Andrew Osmond interviews TMNT co-creator Kevin Eastman
One of the highest-profile franchises showcased at London’s MCM Expo was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. No, we don’t mean the Michael Bay-produced movie (due next year), but a new CGI TV animated version from Nickelodeon. It’s a light-footed revival for the Turtle siblings, characterised very much as teenagers for a new generation. Their rat mentor Splinter is also aged down, and their human ally April looks about the same age as the half-shells.
At the Expo preview, the show’s debts to anime were displayed loud and proud. Despite the CGI, the cartoon strives for a comic-book look, with heavy use of “emoticons” in the turtles’ expressions and grimaces. That’s not a great surprise from Nickelodeon, home to the popular anime-inspired Airbender. But Turtles has crossed with anime before. The characters appeared in an anime video in 1994, called Mutant Turtles: Chojin Densetsu-he (Mutant Turtles: Superman Legend. More recently, the 2007 feature TMNT felt highly anime-esque in places, with moody rooftop battles in the rain and a central conflict between team leader Leonardo and rebellious Raphael that felt more like Gatchaman than The Avengers.
I snatched an interview with Kevin Eastman, created the original 1980s comic with Peter Laird. Eastman acknowledges anime as part of the cauldron of international influences shaping his style. “I’ve been a longtime fan; I’ve drifted in and out of it,” Eastman says. “Growing up on the East Coast, we had two channels out of Boston which would play monster movies and what they called chop-socky theatre. So I was able to see martial arts movies and things like Lone Wolf and Cub. Then manga started being more readily available, and Streamline came up.” – Carl Macek’s seminal video label, that brought Akira to the West.
“So there was this perfect storm,” Eastman continues. “At the same time, I was also experiencing Heavy Metal magazine, the European artists… I was right in the middle of Jack Kirby, Moebius and Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll). My introduction to anime was through Streamline, when they came out with Crying Freeman, Wicked City, Doomed Megalopolis… Then I fell out of it for a bit, until I went through a comic store and saw the first US collection of Cowboy Bebop. I loved the graphics, and reconnected with that whole world. The highpoints to me are things like Cowboy Bebop, Trigun and Blue Submarine No. 6.”
Asked whether the original Turtles was influenced by anime or manga, Eastman says the link was indirect. “It was probably through Ronin. Frank Miller [Ronin’s author] was a huge fan of Lone Wolf and Cub, the original comic series [by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima]; and Miller was one of the guys who spearheaded that stylised look in the early 1980s with Ronin. I loved Ronin, which I emulated in parody in Turtles, and that opened the window to stylised storytelling that I’d never seen before.”
For Eastman, the quality that makes makes anime narratives distinctive is their meandering. “Lots of meandering! For me, I still like a very structured story. A lot of times with anime – and from experiences I’ve had working with animation directors – sometimes they’d have a story idea and they’d start storyboarding the first act of a film, and then they’d have new ideas. They’d start incorporating these ideas into the second act, and by the third it might be so disconnected from the start that you’d have to follow the film with a very open mind. Sometimes it may end like a John Steinbeck novel, it may end high or low or there may be no end at all. Also, a lot of the material is perhaps out of particular fairy tales and logics and ‘isms’… They base some of these things on legends that are so deep-rooted (in Japan) and alien to us that we have to look into that world and almost assume things… They’re representing things that we just have no idea about.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is coming (back) later this year.