Growing up in the 1980’s, I was all about the era’s vibrant popular culture. Comic books, action figures, cartoons, video games, and professional wrestling: these were the things my childhood world revolved around.
The year 1986 in particular was a watershed for me. It was the year I really put down roots in pro-wrestling and comic book fandom, the two giants of my pop-art interest. But something else emerged on my radar in 1986, something that had one foot in wrestling and the other in comics.
That thing was Mattel’s M.U.S.C.L.E. toy line. Millions of Unusual Small Creatures Lurking Everywhere.
M.U.S.C.L.E.s were small, pink, plastic figures that, when arriving on the scene in 1986, were packaged in such a way that my 9-year-old-self was instantly drawn to them. There was the garbage can shaped container of 10 figures, the long cardboard box of 28, and the tantalizing mail-away poster depicting the entire 233-piece M.U.S.C.L.E. toy line in all its glory.
M.U.S.C.L.E.s were somewhat mysterious though, because they didn’t come with a lot of explanation or back story. The figures themselves ranged from average-looking humanoids to Lovecraftian-looking aliens and all points in between. While the packaging made it clear that they were “weird, wild, wrestlers” and that some were good guys and some were bad guys, kids weren’t given much more to work with, and I remember piecing a lot of it together with a child’s “toy intuition.”
The M.U.S.C.L.E./pro-wrestling connection was reinforced by the toy line’s accessories. These included a wearable “pro-wrestling” style championship belt that doubled as a carrying case for the figures, and a plastic wrestling ring where two M.U.S.C.L.E.’s could be attached to clamps and controlled by joysticks as they battled it out. Somewhere along the line my peers and I decided that M.U.S.C.L.E.s came from a planet where everyone was a professional wrestler and where pro-wrestling determined everything.
The timing of M.U.S.C.L.E.’s arrival on the American kids’ toy scene was impeccable, as Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation was becoming an entertainment juggernaut and the appetite for wrestling-related junk was at an all-time high. Much like M.U.S.C.L.E., the WWF presented a universe of larger-than-life characters all centered around professional wrestling, and so for kids who were conditioned to the WWF/Hulk Hogan/Rock ‘N Wrestling worldview, M.U.S.C.L.E.s made perfect sense.
Years later it became common knowledge that the M.U.S.C.L.E. line originated in Japan under the name Kinnikuman, that it had started as a manga series, and that it had then gone on to spawn cartoons, toys, and video games. At some point a M.U.S.C.L.E. cartoon even aired in the States as part of Fox Kids’ programming, but I missed it.
As an adult, I’d always intended to go back and read the original Kinnikuman manga to see how much of it matched up with the notions my 4th grade chums and I had about the M.U.S.C.L.E. figures and their world, but I never got around to it. Until now.
Recently I was fortunate enough to have a link to the manga series sent my way, and so a 28-year-long dream was realized as I sat down to read the first volume of the original Kinnikuman manga and report my findings.
From what I can tell, Kinnikuman’s manga run was from 1979-1987 as part of the “Weekly Shonen Jump” magazine in Japan. There are 37 fan-subbed volumes available at the link I used for this review (http://www.mangahere.co/manga/kinnikuman), so I decided to stick with volume one to get an overview of the series’ beginnings.
As the series opens up, Earth is under attack by giant space monsters, and a team of Japanese military/security personnel are desperately seeking heroes to save the planet. All of Japan’s Ultraman-esque heroes are on vacation or otherwise disposed, as are America’s DC and Marvel-type folk.
After several panels of post-modern, self-referential mayhem in which the characters wantonly break the fourth wall and engage in impromptu pro-wrestling style lock-ups, they find help in the form of a muscle-bound character named Kinnikuman (“Muscleman”), an incompetent, oafish lover of gyudon (Japanese beef bowls) whose powers (if he in fact has any) are maintained by eating roasted garlic.
Once Kinnikuman is introduced, all timelines and continuity are thrown out the window, as Kinnikuman embarks on a four-year-long training regimen to develop a finishing move before returning to the business at hand. A rogue’s gallery of giant monsters are profiled, Kinnikuman readies himself for battle, and then, at the 11th hour, the monsters disperse as they don’t want to fight “an idiot like Kinnikuman.”
From then on, Kinnikuman stumbles through a few chapters, engaging in mundane hi-jinks and acting oblivious to others in an almost sociopathic way, until he receives a visit from a diminutive fellow named Meat.
Meat informs Kinnikuman that Kinnikuman is actually the prince of the planet Kinniku, separated from his royal parents when they mistook him for a pig, after which they jettisoned him into space and raised the actual pig who’d been standing next to him as their son. Kinnikuman is needed to return home and defeat the pig who’s grown up to become a tyrannical ruler and who defeated Kinnikuman’s father for the planet’s championship belt.
Kinnikuman eventually does travel to the planet Kinniku where he is defeated in a series of mixed martial arts matches by the pig, but at the moment of Kinnikuman’s defeat, the butcher who the pig ran away from years before appears on the scene, chasing the pig from the ring where the contests took place and allowing Kinnikuman’s father to reclaim the championship.
Kinnikuman is then sent back to earth with Meat, as he is deemed useless by his royal family, and the two carry on with a series of disjointed misadventures for the remainder of volume one.
Much like with the M.U.S.C.L.E. toys, the Kinnikuman series’ pro wrestling bent is never explicitly explained, it just “is.” Real world pro wrestling references abound. The characters invoke figures such an Antonio Inoki, Giant Baba, and Lou Thesz. Andre the Giant, Abdullah the Butcher, and Mil Mascaras attend Kinnikuman’s bout against the pig on planet Kinniku. There’s even a chapter where, back on earth, Kinnikuman’s position as a fighter of giant monsters is challenged by a much more ept “man from American” named Terryman with a very close resemblance to a young Terry Funk.
For wrestling fans, especially fans of 70’s and 80’s wrestling, these references are a real treat. My friends and I were right in 4th grade: Kinnikuman/M.U.S.C.L.E. is indeed a universe where everything comes down to pro wrestling (and a healthy dose of kaiju/giant monsters). Further, for fans of the M.U.S.C.L.E. toys, while volume one of the manga isn’t exactly packed with familiar shapes and faces (according to what I’ve been told, more of the planet Kinniku and its characters the toys were based on are covered in later volumes), Kinnikuman, Meat, Terryman and others are all recognizable from their small, pink, plastic forms.
Kinnikuman reads more like a comic strip than a comic book. It’s a breezy, light read, but its postmodern/meta wit and ethos elevates it past its surface-level simplicity. Having finished volume one, I plan on reading the whole series, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys professional wrestling, anyone who ever played with the M.U.S.C.L.E. toys, or anyone who just enjoys wacked-out, self-referential silliness.
– “Mr. Sensational” Gino Vega
“Mr. Sensational” Gino Vega lives in Northern California with his wife, Ms. Sensational, and their two daughters, Miss Sensational 1 and Miss Sensational 2. A homemaker and aficionado of professional wrestling, comic books, video games, and such, you can find his thoughts on family life and junk culture at www.ginovega.wordpress.com.