Ginger Nuts of Horror
I'm endlessly fascinated by that work which likely should have struck a chord during the era it occurred, but for reasons outside of my understanding, never did.
The toyline Skeleton Warriors hit toy shelves during the mid to lte 1990s, during an era when boy's toys were highly inventive but also competing with the likes of video games consoles for shelf space and market attention.
As such, despite having a highly successful cartoon series (seriously, one of the best from this era, despite being criminally overlooked and under-distributed: complex characters, an interesting back mythology, great voice acting and a genuine, on-going story arc that, unlike many, reaches its own resolution), the franchise petered out without much in the way of fanfare, boasting only a single series of astunningly rendered action figures and vehicles.
The back mythology is fairly standard for the era: on the world of Luminaire, all power derives from the mystical Light Star Crystal, the world's highly advanced technology and civilisations reliant upon it for their function. In a bid for power, the (hilariously named) Baron Dark (no chance he's up to no good) tricks the jealous Prince Justyn (one of the royals charged with governing Luminaire and protecting the Light Star Crystal) into granting him access to the crystal, resulting in its shattering. As a result, Dark is transfigured into a reflection of his soul: a hideous, animated skeleton that can reduce others to the same state, whereas Justyn is transfigured into a ghoul that can teleport from shadow to shadow. Luminaire descends into anarchy and civil war as Baron Dark and his army of skeleton warriors rampages across its surface, transfiguring the population into more skeletons and generally making a nuisance of themselves, their agenda to find the shattered half of the Lightstar Crystal and thus cement the Baron's power.
It's a fairly standard “good vs. evil” dynamic that you'll find in most action figure ranges of the era, certainly those aimed at boys, which tended to have more than an edge of violence and conflict about them. It's ultimately the cartoon that allows it to swell into something more than a He-Man or Thundercats clone; introducing a certain adult tone to proceedings, as well as some interesting characterisations for the likes of Baron Dark, who, despite being a villanous bastard, is also fairly hilarious, having a deeply sardonic edge to his personality and Prince Justyn (refered to as “Grimskull” following his transformation) who is deeply contrite for his actions and becomes one of the show's more interesting characters. There's also a tendency for show to dip into horrific imagery, from the eponymous skeleton warriors reassembling after being blwon apart, to the transfomration sequences in which Baron Dark reduces living men and women into tattered, skeletal incarnations of themselves. There are even one or two references to Lovecraft thrown in for good measure, along with introductory narrations provided by the late, great Tony Jay.
As for the toys themselves, one of their key features (blatantly advertised on their packaging) is that they are sculpted and painted to resemble real bone; there is a level of detail in the figures that is almost unheard of in toys of the era; washes, paint applications, sculpted details, separate armour and equipment, that renders them highly desirable pieces, particularly amongst collectors.
Whilst the range is culturally obliged to have a smattering of “good guys,” this is one of those ranges that knows its audience very, very well indeed; where the token human characters are given short shrift (even the figures of the hero characters are extremely light on detail compared to their evil counterparts), the skeletons are lovingly designed and detailed, from the squat, dwarf-like Dagger to the many-limbed Aracula, from the disturbingly feminine Shriek to the partially cybernetic Doctor Cyborn, each of them is highly characterised, replete with features and redundant detail, as well as a bizarre textural quality that looks and feels for all the world like genuine bone.
The most loving sculpt is reserved for the central villain of the piece: Baron Dark's figure not only comes complete with a separate cloak, a sweeping top-knot and myriad weapons and accoutrements, but also armour sculpted to resemble skulls, a madly snarling face sculpt and a degree of detail that not even the other skeleton warriors can boast. Positioned atop his skeletal steed (sadly sold separately, and very difficult to come by), he's a fantastically imposing figure, especially for display purposes.
It's clear from the toys themselves that the designers had something somewhat darker in mind, even than the show allows for (and the show goes pretty damn dark, considering it was essentially a Saturday morning cartoon), not to mention that, according to interviews given by those involved with the project, it was originally envisioned as a replacement franchise for the likes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which was nearing the end of its almost decade-long run at the time. Given the amount of money and advertisng that was thrown at it, this was clearly the case, yet something about the Skeleton Warriors failed to stick; despite being beautiful figures with an excellent cartoon, they didn't ignite the cultural consciousness in quite the same way as the franchises they were designed to replace.
This is not only a great shame, but somewhat baffling; in terms of concept and and design, one would have thought that they were almost a sure thing: the kind of toys that boys of the era (and more than one or two girls) would have gone absolutely nuts over.
Sadly, this was not to be: the Skeleton Warriors became something of a shelf-warming franchise, toy stores inundated with unsold stock; figures that sat on shelves for weeks and months at a time (Dagger, the smallest skeleton in the franchise, was particularly over-produced). This sadly led to a swift cancellation of both the toy and cartoon series, a second line that looked even more ambitious than the original occurring only in one or two foolhardy advertisements, but never coming to pass.
A brief search around the hinterlands of the internet reveals some absolutely spectacular toys in this second series, that at least reached the prototype stage, not least of which is a truly immense skeletal dragon, likely intended as the must-have Christmas present of the era.
Like many in this series, the line is fondly remembered by those few that experienced it; so much so that there have been numerous campaings to kick-start a resurrection of the line, some of which have had a little success.
For others, the line remains something of a curiosity; a marker of a transition in childhood culture, where perhaps action figures themselves were becoming the currency of yesteryear; when the obsessions of the 1980s and early 1990s were giving way to other interests and pursuits.
For my part, I recall them as being one of the last toy lines that snared my interest before such things bled away before incipient adulthood, and therefore one that has a particularly beloved -albeit melancholy- place in my personal history.