Ginger Nuts of Horror
How can any self-respecting child of the 1980s not have fallen in love with these gruesome, revolting little globs of ugliness?
In a culture dominated by a sudden ready access to all manner of media (from video tapes of films and TV shows to the then barely born video game market), it's little surprise that toys in general began to reflect tastes and aesthetics informed by horror, which was, at the time, insanely popular in almost all mediums and formats.
The Madballs are nothing particularly special in technical terms or even as playable items; barring some rather macabre and brilliantly gross sub-lines of the franchise, they have no gimmicks or moving parts; they do not shoot missiles or spray water or transform or metamorphose or any other of the hundred and one things toys of the era claimed to do.
What they do have, and what is certainly the principle hook by which they drew our horror-saturated imaginations, is a degree of detail and deviance that even very few toy lines of the era can boast.
Gory, disgusting, mutilated...the Madballs are rife with sculpted and painted detail, from scars and stitches to bugs in hair to gaping and bleeding wounds, festering sores, trails of vomit...each and every one of the highly characterised orbs is an exercise in the most meticulous and painstaking design, a fact which renders them highly characterful and fascinating to the eyes and hands of a child.
I distinctly recall my first exposure to the line, which came in the form of perhaps the most overtly grotesque of the lot: the diseased, rotting, zombie-like entity proclaimed on his packaging as “Slobulous.” A fantastic example of 1980s excess and the era's penchant for pandering to the tastes of gore and grotesquery obsessed little boys, Slobulous boasts green, decaying skin, festooned with scars, pustules and open wounds, areas of stitching where his skin has split open or fallen away altogether, clusters of weeping boils and sores, myriad bugs crawling through his hair (I particularly recall a sculpted on centipede giving my shivers as a child), a trail of vomit from his cankered lips and, perhaps most iconic of all, an eye that hangs from its socket by a partially severed nerve.
The marketing of such an image, let alone a physical toy inspired by it, in today's climate would likely result in torch and pitchfork wielding mobs outside of toy stores across the nation. Back then, it was of little consequence, simply because most of us had already seen far, far worse on video, on television, not to mention the news media (which provided an almost non-stop litany of atrocities, imminent catastrophes and prophecies of Armageddon).
I loved it. I absolutely loved Slobulous and every Madball I owned. My younger brother also received a Madball on the same day; one that emphasises an entirely different aesthetic, but one no less disturbing:
Occulous Orbus is a disembodied eye, sculpted with painstaking detail, from his glaring black pupil to his pale blue iris, to the tracery of red, prominent veins decorating his surface...he lacks the overt repulsion and disgusting detail of Slobulous, but is disturbing in a different way: by virtue of what he is and what he suggests: something incomplete, mutilated; a living body part, leant its own animation...what child can't help wonder what brought that about? What the whole entity looked like?
Others amongst the original series are overtly monstrous: the madly glaring “Horn Head;” a cyclopean, single-horned nightmare, Skullface, a madly grinning skull and arguably the only one that competes with Slobulous in terms of outright repulsion: Bash Brain (controversially named “Crackhead” in the US!), who consists of an almost human head that has been, as his name(s) suggest, split open, either through botched surgery or violence, resulting in an exposed brain, much of his scalp and skull missing, one eye protruding from its half socket...
Though the original line technically lacked variety in terms of play value, there were attempts to vary interest in the forms of larger, football and basketball sized monstrosities, all of whom boast their own deformities (most notable being the repulsive “Foul Shot;” a green-skinned, zombie-like creature with clutches of worms writhing in one eye socket and the disturbing “Eye Sore,” a severed head with mouths were its eyes should be and a glaring eye in place of its mouth).
Later series would attempt to modify the line even further, with a number of grotesque gimmicks: renditions of both new and classic characters (such as Slobulous and Skullface) that could be squeezed to expose inner details (in Slobulous's case, his eyes would swell and become bloodshot and his brains would protrude in a vile, translucent sack). The latter series would also add a whole slew of new characters, including: Lock Lips, a creature with its mouth and one eye bolted shut with padlocks and metal plates, the incredibly inventive Fist Face, which consists of a severed and rotting hand clutching an eyeball and some more classically monstrous figures in the forms of Wolf Face (a Werewolf, funnily enough, though one whose serrated jaw oozes blood) and Snake Bait, a Gorgon-like creature with writhing snakes sculpted throughout.
While inventive, the second and subsequent lines were not as well received, likely owing to the natural waning period of such franchises. Though the line did warrant an extremely short lived cartoon; a project which is worthy of an article in itself: a phenomena of two halves, the Saturday morning style cartoon show (which was standard for toy franchises of the era) only managed to produce a fairly lack-lustre pilot episode, ham-strung as it was the need to balance the insane gore and grotesqueness of the Madballs toys with increasingly tight standards on children's media. As such, the cartoon is something of a flop; it has little to nothing of what makes the toy line so interesting, and isn't engaging enough in itself to compete with contemporaries like The Transformers, Mask, Visionaries et al.
However, there is one televisual oddity inspired by the franchise that does have SOME appeal: the one-off sketch show entitled: Madalls: Gross Jokes. To say that comedy series of the era aimed at children generally weren't funny is something of an understatement; the vast majority were clearly written by adults who'd forgotten what it was like to actually be a child (notable exceptions including the CITV “Interactive Video Comic” Round the Bend and its ilk). Madballs: Gross Jokes is one of those rare shows that understands children's humour; that is often so school yard and near the knuckle in its naughtiness, it could have actually been written by a group of school kids. The show itself is a loose collection of animated sketches featuring the Madballs, all of which are suitably disgusting, silly or pushing the verge of parental patience to breaking point. Well worth a watch, if you can find it.
With the toy line reaching its nadir, one last ditch effort was made to inject some novelty into the franchise with the “Heads-a-Poppin'” line: fully articulated action figures based on the original two series with heads that could be launched via the flick of a switch on their backs. Whilst not terribly well marketed or notably popular, the figures are just as grotesque and detailed as the original Madballs that inspired them, with various seeping wounds, stitches, crawling bugs, boils, buboes and more than enough disgusting elements to make them worthy of note.
Despite being the last toys of the original release, like many franchises of the 1980s, the Madballs are very fondly remembered very fondly by those who enjoyed them as children, so much so that they have retained a small fan base on the internet, who have succeeded in resurrecting the line: it is now possible to buy revamped versions of the original Madballs as well as a whole slew of new entries in the line (all suitably, disgustingly inventive).
A toy franchise that children loved and that parents loathed, not only for the distressing imagery that it contained but also because of the damage done by the balls being thrown around, often in living room or kitchen settings, at younger siblings or sleeping pets.
That it was ever released and marketed at children at all is something of a minor miracle, and one that I'm personally very thankful for.