Inside The Shell: Jim Lawson’s Tales of Turtles, Tunes & Potato Chip Wrasslin’ [Interview]

Jim Lawson Interview

Photo credit: Kathy Lawson

Those of us who grew up as comic book geeks in western Massachusetts all felt a close connection to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I mean, how could you NOT – Mirage Studios was just down the road in Northampton, after all. I saw Eastman, Laird and the crew in a few area appearances in my youth, and followed the Turtles’ rise to stardom from a distance in the decades to follow.

It wasn’t until recent years that I met Jim Lawson – introduced by my wife, who matter-of-factly told me that she used to hang out and have coffee with all of the Turtles fellas. Once I recovered from my mind being blown, I think I stammered out a “Hi, how ya doin’?” and probably not much more. I felt like my geek cred shrank about three sizes that day…

It appears that my catatonic state from that first meeting was ignored, luckily, and Jim agreed to this interview as part of our Shellabration blowout. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

TMNT-Lawson

I know you’ve probably told the story a million times, but how did that first meeting with Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird go?

JIM LAWSON: I went to and graduated art school, and at the time I was working in the ad department of a local paper—it was kind of a shitty job. A friend of mine knew Pete’s wife, Jeannine, and a meeting was set up for me to introduce myself to Pete and Kevin and to show them some of my work. This must’ve been around 1987-88? I wasn’t into comics at the time, and had never heard of these two guys and the Turtles. I went over to Kevin’s apartment and pretty much had my mind blown. They couldn’t have been nicer and they showed me their art and the books and at the time things were just beginning to build and the response that they were both getting from the comic was incredible and growing…

Michaelangelo-KlunkAnyhow, they offered me a job inking a story that was to be used as a backup in one of the Turtle books. In a real nutshell, that’s basically how it all started. All this took place in Connecticut and when they made the decision to move up to Mass, I followed.

It truly, truly was a combination of good luck and knowing somebody.

When you started on the Turtles, did you ever imagine that you’d see a 30th anniversary being celebrated?

JL: My head never really was there – thinking about the Turtles and what their longevity would be. I guess that if I were pressed for an answer, my expectation couldn’t possibly match the reality of the success of the TMNT– it’s just been so unusual and unique. Sitting here and looking at it now, it’s a little overwhelming to think about the cultural icon that it’s become.

My role was actually pretty miniscule- Kevin and Pete absolutely deserve all the credit for making the TMNT’s the huge fucking deal that they are (thanks Joe Biden).

What are the wackiest hijinks the Mirage crew ever got up to back in the day? I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has run out on most of ’em by now, so speak freely…

JL: I’ve really struggled with this question. I mean, I think that perhaps there’s a perception that we were this group of wacky guys who were always screwing around. To an extent maybe that was true but I think a lot of the humor was more of an inside joke kind of thing. For example, if I said “Spartan Chip Wrestling” that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone other than the Mirage guys. It refers to 2 studio members (who shall remain nameless) who would pour potato chips on the apartment floor and strip down to their underwear and wrestle in the chips.

Raphael-vs-ShredderY’know, among the wackiest stuff, nothing really jumps out at me. We did a lot of fun things- like having airsoft gun fights in the studio but nothing really jumps out at me as being exceptionally bizarre or illegal. Steve Lavigne would be a much better one to ask this question.

As a comic fan, has there ever been a character/team that ever made you say: “Oh yeah, I want to draw THAT book.” Or are you happiest when working on the Turtles and your own characters?

JL: I’ve never felt a closeness with a character or characters the way that I did with the Turtles- of course, except for my own stuff. I want that connection- anything less feels like you’re just making a product, I think. I really don’t want to work on anyone else’s characters – the old Mirage Turtles and my stuff – that’s it.

What music would provide the soundtrack for the Turtles in your mind? And does that have anything to do with the music that may have played at Mirage while you guys were creating?

JL: Early in the Turtle days, we shared an open studio. Among all of us, Steve Lavigne probably had the best taste in music and I really have to credit him with turning me on to bands like The Hoodoo Gurus, Texas, The BoDeans, Los Lobos and the Del Fuegos. Probably the band that I got the most shit for listening to was Talk Talk. Also from that time and a band that is still my favorite is REM.

Dragonfly-Lawson

Pretend this is an issue of “What If?” – “What if Jim Lawson never hooked up with Mirage Studios”? What direction do you think your art would have gone? Would there still be a giant turtle in Dragonfly?

JL: My association with Mirage has allowed me to draw, and draw continuously (and get paid for it) for the past 20+ years. I can’t imagine another scenario where that would’ve been possible. That said, my need to draw is very high and I can only assume that I would be producing some kind of art even without Mirage. It’s an interesting question- the Turtles absorbed so much of my time and creative energy, I wonder what could’ve come out of it had it been directed elsewhere.

As for the turtle character, John, I can remember when I was developing Dragonfly I wanted a guy who was a big dude – and was tough. I wanted him to be able to handle both kicking ass and getting his ass kicked. I wanted him to be able to survive being chewed on by a dinosaur. Also – I wanted him to be able to blend in with the dinosaur environment, yet at the same time stand out a little. Like he belonged but didn’t belong (that was part of his personality). I liked too that (as a turtle) he was familiar to our experience in the way a dinosaur man (which was another consideration) wouldn’t be. So yeah – the answer is yes.

Dragonfly-castSpeaking of Dragonfly – you Kickstarted the first book, and you recently released the second issue through Facebook a page at a time. Will that ever get collected into a digital or print issue? And will the story continue?

JL: My experience with Dragonfly has been a real journey. I started the book a couple of years back with the intent that it was just going to be something wacky and fun. I came up with the characters and stuck them in a situation where I would have a lot of freedom to introduce different scenarios pretty much without limitation. 5 issues have pretty much been written – or at least figured out and up until recently I was working on the art for issue 3. That’s where I was.

But there’s been a problem – or at least a little cloud that has been hanging over the project, at that is the presence of the turtle character, John. It’s my impression that Pete is not happy about it and there have been other comments from folks inside the studio and even from one of my family members that I should just do my own thing and move on. There is definitely the attitude that I’m trying to exploit or perhaps attempting to cash in or get attention for my project by including an anthropomorphic turtle. The question just before this one- asking about the giant turtle… the stigma absolutely is there. Actually, if it were someone else from the studio using a turtle character, I would probably feel the same way. The result is that I’ve decided that I need to put this behind me and I’ve made the choice not to do any more Dragonfly books or release them in any way other than the already existing GN.

Z-Rider-banner

Are there any other projects you’re currently working on?

JM: There’s another [book] I’ve been working on, very sporadically, for the past 10 years or so. Recently I’ve picked it up again and re-written a bunch of stuff on it and am seriously thinking about starting the art on it. I’ve taken the characters from Dragonfly and incorporated them into this “new” book- with some changes. The John character, of course, is different yet remains a big, serious dude. This time though, you really don’t know just what he is, however he is most definitely not a turtle. He has no shell. I repeat- he is not a turtle. The other 4 main characters appear as well—however they all have different names and are in fact, not the same as before (except for Plak and Ploo).

That said, they are quite similar—so to me they feel the same yet I consider them new. *laughs* I probably sound like a lunatic and I’m sure that this matters to me far more than anyone else but this makes it all come together in a nice way. This is a very recent decision that I’ve made, and I’m still rolling around some of the details in my brain.

Hiddy-Dinosaur-Head-CatYou’ve announced “A Walk Through Dinosaurland”, and I’ve seen mentions of either a possible Kickstarter or a publisher picking it up – tell us what you can about the project.

JL: Yeah – right now I’m working on AWTD and I’m very excited to say that the project has been picked up by a publisher.

Craigmore Creations is a publisher out of Portland, Oregon and they specialize in books with a natural history content. Probably the biggest news so far has been that the title has been changed – the book is now called “Dinotour: A Prehistoric Park Adventure”. Most recently I’ve sent them some sketches for possible covers and I’ve just filled out the artist’s questionnaire, which is going to be used for informational and promotional purposes. To my knowledge, as things sit today, Dinotour is going to be released in the Spring and will be a full color GN.

Craigmore has ok’d me to do a Kickstarter version as well. The KS book will be a different format and will be a black and white comic. Also, some content will be dedicated just to that book. I’m toying with a different ending, but I haven’t nailed down something that I feel is appropriate.

Is the Z Rider comic with Todd Shute still moving forward? And what form might that take?

Z-Rider-sketchJL: Todd’s a really good friend of mine – so when he came to me with the idea to do some t shirts with this character Z Rider, I was happy to provide him with some input and to do a couple of pieces of art. As well, I mocked up a quickie little comic that I thought that would be fun to do.

But I’m a cynic, and this isn’t my first rodeo, and I am very aware that tons of people have great ideas but it’s pretty rare that one succeeds- there’s just too much stuff out there and it’s a fight to get eyes on your project. Also, I need to be convinced that the zombie thing is still relevant. I like the concept a lot but it’s just right now I have so much on my plate.

Are there any other comic creators/books you’re currently into?

JL: There is an artist right now that I think is great – his name is Tyler Crook. I’ve been reading a bunch of books that he’s worked on, among them BPRD, Witchfinder and The Sixth Gun. Also I’m a big Doug Tenapel fan- I really admire him as a creator and as an artist.

What’s the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?

JL: This is the only thing I can think of…

In 8th grade, my class had a picnic at my teacher’s house. There was a barn there and me and this kid, Nevin Reilly, climbed a ladder into the loft and I was peeing down onto the kids below (through the floor) yelling “It’s lemonade, it’s lemonade!!”

*laughs* Thanks so much for hanging out at the Clubhouse – and thanks for helping bring to life some of my favorite characters!

Triceraton-Battle

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Written by John MacLeod

Dubbed "The Dorkmaster General" in his home territory of western Massachusetts, John has what some would call an "unhealthy obsession" with comics, horror movies and geek culture. He is a staff writer and editor for the web site Zombie Zone News, and is a freelance editor for his own imprint, Surfin' Dead Enterprises. In his spare time, he breeds free-range chupacabras to sell for ludicrous amounts of cash.

42 posts
  • Fantastic interview John!

  • Fuck You Asshole

    I’m a little annoyed that it seems his turtle character in Dragonfly was met with some derision- fer’ cryin’ out loud, Jim Lawson’s drawn and written more TMNT comics than Kevin Eastman or Peter Laird or anyone else (well, Steve Murphy’s written more TMNT comics than Jim, but still), let the man reference his previous line of work.

    Great interview, by the way.