The New 2017 MadballsI was only two years old when the original Madballs exploded onto the scene, and I was an unbelievably squeamish child for just long enough that Madball Mania completely passed me over, though they would go on to influence the revival of an "ugly-cute" trend that did a lot to shape my tastes as an adult, and now, in the otherwise grim and saddening year 2017, the Madballs have reawakened for their thirty-second anniversary.
I thought I felt old before, but it's a pretty weird-ass feeling when "Bash Brain" is older than your parents were when they had you.
Photo from I-Mockery
With all the nostalgia attached to them, the Madballs have undergone a number of revivals in those three-plus decades, including one in the earlier 2010's already, seen here, which translated the designs to more menace, more gore, and more realistic detail. Not a bad effort, no, but not what I personally admired about their style. Despite what you might think, I am definitely almost always going to be more into the "colorful and cartoony" side of things than the "dark and gritty" side.
So, after all these years, I guess you could say the latest Madballs actually feel more like "my" Madballs than the ones I technically should have grown up with.
Just look at those vibrant color palettes and chunky, stylistic features. Purists may disagree, but I think these are the best looking Madballs yet, and a beautiful set of monster balls in general, as someone who has seen more monster balls than almost anybody, definitely.
Better yet, there are several brand new characters available, and every single one has a lovely illustration over at madballs.com, which we're gonna borrow to go over each ball.
We'll start with Screamin' Meemie, mostly because he's the most mundane of the original Madballs, but the one they chose to designate as basically the "leader" and series mascot during their original run. As nothing but a shouting, big-mouthed baseball, Meemie never used to interest me as much as any of the other Madballs, but in this style, even a yelling baseball seems more fun than it should be. I can also appreciate that out of the original set, this is the only one that presented a twist on an existing toy. I'm guessing he was probably the very first Madball designed.
Interestingly, the 2017 line implies that Skullface is now the "boss" Madball, which I'm not gonna argue with. Skulls are already nature's Madballs, aren't they?
I'm a little torn on this design, however. 80's Skullface was adorable, with bizarrely shaped, tissue-filled eye sockets I always found pretty fascinating, but subsequent reboots have opted for an angrier, meaner-looking skull.
On the other hand, the 2017 line has upgraded Skullface's exposed brain to a character of its own, which I guess kinda makes up for the less inspired skull. We even know the brain's name, Lobe, and that Lobe is ironically "stupider" than Skullface himself...but apparently imbued with telepathy.
As a simple, disembodied eyeball, Oculus was my favorite Madball when I was younger and I recall one of the more popular, even though he really was nothing but a realistic eyeball, or perhaps precisely because he was nothing but a realistic eyeball? It wasn't until the 2000's line that Oculus was given additional details, such as oozing slime and stitches, while the 2017 line gives him a mouth for the first time.
Obviously I don't want to dislike a character who's almost entirely eyeball, but sometimes, less is more, and I've almost always liked eyeballs alone more than eyeballs with mouths or other facial features. You may hve also noticed by now that this entire line has x-shaped pupils. It's a cute stylistic gimmick, but it looks especially odd when the eye is the central focus of the character.
I have a well-known soft spot for mummies as Halloween monsters, and especially mummies with off-color flesh or exposed eyeballs, so Dust Brain has always been a winner in my book, and I especially enjoy the new design, with a nonchalant expression and a lovely black shadow surrounding the mis-matched eyes. Not much else to say here, just a Grade-A quality mummy head.
Regardless of who they market as the "face" of the franchise, I'm pretty sure Horny here has always been the most famous Madball, probably due to the wild, bruteish personality emanated by a snarling, purple cyclops head. I also recall how controversial Madballs were with the Christian Republican Parent-Teacher empire that ruled so much of America back in the day - yes, even compared to now, trust me - and it was often Horn Head they chose to crucify on daytime television as a corruptive influence on America's youth, mostly due to his "demonic" horn and delinquent nose ring, or something, both of which make God angry because children might find them more interesting than going to Church. If you didn't grow up around that version of America, you probably think I'm exaggerating, and I am not.
Only Slobulus ever seemed to rival or exceed Horn Head in "shock" factor, and a rotting corpse with its eyeball hanging out is pretty graphic in a kid's toy even by today's standards. It was also the one I absolutely could not stand to look at as a squeamish preschooler, not even due to the dangling eyeball or exposed brains, but the snot dripping out of his nose and threatening to go anywhere near the inside of his mouth, which was and still is one of the worst things in the universe to my senses. This is ultimately why I cautiously respect Slobulus, even if this level of gross-out isn't my favorite thing and a green zombie is kind of passe these days.
Fisty was one of the second wave of original Madballs, and another one I liked more for what he didn't have. I'm glad they decided to leave this one mouthless and let the eyeball be an eyeball on its own merits, though they did make one major change to this design; the original Fistface was actually holding the eyeball in its big, purple hand, which I thought was kind of the entire point of the design. 2017 moves the eyeball to the wrist-stump, possibly because he was tired of dropping his only sensory organ.
It's a pretty big conceptual difference, but not bad, even if neither interpretation really qualifies as a "face," does it?
The second most drastic makeover in the line, the original lock lips was pretty gruesome, but had only a small padlock over his mouth. The update puts a lot more emphasis on the metal elements, giving him a huge set of metallic jaws that apparently need to be locked shut. I'm sure the original has its fans disappointed with the revamp, but I feel like this lives up to the name a little better, at the very least.
The most extreme revamp in the line, Snake Bait was originally a gorgon, and a pleasantly pugnacious looking one at that. Sadly, even this Medusa-inspired version was official male, because it was believed that some toys had to be "for boys" back in the 80's and that female characters, even in rubber monster ball form, were doomed to sell poorly with their target audience. This was going to be rectified in that 2000's revival, but they just didn't sell enough toys to get around to the release of Snake Bait with Eyelashes. That's not a dig; as silly as it is that eyelashes are used this way in toys and cartoons, I appreciate that Snake Bait can have pretty eyelashes and not really lose any other monstrousness.
So, I guess you noticed how different the 2017 one is. Now, it's some sort of half-digested corpse being eaten by a snake, which at least suits the name a whole lot better. Personally, I think this should have been an entirely separate character, but I can't deny how cool it looks, and the official website says that Snake Bait is a panicky, nervous scaredy cat who "spits when he talks." That's adorable, though are we talking about the snake, the skull, or both? Do they share a single mind???
One of the last revamps, Freaky Fullback was pretty much just a blue-skinned, warty football player in his first appearance, but here, they've hidden more of his face in the darkness of his helmet, and it makes a pretty big difference. I'm not big enough into football to be all that grabbed by him as a concept, but he's much cuter and more appealing this way, kinda like Dust Brain if you swapped out the bandages.
This marks the first of the entirely new characters for 2017, but you can already tell they're kind of a mixed bag. I don't know if anyone was really clamoring for a madball of basically just any middle aged man who doesn't bathe and enjoys motorcycles. He's apparently best buds with Horn Head, which makes sense, but doesn't do much to make this filthy old man any more exciting.
This werewolf Madball, likewise, really feels like it's missing something. I appreciate any wolfman that makes me think "Tex Avery Fever Dream," but I'd have expected more details in a Madball wolfman, like a bone in its mouth, or some tattered flannel, or especially the warping remnants of its original, human face. Heck, even just put some fleas and ticks in the fur, or something. Anything!
Much more "Madballs style" are these two ghoulish faces sewn together into one screwed-up, multicolored head, and I really like how they form a single face in the middle, with the ears even looking kind of like nostrils from the right angle.
Another really hit-or-miss one, Skunkvenger is...what is he? A shogun?
Oh, a superhero. I, uh, guess it's a dig on the superhero crazy going on right now, and basically "Batman with a sillier animal," but that's a joke so done to death that I doubt even kids find it funny for more than a couple of seconds. It's an easy pop-culture reference that just doesn't feel like the Madballs spirit, and definitely not something the line really needs to stand out.
If they were hoping such an idea would be a hot seller, they would be better off shelling out the cash for official, licensed tie-ins. Plenty of people would collect hideous, barfing, copyright-approved Batman Madball heads, right? Just look at all those licensed Lego sets they have these days.
I'm glad they're not really going that route, mind you, but from a business perspective, it seems like it'd work.
A ninja, now? Where's the cowboy and the pirate? This is another really easy one, though it's definitely a lot cooler than Skunkvenger. It's got a nice color scheme, rat-fink eyes, and a great looking fish-bone mask. If they were gonna go for this sushi theme, though, the top of the head really should have been like, the cross-section of a spring roll, or if they wanted to go really deep here, a whole plate of rotten sushi like a Kappa's head dish. You're already making a sushi ninja zombie here; it's not like heaping any more Japanese stuff is going to offend anyone not already mildly uncomfortable.
This is a good one. On paper, it's "just" an extra-gross pig, but it's got all the great Madballs trappings missed by some of our other newcomers, with lots of morbid injuries including a disturbingly large, hollow and bloodless head wound. This is a pig that's already been butchered, even bled completely dry. I'm pretty fond of those huge, yellow eyeballs, too, and the nice coloring all around.
Sadly, we've got yet another one I find slightly underwhelming before we're through. The idea here is "an alien dog," and once again I feel like there's just a whole lot more they could have done here than just put extra eyes on a cartoon dog. The ears almost look like they're meant to have suckers on them, or something, and a couple of tentacles definitely would have enhanced the alien theme here. An alien Madball in generall is a great idea, but it's odd that wound up being basically a dog.
So, I always save my favorite one for last, and I know this is something a lot of other people would find boring for the same reasons I wasn't impressed by Slobbernaut or Wolf Breath, but I wanted there to be an insect-like Madball for as long as Madballs have existed, even before I personally liked Madballs at all, and it only took them 32 years! I'll admit I'd have preferred a proper fly proboscis, as always, over fangs and mandibles, but it's still a cool looking little mutant mouth, I like the x-shaped nose, I like the greenish chitin, I like the bags under the eyes, and I even like how this one seems to have painted the X onto one of its eyes.
Best of all, the official website says that Buzz Off is "like a geeky little brother" and a mad inventor. What else should a fly monster be?!
The original Madballs came at a time when toys were getting a lot cuter, a lot more colorful, a lot more saccharine. It was by mixing that up with the grisly and putrid that they made such a big splash, and it wasn't very long before that just didn't stand out anymore. Toys and cartoons only got grislier from there, and by the time of that first Madballs reboot, kids had been exposed to more blood, guts and rot than they could ever possibly care about. It's still gritty realism that dominates much of the entertainment market today, so it actually almost feels more daring now to go the cuter, more comical route.
...Not that I think that's the conscious intention behind the newest incarnation of these goofs, no, that'd be reading a little bit far into things, but I think it definitely explains some of the trends we're seeing this past decade. Fans of all ages are finally getting tired of grays and browns and photorealistic detail in increasing favor of games like Splatoon or shows like Adventure Time, and it's not surprising at all that Madballs would follow suit.
If they really want to make a lasting impression, however, new Madball concepts need to be a bit stronger than what we're seeing here. They aren't bad ideas or bad designs at all, but very few have the outrageousness that burned the originals into popular memory. More guts, more glop, and above all weirder creatures are sorely needed here; how many kids really want a biker or a dog more than they might want something with an exposed brain or a padlock for a face?
If you're really strapped for ideas, guys, I got a million and ten of them.