels and figuring stuff out as we went along, and hoped for the best. Looking back now, I remember when I was younger, tracing Kirby panels, how I still look at Kirby’s work from books like Kamandi and think, "Ugh! I'll never have the skills he had, this guy was so freaking good!" [Laughs] But yeah, all those classic and iconic panels didn’t seem at all classic or iconic at the time.
Other than Peter Laird, your longest creative collaboration has been with Simon Bisley. When did you first meet Simon? Was Melting Pot the first thing you did together, or was there something else?
Yes, artistically that’s correct for sure. I met Simon around the time I was building out Tundra, and I'd been a longtime fan of Alan Moore, Alan Grant, John Wagner and Jamie Hewlett, and many more of the British creators. A friend-- Dave Elliott, who for a while managed and helped me develop Tundra UK, which was designed to build a better communication bridge between Tundra US and the large British talent base we were working with.... We had a number of very large new UK projects that needed regular communication and follow-up, Cages with Dave McKean, for example, as well as From Hell with Alan Moore, who was based in the UK, Eddie Campbell, based in Australia, and both were in a partnership with SpiderBaby [Grafix]. We also tried to relaunch Big Numbers, as well as worked out a deal to re-publish Violent Cases with Neil Gaiman here in the States, books like Skin with Pete Milligan & Brendan McCarthy, and White Trash by Gordon Rennie & Martin Emond. It was a lot of that across-the-pond stuff that we were working on, and with the time zone difference and style of communications available at the time, mostly faxes and FedEx, we needed an overall better system.
Anyway, I was over in London working in the new office space, and I had been aware of Simon's work, and I finally met him at an event - a convention, UKCAC [the United Kingdom Comic Art Convention] or something, and we got along quite nicely. I showed him some of the things I was working on like Melting Pot with Eric Talbot, and asked, “Once you finish the Judge Dredd/Batman crossover [Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgment on Gotham], what are you working on next? What do you want to do?" He said he really liked the concept of Melting Pot and [he] wouldn’t mind working on that. I'd also recently purchased Heavy Metal at the time, so I immediately saw a way to cross over all three: "I want you to do covers and short stories for me at Heavy Metal and we’ll work out the Melting Pot project at Tundra.” That’s where the relationship started. The Melting Pot project-- which was good on the one hand, as that is what we used it to build a working friendship, but also bad because I feel like I hadn't really figured this story out well enough to make it good. I feel it failed as a graphic novel the first time around, and maybe the same on the second version,3 but I feel like I wasted his talent on a project that could have been a lot better, given more time to develop.
But that built the friendship, and we went on to do a ton of other things together, and still collaborate on this and that today. Nothing like we used to, for sure, but we still keep in regular touch, and if the chance to do something together comes together, we’ll jump on it. We were just texting the other day because he's going to be at a few of the same conventions this summer [that] I'm going to be at. So, we get to see each other at shows and trade goofy texts once a week, stuff like that. But yeah, Simon, he's an original character in every sense of the word.
I remember this specific detail I wrote as an intro for an art book of his work at Heavy Metal, which still sums up all that Simon Bisley is. Before they fully defined ADHD as ADHD, he was already all of that - this spastic ball of uncontrollable energy, and combined with the fact that he was the most naturally-talented artist I'd ever met. I remember being in his studio in England, and he's smoking a cigarette, and has a plate of curry that's half on a painting that he's working on, and he’s got Guinnesses lined up around the board, and he's talking about a 457 Hemi something, something, something that he saw that he wants to put into some kind of custom this that or the other thing... [Laughs]
And the whole while he's just painting away, I'm watching him, and this intense and beautiful work is pouring out of him, and it’s effortless. To me, because I struggle with my art to get it to do anything close to what I want, it blew my mind to watch him work. All of my stuff is a bit of a war that sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, but he just seemed like such a natural talent. Good guy also, huge heart, would take a bullet for a friend without thinking, and he’s a massive, larger-than-life character. I always enjoyed when he would come to the States to work in my studio. He lives out in the countryside, and they have their own version of speaking there—dialect—and he talks really fast. The best representation I can come up with is kinda like Brad Pitt's character in Snatch. Everything is one long run-on sentence, with topics and references only he knows what he’s talking about, and just goes on and on.
So anyway, when he would come over to work, and we’d be out running missions, hitting the gym or the art store—or closest bar—he’d be with me in LA in the studio for four weeks or six weeks at times, and as he’d start rambling. People would go, "Wait, what? What did he say? I can’t understand him, what did he say?" and I’d end up having to translate for him and do subtitles [chuckles] because nobody could understand what he was talking about. But he's a good guy, and still doing some really good stuff.
You tweeted out a news story about Biz an Buzz recently. Is that a thing?
It is a thing, but in development, so maybe one day more of a thing. [Laughs] The short origin story of Biz an Buzz: Work for Hire evolved out of a classic Eastman & Bisley adventure. We were hired by Capcom to develop a new video game. It was a Heavy Metal-based video game, mainly in spirit, and using the brand, so we came up with a basic concept structure, story and a development schedule to complete the project together. Then they wanted us to fly over to work with the team in Nagoya on all the final elements. The dates were set, the arrangements were made, and we got on the plane to go over to work for 10 days of intense work with this team. Suddenly I just had this vision of a horrible ending for us! Simon drinks a lot, and I was drinking quite a lot at the time, and I just had this vision that we weren’t ever going to survive the trip.
Like, we'd be going to Japan, and we’d get into so much trouble that they would bring back public beheadings or something else and make an example out of us. We'll embarrass ourselves, our countries, and they'd kill us publicly as a warning to others. So, Simon and I were talking about it on the flight, while drinking even more, and he said, "Yep, this is going to be the last great adventure of Biz and Buzz." And he did this little doodle of these caricatures of us as these characters - and so from that point on, we just kept making up all the stories of what Biz and Buzz would do on their adventures. The whole story was in the spirit of a combination of Laurel and Hardy meets The Young Ones, which was one of my all-time favorite British comedy TV series.
Laurel and Hardy would always end up going into a situation where they [have] to move a piano and then they end up on a rocket ship to the moon or something crazy like that. It just goes completely wrong. Their intentions were always pure, and they just go in to do a good job, it just [doesn't] work out that way. And so, we came up with a comic, and then some fans made these concept toy sculpts, and we manufactured the toys and kept adding more stories of what the adventures of Biz and Buzz would be like for years. We added the “Work for Hire” to the Biz an Buzz title, and you have our version of the old Laurel and Hardy concept.
Early in the development of the overall series, I bought in another mutual good friend, Robert Mandell, and together the three of us went into a deeper dive into all things in the Biz an Buzz universe.
For example, the main setting for the stories… I recalled this place in Northampton, Massachusetts, where I used to live, called the Shaw's Motel, which was a halfway house for socially-challenged people to stay, with a temporary employment service based there to find them jobs around town. I always thought it was a great organization. I just thought, what a great setting for a family-by-circumstance-style story, because in that environment, kinda like Taxi, it’s a place where everybody's got dreams, hopes, and challenges, social and otherwise - while they just really want to live and survive, they become a shared-dream family.
Biz and Buzz are in that community, but like in life, sometimes, or most times, they’d end up getting the worst of the jobs, [chuckles] but they would still try to do their best even at the worst jobs. That’s the concept we pitched to a few different production companies, and a company called Factory Create, based out of Manchester in the UK, a wonderful stop motion animation house, fell in love with it. We all started developing it as an older-audience edgy sitcom, in the tone of Rick and Morty, but pointed more in the direction of a British sitcom - that style of humor felt like the best direction to all of us.
So yeah, we're developing it, and we've got tons of story ideas, designs, and together we're out pitching it for a broadcast partner. Press releases can sometimes make it sound like it's going to be on the air next week, and unfortunately it's not. [Laughs] But it's heading in the right direction, a lot of us really like it, are working hard on it, so we'll see. Put it this way, I haven't stopped buying lottery tickets. [Laughs]
It sounds like you're not done with the Hollywood stuff then, or at least they're not done with you.
I just approach it in a much more humorous way, and even with this option, it's like - if it works, it works, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. There doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast rule for getting any deal done in Hollywood, it all feels discretionary, whatever way the wind blows, and even that seems to change minute to minute without any real solid reason or foundation. There's a few other ideas—IPs—that Simon and I developed over the years being shopped, one that was sorta optioned by a company a couple of years ago. We agreed to terms and a deal, but it was never officially signed. It has gone through some development and pitches, but it hasn't really gone anywhere. Just parked on the freeway - and that's more typical. What's fun about an idea like Biz an Buzz: Work for Hire is that it was created in a natural way, a joke, a happy accident. The story developed organically, the world was created for no one else but us, a place to tell stories we want to and have fun with, even if no one else likes them. Actually, I have been working on raising some more funds to do more comic book stories on it, like a Kickstarter maybe, like some of my other projects. If anything happens beyond that, then great - if not, then we had fun doing it.
Other than that, I’m working with a good friend and writer, David Avallone, on a project we call Drawing Blood, which so far has been fully funded through a couple of Kickstarters.
That’s actually next on my list of things to talk to you about.
Oh, no kidding. Ask the question, then. [Laughs]
I was going to say Drawing Blood is really interesting because it's fiction, but you can feel how there's some truth there. It gets pretty brutal, so I'm just curious what you're pulling from, when you work on the book.
It is a combination of a great many ideas and threads - some fiction, some nonfiction, but a natural evolution of all those threads into one idea. Like when we're talking about Biz an Buzz, for example, the natural evolution of a crazy concept based on Simon Bisley and myself - there are some similarities with Drawing Blood. In Drawing Blood, Shane Bookman, our main character loosely based on me-- his best friend in that story is this character named Nigel Boswell, who Shane calls Beastly, and Beastly basically looks just like and acts like Simon Bisley. They are best friends and will share the entire first adventure throughout the first 12 issues we have planned for Series One. The foundation of the Drawing Blood universe is essentially a collection of lots of thoughts and ideas I’ve had for years, some based on my experiences in Hollywood, and others based on different publishing situations - some at Mirage or Tundra, or other experiences I’ve had in licensing, and even fans.
I had lots of my own adventures in these places and spaces, and some of them were just so bizarre that when I would tell somebody about them, they wouldn’t believe me. They’d go “You're lying!” or “You're really exaggerating it and probably lying! That can't be true!" I’d say, "Seriously, I can't make most of this shit up." So that was the seed, which was furthered by my favorite parts [of] various comic conventions. You'd usually end up in a hotel bar at the end of a day at the show, and that would be where the stories would start making the rounds. Creator A would tell a story about his craziest fan interaction, then Creator B would talk about a crazy Hollywood interaction, and C a bad publisher… infinity.
I loved hearing all these different experiences, and then [I] started collecting all these stories inside of a sketchbook diary, loosely building a story around it, originally called "On the Shoulders of Giants". But I wanted this main character to be a completely fictional main character, one [where] I could take bits and pieces from my experiences and a lot of these other creators’ experiences, and roll them all into one character’s history. That way I could really push the limits, push the boundaries to extremes with the story and still have a firm basis in reality. So it's not an autobiography of me, that I have to stick to the rules on, so to speak, and I could really make it way more over-the-top or more dark or more fabulous than it really was.
Around that time I started actively writing more on it, developing it. I met David at a couple of comic conventions, in the con hotel bar, of course, and at the end of one of the shows we were talking about different ideas we created and wanted to work on someday. I eventually got around to telling him about On the Shoulders of Giants. This was at San Diego Comic-Con in 2015, and he totally got into it. Then we were walking back to the con because I had to go to a panel, [and] as we got to the convention center entrance he said, "You should call it Drawing Blood," and I'm like, "Dude, that's fantastic, that really fits, let’s talk more on this."
From that point on, we started spending a lot of time on the phone, fleshing out the idea more fully, building out the whole world, and it really started to take a shape we both loved. David, who’d just started writing comics at that time, transitioning from acting, editing, producing, directing and writing in Hollywoodland, added another, deeper dimension to this side of the fictional character. He might have come from a different creative landscape, Los Angeles, as well as his dad, Michael Avallone, [who] had been a well-known genre novelist, but both our worlds were very similar, and he brought even more bizarre characters and environments to add to the mix. In the end, the project became officially co-created by Eastman & Avallone, a full blend and expansion of all our adventures, and friends’ adventures, into this new thing, Drawing Blood.
When people still ask me if it is autobiographical, I say there are some of the moments that directly relate to me, 20% to 25% that are autobiographical, but way more are based on enhanced and fictionalized versions of those, then combined and elaborated on with other people’s stories. A solid example of an answer I give when people ask "Are you sure this isn’t an autobiography?" I say, "Well, In the first six pages of issue 1, Shane and Beastly end up in a gunfight. Knock on wood, I've never been in a gunfight, not yet, and hopefully I never will!” That pretty much covers it, the intent of the story, it’s a completely fictional true story.
We're currently just finishing [the second run of issues] now. I needed to borrow series artist Ben [Bishop] to illustrate the flashback sequences in Last Ronin for a year, but now we’re all back on Drawing Blood. Ben is also a local Mainer who had done a few Kickstarters and was self-publishing his own work. When David and I were looking for the right artist for DB, my wife Courtney picked up a copy of his book and said, "This guy's really good." He had sent me his book, The Aggregate, asking for a promotional support quote. David and I agreed on the spot and reached out and brought him on board for DB. Ben is an incredibly talented guy, he has a really clever style, can really handle the “acting” moments and all the rest. He’s got it all, very gifted.
We did a Kickstarter in 2017, that was for the first four issues, plus the recreation of the Radically Rearranged Ronin Ragdolls one-shot [a TMNT parody], and after we finished those, we did a second Kickstarter in 2019, for the next four issues, 5 through 8, plus a giant-sized RRRR adventure book. The whole series is going to be 12 issues when we’re done, and a series of one-off issues of the Ragdolls. But, yeah, I needed to borrow Ben, to which David graciously agreed, and I literally pulled the main artist off our creator-owned series to work on the Last Ronin project. Ben brought exactly what I wanted to the Turtles series, and now with the success of that, I hope it can also help bring more awareness to the Drawing Blood project.
Now we're solidly back on finishing issues 5 through 8, and I am pumped. All of the scripts are just brilliant, but the last few of the second volume are incredible. What David has done with the final writing based on the world we've built is more than I hoped for. It's so much further down the road than what I originally envisioned. We've got four more issues to do after volume two, volume three will cover issues 9 to 12, which will wrap up what we call the whole first season. We imagined this first comic series like the first season of a TV show like Breaking Bad or something like that. [Chuckles] Where it goes from there, who knows, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. For the moment, though, we're all excited to be back at work on Drawing Blood and hopefully we'll wrap this part up in the next couple of months and get that out and look to do another Kickstarter for the final four [issues].
I do have to ask about the one line that's quoted in there, where a character says, "If I'd known what the life of a professional cartoonist was like, I'd have cut my drawing hand clean off."
That was something somebody quoted to me many years ago, regarding something that they heard Wally Wood say about his career near the end. I can’t remember the exact circumstances of how it came up, it was a long time ago, but they were referencing a quote they’d read in an interview. Something to the effect of, Wally was asked, "You're a living legend, you have influenced so many of your peers and upcoming artists, you changed the way people approach a story and taught people how to draw the interiors of spaceships! All your work at EC was so inspiring, how do you respond to that?” As I was told, his response was, "If I knew what going to comics as a career was really going to be like, I would have cut off my drawing hand.”4 Whether that is fact or fiction, or a little of both, that always stuck with me as a concept. I'd written about that back in the earliest of my notes and doodles for On the Shoulders of Giants, because getting to know Jack Kirby and becoming friends with him and then guys like Russ Heath, or reading about so many other of my inspirations, Gene Colan, John Severin—countless other legends that we have careers because of them, their vision became our inspiration—their journey wasn’t an easy one. Many ended up in some pretty tough situations in the end, after a lifetime of work-for-hire business practices. They had nothing to fall back on when they couldn’t find work and were having a rough time making ends meet.
When you can't draw anymore, it's tough to make a living - and if you don't own any part of any of your characters or creations, there’s no profit sharing from the companies that own the properties at that time, who can make millions and millions and keep it all. I always thought of it like professional athletes, when some of those original football, or baseball, or basketball players see what players today are getting paid, compared to what they were paid-- it's got to be just as insanely frustrating a situation. Really horrifying to see what others now make from what they started and built from the ground up, and where things have evolved to. That was the importance of including a main character like that, one of the original legends, a hero of Shane’s who inspired him, that he looked up to, and wanted to try and give back to. In the series we named him Frank Forest, which is specifically [based on] Wally Wood.
Because of all those real giants, and the fictional one, Frank Forest, Shane and his brother Paul were able to create and self-publish and own their creation, much like Peter and I were able to do because of what these guys had done, and so we wanted to be respectful to and bring awareness to that unfortunate historical fact. The character of Frank Forest continues to evolve through the rest of the series in a pretty interesting way.
The other thing with Drawing Blood I need to ask about, is you did an entire issue of Radically Rearranged Ronin Ragdolls. You did a straight parody of your own work!
I'd actually created this idea of a parody of the TMNT a number of years ago called the "Radically Rearranged Ronin Reptiles". It was an over-the-top sci-fi version, set in the future, [with] lots of martial arts action, and the main characters were four mutated female geckos. It was set in Europe, in what used to be Paris. It was like this Heavy Metal version of Paris, a Fifth Element-style setting. I wrote, laid out, and drew probably 100 to 150 pages of it, and suddenly had one of those moments of realization where I was… crap! Been there, done that, and I really don't think the world needs to see another one of these, certainly not the way I was doing it. And [I] put it on a shelf for 10 or 12 years until it was dusted off for this project.
When David and I were developing Drawing Blood’s historical timeline and foundation, we said, well, what is the project he and his brother drew? I said, “Hey, let's just take this Radically Rearranged Ronin Reptiles idea I’d done all this work on and make it that!” At first it was just going to be in title only.... As the idea grew, the brothers’ concept would need to be more visual, especially if it was to be made into fictional cartoons, and toys, and merchandise - which gave [the main character] his fictional fortune, [while] losing all of it brought him to his current state of being. We wanted these characters and creation to firmly exist in the world of comics we were building on, even if it was completely fictional - it had to have a realistic timeline in our real world of comics. Everything that we know, you and I, everyone in it - all we know about in the world of comics exists in Shane’s world of comics. Even I make an appearance. At the end of issue 4, Shane Bookman and I meet at a New York City Comic Convention where he's going into a panel to defend the director’s bad decision to make the characters aliens instead of mutants in the new “radically dark” movie version of the RRRR. The director, Morgan Harbor - nothing to do with Michael Bay - Morgan Harbor, is getting a lot of heat from fans and wants Shane to agree he was in on the change. The more we talked about it, the more we agreed, if we're going through all the trouble of creating this fictional character and it's a fictional comic book, maybe we should actually go all the way in and come up with the “actual” comic book based on the fictional creation he and his brother became successful on, and print that too!
Well, one thing led to another, we were on a roll here, and discussing it big time. I thought, yeah, but I don't want to do four female reptiles like the version I already created - it was a little too close to Turtles in concept anyway. And it popped into my mind: if one person shows me another viral online cat video, I’m going to lose my mind, which then made me think - everybody loves cats, even we have cats. I'd say my wife and son love cats - personally I like dogs, but we still have cats. [Laughs]
Anyway, so I called David, and I said, "Let's make them into cats, we'll do three female cats. Radically Rearranged Ronin... somethings..." He laughed, as he has cats and totally agreed, and as we were talking, we looked up different cat breeds that began with an R, and there it was, “ragdolls” - and we had our four-R title. Also in the discussion, I said, "We can name these after famous Japanese animators like Miyazaki [and] Ōtomo, and David laughed again and added Tezuka." [Laughs] That was it, we loved it, and now we needed to take it all the way home. "Why don't we just fully recreate the 1992 comic book that Shane and Paul Bookman came up with and self-published, and add the cost to fundraising goals for the first Kickstarter?"
This is also when we had the chance to add into the mix another artist we really wanted to include in the series somehow, and that was the incredibly talented Troy Little. We’d even considered him as the main series artist at one point, but he’s such a powerful cartoonist, it wasn’t a perfect fit for the main story. But for RRRR he would totally kill it and then some. David and I wrote the story, I did the layouts, and Troy did the finishes, and man it was far cooler than we all imagined in the end. We also ended up adding Troy’s work into a series of hallucinations and other drug- and alcohol-influenced moments in Shane’s life, in the main series pages, which are really powerful.
With that foundation and structure—the full creative team in place—we leaned heavily on Ben Bishop’s vast experiences doing his other Kickstarters, as well as hired a consultant, and had the idea we would approach the first one like if Shane was a real person - but we couldn’t tell you where he was, like he was in prison or something, and we didn’t want to let you know. So we pretended that Shane Bookman was a real person in our world of comics, and proceeded as such. In fact, we got guys like Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Films and Rob Paulsen, the voice of two generations of Turtles, the legendary Bill Sienkiewicz, and many more to tell of some of their encounters with Shane Bookman. We got them, and others, like fictional fans, all talking on camera about their favorite Shane Bookman encounters, and even went as far as to set up a Twitter account and an Instagram account for Shane Bookman, so David was tweeting out all kinds of random things from Shane during the lead up and throughout the campaign.
People then started really believing it and worrying and writing, "What happened to him? Where is Shane? Is he okay?" It was really good fun, but the Ragdolls as an overall concept has been pretty popular as well. Troy’s new Ragdolls giant-sized comic is based on the fictional RRRR animated series, called RRRR Adventures, inspired by the TMNT Adventures series we did with Archie back in the day. It’s completed and is coming out as part of the second Kickstarter fulfillment we’ll be doing at the end of the year.
Of the many creative things I’m excited about these days, what we have built and continue to build out in this fictional world of Shane Bookman, is at the very top. I've yet to see something like this out there yet, a series set in the world of comics as we know it now, with the perspective and vision we can bring to it in this fictionalized true story.
The last thing I want to touch on is that you've done a lot of mainstream work recently, with covers and stories for other publishers. Do you enjoy doing that?
Oh, my goodness yes. It's funny because if you look at a lot of my earliest work, pre-Turtles, I had a foot in both worlds. I was a huge fan of all things mainstream comics - in particular, Jack Kirby and all the Silver Age Marvel and DC comics, but in the mid-'70s, I discovered Heavy Metal magazine, and through Heavy Metal I discovered underground comics. The world of underground comics blew my mind, I found self-publishers like Richard Corben and Vaughn Bodē and Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton’s The [Fabulous Furry] Freak Brothers, and so many others.
That was it, I found my calling. All my early stories were these edgy Corben rip-off short stories. Many of my earliest submissions were to Rip Off Press or Last Gasp anthology books. This was all just before Peter and I [were] drawing the early Turtles issues. We were also doing all kinds of pinups, Marvel characters and DC characters and getting little spot illustrations published in CBG [Comics Buyer's Guide] for exposure. Some of my favorite mainstream characters to draw were guys like Batman and Captain America, but Daredevil has always been one of my all-time favorite superhero characters. There's a direct correlation, obviously, from Daredevil to all things Turtles.
So when the ongoing Turtles comics at IDW were going really, really well around 2014, 2015, they were starting to do these company-wide crossovers with DC and others, so I'd pitched this idea-- I still want to do it one day. I said, I want to do a Turtles/Kamandi crossover. Because back when we did the Donatello one-shot, Donatello meets this character Kirby, an artist who has this crystal [whereby] everything he draws comes to life, but shortly disappears except this mirrored doorway-looking device... when they both go through this doorway to a universe where all the Kirby drawings are alive, they have an awesome adventure there, and at the end Don returns but Kirby stays there in that world.
With that in mind, and I always felt that [the] mutant animal inspiration for TMNT directly goes back to that Kamandi concept of Kirby’s - what a perfect world for the Turtles to visit and have a full-on adventure in: a world of mutant animals. So I pitched it, and [IDW co-founder] Ted [Adams] spoke with Dan DiDio and said, "Well, Kevin really wants to do this Turtles/Kamandi crossover." Dan said, "Nobody really remembers who Kamandi is, why don't you do Turtles/Batman?"
Ted, when he told me, said, "I didn't know that was on the table!" That is when everything switched gears, and the first Batman/TMNT crossover started. DC brought in the fantastic James Tynion, who is just a brilliant writer, and then the equally-fantastic Freddie Williams to draw it. I was invited to do retailer incentive covers for the series, and that was one of those big fan moments where I jokingly say to myself, I felt like I was getting punked or something, and I was waiting for somebody to say something like, "Oh, we just had you draw the Turtles and Batman for a cover of a comic for fun. We're not actually really going to publish it or anything!” [Laughs]
But, that was a massive geek moment for me doing those covers, a true fan moment. That whole series—and there were three series by the end of the full run—what a fantastic experience. The stories were wonderful, I’m still high from it. Anyway, I think that exposure then led to various editors from other companies reaching out to see if I would do others. All these wonderful kids-- [laughs] I can still call them kids because they grew up on Turtles, they're half my age, but now they’re editors at Marvel and DC, and like some of the young artists that I work with on Turtles at IDW, they're fans of mine.
So, this young editor, Mark Basso from Marvel, calls me and says, "Hey, you want to do a Conan cover?" I'm like, "Hell yeah, I'd love to!” I’ve always been a huge Roy Thomas/Barry Smith Conan fan, and [I] got the gig. One thing led to another, and I have been doing a bunch of regular covers for Marvel. I just finished one for Midnight Suns a couple of days ago. The original comic fan in me is having the best time ever!
I was going to say you didn't just do covers, you did a Kamandi story and you did a Conan story.
Yes, that's true. Not to take away from those covers, but yeah, Freddie Williams and I did a Kamandi story, [that] Tom King wrote.
Was that high on your artistic bucket list? Was that a lifelong dream, getting to draw a Kamandi story?
It was-- and I'll try to say this very carefully, so as not to offend anyone. It was. It was an absolute dream to work on a Kamandi story. I already have a Kamandi story that I want to tell in my mind, and that is with the Turtles in it. I’ll get to it one day. But this was a great story written by a brilliant writer, and what Tom wanted to say with this story was cool and effective, it worked, it was a great piece. It was different from all the rest, like a little independent film in the middle of epics. Plus, I got to work with Freddie again, which was fantastic - Freddie Williams rules, we had a really good time doing it together, he actually flew out to San Diego and we worked on it old school, in the same room passing pages back and forth, like Pete and I used to.
The Conan story, the same. It was a dream come true. It was just one of those killer opportunities, but unfortunately artists can be our own worst enemies, our own worst critics. I loved doing the story, but it was a 5-page concept I could try and fit in, that turned into a 10-page story… and it was right in the middle of Ronin. If I had my way, I would have taken a year to draw those 10 pages and I would have loved every minute of it. But the realities were [that] I didn't have that luxury, it had to be fit in when it was needed, and at the end of the day I could not be more thrilled I did it. The thing with artists, me especially - you see this vision in your brain of what you’re going to do, like, “I'm going to draw this like Barry Smith!” Then you realize, wait a minute, I'm not Barry Smith, and I can't draw like Barry Smith…
So, it's gonna end up looking like a goofball trying to draw Conan like Barry Smith. It was a good time, and I love it. I hope to keep doing more of it. I grew up as a fan of all these kinds of comics, I still love all kinds of comics, I was at the comic store yesterday. [Chuckles] It's been the greatest adventure of my life, it is a bona fide childhood dream come true. We're back out doing conventions now, which is awesome. That's one of the things that I always talk about when I do a panel or am part of a panel at a con. I thank the giants that we firmly stand on the shoulders of who paved the way, inspired us - pretty much created the industry I make a living in. Their creativity gave us the opportunity to have that dream in the first place.
Then the second point I always discuss with the audience is the fact they are here, sitting there, listening to me and willing to stand in my line. I joke that I wouldn’t stand in line to see me, I’m thrilled you’re willing to! These fans are incredible, they’ll come up and tell me, “The TMNTs were my whole childhood!” and I always flip it back on them, "You guys have given me the greatest life ever, I couldn’t have done this without you." It's quite humbling, to be honest, that I get to do this every day. It's fantastic, a lot of blessings. Boy, a lot of blessings.
I want to end with a strange question, because we started this interview talking about the Hollywood years, and all the craziness that happened then, and we went through all the Turtles stuff. Talking to you now, when you talk about actually writing and drawing comics, I get the impression that this is what you want to be doing. You are right where you want to be right now. Is this the happiest you’ve ever been in your career?
Yeah. It really is living the dream. I remember so clearly the day it all came true. In January of 1985, Pete called me because we had solicited for Turtles issue 2, and we’d just gotten the order numbers in. I had moved back to Portland, Maine, from Dover, New Hampshire, where we lived when we put the first issue out. His wife got a teaching job near Sharon, Connecticut, and they relocated there. Jumping quickly back to May of 1984, the first issue had come out, and to our shock and surprise, all 3,000 copies sold out, so we did a second printing of 6,000. It sold out too. In the middle of all this first-issue fun, I still had a summer job. I cooked lobsters at Johnny’s Oarweed restaurant on the coast of Maine to make some money to get through the winters, so once the season ended [I went] up to Portland to figure out what to do next.
After the second printing of issue 1 sold out, we kept getting calls and letters from all these fans, and comic stores asking, "When are you doing the second issue?" Well, we never thought we’d sell all the copies of the first issue, so we didn't plan to do a second issue. We also knew nothing about distribution at that time, how to solicit for pre-orders to the direct market, so we came up with a premise, we solicited, and we started working on the issue while we waited. I made a couple of bus trips from Maine to Connecticut, and we were working on it, still with no clue of where it would all land.
Anyway, in January of ‘85, [Pete] called me and he was just so excited because he said, "Pre-orders so far are 15,000 copies." He said, "Do you know, I was doing some quick calculations, and our profit after everything's paid, pre-tax, would be about $2,000 each. If we did six of these a year, we could probably make a living drawing comics full-time." I flipped. I was working in another restaurant and working part-time in an art store to make ends meet at that time, and this was it. [I] just quit all side jobs, enough of this drawing-on-the-side thing. I packed what I had and moved down to Connecticut, and started drawing comics full-time. That was hands-down, by far—I could speak for both of us—that was the happiest time in our life, that we were drawing comic books full-time. Right now is a pretty close second to that, because after all this time, I’m still doing it.
I've had the wandering years and the meandering years and the painful business experience years, but when I went back to drawing, when I went back to work on Turtles with IDW, it all felt like I had come full circle. I had done lots of storyboards and layouts for other projects over the years, but I hadn't really done finished work, final drawings for publication in a long time. So it was time to start learning to draw all over again, [but] having the time to learn how to draw again, back to studying and learning, trying to continue to improve, because that never changes. It's been, and is, pretty awesome.
Besides mining all the archives, especially my extensive collection of files, for all the hardcover collections and re-issues with IDW, working with all the incredible designers to get all that original historical TMNT work back out there, the new work - I've probably done more hands-on drawing and writing work in the last 10 years than I've done in all the previous 15 years leading up to it. Lots of mainly-finished work, new graphic novels, fill-in issues, all the story consulting, writing, layouts, and tons of covers. I think just Turtles alone - I think I've done more than 250 covers in the past decade, and it's pure joy. [Laughs] It's the 9-year-old, 10-year-old kid just going batshit crazy with the joy of it all. It's funny because Courtney and I will joke about it, what a big kid I am. And what’s funnier, our son's 16-- when he was younger, he honestly didn't think I had a job because other people's parents got up and left the house to go to work every day and [came] home at night for dinner. He said, "My dad doesn't work, he just stays home and draws cartoons all day long." [Chuckles]
It wasn't until he got a bit older, some of his friends that were fans of the new Turtles, they said, "So your dad draws Turtles? That’s cool!” And so then it was cool to him. Then when they got older they realized I co-created the Turtles and that was even cooler. He loves it, but it’s not his thing. He’s got his own destiny, he’s a total sports kid - soccer, basketball, baseball, and now it's golf, and he's good at all of them, which I never was at any of those. I always like having my studio in the middle of the house, not stuck in an attic or basement, hidden away. I want to be there with the whole rest of the house, I like being fully in tune with the environment - so he and they can come in and out anytime. So he's in and out of here all the time, like, "What are you doing? What are you drawing?"
I think he looks at it and it's still a bit of magic to him of how it appears and how it comes together. That's funny. But yeah, I couldn't be happier. We count our blessings, and we have had more than our share of them, especially coming out of the last couple of years that all of us have been through. All our friends and family and loved ones that have been spared - and hearts and prayers to those that haven't. The drawing is always awesome, but it's nice to be back doing shows again, back out there with the fans. I get to thank them in person once again. That’s fantastic.
* * *
- Tim Miller & David Fincher would go on to create the Heavy Metal-influenced animated series Love, Death & Robots for Netflix. Three seasons have run since 2019.
- After this interview was conducted, IDW announced The Last Ronin: The Lost Years, a new series coming in November, to be written by Eastman and Waltz, with art by SL Gallant and Ben Bishop.
- There are two distinct versions of Melting Pot. The first was released as a four-issue comic book series from Kitchen Sink Press (which by that point had acquired Eastman's Tundra Publishing) in 1993-94, Written by Eastman & Eric Talbot with art by Bisley & Eastman. A collected edition followed. Then, in the Heavy Metal 30th Anniversary Special (Fall 2007), a vastly-revised version of Melting Pot was published as a single magazine-length story, with new contributions by Eastman, Bisley, Robert Prior & Lorenzo Sperlonga.
- Exact quote: "If I had it all to do over again, I'd cut off my hands!" Per Bhob Stewart's & Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr.'s The Wallace Wood Checklist (TwoMorrows, 2003), the quote appears to originate with the underground cartoonist Joe Schenkman, who recounted Wood's remark in an essay, "Rat Roots", published in The Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide (Boatner Norton, 1982).