Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Review: Goosebumps "Attack of the Mutant"

As much as this two-parter basks in some of the usual Goosebumps clichés, it definitely has a different tone than usual. Sure, there’s a monster of sorts, and a twist ending, and so on and so forth, but tis definitely harkens back to R.L. Stine’s earlier career as a humor writer under the name of “Jovial Bob Stine.”

No, really. Jovial.
Whenever a character from the “real world” interacts with “fictional” characters in stories (using quotes because when you get down to it, they’re all fictional characters), there are two main ways to go about it. Either the real person ends up in the fictional world or vice-versa.  This episode kind of mixes the two in an odd sort of way. The story clearly takes place in the “real world.” And yet, Skipper gets turned into a living being made from ink dots. In fact, in the original book, he cuts himself on a knife and bleeds ink for the mandatory twist ending.

What’s missing in this story is an explanation. How is the Masked Mutant real? Did he spring from the comics? Is he a real person slowly turning the world fictional? In the end, though, it doesn’t matter why he exists, only that he does. He has some sort of vague evil plan, but the story focuses on the conflict between him and Skipper. And in the end, the lack of detail keeps the story from getting bogged down in its own backstory. Sure, it leaves unanswered questions, but episodes like “Ghost Beach” show the problems with trying to answer every question.

And leaving the Masked Mutant’s metafictional backstory a mystery is a valid technique that was used to great acclaim in a film from a few years ago. And appropriately enough, it was a comic book movie: The Dark Knight. The lack of an origin for the Joker allowed that movie to focus more on his conflict with Batman rather than his tragic downfall, just like this story.

Skipper Mathews (Dan Warry-Smith)

Skipper isn’t a social outcast. He has a friend with a different hobby. He’s not a basement dweller, and he’s not one of any number of other clichés. He’s just a kid with a hobby he loves, even though it can sometimes interfere with his school duties. And that sort of take on a comic fan is refreshing. In fact, R.L. Stine seems to be poking fun at the anti-comic book brigade, depicting them as old ignorant men or goobers who really don’t know what they’re talking about, willing to listen to quacks’ opinions on the topic. And I do like this actor. The way he delivers lines like “Nah, I’m the coolest” makes him seem like a normal kid with a sense of humor, as opposed to some of the oddly-serious protagonists this show usually gives us.

As good as some of these child actors are, many Goosebumps protagonists have trouble just being normal, cracking jokes. A solid child actor mixed with a surprisingly realistic character makes for one of the best Goosebumps protagonists, in my opinion.

…And I may or may not see a bit of myself in the kid. So I’m biased. Sue me.

Mr. and Mrs. Mathews (Maurice godin Mag Ruffman)
Mr. Mathews being Clark Kent was not in the book, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that and the fact that he never kisses his wife were jokes added in by the writers or director to make the characters less bland. But I have to wonder if Mr. Mathews not kissing his absent-minded wife was a reference to the memory-wiping kiss from Superman II, or if I’m just reading too much into unrelated jokes.

Wilson (Adam Schofield)
Wilson is actually pretty brilliant. The character, not the… character. I mean that Skipper is an interesting plot device. …Or a theme device. I’ll explain.

At first glance, his obsession with rocks seems like a dorky hobby... but he's actually a perfect sounding board for Skipper because he, like any non-comic fan, doesn't get why Skipper's going nuts over things like first issues, issue zeroes, or seeing the Masked Mutant's HQ for the first time. And his rock-collecting hobby illustrates that any hobby looks weird and boring b to outsiders.

Am I reading too much into the episode? Possibly. But this was one of the Goosebumps books I read as a kid, and looking back on it, R.L. Stine was definitely poking a little fun at obsessive comic fans. And unlike some depictions of comic fans, Stine pretty much nailed 90s comic book fans in a way that pokes fun without being cruel, like making them a basement-dwelling social outcast.

Galloping Gazelle (Adam West)
It was good to see Adam West in this. Remember, this was still a few years before he made a career out of playing thinly-veiled parodies of himself on The Fairly Odd-Parents and Family Guy. Adam West was not a memetic character actor yet, so his casting was probably just another tribute to comic books. I mean, most of the kids probably didn’t realize who he was. The old Batman show had rights issues at this time, due to being made by Fox in the 60s, even though the character was now owned by Warner Bros. Not to mention the subsequent adaptations that overshadowed Adam West’s run for a long while.

And yes, I am covering this episode now because it’s the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Batman TV show.

Libby (Melissa Bathory)
The stuff with Libby has been streamlined. In the book, Skipper went to her house and even met her mom. That raises a whole bunch of questions, but a few of them could be answered with the fact that the Masked Mutant had a shapeshifting henchman called Molecule Man in the original book.

There ya go. The one that I referred to an “an obscure reference” nearly two years ago.
In fact, the Masked Mutant had to be killed twice in the original book, since the first time, it was “Libby” killing his/her own henchman. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Molecule Man was only added in to clear up a few plot holes regarding Libby and the Mutant being in different places at the same time. Or even the same place at the same time.

The episode has a similar plot hole, where the Masked Mutant stands on top of Skipper’s bus, only for Libby to already be inside the bus. If the Mutant changed form into, say, a fly and snuck inside the bus before turning into Libby... how did nobody else see a child materializing in a bus seat?

Oh, and since Miss Bathory voiced a caller in a producers segment, she is indeed an honorary Magic School Bus/Goosebumps actor.

Monster of the Week: The Masked Mutant (Scott Wickware)
The Masked Mutant is every cliché, trope, and stereotype come to life and I love it. There’s a deliciously cartoonish evil to him, which is easily forgivable since he literally comes from a comic book. The fact that he can shapeshift adds a nice touch of paranoia, and the character’s strengths sort of make up for the fact that his plan is a little vague.

Why did he even have the Galloping Gazelle tied up? Did the Mutant bring him out of the comic world to lure the boy? Was the Gazelle real the whole time? Or could it be that he was still uncontrollably following through with his evil plan from the comics, despite the fact that being in the real world presents him with more options? Is he a slave to how he was written? Does free will exist? Who knows?

All I know is that Wickware gives a fun performance that sounds the tiniest bit like Mark Hamill’s rendition of the Joker. Which is appropriate, since he fights Adam West… and coincidental, since Batman: TAS had not even aired yet.

First and foremost, the comic book art is pretty much perfect, replicating the overdetailed, busy, and overproportioned look of the 90s comics.

Welcome to 90s comics in a nutshell.
You kids don't know how good you have it.
But I’ve gotta say, as dumb and goofy as the Galloping Gazelle and the Masked Mutant look… the look is spot on.

Elastic Boy... not so much.
For those of you who weren’t around when this episode was made, superhero costumes were all about sculpted rubber muscles and sculpted rubber masks. You can blame Tim Burton and Batman for starting the trend, but you can blame Joel Schumacher for exaggerating it. And then you can blame low-budget superhero productions for exaggerating Joel Schumacher’s exaggeration of Tim Burton’s vision.

Because rubber suits were cheaper than paying trainers to give actors heroic physiques, low-budget superheroes looked like life-size He-Man action figures. Wearing plastic boxes.

Don’t believe me? Well, take a good look at Bibleman here.

Any kid who went to church in the 90s probably remembers wither this or the Adventures in Odyssey cartoons.
Or The Story-Keepers.
Or that one with the donut.
…I’m getting off track.
And honestly, it’s not like the comics were much better. Though there are a few well-remembered characters, and a few crappy ones that were revamped by Alan Moore when he wrote Supreme, most of it was generic Liefeldian creations like Brigade. Hey, speaking of which….

Sweet Brigade poster. Though I must say, it’s nice to see Captain Britain.
But my point is that while the way this episode brings its comic book characters to life looks cheap and goofy today, this was par for the course for the 90s. And I think attempting to make the characters look better than this would have ruined the look, in an odd sort of way. I mean, it’s the 90s. If you’re going to poke fun at comics, then be accurate to what you’re parodying. And this is. It most certainly is.
Unrelated thought, did they have to change the X-Men "X" to a Mercedes-Benz logo to avoid problems with Marvel?
Barking Dogs: 0

Child Grabbing
Part I: 1
Part II: 3
Total: 4

Foliage POV Cam: Yes

Red Paint: Probably
I'd imagine there was some on Skipper's "ink-stained" hand at the end.

X-Files Shout-Out: No

Final Thoughts
R.L. Stine was a comedy writer before he wrote the Goosebumps books, and this seems to be a minor return to his roots. It’s definitely more of a comedic story with a few obligatory frights thrown in.

Sure, this story didn’t exactly need to be a two-parter, but the extra time is used properly to build up the protagonists and establish some legitimately enjoyable character moments. At the very least, I have to recommend this as a better-than-average couple episodes because of how defined the characters are in their roles.

Next time, we go from the stuff the used to cover in Wizard magazine to simply wizards. Well, magicians, anyway. See you then!


  1. Sooo, was that "an episode with fewer redeeming qualities" that you mentioned last time?

    - F.E.

    1. Ah, no, but I see where I confused you. By "next time," I'm referring to the next chronological episode, not necessarily the one I'm covering next.

      But I guess that's what happens when I decide to recap something out of order for a change.

      Don't worry, November will feature a return to chronological recaps.