Something strange motivates the bootlegger. Something dark and sinister and probably a little intellectually lazy. The bootlegger latches onto a idea with proven profitability and approximates it, fearlessly sidestepping copyright law and consumer safety concerns, hoping to earn a profit before anyone really catches on and brings their flimsy empire down. The bootlegger is unconcerned with originality, or art, or making the world a better place. They just want to latch onto someone else’s success and sadly suckle what nourishment they can. Sometimes, somehow, there’s a magical artfulness in the artlessness of the bootlegger – especially when it comes to toys.
When I write about ‘bootleg action figure makers’, I’m talking about the original, genuine article, and not the crop of modern toy artisans who have appeared over the last few years to emulate the weirdo, sloppy style of the bootleg toy. Creative and awesome as those artists may be, I’m talking about the guy in a factory in Taiwan who makes a mold of a popular toy and reproduces it cheaply, using substandard plastics and misapplied (and potentially toxic) paint because he wants to make a profit, and then packages this toy with an obtuse reference to the figure it’s based on. Transformers become Change Robots. WWE Wrestlers become Wrestle Fighters. And through some insane twist of verbiage, via a poorly-translated dictionary or a very confused Google Translate, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles become Amicable Herculean.
One of the bewildering, awesome things about the Amicable Herculean line is that they were first unearthed during a time when the Ninja Turtles weren’t experiencing any special height of popularity. The Ninja Turtles were in a licensing lull, between TV shows and films, and the Herculeans bear a closer resemblance to the original 1980s Turtles more than any modern interpretation. This means that these were possibly produced long, long ago and only recently dispatched to US dollar stores, or that they were produced in tandem with Playmates’ recent revisitation of the vintage line, or that someone just knew that Ninja Turtles would always be totally radical and/or gnarly and pushed ahead with a vintage-styled semi-turtle for the hell of it. In my fantasy toy world, I vote for the latter. Or the former. It’s always nice to think that there’s stuff left to be discovered in the dark corners of warehouses, aside from the usual dessicated rat carcass.
I found the Amicable Herculeans at a warehouse near Poughkeepsie, NY. It’s a weird place full of discount sweaters and socks, cassette tapes, loose SEGA games and Conway Twitty CD box sets under glass, and two tall racks of action figures left over from the 1990s. If you collected action figures in the ’90s, you’ll recall that female figures were usually shortpacked, hard to find, and thus more valuable than their male counterparts. This warehouse has many of the female figures that never appeared in toy stores in the 90s, from X-Men to Earthworm Jim. It’s surreal to enter an action figure aisle which is populated entirely by the id-saturated, wasp-waisted female heroes and villains of 1990 comic books, and doubly surreal that it feels like walking through time into an actual toy store in 1995. It’s even more toy-nerd surreal that these femme fatales were all the holy grails during their own time. Pegged amid this plastic harem were the Amicable Herculeans, designed for (as the package states) “Turtlemaniacs”.
Each figure is a standard hunk: part wrestler, part vintage Masters of the Universe, part M.U.S.C.L.E. There are six figures in the line, and each figure comes with an alternate head, a weapon, and a shell which is supposed to clip around their body, transforming them into Ninja-like Turtles. They all have the same suspenders, and the same patched-up, baggy pants. And they’re all ugly as sin. It’s like the yearbook that came out right after that horrible year when all of the class trip buses flipped at once. Scars, eyepatches, grimaces, metal plates… it’s all there. Each one comes with a randomized weapon and a randomized turtle head and shell, which appear in multiple colors but once again have the same sculpt, chest Band-Aids and all. And instead of bandanas with eyeholes, they have sunglasses. Because totally radical, dude.
These are the guys who would roam the streets of New York City in the year 2010, according to the fiction of 1980. They smoke cigars and they have spiked wristbands and tiny hats. Are they heroes, or are these the bad guys? Only one of them vaguely resembles Shredder, but that similarity ends at the faceplate-slash-bandana—and even Shredder-lite, who I’ll just call Schrader, transforms into a turtle. Nor do any of these resemble something from the myth of Hercules’ twelve labors, unless you count the gay porno version of his legendary journeys.
It’s hard to determine the impetus behind these figures. Obviously, they wanted to capitalize on TMNT, but why would they need to transform? The Turtles didn’t transform, except for that initial mutation into humanoid turtles. Was this an effort to avoid a copyright battle? If you ship an action figure which is predicated on a copyrighted property, but ship it in multiple pieces and don’t directly advertise what it’s copying, is it quite as illegal?
Maybe these guys weren’t meant to imitate the Turtles, but be a group of companions in some fan fiction offshoot. There were also the canonical Punk Frogs, of course, who were a possible homage to the Battletoads, which were themselves a parody of the Ninja Turtles. Fiction becomes aware of the things that it influences, and it makes this awareness known by referencing those things, and everything comes full circle. Are the Amicable Herculeans meant to be a part of this universe?
Are these viral marketing characters for the waning suspender industry, made in part by the Spiked Wristband Council?
Given the slippery nature of the bootleg toy, these are undated and nigh untrackable, with no company listed and no year. Somehow, these seem to incorporate a greater deal of love and care than the usual knockoff toy: a packaging without spelling errors, no sharp corners or blinding lights, and some genuinely original faces matched with an interesting spin on a popular concept. If you look hard enough, you might even find some of these guys packaged in neatly-sewn samurai robes.
I bought all of the Herculeans, and sent them to a friend (in trade for a Bag-Head Spider-Man action figure), who then distributed them amongst his own friends. The warehouse was depleted of all remaining Herculeans, and the weirdness went out into the world. It’s easy to forget that toys are toys, meant to be fun and interesting and interactive, when you get lost in a nerd-culture that fetishizes perfect articulation and accurate sculpts, but all it takes is a bit of sloppy paint and a weird idea to remind you that this whole thing is supposed to be fun.
Just wash your hands after you’re done. These things are probably radioactive.
C. David is a writer and artist living in the Hudson Valley, NY. He loves pinball, Wazmo Nariz, Rem Lezar, MODOK, pogs, Ultra Monsters, 80s horror, and is secretly very enthusiastic about everything else not listed here.