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``Far out,' says Kevin Eastman, who, eager for breakfast, has just been told the hotel's restaurant closed at 10 a.m. to prepare for Mother's Day brunch.

It's about 10:02.A slight smile - or is it a smirk? - tugs at the corners of his black mustache as he ambles into the lobby of the Holiday Inn Airport.

The co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who was in Greensboro Saturday for the Parts Unknown Comic Book Convention, would probably settle for some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cereal right now, or maybe some Cruncha-Bungas, pizza-flavored snacks named for the TMNTs' favorite saying.

But this morning, the man who helped give birth to four turtles who turned the comic book world upside down has to drink his breakfast - with cream and sugar - from a Styrofoam cup.

It doesn't seem to bother Eastman. He settles into a sofa beside girlfriend April Fisher - the model for one of the characters in his comic books - and chats about how the turtles have changed his life.

``I never thought I'd own a house, and I do,' he says. ``That in itself is wild.'

You'd never know that this man - who looks more like a kid in white tank shirt, scuffed L.A. Gear sneakers, jeans and a black leather jacket with four turtles embroidered on the back - is a millionaire several times over.

``People say to me, 'Relax, hang out, drink martinis,' ' Eastman says. ``That's not the way I grew up.'

If Eastman's life since the success of the turtles were made into a comic book, it might be called ``Beyond Cowabunga.'

In it, Eastman would be a superhero, saving the cartoonists of the world from the dark forces of corporate comics such as D.C. and Marvel.

It would show Eastman as a little boy in Groville, Maine, drawing comic book characters and making up stories to go along with them. It would show him applying to the Portland School of Art, proudly showing his comics to an administrator, then hearing him say, ``This is drivel.' He got in, but dropped out after a year because funds ran out.

It would picture Eastman cooking lobsters, bagging groceries and making pizzas so he could spend more time drawing.

And it would have a spread about the day - Cowabunga! - Eastman met Peter Laird, a free-lance cartoonist who lived in Northampton, Mass., near Amherst, where Eastman was living at the time.

The two amused themselves by coming up with outrageous ideas for comic books, one of them a parody of cartoonist Frank Miller's Ronin, a ninja character. The turtles were born.

Eastman and Laird published the first TMNT comic in 1984 with a $500 from Eastman's tax return, $300 from Laird's savings account and a loan of a couple of thousand from Eastman's uncle.

Our superhero Eastman begins to take form.

Doing it their way\

Eastman and Laird's decision to publish the TMNT book themselves as an underground comic gave them complete control over the turtles and ensured that they would always belong to them.

They formed Mirage Studios, an appropriate name, Eastman says, ``because it wasn't a studio. It was our living room.'

Mirage made them rich, but it also made them conscious of the inequities that exist in the corporate comics world, a place where artists are regarded, Eastman says, as ``cattle, easily replaced and to be abused.'

There was a point, Eastman says, that he and Laird would have signed with a corporate comic had an offer been made. He feels sure their beloved turtles would have been torn from them.

``If we created the turtles for Marvel Comics, they could fire us and bring in someone else to draw them,' he says.

It happened to Jack Kirby, creator of characters such as Spider Man and The Hulk, and an early inspiration for Eastman.

A few years back, Kirby was suing Marvel for the return his pencil sketches, piling up legal fees and getting nowhere. Eastman and Laird heard about Kirby's plight and drew a comic book titled ``Kirby and the Warp Crystal,' wherein Kirby found a pencil equipped with a crystal that turned his drawings into real people.

The guys wanted to donate the proceeds to Kirby to help with his expenses, but Kirby declined.

Even though he eventually won back some of his drawings, the way Marvel treated Kirby, who now lives in L.A., continues to irk Eastman.

``I still believe he's not paid a pension or residuals,' Eastman says. ``Marvel is making millions off him.'

Last year, Eastman created his own company, Tundra Publishing Ltd., to continue the work he started with Laird at Mirage, of which he still owns half.

Tundra has put out 15 publications, among them a series called Cages, a beautifully illustrated graphic novel.

Unlike the situation in the corporate comic world, Tundra artists retain complete creative control over their work.

``We give them a fair shake,' Eastman says.

Tundra has won Eastman the respect of his contemporaries, including Chapel Hill cartoonist Kent Williams, whose booth was beside Eastman's at the comic convention.

``He's not just making this money on the turtle stuff and blowing it,' says Williams, who is working on a book of paintings for Tundra. ``He's putting it back into the industry. He's not playing it safe, necessarily. He's allowed me to do my book, which is not a real commercial sort of venture.'

The turtles, of course, are still around. Nowadays, they take two forms - the original, black-and-white, adult-oriented comics, and the redesigned, softer turtles that became a commercial knockout with children.

Eastman and Laird publish the black-and-white TMNT comics - which feature dark humor, sophisticated plots and more violence than their counterparts - once a month. They still do some of the drawing, although other artists do backgrounds and fill-in art.

There's not enough time for everything because the business end of the turtles takes up so much energy. Just handling requests from the thousand-plus companies who want TMNT on their toys or furniture or food keeps the staff busy.

Eastman himself works 60- to 80-hour weeks at Tundra.

Then there's Words and Pictures, the comic book museum Eastman is building in Northampton, where he'll display some of the 4,000 pieces of comic book art he's collected over the last few years.

He admits he and Laird have been criticized for selling out, for turning the turtles into a commercial craze. But that doesn't bother Eastman, either.

``Hey, we created them, and this is what we decided to do,' he says. ``I don't regret it one bit.'


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