But then the turtles’ cartoon series launched during the 1987 holiday season. A now-classic live-action movie followed in 1990. There were popular video games and tons of toys and merchandising. The turtles had outgrown their comic book origins. “The Last Ronin” became lost in the wave of “turtle power.” Eastman, in a recent interview, estimates that for most of the 1980s, he and Laird spent 90 percent of their time on TMNT comics and the other 10 percent on business. Once Hollywood called, he says, those numbers were switched.
Fast forward to today: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are still a household name. Noble leader Leonardo and his katana blades. Rough and tough Raphael and his sai. Brainy Donatello and his bo staff, and party dude Michelangelo and his nunchucks. Movies, both animated (2007) and live-action (2014 and 2016), continue to be successful. As have multiple animated series on various networks.
Just as resilient has been the turtles’ original gateway to their fandom: the comics.
It is there, at San Diego-based comic publisher IDW, where Eastman dusted off “The Last Ronin,” which is finally being released, three decades after it was conceived.
Eastman tweaked the script a bit after finding the original notes from the initial idea for the story, and then collaborated with Tom Waltz (who writes the current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series at IDW) on turning a long-lost file into a new miniseries. “Right away [the story] just blew me away,” Waltz says.
The first (of five) issues of “The Last Ronin” is available now in print and digitally, co-written by Eastman and Waltz and illustrated by Esau and Isaac Escorza. Luis Antonio Delgado will color the series. Each issue will be more than 40 pages and printed in an oversize format that pays homage to the original TMNT comics. You don’t find out which turtle is the lone survivor until the end of the first issue.
The story takes place 20 years beyond where the ninja turtles are in their main series, Eastman says. “Issue 1 is basically an all-out fight that sets up the story and the way the world is now. Issue 5 is basically an all-out fight that will wrap up so many things within the story. For Issues 2, 3 and 4, half the book will be here and now, and half the book will be a flashback to how things go to the point where we ended up with just one turtle seeking final vengeance for his family. It’s heavy. It’s darker than anything we’ve done before.”
Eastman has never been able to completely say goodbye to his masked green creations, even after he sold his rights to TMNT to Laird in the early 2000s. Laird then sold the rights to Viacom, followed by IDW picking up the license to publish TMNT comics in 2011. IDW reached out to Eastman immediately, asking if he’d be interested in being a part of their new comic book TMNT universe, which has included 100 issues in the main series. He’s done everything from cover and interior art to overseeing story lines. Going back to the platform where TMNT got their start felt like a homecoming for Eastman, who says making comic books will always be his preferred method of telling a ninja turtle tale.
When he was on the set of the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie, and director Steve Barron coordinated where everyone needed to be in front of and behind the camera, Eastman watched in disbelief while wondering to himself how movies ever got made at all.
“Comics was always the greatest place and space because you controlled everything,” Eastman said. “You controlled the pacing. You controlled the dialogue. Everything about it. The purity of the medium of going back to doing comics for comics’ sake and having fuller and complete control of what you want to do and how you want to pace these stories is just the best universe ever. … The more time I spent trying to do things outside of comic books, the more I longed to get back into the world of comic books.”
Despite the darkness and death that await the turtles in “The Last Ronin,” Eastman is quick to point out that the miniseries is far from the “last” story.
“By the time you get to the end of ‘The Last Ronin’ this could be another turtle universe that we could explore and tell stories from,” Eastman said. “I look forward to finding out what that is.”