Anyone who’s ever daydreamed of kicking it with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles may be shell-shocked to learn its creators haven’t always gotten along. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, two misfit best friends and comic book creators who took pop culture by storm have been split for nearly two decades. And it took Netflix’s The Toys that Made Us to finally put them in the same room again.
For the documentary series creator Brian Volk-Weiss, it was an experience unlike any other.
“It’s what I like to call a Forrest Gump situation,” he tells Inverse. “You’re there in a moment in history.”
Now streaming on Netflix, the first episode of The Toys That Made Us Season 3 explores the history of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; from its origins as a gritty, underground comic book, to the number one children’s cartoon and toy line from Hong Kong manufacturer, Playmates. There have been a half-dozen cartoons and a handful of movies that have grossed over $1 billion at the worldwide box office. The 2012 reboot series alone took in $475 million in merchandise sales.
But the sky-high success led to turmoil for Eastman and Laird, both of whom saw their prosperity differently.
“One of them perceived the Turtles to be this amazing, one out of a thousand hit, shepherd it minute-to-minute guy,” Volk-Weiss says. (That was Laird.) “The other guy was, The first time I went with anything, I knocked it out of the park. I bet I can knock other things out of the park too.” (That was Eastman.) “There’s a nice age gap between Peter and Kevin. They were in different places in their lives when success hit.”
TMNT’s success also took time away from what brought the two together in the first place: making comic books. Ultimately, running a multi-million business got in the way of the one thing that originally brought these two friends together.
“It wasn’t any one thing [that split them] but those things added up,” Volk-Weiss says. “Things took a toll on the relationship.”
The straw that broke the turtle’s shell came in 1996, during preproduction of the live-action reboot series, Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation. As owners of the property, Eastman and Laird had to sign off on a new concept invented by the producers: Venus de Milo, the first female Ninja Turtle. While Eastman saw potential, Laird was against it.
“It was the biggest disagreement we’d ever had,” Eastman recounts in the series.
Eventually Laird yielded, but it was all for naught. The show flopped hard with critics and audiences, and was canceled after just one season. Not long after, Eastman surrendered his rights to the franchise to Laird, which marked the official divorce from his friend and professional partner.
“I wish things had been different,” laments Laird in the documentary. “I wish we had remained as tight as we had been in the early days.”
Laird continued to shepherd the franchise through new cartoons (and new toys), until Viacom came knocking. In 2009, he sold the Turtles to the media conglomerate for $60 million, and the Turtles continue to thrive under the Nickelodeon brand. Though Eastman “got nothing,” he continues to act as consultant on the new movies, shows, and wrote several volumes of the reboot comic under IDW.
But Laird and Eastman hardly, if ever, saw each other. It wasn’t until The Toys That Made Us Season 3 brought them back together, in the same New England neighborhood where they first sketched out a turtle with nunchucks. A reunion that only happened after ceaseless “begging, pleading, and crying.”
“We convinced Kevin to get on an airplane to fly back to the Mirage Office,” says Volk-Weiss. “He had not been to Mirage in years and he had not written or inked or penciled with Peter in over twenty.”
It wouldn’t be the first time the two had been in the same room. They did meet one other time, “and from what I heard it was not an intimate encounter,” says Volk-Weiss. “It was in a big room an it was awkward and weird and they didn’t get to talk.” The Toys That Made Us was an opportunity for two former friends, both responsible for countless people’s childhoods around the world, to finally talk and hang out. The episode ends with Eastman and Laird once again drawing the Ninja Turtles like they used to.
“You feel blessed to be in a situation where you see stuff like that,” says Volk-Weiss. “You’re at a moment in history.”
The Toys That Made Us Season 3 is streaming now on Netflix.