“Timing,” Peter Laird proclaims wistfully, “in a lot of ways is everything.” A quarter of a century after first introducing his most famous creations to the world alongside long time co-conspirator Kevin Eastman, the artist has had plenty time to reflect on such things. It’s hard to argue with the sentiment. The introduction of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a black and white comic in the fall of 1983 was about as perfect as timing gets.
Three years after the release of that first book, the Turtles had been successfully translated into an animated series and action figure line. Soon after that, Eastman and Laird’s creations would become a bona fide cultural phenomenon.
Even after the cartoons, and the movies, and the breakfast cereals, however, the duo have never forgotten their roots as struggling independent cartoonist who, in the face of rejection from power house publishers, Marvel and DC, took a leap into the often rocky world of self-publishing. Eastman, for his part, launched Tundra in 1990, publishing works by artists like Jim Woodring, Scott McCloud, and Mike Allred. Laird took things a step further, creating the Xeric Foundation, which since 1992, has been a major force in self-publishing, having issued grants to such future big name artists as Jason Lutes, Adrian Tomine, Tom Hart, Jessica Abel, and Gene Yang.
We had the fortune of bumping in Laird in amongst the gauntlet that is The New York Comic Con Artist Alley. We spoke to the artist about his journey from self-publishing to pop-cultural icon.
Is it ever hard looking at those old books? What’s your first thought when someone hands you one of the originals?
I’m not really sure, I mean, it does take me back, definitely. Twenty-five years is a long time–almost half my life, in fact. But it does take me back to a period in my life when it was incredibly exciting to be doing our comic book. Even more it was exciting because it was a comic book that people seemed to want to buy and read. For Kevin and I both, it was a fantastic time for us.
When did the decision to self-publish come about?
We wanted to work for Marvel and DC. Back then, that was really 95-percent of what you could do in comics.
It’s still pretty close to that, right?
Yeah, yeah. Although there are a lot more avenues these days. Back then there was a certain amount of self-publishing going on, but not nearly what it is today. And we did a couple of things for different companies and got rejected. We saw what the Pinis were doing with Elfquest, what Dave Sim was doing with Cerebus, and of course we were aware of some of the underground comics. We finally said, “screw it, we’ll do it ourselves.” That’s the power of self-publishing. No one else wants you, so you do it yourself. So that’s what we did.
The work seemed to straddle the fence between the more traditional stuff and some of the more comedic underground work, like, say R. Crumb—were artists like him an influence on the work?
Oh yeah, that was an influence maybe not so much on content, but definitely on spirit. It was exciting for us to see people getting that kind of distribution on their own. Obviously it wasn’t getting the kind of distribution of a Superman or a Fantastic Four, but it was getting out there. Clearly you’d read these books and you could tell that these were people who really passionately wanted to do this. They had something to say, and this was a great avenue to say it.
The early books seemed geared toward older readers. How did the Turtles end up skewing so young?
Well, it was a natural progression. Kevin and I did the comics for ourselves. We did them the way we wanted to read them. When the toy company and then the animated series came along, of course it was obvious they were going for a younger audience, which was fine by us, because the way we looked at it, we could compromise and make the Turtles skew younger for that audience because we still had the books and we could make them the way that we wanted, which we continued to do.
Was it hard to take that first step, in terms of letting your creation get away from you?
Yeah, though at the time we were pretty star struck. I’ve been thinking about it as I’ve been pondering the 25th anniversary, and it was only three years from the date of publication of the first comic until the animated series started. That’s mind boggling. Two yahoos in their living room in New Hampshire, publishing the first issue with 3,000 copies and it goes in three years to become a major toy line and a major animated series, and in the following years number one in both fields. It was very bizarre.
Ultimately, in a sense it’s become the creation of a lot more than those first two people. Have the cartoons and the other work that has been projected on the characters affected the way you write them?
Some, but not a lot. It is difficult sometimes, but it is possible to compartmentalize that kind of stuff. One of the things about creating something like this is, once you’ve created it and it gets out into the public, it takes on a mind of its own. I’m not gonna say that none of what has happened outside of my hands has influenced me—it has. Although I still think I have a real powerful sense of the way Kevin and I originally perceived and created them, and when I write a comic that features the Turtles, I still write from that inner place.
Did you ever feel as if you were working against that external force? How important was it to stay true to that original vision?
You know, in a lot of ways, when we signed the first deals to the first series and the first line of toys, it was our first time at bat with that stuff and we were somewhat naïve. For the most part, we had good deals, but we didn’t have a lot of approval rights. Right now I have a lot more. I’m a lot more savvy about that stuff. But at the time, it was about compartmentalizing. We understood that to get a whole time line and get those out into stores, to have a TV show broadcast nationwide and to get it all over the world, we had to compromise, to take our characters and soften them up. But for the large part, we let other people do that, so we could focus on our own work, which was the comic books.
It seems like it’s also been fairly important for both of you to give back to independent publishers. You’ve both had a fairly large role in that, whether through the Xeric grant or starting your own publishing house.
Yeah. Something that really played a large part in the creation of the Xeric foundation is the fact that, if Kevin and I hadn’t been able to borrow some money to create that first issue, it might have taken us months, maybe years before we could do it, and who knows what would have happened if that amount of time had passed, because timing, in a lot of ways, is everything.