THE VINTAGE VIEW #13: Generation 1 Pretender Skullgrin

It was only last week that I finally resumed this Vintage View series of articles, something that I’ve been meaning to do for some time, that now, suddenly, I have even more incentive to plough on with it. You see, we’re only partway through our continued exploration of the original Pretenders toys from the Generation 1 Transformers era, but in timely fashion, we’re just about to move onto the first assortment of Decepticons as Hasbro have dropped this bombshell…

And before anyone tells me that’s not Bombshell, let’s acknowledge how overdue it is to revisit Pretenders after all this time, eh? Yes, they got a bit of a nod in Power of the Primes some five years ago, but I know I’m not alone when I say I’ve long been intrigued to see how modern updates of the toys could be achieved, especially given that there haven’t been new versions of any of these characters that embrace the original ‘hidden robot’ concept that we first saw in 1988.

Sadly, in that regard, the new Iguanus figure seen above doesn’t quite scratch that itch either, as whilst it’s a good resemblance of the G1 toy’s outer shell (and an approximation of its inner vehicle mode), this new take opts for making that part into a fairly standard transformable robot instead, leaving me to continue pondering a true update for another day.

Whilst in my mind it’s a bit of a shame that such a unique gimmick has been ignored on the new toy, it’s still fun to see them revisiting these old characters yet again and of course, it provides the perfect opportunity to dive into our Decepticon ranks and see what the original toys were all about. I had considered kicking off with Iguanus but I’m a stickler for consistency, so instead, we’ll begin today with a member of the first wave from 1988: Skullgrin.

Besides, it’s only fair to claim that Skullgrin is one of the most memorable releases from that line-up, not least for his rather idiosyncratic appearance but also because he was one of the poster boys from the line, having been immortalised in much of the marketing and even making it very prominently onto the beloved 1988 back of the box battle artwork opposite Powermaster Optimus Prime.

Skullgrin’s highly-publicised toy was in keeping with his fictional portrayal in the Marvel comics too, as he had a fairly sizeable role during that era but was also involved with a storyline where he ended up as a movie star on Earth (although it’s not quite the Hoist Goes Hollywood rip-off it sounds, I promise!). All of that is to say that he’s become one of those toys that never fails to evoke a strong sense of nostalgia for the many who remember him quite distinctly from childhood.

And hey, if this toy is new to you then no matter, because how much more introduction do you need for a dude with a horned ram’s skull atop some hot-pink body armour? The appeal should be immediately obvious, surely?

Joking aside, there is a lot to love about this thing, despite how monstrously absurd it all is. It’s at once entirely out there but also somehow works amazingly well in a Transformers line-up, despite having no ties to anything that came before it. Still, one of the greatest ironies of the G1 Pretenders is that whilst the more ‘normal’ human-styled Autobots have often been seen as a step-too-far in many people’s eyes, the outlandish and gruesome Decepticons are regularly welcomed with open arms.

Perhaps it’s because the bad guy ranks were becoming increasingly nightmarish by this point anyway, often stepping away from more traditional vehicle modes in favour of snarling beasts and the like (with combiner teams such as the Seacons from the same year and the Terrorcons from ’87 only serving to prove my point), that Skullgrin & his contemporaries just didn’t raise quite as many questions in the minds of kids as 20-something-feet tall humans did.

Well, that’s unless you follow the Japanese Masterforce continuity, where not only did the Autobots assume a less conspicuous size in their camouflaged forms but the Decepticons followed suit, meaning that Skullgrin’s equivalent, Dauros, was significantly smaller when hidden away inside his ghastly disguise before resuming his regular stature for robot mode. It’s a bit of a spin on how this toy was represented but whichever take floats your boat, the figure itself works nicely.

As with other 1988 Pretenders, the shell is fairly static, with only minimal articulation at the shoulders to be found, although at least in Skullgrin’s care you can sort of move the top half of the head. I say sort of as doing so actually twists the top jaw out of alignment with the bottom half, although at this point I should probably draw your attention to the latter as it might have escaped your notice!

Yes, despite owning Skullgrin throughout my childhood, it somehow took me all the way to my adult years before I clocked the moulded tongue and teeth in the darker grey plastic under the skull, an observation similarly missed by quite a few fans, it seems! It’s one of those revelations that completely changes the appearance of the figure once you notice it, although I will acknowledge that it’s a bit of a shame that those details aren’t painted in any way to help them come to life a little bit.

Still, no matter, as there is plenty of paint and colour elsewhere, with that hot pink really doing its fair share to make this form as eye-catching as possible. The eyes are especially great for how they add that final air of demonic menace to the head design, for one thing. As ever, the paint on the shell is one to be super careful with as it’s likely to scratch or rub away with too much rough handling, although contrary to his Autobot counterparts, at least there are no goofy hats to worry about this time. There, I said it.

One also has to be careful with the more rubbery parts of plastic found here though, most notably on the arms and the skull, especially as there’s an ever-looming fear of discolouration and deterioration, which in turn leads to unsightly blotches. Never a good look. Fortunately, the copy I have in hand these days seems to be unaffected at present.

Skullgrin’s belt is made of similar material and wraps around the entire shell body to seal at the back with a very fiddly little clasp mechanism, something which sets it apart a bit from the Autobot equivalent. The shell itself doesn’t really need any help with staying clipped together but in theory, this provides that sense of security, I suppose, and completes his rather epic look, if nothing else.

In terms of other accessories, he’s equipped with both a sword, also fashioned from that same rubbery plastic, and a double-barrelled rifle made up of the robot form’s dual guns clipped together. This is a neat feature that is also found on Skullgrin’s comrade, Bomb Burst, and nicely sets this figure apart from the Autobots yet again.

Overall, Skullgrin’s shell is a silly thing in many ways but honestly, somehow, it remains a cherished part of the 1980’s Transformers line-up by my estimation. Word on the street is that this character is also slated for a Legacy makeover similar to his buddy, Iguanus, so it will be interesting to see what that looks like, although again, it will presumably jettison the ‘hidden-inner-robot’ vibe in favour of just having the more recognisable outer shell as the transformable figure.

That’s not the case here, mind, as once you remove that belt and unclip the sides of the shell, the real Skullgrin is waiting to greet you inside. It’s a simple-enough solution and brings with it some compromise along the way, although again, I’d argue that it’s not been improved upon in the thirty-four years since we first saw it, either!

As for the revealed contents, he’s a handsome chap indeed, boasting an appearance that arguably falls a little more in line with your typical expectations for how G1 Transformers are supposed to look versus the Autobots we’ve already examined. He still maintains that same skinny aesthetic but at least here there is some evidence of this being a transformable figure by way of the tank treads on his lower legs, and just generally I think there’s a look about him that is a bit more on-brand somehow.

In many ways, this almost feels like a humanoid form that isn’t a million miles from the likes of the Junior Tagetmasters, for one example, so whilst it might be a bit era-specific, I’m not sure you could immediately clock it as being a ‘mere’ Pretender inner robot – something these lads are far too often criticised for. True, it does feature one of the most curious and, frankly, unsettling placements of a wheel on any Transformers toy I can think of right now, but still, as an overall look, it’s very strong.

As with the shell, the colour scheme is something to behold here, with the rich grey and hot pink all serving up the correct vibes for the bad guys of the late eighties, and a few decent highlights to be found thanks to the accompanying stickers.

And hey, whilst it may be relatively simple, that’s still a fairly fantastic head design, all considered. It has the classic earmuffs already made popular by previous years of toys and whilst the face itself is lacking a little in terms of definition, I still think it works nicely overall.

As with other Pretenders, I don’t think you could legitimately call this guy ‘poseable’ but there is some articulation to be had and besides, if that’s a critique you’re going to level at this subline then it’s worth remembering that they’re at least as articulated as most G1 toys. In this case, you have some movement at the shoulders and hips, so let’s be grateful for that.

It’s also worth highlighting how imposing Skullgrin looks with that double-barrelled blaster now split into its component pieces, each pegging securely into his hands. It’s the final piece needed to turn this lad into a true force to be reckoned with.

Naturally, that can also be accomplished by reconfiguring him into his alternate form, which here is a rather stylised but heavily-armed tank-of-sorts. This is the era when ‘Cybertronian modes’ really took over from anything vaguely Earth-based and that certainly shows with Skullgrin, although I have to say I always enjoyed this one as a kid.

In truth, like a lot of Pretenders, it really does the bare minimum to achieve its alternate mode, with the arms folding to the rear and the legs rotating round to the sides being the main thrust of it. Some little cannons pop out from his wrists although in reality, they’re very devoid of detail so a bit of imagination is perhaps required there.

Ultimately, it’s down to the addition of the twin blasters being pegged onto the tank’s sides to really complete the look but with those in place, at least no one could say he’s lacking in firepower! He also rolls along pretty well thanks to a combo of two wheels under the moulded treads in the legs and that aforementioned crotch example. He’s kind of like if someone heavily kitted out a Reliant Robin ready for warfare.

I guess it’s only fair to acknowledge that no one is collecting the vintage Pretenders for their superior vehicular forms but still, I’ve come to enjoy these examples in more recent years, despite having been relatively cold on a number of them for so long. As I say, Skullgrin was always a favourite in many ways, but even I can admit that it’s all a bit goofy (or the right amount of goofy to be undeniably awesome, perhaps).

It’s also worth saying that perhaps it’s understandable that this line of toys remains so incredibly divisive in the fandom, whether that’s new fans or indeed the people who actually grew up with them. The idea of fleshy organic outer shells is still one that not every Transformer fan is immediately willing to accept but the fact that the toys themselves were so quirky in so many ways arguably didn’t help their case. As I say, I’m a complete convert by now, to the point where I can honestly say these are some of my most enjoyed acquisitions of the last however many years, but it’s not hard to grasp that isn’t the same response that everyone has to them.

Still, I will admit to being a mite disappointed to see the Pretenders brought back into the modern collecting consciousness in a way that entirely abandons the central concept that made them so unique to begin with. It’s true we’ve had toys depicting characters such as Bludgeon done in a similar fashion before, with the shell design essentially becoming the default look for the character and being made transformable by itself, but to my mind that just makes them akin to every other Transformers character out there and loses a bit of the sparkle in the process.

At least these characters are being given a new lease of life at long last though and despite whatever misgivings I may have about how the gimmick has been disregarded in that mix, it’s still fun to see comparative no-names such as Iguanus (and Skullgrin, supposedly) put smack bang into the spotlight and allowed to find a new audience. And hey, the general reaction to that new reveal seems to be very positive, so what do I know?

Besides, it means that I can still live in hope for someone else to revisit the idea of ‘transformable robots encased in outer organic shells’ another day, especially as my real dream would be to see a Masterpiece-level take on the gimmick at some point. I’ve said it before but it really feels like the final nut to crack in the third party MP world, and one can’t help but ponder that whichever company gets in on the action first will have the chance to clean up in terms of that surprisingly sizeable character roster.

For today, all we can do is sit back and appreciate the original toys for what they really were – imperfect and perhaps even a little flawed, but still absolutely tons of fun to admire all these many years later. And hey, it doesn’t hurt to also appreciate just what a bizarrely leftfield presence they bring to a display of vintage robots, eh?

I guess that’s why I’ve ultimately come to love Pretenders as much as I do – not because they’re ideal toys, but rather that they so purely represent the ever-increasing array of oddities and eccentricities that you find in this franchise. Transformers is all about mixing it up and finding new rather-oddball ways of doing things, and what better to encapsulate that than a dude in a fleshy demonic ram-skulled carcass?

Be they ever so bizarre, there’s little doubt that the Decepticon ranks would be poorer for their absence, after all, and for that, I remain grateful of the great Pretenders.

So, that’s it for Skullgrin but be sure to join us next time when we’ll continue examining the remainder of the wave 1 Decepticon line-up and beyond!

TTFN

About Sixo

Transformers collector from the UK, collecting vintage G1/G2, CR/RID, UT & Masterpiece/3P. Find me at twitter.com/SixoTF or on YouTube at youtube.com/SixoTF

WHAT HAVE TRANSFORMERS DONE FOR ME?


Don't miss out on the latest