By Don Jolly
I was born in 1986, four years after the death of science-fiction author Phillip K. Dick. When I think of the years of my childhood in the 1990s, I think of his author’s note to the 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly. Dick’s focus on the future, I think, allowed him to write the epitaph of that decade he did not live to see. “If there was any ‘sin,’” he wrote, “it was that these people wanted to keep on having a good time forever.” In the end, they were punished for it, and “the punishment was far too great.”
Originally, these words were meant to sum-up the failing of the drug culture in the 1960s and ‘70s, a subject Dick considered neither moral nor bourgeois. My reading is the opposite. I see the American middle-class in those words. For Dick, Scanner’s junkies were “children playing in the street.” That’s how I think of my parents, and myself, and our whole slow party through the last decade of the twentieth century. It wasn’t a great time, just a good one — and it hit us too hard when it ended. These days, looking back, I feel like I’m sifting through the party favors.
Case in point:
Monster in my Pocket was a toy line by Matchbox, the venerable company best known for pocket-sized replicas of cars. It launched in 1990 with a set of 48 monster figurines, each made of brightly colored plastic. They were flexible, almost rubbery — you could fold one in half between your thumb and forefinger and then watch it, miraculously, uncurl into its original form. “Now you can collect the greatest REAL monsters of all time,” boasted the text on the back of their boxes. “Since the beginning of time, man has battled Monsters and great Monster Legends have existed in every culture. Now you can learn the facts about the greatest REAL MONSTERS of all time.”
The toys were, as their box assured us, “carefully researched.” The monsters depicted came from film, literature, mythology and, significantly, religion. By the release of its fourth series, Monster in my Pocket featured figured based on the biblical Behemoth, the Hindu gods Kali, Ganesha and Yama, and even the “great beast” described in Revelation 13, “with ten horns and seven heads.”
The toys were distributed like Baseball cards, randomly n opaque packaging. This forced parents to buy set after set until all 48 could be cobbled together. What’s more, they came with all the usual multimedia affectations of a successful 90s toy line. A Nintendo cartridge was offered in 1991, with a four issue comic book series released concurrently. A half-hour cartoon produced by Hanna-Barbara aired the following year. There were trading cards and figures exclusive to cereal boxes. All of it, taken together, was meant to turn the appetite of a young consumer from simple interest to devotion – not just to bits of plastic, but to the moneyed child’s equivalent of a lifestyle: complete with games, collectibles and relevant narratives. Monster in my Pocket wasn’t even one of the more successful examples of the form. A similar endeavor ten years earlier, the Transformers, turned a line of shape-changing Japanese robot toys into a multi-million dollar franchise whose latest Hollywood film will arrive later this summer. Still, it did decent business for Matchbox — and lasted most of the decade.
The inclusion of Hindu gods as “monsters” in the line sparked a mild controversy. In 1993, complaints by the British branch of the Vishwa Hindu Pariṣad, a Hindu advocacy organization, caused Matchbox to issue an apology and, according to a contemporary issue of Hinduism Today, “[pull] all the Monster units from store shelves and [stop] production” of the offending figures. While the blurb doesn’t specify, speculation on collector’s forums is that such disruptions were restricted to the U.K., whose colonial history made the issue an especially thorny one. The whole episode, in fact, serves as a repetition-in-miniature of European reactions to Indian divinity. The only altered variable is the size of the monstrosity.
The sixteenth century traveler in India Lodovico de Varthema, an early and popular voice in the history of such encounters, was unequivocal in his condemnation the Indian divine. “The God of Calicut,” an image he recounted in his Itinerario of 1510, is described as “a devil made of metal… a crown made like that of the papal kingdom, with three crowns; and it also has four horns and four teeth, with a very large mouth … and the most terrible eyes.” The similarity between this account and John’s vision of the apocalyptic beasts in Revelation is striking. Both authors linger on the clear enumeration of crowns and horns. Both also focus on hybridity. For John, the second beast of Revelation 13:11 has “two horns like a lamb,” but “speaks like a dragon.” Varthema’s God has the hands of a “flesh-hook” and the feet of a “cock.” The language of one explains the other.
The scholar Timothy K. Beal, in his 2002 volume Religion and its Monsters, speculates that Varthema may have based his “God of Calicut” on an image of Kali. Whatever the material facts of the incident, Beal is careful to note that, “what [Varthema] describes is far less Indian than it is biblical.” Confronted with an alien system of icons and a different conception of the body from his own, the explorer’s vocabulary turned monstrous. It had to.
Monsters, Beal observes, are “in the world but not of the world.” They exist in our rhetoric as representatives of a vast “outside” — a chaos beyond epistemology. The threat of the monster, then, can only be neutralized by its incorporation into extant systems of understanding. For Varthema, bringing the language of Revelation to the description of “The God of Calicut” served to render its dangerous otherness inert. In Varthema’s account, the “God” does not challenge the cosmography of Christian readers. Instead, it conforms to the aesthetics of the “demonic.” It remains frightening, but comprehensible.
Monster in my Pocket performed this same operation, centuries later, in converting its monstrous subject matter into fodder for a children’s collectible line of toys. In this context, John’s beast and Varthema’s misconstrued Kali achieved parity — both were sculptedand sold. To consumers, a collection is composed of two halves: that which is possessed, and that which is needed for completion of a set. Kali, Behemoth, Ganesha and the seven-headed terror of Revelation were shrunk, by Matchbox, to fit this paradigm. Their only “threat” was in their potential absence — a condition cured by hassling one’s parents for a sufficient number of boxes. The monsters became pure commodities. Toys, cartoon characters and flashing, 8-bit sprites — ideas whose comprehension was inextricable from their consumption.
“Now you can collect the greatest REAL monsters of all time,” bragged the packaging of Monster in my Pocket’s first series. “REAL,” it may be assumed, meant that the monsters were drawn from elsewhere in culture. The figures retained, however faintly, their origin as upsetting, liminal ideas — beings in the world, but not of it. This light residue of relevance resulted in Matchbox’s minor controversy of 1993. The company learned its lesson. Afterward, the Monster in my Pocket turned to less troublesome subject matter. There was a line of dinosaurs, followed by a series of space aliens and, finally, in 1995, what many collectors consider the property’s nadir: Monster Wrestlers in my Pocket. In the course of my research for this column, I came across an elegiac forum post on the matter. In it, two images were presented side-by-side: one of a neon green first-series Monster, the Aztec divinity Coatlicue — the other a grotesquely bulging wrestler in flesh-tone plastic, its one-piece muscleman costume sloppily painted blue. “How did this turn into this?” the collector asked. A chorus of agreement followed. Everyone felt his disappointment. Monster in my Pocket had been smart, artful — and, then, it was just a stupid toy.
To me, the aim of the early franchise was very much of its time and place. The cold war was over. Computer technology was advancing in great strides, opening new avenues of media and communication year by year. It seemed, for one dreaming decade, that the systems of understanding at play in modern, Western capitalism really worked. We had Netscape and microwaves and the atom bomb — nobody could tell us what to do. What other culture could produce something as stupid and self-satisfied as mass-produced figurines of Kali, Dracula and the Anti-Christ? We were struggling through the fumes of some imagined victory.
Those days are over now. Political certainties have collapsed, technology has become uncanny — monstrous in the worst sense of the term. Ten years of junk food has given us diabetes. Monster in my Pocket seems like a misguided product of a misguided age — a childish hope that the demonic, the chaotic and the other could be pacified by means of a little strategic finance.
“The enemy will never be forgiven,” Dick wrote, in A Scanner Darkly. I’m sure the collector who wondered how Monster in my Pocket turned into a wrestling line shares his sentiment. The world was fun, it made sense — and then it didn’t. Dick, at least, can pin his regrets on the limited chemical dignity of junk. The forum poster, who’s probably around my age, directs his elegy at toys. Still, they share a foe.
“The ‘enemy,’” Dick said, “was their mistake in playing.”
“The Last Twentieth Century Book Club” is a monthly column about religious ephemera. Prior columns can be read here:
Don Jolly is a Texan visual artist, writer, and academic. He is currently pursuing his master’s degree in religion at NYU, with a focus on esotericism, fringe movements, and the occult. His comic strip, The Weird Observer, runs weekly in the Ampersand Review. He is also a staff writer for Obscure Sound, where he reviews pop records. Don lives alone with the Great Fear, in New York City.