In ToyFare #54 the Four Horsemen (Eric ‘Cornboy’ Mayse, Chris Dahlberg, Jim Preziosi and Eric Treadaway) are interviewed on their approach to the world of Eternia and its characters.
They discuss about their meet up with Mattel, and how they worked for two years on the toyline prior to Mattel’s official announcement, their new Powersword design, and He-Man’s changing hair style thanks to focus groups.
There is even a mention, that how Skeletor’s Havoc Staff was going to have the ram skull-head as a pop-up function. That harkens back to early concept art by Mark Taylor, interestingly.
One curious thing to note is their initial idea to make Teela younger companion to He-Man. Their example is Batgirl to Batman from the 1992/1997 Animated adventures. But that Mattel wanted to keep Teela as love-interest, so she was made the same age as Prince Adam (this sadly was not fully played up in the cartoon by Mike Young Productions).
Huge thanks to Matthew Duch from Legends of Grayskull podcast for scanning these pages.
While we are still waiting for season 2 of the Masters of the Universe Revelation (the upcoming 5 episodes under new title Masters of the Universe Revolution to arrive in early 2024), here is an interview with the person behind the secrets of the Netflix He-Man and Revelation logos!
Hello and thank you so much for taking the time for an interview! Tell us about yourself.
My name is Bill Concannon, I am a graphic designer, owner and creative director for Concannon Art, a new graphic arts company in LA. I have been designing in the toy and game space for the past twenty two years and have had the pleasure of designing for many iconic brands. In particular Im proud to have completed the re-designs for Hot Wheels, circa 2010, Transformers, circa 2014 and the latest Masters of the Universe including ‘He-Man’ and ‘Revelation’, circa 2019. These iconic logos represent brands with great stories to tell. Recently their stories were illuminated in features like ‘The Toys that Built America’ (History Channel, HULU) and ‘The Toys That Made Us’ (Netflix).
Did you grow up with Masters of the Universe?
I was twenty when they came out but would have loved to have had them in my days of GI Joe.
Do you have a favorite character?
I dig Man-E-Faces and Battle Cat of course!
Your company Concannon Art has many functions. Can you describe your work to someone unfamiliar with it?
Brand development is what we do as a graphic arts company. Identities, packaging, merchandising, licensing guides are the bread and butter of our work. I do the majority of the graphic design along with a team of other designers and illustrators. The packaging work that I have done for ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Transformers’ properties helped to establish a reputation within the industry. I’m very proud of the recent logo work I completed for the Masters of the Universe franchise.
Can you describe your work process in general? What is a typical day look like?
Running your own shop requires a process that balances time for the business and design work. I plan each day the night before. Some days are pure design work while others are maintaining client communication and project management. There is a lot of time dedicated to delegating and collaborating with other designers and illustrators. I enjoy it all tremendously but I really love the early days of design work where the initial ideas are being formed.
How did you get the job on creating the current Netflix MOTU logo-family?
I had done a lot of packaging work for Mattel which had included logo design work. I had worked on their Battle Force 5 property and in 2010 the significant refresh of the Hot Wheels brand logo.
How many designs did you go through and what was the process like?
The project began in March 2019 and included the Masters of the Universe, MOTU Revelation and HE-MAN MOTU logos. The project wrapped up a year later with the majority of the design work completed in December 2019 with about twenty iterations explored.
What designs are your inspirations? Or possible people in the field?
I am inspired by classic designers like Saul Bass. I recently watched a documentary that discussed the movie poster designs and 007 logo done by Joe Caroff. These classic poster designers are an endless source of inspiration. Seeing great design creates a kind of work energy that makes you raise the bar on your next project. The best project is always the one you’re currently working on because it’s unfinished and has limitless potential.
Were you given any specific guidelines? Or restrictions?
There were many considerations. The equity of the property was very important to Mattel while the studios wanted to ensure it could carry a cinematic feel. Cohesion between the three logos (MOTU, MOTU Revelation and HE-MAN MOTU ) was another key consideration. Netflix has very strict design and production specifications that entertainment logos need to adhere to. Many of these are in place to ensure quality assurance for the many production uses of the logos.
Of all your unused designs, which is your favorite and why?
The approved logo is shown straight on with an extruded base. The letterforms are perpendicular to the baseline. There was a version where the same logo is rendered in perspective to match the original 80’s logo. That version was deliberated over quite a bit.
When designing for something like MOTU that has so much nostalgia tied to it, how difficult is it to keep that nostalgic design while also pushing for something new?
Interestingly it was this aspect which drove the alternate logo in perspective. It was very important to design something that respected the past but could carry the logo into the future. Having the logo built in a straight on perspective allows for more variation in how it’s rendered going forward. Sometimes you can be too “on the nose” with a design and it won’t have enough of a fresh look. So although the logo in perspective was closer to the original the approved logo presents something new.
In the Poster reveal for REVELATION we got to see the new logo for the first time proper. In the MASTERS portion the ”A” and ”R” stand out in a curious fashion in particular. What was the thought process behind that?
The iconic nature of Castle Grayskull was a strong influence on me. I used paintings of the castle to create mock movie posters to test new logo designs. I like to see how a potential logo will look in use, in a layout. During one of those studies I saw a visual connection with the descenders of the “A” and “R”. I pulled them down into the layout as representations of the towers of the castle. Flipping the “A” also created better symmetry and matched the towers better. The flipped letter also created a unique and more own-able shape for the “A” which is always a plus for a new logo.
How do you feel about the original 80s logo design by Bob Nall?
It’s a classic for the time it was designed. A time before the advent of the Mac and Adobe. And I love that it was airbrushed by John Hamagami.
Is there anything you would have wanted to add or tweak of the final logo?
I would have wanted to explore more render and FX variations for theatrical branding. Similar to how the Star Wars logo is rendered differently for each cinematic episode – the new MOTU logo has a solid base that can be rendered to meet the needs of its many publications, products and entertainment.
How does it feel to see your logo design on toy packaging and on the TV screen?
It’s always a thrill to see your work published and you want to feel good that the mark is serving the story well. For MOTU I think it’s a mark that will strongly represent the franchise.
Do you have any advice for people looking to get into graphic/logo design?
It’s definitely a work of passion and love of typography. If you have the passion, always be sketching and archiving the work that inspires you. Remember that every logo is a visual expression of a story and you should make sure that all of your layout, type, graphic and color decisions serve that story.
Thank you very much for answering these questions!
[special thanks to Adam McCombs and Colt Crane for helping with the interview questions]
DISCLAIMER: This article is a collection of information from various interviews (both text and audio), documentaries and panel appearances of Mark Taylor. Many of his statements have been somewhat or entirely paraphrased for brevity and format, but the content and ideas come from Mark’s own ideas and public statements. The sources for these statements are given at the end of this article.
For many years, fans of Masters of the Universe would look up to their minicomics, VHS-tapes or books to delight in the stories of He-Man, Skeletor and vast array of colorful characters.
Early on there were many inconsistencies between various stories, from the minicomics to DC Comics stories to the Filmation Animated Series. All of these variations can be considered in many cases different canons (much to the delight of fans when they had the ability to pick and choose their favorite elements, or frustration in some cases where folks hoped to have only a single, core version). Because of so many of these varying depictions of the characters and the world, Dark Horse even made a very thorough book, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe Character Guide and World Compendium (2017) entailing these respective canons, and a follow-up He–Man and the Masters of the Universe Character Guide and World Compendium – Supplemental Guide (2021).
But there is one more version that hasn’t gotten all that much attention. The ideas and narrative by the late great Mark Taylor.
“Taylorverse”… “Taylorvision”… call it what you want. When working at Mattel on He-Man, Mark Taylor created a unique version for the characters and the world that later went on to have drastically different incarnations through comics, books and animation.
No official release-date was announced, and it’s unclear how how close it was to being finished or if it will ever be released.
Cover art by Ken Coleman.
According to a panel during Power-Con (2018) by Mark Taylor, it was to divulge more information about who is He-Man’s father and much, much more. We don’t know if that will ever see publication, sadly. What we have tried to do in absence of that is to collect of the information we have gleaned from Mark’s various interviews over the years. We have divided this information up by subject, starting with Castle Grayskull.
Castle Grayskull was not built as such, but grown mystically by unknown beings many eons before humans existed. Originally Castle Grayskull was a giant that sunk into the ground. It is the head of the giant that is partially visible and some parts on the head that were his “armor.” It’s always possible that this giant could come back to life someday!
Some ancient civilization realized that the skull was a place of power, so they built the castle around it.
Just being near the Castle can sap life force. Entering the Castle has the potential to enhance your power, but it is also draining to the soul. For that reason, those who would wish to exploit the Castle’s power should not take up long-term residency there. Distance helps for relief and recuperation. Extended habitation causes personality changes and can be very dangerous to those around the affected individual.
There is nothing typical about Castle Grayskull. At first glance its interior and exterior look vaguely like a medieval castle, but this fortress bridges time and space. Castle Grayskull as a surface entity can only house approximately 50 people, but always on a temporary basis. There is a large courtyard where the various mounts and vehicles of visitors are stowed.
The façade is 19 feet high and the dome is 45 feet high. The Jaw Bridge is 17 feet high by seven feet wide, the windows three feet by seven, and the tower is 42 feet high. The towers are defensive positions, and the watch towers and the turrets are for mounting anti-air attack weapons. The dome generates mystical power and the Jaw Bridge is activated by voice (opening the gate requires a specific command as well as the Power Sword).
Castle Grayskull is the thing that all of the characters fight over. Because of its location it would have to be invaded by boat. It’s a symbol of power, and it was similar to the Oracle of Delphi – you could get all kinds of power and knowledge from within. A lot of the stickers and paper elements inside were really symbols of the kinds of power you could get from Castle Grayskull. One of the eternal symbols of mysticism in human history been the skull.
GRAYSKULL’S SURROUNDING FETID LAKE/MOAT
Castle Grayskull is located in the center of a moat that is toxic to most living creatures. There are living inhabitants of the moat, which are both strange and dangerous.
The Castle itself has seven floors beneath the level of the moat. As you descend each level, reality, time and space become more and more distorted.
Inside Grayskull is a Space Suit and other weapons and armory. These were left by a technologically-advanced race who came to the land in flying saucers. These beings had mysteriously left long, long ago. So Grayskull was a dead place with nobody living inside it or “guardian” for it either. There was always the possibility that these beings could return someday.
A secret code is required to get the elevator inside the castle to take you down to the levels under the castle. Each successive level brings more power and also more danger.
There are physical and magical traps hidden throughout the castle. The trap door leads to the first level basement. It also conceals clues to the secret password for the elevator.
Grayskull extends into the space/time continuum in the lake bedrock. The levels below the weapons storage room start with all the weapons that exist within one century each way from the present, the floor below that within five centuries each way, and so on.
[Mark thought that Castle Grayskull could eventually be expanded by adding playsets associated with other figures, such as a water playset for Mer-Man and an air or mountain playset for Stratos.]
PIT OF SOULS / WELL OF SOULS / DWELL OF SOULS
The Pit of Souls [also variously referred to as the Well of Souls or Dwell of Souls] is a dungeon containing undying monsters from the beginning and end of time that also extends into the time and space continuum – possibly by means of a miniature black hole. The powers of the castle are linked to these evil prisoners.
Getting the monsters trapped in the Dwell of Souls required luring monsters into the pit with sacrificial human victims. The monsters would then be trapped in the pit. The king [He-Man’s father] who oversaw this effort could use those trapped monsters as leverage against all other Kings in the land, threatening to release them if he didn’t get his way.
He comes from a mysterious conception and is rumored to be half human and half immortal. (2006 interview)
The King who lived inside Grayskull had a harem and one woman there bore him He-Man. (2018 Power of Grayskull documentary)
One of He-Man’s father’s wives wanted to kill He-Man when he was a baby, along with He-Man’s mother. His mother enlisted the help of the king’s Man-At-Arms in order to save the child. Man-At-Arms agreed to take the infant away through the atomic wasteland. There He-Man grew in strength and learned battle techniques from his mentor. Afterwards he picks up Battle Cat and his adventures start.
He-Man grew up in Atlantis, which no longer exists, it was destroyed by a terrible quake and tidal wave. He-Man was nine-years old and being trained as a Prince when the disaster struck. He was one of the very few to survive. (2006 interview)
He-Man is the ideal hero in all respects – he isn’t just someone with incredible strength, standing at 6’3” and weighing 230lbs. He has a sense of nobility and restraint, and also has a quiet sense of humor. He possesses special senses which helps him greatly – otherwise Skeletor would’ve eliminated him. He-Man also is resilient to pain, poison, etc.
The cross symbol on He-Man is what his friends recognize him by [Mark also mentioned he was inspired in creating that symbol for He-Man by the look of the Knights Templar]. He-Man is a good person, noble and has the very highest moral character and he tries to set an example for all people. He knows a lot about magic, but he never uses it. He-Man knows there is always a price that must be paid when using magic.
He-Man avoids wearing too much armor. He’s almost like a berserker. He wants to win by relying on his own strength and fighting skill, rather than relying on armor.
He-Man isn’t destined to become the King of Grayskull [as the later stories like Glut-minicomics suggested].
He-Man’s mother was very beautiful and a phenomenal athlete. She is part of the King’s harem alongside Skeletor’s mother. He-Man’s mother doesn’t know any magic, so when Skeletor’s mother wanted to kill her and her child, she made a deal with Man-At-Arms to take her baby and run away. She was killed during the fight with Skeletor’s mother.
PRE-WELL OF SOULS
Skeletor used to be a handsome, normal looking human, just like He-Man. He plotted to take over the Castle from the king, but he was thrown in the the Well of Souls. In the Well the creatures and animals ripped all the skin off his face and make him aware of magic the hard way.
AFTER EMERGING FROM WELL OF SOULS
Once Skeletor got out of the Well of Souls, he was a deformed super-human, standing at 6’4” and weighing 290lbs. He had heightened senses, much like He-Man, but he also had an extra sense: he can detect the weakness in an opponent that he can use to his advantage.
In this new form, he had three toes and ridges protruding from his forearms. He has a skull for a face and glowing eyes. The eyes glow when he is angry (which is most of the time). As he emerged from the Well, he made a hood for himself to cover his glowing eyes and distinctive silhouette. This was made from the eyelid of a dragon that tried to kill him when he got out of the Well. His armor is tougher than steel, made from an armadillo monster that tried to defy him.
His intellect is unmeasurable, off the charts. But he is also the ultimate bipolar, going from quiet malevolence to towering rage, a rage that hinders his true intellect. Skeletor’s voice sounds like he is speaking from the bottom of a well. Skeletor never sleeps.
His plans always focus on the Castle. Destruction and inflicting pain are his joy, with self-titled “Lord of Destruction” as his moniker.
Skeletor used magic but He-Man never did. Skeletor could animate anything and go anywhere. In my mind that was one of the main differences between the main characters and their followers.
Skeletor’s mother is a sorceress who knows about magic and sorcery. She is a member of the King’s harem alongside He-Man’s mother. It was she, who used her magical abilities to furnish the cap on top of the Well of Souls for the King, so that all the monsters couldn’t get out, unless the King wanted them to. When Skeletor’s mother fought He-Man’s mother, she killed her.
Years after Skeletor had been thrown into the Well of Souls, the tribe was completely eliminated by a malevolent witch poisoner (Skeletor’s mother) who then helped him escape from the “Well” but when she saw what it had done to him she went insane and drank her own poison. (2006 interview)
“And him [Skeletor] and his mother decide to kill the king. They fail. The king captures them. And the king kills the mother and throws the boy into the Well of Souls.” (2018 Power of Grayskull documentary)
Man-At-Arms was the king’s champion at Grayskull. He was a very honorable man and was tired of the corruption he witnessed.
Man-At-Arms is the master of weapons. His father already was someone who would bring home technology and weapons that he found. When he was older, Man-At-Arms did the same thing. Man-At-Arms isn’t as tough as He-Man, which is why he uses his armor and weaponry. He is a match for Beast Man in combat situations, having a high degree of intelligence/sophistication, but no special strength.
He took He-Man away as a child at his mother’s request, in order to stop a plot by Skeletor’s mother to kill He-Man. He ran with the baby through the Wasteland where He-Man grew incredibly strong. Man-At-Arms taught him all the battle techniques, both old and new.
[Man-At-Arms is based on the Spanish Conquistadors. With Star Wars being a popular thing, elements of high-tech were added onto Man-At-Arms’ armor.]
“I based it on the Spanish Conquistadors. I always wondered how those suckers had the nerve to do the things they did. They had to be ballsy beyond belief! Mattel’s marketing team was really on me to incorporate lots of technology, since Star Wars was still so popular. So I told them I could put high-tech gear on Man-At-Arms. I’d just read Piers Anthony’s classic science-fiction novel Sos the Rope, about a character who goes into a wasteland where a superior civilization had once lived. And he digs down and brings out their technology, which gives him a huge advantage over everyone else! So Man-At-Arms does that too.”
“…heroes can’t use magic! It weakens them, in a way. Villains, on the other hand, can use magic whenever they want a shortcut. It’s the Faust story, basically.”
[10 Things We Learned from Mark Taylor, the Designer of He-Man – The Robot’s Voice]
Beast Man was supposed to be the largest character by mass at least. Beast Man in Taylor’s conception didn’t have the power to control or talk to animals. He was more of a pit fighter and berserker. His back story was that he had been used as a fighter for entertainment in a gladiator ring. His armor was something he acquired to prevent fighters from jumping on top of him. His whip was taken from a captor who was trying to whip him. Beast Man was a berserker who couldn’t wait to fight anyone or anything.
Beast Man isn’t pure human – his DNA was altered/mutated by whatever happened to the world in the distant past, and it moved his chromosomes over a couple of steps. Beast Man is low on intelligence and high on strength. He’s evenly matched with Man-At-Arms, who is low on strength and high on intelligence.
He-Man and his allies don’t generally use magic. The only one that does use magic to some extent is Teela. Because of that, He-Man would never accept her as a true ally. She was always on the outside.
Despite that, He-Man was romantically interested in Teela, but he couldn’t show it – any weakness at this critical moment in history would give the evil forces an opportunity to use her against him. He-Man also doesn’t fully trust Teela because she dabbles in magic, and He-Man having history that his mother was killed by a sorceress type woman.
Teela didn’t give her allegiance blindly. She could hold Skeletor off for a while with magic, although she wasn’t as powerful as him. She could communicate with animals. She wasn’t evil, but she was in it for her own purposes. Her origins were mysterious, and she didn’t come into the world in a natural way.
[later known as Goddess thanks to DC Comics]
Originally the Sorceress was going to be a changeling according to Taylor.
She was intended to be like a spy and play both sides with some magic but the “professionals” felt that was too complex.
Mark has also said that, though initially “bad”, he had the idea that Sorceress could at times team up with either Skeletor or He-Man.
Zodac was originally good, as noted in Mark Taylor’s b-sheet art and text:
“Sensor: Man of the the future scientifically heightened senses, knowledge & weapons. Acts in support role to He-Man and as a foil to Tee-La’s mystic nature.“
“Zodac was all about flying. He was the air wing. I was influenced by Flash Gordon and the flying Vikings.” -Mark Taylor
Zodac has a lot of mystery. He’s not a bounty hunter as stated in some marketing materials. He doesn’t side with either He-Man or Skeletor completely. He wants to get into Castle Grayskull for his own reasons. He believes that the castle is a weapon that could tip the balance either way, and he wants to be able to control that weapon. He’s more familiar with mysterious technology and would understand how to use it. He’s not completely human – he may be a descendant of the people who constructed Castle Grayskull around the giant’s skull. At times he betrays He-Man and Skeletor.
Mer-Man was a prince in his respective kingdom. He was supposed to be evil [note: early Mattel documents indicated that Mer-Man was grouped with the heroes at one point – it’s possible that someone other than Mark made that designation]. Mer-Man had a rivalry with Stratos. Rather than Mer-Man shooting freezing water from his sword (in the Don Glut minicomics), Mer-Man would have had some kind of jellyfish sting associated with his sword.
Mer-Man could stay on land indefinitely, but he was at his best underwater, and could best even He-Man in that environment. Mer-Man was also very stealthy. In Taylor’s vision Mer-Man was Skeletor’s first recruit. Mer-Man also had the power to control sea animals.
Mer-Man would have had his own underwater playset, and there would have been more opportunity for underwater adventures. The playset/castle, like Castle Grayskull, would have grown over time with additional add-ons.
[According to Mark, both Stratos and Mer-Man were always the last two that kids picked to play with from the original lineup of toys that were tested.]
“Mer-Man tested the lowest. Tony Guerrero the great sculptor and I chased the negative child test comments until we finally realized the marketeers were just messing with us and then we went with what we had. Mer-Man was the weakest but people who like him really like him (I based him on Bernie Wrightson’s Swamp Thing).”
aka Wing Man akaBird Man aka Avatar*
Stratos was a prince in his respective kingdom.
[*Avatar is name that Stratos is referred in the 2006 audio-interview. Concept-artworks show working names like “Wing Man” and “Bird Man” only.]
Stratos would have been a prince of a mountainous kingdom, and would have had his own castle that would have been a playset. [Although Stratos was listed as evil in one or two of the early Mattel documents, in Mark’s mind Stratos was always heroic.]
Stratos had the ability to shoot a beam from his wrist. His primary power was flight, which was really defensive in a fight. The beam allowed him to hold off Skeletor for a while.
Stratos comes from a race of mountain-dwelling people who had evolved with specialized equipment and abilities for flight and for surviving very cold temperatures. Mark didn’t see this civilization as being highly technologically advanced, except for the fact that they had developed flight. Stratos had excellent vision, like an eagle or a hawk.
In the beginning the Wind Raider would have been something that Stratos found and used, but it became associated with Man-At-Arms because production on Stratos was delayed.
[The Wind Raider was actually intended to work as both a boat and an aircraft. Although the final vehicle design was done by Ted Mayer, Mark Taylor did some early drawings that described some of the vehicle’s features. For instance, when on the water, the wings would rotate up and act as “photo sails”. The anchor is described as a “power ram/grapnel.” The dragon design bears strong resemblance to a Viking ship’s figurehead.
He-Man found the Battle Ram parked in a cave. He had to try to find out how to work it, and he had assistance in that from Man-At-Arms. It’s a powerful device and it helps differentiate him from a medieval knight.
The front portion of the Battle Ram can hover over the ground, perhaps a foot and a half high. It can only travel for short distances. In order to go long distances, it must be ported with the rear half of the vehicle. It wasn’t necessarily a hovercraft – the source of its ability to hover was mysterious and inexplicable. It could be used as a battering ram as well. [in Mark’s canon, the Battle Ram doesn’t have the ability to teleport, unlike what was represented in minicomics].
MAN-E-FACES & RAM MAN
Battle Ram Blog: Did you have an origin story in mind when you designed Man-E-Faces? How about Ram Man?
Mark Taylor: Yes, but no one was interested, they wanted to ship it out immediately to animators and movie producers, you know “professionals”. I designed him to have a different and interesting feature besides a twist waist. All the answers to my original story are in clues in Castle Grayskull, where they should be like a puzzle.
We hope everyone enjoyed this piece. It was a lot of fun digging through many audio-files, interviews and video panels to discover the earliest story aspects from Mark Taylor himself.
We are grateful for the various interviewers who took the time to reach out to Mark and Rebecca over the years. We are especially grateful to Mark and Rebecca for always being willing to talk to fans about He-Man. Mark was a true visionary who will continue to be missed by all of his many fans. Happy 40th anniversary He-Man and the Masters of the Universe!
Christmas, 1982. Up until that point all of my toys consisted of trucks, stuffed animals and tricycles – fun but fairly pedestrian and bland stuff, mainly inherited from older siblings. Then, all at once, everything changed when He-Man, Skeletor, Man-At-Arms, and Beast Man emerged from under the Christmas tree like colorful, muscle-bound invaders from an alternate dimension.
I hadn’t even heard of these figures before opening them up, but the experience of opening and playing with these toys for the first time is permanently etched in my brain. In this article I’d like to explore what made Masters of the Universe so magical, why it was such a hit in 1980s, and whether its latest “Origins” incarnation can capture the magic again.
The most powerful man in the universe! Equal parts Conan, Tarzan, Luke Skywalker, Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant, He-Man was derivative of dozens of disparate but iconic characters. I wasn’t really aware of most of those influences of course. All I knew was the impact of the figure in front of me, and he looked like the ultimate hero. You didn’t need to know anything about his mythology to understand that he could take on any enemy and win. He was ridiculously muscular, to begin with. Beyond that, he had such a fierce, determined expression, you knew from looking at him that he would never back down, no matter how stacked the odds were against him. And of course his spartan costume and his edged weapons let you know he meant business.
Skeletor was visually the most striking of the four figures my brother and I opened on Christmas morning. If He-Man is the embodiment of life and vitality, Skeletor is the embodiment of death and decay. Of course I never would have described it in those terms at the age of 5, but the primordial and archetypal look of these characters gets the message across without using language. Because he was intended for younger children, he’s still quite colorful, but a blue-skinned evil warlord with a skull for a head is a pretty strong visual statement. I spent a lot of time studying the details of his hood, paint, and accessories.
Man-At-Arms stood out in many ways from the other four figures. While he still had a somewhat “barbarian” look and used a blunt mace as a weapon, his costume was festooned with all kinds of high-tech gadgets, and something that looked almost like a breathing apparatus. Man-At-Arms was something of a wild card, and I had to flip through the minicomics (most notably, He-Man and the Power Sword) to understand what he was really about. As an observant kid, I took note that He-Man’s arms were much bigger than Skeletor’s or Beast Man’s arms, but I was a little annoyed when I realized that Man-At-Arms had the same build as He-Man. I thought only He-Man should look that strong.
Beast Man actually belonged to my brother, but right away I was drawn to his vivid color scheme and beastly appearance, particularly his face with the big fangs and blue and white coloring (whether it was meant to be face paint or his natural coloring, I wasn’t sure). But what he represented was clear. His mouth was brimming with fangs I recall having a lot of fun taking his armor on and off, and he was a great villain for He-Man to clobber.
I clearly remember playing with Teela as a child. I don’t know if that means I owned her, or if she belonged to a sibling, but her gold and white costume and mysterious deep red snake armor were etched into my brain from an early age. To me her iconic look will always be her with the red snake armor, which had that mysterious and magical quality that permeated the first wave of Masters figures.
After we got the first four figures in our house in 1982, I was eagerly looking for what other figures were available in the line. The one that caught my eye the most was Mer-Man. And while the figure itself was significantly different compared to its cross sell artwork, I loved the figure from the moment I got it, and it remains probably my all-time favorite to this day. Why is that? It’s hard to quantify, but it has a lot to do with his coloring and his head sculpt. I want to say I got him around the same time as Zoar, but of course childhood memories are always a bit fuzzy.
I remember encountering Stratos for the first time at a friend’s house. A quirky looking figure with a jetpack and wings, he straddled the line between fantasy and science fiction, just like Man-At-Arms. I thought his goggles made him look futuristic.
Zodac was the most enigmatic of the original Masters crew. He had the most unabashed science-fiction feel, with his helmet and blaster. He has alien-looking arms and feet, but he didn’t look exactly villainous. He was always the dark horse of the original first wave of figures.
Battle Cat is one of the most iconic steeds from any 1980s fantasy property, toy-based or otherwise. Simultaneously familiar and alien, he was a fierce giant tiger with green fur and a highly ornate saddle and helmet. Who would dare ride such beast? Only the most powerful man in the universe.
Castle Grayskull really told its own story, in a way that unfolded gradually as you played with it. On the exterior, it’s a creepy and mysterious castle with a skull face at the front. It’s unclear if the skull was hewn out of the rock or if somehow it was once a living thing. Inside it’s not what you’d expect from the look of the exterior. There are computer monitors with complex buttons and wires, an elevator, and a futuristic space suit. There are weapons running the gamut from medieval to sci-fi. A two-sided flag, one clearly good, and one clearly evil. A dungeon with creepy monsters. And of course, a trap door. Where did it come from? Who does it belong to? It’s a story you can explore again and again using your figures as heroes and villains.
Why was I immediately hooked by Masters of the Universe? Well, I wasn’t alone. Even before the advent of the Filmation He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon, Masters figures were flying off the shelves faster than Mattel could replenish them. According to Mark Taylor, the designer behind all those early figures, Mattel was very cautious about the line to begin with, and its runaway success took everyone by surprise. In the first 10 months of its retail existence, the Masters of the Universe line sold five million figures and accounted for 19% of the male action figure market—all this during the height of Star Wars.
In an interview with former Mattel Marketing Director Mark Ellis (conducted by Danielle Gelehrter in 2013), Ellis mentioned that part of the psychology behind Masters had to do with power fantasy:
What became clear was that for a five year old, power was a central issue because seemingly they were always being bossed around. Psychologically, they wanted to be the boss. They wanted the power. This then was manifested in the figure by making him “the strongest man in the universe.” The idea is, if you are in charge of the most powerful man in the universe, then this feeds directly into the “why” of their play. As the line developed, the phrase “I have the power” was born to emphasis that point.
That concept is mentioned in a February 1983 article about fantasy and power themes in boy’s action figures. Power Lords, MOTU, Star Wars, and GI Joe toys are all covered.
Certainly that power fantasy was a draw for most kids. We all wanted to have more power, but as children, we have very little control over our own lives. Beyond that I think there is another factors that explains why He-Man and his world captured the imagination of our generation: visual design.
Masters of the Universe, at its best, taps into a visual design language that bypasses speech and goes right to the heart of storytelling. The best designs aren’t too simplistic, but not overbaked. Colorful but grounded in realism. The look of each character tells you what they can do and what side they’re on. One look at He-Man and Skeletor tells you what these characters are about. The minicomics that came each figure gave kids a rough outline of what kinds of adventures the toys could take them on, but they were often contradictory and light on plot. It didn’t matter though – the characters really spoke for themselves. The artwork that came with the toys give you stories without any words.
Man-E-Faces is the classic shapeshifter who wears many disguises and can switch from ally to enemy and back again. Zodac fills the role of the herald, a mysterious outsider who delivers the message that changes things for the heroes and villains. Man-At-Arms is the faithful ally, or sometimes mentor character – you can see it in the lines of his face. The potential for endless stories is all there, and you don’t even need to know anything about the various official mythologies to get started.
The characters were for the most part produced in bright primary and secondary colors. These are the colors the appeal most to children, as opposed to pastels or neutral colors. Conan characters certainly had an influence on MOTU, but the Hyperborean world was rather drab in comparison to Eternia. The combination of striking character designs, bright colors and classic archetypes all came together to create a line that was truly greater than the sum of its parts.
The Magic Continues?
Adult fans of Masters of the Universe have often speculated whether the property could enjoy the same success it had in the 1980. The 1989 sci-fi reboot, while appreciated by me, was not wildly successful. The 2002 reboot met a premature end after only a couple of years. Collector only lines have been successful since then, but Mattel hasn’t put out a line of He-Man figures at retail in nearly twenty years. That changes of course with the new MOTU Origins line.
The Origins line will be supported by not one but two Netflix He-Man cartoons, coming out in 2021. Mattel has already put out figures in Walmart stores, and reportedly they’ve sold very well even without support from a cartoon. Unlike previous retail reboots, this line not only adds more articulation, but it maintains the bold colors of the original line, and, for the most part, the original looks of the characters.
It seems to be aimed at a younger audience too, which I think may play a role in it catching on better with kids this time, while their interests are still being developed. My own son loved Masters of the Universe when he was four and five years old, but he only played it with me. His friends didn’t know anything about it, so he grew out of it fairly quickly. If there had been a contemporary show associated with it, and if some of his friends had been fans, I think it would have been a different story.
Will MOTU Origins capture the magic of the original? Only time will tell. But as a lifelong fan, I have to say I’m thrilled to see the familiar red and blue Masters logo in toy stores again. Here’s hoping that lightning will strike twice for Masters of the Universe.
Look for this article in Spanish in the next issue ofMundo Masters.
Post script: I contributed to the upcoming Dark Horse book, The Toys of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. It’s available to pre-order now!
Buying the exclusive combo pack (which includes a supplemental character guide) supports me and all the other contributors to these books: http://toyguide.thepower-con.com
You can also purchase the individual toy guide at Amazon or through Big Bad Toy Store. Thank you and Merry Christmas!