It’s been 35 years since the first issue of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic was released, after being created by Kevin Eatman and Peter Laird as a means of entertaining each other. Against all odds, though, the property remains a beloved franchise, with seemingly every generation having their own version of the Ninja Turtles.
Whether it’s the original film, any of the animated series, a number of comic book lines, or even the live concert tour, it’s hard to think of a time in the last three decades where the Ninja Turtles weren’t somewhere in pop culture. According to Eastman, who sat down to speak with GameSpot at San Diego Comic-Con, it wasn’t by design. “When we did the first comic, we thought that if we sold 200 copies that would be fantastic,” he admitted.
That’s due, in large part, to the fans that have never let go of the franchise and continue to introduce it to new generations. During his interview with GameSpot, Eastman spoke about those fans, the arrival of a female turtle, and collaborating with other creators–from Jim Henson to those in charge of the current show, Rise of the TMNT–to make sure the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise always stays true to its roots.
GameSpot: It’s 2019 and the Ninja Turtles have a crossover movie with Batman, Rise of the TMNT on Nickelodeon, a popular comic book, and toys that are still all over stores. When you and co-creator Peter Laird thought this idea up in a garage 25 years ago, did you have any idea it would have this lasting appeal?
Kevin Eastman: My goodness no. I always go back to the original [TMNT] comic that Peter [Laird] and I did. It really made me feel like it was a lot of things responsible for this longevity, but 99% of them are the fans, period. It’s just one of those things that whatever resonated initially back then is somehow still finding its way into that soft spot in fans today, 35 years later. When we did the first comic, we thought that if we sold 200 copies that would be fantastic and that would be great, and then we’d go on to the next thing.
The fact that it worked the first time, found its audience base and kids as toys and cartoons and all that stuff, and the movies, was fantastic. 20 years later, it found a new generation with the stuff that we’ve done, so every generation sort of had their version of the Turtles, right up to [Rise of the TMNT]. So to me, it goes back to the fans, in that I would say you can’t tell a child what’s cool and what’s not cool. They decide. And the fact that there’s still something about [Ninja Turtles] that people like is mind-blowing to me in every sense of the word.
GameSpot: The comic book movie genre is a very crowded space in 2019, but times were different back in 1990 when the original film was released. How involved did you get to be in adapting them for live-action back then?
Kevin Eastman: Well, we were very lucky. Our mentors and our inspirations–guys like Jack Kirby–not only did they not own [their creations], they didn’t participate in what was done with them in other types of entertainment [mediums]. So we knew how lucky we were [to have] owned and controlled all aspects of our characters, whether it be the comic series, the final design of the toys, the 300 cartoon episodes we worked on, [or] all those movies. We wanted full and complete say, so we had treatment approval, script approval, and we had final look of the Turtles approval.
Hollywood at the time, even then they were like, “Who do you think you are?” And we’re like, “We think we’re exactly who we are. We created these characters and it’s not that important for us to do a movie on your terms, but if you want to do a movie on our terms, we’re willing to have that discussion.” Luckily for us, before they thought we had big of egos and threw us out, we were really like, “Look, so we have a vision of what these characters need to look like.”
We saw too many of our favorite superhero movies ruined by people that thought they knew better than the fans that loved them in the first place. But Steve Barron came on as a director and he really loved the original black and white comics and he sort of rooted it based in reality of some of the early versions. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, that was a miracle that they came in. They’re the reason that they brought those characters to life and had them work as well as they did and it was just a perfect storm of Steve Barron, Todd Langen who wrote it, and Jim Henson that just made that movie a great movie that was good for all audiences.
That to me will always be the pinnacle of all sorts of entertainment, was that first movie.
GameSpot: As someone who grew up watching The Muppet Show, it’s so bizarre to think about you working with Jim Henson to come up with how these things look in live-action.
Kevin Eastman: Isn’t that crazy? It is. We’ve seen those movies [where] the costumes don’t work [and] you don’t buy into that world. You might go, “Look, I know it’s a person in a rubber suit.” I knew that stuff, but if you’re allowed to get past that, fully invested in that–especially for kids because they’re pretty smart anyway. But yeah, [Henson’s] work made it come to life.
GameSpot: For the franchise, that was a strange time, because you couldn’t look anywhere without having Ninja Turtles somewhere in your line of vision. There was even a concert tour. Are there any memories that stand out for you from that time of the popularity?
Kevin Eastman: Well there were several, and actually I quite liked the evolution of the Coming Out of Their Shells tour because it’s not Barney on tour or Disney on Ice–there was always these wonderful kid events. It was gauged as something that would be fun as a kid’s event. I loved how it evolved with the songs.
But I think you know back in those days–what we call it was the peak years of the Turtles–it might be at that time in ’91, ’92. I went to Paris to be part of the promotion for the first Turtle movie, but I just remember standing there the first time looking at the Eiffel Tower and going, “This is incredible!” But then seeing an advertisement for “Tortues Ninja,” the new Turtles movie coming out. So that was a weird sort of thing, being in such an amazing place, the names of all that I love and appreciate from art history. And here I am standing, looking at the Eiffel Tower with an ad for my characters next to it.
But there was so many other pleasant experiences or weird juxtaposition of things like that, but all [are] blessings, every single one of them. The things I’ve done and seen, the people I’ve met and I’ve traveled the world and get to meet fans from all over the world and it’s always the same. They just love their turtles and that’s changed my life. I can’t imagine what an amazing life I’ve had thanks to them.
GameSpot: Looking at other character designs, how involved do you get to be when it comes to developing the turtles for their various TV animation styles?
Kevin Eastman: Well like I said, in the early days we had full control for that work. But I sold my interest 15-plus years ago, so what’s been great is that although I have no final say, you have a wonderful company like Nickelodeon who wants to bring that original element of the creators back in. So they brought me in to consult on the series and I work on the comic books and they want my input. The thing is that they don’t have to have my input. They own it and control it but it’s their commitment to make it right, to make it good, but still keep the heart and soul back from the original creation.
So it’s been fantastic to see these different versions and work with guys like [Rise of the TMNT producers] Ant [Ward] and Andy [Suriano] or [producer] Ciro [Nieli] on the 2012 series because they’re all coming from the same sweet spot [that] these are characters that they’re invested in, that they love, and they want to tell great stories [about]. So they’re in really good hands already.
GameSpot: It was recently announced that the female character Jennika in the comics had become a mutant turtle. Some fans will certainly remember Venus from Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation. Will we see anything traits from that character makes their way into the Jennika character?
Kevin Eastman: Well what’s interesting is the difference–like Venus is now 20. That context is 20-something years old. It was 1997 when that came out. But now it’s a new spin. It was an interesting time because we were still in control but we were sharing the control with Haim Saban, and [he had] success with the Power Rangers. I’ll say a term as endearing as I can, the campiness of the Power Rangers is what made those [shows] so popular. So he wanted Turtles to take the turn more like a live-action cartoon as opposed to trying to find a balance. I think the resistance there came from the hardcore fans because that was the first version after the original animated series.
The fans were not happy. They didn’t like Venus as a character. It was sort of put in their face and the show was way too campy. I loved the series, I worked very hard on it. But it just didn’t resonate with the fans.
Congratulations to the creative team of #TMNT! Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #95 is now sold out at the distributor level and going to 2nd print! Until then, head over to your local comic shop and pick-up your copy…rumor has it there’s a huge cliff hanger! 👀🐢 pic.twitter.com/PjYdajBoIA
— IDW Publishing (@IDWPublishing) July 8, 2019
What was interesting when we evolved into the character Jennika–much like what Ciro’s approach to the 2012 series, Ant and Andy’s approach to the Rise–my focus is on the comic books with Tom Waltz and IDW and it’s always story first, story-centric. So when we introduce a character in Issue 51 named Jennika, we really like her and we knew that if the fans liked her as much as we did, she can continue as part of the family. She got more and more popular and so for about 30 issues we wanted to evolve her into this female turtle character.
We’ve been thinking about this for two-and-a-half years and planning it. And so we knew that because of her popularity and because of the same story-driven aspect that we said, people will buy because they’ve already bought into the story. They’re already fully invested in the characters and they love her as a character–to see her evolve organically to become this character instead of, “Hey we need to sell more issues. Here’s a girl turtle!” So it’s very story-centric and it has exceeded our hopes in that we hope that they would embrace her. We hope that they’ll like it because we have so much fun doing it and they go nuts so it’s been a great blessing.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.