Peter Laird is an indie comic sensation. Together with Kevin Eastman, the two created the most successful independent comic franchise of all time, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Laird also started the Xeric Award — a grant awarded to exceptional independent comic projects. You can find his blog here and his Blast from the Past archive here.
CODY WALKER: Before we begin, it is an absolute honor to be able to interview you! You’re an inspiration and I really can’t thank you enough.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of the most influential independent comics of all time (if not the most influential) what were the most important factors that helped TMNT achieve such success?
PETER LAIRD: I think the original TMNT comics benefitted from the crazy title — it almost always generated a second look. In fact, one of the most important pieces of promotion in those early days was a story that United Press International (UPI) did on us in 1984 — and I don’t think they would have given our little independent black and white comic any notice if it hadn’t been for that title.
Timing was important, too — even though the TMNT comic was not a true parody (at least as I see it), it came out at a time when people reading comics were open to a parody of the trends in comics in those days — mutants, teenage superheroes, ninjas.
And I believe that although Kevin Eastman and I were not the most polished writers and / or artists, we put a lot of heart into those early issues, and it came through.
WALKER: How did your collaboration with Eastman work?
LAIRD: To produce a TMNT comic — and this held true for almost all the TMNT comics that Kevin and I did together — we would first talk about the plot. One of us might have a basic idea for a story, and once that was shared we’d start trying to work out all the details so it held together. When we got to the point of having a workable story, then Kevin would go off and do “thumbnail” roughs for the layouts of each page of the book, which we would look at and discuss. If I had any problems with or suggestions about the layouts, I would comment on them at that point and occasionally something would need to be altered. Once we had agreed on the layouts, we’d start reproducing them in full size in pencil on the Graphix Duo-Shade illustration board we were using — I think those early pages measured about 8 by 12 inches.
Now, when Kevin was doing the roughs, he would often make very rough dialogue notes on them. As we reached the penciling stage, I would take those notes and all that I remembered about our plot discussions, and do the final dialogue and captions. Then, at an early stage in the penciling, Kevin would do the lettering, with the appropriate balloons and sound effects directly on the Duo-Shade board.
One thing we tried hard to do at this stage — and at the inking and toning stages as well — was to pass the pages back and forth so that we could each get a chance to contribute to each page. We tried for a 50/50 blend, and it was one of the reasons that the early books had a consistent style. There were a few pages on which one of us would do all of one step — penciling, inking or toning — but that was rare. We tried to get optimum value out of our respective skill sets — there were certain things that I could draw better than Kevin, and vice versa, so we would usually defer to the other guy in those cases.
As the years went by and our partnership started to show some signs of strain, we were less interested in working together like that. I think it was around the time we did issue #10 that we realized it might be wise to take a break, and so we started working on issue individually. I think the first one to come out was issue #12, which I did all by myself (except for the lettering, which I think was done by Steve Lavigne). Kevin and I didn’t get back together to work on an issue of the TMNT comic until the three-part “Return to New York” series.
WALKER: How has your interest in doing TMNT waxed and waned over the years?
LAIRD: There have definitely been periods when I was more or less into it — I’d say the advent of that awful live-action “Next Mutation” TV series marked the beginning of a period of a few years during which I had little interest in the TMNT, and then when the 4Kids TV series started I had a huge upsurge of interest in working on the Turtles again. Collaborating with Lloyd Goldfine, the head writer on that series, was a great experience. Actually, a few years before that, when I started the Volume 4 TMNT comic series, which I was writing and Jim Lawson was penciling, I felt the passion again.
WALKER: The immense popularity of the TMNT has led to a plethora of video games, television shows, movies, board games, action figures, etc. What are some of your favorite TMNT items?
LAIRD: I do remember being very fond of the first release of the action figures, especially the Turtles themselves. Later on, I loved the “Universal Monsters” Turtle figures (especially the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” one) and of course, the “Star Trek” Turtles were a high point.
I should make note of the NECA TMNT figures which came out I think some time around 2008 — those were very cool because that was the first time TMNT action figures had been made which looked just like the Turtles did in their first comic book appearance.
WALKER: In 1988, you helped draft the Creator’s Bill of Rights which has helped to protect the rights of creators and their intellectual property. Can you discuss the importance of that document at the time it was created and also how it has influenced the industry today?
LAIRD: I think that the “Creator’s Bill of Rights” meant — and means — different things to different people, but the way I look at it is this — it was essentially a declaration that there needn’t be just one way of doing business in the world of comics. Back then, the typical model for creators was to get a job at Marvel or DC and sign away all copyrights and merchandising profit participation. The “Creator’s Bill of Rights” pointed out that while that could be a workable model for certain types of jobs in comics, it wasn’t the only one. There were a lot of different ways to structure the relationship between a publisher and a creator. I don’t know exactly how much direct effect the “Creator’s Bill of Rights” had on things, but I think it is pretty clear that these days there is a lot more flexibility in the types of deals creators are getting with publishers.
WALKER: You founded the Xeric Foundation in 1992 to award grants to comic creators. What do you typically look for in the selection of Xeric winners? Which projects are the most memorable? (Side-note: in 2003 you awarded Jai Nitz with a Xeric for his comic Paper Museum, and thank you for that because it is one of my all-time favorite comics!)
LAIRD: I do not personally evaluate the submissions — there is a three-person team which does that. They then provide me a list of their choices, and every time they have, I have agreed with what they decided. But in general, the Xeric committee looks for originality and clear intent, as well as technical skill, in the submissions.
I can’t right at the moment think of a lot of memorable Xeric projects — even though I know there are many — but one that sticks in my mind is Jay Hosler’s “Clan Apis.”
WALKER: What comics are you into today? What should people be reading?
LAIRD: At this point in my life, I am probably a bad person to ask this question of, because these days — in fact, for the last five years at least — I read almost no comics. I do still enjoy “Usagi Yojimbo” by my friend Stan Sakai, and there is an occasional comic that catches my interest — Sean Wang’s Runners being one a few years ago — but for whatever reason or reasons, I just don’t relate to comics the way I used to. The passion that I once felt for them is gone.
WALKER: I don’t think I could end this interview with any other question than “what do you like on your pizza or was the pizza obsession so overdone that you never want pizza ever again?”
LAIRD: The Turtle’s pizza obsession in the first TMNT animated TV series did get to be incredibly annoying, and in fact I made a point of poking a little fun at that when we did the 2003 4Kids series.
I do enjoy the occasional pizza — not too heavy on the sauce or the cheese, maybe with chicken as a topping, with a few vegetables. There was a local pizza joint which made a fabulous chicken and pesto pizza, but sadly they are no longer in business.
WALKER: Thanks so much!
LAIRD: You’re welcome!