Masters of the Universe probably could not have happened in any decade other than the 80s. In 1982, it came at the heels of two disparate but very popular movie franchises – Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian. Those influences weighed heavily on the first wave of He-Man figures, playsets and vehicles. Almost every figure, although generally barbaric in appearance, featured some kind of subtle sci-fi element. Even the grim, Frazetta influenced Castle Grayskull had a laser turret and a computer system.
As the line grew long in the tooth it tended rely more on gimmicks, but the early figures were mostly about cool designs. Mattel artist Mark Taylor was responsible for the lion’s share of the early figures and for Castle Grayskull. Ted Mayer assisted with the sculpting of Castle Grayskull and created the line’s first two vehicles, Battle Ram and Wind Raider. He also went on to design many of the 1985-1987 figures.
It’s normal for toys to have some inconsistency between first promotional material and finished product. That happened all the time in the Filmation He-Man and the Masters of the Universe Series. Filmation would receive early concept art for a figure and create a story based on that art. By the time the toy came out it would sometimes be radically different.
For young kids in the 80s, often the first glimpse of upcoming figures came from the cross sell art on the back of MOTU packaging. When Mattel released the first four figures in 1982, we could see on the back of the package that more were coming.
A lot of us already had our He-Man, Skeletor, Beast Man and Man-At-Arms figures. But who were these other guys? Mer-Man especially caught my eye. These were the first action figures I ever had, and the idea of an aquatic half-man half-fish warrior really fascinated me.
Below: the cross sell art for Mer-Man comes in varying shades of green, generally. Early examples (such as on test market cards) tend to be more bluish. The original art may have had straight blue skin, as show in the first image below, but varying degrees of yellow tint may have been used to shift him into the green spectrum.
Those of us who got in on the very first release of He-Man and Skeletor lived with that cardback image of Mer-Man for months. Imagine our surprise when we got this instead:
The gloves and shin guards were unpainted. The sword bore a closer resemblance to corn than coral (note: I am informed by Mantisaur82 that Mer-Man’s sword is supposed to be a weapon made from a sawfish rostrum, and that actual weapons have been made after this fashion). The furry shorts were orange instead of yellow. The armor’s detail was softened considerably. And most of all, the design of the face seemed markedly different from the cross sell art we had memorized.
A lot of MOTU collectors talk about Mer-Man a little bitterly. Like they were so disillusioned with the way the toy was changed from the artwork that it soured them on the figure. And yes, as a kid I was a little dismayed at the difference at first. But when I really looked at him closely, I realized I was still kind of in love with Mer-Man. And let’s face it, he looks a lot more villainous in his toy form than he did on the card back illustration.
Mer-Man’s initial concept design (by Mark Taylor) was actually quite different from both the action figure and the cross sell art. The original concept (known as “Sea Man”) would have had unique legs, arms and a scaly loin cloth. The cross sell art cut down on the fishy details, and the toy version even more so.
Below is the early Mer-Man prototype, sculpted by Tony Guerrero. Notice the model is very faithful to the concept art, down to the pose.
Mer-Man’s revised sword design is laid out in the Mark Taylor B-sheet design below. Note that the teeth of the sword don’t go out as far as the edge of the sword. I’m sure this had to do with limitations of manufacturing technology at the time.
Mer-Man’s final, hand-painted prototype appears below. The sculpt is identical to the mass produced toy, except the sword is missing the hand guard.
If you take a close look at the head on the original concept art, it’s actually somewhere between the somewhat goofy cardback and the simplified but more intense vintage toy face. In fact, if you were to color that original concept design just like the vintage toy (as I did below), it would be much clearer that they were really the same basic character, just simplified, recolored and made a bit meaner looking.
But why were the painted gloves and shin guards removed? Almost certainly to cut costs. The second half of the first wave of figures that came out in 1982 (Mer-Man, Stratos, Teela, Zodac) all had reduced paint apps and/or accessories compared to the first four (He-Man, Skeletor, Beast Man, Man-At-Arms). This despite the fact that the line outsold all expectations, even in the first year. Mark Taylor and Ted Mayer have both said that Mattel was very reluctant to invest money in new tooling for the MOTU line, even after its unexpected success.
The first (1982) release of Mer-Man had his belt painted green, as shown previously. Subsequent releases left the belt unpainted. I would assume the idea was to cut costs, and much of the belt was obscured by his armor anyway.
The first edition Mer-Man came packed on the “8-back” cardback (pictured earlier in this post), while reissues starting in 1983 featured a painted scene by artist Errol McCarthy:
Mer-Man was also sold in a giftset with Battle Armor Skeletor and Webstor, and in a JCPenny giftset with the original Skeletor.
I’ve heard scuttlebutt around the internet that Mer-Man was originally conceived of as a heroic warrior from an oceanic world that was destroyed. However, I’ve never seen any real evidence that Mer-Man was once heroic. Even in the first mini comic, where Stratos’ affiliations seem to be with Skeletor, Mer-Man was portrayed as an evil warrior.
Update: I finally saw some evidence for Mer-Man as a heroic warrior. An early internal Mattel document describes him this way: “Mer-Man – uses his aquatic powers to help He-Man.”
Interestingly, in Mattel’s 1982 dealer catalog, Mer-Man is not explicitly affiliated with either Skeletor or He-Man:
According to designer Mark Taylor, Mer-Man wasn’t the most popular toy when the figures were undergoing child testing:
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).
Perhaps because he didn’t test as well as other early characters, Mer-Man nearly went into the bin of rejected concepts. As Mark Taylor explained:
Well, they almost rejected Mer-Man. They didn’t understand him, and wanted to take him out of the line. I had a hard time convincing them to keep him. I said “Don’t you understand? There has to be someone who lives in the water!” I was envisioning a magnificent line of toys that could be played with in the water. Decades later, George Lucas did a similar thing in The Phantom Menace. I worked for the US Navy for almost ten years in the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, so I really wanted to do undersea stuff. I was a diver, and I felt the mysticism of being under water. That’s such an amazing area to get into.
Mer-Man’s most notable minicomic appearances are probably in the first four, written by Don Glut and illustrated by Alfredo Alcala. In the series, the design of the character is based on Mark Taylor’s early concept art (and in Battle In The Clouds, based on Mer-Man’s cross sell art. In this series, Mer-Man is arguably Skeletor’s most competent and dangerous ally:
Likewise, Mer-Man is a formidable foe in the early Golden Book MOTU stories:
Perhaps Mer-Man’s strangest appearance is in Leech – The Master of Power Suction Unleashed. For whatever reason, Mer-Man is depicted with a beard:
In the Filmation He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon, Mer-Man was again one of Skeletor’s most devious and competent allies. As king of his own undersea kingdom, he often undertook plots against the heroic warriors apart from Skeletor.
Of course, that didn’t mean he wasn’t still tossed around by He-Man at the end of the day:
Mer-Man’s filmation design seems to be a simplified version of Mark Taylor’s original concept design, complete with the yellow gloves and boots. However when Filmation was producing an early He-Man Television commercial, they came up with a model for Mer-Man that was closely based on the actual toy:
In Filmation’s Series Guide, Mer-Man looks like a cross between his vintage toy and and Mark Taylor’s concept art. In the description below, it’s mentioned that Mer-Man has command over sea creatures (similar to Beast Man’s command over beasts of the land). In this description, Mer-Man’s powers can be effected by the tides, although that wasn’t really explored in the cartoon:
Mer-Man makes various appearances in box art and posters as well, and his design is usually based either on his cross sell artwork or his 1982 toy:
Mer-Man underwent subtle and radical redesigns in different media over the years. He may be the most inconsistently portrayed character in all of MOTU. He’s also my favorite. There’s something about him I’ve always found fascinating and a little bit mysterious.
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29 thoughts on “Mer-Man: Ocean warlord! (1982)”
Amazing post! Thanks a lot! Please continue!
Very cool, very informative post. Thank you!!
Great job with this blog! I also have a special place in my heart for Mer-Man, as he was my first Master. Keep up the great (and informative) work!
Thanks Dan! He’s my favorite figure overall, so I had to start with him.
It was the right thing to do!
Thank you very much for this! he’s my favorite character.
Thanks, mine too!
Interesting that Mark went to the Phantom Menace on the subject of underwater toys. What was he thinking of? The Gungan submarine?
I would guess that’s what he was thinking of – or the whole Gungan City
This is my favorite rendition of Mer-Man, from the ‘Caverns of Fear’ storybook and cassette that i had as a kid, to me this is most badass Mer-Man possible even if he isn’t ‘toy-accurate’ http://www.he-man.org/assets/images/collect_toy/page10_full.jpg
That’s a great one. He’s like the cardback Mer-Man with the colors used on the toy (albeit with greenish armor).
As mentioned on previous comments I’ve left, I was always primarily a huge fan of the early origin stages of the line and it’s characters, and as such owned most of the figures from the classic first two waves, but – like Beast Man – for some reason never got round to saving my pocket money to add Mer Man to my childhood collection. I really liked the character, he looked awesome in various depictions, but as others also seem to feel, the actual figure itself didn’t really live up to most of those illustrations. The head was the biggest disappointment, it looked too ‘cat like’ over the back-of-box artwork (little surprise that it was later recycled for Stinkor), though it may now appear that it resembled the appearance of the earliest concept sketches, and maybe the colours didn’t ‘pop’ as well as some of the artwork – the body colour seems a little drab over some of the more vibrant illustrations of the character.
Something that always stood out to me about the original figure’s head, is that he appeared to have ‘hair’ sculpted on the back of his head, or at least what resembled hair. Whereas many depictions of Mer Man seem to portray him as having a bald fish-like head, the actual figure did seem to resemble some sort of haircut!
It wasn’t until the Classics version many years later that a more pleasing version of the figure was realised, complete with alternate ‘box art’-style head. Also interesting that, since the 200x incarnation, Mer Man has also carried a trident staff – which I (and I suspect others) had often drawn him with as a child, given his ocean connections.
Either way, as one of the earliest characters from the line, Mer Man is a key character (although was reduced to odd cameos in later years) and it’s interesting how he is portrayed in different media. In many he is portrayed as a cold, cruel ocean warlord who very much works of his own will and has struck an alliance with Skeletor out of convenience to both parties (this cold ‘solo’ warrior even carried over to Filmation, a pleasing change from the many ‘dumbed down’ bumbling evil warriors), whereas in a few portrayals, including interestingly the very early mini-comics, he is seen more as a cowering, weak willed lackey, given more to following Skeletor’s orders (maybe even seen as as slave to Skeletor). I think the different possibly portrayals of characters, and their evolution, is one of the thing that appeals about the franchise to so many fans, including myself.
It’s also interesting to read that one of the earliest character suggestions about the Mer Man that he might have been a heroic warrior, the last of an aquatic race wiped out by Skeletor.
I believe that when they were working on the actual toy’s head, at some point something went wrong. The facesculpt is too weird (a permanet surprised “WTF” look, in my opinon ahahah) and the haircut is totally out of place: imho someone made some mistakes and by the time that they noted it was too late (and prolly too costly, since they had limited budget at the time) to go backward and correct it.
Hello ! Could you please tell me what is the third picture on this page (control panel ?) ? I have it in my attic among hundreds of vintage toys, and I don’t know where it goes !!!
Thank you very much,
Hi Katerine, it goes inside Castle Grayskull. See this picture for reference:
Oh ! That’s cool ! And so fast ! I should have asked you sooner ! Thank you very much for helping a senior French lady trying to sort out hundreds of toys from 1979 ! One less to wonder about… Let’s go back to the attic ! Best regards and again all my thanks, Katerine
I think Mer-Man was the first Masters of the Universe action figure I ever had. Those things were selling like hotcakes when they first came out, and it took me quite some time to locate He-Man and Skeletor. I guess since he was not too well liked by kids there were a lot more Mer-Man figures on the toy shelves.
Is there any known very early blister with the blue Merman on it? As far as I’ve seen, I only know very early cards with already the green version.
If such “blue merman” blisters actually exist, they must be a total collector’s holy grail!
(I meant a drawing of a blue Merman on the cadback, as the article mentions)
I just found the answer on the article itself. Was it already there and I just didn’t see it? In any case, thanks!
Hi, I updated it after reading your comment – I forgot to let you know. Thanks!
Curiously enough, I just found this!
From this page (this is apparently the front of the blister):
It is a G1 figure. This is the first blue Mer-Man card that I’ve ever seen. Actually all the earlier “G0” He-Man cards I’ve seen depict a quite green Mer-Man.
How could we explain this blue Merman appearing on a G1 card when the G0 depict him green?
Ah, examining that webpage I see they are using the very same cardback for every toy. So this one doesn’t belong to that carded Heman.
In fact looking at the series number, apparently the blue Merman cardback belongs to a Zodac. Probably this one:
Still doesn’t solve the question on what is this blue Merman doing on a Taiwan G1 figure, specially in the later Wave 1 release (Zodac)
Interesting. The blue might be exaggerated somewhat by the lighting – that happens, especially if it’s not a scan or if it’s a photo with insufficient lighting. Sometimes the colors are artificially shifted
That was my first thought too, yes. But the rest of the characters look the same to me, I cannot perceive any alteration anywhere else. The green on Man-At-Arms pants shouldn’t be more blueish too, or at least not so green, or some altered somehow, even if it’s on the upper side of the card with better light? There are no tother radical change of colours anywhere, as we should spect if lighting was the cause.
Besides I cannot see any degradation of lighting anywhere else whatsoever. Maybe only in Beastman, which appears to be a brighter orange on its right arm, but is still orange.
Of course it appears to be a photo, not a scan, and that’s always tricky. And the fact that we don’t know any other example of this is also weird.
I just think it’s quite a coincidence I found this right after asking the question about blue merman on cards.
I am thinking you could be right about your theory on the the original artwok of Merman being originally blue, then changed on the cards adding yellow. We know the “Lords of Power” Merman prototype was already green. But on the minicomics Merman changes colour from pure blue, to blueish green, to green, and assuming the minicomics were made around same time or slightly after the “Lords of Power” protypes (since the minicomics use the “Lords of Power” designs but adding new elements like the Power Sword) we could assume they were still unsure on what the final colour for Merman would be. The original card (or “prototype” card, made before final production) could have been made at the same time as the minicomics too, depicting a blue Merman. Then as the final colour for Merman was decided they changed the cards adding some yellow on Merman, as you pointed.
So this G1 card could be, maybe, a print of the very very early card, that for some reason passed into production unnoticed?