I’ve been doing something pretty difficult with my artwork lately: holding back. It’s not something I’m doing for good. It’s an experiment of sorts. I love drawing my dirt, grime, and grit. Basically, am I able to replicate the style of marketable IPs? If someone wanted me to draw streamlined styles…could I? That’s what I did here. I tried to replicate the style of the old 1988 Playmates Ninja Turtles packaging. Something you might find on an old lunchbox thermos or something.
Use the slider to slide between the ’87 cartoon figure turtles and the original Eastman and Laird take. I had fun doing this simple clean style. I might do more for sure.
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.
Comment below and let me know about your special item and why it means so much to you…
Under the curse of the gray sky of winter, I find myself poised to incessantly strike at any creative notion my tiny mind concocts. Tonight I bring you the result of just that…
The almighty American dollar may not stretch as far as it used to, but that doesn’t mean I can’t waste some on silly garbage and write about it. I went to a local dollar store with nothing but a crisp $10 bill in my pocket, the dream of my purchases bringing an evening of entertainment, and the hope of finding the discount pleasantries among life’s low priced simplicities.
My Rules: I can only go over $10 via tax. Immaturity and variety must be the themes within my purchases. I must navigate the store completely blindfolded (I made that last one up to see if you’re paying attention).
Note: I recommend trying this experiment with a friend or loved one. Mostly because it’s always interesting to find out the excuses they produce to exclude themselves.
Now The First Annual Ten Dollar Store Shopping Spree!
I ended up in a fairly new Dollar Tree store that was quiet and organized. Which I realize is a rarity within the realm of dollar stores. There’s almost a feeling of superiority upon entering a store knowing every single item costs a dollar. You realize flashing a one hundred dollar bill could lead to the possibility of the employees silently bowing in respect as they close the store for you to shop in solitude. Or maybe that’s just me.
For about twenty five minutes I found myself haunting the snack and toy aisles like a whiter, harrier Casper. I was confident with my haul. In fact, I even had to turn down some interesting options. But I had rules to abide by and a sad empty article to write. “For another time…” I thought as I made my way to the checkout aisle to be silently judged by the clerk.
Now Let’s Dig On In…
Bag of Haribo Gummy Dinosaurs
Slab of Cheese Dip and Breadsticks
Box of Vanilla Moon Pies
Zapp’s VoOdOo Potato Chips
Mountain Dew Blue Voltage
Ninja Turtles Activity and Coloring Book
The Most Swallowable Optimus Prime
A Unidentifiable Grow “Creature”
24 Jurassic Park Crayons (Jealous yet?)
Hot Wheels DONUT CAR
MY TOTAL WAS $10.77
Dollar stores aren’t known for healthy food options. And although I’ve never really been a human raccoon, the point of this exercise was to indulge my inner child. And after my $5 junk food buffet..the next point of this exercise will simply be to exercise.
The gummy dinos were an easy pick. There’s gummy everything these days so I figured the best option was to eat a bunch of animals that would naturally eat me. Sort of a lazy revenge plot 65 million years too late. The box of Moon Pies is a junk snack I never think about until they’re directly in front of me. I chose the vanilla flavor because I found out they made a vanilla flavor when I was standing in front of a box of vanilla Moon Pies. What a time to be alive.
Zapp’s Voodoo chips are kettle cooked potato chips that taste like salt and vinegar got into a car accident with barbecue. They honestly could’ve been flavored like toothpaste because I was already sold on the bag littered with little voodoo dolls and old Halloween cassette tape font. The breadsticks with cheese dip reminded me of my brown-baggin’ grade school days and I probably haven’t snacked on these since. I also like how they’re packaged like some sort of cracker snack ammo belt. Lastly I had a Mountain Dew Voltage to wash down all my garbage. Mountain Dew’s flavor choices basically look like a gradient tool these days. But I always admire a beverage that makes people think I’m downing chilled window cleaner.
Now when it came to junk of a different variety, the dollar store was even more impressive. From tiger puzzles, bags of green army men, knockoff family board games, and neon colored plastic alligators…the dollar store is a proverbial “Who’s Who” of “Shit I Don’t Need”. And I truly appreciate it for that.
I had dinner…now the entertainment to go with it! The first thing I immediately grabbed was a Rise of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles coloring and activity book. You could stick the Ninja Turtles logo on a bag of dry mulch and I’d happily buy it. I threw in a Jurassic World crayon pack to assist me in my activity book adventures. I knew they wouldn’t be as quality as the Crayola brand but these had images of dinosaurs wrapped around the crayons. And I’ve always been someone who can overlook one’s faults if wrapped in images of dinosaurs.
The next thing that caught my eyes were small bags of retro choking hazards disguising themselves as Transformers “mini-figures”. You can’t see the actual figures because they blind you with nostalgia by using the original Transformers box art. And it worked on me anyway. I picked Optimus Prime and although I’ll end up losing him by the end of this article he’s pretty rad for being the size of a Starburst. I find it humorous that dollar store Transformers don’t actually transform. You want Optimus to be a truck now? What is this? Walmart? He’s a dollar, man. He stays a robot.
Yet the Hot Wheels were conveniently displayed to rectify the disappointment left by our Non-Transforming Transformer robots. Front and center was a Pink Donut Racing Car called the “Fast Foodie”. Ha. That’s good. And when you’re in that aisle with an armful of junk food and see a Hot Wheel shaped like a donut amongst all “regular” cars…you don’t call that happenstance…that’s called “fate” my friend. And you add it to the pile.
Lastly at the end of the aisle was a display of Grow Creatures. They had a classic selection featuring sharks, alligators, mermaids, dinosaurs, and MONSTER FACE. Grows 600 PERCENT the package claimed. Are you listening to me? I could throw this guy into a bowl and wake up to the sound of him absorbing my block! This was easily the most confident purchase of the entire lot. Grab a handful of Zapp’s Voodoo chips as I watch my shrunken head grow. Life ain’t so bad.
Directions on the package stated it takes up to ten days for Monster Face to achieve full growing potential, which makes it one of the most patient toys I ever purchased. So I got cozy and documented Monster Face’s (now named “Sigourney”) progress. It was like watching a super delayed allergic reaction to bee stings. I noticed it stopped growing around Day 4. I can’t say it’s large enough to absorb my block. I don’t think it can even absorb my bath mat. Perhaps common tap water isn’t the best for growing monster heads? But I ended up with a cold clamy creature the size of a baseball. Now I don’t know what to do with it. What did anyone do with these things once they were “done” anyway?
Even though the deconstruction of my purchases definitely broadcasts Lonely Manchild:Party of One vibes,this could be a fun experiment between friends or partners as you can learn a lot about someone through their purchases. What may seem nonsensical could lead to an interesting conversation, nostalgic recalling, or solemn discovery of one’s personal being.
Or maybe they just like off brand cheeseballs. It can go either way really.
As a kiddo, a trip to the dollar store often led to an excuse for me to leave with a sugary soda pop, a pack of outdated NBA trading cards, or an action figure that looked like Ultimate Warrior’s less impressive cousin Barry. And this is still an excuse…just with a ten dollar price tag to escape the monotony of adulthood. Sometimes the getaway is a low rent scavenger hunt that ends up looking like you looted a first grader’s birthday party.
The key to this exercise is childlike wonderment. Though the junk food might make you realize you’re no longer a child as you’re propped up like a Jabba the Hutt puppet popping antacids. But that’s neither here nor there. If you choose to do this experiment I wish you Good Luck and Happy Dollar Days! And be sure to remember: this is only what you make of it!
Now, excuse me, I have to finish a Ninja Turtle word search and have 14 cracker logs with artificial cheese goop to devour.