Sophie Campbell has established herself as one of the great comics voices of her generation. From her dynamic artwork that redefined Jem and the Holograms and Glory, to the seven volume series Wet Moon that she wrote and drew, to the science fiction superhero saga Shadoweyes, Campbell has built a unique body of work and in 2020, she’s trying something different.
Though Campbell has previously written and drawn Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics over the years, she took over writing and drawing the series with issue #101. With issue #102 out in stores this week, we spoke recently about what she has planned for the series, the new status quo she’s overseeing and her journey from fan to creator.
So tell me about the first time you saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
My memories might be hazy, of course, but I think I saw the toys first. I was never a big TV-watching kid, I was more into drawing and toys and playing outside, so while I remember other kids talking about the original TMNT cartoon, the first thing I really remember is getting a Donatello figure from the store before I really even knew what the characters and everything were about. I just really liked the look of the characters and thought Donatello looked the coolest! After that I remember bringing the figure over to a friend’s house and they told me more about the cartoon and the pieces started falling into place for me. I still was never an avid watcher of the show, though, I was too busy playing with Turtles toys instead! I remember tuning into the show whenever the Neutrinos showed up, though, because I was super into the Michelangelo/Kala romance, which sadly never really went anywhere.
What is it about the Turtles that continues to fascinate you to this day? What do you get out of them now versus when you were younger?
I feel like I definitely appreciate them more now as an adult. I was really into the original Mirage comics as a kid, that and the old Palladium TMNT & Other Strangeness RPG book from 1985 were what REALLY got me into Turtles and turned me into a fan, and the old comics still pull me right in. Sometimes I’ll flip through old issues for inspiration or reference for a current TMNT thing I’m doing, and I’ll end up getting sucked in and find myself re-reading it. I see things in those comics now that I didn’t notice or understand when I was young, and sometimes I’ll notice things I do in my own work that were inspired or influenced by what Kevin and Peter and the other Mirage cartoonists were doing. I almost feel like I can’t totally articulate what it is that speaks to me so much about TMNT and particularly those old comics, I’m not sure it’s simple nostalgia because I definitely didn’t understand much of this stuff when I was little, I’d mostly just look at the pictures, but as an adult professional I find something really elemental and distinct about it. Obviously there have been a thousand different versions of TMNT over the years with varying levels of success, but there’s something almost primal at the center of it, which I know sounds kind of insane, haha. There’s an earthiness to the old, original TMNT material, even the incidental stories and flights of fancy a lot of the Mirage cartoonists would do, that feels powerful and inspired. There’s something about the mix of mutants, ninjas, aliens, and bittersweetness of the original Mirage TMNT that really sticks with me.
There have been lulls over the years where I distanced myself from TMNT and pay attention to other things, I get Turtled out sometimes, but besides all that other stuff I just talked about, the characters themselves are also a huge part of what keeps bringing me back, as well as my own vision of them. Every fan has their own idea of what the characters are and should be, and now that I’m an official TMNT creator, I get to indulge that and do things with the characters that I always wanted to do, and getting to make TMNT align with my own vision is definitely something that keeps me fascinated with the Turtles.
Now you are writing and drawing the series starting with issue #101. How did this happen?
I’ve done a bunch of other stuff for IDW during the last several years and I have a great relationship with them and editor Bobby Curnow, and he knew I’d always been itching to do more writing for TMNT, so I was one of the first choices to take over the series after issue #100. I actually said no when he first approached me, I was busy with another project and writing AND drawing TMNT sounded like way too much work and too stressful, but after thinking on it for a bit I changed my mind, and luckily the position was still available. As of writing this I’ve finished the first two issues and I’m not pulling my hair out yet, but I don’t want to speak too soon, haha. The monthly schedule is no joke and hopefully I’ll be able to keep it going without having a meltdown!
I’m not sure how much you can or should say about #100 and the status quo as you pick up. How good of a jumping on point it is for new readers?
Haha, yeah, I’ll get in trouble if I reveal too much! The story definitely picks up from #100 and what Tom Waltz was doing with it, so it’s not a totally clean, fresh slate for new readers who don’t know what’s been happening, but I’d say it’s still a good jumping on spot because of the shift in tone I’m bringing to it. There’s a time skip in the first issue and I think that’s also good for new readers, it lets me give them a lay of the land. It’s a nice “pause” for the characters and the storylines that have been barreling forward for the past few years, I’m kinda pumping the brakes on things, so to speak, and giving the characters a chance a breathe. Most of the action will be taking place in the newly set up Mutant Town, which is in Manhattan but basically an entirely new setting, it’s giving me the chance to build something from scratch.
You’ve drawn a lot of TMNT comics over the years; have you written the series before?
Not the main ongoing series, nope! I co-wrote the Karai’s Path story in TMNT Universe with Erik Burnham, and I co-wrote the two TMNT Universe Toad Baron issues with Bobby, the only things I’ve written solo before now were the Prey back-up story in Karai’s Path and the Leonardo macro-issue. Nothing at the scale I’m doing now. The pressure’s on!
How natural or easy was it to pick up not just the characters, but the rhythm and pacing of a monthly book? Because you drew Glory and Jem, but you’ve never written a monthly book and what has that been like?
I have the first five issues written already and it hasn’t been too bad, actually, I thought I’d be frustrated with the issue format and having to break things up every 20 pages but it’s been really fun so far. Most of my writing experience is doing graphic novel type stuff, things where I don’t have to have a stopping point or cliffhanger every 20 pages or so, it’s definitely a shift, but I think I’m already getting the hang of it. There are definitely times where I wish I had a couple more pages in a particular issue, or I get frustrated with having to come up with a good cliffhanger for page 20, or I wish I could spend more page time on a silly tangent I want to go on like having 4 pages of the characters dancing or grocery shopping for no reason, but it’s also a fun challenge to think more economically.
As you’ve been writing the series, what’s the biggest surprise you’ve found or that has somehow ended up in the book? How has it surprised you?
Probably the surprise of what I’ve been allowed to do story-wise, I thought maybe writing the main series would hamstring me in terms of the leeway I’d have with new ideas or crazy things I’d expect to get shot down, but it hasn’t been that way at all. There were a few ideas I had early on that fell by the wayside or that Bobby wasn’t sold on, but it’s all happened organically through discussing the storylines and nothing’s turned into me throwing a tantrum after being told no, so that’s good, haha. I feel like I always expect to get shot down when I present ideas, not just TMNT but for anything, I don’t think pitching is my strong suit, so when I get the greenlight on something it’s always a nice surprise for me. If I had to be more specific I’d say the biggest surprise so far is what I’m doing in issues 104 and 105, which I thought for sure wouldn’t make it through; the way I like to do stories is more like a four-act structure, like there’s a fourth act after the climax where things cool down and breathe, and I thought that would be too offbeat or something, so I was surprised when I got the greenlight on it!
Jennika, the fifth turtle, who I believe you designed, is getting her own miniseries in 2020. Will she be playing a role in your run?
I did the original design for her, yep! She’s playing a big role in my storyline, I’m trying to get a feel for her and lay the groundwork for her dynamic with the other characters. I want to include stuff about what her hobbies are, too, since the other Turtles all have things they’re interested in. Jenny is also interesting because she has a whole backstory that Brahm Revel came up with in his great What is Ninja? story, so I want to build on stuff from that, like her life of crime and her interest in music. I think Brahm intended for her to be into punk music but it was a little ambiguous, so I’m trying to do a more heavy metal/thrash metal type angle for her.
I’m curious about your interactions with Ronda Pattison, who’s coloring the book. You draw so much work that gets published in black and white, and when you work in color, you have very clear ideas about what you want and Ronda has been on the book for a while. What have those conversations been like about how the book should look?
I love Ronda! We’ve discussed a bit about the new direction, yeah, and whether things should look different or not. I’ll give her suggestions sometimes but ultimately I want her to just do her thing, she’s been on this series since issue #1 and knows exactly what she’s doing, she doesn’t need me mucking it up too much. I’m definitely pretty picky about how my work is colored, I usually see it in color in my head when I draw it (even the black & white stuff), but a lot of times when I’m working with a colorist they’ll come up with something way better or totally different than I had in mind, I love being surprised like that. Seeing Ronda’s colored pages come in is definitely one of the highlights of the process! A lot of our email conversations end up being about things like a cute sweater Leonardo is wearing in one scene, you know, the important stuff.
How long are you going to be on the book? Do you have a plan for this larger story and what you want to do?
I’m not sure how long I’ll be on the series, the current plan is at least a year but we’ll see how it goes. I have a plan for two more stories beyond the first arc but they aren’t approved/greenlit yet, so things might change. Maybe by the middle of next year I’ll be exhausted and ready to quit, or maybe I’ll be energized to keep doing even more TMNT?! I do have a mental list of things I want to do and characters I want to introduce and other stuff I’ve always wanted to see in TMNT, but I know I probably won’t be able to get to all of them.
You wrapped up Wet Moon last year, you’re now writing and drawing the Turtles, which are two very different things, and I wonder what are the aspects of these and other projects that connect in your mind. That make them all “you” in a sense.
I actually don’t connect Wet Moon and Jem & the Holograms that much, they feel unconnected to me, but Wet Moon and TMNT are closer in my mind because of the tone. Obviously TMNT isn’t a slice-of-life romance comic like Wet Moon is and Wet Moon doesn’t have any mutants or fighting – it does have a Casey Jones-like masked street vigilante who fights with a wooden stick, though… – but to me they have a similar sort of bittersweet tone and they both have gloomy brooding characters, they’re just gloomy about different things. TMNT and Wet Moon both have a more low key feel to me, while Jem and Glory and some of the other stuff I’ve done feel more larger than life. I guess all the things I’ve done are different aspects of “me,” they’re all things I like and they all come from me in some way, but it feels more like a venn diagram or something in that some things are more related than others, I don’t know, haha. My run on TMNT definitely will have a lot of the things I like and am known for, like a focus on character interaction and their emotional states.
So final word – for Turtles fans, how are you turning it up to 11 and they need to keep reading? For Sophie Campbell fans, how is this something they can’t miss? For anyone else, well, what makes this exciting and worth picking up and a great way to kick off 2020?
I would say I’m turning TMNT down to 9, maybe an 8, not turning it up. [laughs] That’s more my style! There will still be mutants and ninjas and magic and all that good stuff, but I’m bringing the focus in closer rather than increasing the scope. Fans should keep reading because they’ll finally get to see the Turtles go to a music concert, Leonardo tend to a flower garden, and maybe even some serious mutant romance. For fans of my creator-owned work, TMNT won’t have goth ladies or be super gay, but it WILL have lots of my signature angst and gloominess as well as a heavy metal mutant pig named Sheena who is awesome. For everyone else, there won’t be another comic out there that has an incredibly adorable dinosaur sidekick named Pepperoni.