September 29, 2014

Cowabunga!

Comic book heroes take over the library

Enshrined on the 21st floor of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library are five unlikely pop icons: a team of ninjutsu-practicing turtles and their rat sensei.

The sculpture of the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Master Splinter is a gift from their co-creator Peter Laird ’76. Cast in bronze at a foundry in Italy, it was originally commissioned for Mirage Studios in Northampton by Laird’s partner, the Turtles’ other creative progenitor, Kevin Eastman.

After selling the TMNT property to Viacom, Laird wanted to find a new home for the statue set and offered them as a gift to the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, from which he received his degree in printmaking.

Inspired by the work of Jack Kirby, Laird had set his sights on being a comic book creator back in high school. In the 1970s, most professors scorned comic art, so while a student at UMass, Laird had to persist independently with his own ninja-like discipline. He had his first, self-published comic book, “Barbaric Fantasy,” printed and bound at the Campus Center Print Shop, and sold it from a table in the Campus Center concourse.

Laird met Eastman in Northampton in 1981 and the two set up shop together, naming their operation Mirage (“mostly because there was no studio per se—just the two of us in our living room sitting in old stuffed chairs and drawing and goofing around while watching TV”). The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles emerged from the creative cosmic soup in a doodling session in 1983.

The Turtles have since existed through myriad iterations: animated, graphic, and cinematic, with a new feature film out just this fall.

Even though Laird, like his creations, had to work somewhat underground, “The comic book and illustration stuff I worked on while at UMass led to my part in the creation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” he says. “And now there is this physical thing in the UMass library to mark that, and to emphasize how important it is to follow one’s dreams.”