As a nervous kid, the annual gut-pit that was Elementary school Valentines Day was just a step above Field Day in terms of sleepless nights created. It was, for the most part, a miserable experience, fraught with this strange, foreign, and wholly inexplicable urging to do something romantic—a completely alien concept to a 5th grader. Who knows where this unspoken obligation came from? Probably watching too many Valentines Day special episodes of whatever was on in the ’90s after Duck Tales. Whatever Valentines Day was, it was something more than passing around little perforated cards to the construction paper mailboxes taped to your friends’ desks. But nobody could really explain why, and that was terrifying.
A couple of days ahead of the in-school celebration of the holiday, you’d go out, choose a cheap box of valentine cards that had enough for all 35 kids in your overcrowded class, and come home to fill them out. Would you personalize them? Do you even give one to that little shit who stole your Super Mario Brothers pins? Would you write a special message to someone you really liked? How would you word it? Would your message really come across? Did you even really like anyone, or did the holiday convince you that something was wrong with you if you didn’t? What embarrassing ramifications would this holiday have for days, or weeks, to come? It was a red and pink nightmare; it wasn’t about love, or affection, or even friendship. It was the forced distribution of an acknowledgement that there were other kids in your class who you’d have to see for another 4 months, so you’d better get this soul-bearing admission of your emotions correct, or under control. Or else.
But most kids weren’t wracked with chronic, crippling anxiety. Maybe that Princess Leia card that said “You’re my only hope!” on the front didn’t mean anything, and you could write your name on it, drop it in a box, and never think of it again. To the credit of the makers of these $2 boxes of cards, most were pretty innocuous. A Street Shark making an all-caps declaration that someone is ‘JAWSOME!’ is pretty tame, and the horrendous affection-based puns that were required on every single card were bad enough to not actually carry any seriousness. But not when you’re a kid who measures every syllable for meaning, correlating it to a hierarchy of friendship and experience that had to fit into the precise framework of these cards. It was like trying to build a car out of spaghetti, and the consequences for failure were astronomical.
They are objects of a rare and unique terribleness. And like most terrible things, they must be preserved so that future generations can suffer as well.
There are hundreds of late ’80s and early ’90s Valentines in my weird collection, snatched up from dollar shops from a weird period in my life where I began to be obsessed with the cast-offs of the world, but in the interest of brevity, this can’t be a gallery of every single one. Instead, this is the worst of the worst, and the weirdest of the weird. That still makes this a pretty deep bench of cards. If you’re into weird ephemera from days past, Valentines are still pretty cheap and accessible, because the inside-trading scumlords at Heritage Auctions haven’t decided to pretend they’re the next big thing yet.
It doesn’t get too much weirder than the bizarre, short-lived phenomenon that was The Incredible Crash Dummies, a one-off TV episode based on the 1991 action figure line, which in turn was based on a series of seatbelt PSAs from the ’80s, which is a really circuitous way to get to ‘Valentines cards’. This set of 1993 cards takes the art from the action figure cardbacks, simplifies it beyond recognition in some instances, and adds weirdo captions. There was never another set, because why would there be?
The cards become a confusing mess of parts and syntax, as if the sentences themselves were rammed at high speed into walls and reassembled. The above card only really makes sense if you have some arcane awareness of Dent, the character toy whose art this is based on, who comes with extra legs for inexplicable reasons, other than the idea that Dummies have parts that fall off and can probably be put back together in unexpected ways. Extra feet on your feet? Sure, why not? Teach kids about the terrors of unsafe driving by making entertaining toys that fly apart harmlessly on impact? Makes sense.
The toy line caused all kinds of problems for this reason. The first wave of toys featured the dummies Vince and Larry, but because those characters were the same as those featured in the NHTSA commercials, major networks stopped airing the PSAs the toys were meant to promote, since those PSAs basically became free commercials for the toys. The solution was to rename and recolor the toys for the second wave. They were basically the same thing, but now, they were Slick and Spin.
That still didn’t fix the problem of Skid the Kid, who was a dummy of a baby, forcibly ejected from vehicles during collisions. Which, while potentially hilarious, is obviously problematic. Skid was recalled while the second wave was on shelves, and never made an appearance in this Valentine card set. But we did get “Slammin’ and Jammin'”, which is obviously related to the forces a dummy undergoes during the titular crash, but also is pretty gross in the context of romance.
This card is based on a wave three Spin in Pro-tek Suit, the last wave to get a wide release in the US, pre-dating the May 1993 release of the CGI animated special that would prove to not be enough to rescue the property from fading out after just three years. It was 1994 when the Super Nintendo game released, well after it all stopped being cool. A three-issue comic series also didn’t make the Dummies happen.
The Junkbot characters appeared in the third wave of the series, probably to create some kind of villainous conflict in an otherwise freewheeling world of immortal humanoids who enjoyed being obliterated. What could a villain possibly do to a race of beings that craves repeated destruction? The 1993 animated special elaborates on this, but all you really need to know is that they steal things, and stealing is evil.
The 25-minute special is all about the Dummies’ Pro-tek suits, unsurprisingly making it a prolonged commercial for the latest wave of toys. It also incorporates the experimental technology of the Dread Head, a thoroughly evil replacement dummy head, and the Torso-9000, a indestructible body part that all of the dummies want to replace their own bits with. A wacky mix-up with a nearsighted Swedish janitor later, and the parts combine into the ultimate weapon.
It’s a feast of low-poly, early-90s computer animation, and unless you grew up during an era when computer animation was just beginning to coalesce, it might not appeal to you. To be able to digest nearly 30 minutes of wacky dummy-themed fun, you probably need to have been weaned on a steady diet of ReBoot and Transformers: Beast Wars when they were still wildly impressive.
None of that explains what this Junkbot card means. Jack Hammer might win the prize for most nonsensical card.
Just what every 4th grader wants: being compared to their parents, and jokes about engine blocks.
We also have a brief sub-series of Valentines that really get to the heart of what the Crash Dummies are about : horrible bodily mutilations. Bust-apart toys are kind of a standard toy type, but it just gets a little weird when you think about how these characters are meant to simulate the ways an actual human body can be torn asunder in a terrible disaster. Regardless, it’s all in fun, and most kids probably didn’t run over to their parents and beg them to take them out into a car accidents, so I think we’re all good. But it’s also a really weird set of cards, and there’s a lot of charm in the incongruity.
Exactly what would be slapped onto Valentines cards was pretty hit or miss, too. There was never ReBoot or Beast Wars cards, but we did get Street Sharks, Bee Movie, Homies, and Ren & Stimpy. Like love, there’s no rhyme or reason to any of it, but on thing’s for sure, one eternal truth, even decades later : there’s always time for slammin’ and jammin’.
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.