Murakami Wolf Productions was an American animation studio founded in 1967 by Jimmy T. Murakami and Fred Wolf. Murakami was an animator at the UPA studio and then co-directed the live action Roger Corman films HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP and BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS in addition to animated features like WHEN THE WIND BLOWS and segments of HEAVY METAL; Wolf had been an animator on The Alvin Show and The Flintstones before directing such hippie era TV artifacts as The Point, Free to Be… You & Me and Puff the Magic Dragon. In the late ‘80s the toy company Playmates hired Murakami Wolf’s new satellite studio in Dublin to produce a mini-series based on a culty black-and-white comic book to test the waters for a possible line of action figures. It was called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and you may remember the hubbub – cowabunga, fight for rights and your freedom to speak, Michelangelo is a party dude, etc.
Several years later, after the entire world had been shaken to its core by the effects of Turtle Power, I guess it seemed to some of those guys like any weird underground shit could be magically turned into a massively lucrative, completely inexplicable pop culture phenomenon. According to Lloyd Kaufman’s book, an agent named John Russo asked if he’d ever considered making his unrated gore and boobs franchise THE TOXIC AVENGER into a G-rated kiddie cartoon, and introduced him to Buzz Potamkin, Emmy-nominated producer of the Berenstain Bears cartoons, the Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue anti-drug PSA and Hawaiian Punch commercials. Potamkin and Murakami Wolf proposed turning THE TOXIC AVENGER into a kid friendly cartoon – an idea that became one 13-episode season of The Toxic Crusaders, which aired in syndication between March 1st and May 20th, 1990.
(Note: Fox Kids made a cartoon based on ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES that started shortly after Toxic Crusaders and lasted a full two seasons. I’m surprised Full Moon didn’t follow suit and do a Puppet Master Adventures.)
In my reviews of the TOXIC AVENGER films I’ve mentioned my obsession with parts I and II as a teenager. One thing I didn’t mention is my joke that there should be a “Toxic Avenger and Friends” cartoon show. I had a drawing of it on my Trapper Keeper. For that reason I might’ve been the person most surprised when that exact thing actually happened. At the time I watched many (maybe all?) of the episodes on TV with fascination. For this revisit I only watched THE TOXIC CRUSADERS: THE MOVIE, a later DVD release that just strings together the first three episodes minus two intros and two credits and pretends that there is some imaginary person out there in the world somewhere who would see that and not figure out what it was and think it counted as a movie.
The DVD includes a typical Troma introduction with Kaufman in his cluttered office. Toxic Crusaders Halloween costumes and lunch boxes and shit are piled on his desk, and he plays with the action figures and talks to the “kids” at home about how Toxic Crusaders used to be a show that was on but can’t be anymore because, he says, Disney has a monopoly. Then he gets a visit from a Toxie costumed character modeled after the cartoon, which is actually a great design. That would’ve been cool if they’d had a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Although the extras don’t seem sincerely intended for children at all, the DVD does open with a trailer for something called A Very Classic Christmas, collecting all the public domain Christmas cartoons they could find, not a Kabukiman in sight.
Toxic Crusaders ups the ante from part II and III’s corporate villains Apocalypse Inc. by introducing a suit-wearing, four-armed monster called Dr. Killemoff (Rodger Bumpass – Squidward from Spongebob Squarepants) who beneath his breather mask is a bug-man from the planet Smogula and is purposely dumping pollution around the world to make the earth inhabitable for his species. When Killemoff’s diminutive cyborg right hand man Psycho (Michael J. Pollard, HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES) asks him where he should dump a surplus of Grosolium-90 (“ah yes, Grosolium-90, the deadliest toxic waste known to man!”), the doctor says to “dump it in the last unpolluted city in New Jersey: Tromaville,” kicking off the next thirteen episodes of his life, when all his plans will be foiled by Toxie.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea, Doc,” says Psycho. “What if some complete and hopeless nerd falls into the Grosolium and transforms into a hideously deformed creature of super human size and strength?” One of the show’s amusing gimmicks is that every episode features these built-in spoilers where Psycho predicts how the evil plans will be foiled as soon as Dr. Killemoff announces them, and another one is how often everyone uses that phrase “hideously deformed creature of super human size and strength.”
The show does its own cartoonified remake of Toxie’s origin before settling into a gimmick/monster of the week format. They use the part II-III name of Melvin Junko, but he’s pretty much part I’s socially inept weiner working as a janitor at a health club. This being a late ‘80s cartoon, obviously they can’t have jocks as the cruel bullies, they have to make them into punks.
The part of Julie is played by Bimbette (who has skull earrings, a valley girl accent and amazing hair) who doesn’t tell Melvin she’s gonna fuck him like in the movie, but just go on a date with him. With him wearing the tutu. The not-jocks-but-punks don’t get him to make out with a sheep, they just wait for him at the swimming pool and laugh at the tutu when he walks in and then he gets embarrassed and runs out the door (not window) and trips into the chemicals. It’s funny – the animation medium allows you to do anything that an artist can put onto paper, but it’s such a pain in the ass to do that sometimes you just end up making it way smaller and less elaborate than the low budget live action version you already did.
Dunked in the green chemical – does it even count as a biohazard if it’s not green? – Melvin pleas for help, but obviously the body horror isn’t as severe as in the unrated movie. No flames, no horrifying face bubbles. He just melts a little like dripping mud and when he becomes Toxie he already has a smile on his face.
As in the movie he goes home to his mom and scares her so much he can’t stay there. She faints but wakes up long enough to suggest moving to the toxic waste dump. As soon as he gets there he meets a purple fuzzy mutant he names Blobby and hears the beautiful(ish) sounds of a woman (Kath Soucie, Minx on Jem and the Holograms) walking by singing and playing accordion. The same punks who improbably hang out at the gym try to steal her accordion and Toxie starts glowing (his Tromatons make him glow in the cartoon) so he beats a couple of them up and throws the one named Bonehead (Hal Rayle, uncredited voice of The Predator in PREDATOR 2) into a vat of chemicals so that he can turn into a mutant character for later.
I love that in each iteration of this story Toxie has the same but different girlfriend. In part I she was Sarah, in part II she was Claire, this time she’s Yvonne. She’s obviously based on Phoebe Legere’s Claire, since she plays accordion, but her singing is comically bad (kinda Olive Oyl-esque) instead of impressively good. And obviously cartoon makers have the sense not to joke about somebody being blind, so she’s not blind. Instead the joke is that she lost her contacts and thinks Toxie is handsome. Later she wears horn rimmed glasses and still thinks he’s handsome but hates his tie (not unlike Part III when Claire gains sight and still thinks he’s good looking but loses respect for him when he becomes a Wall Street dipshit.)
Next Toxie happens upon some “bad guys” trying to destroy an orphanage to build a toxic chemical plant, similar to Part II’s scene at the Home For the Blind, minus Michael Jai White or making a guy explode by folding him in a wheelchair. Also he realizes that his mop is alive now and makes squeaky noises and is named Mop.
Recognizing that this Toxic Crusader poses a threat to his pollution plans, Dr. Killemoff starts hiring thugs to go after him, including Bonehead. Remember in THE TOXIC AVENGER how the bullies who turned Melvin into the Toxic Avenger also got their kicks by intentionally running over people (including children) for “points” and then taking photos of the bodies and enjoying them during alone time? I guess the way they translated that here is that Bonehead almost runs over a little girl (holding a kitten!) although it’s not clear if it’s on purpose.
Next Toxie has to deal with a rampaging oil slick monster. Just after he says to himself “I sure could use some help,” two other self-proclaimed hideously deformed creatures with super human size and strength show up looking for him. No-Zone (Paul Eiding – Perceptor on Transformers) is an ex-pilot hick with a giant nose that has super sneezing power and a wheel on one leg, and his friend Major Disaster (Ed Gilbert – Nomad on Rambo and the Forces of Freedom) is an ex-military plant person, and they are immediately declared new Toxic Crusaders. And they seem to all live together for now on so that’s quite a decision to make so spontaneously.
In the second episode “the evil genius Dr. Bender” (Rayle again) accidentally falls into an atom smasher with a surfer dude muscleman named Fender (John Mariano – Martin Scorsese on an episode of Father of the Pride) and they become a two-headed monster. Kaufman claims in his book that they were inspired by the conjoined twins in his 1988 film TROMA’S WAR, but those characters were joined at the head, neither was a surfer, and both were Nazis. These guys work for Dr. Killemoff and try to kill the Toxic Crusaders, but when they see how hot Yvonne is Fender says “I knew we should’ve been good guys, the bad guys never get the chicks,” and then they’re allowed to become Toxic Crusaders and name themselves Headbanger.
In the third episode a dog man named Junkyard (Patric Zimmerman – Elroy in JETSONS: THE MOVIE) shows up at Melvin’s mom’s house, also looking to join the team, so Mom sprays him with a hose. He was a junkyard dog who fused with a hobo and then read that “Tromaville Welcomes Freaks” in the newspaper. That’s one nice thing about Tromaville that’s carried through from the movies to the cartoon.
In the last episode of the “movie” Princess Gerba of Smogula wants to marry Toxie and he thinks he has to do it to prevent Tromaville from being buried in garbage. So Yvonne starts going on dates with the other Crusaders while Toxie hides in a pile of dirt spying on them like a deranged pervert. Mayor Grody (Chuck McCann, Leatherneck on G.I. Joe), who resembles the mayor from the movie in body type and lack of integrity, is jealous of Toxie and kidnaps Gerba while Toxie is distracted purchasing two broccoli flavored ice cream cones (do you get it, because that’s a gross flavor for ice cream) but the wedding isn’t called off until she meets “the famous chef Wolfgang Yuck” and runs off with him (do you get it because well never mind).
The episodes made into the movie were written by Chuck Lorre, Ned Candle, D.J. MacHale and Jack & Carol Mendelsohn. So yes, for the pilot they hired a writer from Pole Position, M.A.S.K., Charles in Charge, My Two Dads and Roseanne who later created Grace Under Fire, Dharma & Greg, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. MacHale created Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Jack Mendelsohn wrote YELLOW SUBMARINE and developed Camp Candy, Carole Mendelsohn also wrote on a bunch of cartoons including The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin, but I got excited for a minute because someone with the same name was the showrunner for 14 seasons of CSI and created all its spinoffs. Anyway we can at least add sitcom mogul Lorre to the list of people who made it big after working with Toxie, though he can never hold a candle to Michael Jai White.
Another likely inspiration for Toxic Crusaders aside from the aforementioned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is Ted Turner’s heavily hyped Captain Planet and the Planeteers. It had come the year before and was a precedent for environmental messages in cartoons. Of course, pollution was legitimately a major theme of THE TOXIC AVENGER, so it made sense to run with it here.
Though I suppose it’s nice to teach the little ones that industrial waste is bad (when not giving you super powers) and that it’s good to be friends with “freaks,” I should point out that there’s some casual sexism in here that set a shitty example for kids. The theme song says, “I’m sittin on top of the world / With my mop, tutu and girl,” as if Yvonne is one of the accessories that comes with Toxie’s action figure. (As we’ll address shortly there actually were action figures, and the slogan on the commercials was, “They’re gross, but they still get girls!”) Everyone’s always ogling Yvonne, and Toxie is constantly mentioning (in a friendly tone) that she’s dumb (“my beautiful, though somewhat light girlfriend”). I guess that’s a remnant of the ’80s b-movie world, which was so enamored with buxom airheads they liked to call “bimbos” or “babes” (for example non-Troma movies like ASSAULT OF THE KILLER BIMBOS or SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-A-RAMA). I’m glad we’ve moved past that.
Especially in the primitive days of tube TVs, Toxic Crusaders had a very murky, smoggy look to it that was pretty depressing. Though the DVD transfer isn’t exactly pristine, I’m able to appreciate the show’s artistry better in retrospect. Toxie is the only character whose design I like very much, but I love the very detailed watercolor, ink and pencil background paintings. Though there are exceptions, many of the TV cartoons of the last few decades (since everything went digital) go for a much cleaner, tighter look, so it’s refreshing to see this loose, sketchy style on screen. They used to allow a human touch even in some bullshit made to sell action figures and Colorforms sets!
Though the Crusaders never caught on like the Turtles did, it didn’t stop them from doing some merchandising. The action figure line was by that same company that got the Ninja Turtles ball rolling, Playmates Toys. Like many of their toys they seem to have been made by people who only know the proportions of turtles and not humans. Thankfully, since they’re supposed to be “hideously deformed” anyway it doesn’t seem as out of place as on their terrifying DICK TRACY line where everybody looks like adult heads on baby bodies.
There’s also a certain appeal to the exaggerated bumps and blemishes (much more gross-out oriented than the cartoon itself) and the day glow (or sometimes glow in the dark) colors of their many oversized weapons and accessories. This might actually be a good color scheme for the movies if they ever had the desire and ability to get away from their usual negatives-left-on-the-shoulder-of-a-highway-for-a-year-collecting-exhaust style of cinematography.
The Toxie figure comes with a glow in the dark Blobby, a melty orange shield with the cartoon logo on it, and Mop with an American flag attached (and the ability to squirt slime, it seems on that commercial?). Admittedly, I think Junkyard is an improvement on his cartoon design, now sporting a ridiculously long tongue and seeming more like a Rat Fink hot rod drawing, which maybe is the sort of style they’re going for on all of these.
They also had a bunch of slime and garbage covered vehicles such as the Crusader Skater, The Toxic Turf Surfer, Bonehead’s Smogcycle, and Toxie’s Hideous Hovercraft. Which reminds me that when I was trying to describe the surprising production value of Part II I forgot to mention there was a hovercraft in it. A regular hovercraft, though, not a hideous one.
In recent years the company Super 7 (creators of the original retro ALIEN “ReAction Figures”) has managed to capture the garish appeal of the original Toxic Crusaders toys but in more pleasing, human-like shapes. And just the other day another company called Trick Or Treat Studios announced their own line which they mention in a video will be “a littttttle bit taller” than the originals.
Toxic Crusaders also got 8 issues of a Marvel Comics tie-in series (HOWARD THE DUCK creator Steve Gerber wrote two of the issues), ten other comic book issues published by Fleetway in the UK, and video games for the NES, Gameboy and Sega Genesis, in addition to the other crap like coloring books and trading cards (which Kaufman helped write captions for).
Most interestingly, Troma was courted by major studios interested in replicating the success of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES with a live action movie adaptation. They signed a deal with New Line Cinema, who hired “a guy who wrote one of the Freddy Krueger movies” to write the script. Obviously it was never made, and believing that New Line had only made the deal as leverage for the rights to TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES III they sued over it – Wikipedia claims Troma “was awarded an undisclosed amount in damages,” but has no citation for it.
Working in children’s entertainment (well – working in children’s entertainment merchandising) got Troma a bunch of money to fund some of their movies, but the Hollywood/lawsuit part of it left a bad taste in their mouths. So when Toxie finally returned in live action he would not exactly be kid-friendly this time. Or, honestly, anybody-friendly.