As The Last Ronin: The Lost Years kicks off, io9 sits down with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtlesartist Ben Bishop to talk about its impact... and TMNT toys.
Today sees the launch of TMNT: The Last Ronin - The Lost Years, a new anthology series looking back at the past and to the future of IDW’s beloved apocalyptic Ninja Turtles offshoot. But it’s not just a return for these beleaguered iterations of the turtles, but for Last Ronin artist Ben Bishop—and the continuation of a dream come true.
Bishop returns to illustrate The Lost Years alongside SL Gallant, in a five-issue miniseries that expands The Last Ronin’s universe with stories set both before and after the main narrative of the original series—a dark future where Michelangelo, the last surviving brother of the Hamato Clan, does battle against the authoritarian descendants of the Foot, seeking vengeance for their fallen family.
The Last Ronin’s gangbusters popularity—even among IDW’s already wildly popular ongoing TMNT comic series, now totaling well over a hundred issues—has seen the series explode beyond its comic book roots into TMNT merchandise, allowing Bishop not just to return to its world in the pages of comics, but on the package art of figures for a franchise he’s collected his whole life. To find out more about The Lost Years and Bishop’s return to The Last Ronin—including designing a new generation of Ninja Turtles—io9 recently chatted to the artist over email. Check out our full interview below!
James Whitbrook, io9: How did you feel seeing the reaction among TMNT fans to The Last Ronin? Did you ever expect to return to this take on the turtles?
Ben Bishop: Incredible. Touched. Validated. Like I’d finally made it. I had been trying to get on the insides of these TMNT comics since… well, 11 years old—but actually, actively pursuing the IDW books since 2012. So, now finally at the table and getting my shot to literally shape the future of the TMNT (who are responsible in a big way for shaping me and my work—not to mention what Kevin [Eastman] and Pete [Laird] showed was possible with self-publishing, and creator-owned comics). It was a pretty out-of-body experience, to say the least. A huge moment for me and my artwork. Working on those pages, with those characters, the gravity of what I’m actually drawing and the overwhelmingly positive reception to it… It’s a feeling that I’ll be chasing for the rest of my life. That’s how I want to feel making comics, and how I want readers to feel when they read them. It was very special. That kid inside was very proud of me.
io9: Tell me how you got involved with Lost Years in the wake of the original The Last Ronin series. What made you want to come back?
Bishop: I mean, when Kevin Eastman asks you to design NEW TURTLES, there was really no question. I got right to work. The design of the characters and settings were really important to all of us in The Last Ronin, but I think Kevin and I have a particular fondness for the opportunity to just make it up, or design something brand new. The Last Ronin was a dream project in that sense because not only did I get to draw these monumentally huge and well-known characters, but I got to put my own aesthetics, ideas, and sensibilities into them. Kevin would come with loads and loads of ideas and sketches, and being the true co-creator he is, he’d just let me run with it from there. And I’ve got to say, part of the “great feeling” that I described above no doubt has to be in part due to Kevin’s faith in me. We work great together (as people can see in our other book, Drawing Blood, with writer David Avallone).
io9: You’re dealing in some ways with the aesthetic already established in The Last Ronin here, even if we’re seeing it at different times and perspectives. What ways did you want to push and evolve the work you did on the original series here in this new series?
Bishop: So, Lost Years is both a prequel and a sequel to The Last Ronin. (People should have gathered that, I imagine, so hopefully I’m not spoiling anything here!) So specifically relating to my contribution this time, I’m dealing with the post-Ronin framing sequences with new Turtles, Casey Marie, and April, while SL Gallant is handling the extensive flashbacks to a time before The Last Ronin. Every issue jumps forward in time, too. So I’m taking that established Last Ronin world and those characters and making sure, design-wise, that they grow and evolve visually through the artwork every issue.
For example, maybe as time passes things are getting better, technology is advancing, clothing gets more sleek and streamlined... or maybe it goes the other way and things continue to get more and more post-apocalyptic and grim. All the while these new turtles are growing up. I’ve spent a lot of time and care on baking those storytelling elements into the artwork. Hopefully it will make a big difference in further immersing the reader in the book. I think it will.
io9: We’re reunited with not just Michelangelo this time, but getting stories with April, Casey Marie, and the new turtles too, and at different points in their lives. What was it like not just returning to The Last Ronin designs for them, but having to design new turtles at different ages as well?
Bishop: A dream come true, but a ton of work! Kevin and Tom [Waltz] first told me I’d be designing a new foursome of turtles when we were at our huge CGC signing in Florida (already on another dimension of “Is this real life?” to be there and sign thousands of Last Ronin books alongside the Escorza brothers and Luis Antonio Delgado). The reality probably didn’t sink in fully until I got back home and got to work. I came out swinging with 12 different new turtle designs, from babies to teenagers. Those made the rounds for a week or so while everyone picked out their favorite four. This was a crazy exciting time; Nickelodeon loved the designs, and ultimately we all settled on the four you’ll meet in Lost Years #1. The same goes with Casey Marie and April—there will be separate new designs, each and every issue. I feel really close to those characters now.
I know I said it was a ton of work, but making these new designs is my favorite part. Plus, as I was working on those designs, I couldn’t help but fantasize about willing future TMNT figures from NECA into existence…
io9: What can you tease to us about some of the stories we’ll be seeing in Lost Years? Was there a particular issue that was challenging for you to visualize, or one you were really excited to get working on?
Bishop: Definitely issue #1. There was a lot to establish right out of the gate, and once it’s out, there’s not a ton of ability to go back and change something. So of course, the new turtle designs were really important for me to get right, and I think that the final product is very cool. There’s also the new sewer lair (wait til you see it!) and all the elements within it, laying it out in such a way that it feels truly lived in and real. Eventually, if this project is adapted to make a cartoon or a movie or something, they’ve got a whole blueprint and set pieces designed and ready to go.
io9: Not necessarily Lost Years-related, but as a toy fan, I had to ask: as you mentioned, we’ve started getting action figures of the designs from The Last Ronin from NECA and Playmates now. What’s it been like for you as an artist, not just to see your work on the packaging, but see these designs you helped ideate come to life in a physical form?
Bishop: Wishful thinking, I’m really trying to manifest some Lost Years toys, haha. Again, it’s a dream come true. Insane. It would be one thing altogether to simply have toys based on the comic, but it’s another thing to have them based on some of your designs. And even yet another thing on top of all that to actually get to draw the packaging art!
I had everything TMNT when I was a kid, like so many other kids, but the toys were probably my biggest inspirations for “my” turtles designs (alongside the live action Henson suits and cartoon), and a big part of that was the packaging artwork. If someone had handed that little 11-year-old kid sketching turtles on the living room floor a sewer playset and a pile of TMNT toys and comics and told him, “One day you’re going to be working alongside the guys that created this, helping them not only to tell the ending of their story, but the beginning of a new one... Oh, and there will be toys,” I might just about have shot Kool-Aid out of my nose and all over the carpet. I’m on the inside now! And I feel like it’s my chance to inspire the next generation of fans.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin - The Lost Years #1 hits shelves today, January 25.
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