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A Life In Comics: Kevin Eastman Interview

One evening in 1984, Kevin Eastman and his friend Peter Laird brainstormed the idea of a team of martial arts turtles after Eastman sketched a turtle wearing a mask and wielding martial arts weapons. Drawing upon the comics of the past and the 1984-present, they created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles… their homage to everything they liked about comics, including the works of Jack Kirby and more specifically, Frank Miller’s Daredevil.

35 years later, the TMNT (as their mile-long moniker was shortened to) are a worldwide phenomenon… toys, cartoons, live-action movies. And for their co-creator, Kevin Eastman, its been a long, strange, and wonderful trip indeed. Drawing upon his long history in the comics biz, and his own personal experiences shepherding the TMNT from cult indie sensation to household names, Kevin has launched his own publishing company, Kevin Eastman Studios, to tell his story… sort of.

Drawing Blood: Spilled Ink (MAR191847) draws upon Eastman’s own personal history to tell a very similar story to that of his own… early years, the creation of a cult-hit comic book with a very long title, and the subsequent events that follow the explosion of that creation’s popularity. Kevin was kind enough to sit down and talk about this new series and its companion one-shot, the Radically Rearranged Ronin Ragdolls (MAR191849)!

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PREVIEWSworld: What was the first comic you remember copying from as a kid as you learned to draw?

Kevin Eastman: Kamandi! Used to trace panel after panel trying to learn how to draw like Jack Kirby. I loved all kinds of comics when I first discovered them – seven or eight-years-old, I believe. I liked some superheroes, quickly gravitating to the more “grounded” concepts, Captain America, Daredevil, and Batman for some reason… but really got into War comics. Russ Heath’s Sgt. Rock, John Severin’s The Losers, Haunted Tank, and Weird War Stories. But the life-changing work for me was Jack Kirby’s DC Comics period, especially Kamandi. Planet of the Apes was the first film I remember seeing in an actual movie theater — the inspiration for Kamandi — and growing up in a really tiny town in Maine, I often felt like I “was” the Last Boy on Earth — surrounded by mutant animals!

PREVIEWSworld: What was the comic shop landscape like in the early 80s when you published your first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

Kevin Eastman: Different in many ways, the same in others — comparing the range of quality from a “Mom and Pop”-style comic store to a more professional run one. The stores I went to in the early ’80s were more like the first — Mom and Pop-ish, usually owned and operated by a serious “collector” who discovered the Direct Market and found a way to make a very basic living following that passion. They felt and smelled like a good-sized comic book flea market, jammed into a small dusty old “Just off Main Street” shop. I loved the smell of a classic old store (seriously).

One of my favorite memories from this period was riding around with Peter Laird on New Comic Day, sometimes hitting a few different semi-shops looking for new releases that might have been sold-out in one shop, so you raced to another to track it down, or to flip through back-issue bins for a better copy of a book you might have read to death when you were younger, and wanted a fresher version of it.

PREVIEWSworld: What inspired/motivated you to think you could publish your own comic?

Kevin Eastman: A variety of things all seemed to intersect at the same time. Discovering artists like Richard Corben and Vaughn Bodé in Heavy Metal Magazine led me to their underground/self-published works — and the discovery of how many other artists out there that didn’t want to be in the mainstream comics business. They loved the medium but didn’t want to give up the rights and control of their creations… people like Dave Sim with Cerebus and Wendy Pini with Elfquest, to name just a few of my favorites.

When Peter and I created the TMNT, we felt this was the direction that made the most sense to us, besides, we didn’t think it would ever go past a single-issue event, so we scraped together what little money we had, and presented a business plan/loan repayment plan to my Uncle Quentin Eastman, who loaned us the $1,200 we needed to get it printed.

PREVIEWSworld: How important was publicity to the initial success of the first TNMT magazine?

Kevin Eastman: Very! I knew we at least needed to try and get some type of coverage and budgeted for the cost of one paid full-page ad in the Comics Buyer’s Guide as part of our business proposal to my uncle, as we were only offering it as a “mail-order item” at that time. Pete however, had a much bigger plan in mind. He felt we really needed to send out a bunch of press releases, with images, to a media mailing list (I think he scored it from the library) and make it sound like a really big deal and see if anyone bit. A shotgun blast approach, but it worked! A local reporter ended up doing a little feature in the “Around Town” section of the paper, it ended up going out on the AP service and suddenly we were getting copies of articles from different small-town newspapers all over the country, as well as mail orders for the book!

PREVIEWSworld: In your new comic Radically Rearranged Ronin Ragdolls you’re writing heroes from a different era’s perspective. How do they differ from the TMNT and how are they similar?

Kevin Eastman: It’s a “Chicken and Egg” thing really. The Drawing Blood series is inspired by and exists completely in the world of comics as we know it — it’s “our” world, and everyone in it, including myself, is part of it. Much like the TMNT’s were built upon, inspired by, and parodied everything that had come before it/or popular in 1984, co-creator David Avallone and I wanted to have our series star, Shane Bookman, inspired by Eastman and Laird, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and some of the other twenty odd “adjective, adjective, adjective, noun” titles from the late ’80s like the Adolescent Radioactive Black-Belt Hamsters, but set it in the early ’90s just as the Image Comics juggernaut launched.

So, our approach to RRRR was to re-create a straightforward, inspired, heartfelt 1992-era homage/parody of all things that had come before it, by a kid who wanted to follow in the footsteps of the giants that came before him. We wanted the passion Shane had as a kid — reading, tracing, and drawing his own comics — feel like it was poured into this origin issue. It is the foundation book to what happens in the overall Drawing Blood series, and it is all that and more. I LOVE the book!

David and I wrote the story, I did the layouts, and David’s script is perfect! The incredible Tomi Varga did the colors — but Troy Little knocked it out of the park and then some. He put SO much into it, and I could not be prouder!

PREVIEWSworld: The meta interplay between the graphic novel Drawing Blood and the comic series Radically Rearranged Ronin Ragdolls is unique, and has a strong autobiographical vibe. How much of yourself is in these characters?

Kevin Eastman: The concept for what would become the RRRR, as well as Drawing Blood, evolved for me, in a collection of sketchbook diaries I noodled in for ten years or so. I originally had a series of different ideas for anthropomorphic characters/stories I wanted to do, but felt most of the ideas worked better as straight up TMNT ideas and found the story of the creator(s) behind the creation MUCH more interesting. The diaries followed suit as I jotted down lots of personal experiences as well as tons more told to me over the years by other notables in the industry — usually in a group setting while at a Hotel Bar after a Comic Convention.

The idea of who this creator is, a guy dealing with the aftermath of a very brutal downslide to overnight success and looking for a comeback, was just coming into focus when I met writer David Avallone, twice — in Hotel Bars after Comic Conventions! David and I clicked on so many levels, and after a long session of sharing ideas, I brain-dumped my concept “On the Shoulders of Giants”, and we both knew what we were working on next.

David not only brilliantly made sense of years of insane notes and ramblings in the diaries, he also suggested the official series title, “Drawing Blood”. But it has evolved so much farther than I could have imaged. So much so that David is officially the “co-creator” of this intertwined project, and also wrote all of the beautiful final scripts.

How much of it is autobiographical? is a question frequently asked, and easy-ish to answer. We knew we liked some of my personal experiences to be a loose foundation — but my path with the TMNT is not a wholly original one. Overnight success musicians, athletes, actors, etc., have fallen into some of the same pitfalls. What we wanted to create was a fictional character we could pour all these shared experiences into — with a ton of wiggle room to tell dramatic and interesting stories. I’ll tell people when they ask, “So this is all you?” and I tell them, “By page 6 of issue #1, our lead character is in a gunfight… and I have never been in a gunfight!”

I also need to point out here, among all the things David and I dreamed about for this series and where we wanted to take it (and plan to take it in the future), we had to find the right artist to bring it to life, and we did… Ben Bishop. Not only a native of the great state of Maine like myself, “HE” brought this to life. Brilliant on every level, this kid can really, like REALLY draw! An independent, self-publishing quickly-rising star, his energy is infectious and we are so fortunate to have him as part of this series! Ben is the main series artist, Troy little inks Ben’s pages here and there for some of the hallucination scenes, and I ink some of his pages for the flashbacks. A truly unique and wild ride I think fans of all genres, especially comics, will completely dig.

David Avallone, Ben Bishop, and Kevin Eastman

PREVIEWSworld: Looking back on the success of the TMNT and the journey they sent you on, what lessons have they taught you?

Kevin Eastman: All of them really. Everything. Considering that at a very young age, all I ever wanted to do was to write and draw comics, and by the age of 21 or 22 the dream of doing it for a living, for both Peter and I, for as long as it lasted, had come true. I am 56 now, and after I finish this interview, I’m going to go back to my drawing board and work on wrapping on the latest cover for the IDW TMNT ongoing series — we’re going to hit issue #100 this year, and even I am on the edge of my seat with what’s happening in the recent issues — and I am still living that incredible dream. Thanks to the support of so many fans and my family, I get up, every day, and draw for a living.

The life lessons have been epic and awesome as well as heartbreaking and destructive, but I think that is the normal course of life for all of us, and the unexpected places it will take you — embrace them. I feel I have been more blessed than I deserve, and could not be more grateful for the life I have been given. If I had one piece of advice for anyone — if you have a friendship, a real one, creatively or otherwise — respect it and protect it — they don’t come around often, and you’ll miss them if they go away.

PREVIEWSworld: Which creators in any medium inspire you today?

Kevin Eastman: Holy smokes! That’s a loaded question! I am an EPIC fan of… everything?! There are FAR too many creators working in comics, film, and TV, writers, directors, and actors past and present that have, and continue to inspire, everything that I do. Every day. It’s really hard to create a number one, or a top ten, or even a top one hundred...

BUT, with respect to all of them, especially the support team at IDW and Nickelodeon, I would like to single out one guy as a true inspiration — Tom Waltz, co-creator/writer of the IDW ongoing TMNT series. Naturally gifted, I find his storytelling style personally compelling and brilliant. As a visionary that needs to balance a variety of respectable input, yet still create a monthly book to call his own — a tale you want to read again as soon as you finish, and curse the 30 days you have to wait until the next issue — that is all Tom.

By the end of 2019, he will have written 100 TMNT issues, a true legacy — if you haven’t yet, ALL TMNT fans should really read this series!

See variant covers from the new Kevin Eastman Studios titles here!

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