Madballs were a great idea. Really. I'm living proof. Many kids such as myself feared sports like the plague, but it wasn't always because we weren't interested in playing them. We just didn't want to look like fools because we couldn't hit a baseball. Okay, forget the 'we' stuff, I'm talking about me - a boy so proficient in the world of spirited athletic competitions that his nickname was 'The Easy Out.' My friends weren't terribly supportive, either. I so wanted to play their reindeer games, but really, who wanted a death knoll like me on their team? The only benefit someone had by having me on their side was the two-point 'handicap bonus' the opposing team would give them out of pity. It didn't do much for my esteem, but at least I had a better understanding of old Charlie Brown comics.
What's this got to do with Madballs? You didn't need to be good at sports to play with these things. All you really needed to know how to do was a simple throw, something I hadn't quite mastered, but the balls were rubber so I wasn't going to break anymore windows or anything. Since Madballs were technically action figures - obviously a medium I was more comfortable with than football or hockey - I felt a little more at ease and was able to involve myself in sports without fear.
Madballs were a mid-80s Amtoy special, a collection of scary-faced spheres that capitalized on the gross-out success of Garbage Pail Kids in a whole new way. Popular enough to inspire a comic book series and one of the worst cartoons I've ever seen, Madballs didn't have a terribly long shelf life, but during their brief day in the sun, no self-respecting kid went to school without a few of the ugly things in their schoolbag. So, what was the attraction? Hard to say, really. I guess they just appealed to children on so many levels. They were disgusting, they were fun to play with, fun to collect, and some of them had eyes dripping out of their sockets. That was the major thing, I think. Very few toys had dripping eyes. When one came along, it was reason for celebration. Another thing made Madballs particularly cherished amongst my social circles back then - they were banned by our school.
I'm not sure if it's because they looked so gross or because the students wouldn't stop throwing them during history lessons, but once my school put a lockdown on 'em, we just loved our Madballs that much more. Now anyone who carried a Madball was a rebellious outlaw. You were damning the man and supporting total anarchy. You were cool! The school's Madball-ban effectively made them the most popular thing in the world for a short while, with any kid brave enough to bring one into class becoming a bona fide hero. They were so outlawed that school staff wouldn't even call them by name, instead issuing a message over the PA system for us to leave 'the monster-shaped balls' at home. Of course, being that young, this was our first experience with anything like this. Not since the 'chewing gum equals detention' fiasco had we seen our civil rights so challenged. Our mission was clear: fight the oppression.
Each Madball had a unique look and it's own name. Horn Head, Dust Brain, Oculus Orbus - anything that sounded creepy or disgusting worked fine. Some Madballs were fashioned after typical ghouls and monsters, others were far stranger. My personal favorite was the one that was just this big bloodshot eye, but another who was vomiting green slime was a close second. Child fads and interests change not just with every generation - they seem to change every six months or so. In 1985, anything that looked gross was IN. Parents didn't care if they looked gross since they were some of the cheapest toys a kid could ask for. In an era where the Transformers figures were typically exceeding 30-40 bucks, where the GI Joe Aircraft Carrier cost almost as much as a real aircraft carrier, and where most of the other available toys threw away half a day's pay, Madballs were certainly a cost-ideal. There's only so much they could sell small rubber balls for, even if these rubber balls had decaying corpses etched onto 'em.
Oh yeah, you could scare little girls with the them, too. That feature was may more attractive than you might think, considering that the people who had Madballs were still at an age where all girls had cooties or some other made-up disease that usually lead to rumors about the afflicted having giant green spots on their ass. All my siblings were older, so I never had a chance to scare a little sister with any of my toys. To compensate, when my older sisters finally started popping out kids, I just scared the hell out of them instead. I deny it to this day and have no idea how she remembers, but one of my neices still yells at me for hovering over her crib in a green dragon mask. I would've claimed that me wearing the mask on those days was sheer coincidence, but the damn kid even remembered how I used to flicker the lights before doing it. One of my happier memories.
HEY! THAT BASEBALL HAS A MEAN FACE! WHAT GIVES?! Will it inspire fear or delight to the kid who caught it? Only one way to find out...
Hmmm....hard to say. He's got a great poker face. Could be fear, could be delight. Could be somewhere in-between. Maybe the kid was scared initially, but then realized the benefits of having a baseball with a huge tongue hanging out of it's mouth. I'm not exactly sure what those benefits are, but they've gotta exist.
Anyone who had Madballs tried using them in regular sports activities, but since they weren't perfectly spherical, everyone who tried it played even worse than I usually did. Of course, I was happy to find this loophole, since now I could play in a baseball game where I wasn't the sole proprietor of the Suck Department. When Madballs finally finished their run of popularity, it wasn't the lack of more scary balls that made me sad. It was the fact that I was back to the sidelines, cutting little pennants out of construction paper to cheer on my friends since they wouldn't let me play anymore. If Madballs were standard equipment in professional games, I could've been the next Jose Canseco. Now all I could've been was the fat shirtless guy in the stands with a big 'J' painted on his stomach. I hate it when fads die. They shatter my dreams of participating in the All Star game. I wanted to sit at the table with the huge Canadian tablecloth. Madballs, come back and make my dreams come true.
They became so popular that AmToy started marketing spinoffs of the originals. There were larger versions, 'Head Popping' Madballs action figures complete with understated legs and pop-off heads, not to mention additions to the original line. The cartoon, which I reviewed a long time ago on the site, was way too strange for even kids to get into. I just tried watching it again, but the sudden realization that my head was about to explode made me turn it off. I don't even know how to explain the action - it's just a bunch of balls madly hopping around screaming bad jokes in a sea of slime and disgust, with positively no coherent storyline. I guess that made sense given what inspired it, but wow, if you needed a quick way to give someone an epileptic fit, this was your ticket.
The comic was a little easier to swallow, because Madballs screaming at you in the written word is a little less harrowing on the soul than actually having to hear them. But neither the comic or the cartoon had any of the charm of the toys - these just weren't things you could create that kind of empire around. They probably could've gotten away with a trading card set, but I'm only saying that because Full House and MTV Raps! managed to get away with it. There's little reason to hunt down any of the extended members of Madballs' media family - the original toys were where all the fun was at. Now hard to find, they cost way more than you'd imagine. I've seen groups of ten go for over a hundred bucks. Scary. I can barely bring myself to pay the phone bill when it goes that high - I'd have even more trouble justifying blowing my money on a bunch of monstrous rubber balls. Then again, I could just tell myself that they're 'collectibles' and will only appreciate in value. By 2020, I can trade one in for a new shiny silver house that flies and talks!
Hey, the stock market fluctuates, but Madballs are a sure thing.
Up above, the Madballs' Mad Rollercycle. One of the strangest toys I've ever had the pleasure of owning. Well, besides the squeaking plastic pork shop. Thanks Grandma, woof. This thing was beautiful in it's insanity - it's like the toy company didn't know what kind of vehicle the Madballs needed, so they just combined thirty-thousand vehicles into one and made sure to prefix 'Rollercycle' with 'Mad' so nobody could complain about it. It did come with one of the rare full-figures, so there's a plus. As the figure drove this monster around your kitchen floor, he could hurl Madballs into space at will using the magical Mad Catapult. After that, a little round of Mad Basketball. I just did a little shopping around to see how much these things were going for, and after finding one on eBay, I think I've discovered the best item description of all time:
"Figure & cycle. Cycle in nice shape, figure has problem with head falling off I guess they shot off?"
Goddamn pretentious poets, they're all over eBay these days. Mad Poets.
There were also 'Super Madballs', shaped like other assorted sportsballs. Touchdown Terror was probably the coolest of them, a monster shaped like a football who responded to being thrown around a lot by throwing up a lot. Foul Shot was the most disgusting Madballs toy of all - a basketball-sized thing with worms hanging out of its mouth. Finally, there was 'Goal Eater,' the Madballs official soccer ball. He's not too important since he wasn't vomiting or chewing on worms. In his defense, he had serious competition.
Super Madballs were different from the normal ones, in that you were actually supposed to use them for sports. They had the size, weight, and texture of Nerf balls - just scarier looking. The true bonus was that you could miss a catch and take a shot to the head without risking a concussion. Madballs were Safeballs.
Finally, a closer look at the 'Head Popping' Madballs figures. These must have had a pretty limited run since I don't remember coming across many in my youth. Maybe I had the flu that month. They were interesting little creatures; you could switch the heads with other figures to create mutant hybrid Madballs that shook the very foundations of reality. Okay, two steps too far, but they'd still look great glued to your car's dashboard. Screw the fuzzy dice and bobblehead bulldogs, you need something a little more eye-catching to divert attention from all the cig burns on the seats. Bloody mummies with pop-off heads are pretty tough to ignore. They're also the best thing in the world to tell other people about...
Joe: I bought a new car today. It's a Corvette! Mark: I bought a new toy today. It's a mummy covered in blood and slime with a pop-off head so I can put a nose-ring wearing purple monster's head in it's stead. Hey that rhymed! Joe: My Corvette has all-leather interior. Mark: Oh. Hmmm. 'Mummy' rhymes with 'honey.' Joe: Okay you win.
Wow, this article caps off with over 2,000 words. I really thought I could've gotten away with 1,200 or so. If you ever read this again, stop right after the part where I talk about the All Star game. Madballs aren't a lost art - companies still market scary balls today. They don't have the style or flair of the originals, but it's a pretty hard formula to fuck up. Take a ball, add a weird face. Simple stuff. Some of you've heard of Madballs, some of you haven't. To those who have, you know why I love 'em. To those that haven't, I hate you die quickly. You're uncultured swine. Come back after you've thrown and caught a few decapitated rubber Frankenstein heads, then we'll talk.