Looking Back At TMNT Action Figures: A Descent into Madness
When I was in year 4 in the Australian schooling system the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television series premiered. Within a few months it was a fully fledged cultural juggernaut. VHS tapes were crowded with episodes, pizza shops were posting record sales and nothing was a bigger status symbol in the playground than one of the official TMNT action figures. In an era where Transformers and G.I. Joe toys were an essential item, this new player with the smaller range and hefty price tag for the time was what everyone wanted. With less stock than the competitors available you know this was a collectors item. The figures themselves were pretty rad. Nicely articulate and packaged with a mass of weapons and accessories that were bound to be lost because the character just couldn’t hold onto all of them. Not even the popular new ‘Dino Riders’ could compete.
There was one problem though…Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn’t have many characters. There’s the four turtles, Splinter and April for the good guys and Shredder, Bebop, Rocksteady, Krang and the Foot Soldiers on the other. This may seem like an adequate number but for an action figure line hoping to produce more and more every year it was much. Especially compared to the ever growing numbers of Transformers and G.I. Joe who could easily turn out canon characters by the truckload.
Instead the poor designer at TMNT had to improvise. And improvise he did, coming up with an array of new animal themed mutants and turtle variants year after year until his poor brain broke. Want proof? Let’s look at it chronologically. Below is the original line up.
That’s a respectable line up of characters. They went to the effort of making each member of the core group distinctive in colour, posture and expression when, let’s face it, we’d have bought them up even if they stamped out the same one with different coloured headbands. There’s quite a bit of variation in the body types, unlike the G.I. Joe and He-Man, and they mostly stay true to the animation style. not sure what happened to Splinter though. He’s…drunk looking.
When the designer was asked to pull out a fresh batch of toys the next year…there weren’t many characters left to go with but they managed to do their best with the villains.
You’ve got Leatherhead, Baxter after his fly mutation, Rat King, Metalhead…Casey Jones is a must have. The addition of cameo star Usagi Yojimbo who crossed over from his comic series is pretty freaking awesome.
Then we get to Krang. They didn’t quite get it right. Couldn’t put him in his robot body thingie?
So the second series is all good and accounted for. Except…who the hell is that?
It’s a duck. In a flight suit. And he has teeth, and a manly open jacket. And detachable wings. Clearly they had an extra spot to fill so they went random animal and theme. Ninja turtle, punk frog, samurai rabbit…1950s flying ace duck? So when did Ace Duck feature in the show? Blink and you’ll miss it. In one episode Michelangelo is watching a TV show about him.
To be fair, Ace Duck is kinda badass. Wish I could say the same about the next years lot.
No, not the turtles in disguise. They’re odd but not fucking bizarre. The main series though…
What…is…ALL OF THAT. HOLY HELL WHAT NIGHTMARE DID THEY SPAWN FROM. Let’s go left to right, starting in the back row…
This is Pizzaface. He never appeared in the original series so I don’t know where they drew inspiration for this psycho. I guess the turtles like pizza, so someone who controlled the pizza would be a natural enemy? This guy looks seriously fucking crazy though…I HOPE that’s sauce pouring out of the pizza box he’s jamming his razor blade foot into and not a severed head. Going by the look in his eyes I’m guessing the latter. They did use the character in one of the reboot series, but for obvious reasons did not go with the 1980s slasher movie look.
Apparantly Wingnut is a clumsy caped superhero vampire bat from another planet that got destroyed by Krang and sucked into a vortex along with Screwloose a level headed mosquito WHAT THE HELL IS THIS THING. He comes equipped with ‘bloodshot eyes, defective radar, stunted wings and over-sensitive ears’. It’s bad enough that he’s a poor man’s Man-bat but including a monochromatic mosquito as a side-kick…that’s embarrassing.
Next up we have Scumbug, a pest exterminator who was mutated into a cockroach mutant thing.
Moving right along.
There’s an orange dinosaur…reasons. I thought these were all people who had been mutated with an animal, where the hell did a dinosaur guy come from? Actually, I don’t want to know. He’s joined by the hilaaaaariously named ‘Napoleon Bonafrog’ because this is the level of madness we have reached. Mondo Gecko is certainly a radical looking dude and then there’s a robot thing. Moving on to the front row now.
Clearly the designers had completely run out of ideas. They were so desperate for new ideas they looked into a tissue after blowing their nose and added eyeballs. Or maybe it already had eyeballs, I don’t know.
This next thing…I’m going to need a closer look, because I can’t quite make out what that is…
This is Mutagen Man. From what I can tell it’s a jar filled with floating organs, complete with arms and legs. And the arms and legs are missing chunks of skin. Perhaps by this stage the designers had grown angry with the mindless consumerism of the children and decided to outright traumatise the little buggers. How did this thing even fit into the show?
Actually never mind…I don’t want to know.
Moving down the line we have a turtle because they’re pretty hard pressed to call this a TMNT line without one, and this Donatello can open up his shell to store his equipment inside, which is rather horrifying. Then there’s cranky looking turtle. I’m giving the kung-fu panda a pass, at least he’s thematic. This guy at the end is a worry though.
Apart from this guy looking like the love child of Aquaman and a stingray, there’s something really unsettling about his smile. Even without the sharp teeth it’s…it’s not a happy smile. Kinda looks like the same smile the girl in Battle Royale had.
And there’s his accessories! Take a look at his throwing star…it’s got a face! He’s throwing a living creature at people! I don’t know what to make of the thing behind him but it looks very, very frightened. Since ‘Ray Fillet’ isn’t above picking up random sea life and hurling it at people that scared looking little fella could be his lunch.
Something awful was happening in at the toy company producing these. The designers had looked into the abyss and the abyss has looked back. 1991 wasn’t much better. Obviously they knew that bringing the Turtles back into the line up was important, but how can you make them interesting again? Instead of one good idea, we’ll have lots of shitty ones!
Headdroppin’ turtles? What?
Oh, they…drop their heads. I didn’t know that was a thing. What else do you have?
Must’ve been when the second live action movie came out, with the Super-Shredder and those mutants that weren’t Bebop and Rocksteady in the back row, behind the Turtles working their night job as strippers. I few odd ideas with Space Usagi and a metal shredder, but a Neutrino from the show. I can ignore Dirtbag and Sgt. Bananas on the right. What really stands out is this:
Um, hi there? This is Wyrm, the ‘wiggly, weirdo warrior’. Not that the description explains anything. It’s like a children’s crayon drawing got mixed in with the new designs and they just rolled with it. Kinda goofy…until you get close…
Then there’s this guy. I assume someone in the office was wearing a Chicago Bulls cap one day (those things were everywhere in 1991).
And that was enough for a new character.
I have no idea why he’s called ‘Groundchuck’ though.
Finally we have Tattoo, and I’m pretty sure they’re just fucking with us at this point.
WHY IS HE CALLED TATTOO IT’S THE ONE THING HE DOESN’T HAVE. Were you supposed to draw them on yourself? Did he come with stickers? He’s a fat guy in a skimpy jockstrap who doesn’t have the one thing he’s named for.
I was going to do this in one article…but we’re only four years into the series and I’m already astounded by the sheer lunacy demonstrated. They were told to make TMNT toys and they produced insanity. Looking at these is like watching the video from The Ring.
I’ll come back to this next week…it the sight of what 1992 holds doesn’t cause my mind to snap.