It’s Friday and everything is not normal because I’m talking to Kevin Eastman, the co-creator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
“It’s like a virus – a very good virus,” Eastman said about the enduring fandom over the anthropomorphic reptiles. “Thirty years after the first issue came out – not only are [the Ninja Turtles] remaining topical, but it’s just something that they’ve had the life that they had and the continuation of the life that they had . It’s fantastic.” His voice is full of awe, as if he can’t believe he or the Ninja Turtles are where they are now.
Out of the Shadows
TMNT are four bipedal mutant turtles made from radioactive goo. Each turtle is named after a renaissance master artists: Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello. The Turtles’ sensei is a mutated rat named Splinter. They fight all crime and evil, but their primary antagonist is the Shredder, a feudal Japanese warlord who controls the Foot, an ancient order of ninjas. Splinter and Shredder's beef is centuries old.
In the current comic run, the Turtles and Splinter are genetic experiments created by bioengineering firm Stockgen. The Foot break into Stockgen to steal an alien mutagen but things go wrong and the Turtles and Splinter are exposed to the substance and are mutated.
Splinter and the Turtles are reincarnations of Hamato Yoshi and his sons. Yoshi lived in Feudal, Japan and was a member of the Foot Clan. He opposed commander Oroku Saki and was branded a traitor. Yoshi's wife was murdered, but he saved his sons for few years. Saki found them eventually and forced Yoshi to watch his children's' decapitations before being executed. Mysticism and some alien mutagen grant Saki immortality. His niece resurrects him and he becomes the Shredder.
From starving artists to successful geeks
Eastman and Peter Laird created the Turtles in 1983. They were struggling artists and roommates in Northampton, Massachusetts. One night, Eastman drew a turtle with a mask and nunchucks, labeled it “Ninja Turtle” and Laird – digging the joke – drew a better version. Eastman responded with a sketch of four turtles armed with ninja weapons. Laird added the final touch: “Teenage Mutant” to “Ninja Turtles.” Laird and Eastman self published and produced a Turtles one-shot, and it was a hit.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles turned into a pop culture phenomenon. Besides a continued presence in comics, there have been four live-action movies, with another, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” releasing June 3. There are TMNT toothbrushes, towels and Chia pets. Toys have consistently been pumping out since the ’80s, and there is still an ongoing cartoon series on Nickelodeon.
“Mostly, my hands-on direct input is on the Turtles IDW comic series,” Eastman said. Head writer Tom Waltz and head editor Bobby Kirnau spearhead the monthly. “We brainstorm ideas and directions and places we want to take the comic series. I still do a cover for every single issue. I just finished up the cover art for issue 60.”
The IDW Ninja Tutles comic debuted in 2011.
“[Tom Waltz] came up with a new foundation that we can build stories on,” Eastman said. “He grew up reading the original black and white comics, watching the original movies and cartoon show. He picked out his favorite parts and created a new universe, keeping the tonality and edge that the original comics had.”
To define edge – in the recent arc, nerdy but brave Ninja Turtle Donatello was ambushed and beaten to near death. His consciousness was downloaded into a robot turtle while the ooze that created the Turtles in the first place healed his original body.
“I feel like we write and work on all these stories for ourselves,” Eastman said. “We do that first, and we’ve been very lucky that it’s resonated with the fans.”
Mutants in Manhattan
This summer, game publisher Activision and development studio Platinum Games will release “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan” on PC, PlayStation 3 and 4, Xbox One and 360. That marks the 23rd Ninja Turtle arcade and home video game that goes as far back as 1989 with the Nintendo Entertainment System.
The new third-person game is online, but no local co-op gameplay feature been confirmed. Each Turtle has unique strengths and weaknesses, and players can switch seamlessly between the four during combat to create mega Ninja face-bashing combos. Past TMNT games were more street-level and ground based, but in "Mutants in Manhattan," the Turtles can scale walls, roof hop and explore NYC. Games and entertainment company IGN have released footage of the game.
“Mutants in Manhattan” is based on the current IDW comic series storyline, but will have its own unique flavor and storyline.
“The IDW universe is grittier,” Eastman said. “It’s intended for more of an older audience, more like the classic original audience of the Turtles where the comic stories have more of a tooth to them – more of an edge."
Also coming out this summer will be "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shadows of the Past," a miniature-based tabletop adventure game for two to five players. The board game's 60-90 minute missions are based on stories from the IDW comic universe. Hit game creator Kevin Wilson (Descent, Arkham Horror) designed the "shadows" with input from Eastman and the IDW creative team. It was funded with a Kickstarter campaign that received over 6,000 donations raising over $850,000 dollars. The campaign's goal was $250,000.
“I like that we have these different Turtle universes we can play in," Eastman said. "I’m beyond thrilled that the video games and board game are based on the IDW universe because it’s pretty cool and unique unto itself.”
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are still a gang that hasn’t been matched by any other. Maybe that – along with their massive advertising – is why they stick around. Whether or not the Turtles provide insight into the human experience, in this age of cinema heroes, the Turtles can still spark a conversation on what superheroes look like and the boundaries they defy.
See Kevin Eastman this Saturday April 16 at EPCON. With an advance purchase via ElPasoComicCon.com or at the info booth, fans can arrange a professional photo with him, which he’ll sign for free.