Peter Laird: The Lost Interview by Will Tupper

peterlaird 
It’s the kind of cracked artifact one might find down at the old “Second Time Around” shop. Dusty, musty, and buried under stacks of other papers.

Hidden treasure.

Sometime (and I’m not entirely sure of the date), I think around early 2002, I had reached the end of my proverbial rope. In college (yes, still) and trapped with the feeling my creative well was drying up faster than I’d ever be able to refill it, I decided to kill a lazy Saturday afternoon at a local comic shop. I’d been “out” of comic fandom for years, now. I was an English Major with eyes and mind focused solely toward the world of “serious” literature.

Oh, I had a lot to (re)learn. I’m pretty sure I picked up at least a couple of Batman titles that day. I was about to make my way towards the register, when there they were. Issues of comics starring the four green brothers who provided me with both comfort and adventure in the midst of what had been a very rocky adolescence.  It was a rediscovery, a recovery of old friends.

Sometimes, I like to think, these things don’t just “happen.”

I was back. Will Tupper. Full-fledged Turtle fan.

Flash-forward a couple months. I’d cut my creative teeth freelancing for a Chicago newsstand magazine, this thing called Punk Planet. Which provided me with a great way to satisfy my journalism jones: a desire I’d had since my teenage years to talk to those folks who long inspired me, get their stories, and hopefully learn a little about how they made the magic happen.

It didn’t take me long to put 2 and 2 together, and come up with “Why not?” I fired an Email over to Turtle Headquarters, figuring I might as well give it a shot. Maybe, just maybe, Peter Laird (one-half of the creative bricklayers who helped lay the solid foundation of my adolescent and teenage imagination) wouldn’t mind answering a few questions about his process.  Less about what he does, and more about how.

Punk Planet ultimately passed on the piece. But, I’m pleased to say that Mr. Laird was a veritable  “Saint Patient” with me, taking the time to answer all of my oddball queries. He’d do this again, once I’d worked up the stones to submit a letter or two for the comics letter column (the responsibility of having my name appear in my all-time favorite comic book just terrified me). I thanked him then, and I will do it again, here: thank you, sir. Your generosity with your time genuinely astounded me.

And (if I may get a bit more personal, just for a moment), I don’t think I’m “telling tales out of school” by saying this; I’m pretty sure it’s common knowledge  at this point. Peter Laird took a bit of a “creative hiatus” from work on the Tales of the TMNT comic while he was deep in the throes of work on the last TMNT film. Former-Editor Steve Murphy (whom I’ve thanked privately, and will gladly do so here, publicly) showed me a generosity of another sort, helping me usher a few short, “back-up” scripts into publication in the Turtle comic book world. To be able to give back, even a little, to a story that gave me so much growing up… it’s cliche to use a phrase like, “It was a dream come true,” but so what. It totally was.

I hope that you, dear reader, may get something from this near decade old interview with Ninja Turtle co-creator, Peter Laird.

I certainly did.

You’ve been publishing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for over twenty years. What about the comics industry – and independent comics specifically – has changed the most in that time?

Well, there have been quite a few changes. Here are three that I can think of…

1. The serious decline in the number of comic bookstores nationwide has really hurt the industry. I have heard that half of the stores that existed ten years ago are now gone. I’m not 100% sure of that figure, but anecdotal evidence and personal observations seems to bear it out. That, coupled with the fact there is a far wider variety of product available now then ten years ago (something a perusal of Diamond Comics’ “Previews” order book will show) means that more stuff is competing for shelf space on fewer shelves – not good. And even if the number of shops had remained the same, I still think we’d be in trouble, because the pie (i.e. the number of dollars the comic-buying public is willing to spend, which I think is pretty static) would be sliced-up into an ever-increasing number of slices, each of which would be proportionately smaller.

2. Another change – which seems counterintuitive given what I said in point 1 – is that there seems to be more self-publishers every year, putting out a huge variety of book, many of which are really good. I attended the Small Press Expo (SPX) in Bethesda a few years ago and was amazed at the range of books (in style, content and / of form) and the clear passion of the people putting them out. Even though many of them may never make a living publishing their books, it’s truly heartening to see that kind of spirit. It reminds me of the energy that Kevin Eastman and I put into the first issue of the TMNT back in 1984 – though later events brought us great financial success with the TMNT property, at that time we were just so happy to do our own comic and get it printed and into people’s hands. It was a labor of love, and that’s how I think you should approach doing comics.

3. The Internet! I have a theory that the Internet has contributed to the decline of the comics industry, and has similiarly affected other industries. I started thinking about this a few years ago when I observed that my piles of unread books and magazines (and comics) had grown to an unruly height. It puzzled me, because I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I had never had any trouble keeping a handle on my reading material. It finally dawned on me that one of the reasons for this was that many of what would ordinarily have been my reading hours had been taken up with Internet activities – emailing, downloading software, and just plain surfing the web.

The more I thought about it, the more obvious it seemed. The Internet – or at least the popular acceptance and use of it – is a fairly recent development. Prior to the Internet, if you wanted to, for example, read something about a subject that interests you, you would go out to a book or magazine store, scan the shelves, and buy what you thought was good reading. But now, you can sit at home and – if you’re so inclined – not get up for hours and hours while you surf around and read from a more or less inexhaustable sea of material… and one which is constantly being renewed and expanded. There is, practically speaking for an individual, no end of the amount of interesting stuff available on the Internet.

Not only is there all that content, there are vast numbers of people TALKING about the content, in thousands upon thousands of forums dedicated to particular interests. And not only can you “eavesdrop” on pretty much any of those discussing, you can jump right in and join the chatter, if you so desire… and that is a very seductive thing. The Internet has been described – somewhat fairly, I think – as the greatest time-waster ever invented. It comes down to this – if after doing what you need to do during your day (work, family duties, hanging with friends, chores, etc.) you used to have roughly three hours a day for recreation, and you used it for, say, reading, what do you do with that three hours now that you have Internet access? If you only spend an hour a day (and that is VERY easy to do), that’s one less hour of reading you can do. And that means that you prioritize your free time, and eventually stop buying as many books and comics, for the simple fact that it makes no sense to buy things to read that you will never have time TO read.

Don’t get me wrong – I really like the Internet. It is an incredible resource, and something I never dreamed would be available. I sometimes wonder how different my life would have been if I had grown up with the Internet at my fingertips… I’m pretty sure I would not be where or who I am right now.

Let’s talk a bit about what you’re working on now. In the new Turtlesseries the characters have encountered a number of things that have been part of post-9/11 America, rampant xenophobia and the mysterious terrorists “Xihad” to name only two. Was this a conscious decision for you? Do you feel politics and current events should play a relevant part in comics?

I’ve always thought that there is a place for politics and current events in comics – I mean, why not? Everything is “grist for the mill” as far as storytelling goes, and if it works for the story that you are telling in your comic, I say go for it.

Like nearly everyone else, I was deeply affected by the events of 9/11, and I suppose there’s no way to avoid some of that finding its way into the TMNT comic. As far as the “Xihad” goes, that was to some extent my way of commenting on what I consider the cruelty, absurdity, and stupidity of terrorism. I have also long been fascinated by the question of “What would happen if benign extraterrestrials really landed on Earth?” – how would people react to such a world-changing event? My sense is that the vast majority of humans would, over a relatively short period of time, accept it, but that there would always be a bitter, close-minded minority for whom it would just be unbearable, because of some deeply held religious, political or racial views.

Besides working on the Turtles, you also help other comic creators get their dreams off the ground through your Xeric Foundation. What’s that all about, and how would someone get involved with it?

The Xeric Foundation is something I started as a way of reasonably dealing with the many requests for money which came my way once the Turtlesbecame popular and successful. Most of those requests came from charities, so I knew I wanted Xeric to deal with those entities, but it was also a great opportunity to give a leg up to self-publishing comic creators who were just starting out and/or needed some help to get a project off the ground. It’s basically the kind of thing that I wish had been around back when Kevin and I published the first TMNT comic. And it has worked out great – quite a few really talented people have gotten Xeric grants which have helped them get their work out there. Since September of 1992, Xeric has given out more than a million dollars in grants to self-publishing comic creators. For anyone interested in applying for a grant, and/or checking out who has received grants in the past, just go to www.xericfoundation.com.

How important are promotion and marketing in selling an independent comic? I ask this knowing it was your idea to send out a press release about the Turtles to a number of major media outlets before the first issue came out. Is this a common practice in the industry? Is it something you’d recommend other artists try today?

Promotion and marketing are at LEAST as important as actually writing and drawing your comic, if your aim is to actually SELL some of them. And it can be really difficult and expensive. But you have to do it – there are so many other comics clammoring for attention that if you don’t figure out SOME way to get notice for yours, you’re out of luck. We were VERY fortunate in those early days. First we had a strange title which nearly always generated a second look (“Teenage… Mutant… Ninja… TURTLES??!! Huh??!!”). And we really lucked out with one of our press releases which I sent to the United Press International office in Boston – somebody their (bless their heart!) thought it was newsworthy, and they wrote a piece and sent a photographer up to New Hampshire to take a photo of us, and that thing went EVERYWHERE, all over the country and beyond. It was amazingly good (and free!) publicity, and really got us rolling.

What other advice would you offer to a novice independent comic artist? And whom do you continue to look to for inspiration?

The best advice I can give to someone who wants to do indepdendent, self-published comics is that if you don’t have a passion for it – if you don’t “live and breathe,” as they say, to do comics – don’t bother.

As for inspiration, I find it in my coworkers at Mirage Studios – Jim Lawson, Mike Dooney, Eric Talbot, Dan Berger, Craig Farley – as well as people like Stan Sakai, creator of USAGI YOJIMBO, who has written and drawn – by himself – more than 140 issues of his unique USAGI comic over the last twenty years. And I continue to be inspired by the work of the late Jack “King” Kirby, especially as there is a great magazine called “The Jack Kirby Collector” being published that includes a lot of previously-unseen or unpublished work by Kirby, including reproductions of his raw, wonderful pencil art (I think it’s published bi-annually by TwoMorrows Publishing). 

Thank you so much for your time. Finally, I’ve just got to ask: has there ever been a downside to being the cocreator of the Turtles? A time when you’ve just wanted to say, “forget it,” and walk away?

Oh, yeah. I tell people that sometimes I wish the success of the Turtles had stayed at the level it was when we were doing the early comics, when we were making a decent living doing something fun that we just loved to do. The huge success of the Turtlesin the world of licensing and merchandising brought me the kinds of resources that allowed me to get to know some great people, and do a lot of cool things, like the Xeric Foundation, as well as indulge myself in some favorite pastimes, like motorcycles… but it also brought out the most incredible leeches, bloodsuckers, crazies and fools. It’s amazing what people will try to do when they think they can grab a bunch of money that they in no way, shape or form actually EARNED a penny of. It has made me significantly more cynical about human nature.