Owlbears, Rust Monsters and Bulettes, Oh My!
Chances are it won’t just be children who will find wrapped toys under their Christmas tree this week. If you’re a big kid like me, then you accept the fact that you not only still play with toys, but realize that they can be an important part of your well-being.
While creating my children’s books, I often find myself in a state of reflection. I return to the emotions and priorities that I had when I was young so that I can get into the mindset of my protagonist. To aid in remembering those moments in my life I use artifacts from my past. Consequently. my studio has become cluttered with play-worn toys, tattered books and other dusty relics of my halcyon days of youth. This, in turn, has grown to a fascination of the packaging (type, design, palettes, etc) that went into these icons of yesteryear. For example, I recently tracked down original versions of beloved board games so that our family could play classics like Chutes & Ladders, Candy Land and Mouse Trap as they appeared when first released. The vintage colors and graphics of these games sent my mind a whirl with book design possibilities.
But mostly, I pretend with my toys and remember the adventures that we went on in my backyard and under my bed. Many of my toys are probably still buried in my mom’s backyard, which is why the internet has become my time machine for recovering lost treasure that I so fondly remember.
About this time last year, I recalled a set of toy dinosaurs and monsters that I had played with so much that their toes and tails broke off. These poorly molded plastic beasties were purchased at our local Variety store in the early 1970’s. They came bagged under the label “Prehistoric Animals”.
Though they were odd – even silly-looking by monster standards – there was something endearing about them. Soon, they became the perfect creatures for my Micronauts to discover or my plastic cowboys to combat. Some years after our playtime adventures had concluded, these creatures reappeared in another adventure of mine by means of paper, pencil and twenty-sided dice.
You see, during that time that I was playing with these “Prehistoric Animals”, somebody else was playing with them too – a fellow named Gary Gygax. Gary was using them for a game he was developing called Dungeons & Dragons and his book, the Monster Manual, contained pen & ink renditions of these creatures within its pages.
“There once was an unknown company in Hong Kong that made a bag of weird animal-things that were then sold in what once were called dime stores or variety stores for like $.99. I know of four other very early monsters based on them. Gary and I talked about how hard it was to find monster figures, and how one day he came upon this bag of weird beasts…He nearly ran home, eager as a kid to get home and open his baseball cards. Then he proceeded to invent the carrion crawler, umber hulk, rust monster and purple worm, all based on those silly plastic figures. The one that I chose was known in the Greyhawk campaign as “the bullet” (for it’s shape) but had only amorphous stats and abilities, not being developed. Gary told me to take it home, study it, and decide what it was and what it could do.”
“The bullette (boo-lay), as it was first called, was the first monster I invented. Why is the more interesting part of the story. I had decided to add a feature to DRAGON that would mean a new monster every issue; problem was, I had to launch an issue early because an ad didn’t come in. I wrote it up very late at night; the nickname “landshark” was a reference to a character that the original Not Ready for Primetime Players had done on Saturday Night Live. I went to Dave Sutherland for an emergency drawing (drawings could be submitted to the printers after the copy was set) and he did a dandy job on almost no notice.”
If you don’t know the “Land shark” skit, give it a quick Google search and watch. Its a classic.
I love Tim’s story: Dime store toys in the hands of those with wondrous imaginations became something more – they became the geeky stuff of modern fantasy lore.
Because these toys were manufactured in Hong Kong (perhaps as Ultraman knock-offs) and sold here through various distributors, it can be a challenge to track down a full set. (Frankly, I don’t even know if I have a complete set!). Additionally, favorite monsters, like the Rust Monster and Bulette, were created in different sizes and colors.
Tim does not initially list the Owlbear originating from this bag of monsters, though it was available in the set at some point (Tim later confirmed this through our correspondence). In my year of scouring the internet and watching eBay auctions I have only seen this yellow version.
…in fact, one sold recently at auction for quite a hefty price (and no, it was not purchased by me):
Tim mentions the Umber Hulk also coming from this set. Some have speculated that this mandible-snapping dragon could be the inspiration, but given how closely the other monsters are drawn from their inspirations, I am not convinced.
As far as I know, the remaining monsters never saw their day in the pages of a D&D accessory. Back in 1993, after I had the opportunity to illustrate many of the classic monsters for the AD&D Monstrous Manual (like the Owlbear, Rust Monster and Bulette), editor Tim Beach and I discussed writing up stats for some of the others…but I soon became busy with Planescape. Perhaps these fellas will claw their way into the imaginations of the next generation of game designers.
Longing for these oldies? There are toy collector discussions that share pointers (sometimes these toys are dubbed “Chinasaurs” or “Patchisaurs”). Sadly, I was convinced that these li’l monsters were no longer being manufactured…that is until I came across this set of “Realistic Dinosaurs” at my local Rite-Aid earlier this year:
(I am glad to see the manufacturer is upholding the same tongue-in-cheek description of these toys.) Take a closer look at what’s included in this set. Turns out no one can bury a Bulette – they’ll eventually dig their way out and resurface.
Happy holidays! I’m off on a new adventure with my old toys.