And now, Scary-Crayon reviews...
MADBALLS 2007 Series 1
by: Wes

We'd seen promos and prototypes and been hearing rumors about their revival since last year, but finally, this 2007 holiday season, freaky fun for everyone is back with the return of the MADBALLS!!! As we'll see in a moment, things are a little different this time around, but the line still sticks to the basic premise of balls with ugly faces. I'm not sure whether the Madballs started this enduring trend or not, but what always set them apart from their sickening softball-sized brethren was the inspired nature of the designs -- even now (okay, maybe not right this moment; gross toys tend to vanish from the aisles during Santa's season) you can swing by your local Dollar Tree and find a solo skull or bug-eyed ball, but there's a good chance it'll lack the detail and personality that's practically oozing from each and every one of the definitive balls of madness. It's for this reason (and because of the massive merchandising campaign that backed the 'balls, which included such diverse items as soap, plastic banks, cartoons, and coffee table jokebooks) that those of us who were kids in 1986 still remember the Madballs today, and I'm happy to report that that unique stomach-churning Madballs flavor has been successfully ported into 2007 despite design various alterations for better and worse.

Series 1 Screamin' Meemie and Bash Brain (left and right), Sick Series 1 Skull Face (center)
Series 1 Skull Face, Horn Head, and Slobulus

So here are the new balls on their cards. The packaging itself even brings to mind memories of the old days (check out the 1986 Series 1 card's front and back, along with a whole bunch of other old school Madballs scans throughout this site), with its prominent play directives ("Toss 'em! Bounce 'em! Catch 'em!"), dogged insistence upon the Madballs' distinguishing defects ("Obnoxious and Gross!"), and alluring alliterative description of the product line. From the new Series 1 cardback, I quote:

They're MADBALLSTM, the rude, repulsive and really revolting characters that you can bounce, catch, and hurl! Freak Out your friends and frighten the fam with this crew of mutant misfits. Go Crazy! Go Mad! Collect Every Single One!

The Sick Series 1 description substitutes "squeeze" for "bounce" and inserts a line about the Madballs getting "even more twisted," but aside from that the new Madballs blurbs are identical. Did I ever mention how much I'd love writing these things professionally? With the possible exceptions of working as a professional action figure reviewer or getting paid to watch classic "Doctor Who" episodes all day, that'd totally be my dream job.

Anyway, today's review isn't so much an assessment of the new Madballs on their own merits -- I could do that in three words: "they kinda rock" -- as it is a comparison with the balls of old and my own thoughts about how the classic designs have benefited (or not) from their 2007 updates. I'm not going to detail every. single. change. applied to the balls (for instance, this parenthetical mention of the screws and plate on the new Skull Face is the only time you'll see it mentioned in this review), but I will point out differences that I think are particularly noteworthy. In general, however, I find it somewhat interesting that whereas the current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures have been largely similified and made much less gross than their 80s and 90s plastic counterparts -- compare the 1989 Rat King to the 2006 version -- the new Madballs have gone the opposite route and are now notably nastier in appearance, sporting everything from dirtier-looking paint jobs to extra damage details. (I realize that it's totally in keeping with the gross-out theme of the line, but still.) And I've even done quite a bit of spelunking through boxes of old ziplock-bagged toys to unearth my original Madballs and relevant bootlegs, so you'll be able to observe the differences yourself!

That's *Mister* Horn Head to you, bub!

Let's start our comparisons with Horn Head. The 2007 version is in the center, with the 1980s head popping and regular versions flanking him on either side. Of the updated designs, Horn Head's is definitely my favorite (which isn't to say that it's my favorite overall design, but rather that the changes here are the most welcome). He's still the same cyclops with a horn sticking out of his head, but the various touches and details on the new sculpt -- namely the slight squint of the eye, the slime dripping from his mouth, and the chain extending from his nose ring to his ear -- make him look meaner and more visually interesting without detracting from the appeal of the original design. That said, I much prefer the colors of the old toy. The orangutan-esque reddish brown gave Horn Head more of a mutated sasquatch-like appearance (especially considering the head popping figure's fur-covered body), whereas the new purple dilutes the character's cryptozoological presence. The green tongue isn't bad, per se, but it doesn't really do anything for me either.

One other thing to note: whereas the original Series 1 Madballs were made of a harder, less pliant foam, the new balls take after the original Series 2 versions and are made of a softer material. In theory this makes them more playable and safe for children, who can now squeeze 'em more easily and hurl 'em at each other with a lowered risk of injury, but the problem here is that the standardized packaging is unforgivingly spherical and doesn't make allowances for protrusions like Horn Head's horn. Kids who plan on squeezing and throwing the ball probably wouldn't care either way, as those activities would doubtless cause the figure to generate some play wear, but I found myself a little bothered by the fact that Horn Head's horn was mostly crushed flat for the duration of his time in the package and left wrinkles and some warping on the protrusion when I finally took him out. It's not a huge deal, and as said is more of an issue for meticulous collectors rather than the kids for whom the Madballs are intended, but I felt compelled to mention it.

Welcome to the Slobulus Aurelius Beauty Makeover School.

Next up is Slobulus. From left to right, we have the head popping figure, the 2007 Series 1 version, the 1986 version, and a Taiwanese bootleg that I got in Germany (where I was living during the height of the Madballs' popularity). Like Horn Head, Slobulus retains the same general design as the original, but here the altered details overcomplicate and take away from the appearance too much for my liking. The unique bluish-purple hair of the original gave the ball some interesting color variation -- but with the 2007 version, that hair has been replaced with typical green slime oozing from an already green head. The original's dangling eye wasn't so low that you couldn't see both pupils at the same time, but the new one is looking decidedly down, such that you can't see the left pupil without tilting him up and obscuring the right. Granted, the excess of green slime and the details such as Slobulus actually appearing to lick his dangling eyeball are totally in keeping with the nastiness of the line, but they also make him look way too busy for my tastes. If I were a kid today and couldn't afford to collect the whole set, Slobulus would probably be one of the Madballs I neglected to buy.

Hey, wait a minute -- I didn't order cow's tongue!

As seen in the comparison pic above -- which displays, from left to right, the head popping figure, the 2007 version, the carded wind-up variety, and a Taiwanese bootleg ball that looks very much like the original except for the missing tooth and flesh color (and missing paint!) -- the new Screamin' Meemie sports the fewest modifications to his 1986 appearance. As a baseball with a grinning face and oversized tongue, he always had the simplest design of the Madballs, and kudos to the designers for not trying to "improve" him by adding unnecessary stitches and scars and slime droplets and whatnot. Screamin' Meemie was easily my favorite of the Madballs as a kid -- largely because of his prominence in the cartoon and comics -- as well as the most difficult to find (I was never able to secure the regular ball back in the 80s or during my later eBay hunts for Madballs as an undergrad), so I was particularly glad to see him largely unchanged for his 2007 return.

But while I'm very much a fan of the mostly preserved Screamin' Meemie, there is one subtle adjustment to the ball that I don't love -- the slightly shrunken tongue. See, with the original character, the tongue was his defining feature. It was extremely wide and hung down lower than the rest of the ball on the toy, and in the supporting media it hung a considerable distance below him and trailed behind him when he flew through the air. When Screamin' Meemie's tongue hung down onto his plate during a restaurant sketch in Madballs: Gross Jokes, he even mistook it for an order of cow's tongue and stabbed it with his fork. The tongue was inexorably impressed upon my mind, as evidenced by its prominence in the anime version of the character that I drew several years ago. The tongue is still large in the new version, but somehow it's not wide or long or protruding enough to command the attention that it did before.

Skull Face is a bonehead.

And here's the aptly named Skull Face in four flavors: the head popping figure, the 2007 Series 1 version, the 2007 Sick Series 1 version, and the original 1986 ball minus pretty much all of its paint (one of these days I'm going to have to try my hand at restoring it). The new versions of Skull Face are odd in that while they retain the general idea of the 1986 toy and sport many of the same details as the originals, such as the apparent grin, the beady red eyes, the missing chunk from the upper right side of the head, and even the weird "cute" factor, they look they manage to look almost entirely different. I'm not even sure I can legitimately compare them, as the new Skull Face isn't as much a revision or update so much as it is a complete reimagining of the character. I prefer the original incarnation for nostalgia's sake, but I also see how one could be drawn to the admittedly adorable and decidedly daffy spider-lickin' style of the new version.

Skull Face is the only one of the Sick Series 1 Madballs that I picked up, so he'll have to serve as the basis for my evaluation of them. Unlike the regular balls, which don't really do anything, the Sick ones have an added gimmick -- like the various balls with faces that you can find in excess in dollar stores during the Halloween season, squeezing them causes an area to pop out and reveal extra nastiness within. In the case of Skull Face, whereas the missing chunk of skull on the normal version shows sculpted brains, squeezing the Sick version results in a clear bulge that shows the inside of his head to be filled with blood and spiders. It's a tried and true gimmick that works well here, but at the same time I'd advise consumers to save a dollar and stick with the regular versions of these characters. I decided to get Skull Face because the feature occurs on the side of his head and therefore doesn't really affect the basic sculpt, but with Slobulus and Bash Brain -- whose features respectively involve their eye and brain, two extremely prominent features on the characters -- the appearances of the toys suffer noticeably due to the feature. Admittedly, Skull Face also had some appeal since the Sick ball's eyes are a more vibrant red and the paint in the sockets and nose is much darker, which serves to make him look a little bit more like the original version that I love so much. So if you must have a Sick Series 1 Madball, I recommend Skull Face, but you could just as easily pass on them altogether.

Mr. D. B. Bash Brain III (Madballs: Gross Jokes)2007 Bash Brain and 1986 Aargh

Bash Brain, also known back in the day as Crack Head, is the last of the 2007 Madballs that I picked up. He retains the exposed brain for which he was named, but there are some striking differences with this new version -- in addition to the green slime and bulging bloodshot yellow eyes, the new BB has eschewed the flesh-colored skin of the original for a decidedly unnatural pink that's closer to his original purple animation appearance in Madballs: Escape From Orb. I personally prefer the character's later animation appearance in Madballs: Gross Jokes to all of the versions of Bash Brain with which I'm familiar, but, since I never owned the original Bash Brain toy and therefore lack the more substantial attachment to the character that I feel for the others, it's difficult for me to draw a meaningful comparison between the new and old versions.

Lacking a 1986 Bash Brain for a more direct comparison image, I decided to display him next to the old Aargh -- mostly because I wanted an excuse to talk about Aargh since he didn't make it into the new line. I've noted that Screamin' Meemie was my favorite Madball overall, but Aargh easily took the top spot of the Madballs that I actually owned. Something about the oversized eye and the blue and purple colors just made him very cool to look at, and although I generally wasn't a fan of the stitching on the Madballs because it further complicated the designs (I loved to draw my favorite toys and characters, so a simpler and cleaner appearance was always preferable to me) I really didn't mind it on Aargh here. I loved Aargh, so you can imagine how I felt when I saw that he'd been replaced by Repvile in the new line. (I couldn't even bring myself to buy Repvile, but you can check him out on the official Madballs product website.) I mean, it's possible that Aargh will show up in a later series and all will be well and good, but something about Repvile's features -- namely the blue skin and the oversized eye -- make me think that he's meant to be Aargh's replacement, especially given that the name "Repvile" would have been better used on a character that is decidedly scaly and reptilian (black and orange Gila monster coloring would've been kinda cool) rather than the weird bony ethic on this guy. I'm not saying that he's badly designed, mind you; I'm just saying that -- insofar as he was intended to be a replacement for Aargh -- he's an inferior substitute that compels me to pick bones with him. ;P

Freakella!Oculus Orbus and his amazing hats!Dusty Dust Brain!

So this is the part where I'd originally intended to use the comments above as a springboard and alternately whine about the other classic Madballs that didn't make it into the new line and wax hopeful about characters and designs I'd love to see in the future. For example, I always liked Oculus Orbus and Dust Brain, and I was a big fan of some of the changes that they made for the animation designs -- particularly the swank hats that Oculus wore and the fact that, in the cartoons, Dust Brain was clearly female. I also liked the addition of Freakella, another female Madball who was never actualized in foam rubber, so it would've been nice to finally see a toy version of her. Heck, any female Madballs would be neat additions to the line.

But then I stumbled upon Madballs Central, a blog by the creators and artists for the new Madballs -- and last month, they revealed the upcoming Series 2 designs. Old school favorites like Freaky Fullback and Dust Brain have made the trip to the 21st century with minimal changes (although sadly Dust Brain lacks the lipstick and eyelashes of his animated feminine counterpart), and Wolf Breath, Swine Sucker, and Oculus Orbus are also along for the ride with various modifications. Recalling my earlier praise of Screamin' Meemie, Oculus is another example of a simple character that didn't need to be "updated" with unnecessary stitching and slime -- but here, instead of giving him a cool hat, they did just that. Meh. There's also a new character by the name of Blechbeard. Unfortunately, I suspect that -- much like with Repvile and Aargh -- Blechbeard is the bastard replacement for the classic Bruise Brother, but I'll save my ranting about him for our inevitable Madballs Series 2 review sometime next year.

GOOD LUCK, MADBALLS!!!

That about does it for now, then! I may largely prefer the older, simpler Madballs designs, but I am still excited to see them back 20+ years later and am very much looking forward to Series 2 and other Madballs merch to come. Will the head popping figures return? Will there be new cartoons to sell the new toys? Will the Madballs return to print for more zany adventures with the likes of Dr. Frankenbeans and Maiden Hong Kong? Will there ever be female Madballs toys? Will the Madballs be able to survive outside of the gross-out trend that made them such popular playthings during the 1980s? And if so, will they be successful enough to once again inspire incessant waves of wannabes and dollar store pretenders, like the Scary Faces that once featured so prominently in the SC layout? (And will I ever get around to reviewing the indescribably fantastic Scary Faces coloring book for the print section?) Hopefully 2008 will provide us with answers to these pressing questions related to the Madballs' revival -- but you know I'm rooting for positive answers to all of the above. :D

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