Interview with Peter Laird
So, years ago– around 2008ish– I wrote for comics fan website. Landing that gig was sort of a happy accident, and it afforded me the opportunity to interview several comics pros. Since then, that website, and the website that it had evolved into have disappeared from the internet, and along with them, the interviews that I had conducted. I was quite disappointed when I discovered this, and thought it was a shame that these interviews basically no longer existed (problems of the internet age, I suppose). It is my desire to make these interviews available to be read once again, and so during the beginning of this year I will be re-publishing these interviews to Stir Fry Comics. I hope you all enjoy them!
The first interview that I will be re-publishing is easily my favorite of the bunch. I about fell over when I got the email asking me to interview Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Peter Laird. While his accomplishments, the fact that he’s a great guy, and his amazing contributions to the comics community would be enough to make anyone excited to chat with him, the impact of his early TMNT work on my own development as a comic creator was, to say the very least, HUGE. At a young age I received a collected of edition of the early TMNT comics, in all their black and white glory. I read this thing cover to cover, over and over, for years. To me it was everything I wanted my own comics to be. Still is. So the opportunity to interview Peter was simply rad.
Enough gushing, and a little background. The basics: Peter Laird created TMNT (founding Mirage Studios) along with Kevin Eastman in the early 1980s. What started as a more or less a send up of the comics tropes of the time, soon turned into one of the most valuable intellectual properties of all time. Eventually Eastman and Laird parted ways, with Laird keeping control of Mirage/TMNT while Eastman went on to pursue other ventures. This interview takes in May of 2008, a time when TMNT was on the cusp of celebrating it’s 25th anniversary. In October of 2009 (about a year and a half after this interview), Laird/Mirage sold the rights to TMNT to Viacom/Nickelodeon. So, hopefully that gives you a bit of a frame of reference. Without further ado, here is my interview with Peter Laird:
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, it’s an honor, and we really appreciate it!
No problem… I’m happy to do it!
It’s been 25 years now since the first publication of TMNT #1, and we all know what ensued, but was there a point between doing a one off parody and realizing, “Oh my gosh, this is going to be huge!”?
One point that I remember very distinctly as a key moment occurred when Kevin was still living in Maine and I had moved to Connecticut, and we were working through the mail (remember, this was pre-email days!) on the second issue of TMNT. At that time, I was handling all the business stuff, which really wasn’t all that much then. But part of it involved dealing with the printer in Connecticut and also communicating with the distributors who were buying the comics. We had gotten the order numbers in from the distributors, and I crunched the numbers and realized that with the first printing of TMNT #2, Kevin and I were each going to make about two thousand dollars. I got so excited about this that I immediately called Kevin and gave him the news. We were both incredibly thrilled — I mean, for me at that time, this amount of money was equal to about one-fifth of my total annual income from illustration work… and this was from doing a comic book! Something that we just had a ton of fun doing, and it was making all this money! We were jazzed, to put it mildly.
But the realization that the TMNT property was going to be “huge” beyond the relatively small world of comics came, I think, when we hooked up with our first licensing agent, Mark Freedman of Surge Licensing, and made our first visit out to meet with the people at Playmates Toys in California. This was before one toy hit the shelves or one episode of the first animated show appeared on TV, but it was clear that these people we met with were totally serious about taking our nutty little characters and mass-marketing them.
Was there a point where you felt that the the focus was getting too far away from the comics?
Definitely. That was probably a couple of years into the initial wild success of the TV show and the toy line and all of the other merchandising. Because Kevin and I both wanted — as much as possible — to maintain a decent level of quality control over all of this new stuff coming out, we ended up spending a lot of time dealing with approvals, which typically came in multiple stages for each new product… and there were a lot of products! That, plus dealing with business stuff like contracts and having meetings with lawyers and accountants and so forth, started to seriously cut into the amount of time and energy we were able to devote to doing the comics. Something had to give, and we realized that if we were going to give this licensing thing the best possible shot we could, we had to step away, temporarily, from the comics.
Were there ever any offers from the big two?
Well, we did have one interesting experience, before we signed with Mark Freedman, of talking with Archie Goodwin, who I believe was the editor of Marvel Comics’ “Epic” line at the time. This came by way of an introduction via Peter David, who Kevin and I had met at a convention. We went down to New York City, met Archie, saw the Marvel offices, had a nice lunch, talked about the publishing possibilities, and went home with a sample contract that Archie gave us to read and think about. It didn’t take much thinking — it was clear from the contract that there were two HUGE problems — first, that we would have an editor (something that neither Kevin nor I wanted or thought we needed), and second, that we would give up half of all merchandising rights and revenues. Given that we were at that time making what we thought was great money doing our own self-published comic, it didn’t make much sense to sign with Marvel. So we didn’t.
TMNT did go over to Image for Volume 3. All those stories were “removed from canon,” though. What is the story with that whole situation?
The Image deal was another licensing arrangement which allowed us to keep a TMNT comic out there during a period when we at Mirage didn’t have the interest or energy to publish comics ourselves. I think they did some interesting stuff with the book, but when I became sole owner of Mirage in 2000 and decided to restart the Mirage TMNT comic book, I just didn’t think that the direction the Image TMNT comic had taken was one in which I would have gone, had I continued doing the comics. So it just made sense to me to ignore those stories when it came to reestablishing the TMNT continuity that I was going to work with in my Mirage TMNT comics.
TMNT Co-Creator Kevin Eastman and yourself parted ways some time ago. Eastman had other ideas and aspirations outside of TMNT. What kept you involved with TMNT, and has kept you going with it?
I think it was basically a deep-seated love of the characters and a sense of responsibility towards them. Plus, I enjoy working with all the folks at Mirage.
The original TMNT movie was great, but I remember, being 13 or so, sitting in a movie theater watching Vanilla Ice performing “Ninja Rap” in TMNT 2, thinking “What happened?!?” So… What happened?!?!
I look at the live action movies in this way — the first one was great and a big step forward, the second one was pretty lame and a big step backwards, and the third one was okay and another step forward, which kind of brought us back to square one.
Basically, what happened between the first and second movies was that a number of people in key “power positions” suddenly thought that THEY knew what had made the first live action TMNT movie such a huge success, and they were determined to take those things and amplify them so that the second film would be even MORE of a success.
Obviously, they were wrong. I remember visiting the set of the second movie, and going out to dinner with a group of these people, and listening to their comments — things like “The first movie was really dark, so we’re going to lighten it up!” and “Kids didn’t like the actress who played April in the first movie, so we’re going to replace her!” — and thinking, “Wait a minute — the first movie cost something like $20 million to make and took in (at that time) $135 million in box office… so obviously being “too dark” and having an actress playing April that some kids didn’t like CLEARLY didn’t have much of a negative effect!” I mean, it seemed to me to be the classic no-brainer. But these people were determined to fix something that wasn’t broken, and the second film suffered greatly as a result.
The recent TMNT feature film (TMNT, 2007) seemed to be a commercial success, on its opening weekend beating out 300, which had been #1 the previous two weeks. Were you at all surprised that TMNT still had a market for that kind of success?
Not at all. It could have had even greater success, too, in my opinion, if the marketing campaign had been run more effectively.
Did you have more creative control over the recent film than the previous features?
Yes, much more — I give a lot of credit to Imagi for that… they were great to work with. Unlike my experience with the previous movies’ producers, the people at Imagi really listened to what I had to say. I was closely involved with the writer/director Kevin Munroe from the initial conception of the plot right through to the final script.
How is marketing and licensing a property like TMNT different today than, say, 20 years ago?
In some ways it’s very similar, but the one big difference is that there is a LOT more competition now. One thing that helped us quite a bit when we were beginning the relaunch back in 2003 is that, unlike the first time around, the TMNT had a very successful history that we could point to, and we didn’t have to convince people that this wacky concept could work.
I’ve seen the pictures from the recent NYCC of the new set of “Old School Turtles” toys from NECA. Would you care to tell us a little about that, and the inspiration for that line?
NECA is well known for creating really nice, high-end “collectible” action figures, and they somehow managed to get a license (from our licensing agency, 4Kids) to do these TMNT figures. I’m glad they did, because I think they are fabulous! Sometimes when I look at them, I get this weird feeling that I’m looking at some TMNT toys from a parallel universe, a universe in which the first action figures made of the TMNT actually looked exactly the way Kevin and I drew them in the first TMNT comic book, instead of the way Playmates did them back in 1987.
That is absolutely NOT a criticism of Playmates — I love what they did with those first Turtle figures, and I will be forever grateful to them for all that they did — and continue to do — for the property.
TMNT Volume 4 has been on hiatus for some time now, but is slated to start up again here in May. What can we expect in upcoming issues?
I wish I knew! Actually, I have some firm ideas for some plot elements, but a lot of it is still up in the air. I will say that I had originally had in mind a somewhat apocalyptic ending for Volume 4, but I have since rethought that. It’s possible that I will be wrapping up Volume 4 in another twelve issues or so… but then again, if I start to get really into it again, I may keep going! Sorry to be so vague, but it’s always been that kind of book — evolving as it goes along.
What exactly is your level of creative involvement with the current comics (Volume 4 as well as Tales of TMNT)?
Well, Volume 4 is my baby — I’m writing, lettering, and toning it. I’m very fortunate to have Jim Lawson penciling that series, as well as Eric Talbot doing the inks. As for Tales, I have less involvement — I am acting mostly as an editor/creative consultant on that series, though there are a few issues that I had nothing to do with.
Aside from being known for TMNT, you’re also well known within the comics community for establishing the Xeric Grant, which offers financial support for comics self-publishers. Clearly, its an issue thats close to you, but what, exactly were your specific reasons for establishing this grant?
The initial impetus for creating the Xeric Foundation was frustration — when the Turtle thing started getting really huge, people started coming out of the woodwork to ask for money. Many of them were legitimate charitable organizations or creators needing funding, but there were also quite a few ridiculous things — like the total stranger who asked me for a quarter of a million dollars to fund his general store. It got to the point where I was getting overwhelmed with making these kinds of decisions, and it was suggested to me that a foundation might be a good way to “separate the wheat from the chaff”, providing official and clearly delineated channels through which people looking for money had to make their way.
And it has worked out very well. The Xeric Foundation is actually fifty percent for self-publishing comics creators, and fifty percent for charities. There are two review committees, the volunteer members of which prefer to remain anonymous, and they do great work analyzing all of the applications and making recommendations for grants. And I credit Kendall Clark, who has run the foundation for me from the beginning, as one of the main reasons it has worked as well as it has… she’s done a wonderful job.
I will say that it pleases me greatly that, through this foundation, I have been able to help a lot of deserving comics creators get their work out to the reading public just a little bit more easily. Back when Kevin and I were doing the first issue of TMNT, it helped us a lot that Kevin’s uncle Quentin loaned us some money to help pay the printer’s bill. It’s not as if we would not eventually have been able to put the money together to do it, but it would have taken significantly longer. A big difference, obviously, is that the Xeric grants are not loans, which have to be paid back, but actual grants, which do not.
You participated in the Creators Bill of Rights. How do you see those principles holding up today?
I think the most important thing to come out of that time was to really make clear a concept which had been around for some time but which had not gotten as much exposure as it should have… which was that, as creators, you are not necessarily tied to the traditional creator/publisher relationship, exemplified by the classic “work for hire” contract. That type of relationship certainly has its place, but there are many other possible iterations. And we’ve seen a lot of them in the years since the Creators’ Bill of Rights was written.
Fanboy question: Which is your favorite Turtle, and why?
I love them all, but Donatello is my favorite — he’s quiet and a geek and a pacifist and a gadget freak, and so am I.
Peter, thanks again for taking the time to do this interview with us, we really appreciate it. And frankly, from me, in case I never have another opportunity to say this: Thanks for TMNT!
You’re very welcome!