MUSCLE Article cover

It’s happened : after thriving in the ’80s and ’90s, and dipping back into obscurity in the kinda-gross-2000s, keshi are once again mainstream, and it couldn’t happen at a better time.

The history of keshi is pretty straightforward; they began as shaped erasers in Japan, and the single-color, molded characters spread far and wide as premiums in various products. They really came into their own in the US when Kinnikuman became M.U.S.C.L.E., and a whole bunch of similar lines were able to infiltrate the US market, from Monster in my Pocket to Mini Boglins. They’re super simple, they’re small, and because they’re unpainted, their sculptural details are usually exceptional. It’s an inexpensive place to get weird, and when it comes to toys, those places are very rare.

The modern resurgence of MUSCLE can probably be credited to Sucklord’s S.U.C.K.L.E. line, and the OMFG series that came out around the same time. It was only a matter of time before companies like Mattel and Super 7 picked up on the success of the indie successes of these once-forgotten lines and made licensed collections of their own. But hear me out… in this case, major companies taking an idea that independent creators already took a huge risk on isn’t a bad thing. There’s room enough in the modern keshi market for both nostalgic properties and original creations. In fact, it’s one of the best possible ways for creative toy lovers to express their awesome monster ideas today. Grown-ups who loved these toys in the ’90s loved them because they were original ideas, and that love maintains today, comfortably alongside the love of things that were once original ideas, but are now established, nostalgic, licensed properties.

One of the absolute coolest original concepts to happen in the past few decades is Kaiju Big Battel. Is it a licensed property if it’s been around for like 20 years? I don’t know, but they control the property completely, and they only recently got their own toys – and in the most appropriate form imaginable, since keshi first really were focused on weird wrestlers. It’s all kind of a beautiful full circle of undying love.

The excellence of ultra-creative, original things like Kaiju Big Battel doesn’t exclude the value of retro-cool properties. They also  have a totally valid place in the phenomenon. Probably one of the best aspects of the whole style is that it’s pretty much universally accepting of whatever property you want to shove into it. Batman? Sure, someone made those! He-Man and the Masters of the Universe? It’s a little surprising that they weren’t made authentically back in the day, but Super 7 made them a reality in the late 2010s.

MUSCLE Masters of the Universe package

MUSCLE He-Man, Battlecat, and Mekanek

There isn’t much that Mattel or Super 7 won’t dig up from their graves to make MUSCLE figures, and that includes deceased WWF wrestlers like Andre the Giant, properties like Mazinger Z that were never super popular in the US, and even things like Mega Man and the Alien movie series. It’s kind of unstoppable. And then, like being blindsided by a roller blading orca, Street Sharks happened.

MUSCLE Andre the Giant

Nobody has a clear idea where Street Sharks MUSCLE came from, at the time of this writing. Heck, if you were born after 1997, you’ve probably never even heard of Street Sharks; the whole property lived and died over the course of three years in the mid-90s as an animated series designed to sell action figures, and a very obvious riff on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze that also included thigns like Biker Mice from Mars, BC Bikers, Samurai Pizza Cats, Battletoads, Cowboys of Moo Mesa, Cheetah Men and Road Rovers. Truly, we were not at a loss for choice when it came to sassy, tough animal warriors with bad attitudes. And while Street Sharks had bit more staying power than most of the other copycats, they’re still an odd property to try to bring back. Which is probably why Mattel only kinda maybe half did.

An image of Street Sharks MUSCLE started circulating in toy collecting groups out of nowhere, and nobody was actually sure if they were prototypes of an unproduced line, or maybe just some kind of weird hoax designed to either tickle nerds’ nostalgia glands… or just make fun of them for actually giving a dang about Street Sharks. It was a week or so later when someone actually walked into an Ollie’s Discount Store and found them for real… even if it still seemed really suspicious. We’ve been burned before.

Cue the line showing up at some Five Below stores all around the United States, and you have an absolute mystery that showed up out of nowhere, a viral explosion that had absolutely no promotion, and no buzz generated at Toy Fair or SDCC. For a massive company like Mattel, it’s undeniably strange… but was the lack of promotion the best possible way to promote these? Street Sharks MUSCLE quickly became an obsession in the toy collecting community, with people sending in reports from their local stores and cutting out of work early to go hunt them down… which I’m totally guilty of. I was sucked in. And then I found them.

Because these showed up at Ollie’s and Five Below stores, we can safely assume that these were just sold wholesale to these discount retailers before they ever had a hope of showing up at a mainstream store. Is it possible that these entered production as part of a retailer exclusive deal that folded, and no one else was interested in such a bizarre, collector-centric property? Mattel notably parted ways with their collector-oriented leanings a couple of years ago when they shuttered MattyCollector after they more or less blamed the adult collector audience for not shoveling enough money into their poorly-managed pile of ideas, despite their pre-sales regularly selling out and their website being a nightmare to navigate on drop days.

For now, Street Sharks MUSCLE are a weird unknown, but you have to wonder if this was an idea that got so far that they decided not to abandon it completely, but use it to test the waters to bring back things like Food Fighters or Extreme Dinosaurs. Management changes happen, and we were reminded over and over by Mattel that adult collectors are an incredibly small part of Mattel’s give-a-damns, so the investment here must have been relatively small. Mattel shrugged, and today’s Street Sharks came out. And the reaction to them has proven that they were a very, very good idea.

Mattel has a lot of old properties that they haven’t touched in decades, but I think we’re ready. Don’t try to rebrand Food Fighters into modern nonsense like sriracha bottles and boba tea, or pair it with an online game or an animated series; give us the classic angry box of fries, no frills, in MUSCLE form. We’re ready.

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.