Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Happy 31st birthday Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a phenomenon that happens very rarely. It's the story of a pair of amateur comic fans making good on their dreams to get rich and famous through making comics. It's also the story of the independent comics movement in the 80's and 90's.

Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman stand with some of the merchandise of their phenomenally popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. 

In the late 70's comic fandom took on such a mass that it allowed stores solely dedicated to comics to pop up across America. Along with these comic shops came comics that forwent the usual distribution system that sold to grocery stores and convenience stores across America. These comics were published and distributed independent of the big comic publishers and distributors and were sold directly to the comic stores. And thus the Independent Comics movement was born.

Dave Sim's Cerebus, Dec 1977, was one of the very first comics to take advantage of the direct market distribution system, while Wendy and Richard Pini's Elf Quest, Feb 1978 was hot on it's heals.
With the Independent Comics movement was the promise that all the ills of the big publishers would be fixed, like giving the comic creators the respect and financial compensation that they deserved. They would have no one telling them what to create or how it should be done, and there would be no parasitic entities sucking off of any given artists creations the way that the comics industry swallowed up Siegel and Shuster's Superman or the way Marvel had usurped Jack Kirby's in the 60's creations without just compensation. In fact one of the earlier things to get published by an independent comics publisher was Eclipse Comic's Destroyer Duck which was a benefit book created by Steve Gerber and Jack Kirby to fund Gerber's fight for the rights to his very popular creation, Howard the Duck which Marvel had adopted as their own.

Destroyer Duck had some of comics greatest legends donating time for it like Jack Kirby on Destroyer Duck #1, May 1982, and Frank Miller on Destroyer Duck #7, May 1984 in order to help Steve Gerber's lawsuit against Marvel Comics' right to Howard the Duck.
In this environment Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird decided to throw their hats into the Independent Comics ring and self-publish an oversized black & white comic, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Apr 1984).

The two creators self published 3275 copies of an over-sized one-shot that became one of the most highly prized collectibles of the 80's.
The Turtles were an instant success. Laird said, "..start[ing] the Turtles.. was a goof; it was not anything we envisioned directing our lives in any way, shape, or form. It was like, "Hey, this looks like fun! Let's self-publish it! Let's see what happens!" ...Suddenly, and just completely out of the blue, this Turtles phenomenon emerged. And really,  from day one,  just took over. It was a rapidly accelerating process which culminated in essentially taking over our lives. Completely."

The first pictures of the Turtles ever created by Peter Laird on the left and Kevin Eastman on the right.

The popularity of the Turtles spurred on a whole wave of independent imitators who were looking to cash in on it's success. Every month you would see a new Pre-Teen, Adolescent, Radio-active, Mutant, Kung Fu, Ninja, Koala, Lizard, Panda Bears comic coming out, and you had to have it or you would miss out on the hottest comic since, well, the Turtles, and you wouldn't want that

Then in 1987 Eastman and Laird struck it rich. They got a toy and Cartoon deal which made their already popular comic sky rocket to unheard of levels of success. They were fabulously wealthy and had the means to do whatever they dreamed of.

The Turtles phenomenon included a cartoon which spurred a toy deal which in turn spurred a live action movie deal. 
One of the first things that they did with their success was to have a summit in their hometown of Northampton Massachusetts where they wrote up a Creator's Bill of Rights. The practice of large publishers making their creators sign work-for-hire contracts, taking away all rights to what they created was no longer necessary with the new direct distribution system that allowed all creators to create their own works, make their own terms and reap the benefits of their creations. The days where the big publishers would consume the work of ingenious creators for their own profit was over.

This is a picture drawn by Scott McCloud of the creators who attended the summit. It was taken from Scott's website where you can find out more about the summit. 
I think they were hoping that the rest of the comics creators would get behind them and there would be some kind of union forming as a result, but this never happened, though I wouldn't say it didn't have an effect on the comics community. About the same time many of the most popular creators were looking to retain the rights to their creations including Alan Moore who asked in his contract with DC over the Watchmen to be given the rights to the work after it went out of print, which at that time was about 6 months to a year. DC knew that they had a hot property on their hands and kept it in print while they looked for a movie deal. Nobody suspected that it would take 25 years for the movie deal to materialize. As a result many of the most popular comics creators of the time like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and John Byrne had stopped working for Marvel and DC and were looking to publish their work in a more creator friendly Independent comics environment.

Some of the biggest books of the 80's were (from top left to lower right) Alan Moore's Watchmen, Frank Miller's Dark Knight, Claremont and Byrne's X-Men and John Byrne's Man of Steel

As a result of talking about creators rights, Kevin Eastman decided to start Tundra Publishing which would give creators the power to see their dream projects come to fruition. They would eventually publish such amazing creators works like Cages by Dave McKean, Mike Allred's Madman Adventures, Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, Jim Woodring and Mark Martin's Tantalizing Stories and Steve Bissette's horror anthology Taboo that would feature such works as Alan Moore's From Hell, and Lost Girls.

Ultimately Tundra would not become a profitable enterprise. After just 3 years they burnt through 14 million dollars. Though not financially successful, Tundra's Independent Comics spirit would inspire many other creators to strike out on their own. In the following years we would see many creators leave the fold of the big two comic publishers and take up creator owned projects. The biggest names in the business would leave the shelter of the big two comic publishers and start their own creator owned projects. Besides Alan Moore starting his From Hell, Frank Miller would join Dark Horse's Legends line of comics and create his Sin City as well as other projects; John Byrne and Mike Mignola would join him on Legends team to create Next Men, and the hugely popular Hellboy.

In the early 90's Dark Horse snatched up some of the greatest talent in comics to create their Legends imprint and would put out Frank Miller's Sin City, Mike Mignola's Hellboy, Frank Miller and Dave Gibbon's Give Me Liberty and John Byrne's Next Man. 

While all that was going on, a bunch of young upstarts who were at the top of their popularity would jump corporate comics ship and start what would become the phenomenon that would be called Image Comics.

Some of the new hot shots of the early 90's decided that they wanted more control of their projects and receive a bigger financial rewards for their creations and so Image Comics was formed and they would publish such books as Todd McFarlane's Spawn, Jim Lee's Wild C.A.T.S., Rob Leifeld's Young Bloods, and Eric Larson's Savage Dragon.

It's hard to say for sure if the Eastman and Laird's success was the impetus that influenced this mass exodus of the big two publishers or if the Eastman and Laird were just a current in a much bigger swell but it can't be denied that it was an extremely dynamic time in comics and Eastman and Laird played a big role in it.


  1. That was super interesting...AND inspiring. Thanks!

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