By Ken Gross Cable Neuhaus
April 18, 1988 12:00 PM

Western civilization is in another hopeless mess. An arch-villain with an army of mechanical crooks is soaking all the banks dry, terrorists threaten to demolish skyscrapers and teenage gangs are exceptionally rude. What can a good citizen do?

You can call in four hip heroes is what. Not Batman, Superman, Spiderman or Wonder Woman. Passé. Superman just turned 50! In the evolving and fiendishly clever world of comic-book infamy, you want state-of-the-art good guys: young, genetically altered, combat-ready reptiles. You want TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES!

Who are these guys with the deadly nun-chucks attached to their arms and the ninja headbands? WHAK! SPTANG! CHTAK! (Even their sound effects have a kind of postmodern, heavy-metal ring.) According to their comic-book series the turtles crawled out of New York City’s primeval sewer system—an explanation that seems all too plausible in Manhattan. Once poky little pets, they were accidentally dropped in an open manhole by their owner and when they came into contact with green, radioactive slime were transformed into TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: Leonardo, the quick-witted leader; Donatello, a gadget freak; Michelangelo, the goofy one (he likes comic books); and Raphael, who adds biting sarcasm to their arsenal.

Actually the fearsome four emerged from the action-adventure brains of two rather ordinary-seeming humanoids, Kevin Eastman, 25, and Peter Laird, 34. Five years ago, Eastman, then a part-time chef and grocery bagger, and Laird, a free-lance illustrator, were kicking zany ideas around in Laird’s Dover, N.H., apartment when the comic-book concept began to grow: Let’s see, young, weird, martial-arts, adorable. Teenage. Mutant. Ninja. Turtles!

They put out their first issue with $1,200, and the turtles were off and running—slowly. Laird’s bride, Jeanine, 33, an aspiring novelist, was at first “concerned” that her husband was not earning any money. But after the first issue had sold 9,000 copies—on the strength of the outlandish title and a single magazine ad—an established distributor climbed aboard. Last year Laird grossed $100,000, and this year he and Eastman expect to pull in $1 million.

“We thank our lucky stars,” says Laird. “We’re doing something we love and people enjoy.”

The lovable turtles are now creeping toward weekend-morning cartoon television. They will appear in a 90-minute syndicated special this summer. And an endless line of licensed products is in the works: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES toys, coloring books, puzzles, board games, pajamas, slumber tents, slumber bags, Halloween costumes and, of course, lunch boxes.

The wealth they’ve snapped up seems not to have mutated Laird and Eastman. They still climb into Laird’s battered old pickup to drive over to a nearby Hadley, Mass., newsstand each Thursday—”comics day”—to catch up on every superhero’s latest adventures. And on weekends they travel to comic-book shows to meet their own young fans. Explains Eastman: “It’s good for kids to know ‘normal’ people are behind these books.”

—By Ken Gross, with Cable Neuhaus in Boston