Interviews

The Alcala legacy: An interview with Alfred Alcala Jr. (Part 1)

Image source: Alfred Alcala Jr.

Alfred Alcala Jr. (his first name is Alfredo but he goes by Alfred), son of legendary artist Alfredo Alcala, was kind enough to share some in-depth recollections about his Father’s work and life. I hope you enjoy this fascinating look at the life of one of the most beloved artists associated with Masters of the Universe. Part one of this interview looks at a lot of Alcala’s pre-MOTU work before moving into the Masters material.

Q: Can you tell me a bit of background on how your father become a professional artist?

Alfredo, while still a grade school student in Santa Ana, Manila, already had that inborn talent to illustrate. He did some art assignments for his classmates. He would usually be cutting classes and could be found at the nearby riverbank doing illustrations. Due to these absences from school, he was not able to complete his elementary education.

During WW2, he found use for his talent by observing Japanese positions, pillboxes, equipment and then drew it from memory once he got home. These drawings were then given to underground resistance movements. He worked as a bootblack during the war at the adjacent town across the river.

After the war, he tried various jobs as a sign painter, carpenter, designer or restorer for reconstruction such as chandeliers, church pulpits, wrought ironworks, furniture, etc which were destroyed during the war. Then, he worked for the Philippine Boy Scouts as illustrator for their handbooks starting in 1946.

Image source: Alfred Alcala Jr.

Undeterred by his lack of formal education, he applied for a job as an illustrator. His first stint as a comics illustrator started in October 1948 for Bituin Komiks (Star Comics). By November 1948, he began illustrating for the biggest publisher, Ace Publications. His contemporaries were either degree holders or had college backgrounds.

Although still considered a greenhorn, his distinct and unique style made him in demand for several titles and various publications. He was also made an editor by a competitor by 1950. Local comics were published twice a month, but due to several titles and publishers, he was doing a lot simultaneously with the same consistent quality.

In 1953, this unschooled boy had his own creation (script & art) titled “Ukala”, an American Indian adventure tale. This was adapted into a movie that same year.

He also loved history, and he created several series on the stories of Yamato, Battle of Midway, Graf Spee, Scharnhorst, PT-109 (JFK’s) and several WW2 events and battles.

Q: What was it like growing up in your home?

My dad was a strict father. But he usually [let me] tag me along to wherever he went that is permissible for a child. I never went to any of his bowling matches but saw the trophies. He was a champion bowler, not professionally. He also played the guitar and the harmonica during breaks. He also made some of my school props and even squeezed some artwork requirements needed by the school.

We usually had visitors at home. Students, artists, publishers went to visit. Artists who came were Redondo, Caravana, Castrillo, etc. The top artists at that time. They would sometimes bring their work at our house and camp for an all-nighter at our small apartment.

It would be a smoky atmosphere with discussions ranging from tv shows, movies, art techniques, music, etc. My dad was into hi-fi and loved classical music and would play music all night long. Zither music especially by Anton Karas is another favorite of his. “Third Man Theme” is a staple.

‘On some occasions, I remember going to school in the morning and seeing him still in his drawing board with no sleep yet. Sometimes I’d be interested on what he is doing on his table before I leave for school. By the time I get home in the afternoon, these drawings will be on a pile of several pages that he finished while I was at school. That would be off-limits to me since those final artworks are to be sent to either local or American Publishers. I would just wait for the comics to arrive then.

I got so accustomed to his speed that I presumed that all artist were that fast. It was only later on that I realized that he had an extraordinary speed. He can finish a minimum of 8-10 pages per day. This is also attested by a short video from DC Vault recently.

Image source: Alfred Alcala Jr.

During the afternoons, he would be doing some oil paintings for competitions or commissions. That was his respite from drawing comics.

Q: One of Alfredo’s own creations, Voltar, was a groundbreaking sword and sorcery tale involving Vikings. It didn’t predate the Conan stories, but it did predate the Conan comics. What can you tell me about that?

Alfredo had a soft spot for fantasy, sword and sorcery, and sci-fi. One is not dictated by what is normal because it is “fantasy” per se. By early 1960s, there was a workers’ strike at Ace Publication (biggest comics company then) that sparked inspiration for him and other famous illustrators, to establish a new company named “CRAF Publication”. There were no limitations and rules to create and illustrate, which was a hindrance when working for big publications.

In 1963, CRAF released the first issue of Alcala Fight Komix dated July 9. It featured the mind-blowing series “Voltar”. This was never seen before in any comics publication all over the world until that time. This style left an indelible mark and left a lot of artists in its wake.

Voltar. Image source: Diversions of the Groovy Kind

This highly detailed etching-style drawing was published every 2 weeks. Each issue was a 5-page cliffhanger with a double-page spread. The story ran for 45 issues. Voltar won several awards during its run (locally and in the US).

In 1977, a single issue was released in the US to introduce Voltar to the American market. A new adventure series was serialized by Warren in Rook magazine from 1979-1980.

Voltar vs a giant serpent. Image source: Diversions of the Groovy Kind

A few years ago, a colleague of him told me that if they copied Alcala’s style, it was a sure way to stay hungry and cannot support their families. For them, it will take several days to produce a single page of such highly detailed sequential art, and there’s the problem of looming deadlines.

As practiced usually here, most comic titles were huge sources for movie adaptations. Upon Voltar’s release in 1963, colleagues were saying that it won’t earn him much for it cannot be translated into a movie. Alfredo did not mind. He only wanted to create something that will make a timeless impression for all years to come. He wasn’t wrong on that. Then, he also adapted this style for Marvel’s Conan.

Q: Alfredo is known for his work illustrating Conan the Barbarian, as well as a host of comic book heroes from both DC and Marvel. Does anything from that part of his career stick out to you?

There are two works that immediately comes to me, aside from Conan. These are Planet of the Apes and his Batman works. He made a monowash illustration for the Planet of The Apes, which was also a first for Marvel at that time. I already liked Batman during my younger years even before he did it. With different pencilers for Batman, he always did the final artwork which made a consistent look for the different titles for almost three consecutive years.

Planet of the Apes illustration by Alfredo Alcala

But during those times, a comics illustrator was just that — an illustrator, for a juvenile crowd. I seldom mentioned his current works to my friends and classmates, since their Dads were engineers, lawyers, bankers, businessmen, doctors, etc. Alfredo was not at par with their fathers. His profession did not merit the same accord and was usually frowned upon.

A different time; a different outlook, then. Comic artists nowadays are celebrities and superstars.

Q: Alfredo is of course well-known and loved among the He-Man fan community for his work on various Masters of the Universe comics, especially the very first series released by Mattel. What can you tell me about his work on He-Man?

He was 56 years old at that time and lived in downtown Los Angeles, while we were in Manila. We had almost-daily conversations on the telephone. I was in grade 6 when he told me that one of the jobs he was working on was called “Masters”. He said it was for Mattel which I knew was Barbie’s maker. So, I never paid much attention to it.

Several months later on my way to school while riding the school bus, a younger kid was reading a small book. I can spot my dad’s art in whatever style even from afar. From several seats away, I got a glimpse of his unmistakable drawing. I borrowed the book and confirmed his name at the front cover. It was the Masters’ “Battle in the Clouds”. I told the kid it was my Dad’s work.

For me, I considered it as a mini-book because the format was the same as a children’s illustrated book. Not in a comics format. It was not sold here at that time but the kid had a relative from the US and sent him those. I never mentioned this book to my friends and classmates. It was just an attachment for a new toy line and it’s kinda small in size and scope.

Q: You mentioned on social media that you have a number of sample versions of He-Man and the Power Sword that you had gotten from your father. What can you tell me about those?

Image source: Dark Horse

A few days after seeing the actual mini-book at a school bus, my Dad called home and I said to him that I saw the “Masters”. My father always sends me art supplies, comics, etc in bulk. So when I asked him to send me copies (it wasn’t available locally yet) he sent the first four issues which included several copies of the sample prints (or artist’s proof) of the primary issue (The Power Sword). Years later, I gave some copies to some college friends who were He-man fans. A regrettable decision on my part.

Image courtesy of Alfred Alcala Jr.
Image courtesy of Alfred Alcala Jr.

He also mentioned that he also did the colors for those initial series. He used watercolors for those. His background colors for the sky also influenced me when I was doing architectural perspectives during college and at my practice.

Of the copies I still have left with me, most are in very near mint condition. Notable at the cover is the different typeface used for the title mast head as against the official release. There’s also a slight difference with the artwork itself. Some copies were also missing the first and last pages, located at the reverse of the cover page. A watermark bearing the word “Sample” can be seen on the rebate pages.

Image courtesy of Alfred Alcala Jr.

The original series also used card stock for its covers and thick book paper for the inside pages. When this toyline became a success, the succeeding books, in comics format, were printed on thinner glossy pages, both for the cover and content.

Also included in the package sent by my Dad were the action figures, Battle Ram, and Battle Cat in its nude form (pure black). All without any box or packaging.

Image courtesy of Alfred Alcala Jr.
Image courtesy of Alfred Alcala Jr.
An interesting prototype Teela head owned by Alfredo Alcala. This one has sculpted eyes, where the final version did not. Image courtesy of Alfred Alcala Jr.

At my age during that period, it was disappointing to receive an ugly Battle Cat because my friends will definitely poke fun at it. Buying one here in Manila when it came out was very expensive. So we never had a proper Battle Cat. It was a patched-up figure with no armor. Sort of generic. Then, my interest waned as I matured.

This Battle Cat, which I consider a prototype, is made of a different material although from the same mold as the Big Jim tiger. It was a pre-production Battlecat. It was very brittle that the tail part broke off easily.

Of Alfredo’s extensive influence and him being a prolific artist, the Masters made an impact beginning at my generation and cascaded on successively, which truly cements it as one of Alfredo’s legacies.

On a side note:

Meanwhile, back in Manila… a book entitled “History of Philippine Komiks” was released during the mid 1980s. It was a roster of all Filipino artists and writers and their works (past and current works). On my dad’s page, He-Man was not mentioned. They usually downplay my Dad’s body of works because it’s very extensive and would dwarf other artists’ achievements.

A certain illustrator in that book was bragging in his page that he was a He-man artist. The animation was already a big hit. But he never acknowledged my dad’s contribution as the pioneer. He could have been oblivious to it (which I highly doubt) or intentionally omitted it. This artist faded from my memory and unto obscurity in the MOTU world.

Thanks again to Alfred for taking the time to share this information with us! You can read the following comics illustrated by Alfredo Alcala at Vaults of Grayskull and He-Man.org:

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Heroic Warriors

MOTU Origins He-Man/Prince Adam Set (2019 SDCC Exclusive)

The 2019 San Diego Comic Con Mattel exclusive He-Man and Prince Adam two-pack took most Masters fans by complete surprise. After years of larger scale MOTU Classics figures with modernized proportions and articulation, Mattel was finally doing another line of vintage-inspired 5.5″ He-Man figures. Unlike the 2000 Commemorative Line, however, it was clear that Origins was to be updated with modern articulation, while keeping the overall vintage look.

Because the initial offering, in the form of a He-Man/Prince Adam two-pack, was done in the style of vintage minicomics, many fans (including myself) assumed that the new MOTU Origins line would plumb the “origins” of the MOTU franchise, which generally lie in the early concept figure designs that often showed up in minicomics (minicomics had to be illustrated ahead of production schedule, with artwork often based on prototype designs).

As it turns out, Origins will mainly be based on the vintage MOTU figures as they appeared in the toy aisles. The minicomic styling of this set will be the exception rather than the rule. I certainly hope that Mattel will find creative ways to get more minicomic style figures out to hardcore fans (perhaps in the form of a mini subscription, like the MOTU Classics model), even while the more well-known vintage toy designs appear on toy shelves in the fall of 2020. I would love to see minicomic/concept versions of Skeletor, Sorceress/Goddess, Mer-Man, Beast Man, Teela, Man-At-Arms and Stratos.

The SDCC exclusive set comes with the most richly-detailed and indulgent packing I’ve seen from Mattel. The set is collector friendly – the figures inside can be removed and replaced without damaging the packing in the least. I have to applaud this move from Mattel. Interestingly, the packaging includes credits for all the people who worked on the finished product:

Toy designer: Brandon Sopinsky • Packaging Designer: Roy Juarez • Packaging Engineer: Adam O’Connor • Copywriter: Robert Rudman • Comic Book Writer: Tim Seeley • Line Art: Axel Gimenez • Colorist: Val Staples • Background Painter: Nate Baertsch • Comic Book Letterer: Ed Dukeshire • Illustration Support: Joseph Zacate • Sculpt: Adam deFelice & Sean Olmos

The outer box for the set features He-Man’s harness (in the Alcala/minicomic/concept style, featuring red squares along both the front and back of the harness) over a Grayskull-green stone texture:

The inner box features a transparent cover that adds character and other art over the backgrounds featured on the box itself. All of the artwork is stunning. Below I will show the design of each side of the box, with and without the transparent cover:

The artwork is largely inspired by the first MOTU minicomic, He-Man and the Power Sword, illustrated by the legendary Alfredo Alcala. There is also inspiration drawn from Alcala’s He-Man and the Insect People, and Battle Cat box art by Rudy Obrero. Those influences are more apparent in the included minicomic, written by Tim Seeley and featuring a retcon of the traditional “savage” origin story written by Don Glut that makes room for multiple He-Men as well as Adam as he appeared in early DC Comics (penciled by Curt Swan and George Tuska) and third wave Alcala comics.

Axel Giménez, who did much of the line art, often directly credits the Alcala influence in the artwork, although for the box cover that was removed from the final colored version:

The comic in the set is situated between two windows, featuring Prince Adam and He-Man:

Early photos released by Mattel show some slight differences compared to the final set. Originally the Adam of the set was to include his own boot knife, as well as a gold-painted handle on the Power sword. He-Man’s boot knife originally went all the way through the cuff of his boot, making the tip of the blade visible (as shown below):

The final figures of course have those peculiarities removed. Let’s take a closer look at He-Man. He comes with a vintage toy style head as well as a new minicomic style head. He also comes with three pairs of removable hands, an axe and a shield. In the photo below I show him with the vintage toy style head, compared with an original, first-release Taiwan He-Man from 1982:

MOTU Origins He-Man (left) vs vintage first release He-Man from 1982 (right)

Aside from the added articulation, He-Man of course features the two-tone boots, boot knife, symmetrical bracers, rounded shield, modified axe and modified harness that are all hallmarks of the character as he appeared in the minicomic, He-Man and the Power Sword:

The minicomic design is based on a prototype of the figure, designed by Mark Taylor and sculpted by Tony Guerrero:

Source: Andy Youssi
Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation

The alternative head is meant to represent the look that Alfredo Alcala gave him in the minicomics, with a shaggier hairstyle:

MOTU Origins He-Man compared to a vintage, first-release Taiwan Skeletor from 1982.
MOTU Origins He-Man riding a vintage, first-release striped tail Battle Cat
MOTU Origins He-Man on a vintage Battle Ram
Prototype He-Man and Battle Ram. Image source: Andy Youssi

He-Man’s sculpt is closely based on the vintage 1982 figure, albeit with a lot more articulation. The arms and chest in particular are very faithful to the original, although the legs are a bit softer in sculpt. Where the vintage version was rather miserly regarding paint applications, the Origins figure features painted bracers (symmetrical this time, based on the “punching rocks” scene shown earlier) and three colors on his boots. His boots are also slightly larger, which makes him a bit more steady on his feet.

He-Man’s added articulation allows for a great degree of posability. The additional removable hands are a nice touch as well.

He-Man’s head, arms, hands, torso and boots are all removable – a feature that will allow for some fun mix and match swapping down the line.

Prince Adam is a much bigger departure from the vintage 1984 figure. Like He-Man, he comes with two different heads and three sets of hands. He also comes with a power sword in the style of the version that appeared in the early Alfredo Alcala minicomics as well as the early DC Comics:

Vintage figure (left) vs 2019 release

Prince Adam first appeared in the 1982 DC story, From Eternia With Death! This version of Adam, however, is most closely based on the character as he appeared in To Tempt The Gods (pencils by George Tuska, inks by Alfredo Alcala) as well as He-Man and the Insect People (illustrated by Alfredo Alcala).

To Tempt The Gods
He-Man and the Insect People

Prince Adam’s cloth vest and elastic belt recall the 1984 figure, although of course the colors of his costume are quite different.

The plastic used on this set is the usual high quality material we’ve come to expect from Mattel. It’s actually fairly similar in feel to the material used in the vintage figure (aside from the heads, which in this release are hard plastic rather than soft, hollow polyvinyl. All of the joints work well, with no looseness or issues. The joints around the elbows and hips are, however, a bit inelegant. I have heard that issue will be addressed in future MOTU origins figures.

As the early minicomic source material is the MOTU canon I find most exciting, I was thrilled by this release. I just hope we’ll be able to complete a full cast of characters of early minicomic style variants in the MOTU Origins line.

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Heroic Warriors, History

The Origin of He-Man’s Boot Dagger

Guest post by Jukka Issakainen

Recently the news broke that Mattel were making an exclusive He-Man & Prince Adam 2-pack for San Diego Comic-Con 2019.

“Pixel Dan” later managed to confirm that it will be a new toyline from Mattel for adult collectors, called Masters of the Universe Origins — with the Four Horsemen on duty to handle sculpting. They did not sculpt He-Man and Prince Adam, but will be taking care of the following figures. A retail release is expected during Fall 2020. At San Diego Comic-Con 2019, Mattel showcased other figures for the line, including Skeletor, Beast Man, Teela, Evil-Lyn and Man-At-Arms which are based on their original vintage action figures but with more articulation and some enhancements like a new face-sculpt for Evil-Lyn or the addition of a mustache for Man-At-Arms.

Early versions of the figures with a few differences from the final toys, such as the gold handle on the sword and the knife going all the way through the top of He-Man’s boot

The idea with these new action figure designs and theme seems to hearken back to… well to the origins of the characters. With the exclusive packaged figures; this version of blue-vest savage Prince Adam design debuted in DC Comics special preview “Fate is the Killer” for Masters of the Universe (published August 5th, 1982) and the same design appeared in mini-series issue #1 “To Tempt the Gods” (released September 9th, 1982). His first appearance had a different look (from DC Comics presents #47 “From Eternia — With Death”.)

From Eternia – With Death, 1982. First appearance of Prince Adam. Written by Paul Kupperberg, pencils by Curt Swan
Fate is the Killer, 1982. Second appearance of Prince Adam. Written by Paul Kupperberg, art by Curt Swan/Dave Hunt
To Tempt the Gods, 1982. Third appearance of Prince Adam. Recolored by Jukka Issakainen. Written by Paul Kupperberg, pencils by George Tuska
Masks of Power, 1984. Written by Michael Halperin, artwork by Alfredo Alcala

The DC Mini-series design of blue-vest Prince Adam later appeared in Mattel’s minicomic wave 3 (1984). Accordingly the packaging art by Axel Giménez, Val Staples and Nate Baertsch for the 2019 exclusive was requested by Mattel to pay homage to style of the early minicomic art, and they did a great job emulating the spirit of Alfredo Alcala.

Another noteworthy thing with these figures is the addition of a boot-knife for He-Man.

The boot-knife has always been a fascinating accessory. As a weapon it’s easy to carry and can be very effective. Many illustrations with Tarzan have him using a knife, and as Conan the barbarian once said “Cimmerians generally prefer… the dagger.”

It’s no surprise Masters of the Universe has many influences from fantasy and barbarian settings, mixed with sci-fi elements.

In the early concept art by Mark Taylor, He-Man can be seen with the boot-knife.

Second color version of Mark Taylor’s He-Man concept, August 3, 1981. Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation

Accordingly, Taylor recalled the boot knife’s inspiration:

“[Mark said] It’s a dagger. It came from our scuba diving days.”

Rebecca Salari Taylor

And that is an interesting tidbit about the boot-knife dagger. Big thanks to Rebecca and Mark for sharing this with me!

He-Man of course isn’t the only character in Mark Taylor’s B-sheet artworks to have a dagger in their boot. Man-At-Arms sports one too. Though the showcased MOTU Origins figure doesn’t seem to have one in his boot.

From the Mark Taylor Portfolio, published by Super7/The Power and the Honor Foundation

The dagger perhaps makes its most famous appearance in the very first minicomic “He-Man and the Powersword” (1982), written by Don Glut and illustrated by Alfredo Alcala. For fans this was the first place they remember seeing it and in a way feels ubiquitous to the early stories much like Teela’s Horse, where you could imagine it showing up in activity/coloring books and other early material. Curiously though the dagger does not appear in any other minicomic (that is to say, the small comics that came packed with the figures) after the first one.

In the minicomic pages He-Man, a warrior from a jungle tribe comes across the Sorceress who bestows him “the treasures I have guarded all these years” and we see an axe, a shield, the power harness and other items and vehicles which He-Man receives. The Sorceress described the items being invented before the Great Wars. Possibly the dagger came from that era. He is seen with the dagger in his boot in subsequent pages but sadly it is never mentioned in the text and we don’t see him use it.

The next time we would see the dagger, came in DC Comics Presents issue #47 “From Eternia — With Death!”  where He-Man meets Superman for the first time (released April 8th, 1982). The story is also the first time we see Prince Adam and after he goes into the Cave of Power and is transformed, the dagger appears in his boot. Sadly in this action adventure He-Man doesn’t use the dagger either, and out of 6 panels where it shows up, one time it switches to He-Man’s left boot, instead of the right one.

After that, DC Comics published a special preview “Fate is the Killer” for Masters of the Universe (published August 5th, 1982) inside over a dozen DC-titles. Here the dagger is present on the cover-art, but it’s nowhere to be found in the pages.

Following the schedule of DC Comics, the dagger had been phased out completely by the time DC Mini-series #1 was released (September 9th, 1982).

There is also an early copy ad where He-Man is illustrated with the dagger. The same image was re-used for Castle Grayskull instruction-sheet, but for that the dagger was removed.

Now it has been mentioned that the new Masters of the Universe Origins action figures will also come with minicomics. Hopefully in the case of He-Man, we get to see him feature his dagger in action.

Another instance where a knife from a boot was seen in action came with the 1987 Masters of the Universe motion picture.

1987 Masters of the Universe movie poster by Drew Struzan. Image source: The Art of He-Man

Early on He-Man spots a captured Gwildor by Skeletor’s Troops and intervenes the group. During the fight He-Man reaches to his right boot for a knife and throws it at one Trooper.

This was shown in the concept art for He-Man by Jean “Moebius” Giraud and William Stout.

The boot knife is a cool addition in the movie and hearkens back to the early minicomic roots of He-Man.

Hope you enjoyed this look on He-Man’s boot dagger and its origins. My thanks to Adam for having me come up and write this guest post! Thanks also to James Eatock and Øyvind Johannes Meisfjord for help with some images. If you discover the boot dagger in other media, drop us a note!

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Artwork

Masters of the Universe Cross Sell Art – Alcala Variants

The artwork for this set comes primarily from my own scans and photos, as well as from Axel Giménez. This is a comparison between the cross sell artwork by Alfredo Alcala that was featured on the backs of the first four minicomics, and the standardized cross sell artwork by William George on the backs of the packaging. The Alcala artwork is based on some of the earliest prototype designs, but also is informed by Alcala’s own indelible artistic style.

Masters of the Universe Cross Sell Art:

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