Kevin Eastman, Tom Waltz And Bobby Curnow Talk ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ #50 And More [Interview]
For over four years, IDW's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been one of the best comics on the stands, hands down. It's a blend of everything that TMNT has ever been, a synthesis that combines action, sci-fi and ninja mysticism into one sprawling, epic story that has spilled out from an ongoing series into a string of miniseries and one-shots that have built something genuinely incredible. Now, the series is closing in on its biggest story yet with the release of #50 and the ultimate battle between the Ninja Turtles and Shredder's Foot Clan.
To mark the occasion, ComicsAlliance spoke to co-writer Tom Waltz, TMNT co-creator and series co-writer Kevin Eastman, and series editor Bobby Curnow about the history of the series, covering the process of rebuilding TMNT for comics from the ground up, the happy accidents that led to some of their favorite new characters, and the surprising, heartbreaking challenge of coming up with something horrible to do to a party dude like Michelangelo.
ComicsAlliance: How did you come to the decision to reboot the entire TMNT franchise when it came to IDW?
Kevin Eastman: That's Tom's fault.
Tom Waltz: A lot of it had to do with Nickelodeon. We wanted something new, but it definitely one of those situations where they had the animated show that they were developing that was going to be skewed to a younger audience, and they came to us with the idea that they wanted a more traditional, almost Mirage-style, more mature comic. At that point, I wasn't even involved. I was on the outside looking in, Scott Dunbier was editing and they were getting pitches from different creators, but what was happening in the different editorial meetings was that the pitches they were getting just weren't striking whatever chord Nickelodeon was looking for.
I don't think Nickelodeon was really sure of what they wanted, they just weren't seeing anything that appealed to them, for whatever reason. At that point, I think that's when Ted Adams, the CEO of IDW, and Kevin started talking. Kevin had expressed an interest in being a part of the story-building process, and that got us all excited. It changed the dynamic of the approach at that point, and one day in a meeting, they said, "Kevin wants to be involved, Kevin wants to help work on the stories and develop the new version of the Turtles, and so we need someone to co-write with him." That's when Chris Ryall, who's the editor-in-chief here, said, "Hey, Tom, you're a Turtles fan. Do you have any ideas?"
I did have some ideas, the main one being the reincarnation aspect.
That was kind of the foundation that I wanted to build from, and I told them I'd love to be a part of it. They said, "Okay, we'll solicit you as the co-writer on this with Kevin, and we need some ideas." Long story short, I put together the proposal that included the reincarnation aspect, and we built from there. That was the core. Nickelodeon said they liked it and wanted to move forward, and there were adjustments, but that was where we launched from. It was probably new enough and different enough that they felt good going forward. It was new and fresh, but not so far removed from what makes the Turtles what they are that they were uncomfortable with it. Now, here we are, fifty issues later, and it seems to be working.
KE: Absolutely working. When Ted invited me down to meet Tom as the main writer and Bobby as the editor, Tom had a lot of really wonderful ideas in place. Not only the reincarnation aspect, but I felt like he'd been doing an amazing job building a really solid foundation and picking through multiple Turtle universes and then bringing it back to the edgier style. He went through the Mirage comic, the cartoons, the 2000s series, here, there and everywhere and rolled it into a new story. I got really excited, and like Tom said, it's four years later and I'm having the best time I've had since the early days with Peter Laird. It's been a fantastic ride.
CA: As a reader, the reincarnation aspect of the book is what really hooked me. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a concept that, right from just reading that title, you have to be ready to believe some weird stuff. It made a lot of sense to me to blend in that magical aspect to it. Did it fall into place easily once you had that foundation?
KE: One of the things that appealed to me so much and excited me, and also made me a little nervous early on, is that the changes that were being made --- like the reincarnation aspect, which I really embraced and love, I think it's fantastic, putting April back in the lab and making her a scientist, having April name the Turtles, just the way that original four-issue arc was structured --- were all things that I felt would be hung from the nearest tree by the fans. They'd either hate it or they'd fully embrace it and get into what was going on. Thankfully, they've done the latter, but I love that concept.
TW: Originally, when I pitched it, there was the idea that they were reincarnated from feudal Japan, but you kind of look at it not just from a story aspect, but with Nickelodeon involved, there's a merchandising aspect to it, too. We thought, "Well, what if there were always Turtles?" We had the idea that they'd be reincarnated through time. There'd be Turtles during the Revolutionary War, Turtles in World War II, things like that. That was the big picture when we started, and then working with Nickelodeon and Scott Dunbier, and then Bobby when he came in, we whittled that down and realized that was probably too unwieldy. We came up with the idea that they were in feudal Japan in a real ninja clan, and then they were brought to the present day.
I'd never take full credit for how successful it's been. I think that first story, back in #5 went really well. Mateus Santolouco had these designs for those scenes in the early issues took it to the next level and then some with Erik Burnham when they did Secret History of the Foot Clan. As good as the idea was with the reincarnation aspect, it became genius not through me, but through those guys in that mini-series.
It made even me realize that there were so many possibilities, and it really inspired a lot of the storytelling since then, so I always felt good about that. If I had a nugget of an idea, they turned it into gold, and we've just been mining that since.
CA: Kevin, you got an idea that not a lot of comics creators have ever gotten, in that you got to take this thing that you built with Peter Laird back in the '80s, and essentially got a do-over. You got to go back to the start of things and synthesize what you thought was the best version after decades of having it around. What was that like for you?
KE: On a bunch of different levels, I've had so many blessings with the Turtles. From #2, that's where I became a full-time comic artist. Pete and I were working together, drawing comic books, and the dream came true, I didn't care if it lasted six months or a year, we were having the best time ever.
Then, it's gone through the multiple versions, the animated versions, the live-action versions, some of the different TV shows. The artists, even in the early days back in the studio, they had visions that they brought to the Turtles, and that was always energizing and creatively fascinating. The idea built and grew and Pete and I were piloting the ship at different times and getting involved in different levels. Last year was the 30th anniversary, with all that history.
When we started working on this series four years ago, I hadn't worked on a Turtle comic since probably 1996, a project I did with Simon Bisley called Body Count. It was great to take a break from the Turtles --- they were never really far from any part of my life, but to take a break and then come back and get partnered up with the awesome guys here, not only Tom and Bobby but all the different artists, it created this amazing energy.
It reminded me of many, many things: How much I love comics, how much I love being involved in comics, how much I missed the Turtles and telling TMNT stories. There's a feeling that I get every day working on this book feels like the closest thing I can get to those early days. It's a great do-over.
You get to look back on 30 years of history and say, "Well, that idea wasn't as successful, and that idea was kind of successful," and take a look at different universes and push them a step to the left or a step to the right, and get to play with them again. That, to me, is fascinating. It's a really good time, a really good ride.
CA: Was there a particular aspect that you were excited about changing, or one that worked better than you thought it would when you went back?
KE: That was what's been so cool. Even when we all started on this four years ago, we weren't really sure how the fans would embrace what we were doing, and if we'd get to do the things that we did. Bringing in Casey Jones, that was one of my favorite ideas that Tom came up with early on, having Raphael separated from the rest of the group when they were first mutated, and introducing Old Hob.
Having Casey and Raphael meet first before he reunited with the rest of his family; they've been two of my favorite characters, that's why I often gravitated towards doing solo stories with them. But then, as the storylines were growing and building, we were able to bring in new characters and go back to another one of my favorite ideas from Tom and Bobby, bringing the Neutrinos in from the "Hot-Rodding Teenagers" episode of the first cartoon, but turning them into freedom fighters battling this off-world war with the Krang. Bringing in the Rat King and Karai, so many different ones that we were able to pull from different universes and bring into one storyline, but mess with them a bit. That's been fun.
That's been as much fun as the new characters that we've been able to create. The foundation gives a great playground to do that stuff.
CA: Tom, as a fan, was there anything you were particularly looking forward to bringing back?
TW: It's funny, I think that the characters I always had in my mind were the Neutrinos. It's one of those things where you can look back. I have a son who's 26 and a daughter who's 12, so as far as the Turtles videos are concerned, I have seen them all through different eyes. The funny thing was, watching the VHS copy of Hot-Rodding Teenagers, I thought, "this is one of the goofiest things I've ever seen." But underneath it all --- and this was way before I ever even thought about writing the Turtles, I realized there was a darker story underneath there.
Imagine these teenagers living on a planet where there's only war, and that's the last thing they want, but it's the only thing they know. They're trying to escape that. It's almost like they were tapping into a Hunger Games vibe way back then, this young adult adventure with these teens who are stuck in this horrendous situation that's created by adults. I've always felt like those characters were very cool, despite the goofiness of the episode. Those were characters I wanted to come around to.
One thing I should mention is that none of these things happen without Bobby. Bobby's steering the ship from beginning to end, so when I come up with these characters, I take them to Bobby and say, "Hey, remember the Neutrinos from that one episode? I'm turning them into John Connor-style freedom fighters." He looks at me, and I know he thinks I'm crazy, but then it's my job to tell him how it's going to work.
One of my favorite characters was Baxter Stockman. I just couldn't wait to write him, he's the most smug character that I've ever had the pleasure to be a part of. I think my favorite version of him was the 4 Kids version, where he remains smug even as Shredder is just cutting off one part of his body after another as punishment. I think he ends up just being a brain in a jar, and he's still smug! That's gotta be the greatest villain ever!
The flip to that is that I'm having a lot of fun with new characters that other writers have created throughout this process, particularly Brian Lynch, he brought us Alopex. My other favorite is Harold. He could've easily been just another character in the Donatello one-shot way back when, but I was lucky enough that Brian was really busy, and I got to do a little scripting on that issue and just thought, "this character is not going away. He's too fun. He works too well." That's been a joy for me, watching the other guys and gals who are working on the series creating new characters and adding them to the lore.
It's at the point now where I feel like they've done enough of a good job creating these new characters that they feel like they've always been there, too.
KE: To me, what's interesting is, as Tom said, all of these different artists and writers --- and Bobby, who's the quietest one in the room right now --- put all these different elements into the foundation that's been built. You have Harold, you have the Fugitoid, and then we sit in one of these mind-meld sessions and we start talking about what other characters we can bring in.
We ended up marrying the Angel character from the 2000 series with a character from the Mirage series that I particularly loved, a character called Nobody that I thought was never fully utilized there. We used Harold from the new series, Angel from the 2000 series, and Nobody from the Mirage series, and cobbled it all together to make the new Nobody.
That's the kind of wonderful, organic creativity of this new group. It's these ideas that almost sort of come to you as gifts.
Bobby Curnow: I remember that making Angel into Nobody was Kevin's idea during one of our brainstorming sessions. It's one of those things where you look at each other and go, "Oh, that makes perfect sense, we're done." It's been fun and satisfying to have several of those moments over the years.
KE: Whose idea was it to bring in Bebop and Rocksteady?
TW: Brian did it, I think, as a fun little Easter egg at the end of the Raphael one-shot, and it was always hanging there for us. We've introduced them now, when will be the right time to bring them in?
KE: And Bebop and Rocksteady in the IDW version, hands down across the board, is the best version of those characters ever done. They're just perfect. They're crazy, beer-drinking buttheads, and they can survive in this universe. They've been used to great effect, certainly around #44. I still get people --- I was at two shows over the weekend and I still get people going, "oh man, why'd you have to kill Donnie?!" I was like, "You gotta keep reading!"
CA: I have to say, I never expected to be as emotional as I was about Bebop and Rocksteady.
TW: That's a perfect example! We had an idea, Bobby and I talked about it, and we knew how we wanted them to be. I'm so happy that for them to have turned into what they are happened outside of the ongoing in that one-shot by Ben Bates and Dustin Weaver. That was one of my favorite books that we've ever done, including the ones that I've been a part of.
I always feel that the property is better for having more people working on it, more imaginations involved, and when that came back and Bobby gave me the PDF, it was my favorite thing we've done. It set the groundwork for everything we've done with Bebop and Rocksteady in the issues that I write, because to me, that is Bebop and Rocksteady, what they created.
CA: Bobby, one of the things that I've written about before is that you're dealing with a massive story with a lot of moving parts and entirely different genres, playing out across the main series, the miniseries, the one-shots. I've always thought that being the editor on that book must be an absolute nightmare just keeping it all straight. How do you approach a job like that?
TW: Bobby hasn't slept in four years.
BC: I think it would be really difficult if I didn't grow up with the Turtles and love them as much as I do. It's a testament to the world that Peter and Kevin created, it's just fun to think about, fun to play in. Just when we were talking about Bebop and Rocksteady, I thought about "City Fall" and all the villain microseries that we put out, and how we got them all out on time. I was patting myself on the back about that; "yeah, that was hard, but all those stories were good and all those one-shots mattered!"
It's work, but it doesn't feel like work because it's so much fun. I enjoy all the books that I work on at IDW, but Turtles is the one that I really care about and would do for free. It's something that I'm always thinking about, regardless of whether I need to do it for the job or not. It's just a matter of following those thoughts and that planning. I'm a nerd, and I like to plan things, so I kind of save my scheduling for the end of the day as a treat after my other work. I'm weird in that way. Organizing is fun, and Turtles is fun, so it's all fun.
KE: Bobby just brought an interesting point up about the energy of the team. I'm the oldest guy here in the room, and most of the artists coming into the series were fans in some way over the past 25 or 30 years, so they bring this love and passion and energy to the whole universe. That's infectious and energizing, and it's why I have so much fun being part of this world and this environment. It doesn't seem like work.
BC: Tom was talking about getting inspiration from other artists, and I feel like we're all feeding on this shared love of Turtles and what we're all doing. Everyone wants to put their best foot forward and do their best work. It's a family, and there's competition, everyone wants to be the best, but it's not a malicious competition. It's not, "Oh jeez, Paul Allor's a better writer than me, I need to write better than him!" It's, "Wow, that turned out great! We need to keep up the same level!"
KE: The only thing I hate about the artists that have been working on the series over the past four years is that most of them --- all of them --- can draw the Turtles better than I have or ever will.
CA: You talked a bit about "City Fall," which was probably the best event comic I've read in the past few years. The stakes were so big, and they seemed to grow organically from where the story was going. Was it part of the original pitch?
KE: It's funny that you say that, because I was looking at some of the early issues, way back in the first arc. I think I can speak for everybody, but we are a completely different team with a completely different mindset about this than we were back then, and I think that's just a natural transition from a start to finding a real rhythm. When it came to "City Fall," we hit a point where we wanted an event, we wanted something big with the Foot Clan. It was feeding off the past with what we'd done before with "City At War" in the Mirage book, so let's do our own. It felt organic to me. It was past time to do an event, and the characters and pieces were in place to do it.
TW: I think it was my idea, back when we first started: What if, back in Japan, Leonardo had been Oroku Saki's son instead of Hamato Yoshi's? Nickelodeon had some legitimate concerns with that, which I think are understandable, but I wanted to keep that idea. How could Shredder hurt Hamato Yoshi more than any other way? The answer is taking one of his sons and molding him in his own image.
It felt like a good place to explore Bebop and Rocksteady, and Karai, and to reveal that Casey Jones's father was actually this character, Hun, and to have Alopex turn against the Foot. It was the culmination of everything we'd done up to that point. A lot of it was planning, but a lot of it was that these things just came together at that point in a way that I don't think any of us expected.
CA: Something I've noticed as a reader is that you tend to cycle through making things terrible for one of the Turtles in every story.
KE: We're not done yet! [Laughs]
CA: In the beginning, you've got Raphael separated from his brothers, in "City Fall," it's Leonardo being taken by the Foot, in the lead up to #50, Donatello almost dies. The way that #50 ends, it feels like it's definitely Michelangelo's turn.
KE: Yep. As a matter of fact, I just finished the first draft of #54, where we're dealing with a lot of Mikey stuff. This definitely becomes his story arc in a lot of ways.
CA: Is it a challenge to think up the most horrible things for them to go through as individuals? Taking the idea of Raphael as the loner and turning it around into him being isolated, not by choice but by force, or of taking Leonardo, who's so tied to ideas about honor and loyalty, and subverting those when he's brainwashed by Shredder, those were very interesting choices. How do you do that with Michelangelo? Do you just make it not fun anymore?
KE: Bobby has to take all the credit for Mikey's story, but he had this really good idea that one of the things that we've done really well with him in the past is that he's might be the party dude, but he also feels things at a much more emotional level with the others. He's empathetic, and if he could always live by the Golden Rule, he would. He'd do unto others as he'd have them do unto him, with anybody. He's a guy who's quick to forgive and quick to forget, but because he's so loyal to his brothers and to his father, he keeps finding himself in situations where he tends to be the only one who does that. It's starting to eat away at him, and in #50, you see those tables start to turn. What he thinks is going to be an ending is a whole new beginning that he wants no part of.
I think we'll find that he goes out to seek fraternity elsewhere, looking for what I call his superhero dream. "If I'm going to do this, it's because I'm a good guy and because it counts, not because it just leads to more fighting. We're doing this to stop fighting." But as he progresses, he's going to find out that the world isn't black and white like that.
CA: When I was reading that scene, I had this memory of being a kid in the late '80s, when I loved the Turtles and I loved the cartoon, but I also loved comics. I was so excited to get a paperback of the original stories, and then you open it up and it's bloody and violent --- Shredder blows himself up with a grenade! I remember thinking, "I don't know if I like this!" That's exactly the reaction Michelangelo has at the end of that story.
TW: It is! I think everybody reaches a breaking point, and Mikey's no exception. In this case, we go through all of this, and he's seen some atrocities, especially in #50. You'd think, "Okay, it can't get any worse than this, if it has to be this way, then this has to be it!" And then you find out, no, we're going to add insult to injury with the path that his father and his brothers take, and he just doesn't want to follow that.
CA: One final question: Is there anything in those first fifty issues that you look back on as a favorite moment?
KE: I like all of them. I know that seems like a really vague and easy way out, but one of the things about this book is that in every issue, you have these beautiful moments. As the story's been woven together and continues to grow, I've noticed that our mind-meld sessions have gone on longer. We're heading well past #50 now, but there's so many awesome things in all of them. I've gotta cop out with that, I love them all. Each one has its own beauty and specialness.
BC: I'll do a slight cop-out, because thinking about #1-50 as one story, there are three points. TMNT #5 was so special and important because it revealed Tom's new version of the Turtles and how they were reincarnated, which is arguably how it sets us apart from everything else. It was just a really beautiful storyline, and it was also my first title as full editor, so I have a soft spot for that.
My second would be #22, the first part of "City Fall," because I consider that to be the mid-point, and it was really well-done. When Shredder stabs Casey, you know things are escalating in a new and unexpected way.
Finally #50. It really is a nice cap on these past four years, and the past several years, I've been in the back of my head thinking, "Oh man, if we screw up #50, that's gonna be sad, because everything's building to that."
TW: For me, when #5 was done and approved. A big part of that was that we'd been working with Dan Duncan, and then we brought Mateus in to do the flashback scene, and I thought "this is turning into something bigger." It wasn't just Dan and myself and Bobby and Scott and Kevin. We brought Mateus in and I thought that there was potential there. When we put it all together, I really felt like it was going to work.
The first four issues were fun, but they blew by. It was all new, we were trying to figure out what to do and get the Turtles back together. #5 solidified the idea that maybe there was a long run in that story, and the fan reaction was a big deal.
For all the big stories that we've done, I always look at all the little things that we've been allowed to do. To me, that's the kind of thing that sets the Turtles apart. I just remember the little scenes, where Splinter's cooking soup and he and Casey are watching soap operas. Little things like that stick out to me, because I have a lot of fun writing them.
Ultimately, we're going to have ninja fights and space aliens and interdimensional travel, but we never lost sight of the family-friendly aspect of the property. When you ask me about my favorite moments, I see that. I see Harold and Donnie arguing. It's just become so real to me, and hopefully to the fans and readers. These are like real people living in my head, and maybe living out in the world now.
That being said, I'm not going to lie, #50 is a big deal. I'm hoping it is for the fans, but I know that for all of us. I was afraid that we'd never get to it, I was afraid once we got to it, and now I'm ecstatic can't wait for people to see it.
KE: That was what made it so hard for me to pick out one particular moment. You have to look at every moment in ever single issue, how they work together and build the characters and help those stories evolve into almost a complete piece. It was hard to pick one out, because there's such cool stuff in each one, and how it wove all together. When I read Tom's script for #50, I sent him a personal note. I just said "this is beautiful, this is amazing, I'm so proud of you guys and to be a part of this." It's going to blow people away.
BC: The aspect of this property that gets kind of ignored the most is the Teenage in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When I think about being a teenager, what makes that difficult is that you're starting to understand the past and what came before you, and how the world works, but you've still got your entire life in front of you. It's a world of possibilities in conflict with the world as it is, and I think that is also how our approach is. We're looking to the past and the versions of the Turtles that came before, but also at how much new stuff there is that we can do.
Turtles #5, and how that involved that, was that they're from the past, the future is full of new dangers, but they're going through it as a family.
KE: There are possibilities with these characters and this universe that IDW has built, Tom and Bobby and everybody, because we're not beholden to one universe. We get to pick and choose, but it's on our turf. We can choose what to bring into this universe, and it's based on exciting stories, and how they deal with it as a family.
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