You might not know it to look at them, but the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aren't really teenagers anymore. Oh, sure, in the latest live-action Turtles movie, which hits Blu-Ray and DVD today, Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael are still teenage mutant ninja turtles. But 2014 is also the half-shell heroes' 30th birthday.
Today, the Turtles are everywhere: on TV and theater screens, in the toy aisle and video games, cowabungaing off backpacks and booyakashaing from the bottoms of skateboards. In 1984, though, co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird hoped to just get someone to read their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book. Eastman and Laird wrote and illustrated the first Turtles comic, self-published a little more than 3,000 copies, and got them to independent stores. The book sold out immediately, and the young comic creators set about coming up with new stories and adventures for their mutant heroes. A few years later, the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon hit the airwaves and toys flew off shelves, beginning a cultural phenomenon that has never stopped. Over the last 30 years, the Turtles have starred in four live-action movies, one animated movie, two animated TV shows, hundreds of comics books, and countless adventures created by kids all over the world.
To mark the release of the newest Turtles movie on home video, SI Kids spoke to Kevin Eastman about co-creating the Turtles, how faithful the new movie is to the characters, and why people still love the shell heads after so many years.
What's it like watching this movie knowing that 30 years after you and Peter created the characters?
Well, it's amazing that here I am 30 years after the first drawing and the first comic was done by Peter and I and that we're still talking about Turtles. We never thought we'd sell a single copy of the first issue of the book! The fact that we've had the comic series, the animated series, and have done the various versions of the Turtles over the years right up to the new movie [is amazing]. [The movie] was just an incredible blast to work on, from taking advantage of technology to feeding off of 20 or 30 years of Turtles history but then stripping it down to a basic story that keeps the heart and soul of what we originally created. And I think that [director] Jonathan Liebesman and [producer] Michael Bay did just a wonderful job at making that happen.
Yeah, I was going to ask where you thought this film fits in terms of the faithfulness of the original books. Is there anything specifically in the movie that jumps out, like, "This is something that would fit right in with the original books?"
In many ways I feel like what has been a constant in any version of the Turtles that we've done is the personalities. We want to make sure that the Turtles stay true to their original personalities, what they give off, especially from the early years when Pete and I were actually figuring out their personalities. So, keeping their origin story similar to what we originally created, the characters keeping the family aspect of their relationship as brothers being brought up by a surrogate parent, if you will, with Splinter, keeping Splinter true to form and being a proper dad who worries about his sons and his family. And so, to me, it was making sure the heart and soul was all there while we could sort of reset the foundation, if you will, to tell new stories with respect to the originals. We've done the same with the Nickelodeon animated series, what they've accomplished there, introducing new characters, bringing back past fan favorites, and very much the same for the new IDW [comic book] series I've been doing. It's, like, we've taken the same approach, feeding us 30 years of Turtles history, characters, and ideas, introducing new characters, and still keeping the heart and soul as true as we can to the original concept.
Generally speaking, what's your impression of how these characters have evolved — or mutated, maybe? — over these 30 years?
(laughs) That's a great way to say it. We grew up on the Incredible Hulk and how he mutated, and the Fantastic Four and how they mutated, and all these forms of mutation in superheroes have been loosely interpreted and widely varied throughout the years, and our version was much the same. It's like, Well, they get exposed to radioactive ooze from outer space and here you have mutant teenagers! So there was never any specific logic applied to it beyond comic book logic. Then it was loose enough that we've been able to define it a little bit and adapt it a little bit and add some creativity to it to push it and pull it a little bit. So it's fun to see how they've mutated through the different technologies, from the original animated series, which was traditional cel animation, to the 2007 computer-generated animated movie to now the Nickelodeon series and the new movie, which has taken advantage of every technology out there. It's just mind blowing to me. I'm just a simple guy that draws panel to panel at my desk at home alone, and then you look at what it takes to make a movie, not only good but a movie that's epic and it's mind blowing to me. It's a fantastic thing.
When the Turtles went from the first comics to the toys and cartoons, what was the reaction like from the fans who were into the books originally?
Oh, they were appalled. They were mortified. They hated us. We were selling around, like, 100,000 copies of the black-and-white comic at that time, and it was kind of always intended for a much older audience, mid-teens to later. The fact that we could turn it into a kids' concept, it was something that they just couldn't believe and felt that they'd been violated. And we felt sad and bad, but at the same time we liked the idea that as the creators of the property and owners of the property any version that was done of the Turtles, especially in the early days, from the cartoon series to the original movies and far beyond, Peter and I were in full control. We had full say and worked on them specifically. When we worked on the original animated series, we knew that we were fighting for a much younger audience. I mean, Pete came up with the idea for the different colored bandanas. We were heavily involved in every aspect of the different versions of the Turtles. And that's a blessing, and we knew that heroes of ours, like Jack Kirby and people who created so much of the Marvel Universe and the DC Universe, didn't have that good fortune. So we felt lucky we had control over our characters and we felt pretty special and we were very protective of it. These days, I don't own a part of the Turtles anymore and Pete doesn't either, but, you know, all these new versions of the Turtles that they're producing, they come back and they say, "Look, we want to make the Turtles as true as we can to the vision you originally had." And they'v been respectful and awesome and we've been involved in all the different aspects. And they certainly haven't needed to, but they've asked me to come back and really weigh in heavily on what they wanted to do and tell the best Turtles story they could.
The first-ever Turtles comic is dedicated to Jack Kirby and Frank Miller. Do you have any favorite moments or books from those creators, and did anything in specific from them influence that first run of the book?
Sure. Very specifically, Jack Kirby did a comic book called Kamandi, who was the last boy on Earth. And actually the first live-action movie I ever saw in my life was Planet of the Apes, my older sister took me to it. And Kirby's last boy on Earth… I grew up in a small town in Maine and I thought I was the last boy on Earth sometimes, and I loved what he did in terms of having animals ruling the Earth and doing the things that they did, that was one of my favorites. And it was reading that comic book that I literally decided, This is what I want to do for a living. I want to be a guy like Jack Kirby. I want to create these kinds of stories. I think that had a big influence. Animal characters had a big influence on the creation of the Turtles. And then Frank Miller, I remember I was a huge fan of Daredevil before issue 158 and they introduced a new penciler named Frank Miller and then watched for the next 30 issues as he completely, I think, changed the face of comics and comic storytelling and blew us all away. And so, not only Frank Miller's Daredevil but when he broke out and did Ronin. I thought that was incredibly creative and an ingenious concept pushing comic books into something that wasn't intended for kids at all but was intended for an older audience. Comics tend to be for all ages, so you don't have to grow out of comic books because they're written for a younger audience. You can grow with them. And it just reminded me really solidly that anything that I could imagine and whatever age I'm at, that I can tell a story in comic book form that relates to that, and that was super inspiring.
In the documentary Turtle Power, about the history of the Turtles, someone says, "People always reject what they don't understand." The Turtles are really popular with kids, and have been for a long time. What do you think it is about these characters that kids understand that maybe adults don't?
You know, we've looked at that so many times and so many different ways over the years. It really is such an innocent, heartfelt place that the Turtles spawn from, from Pete and I, but we feel like it's... Growing up, sometimes, can be very tough. You can feel outcast, you can feel separated from the different cliques, you can feel segregated — there are so many different things that we felt like [could apply to] the Turtles, who were no, say, race, creed, or color, if you will. They were four green, mutant turtles that just wanted to be teenagers. But at the same time, they have great respect for an elder, and I think a lot of young kids feel it's great to have direction and have someone supporting their efforts and someone to push the boundaries with. But the main thing, I feel, it's like every child and every adult, I think, when the chips are down, when things go bad, they want to be the person that steps up and is that Indiana Jones, that hero that saves the day, the person who does the right thing for the greater good. And as best as we can tell, those elements sort of rolled into this one storyline: turtles who want to be teenagers first, but when evil rears it's ugly head they do the right thing. I think that touches on the heart and soul of a lot of that. And I feel like, certainly with the new version, it's the humor. I think there's a lot of great humor in it. They're relatable. It doesn't single out anybody. [Kids] can relate to it in some fashion.
At the end of the day, man, I don't know, but I love it. (laughs) It's fantastic that they do! It's amazing that 30 years later... My wife and I did the 30th anniversary tour all over the United States, all over the world, and no matter what language they spoke, the love from the young kids and what they see in the Turtles is pure and it's simple and they just enjoy them. And that, to me, is humbling and honoring and very heartfelt. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I love it. I think it's super awesome.
Photos: Paramount Pictures (Turtles), DC Comics (Kamandi), Marvel Comics (Daredevil)