In 1984, the folks at Troma released The Toxic Avenger, a rude, crude, and over-the-top take on the superhero genre done up in what would become their signature style. Some people love Troma films, while others despise them. Regardless of where you fall in the spectrum, we should all be able to agree that Toxie (as his friends call him) is the studio’s most accessible, and most recognizable, character. Even if you’ve never seen a Toxic Avenger film, there’s still a decent chance that you know who he is.
Anyone familiar with the brand would tell you that a children’s animated series based on the franchise—or anything from Troma, for that matter—sounds like a pretty unlikely proposition. And yet, in 1990, that unlikely proposition somehow became an unlikely reality.
I would have been about 11 years old at that time, and was already familiar with the character through movie showings on USA Up All Night. I remember watching the first episode and immediately becoming a fanatic. It was like a wilder, grosser Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the best part was that they seemed to introduce some new, disgusting character every single week!
For those who aren’t familiar with the series, here’s the general rundown. Melvin Junko, the wimpy and milquetoast janitor at a health club in Tromaville, is frequently picked on by the punked-up Bonehead and his friends. When one of their pranks accidentally causes Melvin to fall into a barrel of toxic waste, he emerges from the slimy solution a changed man, becoming a “hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength.” He changes his name to Toxie, moves into the local toxic waste dump, and sets up shop as a crusader against “pollution, crime, and…other stuff.” Other mutated folk slowly start to gather around him, and they form an eco-minded superhero team known as the Toxic Crusaders.
No-Zone, a country bumpkin-like test pilot, flew his plane through a hole in the ozone layer and crashed it into a silo full of radioactive pepper. His skin turned a pale blue, his right leg was replaced with one of the wheels from his plane’s landing gear, and his nose grew to an enormous size, with which he emits powerful sneezes—oftentimes inadvertently.
Major Disaster, a soldier and friend of No-Zone’s, fell into a radioactive swamp and became blended with foliage DNA. He has the ability to control and manipulate vegetation in a variety of different ways. Both he and No-Zone joined the Toxic Crusaders at the end of the first episode.
Headbanger was once two distinct people: the deranged scientist Dr. Bender, and the surfer/singing telegram boy Fender. The two of them fell into Bender’s invention, the Atom-Smasher, and became merged together into a single form. The flesh on Bender’s half of the body became green and shriveled, while Fender’s half was left basically unaffected. They first showed up in episode two and were initially villains, but switched their allegiances in order to get chicks. It’s worth noting that Headbanger is the only one of the Toxic Crusaders whose origin story isn’t actually related to pollution in some way.
Junkyard’s history is somewhat similar to Headbanger’s, as he was also once two distinct beings: an ordinary junkyard dog, and a homeless man who took shelter from the rain in a doghouse that was covered in toxic waste. When a bolt of lightning struck the doghouse, it resulted in man and dog becoming a man-dog. He joined the Toxic Crusaders in episode three.
And of course we have Toxie, the undisputed leader of the group whose origin we have already discussed. He has a power similar to Spider-Man’s “Spidey-Sense”, in that he can feel when something bad is about to happen nearby, thanks to his “Tromatons”. In addition to the other Crusaders, Toxie is often assisted by his sentient mop named, creatively, Mop; his pet Blobbie, an unexplained little ball of red fur that likes to bite people’s ankles; his girlfriend Yvonne, who is beautiful but insists on singing and playing the accordion despite a noted lack of talent; and his mother, who cares for all of the Crusaders like an extended family.
The villains in the show are a group of evil industrialist polluters, led by Dr. Killemoff. Killemoff is a cockroach alien from Smogula, a distant planet that is so polluted its inhabitants can no longer survive somewhere with clean air and water. Only by wearing a complex breathing apparatus (which has the added effect of giving him a semi-humanoid appearance) is he able to survive on Earth, and he plans to cover the globe with enough pollution that his fellow Smogulans can relocate to a new planet. Mayor Grody, the disgustingly overweight mayor of Tromaville, has sold out his city to the Smogulans in exchange for money and power. On occasion, Smogula’s emperor, Czar Zosta, will make an appearance to help out, or berate, Killemoff.
Killemoff’s primary henchman is a short and stubby cyborg named Psycho, who seems to possess some sort of psychic ability. As a running joke, at least once in every episode, Psycho predicts exactly where Killemoff’s latest scheme is going to go wrong and how the Toxic Crusaders are going to stop them, but he is always ignored.
Bonehead, Melvin’s old bully, was knocked into a barrel of acidic sludge in his first fight with Toxie, giving him a partially-skeletal appearance. Looking for revenge against Toxie, he joined up with Killemoff at the end of the first episode, and he frequently plays the Bebop to Psycho’s Rocksteady.
And like any good dictatorial villain, Killemoff has a seemingly endless supply of goons that are free of personality or distinguishing characteristics. Darth Vader had the Storm Troopers, Shredder had the Foot Clan, and Killemoff has the Radiation Rangers—stocky characters who are completely covered by their bright yellow radiation suits and are perfectly willing to do whatever their Smogulan leader commands.
Toxic Crusaders is an extremely self-aware show. Beyond Psycho’s constant spoiling of exactly what is going to happen in the episode, the other characters seem to know that they are existing within a cartoon. There are frequent references to “the show”, “this episode” and “the series”, and it’s not uncommon for someone to turn to the camera and offer a knowing wink. The fourth wall is broken consistently, giving the program free reign to be as silly as it wants to be. And sometimes, that’s pretty damn silly.
Toxic Crusaders is a difficult series to decipher. It’s hard to tell what its goals truly were. It would at first appear to be a show about protecting the environment, however by having our heroes live in a toxic waste dump and receive their powers primarily through pollution and the like, it was simultaneously marketing these things as “cool”. I, for one, know that when I was watching this series as a child, I never thought to myself that we should protest the old boot factory across town for dumping their chemicals into the river. Instead, I wanted to go swimming in that river on the off chance that I would mutate into a superhero. I never considered myself particularly attractive anyway, so I would have gladly sacrificed my natural fleshtones for a sickly green, if it meant gaining fantastic powers. A show like Captain Planet and the Planeteers, on the other hand, was so painfully square that there was no question about the message it was trying to get across.
Marvel Comics published eight issues of a Toxic Crusaders comic book series, which somehow completely passed me by (though I did manage to snatch up at least the first issue of The Toxic Avenger, which remains in my collection today). There were also video game tie-ins, a line of kids books, and the usual juvenile cash-grab ephemera…all of which was impossibly cool.
But nothing was as cool as the line of action figures that Playmates released. And I mean nothing. At the time, I was a young outcast that never left the house (not much has changed, honestly), and my mother would take me to the store every few weeks to get a new Ninja Turtle figure so that I would have something to keep me occupied while she was at work and my sister was out with her friends. For as long as they lasted on the shelves, my TMNT collection took a hit, as I began purchasing the Toxic Crusader figures. I never did manage to locate a Toxie (he must have been in high demand), but I do remember losing hours playing with No-Zone, Headbanger, Dr. Killemoff, and Psycho. Major Disaster, Bonehead, Junkyard and the Radiation Rangers all received figures as well, and there was a line of vehicles to go with them, which were sadly out of my target price range.
Only 13 episodes of the series were produced, and they still hold up rather well today. If you’ve got half a day to kill and are looking to relive a bit of your childhood, there are certainly worse ways to do so (I’m looking at you, Pogs!) So get yourself a glass of chocolate milk and enjoy one of the more unusual cartoon series from the past, the likes of which will probably never be seen again. Although, who knows? Lloyd Kaufman has surprised us many times before…