Released late in the first year of Masters of the Universe figures, Stratos was one of the few from that 1982 that I didn’t own as a kid. I remember encountering him for the first time at a friend’s house: “Who’s this guy? Oh yeah, I remember seeing him in the comics. Where’s his weapon? No weapon? I guess it’s cool that he can fly. Is he a flying monkey?”
Design & Development
Stratos, designed by Mark Taylor, appears to have been originally conceived as a villain.
Given the working name “Bird Man” (also, perhaps “Wing Man”) Stratos was intended to have the hairy arms and legs of Beast Man, but the furless homo sapiens chest of He-Man.
The body in the B-sheet isn’t fully colored, but a bit of color on the chest indicates a tentative flesh tone or orange color scheme. However, he could also be interpreted as having a light gray body. His wings are blue, and his red backpack attaches around his waist and his neck. That design comes through in the first mini comics drawn by Alfredo Alcala, depicted as first a villain and then a hero, although he didn’t always include the jetpack:
Eventually his backpack was redesigned and his body color was changed to gray, which was reflected in the last mini comic of 1982. The colors of his backpack and arm feathers were also reversed:
This design also appears in the cross sell art:
Notice in this hand-painted prototype (with another redesign to the chest harness), Stratos has a hairless chest, which matches up with the original Mark Taylor B-Sheet and the cross sell art:
This image from the 1984 Annual (which used images taken from early prototypes) makes it clearer that Stratos had a smooth chest. This design makes him seem far less animalistic:
I thought I had found yet another prototype of Stratos in a German promotional booklet. The harness seems to have a criss-cross pattern on the front, which reminded me a little of the cross sell art. But I think this is simply a case of the photographer putting the harness on incorrectly:
Eventually it was decided that Stratos would have the same furry chest as Beast Man:
There were some variations of early production versions of Stratos. Some came with blue wings and a red backpack, and others with red wings and a blue backpack. The rarest version had a blue beard and gray goggles.
The blue beard version of Stratos is the very first version released. It’s probably a factory error. Even though Mark Taylor’s original color scheme included a blue beard (and blue goggles), pre-production prototypes all had gray beards.
The red wing/gray beard version is probably the most popular, as he was most frequently depicted in this color scheme:
Of course the blue wing/gray beard version has its fan base too:
The first editions of Stratos was packaged on the “eight back” style card.
Later versions were packaged in the “12 back” card and featured this scene on the card back by artist Errol McCarthy:
Stratos appears fairly frequently in early minicomics, although his appearances gradually taper off in later years.
Aside from the afore-mentioned first year minicomics, Stratos takes a starring role in Siege of Avion, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala and written by Michael Halperin. The story is based on Filmation’s He-Man espisode, “Reign of the Monster”. In the story, as in the cartoon, Stratos is the leader of Avion, home to a race of bird people. Both stories revolve around the Staff of Avion and Skeletor’s plot to steal it.
Stratos is a supporting character throughout the 1982-1983 run of Masters of the Universe comics by DC Comics.
Stratos appears in the early Golden Book stories as well, and plays a particularly strong role in The Trap:
He also plays a strong role in The Sunbird Legacy, where we see a different take on the people of Avion. Stratos’ compatriots were shown in the familiar gray/blue/red colors but given unique headgear and wings on their backs :
Stratos made occasional appearances in the Filmation cartoon. He wasn’t depicted as a flying ape-like creature. He looks instead like a human in a kind of flight suit.
Of course, in the Filmation Series Guide he looks a lot closer to the toy:
Stratos also makes some appearances in Rudy Obrero’s Castle Grayskull, Wind Raider and Battle Ram box art:
Stratos also appears in several posters by William George:
Stratos probably isn’t near the top of most people’s favorite MOTU character lists (although some people absolutely love him). As a kid he didn’t particularly spark my interest, but as an adult I find him enormously charming.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
The dungeon grate sticker was still there, but the final version was decorated with some delightfully creepy creatures:
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:
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:
In rare occasions you could even encounter a castle that hadn’t been painted at all:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
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:
This Masters of the Universe store display is an interesting piece. On the side with Castle Grayskull, it features a number of hand-painted prototypes or early casts, including Teela, Wind Raider, Battle Cat and Zodac. It also features a hand painted version of Castle Grayskull that was used in a lot of promotional materials. It’s the same sculpt as the final version, but the paint detail is a lot finer than what you found on any of the production castles.
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 rust-red snake armor were etched into my brain from an early age.
Teela appears early in an animated Masters of the Universe commercial, by Filmation Studios. The full video has been uploaded by James Eatock on Instagram and Facebook.
Design & Development
Teela, released in the later half of 1982, was the first female figure in the Masters of the Universe line, and probably the best. Another Mark Taylor design, Teela was conceived as a powerful heroic warrior armed with a shield and spear:
Teela originally had brown boots with white tops, a golden spear and shield, and blonde hair, as depicted in the first MOTU mini comic, He-Man and the Power Sword.
We can see these colors recreated in this recolored version of the B-sheet released in the Mark Taylor Portfolio, from Super7 and The Power and the Honor Foundation:
It’s probably fairly well known among fans now that two separate Mark Taylor characters, Teela and Sorceress (aka Goddess), were eventually combined into a single character (Teela). Mattel’s marketing group didn’t think there was enough demand for two female action figures in one year, although it would be later shown that almost 40% of the kids who collected MOTU figures were girls. Zodac ended up being created to take the eighth spot in the 1982 lineup.
Sorceress, or Goddess as she is usually called now, was intended to be a changeling and double agent. Her snake head dress had fangs and she had a cold, calculating expression in the concept art. She had brown boots, brown armor and a brown staff, a light green body suit, and a dark green outfit. Her outfit was very similar to Teela’s, but lacked the leaf-like overlay hanging down her front.
Although she wasn’t produced as a figure in the vintage line, she did make an appearance in the first MOTU mini comic. By that time she had been re-imagined as a noble and mysterious defender of Castle Grayskull.
It’s worth noting that although Mark Taylor envisioned her as a human woman wearing a green body suit, the comic book (art by Alfredo Alcala) portrayed her with a green face as well. When Teela and Sorceress/Goddess were combined into the same character, Teela inherited the Sorceress’ snake armor and staff, but kept her own Caucasian complexion.
It’s also worth noting that Mark Taylor’s original design for the the basic Teela buck lacked the golden collar overlay that was molded into the final figure. That piece was intended to be an additional accessory. Sorceress/Goddess would have had a unique head, and the snake armor would have gone over the basic body design below:
The first known prototype of Teela exists only in fragmentary form. Sculpted by Tony Guerrero, this Teela was quite racy, in the style of Frank Frazetta’s female characters. The straps on her bikini have circular ornaments on them, recalling Mark’s Taylor’s B-sheet.
It’s possible that this version of Teela was the basis for Teela as she appeared in DC Comics’ 1982 story, To Tempt The Gods:
The cross sell art depicts Teela with reddish-brown boots and armor (these could appear more red or more brown, depending on the printing) and Goddess’ snake staff in gold:
However, Mattel’s prototype for this version of Teela had a more vibrant color scheme. In the model below, Teela is carrying the gold spear and shield from the original concept Teela drawing. In marketing materials she is depicted playing the same role that the Goddess/Sorceress did in the first mini comic.
Another view of the prototype from the 1982 Mattel dealer catalog:
At some point along the way, it was decided Teela would come with the snake staff rather than the spear, and it along with the shield would be colored the same red as her armor. This third iteration prototype gives her Barbie-like leg articulation. She also retains the white tops to her boots and the green detail on her snake armor. The shield looks rougher than the final version.
I believe the image below is the same prototype as the above, only without the snake armor. Frustratingly, it’s very low resolution and hard to make out the details:
Several test runs were done of Teela’s head, one with her hair in a bun (chosen for the final toy), and one with long, flowing hair:
Yet another variation appears in the 1982 JCPenny Christmas Catalog (below). Here again Teela looks like the final toy, except the tops of her boots and her forearm bracers are painted white. She apparently does not have the green snake eyes.
In the 1983 Mattel Dealer Catalog, Teela appears in her final form, except she retains the green eyes on her snake headdress. This detail appears in earlier prototypes as well. I’m unaware of any production models with this detail, but this does look like a factory example rather than one painted by hand. Perhaps this is like the Battle Cat with the striped tail – an early test model that never went into full production.
Update: collector John Oswald has acquired one of these factory sample Teela figures with the green snake eyes. He was kind enough to share these photos of her, as well as additional photos from the 1983 Mattel catalog showing this particular variant:
The final toy features the ball-in-socket leg articulation used in the male figures. She loses the white detail on her boots and the green detail on her snake armor. The sculpt is noticeably softer than the earliest prototypes.
Notice that the right boot has a larger heel than the left boot. This allows her to stand on the ball of her right foot (as the first prototype depicts) with some measure of stability.
There was a lot of inconsistency in the application of paint on the figure’s face. The look could vary wildly depending on the country of manufacture:
Certain reissue versions were released with brownish boots and hair, and brighter red accessories:
Teela was sold in a number of configurations. She was available as a single carded figure, on “8 back” and reissue cards:
The tag line on Teela’s cardback art seems to present her as a kind of sorceress, which is indicative of her roots in the Goddess/Sorceress character:
She was also sold in a gift set package with Zoar. This one is rare and hard to find now:
Another rare item is the Heroric Warriors gift set, featuring He-Man, Teela, and Ram Man:
Teela was also sold in a JC Penny gift set, with minimal cross sell line art on a brown box:
Appearances in Artwork
Artistic depictions of Teela in card art, box art and other media were all over the map.
Teela’s first appears as a warrior woman with no real back story in the Alcala mini comics. The first attempt at giving her a backstory occurred in Mark Texeira’s Tale of Teela mini comic, where Skeletor makes a clone of the Goddess (here depicted with without the green skin) in order to take her as his bride. By depicting Teela as a clone of the Goddess, the attempt seem to be to brand Teela as a kind of two-in-one toy. Take off the armor, and she’s Teela, fearsome warrior. Put it on and she can be Goddess, mystical guardian of Grayskull.
In Filmation, Teela is the natural daughter of the Sorceress. The identity of her mother has been hidden from her, but it is made clear in the series that Teela will someday replace her mother as the guardian of Grayskull.
Design-wise, Teela’s look is a bit different compared to the toy. She has a simplified costume with an enlarged collar. Most of the decorative details were removed from her costume for ease of animation, and her costume top was made entirely gold. She retains her white-topped boots that appeared in early concepts and prototypes:
In Filmation’s animated toy commercial, produced in 1982 (shown at the beginning of this article), Teela’s design is closely modeled on Mark Taylor’s concept art:
Some of my favorite depictions of Teela come from Errol McCarthy’s licensing kit and style guide artwork. I love how dynamic she is here:
My all time favorite look for Teela comes from a puffy sticker that came with Kellogg’s cereal. I distinctly remember getting Teela and Battle Armor He-Man. The Teela sticker comes from the cross sell art, but gives the character red armor and boots instead of brown, and retains the gold staff. I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought it was the perfect look for her.
And of course there were many other depictions of the Warrior Goddess:
Early concept art for the 1987 movie envisioned Teela in a two-piece bikini with her snake armor over top:
The costume actually used for the movie was a radical departure from any prior version of Teela, with only a few visual references to the original toy design.