Manic leader of the rat pack
Released in 1989
Everybody knows that the Turtles have possibly the craziest rogues’ gallery in virtually any medium. From Krang to Agent Bishop, from the Creep to the Shredder, the Turtles have fought both lowly criminal to intergalactic generals, but there is one villain that, in my opinion, stands head and shoulders above the rest: the Rat King.
Created by artist and writer Jim Lawson, Rat King made his debut in January of 1988 in the anthology comic book series Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #4. Within those pages, the Rat King is presented as a lost man, trapped within a body that he doesn’t recognize as his own. He believes, given his own ghastly image, that he is supposed to be a monster of sorts. Whether he is delusional or not isn’t important. Because you find a man turned creature that is taken over by his own misguided attempts to become a monster.
Rat King has always been a favorite villain of mine during the ’87 animated series’ heyday. While he wasn’t the same character as he was in the comics, caring little for world domination, his visual design was taken straight from the Mirage comics that inspired him, and his figure followed suit. If anything, the action figure released in 1989 ignores the family friendly aesthetic of the cartoon, and goes straight up monster that the comics were going for. While Rat King may just look like a homeless man, dressed in rags and puzzlingly packed with muscle, upon closer examination of the sculpt, you have to wonder how this figure got the okay for mass production.
Rat King’s head sculpt is wrapped up in green rags, with red eyes peering though. Clumps of red hair have fallen out while pale, white scalp peeks through. His nose is split down the middle; abrasions and what looks like road rash have overtaken the right side of his face, both ears appear to have been chewed on, teeth are missing, he has a hole punched through his left cheek and there is a large spider crawling across his forehead; if you don’t think this guy is anything short of pure nightmare fuel, than you’re lying to yourself. While the rest of Rat King’s sculpt may just be painted various shades of brown, green and orange, the devil is in the details my friends. This guy is covered head to toe in centipedes, spiders, bones and, of course, rats. To top it all off, Rat King comes equipped with a belt that is nothing more than a snake tied around his waist that is adorned with a long dead cat that is bearing tire treads.
Holy crap, this guy is every bit the monster he claimed to be. Looking at this figure now, I can’t tell you how this guy didn’t scare children back in the 80’s. But I can tell you that this figure wouldn’t be made today, at least the way he is presented here. Sure, there were other Rat King figures released in 2006 and 2013. Both figures do look nice, but neither of them had the comic book essence that is the Rat King. Both of them tried doing their own thing, which is commendable, but there was just something lost in translation from page to screen to plastic. Personally, I think Playmates toys just couldn’t rely on the horror aspect where the 1989 original did. If you think I’m wrong, just look at the Creep from the 2012, Nickelodeon animated series. This lumbering Jason Voorhees reference was deemed too scary to sell to children. Want proof; a representative of Playmates Toys, Pat Linden (sorry, I couldn’t find his official position), literally said that the Creep was “pretty creepy looking” during an interview with toy collector and youtube personality, “Pixel Dan” Eardley. (skip to 6:00)
But I’m not here to compare 1989 to 2017, because I honestly don’t think one is better than the other. It’s just that the things work differently now, and one day, I think they’ll cycle back to good ideas over sales figures; going with your gut over test audiences and statistics. So with Rat King, I think that this figure represents more than just a great figure in an awesome toy line. It’s bigger than being a character in a cartoon or a comic book. This figure represents, to me, how much you can do with hard work and a desire and willingness to be creative. This guy, just started out as an idea in the mind of a great artist who gave the Turtles an added identity and roundness that has reverberated throughout the past (almost) three decades. And to me, with this figure, it doesn’t matter that there is less articulation than some of the other figures (only five points). It doesn’t matter that his characterization differed from his comic book roots. All that matters to me is that, with this figure, it shows off just how far you can take an idea. It may sound overdramatic, but that is why the Rat King is my favorite villain within the realm of TMNT. It shows how powerful an idea can be.
Turtle Trivia: The Rat King was based on the very real case of the Leather Man, who would travel between the Connecticut and Hudson rivers from 1857 to 1889.