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Courtesy of Tim Finn // A Real American Book

How Rocky Balboa Nearly Became a Member of G.I. Joe

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Courtesy of Tim Finn // A Real American Book

Opening on May 22, 1985, Rambo: First Blood Part II was a fantasy fever dream of jingoism, Sylvester Stallone’s titular character a monosyllabic redeemer of an America that had failed itself in Vietnam. A onetime Green Beret, Rambo needs little more than 90 minutes to rescue abandoned POWs and somehow salvage his country’s intervention in foreign affairs.

The movie made more than $300 million worldwide. Coleco, which had experienced a phenomenon with the Cabbage Patch Kids, snapped up the rights to produce a toy line. Neutered for young audiences, this Rambo practiced greater discretion, bloodlessly assaulting enemies in a Saturday morning cartoon.

Coleco hoped Rambo: The Force of Freedom would compete with Hasbro’s G.I. Joe for a share of the military-oriented action figure market. Hasbro, which wasn’t about to touch an R-rated film, decided to combat their potential toy aisle rival by enlisting Stallone’s other trademark character: slow-witted boxer Rocky Balboa.

It wasn’t the first time the company pursued a license for a figure that had been established outside of G.I. Joe continuity. Hasbro had released Sergeant Slaughter as a premium mail-away attraction in 1985, co-opting the popular professional wrestler’s recognition among WWE (then WWF) fans.

Slaughter was a success in toy, cartoon, and comic book form, helping reinvigorate a G.I. Joe line that had been on shelves since 1982—an eternity in action figure years. Hasbro hoped Balboa would do the same, aiming to release a mail-away premium figure in 1987 that would be available to customers who sent in proofs of purchase from other G.I. Joe merchandise.

Establishing Rocky’s place in the mythology of the G.I. Joe universe fell on Larry Hama, writer of Marvel’s G.I. Joe comic and a frequent source for hammering out narrative points across the franchise’s many outlets. In a Marvel collection of character biographies titled G.I. Joe: Order of Battle #2, released in late 1986, Hama scripted a brief rundown (above) that presented Balboa as a combat trainer, filling obligations for his "Reserve time" by turning their hands into semi-deadly weapons.

Over at Hasbro, sculptor Bill Merklein was tasked with creating a wax prototype of the character’s action figure:

An in-house Hasbro artist created a mock-up of the card art, which featured the boxer wielding a stick with two boxing gloves attached to either end; another Hasbro designer, Mark Pennington, created the control art, which would have been used to further detail the figure. Curiously, Pennington appeared to take more design cues—headband, long hair—from Stallone’s Rambo iconography than he did Rocky's:

For kids not yet weaned on crossover movies, this was an exciting prospect: anyone picking up Order of Battle #2 probably imagined a scenario in which Ivan Drago would somehow be dragged into Joe nemesis COBRA’s operations.

But it was not to be. In the very next issue of Order of Battle, Marvel printed what must have been one of the few retractions over the appearance of a fictional character, explaining that Balboa’s debut in the previous comic had been a mistake. It was written with the sober language of someone who had just been yelled at by a lawyer.

How did this awkward partnership between fictional boxer and fictional military force dissolve? According to former Hasbro product manager Kirk Bozigian, Stallone’s representatives knocked him out of contention. “The reason Rocky was dropped from the G.I. Joe line is because his agents got greedy,” Bozigian tells mental_floss. “While we were designing and sculpting Rocky Balboa, a competing toy company, Coleco, was introducing Rambo action figures and vehicles to compete with us. The decision to drop Rocky was an easy one.”

Although they had recruited the more famous star, Coleco wound up enduring protests by antiwar groups angry that the Rambo toy line appeared to be glorifying combat. The accompanying cartoon lasted just a few months.

Stallone’s likeness has never appeared in any subsequent Joe revival, but Hasbro did wind up releasing a villain in 1987 dubbed Big Boa. Considering his boxing gloves and punching bag accessory, it’s very likely he was originally intended to be a personal nemesis for Rocky. Thanks to some legal red tape, he never got to take his swing.

All images courtesy of Tim Finn, author of the upcoming G.I. Joe history A Real American Book.

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Man-Eating Space Lizards: When V Was a TV Smash
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Warner Home Video

American broadcast television in the 1980s didn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety. Shows like Hill Street Blues were outliers, crowded off the schedule by head-hammering episodic series featuring mercenaries (The A-Team), car chases (The Dukes of Hazzard), or soapy melodrama (Dynasty).

On its surface, V appeared to be no different. A two-part miniseries airing on consecutive evenings in May 1983, it told the story of the “Visitors,” gregarious aliens who arrive on Earth in three-mile-long spaceships and greet humans with a bargain: Let the Visitors harvest a chemical needed for their continued survival and receive advanced medical knowledge in return.

As the humanoid aliens reveal themselves to be malevolent lizard-like creatures who prefer to dine on humans rather than prolong their lives, V took on the look and feel of a pulpy sci-fi epic—the kind of thing that could be easily summarized in one Amazing Stories cover image from the 1940s. But writer Kenneth Johnson had something far more subversive in mind. The Visitors were stand-ins for fascists, and V was a cautionary tale about the perils of complacency.

Jason Bernard and Robert Englund star in the NBC miniseries 'V' (1983).
Warner Home Video

A Carnegie Mellon graduate, Johnson had broken into television with a writing stint on The Six Million Dollar Man, for which he conceived a female counterpart in the form of Jamie Sommers (Lindsay Wagner). Sommers got her own series, The Bionic Woman, which Johnson produced until he was tasked with adapting The Incredible Hulk as a live-action drama.

It was around this time that Johnson became fascinated with a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist group that rises to power in the United States. Johnson reworked the concept into Storm Warnings, a feature-length screenplay; that work landed on the desk of NBC president Brandon Tartikoff, who encouraged Johnson to adapt it into a television miniseries by casting Soviets or the Chinese as the antagonists.

Tartikoff’s request made sense. The miniseries format, which took off in the 1970s with Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, was drawing record numbers of viewers. The Thorn Birds, about a priest who is tempted to break his vow of celibacy by a younger woman, was a hit; so was Shogun, about a 17th century man who shipwrecks in Japan and becomes a pawn in a war between samurai. (Both starred Richard Chamberlain.) Storm Warnings had an appropriately sprawling narrative with multiple characters, a feat of creative engineering Johnson was encouraged to use after reading War and Peace.

But the writer was less enthused about casting a foreign superpower as a rival. Tartikoff then suggested aliens, the allegorical turf of Rod Serling that had fueled many a socially-conscious episode of The Twilight Zone. Johnson later told Starlog he “ran screaming from the room” at the suggestion, but eventually warmed to it. Storm Warnings became V: NBC committed $13 million to produce the four-hour drama.

A scene from the NBC miniseries 'V' (1983).
Warner Home Video

While a generous budget for television, the scope of Johnson’s idea taxed every available dollar. A 60-foot-long model of one of the Visitor ships was built; a giant hangar intended to depict the inside was made to scale, albeit cut in half; matte effects, with the ships laid over a background painting, depicted their unsettling arrival over Earth’s major cities. A feature with those same ambitions might take months of pre-production planning: Johnson got three weeks.

Whatever was lacking in the special effects and costumes—Johnson opted for a regal, military-inspired garb for his aliens that hasn’t aged well—never diluted the real attraction of V. Following a television cameraman (Marc Singer) and a botanist (Faye Grant) as they grow suspicious of the true intentions of the Visitors, the series quickly turns into an examination of what happens when a population is seduced by the promise of a helping hand. Celebrities and world leaders endorse the Visitors; scientists questioning their motives are corralled and delivered to ships for “re-education.” By the time their foot soldier Diana (Jane Badler) is seen devouring a guinea pig, Singer and his cohorts have decided to form a resistance to push back against being turned into alien kibble. For viewers who didn’t care for the subtext, there was still the birth of a lizard baby to talk about with coworkers and friends the next morning.

In a departure from conventional advertising, NBC decided to take a conservative approach with V. Posters in subway stations and bus stops depicted illustrations of the Visitors in propaganda-style posters; later, a “V” would be spray-painted over the ads. There was never any mention of the series.

The premiere of V drew a 40 share, which meant 40 percent of all households watching television at that hour were watching the lizard people establish their dominance on Earth. Tartikoff even granted Johnson the ability to run 15 minutes past the allotted two-hour time slot, cutting into local newscasts. On night two, V maintained much of that audience.

What might have turned out to be a lucrative franchise for NBC quickly lost its way. Tartikoff wanted Johnson to oversee a weekly drama continuing the story of the resistance while ramping up their licensing efforts; Johnson argued that the premise would be too expensive for the format and suggested a two-hour movie air every month or two instead.

A licensed action figure from the 'V' miniseries
Amazon

In the end, neither quite got their wish. Another miniseries, V: The Final Battle, aired in 1984, but Johnson disowned it after extensive rewrites. V: The Series followed, but lasted just one season. Johnson lamented that the network had taken his cautionary tale and turned it into a spectacle, with gunfights and lizard people eating small animals taking the place of the allegory.

V was revived by ABC in 2009, but low ratings led to a quick demise after two seasons. Other shows and movies like 1996’s Independence Day had borrowed heavily from Johnson, wearing out the premise. In 2007, Johnson published V: The Second Generation, a novel based on one of his follow-up scripts.

The miniseries format would continue throughout the 1980s and 1990s before serialized dramas with shortened seasons edged them off television schedules. Like The Thorn Birds, V remains one of the most well-remembered entries in the medium, due in no small part to Johnson’s nods to levity. When the aliens arrive, a high school band plays the Star Wars theme.

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To Have and to Have Snot: A History of Madballs
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Steven Leung via Flickr

When art school dropout Ralph Shaffer was hired by American Greetings to illustrate greeting cards in 1964, the 23-year-old was tasked with depicting delicate flower petals and hopping bunny rabbits. Every now and then, presumably to break the monotony of sentimentality, Shaffer would draw the rabbits being hung by a noose.

These morbid doodles didn’t make it to store shelves. Rather than offer him psychological counseling, the company decided to redirect his energies toward an eccentric squad of talent dubbed Those Characters From Cleveland. The company subdivision was responsible for creating intellectual property like the Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake. In the 1980s, it was also charged with designing a line of toys that parents would find appalling and boys would find irresistible: Madballs. By the end of 1986, more than 10 million of the decapitated grotesqueries would be sold.

Those numbers weren't surprising to anyone who had done a little market research. One of the few guarantees in the volatile toy industry is that boys love to be repulsed. Beginning with Slime in the 1970s—a gooey green gel that resembled infected snot—kids could always be relied upon to embrace things that would make most adults heave.

In 1985, Topps released the Garbage Pail Kids series of trading cards, a parody of the Cabbage Patch Kids featuring revolting characters. Their immediate success was noticed by American Greetings, which had cornered the cute market with Care Bears but had never tried to appeal to booger-loving boys on the other side of the toy aisle. Sensing an opportunity, Shaffer, artist James Groman, and the rest of the think tank conceived of a line of squishy rubber balls with ghastly faces and names like Slobulus, Deathbreath, and Swine Sucker. Instead of a two-dimensional illustration on a playing card, kids would have a tangible object to torment their parents with.

Madballs debuted in February 1986 with a retail price of $3.99 apiece. The balls flew off shelves, emptying displays at Toys"R"Us and capturing newspaper headlines that attempted to rationalize such purchases by asking psychologists why protruding eyeballs were a selling point.

“Children find gross toys fun because that’s sort of where they are developmentally,” Brenda Baker, a psychologist based in Michigan, told The Morning Call in 1987. “These toys aren’t gross to them. They’re fun and funny.”

Because of their irregular shape, Madballs didn’t offer much in the way of actual bouncing. Instead, they were collected and displayed like morbid little trophies or used to antagonize siblings and adults. One boy, 7-year-old Chris Herter of Detroit, told The Morning Call he enjoyed rolling them down the laundry chute of his house. His mother, Libby, referred to the spheres as “gawd-awful.”

Although the toys were popular, they weren’t always welcome. Several schools prohibited them from being taken into classrooms because they were a distraction. One Madball, dubbed “Crack Head” for having a fractured skull, was renamed “Bash Brain” due to concerns people might think the company was poking fun at the drug epidemic burdening communities.

By September 1986, AmToy—the division of American Greetings that made these playthings—had successfully expanded Madballs into licensing, including Trapper Keeper folders. Bright Ideas, Inc. said Madballs outsold their Miami Vice products when it came to educational supplies. Direct-to-video cartoons, comics, and other ancillary merchandising followed. AmToy even released a line of action figures: When squeezed, their heads would spring into the air. AmToy also conceived a line of Blurp Balls that would spew a projectile when triggered. Among the characters: Up-Chuck Yeager.

An assortment of Madballs, still in the package
freeshippingtack, eBay

Madballs remained a popular seller through 1988, at which point children began to tire of sculpted vomit and decaying plastic heads. The line fizzled out, and remained largely dormant until a 2006 revival by Art Asylum, a licensee heavily into pop culture nostalgia. Dubbed Sickballs, the revitalized line attempted to compound the ick factor by having bodily fluids ooze out of orifices when the balls were squeezed.

Since then, Madballs have undergone a series of relaunches. Just Play releases grab bags of the characters at regular intervals, and KidRobot recently issued a line of Madballs designed after horror movie icons like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. Gross-out nostalgia is alive, well, and still drooling.

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