Written by Jonathan Wojcik, some images submitted by Lee Sherman!
The Evolution of Mutagen Man
I dunno, are you liking the number of "vintage creepy toy" articles this year? It's grown increasingly difficult over the years to find really great Halloween products worth talking about, and my very definitions of that have obviously tightened as well, but I could probably fill fifty more Halloweens with the monster toys littering our bedroom alone, and for tonight's entry, we're going to take a complete look at one of the creepiest, weirdest characters to ever grace a children's cartoon or toy line, particularly because he has now done so twice.
It all began back during the explosive popularity of the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon show, when Peter Laird had all the fun you might expect designing characters for a smash hit franchise, pumping out countless concepts for bizarre new villains and heroes on a regular basis. One of these was a creature called The Unknown, which evolved from a hybrid monster with a squishy gut-bucket head to one with an entire tank of viscera for a torso. Knowing how much kids loved eviscerated abominations of science, Playmates toys wisely went for it, eventually working "The Unknown" into a character called Mutagen Man, to this day one of the most beautiful action figures ever devised:
Please, take some time to really look at Mutagen Man. Soak him in. Admire the pale pink muscles visible through the rotten, yellowed flesh of his clawed, humanoid appendages. Marvel at the lidless eyeballs floating around in his glass body, which hilariously features sculpted pecs. The entire composition of this figure, its chunkiness, its color scheme, is sincerely high on my list of the most beautiful, artistic images ever captured in plastic. There is not a single thing I would change about this handsome dweeb.
Mutagen Man's little pink plug can be removed, with some difficulty, allowing you to fill his tank with water, or as suggested by his instructions, a mixture of water and slime, though the latter is incredibly difficult to get back out. One additional detail I always liked about this freak? Notice his brain is on the outside of his skull. That is seriously extra weird.
Back in the day, it was also a long standing tradition for action figures to come with collectible bio-cards on their packaging, and the original Turtles line went all-out with detailed story information and corny jokes. Mutagen Man, in particular, has by far one of the darkest stories to grace such an otherwise cheerful toy series, apparently not even an actual villain - just forced to work for them in exchange for more mutagen, like some sort of heroin addict, except if he doesn't get his fix he just fuckin rots. Jesus.
Inevitably, Mutagen Man was featured in his own episode of the accompanying animated show, and you can see that they toned down his gruesome details quite a bit, but he's still a bug-eyed brain-skull in a glass torso with fake pecs, and I appreciate the brain stem descending into a repulsive mass of sludge. Keeping true to his bio, Mutie is actually a well-meaning guy who just wants to stay alive and hopefully reverse his horrific transformation, though they did change things up a bit there, as well. The card indicates that Krang straight-up abducted and dissected some poor sap, but in the show, he's an innocent passerby who falls into a tank of experimental, unstable mutagen.
They still got pretty grisly, though.
Yes, this is "Seymour Gutz," a twerpy flower delivery boy who showed up at the wrong address, and it's pretty obvious that those appendages are no longer connected to one another. Shredder even quips "he's gone all to pieces!" just so we know this isn't the animation error children may have hoped it was. This couldn't have been more nightmarish at any level of detail.
Weirdly, Seymour's "Mutagen Man" form is supposedly the result of Shredder, Bebop and Rocksteady "putting him back together" with whatever they could find. I'm guessing his head and appendages continued to mutate in the meantime, and they couldn't really find the rest. Where they found that manly torso tank is an even bigger mystery.
What I really like about Mutagen Man's cartoon portrayal is that his voice and personality don't even change from Seymour's. Despite his grotesque, terrifyingly alien new form, he's a nervous weenie with the voice of a dorky little pipsqueak and it works for me so well, it is such an adorable combination. It's even a little creepier than giving him a monster voice or making him some mindless ghoul. The voice, by the way, is that of Rob Paulson and the same one he used for Yakko Warner, though Mutagen Man speaks more like he's in constant terror (and I'm sure he is) than Yakko's douchey, wise-ass sarcasm. Man, he was a jerk. They all were. The Warners were terrible, terrible people and even as a kid I only ever wanted them to get some sort of comeuppance.
Anyway, Mutagen Man apparently has the power to temporarily shape-shift into anyone else he wants, which isn't something I really expected from his design, but whatever. He ends up kidnapping April O'Neil because everyone and everything was apparently destined to do so at the time, the Turtles show up to rescue her, and Shredder decides his new minion is a failure, so he severs the mutagen hose that was keeping him alive. Cold. Especially considering Shredder still keeps Bebop and Rocksteady around, and they can't even shape-shift or anything. I guess he just got really used to them.
The turtles immediately take pity on the cybernetic giblets, reconnect his hose, and apparently even figure out how to cure him after foiling whatever it was Shredder was doing. Stealing science? It was probably stealing science. Anyway, this could have been the start of a wonderful new friendship, but apparently they only paid Mutagen Man to perform in one episode, so they end with Donatello figuring out how to "cure" him. Boo.
Seymour at least realizes he's been given a unique opportunity to start fresh, so he uses the last of his transformation powers to become a sexy Spanish dude with a cool mustache and ends up taking April out on a date, possibly to re-create aspects of their earlier encounter because, come on, she always gets herself tied up by monsters. Always. Like every single day. If she didn't enjoy it on some level I feel like maybe she would have stopped sneaking into monster hideouts after at least the tenth or fifteenth time. Where do all those damn monsters even get so much rope? It's statistically so much more likely that she just brings it herself.
"Enter Mutagen Man" aired in 1991, and it would be the very last we ever heard of this wonderful, wonderful character until more than twenty years later, when Nickelodeon began airing a TMNT reboot in 2012. I'll take a moment here to just say that if you haven't been watching this show, it is by far the best incarnation of the entire franchise, bar none. It has everything. It has terrifying villains and lovable characterization and corny comedy and effective drama and damn funky monster designs, the kind of monster designs like I've been wanting to see for...well, for almost more than twenty years.
Anyway, Mutagen Man is briefly foreshadowed on the cover of Mikey's comic book, a cute homage to the early "Unknown" designs, and of course, you know I was already hoping we might see Muta's glorious return long before this episode aired. So how, exactly, would they bring him back? Would Seymour Gutz return? Would it be even half as grim as the original action figure's write-up?
Well, let's meet The Pulverizer. Not quite Seymour, but a much more modern "loser" stereotype. The Pulverizer - Timothy - was first introduced to us as a stalker fan-boy of the turtles who fancied himself a superhero, idolizing the mutant reptiles to such a degree that he would give anything to be just like them...except, of course, devoting any time or effort to actually learning legitimate martial arts. I think you know where this is going.
Timothy is so eager to become a bad-ass and impress his idols that he even joins up with a local ninja gang, naturally the same one that actually works for Shredder. I think you really know where this is going. When the gang gets ahold of a mutagen sample, they decide to test it out on their most expendable recruit, the only real reason they let him in at all, and even knowing they consider him a joke and cannon fodder, he's proud to be the first in line to become awesome.
Up until this scene, there was still no indication that Timothy was actually going to be mutated at all, let alone what he might mutate into. Timothy's entire role in the show had even been pure, carefree comic relief, all the way up to the very moment mutagen was dunked onto his face and he just. started. screaming. Screaming about the horrible, burning pain.
Within seconds, the innocent, naive goofball is straight up dissolved. Dissolved down to nothing but his entrails, floating in extremely corrosive slime. Nickelodeon's Turtle cartoon spends two episodes building up a tubby, awkward, well-meaning nerd just to melt all his flesh, and all because he wanted to be like his heroes. You probably thought, at first glance, that this show was a return to the goofier side of the Turtles, but it does not fuck around. Not since that 2000's episode where Baxter Stockman's finger rotted off has this franchise pulled off horror as well as it has on Nickelodeon.
The former Timothy even has one brief moment of clarity, when the turtles try to get through to whatever might be left of his human memories...but one look at himself in a mirror drives him straight back into murderous, rampaging monster mode. Brutal.
By the time Timothy is contained in a giant mutagen canister, we all know what character we're actually looking at, though he doesn't yet have his arms or legs and why are half of you smiling? Why are you guys so pleased to have a melted person still alive in a tube in your house? You're not me!
Mutagen Man would finally acquire appendages a full season later, sending out his feeding stalk to guzzle some of Donatello's mutagen samples when nobody was looking. The effects are only temporary, but Timothy still wreaks some havoc around town, still possessed of only dimly human cognitive functions, and thanks to Donatello's rambling, now obsessed with stalking April. It's a good thing that in this series, she's actually training under Splinter herself, so her number of monster bondage scenarios is barely more than one or two per season, and she easily handles herself one-on-one with a giant tube of innards. Did I mention his gelatinous hands leak acid from their suckers?
Mutagen Man's new, official debut episode naturally coincided with the release of a new action figure, and I was kind of obligated to get one as soon as they hit the shelves, though his return to the toy aisle is somewhat bittersweet. The difference in overall quality should be pretty obvious; they really don't make action figures like they used to. They can't, really, with production costs at an all-time high, the economy at an all-time low, and children growing out of actually playing with toys a full five to seven years earlier than they did in the 1980's. It's exciting to have a new, different Mutagen Man available, but it sure is on the plain side.
You can, at least, remove the new figure's organs as part of the lid, and while the lack of eye-stalks is a disappointment, I do like the eeriness of those eyes, a lot creepier than they look in the show. I apparently have one of the very first production waves, since they now bother to paint his pupils on.
You can also put the lid and guts back on upside down, which creates a fairly amusing test-tube man with a floating pink head made of intestines, so now I finally have an idea of what I'm gonna look like in 2050.
We have yet to see this incarnation of Mutagen Man more than once per season, and his new design definitely lacks some of the original's grisly charm, but overall I'm damn pleased that a new generation gets to enjoy this sloshing tank of entrails in any format. I also appreciate how jarringly dark his new role really is, and how they even kept the tradition of him being a "geek" before his hideous transformation. There's no telling what they're going to do with this guy in the next season; Donatello basically knows how to completely "cure" mutants now, but I'm hoping this Mutagen Man doesn't get away that easy. Personally, I'd like to see just his mind get repaired, and find out how a fully cognizant Timothy deals with being a fishbowl full of scrapple. I'd be pretty jazzed about it.
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