I recently got the chance to interview Errol McCarthy, one of the most prolific artists ever to work on Masters of the Universe. Errol started out providing illustrations for Mattel’s first licensing kit in 1982, and moved on to illustrate the majority of the cardback artwork scenes for vintage MOTU figures. He worked on other license kit and style guide illustration projects, and he illustrated a number of scenes for apparel for Bates Nightwear
To begin with, Errol sent me the following bio detailing some of his life history:
Errol McCarthy was born in Los Angeles long long ago, but grew up in Billings, Montana. As a teen, he developed an interest in anything with an engine. This included airplanes, sports cars and motorcycles. His high school buddies had real hot rods and many, many evenings were spent cruising and occasionally actually picking up girls. “American Graffiti” was right on!
The closest thing to a real rod that he had was a bored out ’48 Chevy coupe with a split manifold. While writing a ticket, a cop said:”It was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard”! Plans to install a ’50 Olds V-8 with a Lincoln Zephyr tranny remained just plans. Drawing was a different thing,since, if you can draw, he reasoned, you can create anything. Errol became the school cartoonist and study hall was all about drawing cars and airplanes.
A short stint in the Air Force as an Aviation Cadet convinced Errol that he was not the military type; art school would be a better fit. He went back to Los Angeles to attend Art Center school and to meet his future wife, Mitzi, who was also an artist. Their first date was a hot rod show and a trip to a comic book stand; she passed the “test” and they were married. They both found that it was possible to make a living in art.
Errol’s first freelance comic book job came from answering a want ad in the paper. It was a one shot entitled “CarNuts” published by Quentin Miller. That job,plus an Underground comic story led to Petersen Publishing which had 3 comic books at the time: CAR Toons, Hot Rod Cartoons and Cycletoons. He soon had work in all 3, plus a full time job as an illustrator at McDonnell-Douglas. There were a few jobs for underground comics, Road and Track and Hustler magazines. A Master’s degree followed with a thesis on the influence of underground “comix” on art. Teaching art followed and then a stay at Mattel doing action figures like He-Man and Big Jim. There was also Hot Wheels work, where, he says, the high point of his art career was the design of the “Toilet Mobile”. There was other free lance toy work including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
To pay the bills, both he and Mitzi have done tech drawings for Clymer Publications motorcycle magazines for over 30 years, continue to this day and love it.
And now on to the interview!
Battle Ram: How did you come to be involved in Masters of the Universe?
Errol McCarthy: I started to do free lance work for Mattel about ’79. [My] old Art Center pal Mark Taylor hired me.
BR: Would your first project for MOTU have been the 1982 Licensing Kit? What can you remember about it?
EM: That was sooo long ago, I have no idea what the first MOTU work was about. I do remember doing lots figure and playset concepts, but I don’t remember if they were all produced.
BR: You went on to illustrate the action scenes on the cardbacks for most of the figures. Can you talk about how that started and what you were trying to achieve with your illustrations?
EM: I think it was just to illustrate what the figure was about & what it did like Mekaneck with his telescoping neck.
BR: Were the landscapes and scenery of the cardback illustrations created totally from your imagination, or did Mattel give you some direction for the look of Eternia (for example, the sinister-looking swamp for Evil-Lyn, the sweeping plains for He-Man)?
EM: All of that stuff was pretty much from my imagination. It’s fun to draw creepy creatures and landscapes.
BR: You illustrated cardbacks for characters like Skeletor, Mer-Man, He-Man, Teela, Faker, Fisto, Trap Jaw and many others. Which ones are your favorites and why? Any interesting stories associated with any of them?
EM: I liked all of them but particularly the main ones like Teela, Stratos and Mekaneck. I think there were about 100 or so characters in the line. It was great fun to draw all of them.
BR: It looks like your License Kit Castle Grayskull shows up in the background of your Skeletor illustration, and other illustrations as well. Did you commonly reuse your art where you could?
EM: Drawings of things as complex as Castle Grayskull and other things like that are used over and over again and why not? The trick is to try to make it look fresh.
BR: You continued to do additional license kit artwork, as well as artwork for a MOTU style guide. Any stories or memories about either project?
EM: Not really-I think the Style Guide was meant to indicate what colors were to be used for each of the parts of characters or machines.
BR: You did some work for Bates Nightwear to create licensed MOTU artwork for T-shirts or pajama shirts, correct? Can you talk about that project?
EM: I think I did about 100 drawings for Bates Nightwear.It was great fun!
BR: Sometimes you signed your art EM, and other times you signed your full name. Was that based on your own preference, or did Mattel sometimes dictate how you were to sign your art?
EM: The signing sort of depended on the space available. Mattel or Petersen Pub. didn’t care about signing.
BR: Are there any other projects you worked on for the original Masters of the Universe toyline?
EM: I really can’t think of any other than the ones done recently for Super 7 which was for the collector’s market; they were done as card back art, the same as the original line back in the ’80’s. I think that Mattel has taken back the rights now.* We’ll see if they continue the line.
BR: You illustrated two comic books for the “New Adventures” He-Man reboot. Can you talk about how you got involved in that project? What did you think of the new futuristic He-Man concept?
EM: I wish that I could’ve done more with the comic books, but was too busy at the time with other free lance work, but they had a pool of great talent to do the books. A few years ago, Dark Horse reprinted the comics in a hard cover single volume and doubled the size of the art. They did an excellent job of it!
BR: You also illustrated some “New Adventures” futuristic He-Man concept art as well. Can you talk about how that came about? Do you remember anything about the idea behind the concepts you drew? Were these your character designs?
EM: These were all someone else’s concepts. I don’t know who was involved in it, but it was well done.
BR: Did you work on any other non-MOTU projects at Mattel?
EM: Yes, I contributed occasionally to Hot Wheels. My proudest project was doing the art for the Toiletmobile on the Real Monsters line and doing a lot of art on Big Jim packaging. There were others as well like Mighty Max.
BR: Were you always a contractor at Mattel, or did you ever join as a permanent employee?
EM: I freelanced for Mattel from about 1978 to ’89. I was a Mattel employee from ’89 to 1995, then back to freelancing again for Mattel and other toy companies. I think Mark [Taylor] did bring me in specifically to work in house on MOTU in 1989. Mark left after I did in 1995 and went on to work at other toy companies. We collaborated occasionally on projects.
BR: Recently you’ve done some new cardback illustrations for some of the vintage style Super7 MOTU figures. How did that come about? How did it feel to work on Masters of the Universe again?
EM: I guess they knew I was still alive and drawing stuff so I got to do the card backs. One of the biggest perks for me was to be able to work with Emiliano Santalucia over the internet. He lives in Sicily and I live in Long Beach, but the internet makes it possible to work together.
BR: As I understand it, you’ve done illustration work for a number of different toy lines, including Star Wars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Can you summarize some of the major work you’ve done outside of MOTU?
EM: Yes, I worked on both of those lines doing mostly concept art which may or may not become a toy. My biggest accomplishment was doing the TMNT blimp!
BR: What do you think made MOTU such a success?
EM: I understand that Mattel wanted to do a Conan the Barbarian line but couldn’t get the rights, so did their own version.Little boys love that sort of thing, plus there was no limit to the imagination when it came to weird characters and odd scenarios; it was also the time of Star Wars, etc.
BR: Are you working on anything exciting at the moment?
EM: The most exciting thing for me now is to be able to still work on He-Man and that it still exists!
Many thanks to Errol McCarthy for taking the time to answer my questions!
*Note: according to a recent Roast Gooble Dinner interview with Brian Flynn, the status of future 5.5″ figures is somewhat uncertain because of the upcoming Masters of the Universe Movie. The strategy for how Super7 and Mattel release MOTU figures ahead of that film is still to be determined.