Dan Berger Interview
1. Can you tell us who or what inspired you to pursue comics as a profession? Was the comic book industry something you always wanted to pursue or was it what some consider a happy accident?
“First off, I want to apologize to you and your listeners for my stubborn refusal to do a live interview. I know having to read this email on air is weird for you, and it’s weirder for me to insist upon it, but trust me folks, listening to me speak off-the-cuff would have been an even more miserable experience. I sound almost intelligent when I’m writing since it gives me the ability to edit my scatterbrained thoughts. For example, this opening apology was longer and more insufferable before I had a chance to cut out the really stupid parts. And that’s my primary reason for not doing live interviews, because I’m not too sharp and am likely to say something dumb, and I don’t want to offend any of my friends with any off-the-cuff, inane comments.
So… to get to the point, I’ve loved comics for as long as I can remember. I’ve always wanted to be involved with them, both writing and drawing. My Mom and Dad worked, so I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house prior to kindergarten. My Grandma would walk with me to the local store and buy me comics and monster magazines to pass the time, so I’ve been looking at and loving funny books since before I could read. I spent the days drawing super heroes and monsters and making up stories for them. I eventually wound up in art school, and that lead me to meeting a self-publisher in Cleveland, Ohio, where I poorly drew a couple issues of a comic book called “Colt, the Armadillo That Won the West.” Fortunately, it was through that project that I met Ryan Brown, which eventually lead to me working for Mirage.”
2. How did you meet fellow TMNT contributor, Ryan Brown, and could you explain how exactly you became a contributor to the TMNT?
“Funny you should ask! Ryan painted the cover to COLT #1, and we met when the group involved with the book headed to Detroit to promote the book at a comic con. Ryan and I hit it off immediately. I’m an introverted weirdo and Ryan is an out-going, Type A guy; I had friends similar to him and he had friends similar to me (symbiotic relationships that get us through high school and all that), so it was like we had known each other forever as soon as we met.
It just so happened that Kevin and Peter were also at that Michigan show promoting the Turtles. Since no one was particularly interested in what we were there trying to promote, Ryan decided that we should work on a TMNT sketch and give it to Kev and Pete and maybe get on their pin-up page. Needless to say, we were both huge fans. Thus I pencilled something terrible and Ryan made it look pretty by inking it. We waited in line for about an hour and when we got up front, Ryan gave the pin-up to Kevin, who liked how Ryan had inked it. Ryan and Kev hit it off (and to be fair, Kevin hits it off with everyone since he’s such an awesome guy). We went back to our table thrilled to have had such a great little meeting with the guys that created the Turtles and thought that was that. But a few months later, Kevin mentioned meeting Ryan in an editorial in one of the TMNT comics, so Rybo got in touch with him ASAP. In about a year or so, Ryan was moving up to Massachusetts to begin working on the TMNT as the Mirage empire expanded.
While I was still in art school, Ryan’s career with Mirage took off, and I would visit Massachusetts from Cleveland when I could. Hanging out with the Mirage guys was a dream come true – I couldn’t believe I had gotten so lucky. I still can’t believe it, and I’m so grateful for it. Eternal thanks to Ryan, Steve Murphy, Kevin, and Peter for making my life like a dream.
So, back to the past, I had no plans upon graduation in 1989. Ryan suggested I move to Massachusetts where we could be roommates again. We had been roomies for about a year in Cleveland while we both worked on the comics we did for his and Doug Brammer’s indy publishing company, Nuclear Age Comics. Having the opportunity to move to Mass and live near the guys working on the TMNT sounded wicked cool to me, so I leapt at the offer. My buddy Bill and I moved to Massachusetts and the three of us shared a house for a while. I planned to get a factory job and do art on the side, but no one would hire me, despite me having experience working in a plastic factory! Peter took pity on me and paid me to help him work on an old house he had purchased, and that lead to me doing some side projects on any Turtles licensing jobs that Ryan and Steve Lavigne needed some light (and I do mean light) assistance with. So I was periodically hanging out at Mirage Studios, and the guys were getting used to having the weirdo around.
At some point, Steve Murphy and Ryan asked Peter and Kevin if they would hire me to answer the fan mail coming in for “TMNT Adventures”, which they remarkably agreed to do. I would hand-write responses on postcards and mail ’em to the kids writing to “Turtle Tracks”. Needless to say, that was a very fun and rewarding thing to do. When I was a little kid, I wrote to Stan Lee at Marvel Comics and got a postcard back from his secretary saying Stan had read it. That meant the world to me, so the opportunity that I was given to act as spokesman for the Turtles was a true honor, and a responsibility that I took very seriously. From there, I wound up getting inking work on “TMNT Adventures” and more to do on various licensing jobs, which later lead to TMNT Volume 1 #45, the daily comic strip, and whatever else I could weasel my way into.
Believe it or not, that’s the edited version!”
3. What were your initial thoughts of the TMNT?
“I loved them from the instant I could find an issue. back in the day, Don Thompson was a very well-respected editor and reviewer working for an ad zine called “The Comic Buyer’s Guide” and he helped launch a lot of books. He promoted the TMNT from their start, so I was driving all over hell trying to find the issues (which was really stupid, since I think Kevin and Peter were selling them through CBG, but I never thought to just mail order the comics directly from the source. Like I said, I’m a numbskull). Anyways, it was through those comic treks that I met the guy that published COLT and eventually found some issues of TMNT at a comic shop in Parma. I think I got a second printing of #2 and a third printing of #1 along with the new issue #3. As we all know, those comics are magic, and like most people, I was immediately enthralled. I was a huge CEREBUS fan at the time, but the TMNT really hit all my fanboy markers with its mix of Frank Miller’s ninja mythos and old school Lee & Kirby sensibilities. It was an exciting time in comics, thanks largely to the TMNT.”
4. With a cast of characters like Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, Ryan Brown, Mike Dooney, Jim Lawson, Steve Murphy, Steve Lavigne, and many others, there are bound to be some great stories pertaining to Mirage Studios. Are there any funny and/or touching memories you would like to share working with this very special group of comic creators?
“Man, it’s hard to pinpoint any one story. All of the guys are just such great and talented people. Truly remarkable, down-to-earth, and talented folks. I still can’t believe I was lucky enough to work with the Mirage mob. We used to have so much fun. We were young guys living out our dreams thanks to Kevin and Peter’s endless generosity.
For example, when I first got hired to answer the mail, Kevin asked how much I needed to make. I didn’t have an answer, I think Steve may have suggested $10 an hour (which was good money in those stays… sadly it still kinda is). Kevin was like, “Cool!” while I was flabbergasted and was going, “No, no. You don’t have to pay me that much!” thinking I wasn’t worth it, but Kevin just raised an eyebrow and said, “It’s all set. You’re getting ten bucks an hour.” I didn’t know what to say (“thank you” would have been a good idea, but I was so dumbfounded I don’t know what stupid thing I said. Probably something along the lines of “Whahoppendnow?”). It really meant a lot to me to get the chance to work regularly for Mirage, a company and crew I greatly respected, doing something so important. Kevin and Peter set an amazing example of how to treat people.
Some of my favorite memories are from toy trips we’d go on. We used to take loooooong drives all over New England shopping for the latest action figures. We’d be in Peter’s van all day hitting every toy store in a billion mile radius. Those trips were so much fun. We’d do something similar at Christmas time, and that became a ritual for a few years that I really looked forward to.
Working in the Studio was also cool as hell. It was so much fun to able to walk around and see what everyone was doing. Comics are time consuming work and can be really isolating, so it was awesome to be in a big open space having a group of guys all working together. Truly inspiring.”
5. Could you take us through a typical day working for Mirage and Archie in the late 80s and early 90s?
“When I first began, Mirage had a big open space in an old factory-type building. It was one big room, maybe around 600 square feet. All the guys had their own giant drawing tables and spaces filled with the stuff they loved. There was all kinds of cool toys and movie memorabilia around, and a Nerf basketball hoop. Sometimes someone would work from home, so I would float around to whatever drawing table was open, or if everyone was in, I’d work on the flat lunch table. I would typically get up around 11 am and roll in for “brunch.” Then I’d work ’til dinner. After dinner I’d work at home. For several years, working 12-14 hour days wasn’t unusual for me, and I’m sure the other guys were putting in more time than that. But we had fun at lunch and took breaks playing hoops, so the days were always great.
Eventually Peter bought a big office space and we all got separate rooms. My schedule didn’t really change. I’ve always been a night owl, so back then I was typically up ’til 3-4 am working. Then I’d get up late and head in for brunch. Weekends I worked at home. It was rare to take a day off, but who would want to when the work was TMNT?”
6. You were a huge contributor to TMNT volume four, as well. What are your thoughts on volume four as both a creator and as a fan? How did you feel about the Turtles being older and dealing with more mature, ironically real life issues like losing loved ones, growing apart, having a loss of identity, etc.?
“The only thing I did with Volume Four was package it for the printer and do the clerical work for the distributor, I didn’t do anything creatively. I really loved the series, because I love Peter’s writing. He approaches things in an intriguing way that always surprises me. His ideas are fantastic. I know some folks don’t like the series for various reasons, but I thought it was fantastic. I’m sorry it never got wrapped up, because I’d like to know how things resolve.”
7. How did you find your writing/art style for the TMNT? What made them yours?
“I don’t think I was ever able to make them mine. I’ve got a goofy art style that’s an acquired taste, and most people never acquired it (and I don’t blame them). I was trying to find a cool medium between cartoony and edgy, but never did. In regards to writing, I was trying to follow in Kevin and Peter’s footsteps and tell stories with heart to them. I think some of the stuff I wrote was decent.”
8. What was the process for creating new characters like Merdude? Was the process more about creating s character for the sake of the comic, or did you want to create an action figure first, and then expand on the character from there?
“Action figure first. For a while there was big money in getting an action figure produced by Playmates Toys because Peter and Kevin were giving a generous (can’t talk about those guys without that word popping up constantly) profit split, so there was a mad rush by everyone in the studio to make up characters and send them to Playmates in hopes they’d become a toy. I didn’t do too many because I had stupid ideas, but Merdude was one that clicked. The design I sent in was very basic, just a one-page front-facing sketch – there wasn’t a turn-around or anything. I was doing them quickly because I really didn’t think anything I’d come up with would fly. But I think Merdude happened around the time that Disney’s “Little Mermaid” was hot, so the crew at Playmates liked the name and concept. However, they didn’t like my drawing much (a recurring theme in my life). So Playmates had their freelance design firm, whose name sadly escapes me now – maybe Varner?, dramatically rework what I did to the point that it was almost unrecognizable. I whined and they changed the face to look more like what I originally did (the design firm added the cool hair tentacles, which I loved, but they gave him a human face, which I hated). So I pretty much just came up with the name and concept.
A quick aside regarding Merdude is I sent a list of about 15 names for him, and they liked two. Eventually one of Michael Dooney’s characters wound up being called Scale Tail, which was one of the names I sent in with the Merdude design. Merdude wasn’t my favorite name that I sent, but looking back, it made the most sense. Unfortunately, by the time Merdude was released, sales for secondary characters were low, so I didn’t get a new car, but I did put a big dent in some credit card bills, which was awesome. It was and remains a huge honor to have played a small part in the coolest toy line in history.”
9. Have you had any interest in returning to the Archie TMNT comics or the TMNT comics in general?
“No, that ship has sailed. The guys doing the comics at IDW are light years more talented than I am. I had my shot and did my best, now it’s time for younger generations to make their stamp.”
10. There was talk about a Mighty Mutanimals animated series in 1993, but unfortunately, it was canceled. What was your involvement in the series?
“I don’t think I was involved at all, although I may have helped Ryan put together the presentation boards. And by helped, I mean I may have spray fixed the art to the boards. I wasn’t involved creatively in any way.”
11. If you can choose, do you have a particularly favorite TMNT comic you were directly involved in creating? A favorite issue in which you weren’t involved?
“My favorite issue that I worked on is Tales of the TMNT Volume 2 #55, “A Day in the Life”. That one came together nicely, Jim Lawson did a great job as always with the art, and Peter’s addition of the April robot was one of those cool curve balls he comes up with that throw me for a loop, but kick ass. I also like #65, “Cold, Cold Ice”. I think the story is pretty good, and while a lot of the art is miserable, some of it is decent.
My favorite issue of all time is, naturally, TMNT Volume 1 #1. It’s all in those 40 pages. Everything came from that because it was so richly detailed from the very beginning. It’s a masterpiece.”
12. Have you read the IDW TMNT comics, by any chance? If so, what are your thoughts?
“I read them for the first year or so, and thought they were terrific. Lately I pick them up, but I have a very long history of buying comics just to look at them, rather than read them. I know it’s bizarre, but it’s what I do. It used to drive my buddy who ran the local comic shop nuts. Ah well – I’m weird!
I can say that the IDW comics look fantastic. :)”
13. Do you have any advice for aspiring comic writers and artists today?
“Get busy. Thanks to the web and social media sites, you can create comics and try to find an audience with little to no expense beyond time. Don’t think about it, don’t talk about it, just do it. Learn by doing. Experience is the best teacher. I’m out of platitudes, but those hold true. Dave Sim once said something along the lines of, “You have to draw 1,000 pages before you’ll do your first good one.” That’s not true for everyone, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind as you struggle to figure out the mad alchemy that is making great comics. The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll get good at it.”
14. How can our listeners find all of your current work?
“IDW may have reprinted some of the stuff I did for Mirage – other than that, folks would have to search out back issues at comic shops or online via ebay, or whatever sites they like to buy old comics from.”
15. What does the TMNT mean to you on a personal level?
“They mean everything to me. They inspired me, and then allowed me to accomplish every goal I had ever imagined, and to do far more than I ever deserved to do. The characters are like good friends that have been with me for most of my life, and the real-world opportunity to work at Mirage with such a tremendous group of artists was phenomenal. I wish I’d done a better job than I did, but I’m thankful that Kevin, Peter, Steve, and Ryan gave me the opportunity. I don’t have the words to properly express my gratitude to those dudes.”