Ad Nauseam: ALF #23 (Mascot Madness!) 

You can find previous “Ad Nauseam”s here.

Welcome back to Ad Nauseam: never ending articles inspecting promotions of yesteryear found in between the “Biff”s and “Pow”s of clearance rack comics. Please send help. 

Tonight we crack open the capitalistic corpse of ALF #23 released December 1989.

ALF (Alien Life Form) was a Marvel comic series based off the television show of the same name. It ran for a surprisingly successful 50 issues (1988-1992), actually exceeding the lifespan of the show. ALF tells the story of Gordon Shumway, an alien from an extinct planet that crash lands in suburban California. He’s discovered and reluctantly “adopted” by a wholesome nuclear family as sitcom shenanigans and laugh tracks ensue. The show was like a fusion of Full House and Garfield complete with 80s sitcom cheese, cat references, food binging, all centering around a family named The Tanners. 

ALF #23: December 1989

On a personal note, ALF was one of my favorite shows as a child. Being raised on Muppets, anything involving puppets immediately caught my attention. And in his prime, ALF was a merchandising machine as his face was slapped on coloring books, lunchboxes, and everything in between. 

Which brings me to the focus of tonight’s article…

I’ve spent too much time building these virtual monuments to 30+ year old junk food and mailaway trading cards. A driving force behind diving into these ads isn’t nostalgia alone…but the realization that I’m part of a bygone era I’m calling The Lost Art of the Mascot. For better or worse. 

There’s a reason why I’m so fondly in love with the Mcdonald’s of yesteryear. Or how I’ll gush over sugary cereal boxes and the return of “throwback” labels on the same old products. The Trix Rabbit! Toucan Sam! Scrubbing Bubbles! The Noid! Mrs. Butterworth! As a child I loved the Energizer Bunny and Chester Cheetah. What they were bussing was moot (or so I thought), yet they turned out to be the reason why I wanted Cheetos in my lunch and Energizer batteries in my talking Robocop. If you’re in your late thirties you CAN’T look me in the GOSH DANG eyes and tell me you didn’t eat raisins because of the CALIFORNIA RAISINS singing on your television! Don’t lie to me this isn’t my FIRST RODEO! 

This is a brilliant marketing strategy that, I would say, peaked throughout the 1960s-1990s. Take a mundane product and pair it with a bright lively marketable character that would appeal to children. This is most common with cereal (as we’ll see tonight) but expanded far beyond to everything from batteries to cleaning supplies. It’s a strategy that cements a brand and creates a brainworm in future customers based on recognition. It’s planting the seeds of consumption in young malleable selfish minds and might just be considered evil. But, boy, does it work!  

It’s fitting that I found these ads in an ALF comic. Yet another character created with a big marketable lovable personality full of quippy one liners and sarcasm. Almost as if the priority was merchandising over actual quality. Huh. Well that can’t be…can it? So let’s travel back to the last gasp of the 1980’s with ALF #23 and quietly ask ourselves why is this December released comic themed around Fall?


Trix and Lucky Charms Word Games!

These ads are a great example of how to make your mascot appear as more than just a vapid salesman. Both of these full page ads are games first and ads second. Kids know when they’re being marketed to, so to literally make a game out of your product is a way to get attention without your little consumer even realizing you’re getting your sugar soaked fingerprints all over their fresh malleable mind. You engage your audience. The cereal and logo take up little of the illustration, making the mascots the main focus besides the game itself. It’s a way to get kids to “help” the characters (they look distressed afterall) and connect with them. Appeal to emotions. The games center around the themes of the cereal and names so it’s easy to identify next time you’re at the grocery store. If you play this fun game with these characters in your monthly comics, you’d be more than willing to beg mom for their cereal. I felt a loyalty to these characters, therefore, I wanted their cereal over, say, Corn Pops or Frosted Mini Wheat. 

Also I love how Lucky the Leprechaun is relaxing in his cozy home with an offering of a perfectly balanced breakfast (did anybody really partake in orange juice and milk?) and the Trix Rabbit is cornered in some gritty back alley (also is the pencil oversized or is the Trix rabbit truly that small?). Through engaging ads like this, you might actually look forward to them popping up in your comic book. Imagine that! Soon Trix and Lucky could mean more to you than just breakfast cereal, but in turn, Trix and Lucky Charms might be the first brands that spring to mind when getting some sugary trash to shovel in your gullet at 7 am. Magically delicious? Or Implemented strategically delicious?   

Nestle Quik Hop Shop!

It’s pretty incredible how some of these ads can work on a young mind. I haven’t seen a Nestle Quik commercial in decades and haven’t drank it in probably over 25 years, yet I still remember that Quik bunny suckin’ that gloop up while his long ears twisted around as if he were in the middle of some sort of powdery orgazmic trance. 

Here we have an example of being “rewarded” with stuff you don’t need for consuming junk that will hurt you. Today, this practice of marketing has been (mostly) dropped across the board as it shouts “blind vapid consumerism” and can direct your child onto the road of diabetes and obesity all in the name of a Quik Bunny Plastic Mug. If you delve back into comics of the 1960s and 70s, you’d find similar “reward” programs using points to earn prizes aimed at children. These points were earned through, essentially, a pyramid scheme: Want a kite or magic set? Sell a certain amount of magazine subscriptions (for example). You could earn up to a bicycle! Though marketing like this “Hop Shop” ad truly reflects the consumeristic junkie mindframe that permeated the 1980’s: Eat to earn. Buy our products and earn cool prizes adorning our logo. It’s a pretty bold and confident move when you think about it. 

It sounds like John Carpenter’s They Live in a way. Mostly because, in a way, it is. That movie had to come from somewhere, right?

Okay, so I’m being cynical. I previously touched on a similar tactic with Kool-Aid. And there’s tons just like this. I don’t look down on anyone who was into this. Mostly because I know for a 100% fact, I’d partake in this if I didn’t have such a strictly-budgeted mother growing up. The bendable Quik Bunny and Plush Bunny are calling my name. Then I’d probably go for the t-shirt and some “hot shades”. That ice pop maker and mug are swell too. I didn’t even drink Nestle Quik much, but I loved the fun design of the Bunny from the commercials. I liked him. Which was the point. They got me hook, line, and sinker. I delve into this stuff because I fall for it. 

I actually sought out some of the prizes being offered here through eBay and paired them with the image above. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that Quik Bunny mug at almost every flea market I’ve ever been to. Also, do you notice the 1950’s aesthetic in this ad? The music notes, “Hop Shop” logo design, and the way the Bunny talks? The 1950’s Americana fascination was only 30+ years ago at this point in time. The people making these ads were nostalgic for their era. For instance, what era do you see today so firmly replicated throughout marketing in pop culture? Ah, that’s right, the 1980’s. Which is only 30+ years ago at this point in time. Where does the time go?   

   

Mr. Bubble’s Tub Tales!

Man, when was the last time you took a bubble bath? Is taking a bubble bath just a kid thing? Why? I remember always seeing sexy women taking bubble baths in movies, but that was usually because it was PG and they needed to cover up their body. Why can’t a middle aged construction worker come home from a hard day’s work to a nice bubble bath? Can we normalize that? Anyway…

The “mini-comic” ad you’d find in comic books is a classic tactic. In fact, I wouldn’t mind doing that for a living. Here we get a short tale featuring Mother callin’ in the kiddos after having a fun-filled dirty play day only to *GASP* be excited to take a bath?! That’s right, kids, because Mr. Bubble makes getting clean almost as much fun as getting dirty! I love the admittance of saying  “almost”. They’re just being honest. It’s not more fun or even as fun apparently. But the fun doesn’t have to stop in the bath! Because Mr. Bubble’s got them tees and sweaters to rock on your clean bubbleless bod. And a f**king WATCH?! A Mr. Bubbles Watch?! I wish I could’ve met someone wearing a Mr. Bubbles watch in the wild. Like, who are they? What is their story? How are they doing?

Regardless, this advertisement intertwines the idea of the main product (being bubble bath..er-uh..stuff) supplemented with the idea of wearing the brand out of your pure enjoyment for it. Whereas the Nestle Quik branded swag was based on “earning” it. Mr. Bubble just wants to be friends, bro. An adult sized shirt cost $4.95 in December of 1989. With inflation (plus $1 for S&H) that comes out to $13.49 in 2022. Not to shabby considering most tees cost around $27 shipped these days. Also notice the inclusion of adult sized clothing (as well as that rad watch). Mr. Bubble was a brand founded in 1961, nearly 30 years of business at the time. It’s appealing to nostalgia. Your kid would see it and might want one and there’s an off chance that you might too…seeing as you might have grown up with Mr. Bubble as well. That marketing practice is super common today as nostalgia has become almost the go-to route for marketing towards adults. 

And, yes, I managed to go to Mr. Bubble’s website. And, yes, they sell shirts and little Mr. Bubble dolls. And, yes, I’m internally struggling with not buying them. 


I always bring up throughout these Ad Nauseum articles how you no longer see ads for sugary snack cakes, candy, or tooth rotting “juice” drinks marketed towards children anymore; much less rewarding them with prizes for consuming them. Commercials don’t have the same imagination and charm as they used to either. When was the last time you saw Ronald dicking around in Mcdonaldland? Or Captain Crunch recklessly sailing his ship into a kitchen under the influence of crunchberries? Or Kool Aid man carelessly bursting through drywall? Lumber costs have skyrocketed you giant pitcher abomination.  

And, in all honesty, it’s for the best. These mascots still exist but they’re minimal and present for posterity. Whenever they are used, it’s sparingly to appeal to a time where you’d eat this trash and not feel like it. As a society we’ve become much more conscious of what’s in our food and the benefits of it. I believe we’ve broken a marketing cycle and caused a shift towards a more healthy and transparent approach. It may no longer involve a colorful talking toucan or collecting proofs of purchase for a glow-in-the-dark yo-yo…but it benefits us long term. I can definitely see a day in my lifetime where all these mascots are distant memories. Where some 78 year old’s suspiciously hairy ears perk up as we’d recall “Cheesasaurus Rex” over overpriced space-lattes on Planet Starbucks.   

Regardless, I am fond of this stuff. These colorful faces that greeted me on Saturday mornings and in between the pages of my favorite superhero adventures. The excitement I felt digging through sugary cereal I convinced my mom I needed just for the toy inside. Looking at the cookies baking in the oven to see if the Pillsbury Doughboy would actually pop up and greet me. It could be the time and place that gets me. But it’s also the marketing itself. It’s genuine nostalgia for something that was strategically planned and meticulously implemented by a boardroom of rich business tycoons. So undeniably American. But when you look at things that way…it kinda sucks the fun and wonder out of life.

Although the Art of the Mascot is indeed lost and I truly can’t think I’m better off for being apart of it, I can at least look back at it through the eyes of a child and smile. In a lot of cases ignorance is bliss afterall. Thanks for thumbing in between the action of old comics and reminiscing with me. You’ll always find “insight” into comfy comic culture here on ChrisDoesComics.

Ad Nauseam: The Supernaturals

PAST COMIC ADS CAN BE FOUND HERE!

I only decide to write my Ad Nauseum articles when the breath of the comic gods speaketh to me naturally. I let the comics find me, you see. The timing, price, and content has to be just right. One may call the process very sad SuPeRnAtUrAl. Which brings us to tonight’s book: The Supernaturals: The Most Supernatural Superheroes of Them All! 

This was a four issue miniseries released by Marvel Comics in December 1998. I found the entire series (including the preview book) for $20 at a semi-local comic convention last month. The covers slapped me in the face harder than Will Smith. TOPICAL! It’s as if Halloween threw up its orange and purple guts all over a comic book. And, on top of it all, each issue came with a “pop-out” mask of a Supernaturals hero! When hitting that close to home I realized this book was created specifically with me in mind. 

Just me

No one else.  

The Supernatural story is about a team of superheroes with occult-superpowers that battle the team of Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster led by literally a man with a jack o’lantern for a head named Jack O’Lantern because what else would you name him hellooo? This comic doesn’t take place within the “mainstream” Marvel Universe as they take established heroes like Ghost Rider, Black Cat, and Werewolf By Night and adapt them into extreme hip 90’s teenagers. I learned wonderful tidbits like Werewolf By Night’s adoration of Quentin Taratino, and Metallica; Ghost Rider’s love of all extreme sports; Black Cat being a vegetarian Democrat that listens to Jewel; and Brother Voodoo being a successful R&B singer and “mega-producer” whose headquarters is a revamped YMCA. 

IT’S LIKE I’M READING ABOUT MYSELF! IT’S JUST WHAT WE KIDS WANTED.

But I digress, as we’re here to look at the relics between the story. So I plucked out the four ads that spookily spoke to me most. So turn off your Spice Girls CD, put down that Prowrestling Illustrated magazine and save your game in Ocarina of Time. We’re headed back to December 1998 to ask: Hey, why did this Jack O’Lantern comic coupled with Halloween masks come out in December?

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UNIVERSAL MONSTERS COOKIE SWEEPSTAKES! 

One of the few products where you can take a bite out of Dracula, Universal Monsters cookies were essentially chocolate Teddy Grahams in the shape of classic monsters instead of cuddly teddy bears which makes them one of the greatest treats ever produced in American history. I talk about the Universal Monsters as much as Twitter talks about injustice, so it’s shocking that I had no idea these were in the grocery aisles at the time. By late 1998 I was already fang deep into classic horror: religiously attending the weekly church of Svengoolie; proudly displaying my Burger King Universal Monster toys; and dressed as Dracula and Wolfman four Halloween’s in a row! Little did I know I could’ve been literally ingesting the Universal Monsters via sugary low quality cookie-like byproduct! 

This ad, in particular, is a great mix of Halloween vibes with purples, greens, and oranges alike not to mention the illustrated presence of the classic monsters! This was definitely during the awkward era where Universal had likeness-rights issues, so we get “Not-Quite-Lugosi” Dracula, a generic Mummy, “Bye-Bye-Boris” Frankenstein, and a Blurry-Is-That-Even-Wolfman? Wolfman. This ad also boasted a sweepstakes in which you could win a trip to Universal Studios Florida and “Party with the Universal Monsters in the Ghostly Spirit of Halloween!” They poke fun at old horror movie titles by naming the sweepstakes “The Son of the Curse of the Wicked Halloween Party”. It’s an ad worth framing and hanging above my roaring marble fireplace posing as an entranceway to my hidden laboratory. 

The thought of attending a 1998 Halloween party in Universal Studios with the Universal Monsters is nothing short of incredible. The opportunity to slow dance with the Gillman to Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” or boogie with Frankenstein to Jay Z’s “Hard Knock Life” is something I would quite possibly sell my soul for. The Mummy would definitely be the wallflower of the group, but I feel like I could get him swaying when “You Get What You Give” starts playing. 

Anybody else catch on how weird it is that there’s a Halloween comic (that comes with a mask) with an ad for a Halloween party but it’s released in December? I think somebody missed the deadline. 

YOMEGA YO YOS! 

I remember going to school one day and suddenly everyone had a yo yo. Honestly. I sharply remember walking into my classroom on a particular weekday morning to nearly everyone attempting to “walk the dog”. It was an annoyance. Not because I was suddenly surrounded by 22 colorful yoyos (we’ve all been there) but because, yet again, I missed the newest fun trend. How do they keep up? I thought to myself. Does my “Letter of Hip Trends” get lost in the mail every month? Or is it an e-mail I miss because I don’t have a computer? I was yoyo-less. For the day. Week. Month probably. But the realization of being the actual Charlie Brown didn’t stop my need for INTEL. YOMEGA was the “it” brand (so I’d been told by the trend-masters as I hit the local beat) Duncan was a distant second yet still emitted a passable-cool. It took a couple weeks of nagging my grandmother with my woe filled yoyo-less days until she finally succumbed to buying me one. 

We hit a now defunct store called “Gamer’s Paradise” in my local mall. There they had a rack displaying all the newest coolest trendy YOMEGA YOYOS. I grabbed a Yomega Fireball (black with clear accents) as the store clerk quipped how these were suddenly all the rage. The next morning at school was when I was accepted amongst my youthful peers. As we stood around in a circle during recess all totally sucking at doing anything remotely impressive with our yoyos. Despite all that, I actually enjoyed playing with it. At the very least I learned how to successfully make my yoyo  “sleep” as well as “walk the dog”. And the quality of the Yomega yoyo did seem “professional” compared to your cheap run-of-the-mill bargain yoyos. 

When it comes to the modern nostalgia niche, there’s certainly a lot of cherry picked “memories” deemed worthy to market as retro. The yo yo fad of the late 1990s is certainly one that’s overlooked. In fact, I completely forgot about it until coming across this ad…demonstrating why I do articles like this to begin with. I can even vaguely recall a classmate bringing up the “Yoyo Championships”..perhaps even a VHS tape was involved. And now that recollection is gone. It was for the best. 

Not too long into yoyo-mania ‘98, I had acquired a glow-in-the-dark yoyo that contained an actual scorpion molded into the clear plastic. From the reaction of my classmates, it was then when I realized I had flown too close to the sun. A yoyo so extreme…so extra…so ‘90s…I may have single handedly ended the yoyo craze within my community. From ”hot” to “not”. Regards of yours truly. It wasn’t long before my yoyo ended up in a drawer alongside my knockoff Tamagotchi, mismatched baseball cards, and forgotten Happy Meal toys. One might say the yoyo craze of 1998 certainly had its ups and downs. 

POKEMON RED/BLUE ON GAMEBOY!

The yoyo trend completely paled in comparison to Pokemania which, at this point, was runnin’ wild, brothers. A Japanese pop culture monster that eclipsed Godzilla yet fit in your pocket, Pokemon was (and still is) a popular cartoon show, trading card game, and…now…video game. If you didn’t see Pikachu’s fat face adorning everything from lunchboxes to backpacks at this time I’d argue that you, indeed, had no eyes. And if you have no eyes…how are you reading this article? Some sort of cyber-optic-eye implants I assume. Then you better use those fancy-robo-eyes to best watch yourself. Because we don’t take kindly to cyborg-types around these parts, you understand? 

Good. 

Anyway, Pokemon Red/Blue was my gateway drug into Pokemania. It was a trend making the rounds within my school that (no surprise) I was still unfamiliar with. While my friends were “battling” their Pokemon cards and “linking” their Gameboys to trade their pocket monsters, I was cradling my glow-in-the-dark scorpion yoyo and wondering where it went all wrong. It was my birthday gift of WWF Attitude on the Gameboy Color that began my journey into the world of Pokemon. How does a terrible wrestling game for the Gameboy Color bring me to Pokemon you ask? Simple: I didn’t own a Gameboy Color. And the game did not work on my original Gameboy. So my grandmother took me to Gamer’s Paradise (you know the one) to return it. There I was told I could not get the money back but I can exchange it for a game of the same value. I spotted Pokemon Red in their display case, thought the dragon on the cover looked cool, and that was that. 

The game was oddly addicting as the “Gotta Catch ‘em All!” marketing mentality became a state of being for me. The game led to the playing cards and, soon, I was an unfortunate addict begging any relative within speaking distance for a quick drive to get a booster pack fix. I’d have a binder full of “moderately-impressive” pocket monsters, the occasionally holographic cards, presented almost as a physical representation of my self worth. Bringing certain “rare” cards in a single protective case to school to “flash” fellow poke-addicted peers for schoolyard validation. Was I merely a “First Edition Holographic Machamp”? Did I peak as a “Japanese Imported Holographic Gyarados?”. It’s questions like these that I still ponder to myself today. 

DEADLY DOLLS DOUBLE FEATURE: BRIDE OF CHUCKY & SMALL SOLDIERS!

I decided to combine these two ads into one section because A. I don’t have much personal insight on either of these movies and 2. They involve toys that are “alive” and cause chaos

I recall renting Bride of Chucky when it was a new release and casually enjoying it. I was still living in the era of my childhood where my mom forbade R-rated horror films…but if I happened to be watching one via my own sneaky schemes …the reprimanding was definitely relaxed. 1988’s Child’s Play scared me stupid when I caught it on late night television years prior. There were a few nights where I had trouble sleeping as I stared intently at my toy box…waiting for any unusual signs of movement. I’d follow up the uneasy fear by thinking about the happy positive toys of Toy Story…and, like the sweet Ambien that is Disney, I would drift off to sleep. 

If you’ve seen Bride of Chucky, you might’ve realized that this is when the series became a full blown horror-comedy. And, being a kid, it worked for me…as the film didn’t leave me too scared and the rude crude adult humor of Chucky (dialed up to an 11 here) came off as simply “bAdAsS”. It was that meta 90’s counterculture “attitude” that was so marketable and appealing. Child’s Play is unique for me in that the first film is one of my favorite horror movies…and everything that came after I don’t care for. Yet Bride is interesting in that I haven’t recalled it since writing this…and while my memories of it aren’t too vivid…there’s clearly a fondness that goes along with it that might warrant a second viewing.

Small Soldiers is interesting where it seemed like a PG-13 Child’s Play on the surface, yet is its own beast entirely. I don’t remember this film being released. I believe I was gifted it on VHS that Christmas of ‘98. One of those “You’re a kid, here’s a movie for kids” presents a relative gives you because they don’t really know you. Where it felt more like a “truce” instead of a present. The film is essentially about GI Joe action figures that go haywire, break out of their boxes, and start raging war on each other and any humans that get in their way. I turned out loving the film as it was kept in my constant VHS rotation for years. There’s a certain darkness to it and definitely some offbrand humor that makes it work on many levels. When covering the Yomega Yoyos, I mentioned “cherry picked” nostalgia and how a lot of memories get lost to the past. And although Small Soldiers seems to have a cult following these days, I’d still put it in the “overlooked” nostalgia category. 

Editor’s Note: I neglected to mention that I also watched Small Soldiers so often because I was completely smitten with actress Kirsten Dunst. Years later when we got a desktop computer, I printed out pictures of her and taped them to the walls of my room. I even had a picture of her I cut out from a magazine and taped it to the inside of my school schedule. I am aware this was the behavior of a 12 year old girl. But I just want to create an open honest space here. Once she was cast in 2002’s Spider-man, I became near-obsessed with her. It faded with time but I’d just like to point out that, after doing some research, her husband is my age and, quite frankly, I am much better looking. Your loss, Dunst. 

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Interesting Trivia Stat: I have written 12 of these Ad Nauseam articles (Covering nearly 60 Vintage Ads!) over the course of 5 years! Is that something to be proud of? I DON’T KNOW! Do what you will with this knowledge. I write these when I get an “itch” to; and that’s usually when I come across an ad that tickles my noggin’ while flipping through an old comic. Each Ad Nauseam article very well could be my last. And for those of you who have read one, some, or all of these little paper time machine insights…I appreciate you! It takes a special kind of person to take their own personal time and read the nostalgic personal ramblings of a manchild sparked by 25+ year old advertisements. 

I think we’d be friends.

So thank you for thumbing in between the action of old comics and reminiscing with me. You’ll always find “insight” into comfy comic culture here on ChrisDoesComics. Let’s get coffee sometime. 

Editor’s Note: Kirsten please stop trying to contact me. You had your chance. Lets move on like two responsible adults.

Monsters With A Side of Fries

In October of 1997, fast food chain Burger King featured four Universal Monsters as kids’ meal toys. Universal Studios was in the process of reviving their catalog of classic horror films by remastering them for various official VHS releases. These fast food toys, amongst other various promotions, were Universal’s way of introducing the classic monsters to younger audiences as well as rejuvenating interest within the pop culture psyche. 

But I’m not here to talk about that really . 

I’m here to explain why a grown man decided to write about 25 year old fast food toys for the sheer fun of it. When writing, I often make humorous attempts to explain as to why I am what I am, taking (not so) subtle jabs at my interests and hobbies. They come off almost apologetic to the reader. I might do that because I realize my topic is a niche that mostly everybody couldn’t care less about. I might know that because I’ve literally seen energy drain from one’s face while I’m speaking to them about said topic. 

But you’re here. And you’re reading this. And I appreciate that. 

So, with this article, I’d like to go on the record as to deduce why these cheap molded pieces of plastic mean so much to me. And I’ve chosen Burger King’s Universal Monsters Toys because they might just be my favorite toys of all time. Yet it’s not just because of glow-in-the dark paint or a plastic coffin, as cool as those are, it’s the time and place they put you in. So grab some fries, join me, and let’s make sense of this together… 

Down for the Count Dracula. Bolts and Volts Frankenstein. Wolf Man Cellar Dweller. The Creature Scaly Squirter. These are their actual names because God Bless America. 

I couldn’t tell you when I decided Halloween was my favorite holiday. It was kinda like the hiccups. It just happens. Growing up, Burger King was my favorite fast food restaurant. From the fries, burgers, and chicken tenders…I always felt Burger King just did it better than the golden arches. Though the ultimate deciding factor within my little universe was what toys were being offered. I may have a hankering for a Happy Meal, but who wants another stinkin’ Hot Wheel when BK has The Universal Monsters?! Then these toys meant hours of fun playtime adventures…but today they function as tiny personal plastic time machines. 

When I see these Universal Monsters they bring me right back to the passenger seat of my mom’s Buick Skylark. It’s a chilly midwest evening sometime in October. We’re sitting in the Burger King drive thru waiting for our order. At this point in time, this was sort of our new tradition. There was a small notepad in the glove compartment. Scrawled within were home addresses within a reasonable driving distance. The addresses consisted of wildly decorated homes for the Halloween season. Not just some plastic tombstones and cobwebs. This was some truly theatrical stuff. Strobe lights. Fog machines. 6 foot monster dummies. Entire spooky scenes! Serious business. It began with a couple homes casually stumbled upon through The Great Pumpkin’s glory. Sometimes my mom would catch a segment on the local news and she’d quickly jot down the address. And in just a couple years the list grew to a solid nine or so residences. 

Come Friday or Saturday evening in the midst of October she would nonchalantly ask if I wanted to “go look at houses”. She didn’t have to ask. This was one of my favorite things to do all year. I rarely trick or treated. There were no parties I’d attend. I was too afraid of Haunted Houses. When it came to Halloween, I realized I was an observer. I loved to take in others enjoying the holiday in their own festive ways. It’s probably why the smell of rubber bats and skeletons shame any essential oils when it comes to obtaining relaxation.  

We’d hop in the car and I’d immediately rifle through her compact nylon case of cassettes. Shuffling past Van Halen and The Fugees to find the tape with one of those cheap cardboard slipcases. A Halloween album purchased at the counter of a drug store for a bargain because all the songs were mediocre covers. You know the one. Yet, for this tradition, it was as important as the car keys. With some rewinding and the beginning of an off-brand Monster Mash fading in, we disappeared into the eerily quiet Autumn evening.  

Which brings us back to that Burger King drive thru. Waiting for our order. Chicken tendies Kids Meal. That smell of fresh hot french fries entering the car. The bag slightly fogging up my side of the window. I eagerly pull out the familiar toy bag. The warm plastic has the faint texture of oil and grains of salt. I gush over my newly acquired Count Dracula. My mom’s more interested in stealing some of my fries. A bootleg  “Purple People Eater” cover plays softly through the car speakers. At this point, the Universal Monsters were not “new” to me by any stretch of the imagination. At this age I was strictly banned from watching horror movies, yet the Universal classics were fair game. My mom told me tales of her preteen indulgences in the “Late Night Creature Feature”. Therefore, she deemed the antics of Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney tame by “modern” standards and acceptable for a young chap such as myself. And, with that, these ghouls and their respective midnight movies became a shared interest, a bond if you will, between child and parent. Especially during the Halloween season. 

And, once again, we were off. Rubber to road. Sustenance in hand. A budget rendition of “Ghostbusters” to bob our heads to. Our destinations were the collective creepy creative concoctions only Halloween and its faithful followers could bring. I eagerly munched a chicken tender, feeling grateful for my mother’s navigation of the uneven pothole ridden streets. When pulling up to a home, I took in the gory ghoulish glory peeking out of my passenger window. Sometimes, if feeling courageous, I would roll it down to get a better look. But too deathly afraid to leave the safety of the car and approach the spooky scenes. Graveyards looking as if they were ripped straight from the “Thriller” music video. Lifelike vampires, witches, and werewolves appeared so real I was afraid they’d lunge straight for my throat! Yet, despite all that creepy coolness, the memories that stuck with me most were the drives between the scenes. When we’d wrap up seeing a house and I’d rewind a cassette track. Fantasize in my head about a monster coming to life and chasing us from the yard…making for our narrow escape. Our short conversations pointing out our favorite home so far. Ideas of what we’d do if we had the yard (or money) to showcase our devotion to Halloween for everyone to see. The quiet moments where I’d gaze out my window into the seemingly endless night. Getting lost in fantasy that perhaps a monster, much like the plastic one I gripped, was roaming the dark mysterious roads. The comfort of being with my mom. The sound of fallen leaves crunching below me. The common sight of jack o’lanterns smiling back at me. And knowing, nah, believing that anything could happen during the Halloween season. To know full well that magic doesn’t exist, but to feel like I experienced some form of it. 

With patented childlike persistence (and annoyance to my mom and grandmother that comes with it), I managed to collect Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman (two in fact! Wolfmen?). The Creature was the one to elude me, yet I did manage to “battle” a friend’s Creech during an indoor recess. Back when we’d sneak in small toys to fidget with throughout the school day. A physical reminder of the fun and freedom the “outside world” granted us from within the dull monotonous Chicago public school system. Besides action features, the Monsters came with glow-in-the-dark stickers that proudly adorned a few school folders for the remainder of the 1997 school year. But, like everything, time faded those stickers. The Universal Monster figures became buried by newly acquired plastic playthings. And, while certainly not forgotten, I lacked the foresight as a child to value the meaning behind them. Afterall how could I be nostalgic for the “good ‘ol days” when I was currently in them? 

The “Halloween House Hunting” tradition was soon to follow. Spookless joyrides led to crossing off addresses within our trusty notepad. The car crawling in front of a dark house and checking if we had the right address became more common than any plastic skeleton or latex limb. We’d reason with each other that perhaps they moved…or maybe someone passed away. Until the season came where we decided to stop altogether. Another victim to the hands of time. But with no styrofoam tombstone to commemorate its existence. 

I told you earlier I don’t know when I decided Halloween was my favorite holiday. But, at least, you get an idea of why it is. Yet there’s something that,ultimately, depresses me when writing about it. It could be the simple realization that not only are these days far gone, but the people and places are as well. And, as I get older, the memory becomes more and more muddled. Details become lost or substituted to the point where it nearly becomes fabrication. It could also be a disappointment, I have for myself, that my personal cherished memories stem from cheap molded plastic rather than the people who surrounded me. The truth that a compilation video of old commercials moves me more than a family photo album. But, at the same time, these little aspects of capitalism are triggers for more meaningful memories. An answer as to why one of my favorite pastimes is digging around a plastic toy bin at any comic convention or flea market. I don’t think there’s been an instance of toy scrounging where I haven’t bored my wife with a story or my best friend and I exchange childhood memories like NBA POGS. I guess it’s just how I’m wired. 

I’ve recently revisited some of the homes I recalled on those spooky special fall nights. I’d foolishly approach them believing that, just maybe, they’ll look just as they used to be. But all the optimism didn’t change the fact that they currently sit shrouded in shadow. Not even a jack o’lantern present to grin back at me. As for the Burger King Universal Monsters figures, I own them because of course I do. They’re not the originals I had as a kid. I managed to pick up a full bagged set about 10 years back. And I can’t recall whom I was with, but I’m sure I talked the poor soul’s ear off about them….just like I’m doing to you. I rarely get Burger King these days on account of all the Burger King I ate collecting Pokemon and Universal Monster toys. But, sometimes, when I’m yearning to have diarrhea I’ll pull through the drive thru. And everytime that familiar smell of fresh french fries invades my car I’d get that feeling again. That’s Halloween. Let’s pop in that cassette. Let’s go look at houses. Let’s feel that magic that only belongs to me. 

And just like everything mentioned, we’ll all eventually succumb to the time. And these cheap molded pieces of plastic may not be immortal like Count Dracula, but they’ll seem like it…to me at least. So, for now, I’m sharing with you these simple silly monster figures. They’re keys. And they’ll always unlock this very memory. No matter how faded it eventually becomes.

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Comment below and let me know about your special item and why it means so much to you…