It’s hard to believe that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles turned 35 this year. The first issue of the beloved comic created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird was published on May 5th 1984, and the adventures of those 4 martial art turtles named for Italian Renaissance artists quickly became a huge worldwide phenomenon.
“We never thought we’d sell,” admits Eastman when I chatted with him at Montreal Comiccon. “The fact that I’m still here, still drawing comic books off my original creation with Peter (Laird), is the biggest mind twist that you can imagine. I’m still making a living writing comics.”
Despite early success (the first issues had to be reprinted multiple times), it took a while for the duo to believe their creation had legs. “By the time we did issue two, we made enough money on that issue to pay for a couple of months’ rent,” recalls Eastman. “So at that point nothing could have been any better. That was the biggest moment for us.”
And it kept going. But Eastman and Laird still didn’t think they were in for the next 35+ years. “I think it was by the time the toys came out, the same year that the cartoon was a top-rated show,” he explains. “We were just like, alright, this is great. It’s going to last for a year, then it’s gonna fade away. But it kept going and it kept going. And then the first movie came. And so every time we thought it was going to end, it just kept going on. It was crazy.”
The original comic book was a smashing cult success, reaching maybe 100,000 readers by Eastman’s estimate. But the cartoon show reached millions of kids, bringing in new fans in massive numbers. But the comic was made for an older audience: in the first few issues, the Turtles kill Shredder, then spend many issues dealing with the guilt. It was also in black and white, a far cry from the colorful cartoon. Fortunately, it wasn’t a case of Hollywood grabbing a property and messing with it. “We had full control and full say over anything that was done with the Turtles”, says Eastman. “So we had final say on all of the first 300 cartoon shows, all the movies and all the toys.”
“The original version was written for us as an older audience. So we knew we were adapting it for four to six year old audience. We were never that heavy handed in the violence and the edginess, but it definitely was for an older audience. So adapting it and giving things like changing the headbands to different colors, things like that, so they would be more easily identifiable. It was a process, but it wasn’t a complicated one. We knew it was totally up to us, which was nice.” As it turns out, since most fans discovered the cartoon first, Eastman feels that as they grew older, they had the opportunity to move on to the more mature comic books and continue being fans instead of outgrowing the Turtles.
That long-lasting success has made Kevin Eastman a popular guest on the convention circuit. Even today, fans line up at his booth to meet him and have him sign their items. “This is my second time to Montreal Comiccon. We’re psyched and hopefully they’ll keep inviting us back. I grew up in Maine and we used to come up here when I was younger. (We’d) walk around and do the touristy thing; Montreal as a city is just a beautiful, beautiful place to be. And there is so much history. So it’s kind of like coming home to me. It’s actually special.”
Kevin Eastman is a really down to earth, friendly guy, who genuinely appreciates the opportunity to interact with fans. He’ll sign anything for free, only charging for subsequent items. “We travel all over the world. We were in St Petersburg last year, then we went to Mexico City, Argentina etc. But the fans are so freaking incredibly awesome. They are willing to wait in line! And I joke that I wouldn’t wait line to see me,” he adds with a laugh.
“They make my heart happy with their stories of their first experiences with the Turtles when they were kids and things like that. So that’s the consistent thing that’s always so beautiful: the fans are always the best.”
35 years on, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles still entertain fans of all ages, in comics, movies, cartoons or toys. Happy anniversary to Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello and Raphael. And to Kevin and Peter: thank you.