For the past 35 years, comic book artist, publisher and Supa-Star guest Kevin Eastman has been living his dream, getting to “wake up every morning and draw comics”.
As a kid who “grew up as a fan of all that sci-fi, pop-culture stuff: Star Trek, the Twilight Zone, Batman or comic books”, it was a late-night spent drawing with his comic collaborator and fellow artist Peter Laird, which would see the creation of four unlikely heroes in a half-shell that would change his life forever.
“And so one night, Peter and I were working in a studio… and I thought to myself, if Bruce Lee was an animal, because I was a big Bruce Lee fan, what would be the silliest animal Bruce Lee would be?” Eastman begins.
“A slow-moving turtle was the natural joke, and I laughed. So I did the sketch of a turtle kind of standing upright, and he had nunchucks strapped to him and a mask on and stuff, and I dubbed it a ‘ninja turtle’ and both Peter and I laughed.
“Steadily we both together developed it into a group of turtles, four with different personalities. And the first book tells the entire story about how they got to be the Teenage Ninja Turtles that we self-published in 1984.”
As a life-long devotee of pop culture and an enormous comic book fan himself, that first origin story they told also paid homage to another superhero origin story — that of Marvel’s blind lawyer-turned vigilante Matt Murdock a.k.a. Daredevil, Eastman’s own “number one favourite” character.
“We ripped it off enough that Marvel probably should have sued us, but didn’t,” he says.
“I always thought it was funny that in the Daredevil origin there was a truck carrying radioactive nuclear waste… [it] hit young Matt Murdock in the eyes, which took away his sight, but helped him enhance his powers and stuff. In Daredevil they never said what happened to the cannister, so our story we kind of decided to have it continue bouncing down the street, and that was sort of our stuff’s origin for the Turtles.
“With respect to Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil… Stick was a mentor of Daredevil’s, and our homage to Stick was Splinter. The Hand was the evil Foot Clan in Daredevil, we came up with the Foot, there was many different homages. Luckily, you know, we didn’t get sued.”
It did not take long after that very first issue hit the shelves, which was independently published by Eastman and Laird thanks to a small loan they had secured from Eastman’s uncle, that the two creators knew they were onto something big, and had breathed mutagenic life into four fighting reptiles which would spawn a pop-culture phenomena beloved by young and old alike for over three and a half decades.
“We put together a business plan and we sort of sourced a loan for about $1,200 from a very understanding uncle of mine, Uncle Quentin,” he recalls.
“When we put the first issue out we said, well hopefully we can pay the $1,200 loan back over a period of a couple of years because we weren’t sure how many copies we’d sell at all. But the fans responded to that first run of 3,000 copies and we sold out within a couple of weeks. So not only were we able to pay the loan back, we were able to print another 6,000 and the orders kept coming in.
“And the second issue we sold 15,000 copies of and we felt like, holy smokes, we have something we can actually make a living off by just drawing comic books, which was my childhood dream.”
There was a time, however, when the awesome foursome may have actually been named Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Bernini. A self-proclaimed “textbook geek” and lover of classical art, when the time came for Eastman and Laird to name their creations, the first three names came easily, but it took them some time to finally settle on the fourth name of Donatello.
“Standard American names: Doug, Bob, Steve doesn’t seem right, and I just blurted out, ‘How about we call one the Leonardo, and another one Michelangelo and another one Raphael?’ And Peter just fell on the floor laughing… then we had a two-week discussion about deciding about Donatello and Bernini, as in the sculptor. I loved Donatello, but I loved Bernini better, but Peter liked the fact that Donatello ended in an ‘O’, like Michelangelo and Leonardo, so it was a coin tosser… So Donatello, who was also named Bernini, became Donatello, which I think was a wise choice in the end.”
Years later, and Eastman is still heavily involved and very hands-on in producing the ongoing Turtles comics, and is both incredibly humbled and thankful for what he considers some of the world’s best and most loyal fans and the opportunities their support has provided him.
In 2016, with the big screen Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Eastman was even given the chance to channel his own inner-Stan Lee by having a brief cameo appearance in the fifth live-action film adaptation of his creations. Though, by his own admission, “Stan Lee did it better” and Eastman would much rather spend his time drawing comics than find himself in front of a movie camera, and is happy to admit that he “can’t act [his] way out of a paper bag”.
As for the Turtles’ future going forward, if ever presented with the opportunity Eastman would most like to see the foursome come face-to-face with the characters which helped inspire their own origins. Having already undergone some major crossover events throughout their time (including most recently with Gotham City’s Dark Knight in a comic run illustrated by fellow 2020 Supa-Star Freddie Williams II), when asked about which potentials cross over events he would like to see, he was quick to answer:
“Going back to the Daredevil crossover, the inspiration, a Turtles/Daredevil would just be a dream come true for me as a bucket list kind of thing. But also going back further from Daredevil, is also another of my favourite comics that Jack Kirby created called Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth, which is very much a play on a Planet of the Apes concept where talking animals rule the Earth… and was also a very big influence on the creation of the Turtles. So I think a Turtles/Kamandi or Turtles/Daredevil would be a very big thing for me.”
For those who would look to follow in Eastman’s own footsteps, and break into the world of comic books, “with life today, whether you’re in school, you have a regular job, or have a family, you have things… it’s hard to find the time to be creative, but if you’re into sports, or if you’re into music, or into comics, writing or drawing, or any or all of the above, carve out, even if its as simple as 30 minutes a day to work on your craft, and work on it and push it further. Because it’s worth it, not to let that dream go… keep the faith.”
Kevin Eastman will be greeting “the best fans in the world”, and is keen to talk all things comics and Turtles, this March at Supanova Melbourne (March 6-8) and Gold Coast (March 13-14). Cowabunga! Specialty Passes are on sale now via Moshtix, and include a limited edition print created and signed by the man himself, along with fellow Supa-Stars Freddie Williams II and Jon Sommariva.