PORTLAND, Maine — Michelangelo, Donatello, Rafael, and Leonardo are all great Italian artists, but when grouped together they represent the polar opposite of sophistication: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Whether you know the crime-fighting brothers from comics, movies, cartoons, toys, or video games, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been one of the most successful independent comics in the past 40 years, amassing generations of fans.
Co-creator Kevin Eastman grew up in Maine and graduated from Westbrook High School. Eastman was living with comic book writing partner Peter Laird in Dover, New Hampshire, in 1983 when late one night, in an effort to annoy Laird, Eastman doodled a muscled up ninja turtle.
"I put it on his desk, and I said, 'This is going to be the next big thing.'" Eastman remembered.
Laird quickly improved upon the sketch until Eastman penciled a drawing with four turtles with different weapons.
"We thought it was the funniest thing ever. We fell in love with it, and the very next day we said, 'Let's come up with a story about how these characters became the TMNT,'" Eastman said.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have legions of fans across the globe.
At Coast City Comics in Portland, they can't keep turtle toys in stock. One the toys arrive at the store, they are immediately purchased. Eastman said he believes the fact that the turtles have no particular race, creed, or color and are part of an adoptive family has helped their relatability.
"No matter where you are or who you are, you can imagine yourself as one of these characters, which is part of the role-play, the fantasy, and the enjoyment of being able to embrace that character," Eastman said.
The turtles may bicker like most siblings, but family and their respect for their adoptive father, Splinter, is at the core of every storyline.
Eastman said choosing a favorite would be like choosing a favorite child, but when pressed, he picked Mikey, only because "he was the first turtle" and will be the last, as in "The Last Ronin."
Mikey's comedic personality was modeled after Robin Williams and Eastman's good friend from high school.
There are few other Maine references in the comic book, but TMNT might not have even happened if it weren't for the time Eastman spent as a child playing on Bonny Eagle Pond.
"It had this sort of wonderful swampy runoff that was just filled with turtles, and when I was a kid I would go to visit my grandparents a lot, and I would go and hang out with for hours," Eastman, who was a fan of dinosaurs and saw the turtles as ancient creatures, said.
Despite selling the rights to TMNT more than 20 years ago, Eastman still gets hired to work on the cartoons, movies, and comics, but he also pursues other projects, like his latest called "Biz an Buzz."
"Biz an Buzz" is a comic created with British comic book artist Simon Bisley, and it features Eastman and Bisley's alter egos. There are plans for it to be made into an animated series by BAFTA-winning Factory Studios.
Biz an Buzz were inspired by Eastman's childhood love of Laurel and Hardy. They are wannabe rockers who keep finding themselves in in ridiculous circumstances. The animated series is still in the works but will hopefully be out in the next year.
Another project Eastman has been brainstorming for decades, and one he hopes to write someday that many Maine comic fans will be excited about, is a Maine-centric comic that features characters all from different "tribes" inspired by Eastman's love of the Tolkien's "The Hobbit."
"There's a lot of history (in Maine), and there's a lot of ancient history there," Eastman said about why he wants to write a comic that takes place in the Pine Tree State.
Eastman and Laird said they have just started meeting fans again at comic book conventions.
Eastman will be back in New England for the Granite State Comic Con Convention in Manchester in September. He said interacting with fans is one of the best parts of his job.