KEVIN EASTMAN ANSWERS 15 QUESTIONS WITH JULINDA MORROW
Kevin Eastman is a legend among comic book aficionados. He co-created Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which, from very humble beginnings, became one of the best selling independently produced comic book series of all time.
The Turtles quickly grew into a media and merchandising empire. Four feature films, a series of animated and live action television shows, toys, clothing…you name it. At the height of the Turtles popularity there were more licensed products based on their images than the old lady who lived in a shoe had children.
And what did Kevin do with his newfound lunch money? He gave back.
Kevin launched Tundra Publishing, a haven for comic book creators. Artists received creative freedom, financial security, and the opportunity to showcase their work in a high quality printed package. Without Kevin’s generosity the comics market may never have seen Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Dave Mckean’s Cages or Mike Allred’s Madman.
Sadly, a combination of competitor power plays, spotty distribution and a lukewarm market resulted in Tundra closing its doors only a few short years after its dramatic entrance into the world of comics.
Since 1991 Kevin Eastman has been the owner, editor and publisher of Heavy Metal, the very magazine that introduced Moebius to an English speaking audience. I tip my hat to Kevin for keeping the tradition of mature readers’ science fiction and high fantasy alive.
A gallery of Kevin’s awesome art follows this interview.
Julinda Morrow: What path led you to comics and sequential art?
Kevin Eastman: I always loved books—especially the ones with lots of pictures—so when I discovered comic books, that was pretty much it—I flipped, and ever since then that is all I have ever wanted to do—write and draw my own comics.
JM: What schooling or training did you receive?
KE: Mostly self-taught […]especially the comics part – I just studied the comics creators I liked, and copied what they did—including tracing panels I really liked when I was a kid…lots of Jack Kirby ones. I tried to figure out how to make the same choices he would, how he was able to tell a story like that; with such power and detail, yet economical. I liked how he paced his stories: fast. Real page turners.
JM: Who, in your opinion, are the pioneers of sequential art?
KE: There are many giants in the field that we stand on the shoulders of, but for me, personally, Jack Kirby, John Severin, Alex Toth, and Russ Heath were some of the earliest, while Richard Corben, Vaughn Bode, and Robert Crumb were in the middle. Around the creation/self-publishing of the TMNT [Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles] it was creators like Dave Sim, Frank Miller, and Wendy Pini that more directly influenced my choices at that time.
JM: How do you define sequential art?
KE: From the cave paintings to the latest Wacom tablet masterpieces, a series of pictures, with or without words, that captures and tells a story.
JM: Do you find that sequential art provides you with near-limitless possibilities for storytelling or do you experience it as constraining?
KE: Without a doubt the only limitation is your imagination. Even if you’re not the best artist yet, I strongly believe you shouldn’t adjust the scope of the story you want to tell because you can’t draw some part of it. Stick to the first and original thought for the writing, then do the necessary research to draw it better when you need to cross that bridge with the artwork. I think both artists and writers never stop growing and improving, and if our love and passion for the medium has brought us here, enjoy it, and respect it.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for a sequential storyteller to have?
KE: The focus and dedication to sit for countless hours, often alone, to do what it takes to complete the process. Sequential storytelling is an incredible amount of hard work, especially so with a long and detailed story, and it is a pretty epic commitment to see it through to the end. I, like most artists (and I include all forms of artistic expression here), have EASILY spent half my life alone in my studio working on my paintings, drawings and comic stories. And our chosen profession and tools of the trade usually don’t work well as a group sport.
JM: How do you approach your work process?
KE: I used to handwrite a basic treatment on cheap legal pads with a ball point pen, and then do the layouts in the same fashion: in ballpoint on legal pads. The layout stage is where I would problem-solve and figure out the rest of the story as well as place the rough text. Text placement is a critical part of the overall design of the page, so everything flows properly. The final clean script would be completed once all the art was finished, to allow for last minute tweaks and adjustments to the story.
These days it is close to the same, except now, as I often love the rough gestures I come up with in the ballpoint pen layout process – the looseness – I just light table those rough layouts, adapting them into the final storyboards, keeping everything the way it would look finished and printed, or 6 x 9. These final boards are done quickly with sharpies, shaded with blue-pencil, and then I enlarge those on a copier to 10 x 15 inches, where I light table into the final finished page art, usually using sharpies again, and pretty much skipping the pencil process altogether.
JM: How many hours a day do you work? Are you uniformly productive on any given day or more productive on some days than others?
KE: Ninety-nine percent of my days are complete nightmares, and a constant ongoing fight to get to the drawing board. I think like most artists, it would be great to never sleep and work at our passion; draw, paint, write, sculpt 24 hours a day. Anything less than that is frustrating. Many years ago, I used to draw 8 to 10 hours a day. These days, with the intense balancing act of family time with my awesome wife and two amazing boys, trying to keep my day job as a publisher of Heavy Metal magazine, and working on new personal and exciting TMNT projects, I get less than two hours a day to draw – which makes me incredibly unhappy.
My favorite and most productive time is whenever I can get it, and I hope to get more of it in the future.
JM: Was it a struggle, at the start of your career, to find work and make ends meet?
KE: I was very lucky early in my career; my first self-published work (with Co-Creator and Co-Publisher Peter Laird) was the TMNT. I have drawn my whole life, I used to do drawings and trade them for comics with my friends in grade school, illustrated the yearbook in high school. I had done lots of mini comics, and sent off tons of (rejected) submissions. But the Turtles were a gift – a creation that arrived at the right place, at the right time, in the right market, and it worked from issue one. Once in a lifetime, for sure.
JM: What has been your most valuable professional experience?
KE: I have a saying that I think covers a lot of the “miles” I have covered in my professional life, especially if you can read between the lines. It goes like this: “I was paid very well for my college degree when the Turtles took off, and I paid very dearly for the master’s degree I took thereafter!”
I guess I’m basically trying to say I studied very hard to understand all parts of the business when we needed to figure out how to be a publisher, animator, moviemaker, and global licensing agent [...]. It is easy with a runaway hit. But trying those same skills and structures to a series of start-up companies, while fighting for creator’s rights and building a museum dedicated to the presentation and preservation of comic art (called The Words & Pictures Museum of Comic Art, no less) improper planning and unrealistic sales assumptions and lack of industry support led to me closing pretty much everything but Heavy Metal magazine.
Remember, hindsight is always 20/20 and a tough pill to swallow.
JM: What inspires or informs you creatively?
KE: It depends on what I am working on, but inspirations come from different directions, and all day long. You just need [to be] open [to] them all the time. From TV to movies to other comics and books. (I don’t play many video games but I like to look at gaming magazines); or awesome artists’ sites like conceptart.org and Deviant Art. I consume and digest a ton of this cool stuff, and it comes out in a wide variety of different ways, usually like bits and pieces that fit in here and there.
There are times I might be working on a specific project and will lean toward references with the same theme to seek more details to expand that concept, and other times I might have a project I have been developing for years, stuck way in the back of my mind, when out of nowhere I see something, a spark, that fits right where I needed; the whole thing comes flooding back in such great detail, I can tweak it, mix it up a little, then re-file it until next time it sneaks up on me or when I choose to work on it.
I currently have a project I have been working on for five years, drew roughly 200 pages before I realized it just failed on so many levels. So I boxed it up and put it away. About three years later I was flying and doodling, when I had a thought about the project; shuffled everything a foot to the left, and suddenly it all fell into place in such a completely different way. I feel like it all works together now, as a stronger, more complete idea, and it’s back on the drawing board again.
JM: What is your position on digital comics? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
KE: I think they are a good thing, especially if they bring in new fans to comics in general. I think reading and collecting comics can [be] a “progressive” habit; so if they find they like the medium, I feel they will seek them out in traditional printed form as well as the digital form. I also think digital publishing is an EXTERMELY affordable way to self publish and find an audience. Because the market has changed so much, and there is such risk [for] traditional publishing [with respect to] covering its costs, let alone making any money…digital at least gives new ideas a platform to get out there and be discovered and build a fan base. Or, at the very least, offers the creator a place to express him or herself.
JM: If you were to make any changes to the industry or the market what changes would you make?
KE: Very good question. I think, first, I would like to see a few more distributors of content produced; perhaps some that might be able to offer retailers a bit more flexibility on payment terms, which would give them the ability to stock a wider range of product for longer periods of time [and give] more experimental artist[s] a better chance at finding a fan base. Second, I guess making more shops more inviting to the person off the street never hurts, but these days, with the economy the way it is most retailers need to be on top of their game just to stay in business; […] most shops I visited recently were wonderfully managed. Third, creatively I wouldn’t change anything too much except to say that if the first two points I mentioned worked the more diverse and creative work would survive and grow, and hopefully the audience would grow and that would give all of us inspiration to take more risks with our own work…infinity…coolness…
JM: If you could apprentice under any artist at any time in history and anywhere in the world who would it be?
KE: Very difficult to answer really, there are dozens and dozens of artists that it would be a massive honor to apprentice under! Historically, just starting with any of the TMNT namesakes would be off the charts… I would have a mile-long list of more commercial style illustrators from the past 150 years who have done everything from engravings for newspapers or paperback pulp covers, up to a year each with two of my most inspiring comic artists, Jack Kirby and Richard Corben.
JM: What, in the future, would you like to accomplish creatively?
KE: I have several large projects that I have fully developed over the past decade or so, and I would like to have the time and funding to schedule, start, and finish them all! I also have various drawings, paintings, and designs that are piled high everywhere – nearly 90% of which are half finished – that I would also love to finish.
Ahh…if all of life could be so simple, huh?