Thursday 7 September 2017


Boys' toys in the 90s featured many fantastic ranges. It was a golden era for grotty gross-out toys and monsters. Action figures of The Real Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and even questionable tie-ins to films like Aliens and Spawn could be found in Woolworths and Right Price. Then there were Mighty Max, Boglins and a host of other oddities. It was a great time to have pocket money. By far my favourite toy series, though, was Monster in My Pocket, a series that I have solidly loved since I was a tiny boy and have utterly failed to grow out of.

Monster in My Pocket, or MIMP for short, kicked off, along with MUSCLE, the collector-mania in kids' toys. Small, mass-produced figurines that came in a range of colours, with continuous releases of new sets to encourage further collecting, swapping and an almost religious devotion. The figures are often mixed up with MUSCLE, which was more commonly found in the States, plus subsequent lines like Mini Boglins, Dino Brites and Bad Eggz Bunch, all of which had great collectability but none of which matched my love for MIMPs (although Boglins came close for a while). Although pushed in Canada and the US, the original MIMP line was created by the UK-based Matchbox, part of Morrisson's Entertainment Group, and was most popular here and in Europe. There were, however, releases of figures and tie-ins all over the world, with significant waves released throughout Latin America, and while I'm a bit of a Matchbox purist, the variations, of varying quality, from other countries are an interesting sideline.

The idea behind MIMP was straightforward but ingenious: small figures in malleable plastic that represented monsters picked from mythology, legend and literature. Anything that was in the public domain was fair game, from well-known horrors such as a werewolf, a vampire and Frankenstein's monster to Greek mythological figures such as the Hydra and Medusa, through to obscure things that no six-year-old was ever likely to have heard of, such as the Aztec goddess Coatlicue.

The first series was released in 1989 on both sides of the pond. The adverts came first; joyfully naff TV ads with smirking little boys scaring their sisters. The monsters were "squishy!" apparently, although in reality that meant slightly bendy plastic, and initially came in four colours: red, yellow, purple and a pale green. A rerelease a year or so after reproduced these in brighter, "neon" shades, and premium figures exist in other colours, such as pine green, magenta and that lovely, off-white glow-in-the-dark colour. These are the ones that go for the bigger bucks among collectors, and came in special playsets, the board game (what happened to my copy of the board game?) and cereal boxes in the States. The straightforward, bold block colours of the figures is simple and appealling, more so than the flashier, more complicated stuff later on.

There were 48 monsters in Series I, although the precious checklist, in its tiny script, claimed there were 96, so immediately we young collectors knew there more to look forward to. Each monster was given a "points value," which was stamped on the back of the figure and supposedly indicated both the monster's power and its rarity. The monsters were granted five, ten, fifteen, twenty or twenty-five points, with the fivers being the endlessly common ones that came in blind bags and four-packs on blister cards, while "rare" 25-point monsters were the big draw of the "secret twelve-packs." Or you could shell-out for a 24-pack and get fully half the series in one swoop. Endless debates were had in playgrounds and classrooms over which of the monsters was the greatest, and whether the points system had any real merit. Seriously, a ghost gets ten points but the Winged Panther only five? It's a fricking panther with wings, you can't tell me that's not worth at least fifteen.

There were also Battle Cards, which allowed you to play a Top Trumps-style game. The cards broke down the monsters' PV's into four elements: intelligence, strength and weaponry, speed, and weaknesses/limitations (a negative score). For instance, the Kraken has intelligence 4, strength 10, speed 10 and weakness -4, giving an overall PV of twenty, while Vampire has intelligence 10, strength 6, speed 4 and weakness -10, giving a PV of ten (presumably due to his weaknesses to garlic, sunlight and running water). If this didn't increase the collectability enough, there were art cards exploring the monsters' background in excruciating 90s style, and a bloody excellent Panini stickerbook. And socks - really excellent socks.

The checklist pamphlet stated that Series I would be "history" once Series II arrived, but this was rubbish - these little guys hung around forever. Still, the introduction of the Monster in My Pocket comic series from Harvey in 1991 stoked the excitement for the second set of toys. The comic (which I will read through in more detail for a future post) pit the "good monsters" led by Vampire againt the "evil monsters" led by Warlock, who notably was not part of the existing run. Immediately the comic put unavailable monsters at the forefront, and promised more to come, even some that never actually made it to being figures. Series II arrived, in "hot neon" colours of blue, green, orange and magenta, to great excitement. They showcased weirder designs and more horrific creatures than Series I, and whacked up the Points Value, with the most powerful monsters achieving thirty points. There were also some classic monsters included, such as a dragon and the Minotaur, that were sorely missing from that first series.

There were twenty-four monsters in Series II, leaving a further two dozen still unaccounted for. Hot on the heels of Series II came Super Scary Series III, at least in the UK, and this is where it gets fiddly. The sheer excitement of Series III was tempered in my young mind by the fact that the monsters were numbered from 97 to 120, missing out a full twenty-four monsters, which bothered me for years until, finally, I discovered that the "real" third series had only been released in North America. Monsters 73 to 80 were available in cereal boxes and in Big Boy restaurants kids' meals, while #81, Blemmya, was only available packaged with the Nintendo Monster in My Pocket game. That still left a full fifteen monsters that were designed but never made it to being figures, and we only know about them because a full set of 96 were released as stickers and cards in Argentina. There are plans afoot by a private collector to create these, with the original sculptor producing the prototypes, and so far, gold premium figures of four of these are available on eBay at a whopping $60 each. Something for the serious collector there, well out of the price range of someone like me. (Actually, there are sixteen sculpts planned for this collection, because another monster popped up in the comics and wasn't listed anywhere else, but is just begging to be sculpted.)

Still, the Super Scary line, series three or four depending on preference, was beyond exciting for the seven-year-old me. The Super Scary monsters were bigger, multicoloured and just better to my childish eyes. Nowadays, the poor paint jobs and less detailed designs aren't as appealling, and the monocoloured variants that were released in boxes of Weetos (presumably being cheaper to produce that way) just look better. Still, Matchbox were selling to kids, not collectors who should be old enough to know better, and these were just fantastic. On the other hand, the Points Value system completely went to pot, with the monsters now being overpowered with fifty to a hundred points apiece, making it impossible to fight them properly against Series I and II monsters. It was also around this time that a terrible cartoon pilot was released, which made Vampire the leader of the baddies and the Invisible Man the leader of the goodies. A group of oversized figurines were released, called Super Scary Howlers, with ligh-up LED eyes and gruesome sound effects, showcasing the four classic monsters of the series: Vampire, Werewolf, Swamp Beast and the Monster (aka Frankenstein's Monster).

During the first three main series, Matchbox had their share of controversy from various religious groups. For starters, the first monster in the series was the Great Beast from the Book of the Revelation, and kicking off a toy line with the avatar of Satan himself, unsurprisingly upset some of the more conservative American quarters. In the UK, however, it was the inclusion of no fewer than four Hindu deities in the line that caused offense. There is a much larger Hindu community in the UK than in the States, and the far-right Hindu group the Vishva Hindu Parishad kicked off at the inclusion of Kali in Series I and Ganesh in Series II. This led to the pulling of Ganesh from Series II packs, making it one of the harder figs to find (later still, Herne the Hunter was also pulled, for obscure reasons). Matchbox failed to the learn their lesson, though, and the Super Scary line included both Hanuman and Yama. Again, Hanuman was pulled from later sets, although Yama merely renamed as Fire Creature, part of a wholesale reworking which gave about half the figures dumbed-down names.

The next series is probably the least fondly remembered by fans, but as a kid, my god these were brilliant. I had hoped Super Scary would be followed by a ghostly Super Spooky line (although most of the monsters in the Super Scary line were ghosts or similar), but instead, Matchbox completely changed track and gave us the Super Creepies. I can still remember going to Woolworths with the family and my mum coming to find me to tell me that she'd seen new Monster in My Pockets and they were insects. The Super Creepies chucked out the "real monsters" idea and instead gave us twenty-four hard plastic creepy crawlies, supposedly created by the insane "Dr. Zacheria Wolfson in his ultra high-tech lab." The figures were all terrible, terrible puns: the wolf spider was a spider with a wolf's head, the bedbug was a bed with legs, the ladybug wore lipstick. Sophisticated humour, I'm sure you'll all agree. I loved them, even though the Points Value was cranked up to a whole 200 points, because apparently a spider with a moustache is more powerful than Hanuman, the divine devotee of Rama who can balance the world on his tail.

More exciting still was the next series, promised to be "the orignal monsters." Yes, the next run were the dinosaurs. After a short trial with simpler figures called Dinoaur in My Pocket in the States, of which only four were released, the full MIMP Dinosaur series was released: solid, hard plastic prehistoric creatures based on, admittedly outdated, scientific reconstructions. They were awesome. By this stage, the US range had almost died out, and these were mostly found in the UK and Europe. The dinosaurs were rereleased later with new paintjobs, as the Secret Skeleton Dinosaurs - dip them in cold water, and a poorly painted set of bones appeared. These were virtually impossible to find, with only the occasional blind bag turning up, and they go for a penny or two now. While the Battle Cards had continued through the other series, the Dinosaurs had fact cards detailing their size, weight and the era in which they lived. Although the figures were identical, the Secret Skeleton Dinosaurs were presented on the cards as a further series, continuing the numbering and upping the Points Values by ten, which is a maddening inconsistency.

The classic Matchbox run essentially came to an end with the Space Aliens. These were original characters, although some were vaguely based on aliens from pop culture, and although they were pretty fun, there was surely a good opportunity here to go back to the series' roots and use "real" aliens from ufology. That would have been extremely cool. Still, the Space Aliens worked, and although there were only sixteen of them, they looked good and had a fun new gimmick. On each alein's back was a heat-sensitive sticker which revealed the Points Value and the alien's affiliation: a sun and sword for the good aliens, and skull-and-crossbones for the evil aliens. The PV (now called Battle Points) was inflated to utterly ludicrous extremes, though, now ranging from 150 all the way up to 500 points for the leaders of each side. The Battle Cards were also revived, albeit simplified. There were apparently plans for further dinosaurs to follow this, although in the end, only four were produced, numbered #223-226, which came boxed up with a wristwatch (which I almost won on eBay, damn it). These buggers go for insane prices.

The original line fizzled out after the Space Aliens, but in 1995, Vivid Imaginations took over manufacture for Matchbox and completely revamped the line with the release of Monster Wrestlers in My Pocket. These were a completely new variant on the series, cashing in on the 90s wrestling craze. Each figure was an original character, about half being based on classic monsters, the other half being grossly muscular humans. There were forty-five Monster Wrestlers, including coaches, referees and a monstrous medical team, although some of these were released exlusively in playsets. The series' long-standing relationship with breakfast cereal reached new heights, as the Monster Wrestlers were introduced with ten exclusive figures with Frosties. Weirdly enough, these included Tony the Tiger himself (I guess he is pretty grrrrrreat).

The Monster Wrestlers were tough, rubbery plastic, fully painted with a few variant paint jobs. They had Points Values, on the feet this time, ranging in 25-point jumps from zero points for the referees to the all-star 100-pointers. (There was one anomalous thirty-pointer, the gleefully racist Kongo King.) There were also "Grapple Cards" and a similar range of milkcaps, because this was also the era of the Pog. There was even a Monster Wrestlers in My Pocket comicbook, whcih lasted an even shorter time than the original comic series, plus jigsaw puzzles and other sundry tat. The series was followed by two more similar lines, Monster Sports Stars in My Pocket and Monster Ninja Warriors in My Pocket. Never a lover of sports, I can't say I'm a fan of the Sports Stars, who were only released in Frosties packets and included Tony the Tiger again, but the Ninja Warriors were pretty awesome, and they had weaponry accessories which had their own Points Values, which was a fun idea. They came with their own Pogs as well.

That was it for the original run of MIMP. There were a couple of attemtps to relaunch in the years to follow, and European rereleases (the Italian lines have some particularly cool colours). I ended up giving away or selling a lot of my little monsters, before a strong pang of nostalgia made me get onto eBay and buy a whole lot of them back. The instigator of this nostalgia was the unexpected relaunch of Monster in My Pocket in 2006. Now owned by Corinthian, this was a complete revamp of the line, going back to the original concept of tiny figures of "real" monsters. Once again, there were forty-eight little monsters, drawn from myth, legend and literature, or to put it another way, from the four series of MIMP. These were fully detailed, hand-painted figurines and were really excellent pieces of work, although they lacked that simplistic appeal of the classic series. Some of the designs were closer to the mythological basis for the monsters, others further removed. Having almost learnt a lesson from Matchbox, Corinthian produced a Monkeyman figure instead of Hanuman, and a version of Kali thinly-veiled as "Six-Armed Sorceress." The Invisible Man figure was particularly excellent - made from clear plastic that showed through any gaps in the paintwork.

The new series was split into eight categories: the Ancients, the Beasts, the Humanoids, the Winged, the Ghosts, the Dead, the Sea Monsters and the Maniacs. In some territories, such as Australia, they were split into two series of twenty-four. Similar to the Points Values, these monsters had a power level that could be revealed with an infrared decoder light, although this feature didn't really work. There were new playsets, and a new Battle Cards set, with points sections that I think represent intelligence, strength/weaponry, speed and scariosity, plus an element for each monster. Interestingly enough, the numbering on the back of the cards was out of 230, suggesting a much larger run was planned; perhaps the number being based on the original list that included some extended run of dinosaurs and so on? In the end, only forty-eight were relased, and although I don't love these as much as the classic line, they are very cool indeed.

You may have gathered that I'm a huge fan of Monster in My Pocket, and they are the one toy line from my youth that I still actively collect (pocket money permitting). I plan to talk more about these little monstrosities a lot over the coming months - what better way to explore my love of mythology and literature than through the classic run of MIMPs? And maybe one day I'll finally create my Big Book of Monsters, inspired, in no small part, by the little plastic thingies that we traded on the playground.

To learn a great deal more about Monster in My Pocket, check out Jud's exhaustive collectors' site

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