Written by Jonathan Wojcik

Baxter Stockman's
Long, Strange Trip

I talked about Mutagen Man earlier in the season, and a bit about how many of my favorite childhood characters and even overall artistic styles seem to be surging their way back into popular culture, but this is even better demonstrated by another TMNT villain, and while I've talked a little bit about him before, we're going to do a complete run-down of his character evolution from the beginning, which is seasonally appropriate because 1) mutant flies and 2) his new action figure hits stores very soon but I'll be damned if I'm going to talk about a fly-man during some other nonsense holiday season. What other ones even are there? Boringday and nothing's eve?

   I was introduced to Baxter Stockman in the spring of 1989. I was only five years old, I wasn't that big into watching the Turtles cartoon yet, and probably jumped up and down with glee when I saw a brightly colored bug-man at Kiddie City, a long gone equivalent to today's Toys R' Us. I was so excited to have a toy of a fly monster, I immediately began to pretend the action figure was alive; a tiny fly guy in a bow tie who was always fascinated by anything and everything I was doing. I probably annoyed a lot of people when I carted him around to torturously boring places like restaurants, weddings, doctor's offices and family reunions, loudly trying to include him in whatever was going on at a given time.

   I had no idea that Baxter even used to be human, what his role was in the cartoon show or even that a series of extremely different comics had come first, and even when I started watching the show later that year, I never did adapt to its canon. When I began to play with toys "more seriously" - acting out fictional scenarios instead of treating them as imaginary pets - Baxter was a main hero, the turtles weren't even a presence, April was Baxter's girlfriend and crime-fighting partner and they lived in the Ghostbuster's firehouse receiving heroic mission briefings from Krang.

   Had I gotten into the Mirage comics back then, I'd have been more than a little confused to see Baxter not only as a perfectly human black guy, but a terrifying megalomaniac who never turns into a bug at all. He's introduced to us as the inventor of the Mousers, pest control robots that would continue to be his trademark creation in every future incarnation, which he eventually used to tunnel through walls and rob banks. He didn't even need the money...like most of us, he just wanted to be a cartoonish villain for the fun of it. Don't pretend you haven't thought about it.

   There isn't a whole lot more to say about the original Baxter; at least not as far as Bogleech is concerned, but he does eventually transfer his brain into a cybernetic body, a theme that's going to come up a whole lot before we're done. In this form, he's eventually imprisoned, kept alive and finally killed by Donatello.

   When it came time to debut Baxter in the kid-friendly Saturday morning cartoon, almost every aspect of his character was changed. Back in the 80's, children's entertainment shied away from minority villains for well-meaning reasons the way it now shies away from minority heroes for no reasons at all, and Baxter was whitewashed into an older, more innocent "nutty professor" sort of character. No longer a sadistic asshole with dreams of conquest, this Baxter was am innocent and naive victim, duped and bullied by The Shredder into working for him when all he really wanted was to be taken seriously as an inventor. In retrospect, it really only sends kids a way worse message for a character to turn into a white guy the same time he stops being evil. This kind of thing was a pretty common side effect of network meddling.

   It was in November of 1988, before I'd found my plastic pal and really started watching the show, that Baxter would be transformed from a human to a giant, adorable Dipteran. In a much more sinister scenario than this series would usually get away with, Krang attempted to execute Baxter in some sort of disintegration chamber, not knowing that an ordinary housefly had followed him through the dimensional portal to their lair. We can assume that, as with Andre Delambre or Seth Brundle's teleportation pods, it was this extra organism's presence that threw off the machine's program, as it immediately malfunctions and fuses the two into one adorable hybrid monster.

I never could decide which version I liked more; the action figure had lovely pastel colors, tattered clothes, warty flesh and maniacal little teeth, but the cartoon version had shiny red eyes, a dorky sweater vest and a toothless muzzle that felt much more like a middle ground between human and fly feeding mechanisms. The fusion process, of course, also did a number on Baxter's mind, confusing him enough to believe Shredder's lie that the turtles were to blame for his new form.

   Just two appearances later, Baxter would finally find himself a friend: the sentient computer of an ancient, alien spacecraft, which sympathized with Baxter's story and provided him with a mutagenic raygun. He even managed to transform Shredder into a normal-sized fly (with a squeaky voice) and one of the turtles into a gopher, or something, but the raygun's effects were eventually reversed, and his starship friend would fall apart completely as they fled into Dimension X - landing Baxter in the web of some sort of spider-lizard.

   In his very next appearance, Baxter's computer friend was somehow still intact, now as a monitor screen with a handsome man-face and an entirely different, sultry voice, later inspiring at least some, but not nearly enough internet shipping. Seriously, these two are precious together, especially with Baxter's story growing steadily more tragic; with his insect aspects rapidly taking over, he would fly into lightbulbs, incessantly crave sugar and begin to forget major details of his human life, all of which his electronic pal would try to help him through with bottomless patience and compassion.

   Let me take a moment to say that you can legally watch that episode here on youtube, and whether or not you ever cared about this series before, it's something you should see. While TMNT had a lot of lazy, accidental humor at this point in its run, the writing in this one is sharp as hell and genuinely hilarious, even with the depressing edge to what's actually going on here. Watch as Baxter repeatedly kidnaps the wrong person, loses trains of thought as only a fly-man hybrid would and is constantly praised and congratulated by his computer-man even when he messes up. It's so cute it hurts.

   Baxter would subsequently reappear on Earth for no explained reason, all alone and with the ability to control normal flies, but his appearance after that would pick back up where we really left off. Sneaking back in through a dimensional portal, he would use his manputer to take over Krang's technodrome, manufacture a mutation gun and attempt to turn the human race into insect-people like himself. That's an episode you can watch here, and one of the show's weirdest. April is amazingly scary as a giant hornet, Vernon makes a pretty dashing spider and Irma somehow manages to be even cuter as a giant moth, but of course, it's all undone in the end, and this was the very last we saw of the lovable bug and his boyfriend. At the rate things were going, it was already implied that Baxter might inevitably lose the last of his humanity, his only friend watching him degenerate into nothing but a big fly in a sweater vest. The show had long dove completely into the deep end of silly toy-commercial territory, but this was the one plotline they hung onto that really tugged at the emotions.

   Flash forward to 2003; Turtles hadn't been popular in the public eye for about eight years when "The Fox Box" debuted a brand new series, grittier and edgier for the kids of 2003. I never got into watching this series regularly, but Baxter's role would turn out just about as interesting as it could be even without ever turning him into a fly. Now more or less lifted straight from the original comics, this greedier, nastier, vain and arrogant Baxter would once again be forced into working for the Shredder, and suffer increasingly critical injuries as one plan after another often literally blew up in his face...or Shredder just got angry enough to cut something off.

   The number of forms taken by this Baxter are difficult to even keep track of. With every defeat, he would be rebuilt with his own technology, sometimes for the better, sometimes much, much worse. At first, his cyberbodies tended towards humanoid shapes, and he'd even be happier to be something so much more powerful than a normal human...but as he continued to get bashed, battered and blown to bits, he would cling to existence in steadily more grotesque and miserable ways. Soon, he was nothing but a severed head plugged into a robotic spider, probably in a subtle nod to the character's past as a spider's favorite dinner.

   It wasn't long before Baxter lost even his beloved human face, reduced to a brain, spinal column and dangling eyeball, and I'm just sad that Shredder already stole my best "should have quit while he was ahead" joke. Baxter would try out even more new bodies from episode to episode, sometimes wearing an artificial semblance of his original head, sometimes projecting it as a hologram. There were even points at which his tank was directly outfitted with robotic arms and legs, not entirely unlike good old Mutagen Man.

   In the episode "Insane in the Membrane," Baxter attempts to clone himself an entirely new, perfectly human body, and the result is one of the sickest, darkest, most horrific stories ever intended for a Saturday morning cartoon block. Even Cracked was shocked by the graphic body horror and psychological tragedy of this episode, as Baxter's new body graphically rots away and his sanity goes with it. If you were to only watch one episode of this entire series, why not watch a man falling apart in every sense of the term?

   While not as traumatizing as his clone body, Baxter's next fashionable look is by far my favorite, revived against his will with a few scraps of tissue clinging to a mechanical skeleton. He cries when he first sees himself this way, even wishing he had been left to die in peace, but you and I know he's even sexier than ever...if only the right person had come along and helped him realize that. From here, Baxter would try out a holographic skin and eventually a giant, tank-like war machine form.

   Fast forward to....Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fast Forward, where our heroes travel through time to a city where humans, robots and aliens live side by side. When at last we see what Baxter has been up to, he's used an infusion of alien DNA to improve his disembodied nervous system, now able to survive and move without the aid of cybernetics.

   Surprisingly, after more than a century of death, mutilation and mutation, this Baxter is quickly willing to turn over a new leaf and finally gets a happy ending, realizing that in a world now populated with many different beings, his lack of "humanity" wasn't so important anymore, Shredder wasn't in control of his life anyway, and his amazing technology - including organic, reptilian "bio mousers" - could be used for the world's benefit. This sweet note would be the last we saw of this particular Stockman, and the last of Stockman in animated television until the next series reboot, which I've mentioned before is my personal favorite incarnation of the turtles yet...

   You can tell Nickelodeon's 2012 series is written by people who grew up with this franchise from an early age, mashing together select elements of past cartoons and comics into a show with a little something for everyone, and there are few characters who demonstrate that quite as elegantly as Baxter. In both design and personality, he's an even mix of his past stints as both a comical, sheepish dweeb and a hate-filled egomaniac. This Baxter is a sniveling, fragile pipsqueak who nonetheless dreams of supervillain stardom, seething with contempt for people he only perceives as having bullied and mocked him his entire life. He first crosses paths with the turtles when they accidentally drop alien technology into his hands, transforming his pitiful home-made supervillain suit into a massive robotic body not entirely unlike some seen in the 2000's series.

   It's necessary to take a little detour here, because even while this series was running through its first season, IDW publishing was continuing its own, unrelated TMNT series, and long story short, their Baxter comes to escape imprisonment by cobbling together none other than a "FLYBORG," which attains sentience just in time to beg for its life and immediately die. This series is still ongoing, and last we saw, Baxter was cooking up more wonderful Flyborgs in his own laboratory....

   ...Back in the Nickelodeon show, Baxter would catch Shredder's attention by later inventing the destructive Mousers, or according to the new goofball Baxter, "Mobile Offensive Underground Search Excavation and Retrieval Sentries." With his impressive technical expertise, Baxter would be forced to assist the incredibly scary new Shredder in his obsessive quest for revenge, but persistently bullied and terrorized both by his boss and fellow Foot Clan minions. By season 2, once Shredder joined forces with the invading Kraang, Baxter was even being forced into compliance with a remote-controlled collar full of mutagen ooze.

And I knew, I just knew in my heart where that was going.

   I sorely wish I hadn't been spoiled by early character design teasers, because seeing Baxter's latest mutation would have made me almost as giddy as that squeaky little kid bouncing around Kiddie City. Not only has Baxter once more become a fly, but the new design emphasizes everything I love most about flies, monsters, and fly monsters. His cilia writhe, his giant nose-hole pulsates and he even retains a few human teeth, though his mouth now opens vertically and a complete fly proboscis can unfold from within, taking full advantage of how a fly's actual facial anatomy works. Coupled with its Brundlefly-esque gnarled flesh and head as oversized as in Return of the Fly, this is unquestionably my favorite design for a fly-human hybrid of all time, and unless this page is the first thing you're ever reading that I've ever said, you probably know far too well what a serious statement I just made.

   In this glorious, majestic new body, Baxter Stockman's personality seems to have taken a drastic turn for the creepier. No longer such a comedic dweeb, "Stockmanfly" is a hissing, gurgling monster who craves garbage and vomits lethally powerful digestive juices, taking more sadistic delight in his work and even attempting to become "more human" again by fusing himself with April O'Neil, mimicking the final gambit of Seth Brundle.

  Sadly, we've gotten only a few brief moments with Stockmanfly since his debut episode, but there's no telling where the series might take him from here. Despite its high level of comedy, this series can get even darker than the 2000's iteration. Not quite "Insane in the Membrane" dark, sure, but thus far, 2012's TMNT has chosen a distinct horror angle with its many mutants, and already melted a child into an acid slug. Stockmanfly's story could go lighter or darker than anything we've seen before, and only time will tell.

   Few characters have gone through changes as weird as our good buddy Stockman, and I can't think of any character who's been both a giant, mutant fly and a disembodied brain, which regularly vie for the top spot in my list of favorite monsters as well as personal aspirations. With the franchise still going strong since its debut almost thirty years ago, we can probably rest easy knowing fate is nowhere near done turning this poor dorkus into bug-eyed scientific abominations...and maybe there's still hope that we'll see some incarnation of his computerized lover again.

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