writers: Andrew Cosby & Johanna Stokes
artist: Lee Carter
colorist: Pablo Quiligotti
letterers: Terri Delgado & Marshall Dillon
Last weekend, during my Easter visit home, I scoured my mother's garage and storage shed to recover some of my old toys. Frankly, I felt like it was time for my boys to come home. He-Man (original, Battle Armor, and Power Punch), Secret Wars Captain America, and Krang's rock soldier bodyguard General Tragg were among some of the action figures to make the journey from Arizona to California, not to mention Castle Grayskull, Snake Mountain, the Turtles' sewer lair, the Technodrome, and (to celebrate its return in last week's Justice League of America #7) the Hall of Justice. Oh, I don't mean to show off. I'm just proud that my mother sought to preserve these treasures of my childhood, or at least wasn't proactive in getting rid of them. You remember those burgeoning days of geekdom, when your comic books came to life in plastic on the floor of your bedroom, when, at night, you dreamt that they came to life to finish the battles you had started. Of course, as adults, now we know better.
Now, if someone had stuck a highly classified, completely interactive microchip into one of your toys, springing it to life and making it beat up the bullies at your school, that's another story . . .
Meet Mr. Stuffins: one part Tedd Ruxpin, one part the Terminator. Yes, simply put, (Spoiler alert!) when a desperate scientist on the run hides a highly coveted microchip in a talking teddy bear's package, the toy's eventual owner Zach, torn between his floundering father and embittered mother, suddenly finds himself with a new best friend. Somehow, the chip transforms the innocent toy into a killing machine, who, in one of the most clever catalysts for motivation I've read in comics, calls his "home base" Tattertot Toys for his mission, only to hear the automated operator reply, "Thank you for calling . . . your child's safety is our number one priority."
"Roger that," Stuffins replies. Then the adventure begins. Mr. Stuffins goes to school with Zach and beats up some bullies in the bathroom, an incident for which Zach is promptly blamed. Further, Stuffins complains about Zach's foam dart guns, since they're not even "riot foam" and can hardly harm a man. While many kids would wet their pants with excitement at the prospect of having a cute and cuddly killing machine at their disposal, with all of the other unstable elements in Zach's life, he really just seems annoyed. Little does he suspect that Stuffins' skills may come in handy to protect the family he so desperately wishes would stay together when, on the last cliffhangery splash page, a gang of goons closes in on his house, presumably in pursuit of that cutting edge microchip. They obviously don't know what they're getting into, nor did I when I picked up this issue.
The cover of this issue mimics a Casino Royale poster, depicting Mr. Stuffins sporting a suction cup gun and Oreoes in lieu of poker chips, an eye-catching image that perfectly epitomizes what readers have in store, and further writers Cosby and Stokes manage to take a potentially one-hit wonder concept -- the tagline "My teddy bear's a secret agent!" could last one year or one panel depending on how it's played -- and establish a legitimate story about the trials of childhood. While Stuffins riding shotgun in Zach's backpack elicits the suspenseful shades of The Indian in the Cupboard, Zach's parents' separation is just as tense, and the writers wisely restrain themselves from the undoubtedly tempting soap operatics such a subplot could demand. In one issue we're privy to two significant spousal disputes, just enough to let us know how serious the situation is without muffling the secret agent/teddy bear action, which is, I dare say, absolutely charming. I chuckled a few times in spite of myself, amused by Stuffins' tough guy attitude. If I knew Teddy Ruxpin had this much potential, I would've ditched My Buddy a long time ago!
(This review is rapidly turning into a lost segment from VH1's I Love the '80s, but I digress.)
My only critique toward this issue's story is its handling of young characters other than Zach, namely the bullies that confront him in the restroom. I know it's a little thing, but I work with kids and am very sensitive to the portrayal of children in fiction, especially in comic books, a medium that targets youth. The bullies tease Zach about not washing his hands, as they say, "after a tinkle," and, seriously, I don't think a bully would use the word "tinkle" this side of Eddie Haskel. Believe it or not, kids have really dirty mouths, so "after a piss" wouldn't have been too drastic and actually would've made their presence more intimidating. Believe me, if a teddy bear going postal is believable, so is a bully going Andrew Dice Clay. Speaking of VH1.
Carter’s art is perfect for this subject matter, balancing reality with stuffed animal fantasy, capturing the imbalance of this issue’s dark Christopher Robin/Winnie the Pooh paradigm. The coloring is ironically a bit too dark for my tastes, obscuring some the visuals unnecessary shadow or blackness, even during the daytime school sequences. Perhaps the hushed tones are intended to express an overwhelming sense of solemnity, that, despite the potentially frivolous nature a toy-turned-Terminator story entails, this thing could have some serious consequences. With those gun-toting goons on the last page we're assured things are going to get worse before they get better, but I hope Mr. Stuffins has a light at the end of the tunnel. These characters look and feel so instantly compelling that one only wants to see the best for them.
Mr. Stuffins should be an instant success in many circles because it plays into every geek's affinity for toys. Hey, as an action figure aficionado for decades, I can attest to that sense of comfort one feels when their heroes are in the room, albeit plastic. Heck, I know Power Punch He-Man isn't really going to spring up and power punch anything on his own -- even when I go to sleep -- but I feel better just having him around. It's subconscious protection. We can't all have a Mr. Stuffins, you know.