Thursday, February 12, 2009

Fatman and Dogboy go to the Comicon Part Three

My work-related reason to go to the show was to do a story on Mirage Studios of Northampton and on the 25th anniversary of the Teenage Mutant Nina Turtles. That story follows below.

I knew Peter Laird at UMass and bought his first comic book project "Barbarian Fantasy." Later when he and Kevin had started the Turtles I was re-acquainted through my friends Stan Wiater and Steve Bissette. I put together a show of original art at the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke just before their highly popular first animated cartoon series hit in the late 1980s and hosted the guys at a signing at the theater in South Hadley I managed when the first movie came out.

I then wound up working for Kevin at his Tundra publishing experiment doing publicity for Rick Veitch's "Brat Pack," Mark Martin's "20 Nude Dancers," Bernie Mireault's "The Jam" and Steve's "Taboo" projects. There are some interesting stories there!

I don't pretend to call myself friends with either guy – never have actually – but their story is a fascinating and typically American tale of what happens to two everyday joes whose creation catches lightening in a bottle.

Peter Laird talking to fans at the Mirage table in Artist's Alley.

NEW YORK, NY – If there is one rule in pop culture it’s that relatively few books, movies, comic books or songs make the transition from phenomena to icon, but one group of characters born and raised in Western Massachusetts have made the leap.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, created 25 years ago by artist and writers Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, have a multi-generational fan base as seen at the New York Comicon conducted this past weekend at the Jacob Javitts Center in New York City. Fans in their twenties and thirties lined up with their children at two different areas at the convention to meet Laird, Eastman and the other artist of Northampton-based Mirage Studios.

And although the two creators are not active collaborators on the Turtles comic books, cartoons series or movies any longer – Eastman is the owner and publisher of “Heavy Metal” magazine – they both expressed amazement – and gratitude – about the popularity of their characters.

“We never thought it would last beyond the first issue,” Eastman said after finishing a signing.

“It’s been a blast,” he added.

Laird said he never thought the success of the Turtles would be so long lasting.

“I was telling someone here that in the first issue of the Turtles, we killed off our main villain and people ask us about that and I say ‘We had no idea.’ We did that first issue thinking that would be it. There wasn’t going to be a second issue,” he said.

The long-term success of the Turtles has been “a complete surprise,” Laird said.

In 1984 when the Turtles made their debut, the distribution models of the comic book industry allowed for independents such as Eastman and Laird to get their publications into the market place, but 25 years later it is more difficult.

Part of the problem is there has been an increase in both black and white and color comic books and “the market is only so big,” Laird said.

Now, comics also compete with a number of other entertainment choices, such as free content on the Internet.

“I think that is one thing that has cut into the sale of comic books,” he said.

Laird also believes that people “have only so much time in each person’s life and they have allocate that time, a kind of triage thing.”

Laird and Eastman’s independent comic grew into one of the greatest success stories in licensing and merchandising history. The comic books series spawned several successful television series, three live-action films, an animated feature film and dozens and dozens of licensed product.

Laird said the highpoint of all of this creative output has been the comic books he did with Eastman.

“That was probably the most creatively fertile periods of my life,” Laird said. “If we had never had the big licensing success I would have beenhappy. Because with the comics, Kevin and I were finally doing something we loved doing, we had complete control over it and we were making decent money. The first couple of issues brought in more money than I had made in a
year as an illustrator and it was doing something we just loved to do.”

There is a new movie in the works, but because the deal hasn’t been set so Laird declined to speak abut it in depth. He did say that his hopes are to use revised computer animated Turtle characters created for the last film
and integrate them into live action.

The fact the Turtles have now two generations of fans is “really humbling” to Laird, who said that while the first cartoon series wasn’t among his favorite Turtle spins-offs it did expose the characters to a huge audience “that we could never have reached with the comics.”

“Kevin and I would often think about what happened with the Turtles and marvel at it. It was something we never planned. That’s the thing. If you sit down and try to plan something like this, it rarely works. Our thing was we did this thing completely out of fun. We put a lot of passion it in. It came directly from our souls if you will,” Laird said.

“I’ve never understood why it did [touch a nerve with fans], but maybe that’s part of it,” he added.

Eastman’s career, while not focused on the Turtles, is still very much rooted in comics as the publisher of “Heavy Metal.” Since buying the magazine in 1990, he secured the long-delayed home video release of the first “Heavy Metal’ film, developed one animated feature film based on the magazine and now is in pre-production of another feature film.

This new film involves some Hollywood A-list heavy weights, including director David Fincher, the director of the current hit “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Zack Snyder, director of “300,” and Gore Verbinski, the director of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series. The animated film will have eight segments, Eastman said, with an over-arching storyline to connect

Although a largely computer animated film, Eastman said each segment will have its own distinctive style and look.

Eastman thanked the Turtle fans for “25 amazing years” which gave him and Laird “an amazing life.”

© 2009 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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