Written by Jonathan Wojcik
KENNER'S SWAMP THING
It's becoming not only a Halloween of anime, manga and cartoons this year, but one of heavier than usual nostalgia for my childhood. Maybe it's because I turn 36(!!!!!!) this year, which feels like the number at which I'm supposed to be "too old" for this and people are going to question what business someone my age has talking about toys and cartoons, but I'm pretty sure half the people getting angry about toys and cartoons over on Youtube still have several years on me. Move aside, GRAMPS! It's time for a spry under-40 whippsernapper to shine!
So, where was I? Okay, take everything you know about me from this website, imagine me being even more excited about all of those things when I was seven years old, and then imagine how that seven year old would feel one holiday morning, the other holiday I mean, when they unwrapped the following object with no prior context or precedent:
Many of you have probably heard of Swamp Thing now that comic book superheroes are more mainstream than baseball and taken almost as seriously as global politics, but to a sheltered, pre-internet childhood, a lot of this stuff was completely new and unknown to me. The moment I gazed upon this package was the first time in my life I had ever heard the word "Thing" following the word "Swamp," an exciting pairing indeed, and crammed onto the same package we have that heavenly purple-and-yellow "EVIL UN-MEN" logo, some kind of hairy moss monster and some sort of ridiculous corpse-colored were-bat captioned as "SKINMAN With Fangbat Biomask." All this before your little eyes even get down to the toy itself; an eerie, blank-eyed, grey-blue Gollum looking mother with what was, at the time, quite possible one of the most beautiful hunks of rubber I was sure I'd ever seen or ever would see in my life. A monstrously detailed vampire bat with eerie, slitted white eyes, a razzing pinkish tongue, and a body cast in gelatinously translucent rubber the coloration of filthy pond water.
My mind. Was BLOWN. I had never seen these toys on shelves. I had never seen advertisements for them. My mom had stumbled upon this one all by its lonesome, and she knew me well enough to know this would be the prize gift of the year. Of everything I'd been given that day, this was the one I chose to take with me on our obligatory visits with every surviving relative in town.
But who was "Skin Man???" And what the hell was a "Fangbat Biomask?!" The back of the package should have had more answers, but instead, it only had more tantalizing mysteries than ever...if there was ONLY one thing that could have been more exciting in that very moment to that very child than a "Skinman with Fangbat Biomask," it was his friends and his foes, but more on that in a moment. Just who is this "Skin Man" guy? And WHAT is a "Biomask!?"
I can't even remember if I received a VHS tape of the cartoon series as another gift that same day or later that week, but I know I was wearing the heck out of it as soon as I did, even if I didn't wholly agree with all of the creative liberties it took with some of its character designs.
There was, in fact, never any use of the term "Biomask" in the entire series. This was only a catchy term the toy line invented to dramatize an admittedly pretty cheap action feature, and that's a shame, because the idea of a bunch of villains donning some sort of living, organic monster heads sounded and still sounds pretty killer.
Skinman's bat form wasn't quite as interesting in the TV show, either. What stands out to me the most about the action figure is that he has a GIGANTIC bat face on his shoulders, and that's also where his wings are attached. Toon Skinman just goes full anthropomorphic Chiropteran, with the wings integrated into his arms, though he's still one of the coolest and most realistically detailed bat monsters I had ever seen at the time.
As to why his "human" form looks like someone tried to recreate their sphynx cat as a homemade candle, that's...never explained. Like at all. The action packaging actually calls him a "zombie," but in the show, he's just kind of a creepy wrinkly man that happens to live in the swamp and hates Swamp Thing with the rest of his freak friends, WHOM are as follows:
So this character, by modern standards, is kind of a little insensitive. "Voodoo" is a highly distorted and highly misunderstood concept, as is the idea of a "witch doctor," but that's what this guy is supposed to be; a "witch doctor" who'se got snakke scales, venomous fangs and a voodoo doll he carries around of Swamp Thing. I'm not sure he ever does any sympathetic magic with it or not; if so, I never saw the episode. All I do remember is him complaining about Swamp Thing's various superpowers while using the doll to demonstrate them - each only $6.99 at Toys R' Us, kids!. Man, Deemo, way to be a corporate shill!
The only real reason to get the action figure is, of cours, the SERPENT BIOMASK, a menacing red affair whose huge fangs and detailed, fleshy grey mouth was much more biologically accurate and interesting than any other snake toy I probably ever had, though what's really interesting is the fact that they gave it centipede legs. Or are those supposed to be protruding bones? Like the hood of a cobra, but without the skin? It's pretty radical looking, in any case.
This makes Dr. Deemo the most disappointing of their animated counterparts, since his snake form doesn't even have the mutant bug limbs at all! It's JUST a snake head! I guess they felt it was too visually underwhelming for the toy line when compared to the others. The only compensation he gets in toon form is that the snake head's neck can extend, which is admittedly a cool trick.
Those of you already familiar with Swamp Thing know that this is his arch nemesis from the comics and live-action materials, and a complex character with a rich fictional history we won't get into here, because I didn't know any of that as a kid and didn't care. I knew him only as the cackling jerk of a Saturday Morning toy commercial, who in this continuity acquires wrinkly, purple Nosferatu flesh when he gets splashed with his own experimental chemicals, so I guess that's what's wrong with Skinman and Deemo. His action figure gave him an equally vampiric-looking purple spider Biomask, but my VHS tape only had the first episode or so, and he never takes his spider form before the final credits roll. Having never caught the series on television, I'd never find out what his spider body looked like in the series until...actually, just now.
Uh, wow...that's it? I guess it's....at least basically the toy's design, but...I don't know, something about it just looks like the very worst of the four villains. That's really saying something for a guy with an entire spider for a head and chest. I guess it's just a testament to how interesting the others were, and I actually felt the same about their toy forms.
There's obviously another villain to go over, OBVIOUSLY, but we're going to look at a few more highlights of the toy line first, including the most basic action figure of the man himself. Again, we have a character with an INCREDIBLY long, detailed biography we could crack into, but I knew nothing about beyond what the cartoon told me: that he used to be a regular dude, and then there was some toxic chemical stuff going on, and then he merged with all the algae and duckweed of the bayou to become a shaggy vegetable man with every imaginable plant-based power you could ever dream of.
It was admittedly as cool as main superheroes ever got in my childhood experience, and I did find him almost as intriguing as his enemies, but I still didn't love him as much as I loved the mere accessory to his action figure: the "MONSTER TRAP" that never appeared in the cartoon and wasn't even billed as a "character" for the toy line, but became one of my single favorite "action figures" of all time the moment I held it in slightly smaller hands.
Is it called the "Monster Trap" because it's a trap for monsters, or a trap and a monster>? I guess the obvious answer is "yes" and it doesn't matter anyway because she's beautiful. I lamented about this in my Halloween reviews recently, but there was almost nothing I wanted back then more than toys of carnivorous plants specifically, and for many years this would remain one of the only ones I'd ever encountered. It CONTINUES to be possibly one of the coolest looking, resembling some sort of rotten animal skull crudely formed from bile-green lichen. Every time I look at it again, which is almost every day because I keep it on top of an aquarium, I'm impressed all over again by those gnarled, spongy looking details, the veiny leaf tongue, the fungous fringe that serves as a lever and the three lovely root clusters, making the whole affair a sort of tripod. It's obviously meant to be rooted in place, but I always liked to think it would be capable of walking around like some sort of gruesome, botanical frogfish.
I say Monster Trap was the only carnivorous plant toy I had for a long time, and that's still true of you're thinking in terms of individual figures. The Swamp Trap Playset, however, incorporated a giant Venus Fly Trap right into its landscape, so of course I had to beg for that. The purpose of it however was supposedly to tear off biomasks, and in the cartoon, it could "cure" mutation by engulfing the mutant in question and spitting them back out. Speaking of which...
THE SWAMP TRAP PLAYSET
So "biomasks" didn't exist in the cartoon, but the "transducer" did; a casket-like machine that would bathe a subject in mutagenic slime to transform them into the monster self.
THE TRANSDUCER PLAYSET
I knew several kids who owned the Transducer, because it worked with a pretty wide variety of action figures. You strapped one figure into one side of the rotating bed, and their "mutation" into the other side. The tank of green goo was the lever you rotated to make the transformation, and was designed so the fluid would appear to "drain" into the machine, all pretty radical! It was the perfect Mad Laboratory for just about any series that called for such a thing...and what series didn't? Show me a kid who wouldn't find a way to work this thing into a My Little Pony storyline.
But, I'm sure the VERY first thing you noticed about the Transducer was the very first thing I noticed at seven years old.
The "Mutant Insect Figure" was the real, biggest draw of the Transducer, incidentally wearing the same clothes as one of Swamp Thing's human friends from the line, which results in not just the first-ever action figure of a giant preying mantis to my knowledge, but an action figure of a giant preying mantis inexplicably carrying hand grenades. Note that I'm not counting the Mantisaur from The Evil Horde because that was a vehicle, not an action figure!
What a gorgeous figure this is, though. Built entirely different from the rest of the line, with three pair of limbs and a ball jointed insect head! The combination of army-green hues, metallic jacket and the shiny, pitch black eyes are all so striking, you hardly care that the upper appendages are cheaply cast as a single piece per pair, meaning that you can't move a left arm independently of the right.
Both the preying mantis and the Swamp Trap were introduced in the same episode of the cartoon, with the trap serving to change Swamp Thing's buddy back to a normal person. The cartoon opted for a more menacing, less realistic insect monster, and I'm once again glad that the toy line had a more alien style to it. This all leaves just one significant Swamp Thing character to review, and I've reviewed him before, but the page is now so old it doesn't even function correctly anymore, and my photos sucked anyway!
Here he is, Weed Killer. The coolest looking "human" in the whole line with his bright orange jumpsuit, toxic blue skin and eerie, wide-eyed gas mask, which glows in the dark by the way. All of the eyes on all of the villains and their biomasks could glow in the dark. They had no right not to.
Weed Killer's mutant form comes courtesy the "BOGSUCKER" Biomask. The what? Excuse me? Is that even an animal?!
YOU BET IT IS!.......kiiiind of? For whatever reason, a "BOGSUCKER" is what this toy line decided to call a giant, mutant leech, and what's especially interesting about this is that I'm pretty sure I still didn't know what a real leech looked like at that point in my life. I had nothing to go on but Weed Killer's Biomask, but I kind of already guessed that it didn't actually look anything like the reality. I even correctly assumed that the spidery legs were completely invented, just as they were on Doctor Deemo's snake-form.
Animated Weed Killer fared by far the best out of his friends, too, as the only one whose mutated form followed the anatomical template of his toy counterpart on a 1:1 basis, though the transition does lose a certain cute charm you only get from the limitations of the figure sculpt. There unfortunately wasn't much of anything they ever did with the fact that he was a leech, except that he did have an ability to walk on walls.
Obviously I still have a pretty pristine-quality Weed Killer, and it's still the little, probably unintentional touches of the sculpt that I love most. The simple, beady roundness of the mask's eyes, the three-forked tongue just hanging straight down, even the way thhe teeth all stick straight out instead of curving inwards is all highly appealing to me to this day, none of which is really quite captured by any other artwork I've ever seen of the character.
And one day, when it came time to make an e-mail address for the first time in my life, "BOGSUCKER" was for whatever reason the first thing that came to my mind, but the "sucker" part made it sound perhaps all too easily like it could have been some sort of obscure slang for something unspeakably unhygenic, so Bogleech was born, and after years of using it as my first-ever email address I'd come to think it had such a nice ring to it that it became the name of my first-ever webpage. This is it. This is the actual "bog leech." Actually just a smelly blue man who wears a gas mask all day, every day and also hates plants because plants sometimes punch him in the face.
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