Who were your favorite superheroes in the 90s? The Power Rangers? The X-Men? How about the Balloonatiks? What’s that? You don’t remember the Balloonatiks?
Maybe you could be forgiven, considering that I am literally the only person on the planet who does. The Balloonatiks were a superhero team with a difference. Unlike, say, the Avengers, they were made out of balloons instead of the more traditional meat and bones.
You’ve got Flator, the macho jock of the bunch. He can inflate or deflate himself, but apparently can’t entirely control his power — he literally grows or shrinks in response to praise and criticism, respectively. He also wears huge sunglasses and pump-up sneakers, because he’s a totally cool ’90s dude– a terrible affliction when your super abilities are powered by compliments. Is there a darker backstory than this? Flator needs love to survive, and he’s the fucking worst.
Next, there’s Airhead. He’s your typical brainy character and he kind of reminds me of Widget the World Watcher. His power is inhaling and exhaling with great force. I guess you could say that Airhead both sucks and blows. I could have said the same about Flator, but that would have killed him.
Ballooney, whose name means Humaney in our language, is the joker of the crew. He can bounce around and roll himself into a bowling ball, which is apparently not only his special ability, but his hobby. It’s outrageous that any creator would see Ballooney and think, “Yes, this idea is coming together. I should keep going.” But they did.
Every ’90s superhero group needs The Girl, and The Balloonatiks have Squeeker. You know how balloons are squeaky? Well, that’s Squeeker’s power. Her bows are “supersonic superspeakers,” so you know she means business. We’ve covered all aspects of the balloon so far: insecurity, blowing, bowling, and noisy. What could be next?
It’s Stretch. He’s… well, he’s a cowboy balloon. He says cowboy stuff, like “y’all jus make me wanna rope a goat.” Is that something a cowboy would say? The Balloonatiks would certainly have you believe it to be. Stretch can, as his name implies, stretch out. He also has a sentient water balloon companion/gun that lives in his holster. The mask covering his face has its own face, and I think that’s worth repeating. The mask covering his face has its own face.
The Lex Luthor to the Balloonatiks’ Justice League is The Needler, a man in a shiny suit who is by all accounts a balloon fetishist. You know how there are poppers and blowers? He’s a popper. Just unashamedly horny for popping in his bio.
He’s accompanied by “Secret Agent” Barb Wire and here I want to point out that The Balloonatiks predates the Pamela Anderson movie by five years, though Barb Wire had already been the roller derby name for every city’s Barbaras for over a decade. Barb considers herself the “Queen of Pop,” which means ruining balloons makes up most of her personality. Their minions are the robotic Pinheads: Sticky, Tacky, and Al, a naming convention absolutely not ripped off of Pac-Man’s ghosts.
The Balloonatiks launched in 1991 with a single comic issue, written by the franchise creator as well as then-Chairman and CEO of Balloonatiks International, Inc, Tony DiIoia. Unlike the Conservation Corps, which I was able to find online, no scans of The Balloonatiks exist on the internet, so I had to purchase a copy myself in order to read it. The issue came packaged in a plastic envelope sealed with a sticker informing me that this was a Collectors Edition of Balloonatiks #1 and retailed for $4.95 US. With shipping, I paid nearly double that, so I guess it’s retained its value.
Removing the comic from its sealed packaging felt like a momentous event. For all I knew, nobody but the people who worked on this thing had ever seen it. The excitement drips off the first page, printed in all-caps and informing us that this issue is only the beginning of the adventures of the Balloonatiks. It’s even signed and individually numbered by DiIoia — I’ve got 853 of 1000. They really had high hopes for these sentient latex golems.
The comic begins not with The Balloonatiks themselves, but with The Needler and Barb Wire celebrating as they watch the Pinheads popping the tires of cars, their ultimate plan. And these low stakes are making Barb extremely horny. All in all, it’s a perfect intro. May it give everyone prickly heat.
Meanwhile, Dr. Sigmund “Pop” Swellhead, the world’s only “latexologist,” is working in his lab when he and his assistants/maybe grandkids find out about the traffic situation on the news. What’s a balloon-obsessed scientist to do? Why, put out an inter-“gallactic” S.O.S. on the “balloonicator,” of course!
Far away on the planet, sigh, Noollab, the Grand Exalted Windbag has a problem: The Balloonatiks. I have to admit, it’s a pretty bold move to have your superhero team be introduced as so fucking terrible that their home planet wants them gone. They’re apparently causing all kinds of problems on Noollab, so the G.E.W. is more than happy to pawn them off on Earth when he gets Pop’s distress call.
The Balloonatiks don’t seem to get along very well, either. Flator blames Airhead for their predicament, while Squeeker goes off on Flator for being a meathead. And here’s something I hadn’t considered going into this: when a water balloon calls your balloon mother a whoopie cushion, is that a slur?
Regardless, The Balloonatiks travel to Earth and land in Dr. Swellhead’s balloon store. Swellhead goes by the nickname “Pop,” but they have no time to take the bait for this obvious dick joke. They’re terrified of the fleshy creature that stands before them. And who can blame them? They’ve gone from a planet where everything is made out of clean, colorful rubber to one where people and animals are made out of wet, filthy muscles and guts. If The Balloonatiks had been a bigger property, we definitely would have gotten an IDW reboot in the 2010s where one of them develops a compulsion to purge the world of unclean flesh.
Pop says he’s filled the Balloonatiks with “balloon juice” and gives them a supply to keep on hand. It is never explained what balloon juice is or why it is necessary. Is it required to stabilize The Balloonatiks on Earth due to the different atmospheric conditions of our planet versus Noollab? Is it a lube? Is it some kind of food? Is it a chemical Pop invented to keep The Balloonatiks under his control, which is why he’s so insistent that they consume it everyday? Is it a sexual lube? We will never know. But I feel like we landed on balloon sex lubricant.
While this transpires, The Needler watches from his villainous base of operations, the Haystack. He’s pretty committed to his bit, I’ll give him that. He’s apparently somehow already familiar with The Balloonatiks, but decides to take the fight to them in order to use their powers to take over the world. I thought his deal was that he was just an extremely specific kind of Joker who liked popping things, but I guess he’s got bigger ambitions. Good for him.
At this point in the comic, we get a two-page spread informing us of the exciting Balloonatiks products to expect in the future. I have no idea whether there were ever Balloonatiks toys, keychains, “Flator’s footwear,” or drinks (???). I do know, however, there was Balloonatiks bedding, because my parents bought it for me from a Costco in the early 90s, and it’s the only reason I’m familiar with them. Thanks, mom and dad — I wouldn’t be here without you.
The Needler sends his Pinheads to attack the Balloonatiks, so I guess his plan to use their powers to take over the world still works with their ruptured remains? Flator makes a snide comment about not having been deflated yesterday, which raises some questions about the Noollabian reproduction process. Some details seem intentionally wrong as if to wink at adult readers, “Yes, this is all a sex thing.”
The Needler bursts in with a static ray gun because everything here is exhaustingly on theme, and we learn his origin story. Pop popped a balloon in his ear at his 10th birthday party, and now he’s obsessed with the sound. This sounds pretty weak, but to be fair, consider that the most famous comic book villain’s most well-known backstory is “fell in some chemicals.”
Things look bad for our heroes, but then Squeeker says she “needs” Flator and calls him a “handsome hunk of He-Man,” which makes him get bigger. I’m not sure they considered the implications here. Or they very much did and their intended audience is, ngghh, almost there.
Flator pumps up his shoes, because it’s the early ’90s, and he and the rest of the crew kick The Needler’s ass and somehow reinflate all of the popped tires in the city, which again, were the stakes.
The Needler and Barb Wire (who didn’t get to do much) re-state their intention to destroy The Balloonatiks, and we’re out. It was an utter bankruptcy of ideas before they finished a single issue.
Balloonatiks #1 came with a poster and map of Noollab, featuring locations like “Big Knot” and “Inflation Station.” Moving on.
The comic also included a balloon featuring a print of the Pinheads on it, but when I tried to pull it apart to inflate it, the decades-old rubber, which was sticky and probably toxic, tore. They should have gotten some of Dr. Swellhead’s non-deflatable latex!
We never got another issue of The Balloonatiks comics, but the franchise didn’t die there. There was a Balloonatiks float with some Pinhead balloons in the 1992 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and Mr. DiIoia has tried to resurrect the concept a few times over the decades.
During the first effort to bring the Balloonatiks back in the mid-’90s, some of the character names and details were changed, as evidenced by the archived Balloonatiks site. Flator and Airhead are pretty much the same, but the other characters got some added details. Squeeker’s bio, for instance, explains she can not only crack glass or hypnotize her foes with her sonic powers, but also “turn on fax machines.” Even for the ’90s, that’s pretty lame. Creatively speaking, it has real “looking around the room at my day job” energy.
Perhaps because they realized that “Ballooney” was a terrible name, that character became “Bouncer.” In this iteration, he’s a big round guy who apparently gets picked on for being fat. First of all, not cool, other Balloonatiks. Second, he’s literally a balloon. Balloons are round! Bouncer can still roll around, but he can also impersonate people now, which feels less like a superpower and more like a weak party trick.
Finally, Stretch became L.A. Tex. His name doesn’t make any sense unless he’s like, a Texan transplant who lives in the valley, but that doesn’t matter — there are balloon puns to be made, damnit. Tex’s bio informs us that he “wishes he was born a cowboy instead of a balloon,” which is an immensely depressing sentence.
This revised Balloonatiks line-up starred in a 1996 cartoon Christmas special on Fox Kids in which The Needler and Barb Wire kidnap Santa Claus. The Wayback Machine’s snapshot of the official site around the time also features some newspaper-style comic strips featuring Flator and the gang. They are tragic. They’re like Family Circus if it was more sexist and -for absolutely no reason- everyone was balloons.
These efforts were evidently not enough to win America over, and The Balloonatiks once again sank into obscurity. But even this, this catastrophic failure, was not the end of The Balloonatiks. According to an old press release, DiIoia relaunched them in 2006. These new Balloonatiks were, as was the style in the 2000s, teens who transformed into CGI balloon-based superheroes.
Flator, Bouncer, and Squeeker were still there, though they’d been completely redesigned. Airhead had been turned into “Airbrain,” an objectively worse name. And L.A. Tex/Stretch? He’d been obliterated, stricken from the pages of history. In his place was Sparky, a second female Balloonatik with powers over static electricity. There was also a balloon frog.
As far as I can tell, the CGI teen Balloonatiks show never aired, but there were a few DVDs produced around 2010, and you can watch some clips as well as the intro — which is allegedly by Ray Parker Jr. — on YouTube. And that appears to have been the last hurrah for our inflatable friends.
The Balloonatiks site seems to have finally gone down in 2021. What happened to Tony DiIoia? Who is he, and why was he so passionate about balloon-based superheroes? Are we going to pretend we don’t know it’s a sex thing? Where did the money for all of this come from? We may never know. DiIoia has a LinkedIn account, but hasn’t posted in a while. (His experience is listed as “ceo” of “Kids projects.”) It seems like he’s possibly involved in an animation studio that does NFTs. Balloonatiks NFTs when, Tony? At the very least, give us that gritty reboot I mentioned. I don’t want to have to write Balloonatiks fanfiction, but I will if I have to. Consider yourself warned.
Merritt K is a game expert and designer. When praised, she can inflate in order to blow down enemies and doors.