EXCLUSIVE: Eastman Draws the Ninja Back in "Ninja Turtles"

After a well-received return to interior pencils for "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Annual 2012," Kevin Eastman again returns to draw the massively popular characters he co-created with Peter Laird in IDW Publishing's ongoing "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" #21 this April.

In a short two years, the IDW "TMNT," co-written by Eastman and Tom Waltz, has established itself as a worthy incarnation of the long-running "TMNT" saga, earning plaudits from critics and fans alike. Now, fresh off a dimension-hopping story-arc that saw the four mutant martial artists taking on alien superfiend General Krang, the Turtles are going to get their egos taken down a notch in a rare issue featuring full pencils by Eastman.

Eastman recently spoke with Comic Book Resources about "TMNT" #21 and his return to doing full pencils for an issue of the monthly title. Eastman discussed taking the Turtles down a peg in issue #21, what his relationship with "TMNT" co-creator Peter Laird is like today, teased what fans can expect from producer Michael Bay and director Jonathan Liebesman's upcoming "Ninja Turtles" movie and more.

CBR News: Kevin, what can readers expect to see go down in "TMNT" #21?

Kevin Eastman: Well, Peter [Laird] and I only really did 16 issues together. That was the foundation of the original work we did. We knew so little about martial arts in those days. You used to hear in the early days of the conventions, 'Oh Ninja Turtles? You guys must be black-belts right?' and we were like, 'Uhh, if that includes watching Bruce Lee movies than yeah, we're black belts!'

The more I learned, in later years, about martial arts and the depth of disciplines and all that stuff, the more I always thought it'd be great to have the Ninja Turtles go through some additional training and get a greater understanding of their craft.

As I learned more about martial arts, I became a big fan of Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do philosophy. He mastered multiple martial arts so he could apply different styles to different combatants. That was what I mentioned to Tom [Waltz], that at some point it'd be great to have a long-running story that continued the Turtles' growth in martial arts.

So what we want to do is starting off with issue #21, just coming off this really awesome arc of the Turtles' off world that was a really universe-expanding war with Krang. So when they get back to Earth, I thought it'd be a great place to have them springboard in to this other type of story. They're attacked by an assassin in issue #21 which kind of sets-up the amount of skill they still don't know.

It shows that they're still Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Any good martial artist will tell you that they never stop learning and they never stop training. So we're setting up a reason for them to re-train and continue the rest of their training. That's spread over multiple issues leading up to what we hope will be another "Turtles" annual this fall.

I had an incredible time last year doing [the 2012 annual]. It was the longest "Turtles" story I've done. It was a 60-page story that I co-wrote with Tom and did all the artwork on. That was literally, out of nearly 30 years, the longest "Turtles" story I'd ever done all on my own, if you will, because Tom still helped me with the writing.

The last "Turtles" big story I worked on [before that] was a story called "Body Count" that I did with Simon Bisley that came out in 1996. I hadn't worked on a lengthy, sequential Turtles story since then. Artistically, I'd never done one at this length. I'd forgotten how much I still needed to learn as an artist and about drawing.

Also, I realized I generally missed drawing and missed drawing the Turtles, in particular. I forgot how much enjoyment I got out of it; the "Turtles" was the first comic book I really ever did besides short stories and mini-comics.

The whole experience leading up to issue #21, all the co-plotting and breakdowns and drawing, has been an awesome journey.

You said the Turtles have been taking their status as ninja experts for granted in the series so far. Does that mean the Turtles will be taken down a peg in issue #21?

That was essentially what we wanted to do. What I suggested is that they have a lot of skill but they're mutants so we assume their abilities are above those of normal humans, but that requires you to assume a lot.

When Tom designed the new IDW "Turtles" universe, which has taken parts from the original "Turtles" black and white series, parts of the animated series and bits and pieces of the movies rolled in to one to make this new universe, the new origin story for the Turtles was that they were boys who were killed by the original Shredder back in feudal Japan. They were still very, very young, and whether they're mutant turtles or young boys, they still haven't completed their journey.

I felt that there was a great opportunity that tapped into, again, stuff that I thought about back in the beginning of the original "Turtles" series going back to almost the first issues, and that's that it'd be great to continue their training. The more I learned about martial arts stuff, the more I thought we could apply a lot more realism and things.

So that's exactly what issue #21 is designed to do: take them down a peg. Ground them a bit more in the realities of real martial arts abilities and technical abilities and things. The general public is a lot smarter in those areas now, anyways, just thanks to movies and other things. They're used to seeing a lot higher level of skill thanks to things like "The Matrix."

To readers who haven't read issues #1-20 of the IDW "TMNT" series, how recognizable is the team if you're only familiar with the animated series or the films?

I think people will be very, very comfortable with our continuity. What I liked about what Tom proposed, and what Nickelodeon did as well, was that it allowed the Turtles to have the same attitudes and level of edge that the original black and white comics had right from issue #1. There's definitely Mike, Leo, Donny and the mannerisms and personalities, the joking around, the buddy comedy. It's all there.

It's very familiar in that sense and then you'll see very familiar characters like Krang. Krang grew out of the original aliens from [1984's "Turtles"] issues #3, #4, #5 and #6. So to see somebody like Krang brought in as a villain is familiar and people who know Krang from the cartoon will recognize him from that. Characters like Slash, who was a mutant turtle who appeared as Tokka in movie #2 ["The Secret of the Ooze"] but also appeared in the original black and white comics. So there is familiarity. Also the lair, all those elements. They're all there.

What I do like is that IDW has carefully crafted four-issue arcs so that even if you came in, say, on issue #21, and didn't read the last four issues, those past stories wrapped up so you could jump in on issue #21 and not miss a beat. But I like to think you'd like to go back and read the other stuff, because it's a fantastic arc and a fantastic journey.

After "TMNT" #21, a big seven-part "TMNT" epic titled "Cityfall" begins in issue #22. What can you tell readers about "Cityfall?"

Well, you know it's... [Pauses]

I'm trying to be careful, because sometimes I don't want to ruin something I shouldn't. I wish I could tease you, I wish I could say more, but they've asked me to be quiet and I'm going to be quiet right now. I'd love to come back and talk to you about it again later, though.

I'll tell you again that what's been fun about this series is the amount of flexibility and support that Nickelodeon has given us, who at the end of the day are the owners. Viacom [who owns Nickelodeon] really owns the Turtles. They are the people who have been approving what can and can't be done and they've really been giving the guys, Tom and IDW and myself, a lot of rope to take it places. The first issue of the "Turtles," two years ago, featured Casey getting beat up by his alcoholic dad. The places they've allowed us to take it [creatively] has just been fantastic. It shows their support for a property that means the most to the fans who we're writing it for.

We're writing it for the hardcore fans, but I think it's actually finding a lot of new fans nearly 30 years since I drew the first Turtle and Peter and I did the first issue. It's crazy that I'm even having this conversation with you now, you know what I mean? [Laughs]

I know what you mean. I'm 30, and I literally grew up with the Turtles so it's crazy I'm having this conversation with you right now, too.

Fantastic! It's a huge honor to me that I've been doing a lot of shows, now that my kids are a little bit older, and I've been to about a show a month this year and I get out there and I'm just blown away by the amount of fans who are turning up and saying 'hi' and 'thanks.' Guys like yourself who have been fans since the early days, who a lot of times are now bringing their kids with them and their kids are enjoying the new series.

"TMNT" #21 starts the Turtles re-training after years of battling villains in the field. Your own career has a parallel there because you started out as a young new artist thrust in to the limelight when you first created "TMNT;" you said yourself it was your first full-length comic book. How have your own abilities grown over the past 30 years in the field? Have you ever had to re-train as well?

That's a great question and I think that I wear my influences firmly on my sleeve. It's funny because through the years I had done comic book art and I had done loads and loads of storyboards, whether it was laying out "Fistful of Blood" or "Melting Pot" or "Lost Angeles" or stuff that I did with Simon [Bisley] or working on some movie projects, personal and otherwise, and I had developed a looseness in my style. Going back to doing finished comic art again, I pulled out my Jack Kirby "Kamandis," which are my favorite books.

I also always had a big thing for Frank Miller, by far. Certainly for layout, pacing and style [Miller] is one of those guys. I was a huge fan of "Daredevil" when Gene Colan was doing it and Bob Brown and these artists and I still remember clearly when the new guy came in on issue #158. The rest of the world was completely blown away by what he did over the next 30 issues or so, and I actually went back and pulled them out to re-learn some of the things I learned back in the day. I had to do re-training, myself.

That's what I think has been the most fun, the technical process of going back and finishing a page, laying out a page. Wanting to be creative and be inspired and be touched by the creations that got my juices flowing back in the day and made me want to make comic books for a living. To be that excited about it 30 years later, finding that joy, that happy, that sweet spot.

Not much else has changed. Pencils are the same and erasers are the same, but finding the joy in it again was the awesome part.

Now that you're back co-plotting and penciling occasional issues, do you plan on staying with the IDW "TMNT" series for the long haul?

To be honest, nothing would please me more. As long as they'll have me, I'd love to stay on-board. Like I said, I sort of teed-up this particular issue #21 in hopes that people would really like it, and I'd like to do another annual for this fall.

As far as doing covers and being part of the team that's putting these books together every month, I'd love to stay on-board. It's great to be re-inspired and re-engaged, as well as getting IDW to do my next series for them, which is called "Lost Angeles." It's a six-issue series created by Simon Bisley and myself. Simon did all the finished covers and we co-created the character and I wrote the script. I'm going to be penciling and inking that, and we still have to find a colorist. Hopefully that will be out later this year.

But the "Turtles" for sure, 100%, I'd love to stay on-board for as long as they'll have me. I'm having a great time.

What's "Lost Angeles" all about? What other non-"TMNT" projects do you have coming up?

We announced ["Lost Angeles"] at San Diego last year. It was originally set that I would start on it in 2012 and be working on it this spring with the first issue out by Comic-Con International.

But between the ["TMNT"] annual that was originally only 48 pages, the wrap-around covers for the large collections that IDW does, doing all the behind-the scenes stuff for them, getting involved in the "Secrets of the Foot Clan" series which I did covers for, this issue #21, which we were spit-balling late last summer and was originally going to be something else before eventually turning in to me doing all the interior art as well as the art for the ["TMNT"] annual this fall, "Lost Angeles" keeps getting nudged aside. Not for any one reason, but I'm just having too much fun doing "Turtles" right now. But "Lost Angeles" is definitely the top of my list when it's ready to go as soon as I clear the decks of other things.

Then there's my own, 100% lock, stock and trademark, "Heavy Metal Magazine," which had their 35th anniversary last year and the company is going through a number of changes. It's a small company, and ["Heavy Metal"] is an ongoing. We do six issues a year plus some other projects.

Robert Rodriguez is doing a new animated "Heavy Metal" movie that we started about a year ago. Timing wise, we want to start production on that this year.

Have you gotten any feedback from your "TMNT" co-creator Peter Laird about your work on the IDW "TMNT" series?

Peter and I exchange e-mails every couple of months, depending on schedules and what he's got going on and what I've got going on, but we kinda keep the creative discussions out of it. When he was doing his own thing with Mirage, we really didn't talk much about what he was doing specifically and I think with the new [IDW] series I haven't heard very much, either. I sent him some of the digital comics that IDW sent me, though. He never commented one way or the other, though, and I never really asked. I'm sure if he had something to say, he'd say it.

We have a nice relationship and I'm happy we have a relationship. The Turtles wouldn't be the Turtles without Peter Laird. He's been nothing but a good friend to me over the years and that's pretty awesome. You have very few friends in this world and it's great to count Peter as one of them.

But creatively it's funny because Peter and I were working 24/7 with each other on the original series, which ran roughly 16 issues with the stuff that we did, and I remember in 1987 or 88 when the cartoon show launched we went from spending 90% of our time being creative and 10% of our time on business to the complete opposite the next year. It became 90% of the time taking care of our property and our characters. Which I'm not complaining about in any sense and neither is [Peter].

We're lucky because the giants whose shoulders we stood on never really had that opportunity to own and control their own characters like we did. We felt pretty honored that we had that, but I think that along the way we ended up staying married because of the kids, because if we were awake we were working on "Turtles" stuff and creating quite a business. I think that takes quite a toll on any relationship, creative or otherwise.

It's nice, after all these years, to just be back to 'How's the wife and kids?' with him.

You're also working on the new "Ninja Turtles" movie that Michael Bay is producing. How's that going? Can fans expect the IDW "TMNT" status quo to start inching closer and closer toward whatever continuity the film will use?

One of the things that's awesome about the relationship I've had with Platinum Dunes and Michael Bay and Jonathan Liebesman and some of the producers, Scott Mednick and Galen Walker on the series, is that it's probably amusing to a lot of people what the press puts out there and what they say people behind the scenes really want to do with the movie, but [Platinum Dunes'] main goal is actually to make the best possible "Turtles" movie with respect to the fans and the core audience as possible.

We've learned from movies like "The Avengers," which to me was a superhero movie so good to me personally that I practically wept. It was perfect, you know what I mean? That's the stuff that I grew up on. Joss Whedon just knocked it out of the park, the whole team did, and that includes choreographing all the interlocking movies.

From everything that I've seen in the ["TMNT"] script and the development and everything they've asked my input on specifically, it's gonna be an awesome, familiar, solid "Turtles" movie. It'll have everything that fans are gonna want and then some.

Much like you look at what they're doing at Nickelodeon with the new animated series, it's all based solidly on the "Turtles" foundation, but they've hit the reset button. They've taken it back to the first episode, with the Turtles first time above ground after many years of training with Master Splinter. They're making a "Turtles" origin that is firmly rooted in "Turtles" history, but a slight tweak here and a slight tweak there. It's been enjoyable and the IDW series is much the same, in that it's firmly rooted in "Turtles" history, but multiple "Turtles" universes.

I think Tom put together such a great tapestry. I think you'll see some of that with the movie. It'll touch on that same "Turtles" foundation, that same 30 years of "Turtles" history, so you can just pick and choose parts that you like but still keep it firmly rooted in "Turtles" history.

When we did the first movie with [director] Steve Barron back in 1990, it was a perfect hybrid of what Peter and I were doing with the original black and white series and what we were doing in the animated series, like with April being a news reporter. Issue #2 of [1984's] "Turtles" she was a scientist. Then in the IDW series she was a scientist again. Everything's there and everything can be traced back to the original group.

I think everybody's going to be pleased with what the movie's going to be and I hope we can pull stuff from there in to the "Turtles" universe, although I think in a lot of ways it's already there in the IDW series.

"TMNT" #21, by Kevin Eastman and Tom Waltz, hits shelves April 24 from IDW Publishing.

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