In early 1984, a pair of young New England artists showed up at a New Hampshire comic book convention with a one-issue, odd-sized, black-and-white book spoofing a bunch of comics traditions:



Mutagen ooze.

To Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's vast surprise, people couldn't get enough of their creation. More than 20 years later, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have appeared in so many incarnations we can't even count 'em all – eight or nine different major comic book lines, at least seven distinct television series, four feature-length films, 30 or 40 video games, and about a billion different merchandising gimmicks. Back in the early '90s, the TMNT even toured in a rock musical!

They're mostly known as the heroes of children's toys and cartoons, but our favorite version is Eastman and Laird's original Mirage Studios comic book series, geared for (slightly) older readers. The crew at the Northampton, Mass.-based studios delivered a number of brilliant stories about the young ninja mutants over about 10 years, stories that are action-packed and full of a wild sense of possibilities and fun, yet touch on deep themes about family and courage and healing and life.

In 1999, we started "Darwin's Stepchildren" as a back-and-forth writing exercise based on some of those tales. For a few days, we traded snippets of story for each other to pick up and run with for a few paragraphs per round.

But after reaching what's now halfway through Chapter II, we stalled...until late October 2006. This time, the story kept growing by leaps and bounds over the course of four weeks while pretty much consuming our lives, both as writers and as eagerly-awaiting editors – the question for both of us was always: "What's gonna happen next!?!?"

While Ria wrote most of the 2006 prose, Dee's edits, guidance, contributions, insights, and above all her abiding faith and enthusiasm for the story are, quite simply, the reason "Darwin's Stepchildren" now exists.

Of course we don't own the rights to nor claim any credit for the licensed characters and story references that appear in this tale, most of whom belong to the fine folks of Mirage Studios. A nod to those gents, who've made all our lives a little richer. We hope to carry on that tradition with this story, sharing some hint of what appeals to us about the remarkably archetypal Turtles and their adventures.

Here's a quick summary of the core TMNT stories we drew from for "Darwin's Stepchildren," including some of our assumptions about "how it really was!".

The basics: The Turtles got their start at an ordinary turtle hatchery in the late 1960s/early 1970s, then found their way via the pet shop trade to New York City. A young boy bought the four and was carrying them home when a truck slammed on its brakes. A canister that fell off the truck's back careened through the air, knocked the turtles' bowl from the boy's hands, and fell with the not-yet-fearsome foursome into the storm drains.

There, the broken canister released a mysterious, powerful mutagen ooze that soon transformed the four turtles and a curious rat into near-humans.

Meanwhile, an unusual rat called Splinter had fled to the streets and tunnels after his owner, Japanese ninja master Hamato Yoshi, was killed by a rival in New York. After being exposed, himself, to the strange ooze, Splinter came to adopt the turtles as both sons and students, raising them in secret beneath the City. He passed on Yoshi's teachings there in hopes of avenging the murder.

The Turtles became: Leonardo, the focused leader who carries twin katana swords; Donatello, the thoughtful science wizard who wields a bo staff; Raphael, the hard-headed powerhouse who uses three-pronged daggers called sai; and Michaelangelo, the light-hearted artist who spins two chain-joined sticks called nunchaku.

Fifteen years later, the Turtles claimed that vengeance, defeating Yoshi's killer – the criminal mastermind Shredder – in a rooftop battle. But one horrible Christmas night a few months later, when the family had gathered to celebrate the holiday with their human friend April, the man they'd thought dead returned with a horde of his ninja followers. The Foot Clan caught Leonardo alone and beat him nearly to death before tossing him through the window of April's apartment.

With the help of Raphael's friend Casey Jones, the Turtles survived the full-on attack that followed. As April's apartment building burned to the ground, they escaped by U-Haul to the Jones family farm in western Massachusetts.

During the City At War series, Casey met and married a woman pregnant with another man's child. When she died in labor, Casey returned to New York with her baby girl, called Shadow. He and April raised Shadow together in the apartment building April now owns. The Turtles and Splinter came to join them, living in converted tunnels beneath the City.

The books: The Turtles eventually returned to New York and defeated the Shredder once and for all. Meanwhile, they had adventures in and around Northampton that include two extraordinary stories we drew from quite heavily for "Darwin's Stepchildren."

In the one-shot "Twilight of the Ring" by Rick McCollum and Bill Anderson, Donatello, haunted by the call of the spirit of all turtles, leads his brothers into a strange prehistoric jungle outside time. There, they battle with a huge, rodent-like monster called simply "The Adversary," which preys on the spirits of reptiles.

Rick Veitch's three-part series "The River" pitted the Turtles against Old Man River, the age-twisted being that rules the Connecticut River in western Massachusetts. They do so with the help of a Native American called Abanak, fighting a monster of the river and some serious industrial pollution along the way.

The setting: We've placed our tale at least a decade after the above events, meaning the Turtles are in their early 30s. And we deviate from how Mirage presented the death of Master Splinter.

That should be all you need to know before diving in! So go ahead. Take the plunge. We promise – if you have even a tenth of the fun reading this that we did writing it, it'll be worth the time!

Ria & Dee

Nov. 2006