Playsets

Castle Grayskull prototype – a closer look

page-8

The prototype Castle Grayskull was not something that most fans had ever seen until relatively recently. Certainly as kids we were oblivious to its existence. It did, however, make its way into story books, mini comics, games, and cross sell artwork. Many of us wondered why the castle in the early mini comics looked so different from the one in our collections.

In my recent interview with Mark and Rebecca Taylor, Mark said:

“I [sculpted the castle] because Tony [Guerrero] was busy with the figures and the other sculptors kept making it too architectural.  I wanted it to the castle to be organic, coming to life to tell its story.  I made a wood armature and sculpted it in green clay. Ted [Mayer] helped with the plaster mold and vacuum forming, Rebecca did the labels…  The imaginative user applied labels themselves to offset the lack of interior walls.”

The exterior of the prototype Castle Grayskull was similar in many respects to the final toy, but there were many notable differences as well.

proto ext2 good
Prototype exterior
proto ext1 good
Prototype exterior
Front-facing view of another copy of the early prototype. Jawbridge closed. Image via Andy Youssi.
Prototype castle, facing the front of both halves. Image via Andy Youssi.
Toy exterior
Mass-produced toy exterior

There are several details on the prototype exterior that are missing or altered in the final toy that I’d like to draw your attention to:

Pawn
Pawn-like design on top of the helmet
Ledge
Ledge
Jaw bridge and teeth
Ghoulish, rounded teeth and small jaw bridge
Laser - front view
Laser turret made from Micronauts Hornetroid parts
Turret
Extended tower
Rocks
Deeper rock base
Side - no handle
No handle over the battlements
Extended turret roof
Extended tower roof
Deeper recess - hidden door
Deeper recess with hidden door
Moat PAH
Play mat (image via The Power and the Honor Foundation)
“Evil” side flag with skull face. Image via Andy Youssi.
“Good” side flag with He-Man axe. Image via Andy Youssi.

Many of these design elements found their way into the Castle as depicted in Golden Books, mini comics, DC Comics, and other sources, as well both versions of the cross sell artwork.

Alc CS CR
Cross Sell artwork by Alfredo Alcala, based very closely on the original prototype; appeared on the backs of the first four mini comics
Alc CS BW
Cross Sell artwork by Alfredo Alcala, in black and white
Castle Grayskull Cross Sell Best
Cross Sell artwork that appeared on the back of MOTU packaging. It is based closely on the prototype castle, but omits the “pawn” and adds a handle on the side

Below: He-Man and the Power Sword, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala. In all of Alcala’s early artwork, Castle exteriors are almost 100% faithful to the prototype design. In a couple of panels, however, the ledge is omitted:

Below: King of Castle Grayskull, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala. Notice that Skeletor opens the jaw bridge through a lock located to the right of the entrance. I’m not sure if this was a feature Mattel intended to add – I don’t see any indication of it in the prototype. In the final toy, the lock was located on the jaw bridge itself.

page-6
page-22

Below: The Sword of Skeletor, illustrated by Fred Carillo:

08
Featuring the “pawn” design on top of Grayskull helmet
09
Teeth are similar to the prototype, but cleaner looking. Like the Alcala depictions, the “lock” is located to the right of the jaw bridge

To Tempt The Gods, pencils by George Tuska, inks by Alfredo Alcala:

00 cover
Castle features “pawn”, ghoulish teeth and extended turret.
09
Castle features “pawn”, ledge, and ghoulish teeth

The Trap, illustrated by Dan Spiegle:

07
Somewhat ghoulish teeth, although cleaner looking than the prototype. Like the Alcala depictions, the lock is located to the right of the jaw bridge

Masters of the Universe Pop-Up game:

BFE Grayskull
Ghoulish teeth, “pawn” design on helmet, extended turret; colors match the prototype as well
grayskull 2
Ledge is visible from this angle

From the 1984 UK Annual:

39
Features the Alfredo Alcala cross sell artwork
scan_0155_full
From the 1983 Golden: Paint ‘N’ Marker Book. Image source: He-Man.org
RL Allen
Artwork by R.L. Allen, showing the ledge and “pawn” from the prototype castle. Unlike all other depictions I’ve seen, the ledge here looks very squared-off an architectural.
04
Prototype castle, from the 1986 UK MOTU Annual. Image via He-Man.org

The interior of the prototype Castle was also different in many ways from the final toy:

Proto Grayskull interior
Prototype interior
Toy interior
Toy interior

There are various details on the prototype interior missing or altered in the final toy:

Throne
A kingly throne rather than the futuristic dentist’s chair on the final toy
Trap Door
Trap door – more rectangular with a different sticker design
Ladder
Single rail ladder that hooked into the floor of the highest turret
Dungeon
Manacles with chains and a different dungeon grate design
Combat Trainer bop bag secret door
A more three-dimensional combat trainer; a punching bag; the secret side door entrance, partially open (behind the combat trainer)
Combat trainer concept drawing by Mark Taylor; image via the Power & Honor Foundation Catalog
Computer
Computer decals
Elevator weapons sticker
Circular elevator with skull-themed back; additional weapons rack sticker
Elevator top
Red skull design at the top of the elevator
Jet Pack
Bat-winged backpack
Torture rack
Torture rack
Laser - back view
Laser turret – rear view

Elements from the interior of the prototype also found their way into mini comics and story books:

Below: He-Man and the Power Sword, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala

11
Teela on the torture rack

Below: King of Castle Grayskull, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala. There are many interior shots featuring the prototype throne, trap door, ladder, computer systems and laser turret:

Below: The Sword of Skeletor, illustrated by Fred Carillo, features several scenes depicting the prototype throne:

Below: The Trap, illustrated by Dan Spiegle, also features the prototype throne:

08
09

This is of course not exhaustive. I’m sure aspects of the prototype castle made it into other vintage Masters of the Universe media or collectibles.

While Mattel made several changes to the castle before its release in 1982, at least one bootleg manufacturer seemed to take inspiration directly from depictions of the prototype Castle Grayskull:

Galaxy Warriors bootleg 2
Image via ebay.com
Galaxy Warriors bootleg 1
Image via ebay.com

Return to Table of Contents.

Playsets

Castle Grayskull: Fortress of mystery and power (1982)

Maybe it’s just my fan bias, but I can’t think of a more iconic playset than Castle Grayskull. To be sure there have been many great ones over the years from Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Ninja Turtles, GoBots and other lines. But I can’t think of one that’s as instantly recognizable and universally beloved as Castle Grayskull. But there’s no way I’m ever going to be objective about it, so why even try?

Castle Grayskull was released as the flagship item of the new Masters of the Universe line in 1982. Priced at about $20 ($50 now, accounting for inflation), the castle was marketed as being very much up for grabs by the heroes or the villains. When you’ve got a toy line with only one playset (as was the case in the first year), it helps to have one that can be controlled by either side. The play pattern was this: the castle could only be entered by combining both halves of the power sword. All kinds of traps and perils awaited the unwary inside, but great magical and technological power would belong to whoever controlled the castle. A two-sided flag would indicate which of the forces controlled the castle at any one time.

Design & Development

Castle Grayskull originates with a sketch by Mark Taylor, created in 1975, before he started working at Mattel (information gathered by Dejan Dimitrovski). As you can see in the drawing below, the face and teeth are very similar to the final Castle’s design. However, the rest of the details (especially the turrets) are quite different. Interestingly, the skull face is hooded, like Skeletor’s:

Artwork by Mark Taylor, 1979. Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation, via The Art of He-Man.

Mark rendered another version of the castle in 1979 (below). This version looks a bit more recognizable, but it’s far more ornate on the turrets and crown than versions that followed. The face is, at least, quite recognizable, and was carried into the first prototype. It also retains the torches on either side of the entrance from the previous version. You can see there are are dock pilings at the entrance, where you might expect teeth:

Image source: Rebecca Salary Taylor
Color version, from Mark Taylor’s “Sketches 1” portfolio. Image courtesy of Doug Feague.

Mark Taylor sculpted the prototype castle himself (with some assistance from Ted Mayer). They weren’t experienced sculptors, but according to Mayer Mattel’s in-house sculptors made a version for them that was far too boxy and conventional-looking. Frustrated, Taylor and Mayer procured a large quantity of clay and created this prototype (images are from The Power and the Honor Foundation Catalog):

This version of Grayskull looks much more familiar to us than Mark Taylor’s original drawing, but there are still some key differences from the final playset. The jaw bridge and mouth opening are pretty small and the teeth look ghoulish and blunt. The helmet is tall and rounded and features a pawn-like piece on top. There is no carrying handle on the back side of the playset. There is also a ledge on the side of the left facing tower for figures to stand on. And in general there is a bit more depth to the sculpt than was apparent in the final toy.

The inside of the prototype was quite different from the final toy as well. The elevator platform was circular rather than rectangular, and the throne looked like it came straight out of a medieval palace. There was a jet pack, a torture rack and a few other goodies. The prototype castle sat on a play mat that worked as a kind of moat. Unfortunately the moat didn’t appear in the final version.

This is a reproduction of the original play mat. Source: The Power and the Honor Foundation.

There were apparently multiple copies made of the prototype, as is evident in these promotional images (shared by Andy Youssi):

The prototype, while different in many key ways from the final playset, nevertheless served as the basis for the cross sell artwork and also appeared in a number of comic books by Alfredo Alcala:

This cross sell art is slightly different from the prototype. The “pawn” has been removed and a handle has been added.
Cross sell art by Alfredo Alcala, more closely based on the prototype

Interestingly, the turret canon on the prototype Grayskull was cobbled together from several pieces of a Micronauts Hornetroid (this fact was first discovered by Björn Korthof). Here’s another look at that canon:

Here are the original Hornetroid pieces that were used to create it:

The final playset probably lost the “pawn”, ledge and play mat due to packaging limitations. Many details on the final sculpt were relatively unaltered, but the mouth opening was enlarged significantly. In the version below, the sculpt is final, but it looks like it was painted by hand. No production Castle Grayskull ever had paint work this fine. This version made it into a lot of catalogs and was used in the first TV commercials:

Production Toy

Now let’s take a look at the actual production toy:

As you can see, there were many large and small changes from the prototype castle, especially in the interior. The combat trainer was flattened and simplified. The ladder was given two side rails instead of one in the center. The laser canon was changed out for a newly sculpted version. The elevator was made to be rectangular and was operated by gargoyle power. The updated throne looked a bit more science fiction than medieval fantasy (it probably was changed to allow the figures to sit in it more easily).

Trap Door Patent

On December 21, 1981, Mattel filed for a patent on the trap door mechanism (inventors of the mechanism were listed as Raymond J. Douglas, Herbert May, Jeffrey B. Poznick, and Roger H. Sweet). The related drawings show the updated version of the throne:

From the patent application:

The toy trap door mechanism 10 of the present invention may be easily incorporated into a variety of toys and games where it is desired to provide an element of suspense or surprise. For example, miniature toy figures may be employed, one of which (a hero) sits on the throne or chair 48, and the other of which (a villain) stands on the trap door 16. When the hero turns in his chair 48, the villain is dropped through the trap door 16.

Castle Dungeon

The dungeon grate sticker was still there, but the final version was decorated with some delightfully creepy creatures:


“If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you”

This thing fascinated me as a kid. I spent a lot of time staring at it, imagining what the various beasties and creepy crawlers would look like if you could see the rest of them. This apparently was the representation of Mark Taylor’s “well of souls” idea. Skeletor spent many years in there and the experience turned him into the evil lord of destruction. In a Q&A, Mark Taylor wrote:

“The visible Castle rises above a fetid Lake/Mote inhabited with assorted exotic and dangerous flora and fauna, the castle extends seven levels/floors into the bedrock of the lake. Each level distorts reality i.e. time and space more than the one above. For example; the levels below the weapons storage room (Armory) start with all the weapons that exists within one century each way from the present (MOTU time), the floor below that within five centuries years each way and so on.

“The Pit of Souls is a [dungeon] containing undying monsters from the beginning and end of time that also extends into the time and space continuum (probably a miniature black hole). The powers of the castle are linked to these evil captives, Skeletor and his minions would love them released but also fear their potential. One must be very careful when listening to their consul because they are extremely clever and totally evil.

The elevator when properly programmed (secret code) drops into these descending levels, of course, with each level potential danger as well as power lurks… This is obviously not the Eternia envisioned by marketing at Mattel, it is my world of He Man.”

Rebecca Salari Taylor (Mark’s wife) did the artwork for the dungeon sticker, as well as all the other stickers and cardboard pieces used in the castle:

Paint Variations

The exterior of the production Castle Grayskull was given several shades of black and pea green spray paint in an attempt to add depth. Sometimes this was successful and sometimes it was not. Some Castles, depending on country of origin or year produced, had extraordinarily sloppy paint work. None of them were close to the model used for catalogs and advertising.

There was an early version of the castle that had paint work that was much less sloppy than subsequent releases. It had far less paint than the prototype, but what paint it had was applied much more carefully. This version appears in the 1982 Mattel Wish List.  I’ve only ever seen one example in the wild:

Image courtesy of Unsung Woodworks
Image courtesy of Unsung Woodworks

In rare occasions you could even encounter a castle that hadn’t been painted at all:

Image courtesy of Chris Stone.

Packaging Art

The box art for the castle is, of course, probably the most iconic piece of artwork done for the entire line, which is really saying something. Rudy Obrero‘s depiction of Castle Grayskull was instantly transfixing and mysterious. It probably sold the toy almost single handedly for that first year. As discussed in my Wind Raider post, Obrero was given no notes on characters and assumed that the castle belonged to Skeletor, based on its appearance. In retrospect, Obrero wasn’t really in error on this. At this time in the brand’s history, the castle could belong to whatever warrior was powerful enough to hold on to it. It wasn’t established as a permanent base for heroic characters until later.

Kid magnet

The box itself featured the Obrero art on front, some product pictures (with prototype figures) on the sides, and line art on the back featuring the castle and the first year’s figures and vehicles. The line art was made by tracing early product photos. The line art was altered after the first year to show off some of the new figures, and was created from the full color cross sell artwork that was featured on the backs of the figure and vehicle packaging.

First release version
Second release version

On the Brazilian Estrela version of the box, the front and back artwork was modified for some reason. Even the product photos were changed out. Something similar was done with the artwork on the Estrela Battle Ram box.

Animation

One of the most iconic depiction of Castle Grayskull came from the Filmation cartoon. The cartoon design was quite unique. The teeth were enlarged and the proportions of the towers and helmet were changed. While the toy version contained quite a few technological artifacts, the Filmation version was pure fantasy (images via Jukka Issakainen).

Several of these images come from the Eternian Backgrounds blog, which is worth visiting. Also see the Inside Grayskull blog for some great shots of the castle interior.

Update: James Eatock recently surfaced an image of the remains of the creature, in the Filmation universe, that held up Castle Grayskull from underground. The creature was never shown in the actual cartoon:

For those of us who grew up in the 80s, every week we saw Prince Adam getting out of jams by invoking the power of Grayskull. No matter where he was at the time, the sequence would flash him back to the front of the fortress of mystery and power, amid flashing magical lightning and a pulse-pounding musical score. Castle Grayskull was burned into our brains.

The Filmation animated commercial, by contrast, gave us a more toy-accurate depiction of the castle:

Other Depictions

No blog post on Castle Grayskull could be exhaustive – there is simply too much to cover. I may need to revisit the topic in a future post.

Castle Grayskull in Action

Øyvind Meisfjord has kindly contributed the following image and videos of the castle in action:

Return to Table of Contents.