One of the best things about getting new He-Man toys as a kid was the box art. The toys were of course amazing and fun, but personally I spent almost as much time staring at the boxes as playing with the toys. I remember being pretty heartbroken when my mother made me throw away my Castle Grayskull and Battle Ram boxes. She saw them as clutter, but for me they were almost stories in and of themselves. You could see whole adventures unfolding in a single painted scene.
Unfortunately, good photographs or scans of the original art are not available for every piece. If you happen to have a nicer images than I do (higher resolution, better composition, etc), please do feel free to share, and I’ll make an update! For pictures of the packaging itself, a neutral (white or black) background is preferred. High resolution scans of the artwork, where it appears without logos, would be ideal. Bottom line – if you have better images than I do, please share them!
One final note: I’m defining box art as the front-facing painted artwork that appeared on boxed Masters of the Universe toys. The illustrations on blister card packaging, then, are outside the scope of this series.
Part Two: 1983
Name: Attak Trak Year: 1983 Artist: Rudy Obrero Description: He-Man pilots the Attak Trak over rough terrain. Skeletor and Mer-Man are ready to attack, while Man-At-Arms and Teela stand in defense of Castle Grayskull. The artwork below was scanned by me, with box damage repaired by Retroist.
Name: Battle for Eternia Year: 1983 Artist: William Garland Description: Panthor swipes his claws at Man-E-Faces, as Man-E-Faces takes aim with his blaster at Skeletor, who is riding atop the savage cat. Twin moons hang in the smokey sky.
Artwork courtesy of Tokyonever
Name: Panthor Year: 1983 Artist: William Garland Description: Skeletor and Panthor navigate alien terrain. A pterodactyl-like creature swoops in the air and two alien moons set on the smokey horizon. Castle Grayskull stands in the background, shrouded by mists and blowing sand.
Name: Point Dread & Talon Fighter Year: 1983 Artist: William Garland* Description: He-Man and Teela sit inside the Talon Fighter’s cockpit, as its jet engines flair. Skeletor, Tri-Klops and Mer-Man race toward Point Dread, which is defended by Man-At-Arms. Twin alien moons hang in the night sky. Castle Grayskull looms in the foggy distance. (*Artist name not confirmed for this particular piece, but the art seems to match the style of the Panthor illustrations.)
Name: Screeech Year: 1983 Artist: Rudy Obrero Description: Screeech is depicted both soaring through the smokey skies of Eternia and standing on his perch, which sits on top of a castle turret.
Name: Skeletor and Panthor Year: 1983 Artist: William Garland Description: He-Man clashes swords with Skeletor, who sits astride the savage Panthor. A tiny gargoyle-like creature leaps from harm’s way. Man-At-Arms swings his club at Beast Man in front of the ominous Castle Grayskull.
Name: Skeletor and Screeech Year: 1983 Artist: Rudy Obrero Description: Skeletor stands at the edge of a lava-filled crevasse with Screeech perched on his arm. Two rodents run away in terror.
Name: Teela and Zoar Year: 1983 Artist: Unknown Description: Teela stands atop a rocky mountain peak as Zoar swoops through the skies at sunset. A snowy mountain range is visible in the distance.
Name: Zoar Year: 1983 Artist: Rudy Obrero Description: Zoar swoops through the skies as He-Man and Skeletor do battle on a rocky, volcanic landscape. Castle Grayskull looms in the distance.
Roton was a toy that, as a kid, I admired from afar, but was never able to own (at least until many years later). I remember very clearly going over to my friend Tyson’s house in first grade and being bowled over by his collection, which dwarfed mine. Among other things I got to see in person for the first time toys like Zodac, Stratos, and the amazing Roton.
Design & Development
December 1, 1982 marks the earliest known mention of Roton, where it appears in the Masters of the Universe Bible. It was originally conceived as a vehicle for the heroic warriors:
ROTON – when this vehicle’s in the fight, He-Man’s enemies scatter, literally. He-Man rides atop the round vehicle which has a swiftly moving buzzsaw sipping around its center. Instead of blades, the buzzsaw’s blunted, club-like appendages sweep away anything or anyone in the way.
In a way, conceptually the Roton seems to have been merged with another early idea, called the Tornado Traveler (also from the MOTU Bible):
“TORNADO TRAVELER* – a wild, whipping flying craft which only Skeletor can control through the skies of both Infinita and Eternia. Whenever it appears it’s preceded by a violent windstorm.”
While the Roton seems to have been originally intended as a ground assault vehicle, its spinning blades make it look like it could plausibly fly, and so it was often depicted that way.
The first is a Roger Sweet concept call the Gyro. This does not seem to be directly related to the Roton, as the drawing is dated September 17, 1983, and the Roton had its name set already in December of 1982 and the trademark filed on August 22, 1983. Still, the rotating blade concept is very similar.
This undated drawing by Ed Watts shows a Roton that bears close resemblance to the final toy, with some key differences. The color scheme is red and white. The design around the sides is in keeping with the look of the final toy, except the decals are simple triangular shapes. The face on the front is quite different, as is the design of the seat back. All in all this version looks much less monstrous. I would guess that at this point it was still intended to be a heroic vehicle.
However, up until this point in the line (1984), there hadn’t been a single vehicle produced that was specifically intended for the Evil Warriors. Perhaps with that in consideration, the design was changed to make it look more sinister:
The above cross sell art, which matches exactly the look of the final toy, shows what changes were made to make the Roton fit with Skeletor’s crew. The vehicle was now black, with red blades. The face on the front became much more monstrous, and organic-looking spiny plates were added to the back side of the vehicle. The shape of the twin guns on the front was also overhauled.
Packaging & Toy
William George did the packaging artwork for the Roton. In his illustration, the vehicle is cruising along the ground, as a lizard and a tiny demon-like creature look on. George often included little creatures like this in his artwork.
The toy itself is relatively compact and simple. No batteries were required. You simply rolled it along the ground, and an internal set of gears would cause the buzz saw to rotate with a satisfying (or annoying, if you’re a parent) clicking sound. Of all the evil vehicles, this one seems to lend itself most to fleet-building. Like the Battle Ram, it works as a ground or air assault vehicle.
Model Kit & Artwork
Monogram produced a model kit version of the toy, as they did for the Attak Trak and Talon Fighter. In the case of those two vehicles, Monogram based the models on early prototypes or concept drawings of the toys. I wonder if that isn’t also the case with the Monogram Roton. It looks closer to the final toy than the to the Ed Watts concept art, but there are a few differences as well, the canopy being the most obvious one. Larry Elmore did the packaging artwork:
Curiously, the Roton doesn’t show up once in the mini comics, while the Land Shark (released a year later) shows up in multiple comics across multiple years.
Errol McCarthy illustrated this scene of Skeletor “mowing the grass” in the Roton. I believe this was intended for use on a T-shirt:
The Roton makes some prominent appearances in Golden Books stories, including Dangerous Games, The Rock Warriors, Secret of the Dragon’s Egg, and The Magic Mirror:
The vehicle also plays a supporting role in the Lady Bird story, He-Man and the Asteroid of Doom (images via He-Man.org):
The 1985 German Masters of the Universe Magazine is mostly filled with toy photography, but it does include a short comic story, and the Roton is a formidable presence:
The Roton appears in the background of a few different posters by Earl Norem and William George:
The Roton made several appearances in the Filmation He-Man cartoon, although it was never a regularly used vehicle. The Filmation design is simplified for ease of animation, and its buzz saw has longer (but fewer) blades, but otherwise it’s fairly true to the toy design:
Of all the evil vehicles produced for the line, the Roton is my favorite. You just have to take one look at it and you immediately get what it’s about and you feel sorry for any heroic warriors who have to go up against it.
Roton in Action
Øyvind Meisfjord has kind contributed the following image and video of the Roton in action:
Continuing from last week when I covered all of the US toy commercials released in 1982, let’s take a look at what came out the following year. In 1983, Mattel released commercials that technically featured every new product, although there were no ads that I know of solely dedicated to Evil-Lyn, Tri-Klops, Panthor, Zoar or Screeech.
Probably my favorite of the commercials released in 1983 is this ad featuring all of the MOTU product available to date. Note that Zodac is grouped with the Evil Warriors:
The little kid at the end I think perfectly captures my reaction to these toys when I was that age.
The Man-E-Faces commercial has one of my favorite lines of dialogue:
Dad: “He-Man, he’s your friend?”
Boy (speaking as He-Man): “Friend and ally. He’s just kind of weird sometimes.”
The Ram Man commercial shows off Ram Man’s action feature quite well, but also highlights the original play pattern behind the Castle Grayskull playset – that it could be controlled by either the heroes or the villains at any time.
The Trap Jaw commercial uses a stand-off with He-Man to showcase all of Trap Jaw’s unique gimmicks and action features, with the curious exception of the figure’s articulated jaw:
I included the following commercial in my post for 1982 US He-Man commercials, as there seems to be a chance that it was released in 1982. However, as Faker is generally grouped with the 1983 wave, I’ll include it here as well:
I don’t remember seeing this Attak Track commercial as a kid, but if I had I would have been begging my mom for one. This thing looks unstoppable (or at least, it can’t be stopped by cardboard props):
There were actually two slightly different versions of the Point Dread and Talon Fighter commercial. One was narrated by Peter Cullen (best known as the voice of Optimus Prime), and the other by an unknown voice actor (hat tip to Grimbot2).
The facial expressions of the kid holding Skeletor are pretty priceless.
Rudy Obrero was one of the first illustrators to work on the Masters of the Universe toyline. He created the iconic packaging artwork for many beloved MOTU toys, including Castle Grayskull, Battle Cat, Wind Raider, Battle Ram, and others. He has been a professional illustrator for 39 years. Many thanks to Rudy for taking the time to answer my questions!
Battle Ram: Growing up, were there any artists you admired and wanted to emulate?
Rudy Obrero: I grew up reading comic books by the tons. I liked them all. I kinda thought the DC and Marvel comics were well drawn. I thought the best drawn comics were the classics like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series. Funny coincidence, one of the illustrators for those was a guy named Rudy Obrero in the Philippines. No relation.
BR: How did you become a professional illustrator?
RO: Long story short – I didn’t start drawing till I was 19 years old. At the time I was in the Air Force stationed on Guam in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. My job was loading bombs on B-52 Bombers flying missions over Vietnam. Trying to fight boredom from being on a tiny island I went to the base hobby store and bought some drawing pencils and a sketch pad. In my off time I started drawing things around me and that became a habit. Just before I got out of the Air Force I was stationed in Riverside, California, where by chance I ran into the art director of Capital Records.
I had no idea there was whole field of art that was not involved with gallery or fine art. I asked him, “How do I become an art director?” He told me to check out a couple of art schools in Los Angeles. So I go to speak with a counselor at the Art Center College of Design. Now another coincidence, the counselor is from, of all places, Guam. He was very helpful to me because we bonded talking over Guamanian good times. From there I chose illustration as major and the rest is history. This year makes 39 years an illustrator. Whew.
BR: What are some of the highlights of your career before you got involved with Masters of the Universe?
RO: I worked on movie posters for most of my career. I did the poster for James Bond – Never Say Never Again. It’s a milestone for me because I read and loved all of Ian Fleming’s bond books in High school. I can’t remember which ones I did. I have painted so many projects. Every once in a while someone sends me an image of an old poster that I did that my memory barely recognizes. Here’s my website: http://rudyobrero.com. I can’t even remember what’s on that – ha ha.
BR: How did you get involved in the Masters of the Universe toy line?
RO: Would you believe my first job for Mattel was Barbie’s Star Corvette Package?
Prior to that I was painting a lot car races, crashes and explosions for action movies. So someone there wanted me to do the Corvette. Then soon after I got a call from Mark Taylor to do some “Frazetti” (his words) type of packaging. It was like, let’s not totally do Frazetta, but sorta like maybe “Frazetti”. That’s how it began.
To be clear, I love Mr. Frazetta’s work. If you look at my body of work you will notice that the only time I went “Frazetti” is on the MOTU stuff. And because it was a fitting style for it.
BR: Did you deal primarily with Mark Taylor? What were your impressions of his involvement with the line?
RO: I started with Mark then it became a string of other art directors I can’t recall their names. Seems there was a change after every box. Mark was the most enthusiastic and the most fun to work with as he gave me a ton of leeway creatively. People got more controlling as I went on.
BR: As far as I’ve been able to determine, your illustrations for the 1980s MOTU line include the following:
Did I leave anything out?
RO: Nope, I think that’s it.
BR: In an interview with Poe Ghostal a couple of years back, you mentioned that for reference you had prototypes of the Wind Raider, Attak Trak, Screech and Zoar. Did you have any other prototypes that you used for reference? Did you also use photos or concept drawings for reference?
RO: I don’t remember photographic reference. I still have some Polaroid pictures I took of the prototypes. I wish I still had all those prototypes. I moved studios 3 times so at some point they just vanished.
BR: Was the Battle Cat packaging illustration your first project for MOTU? What was your intention and inspiration behind that piece?
RO: Yes it was. I intended to create something I would love to have for myself! The kid in me came out on that one. I think I was growling while drawing it. Eamon O’Donoghue has my original pencil sketch of that package.
BR: For your He-Man/Battle Cat giftset packaging illustration, there is famously a scene depicting Skeletor and Beast Man riding Battle Cats. Was it the case that there was no established idea that Battle Cat was a unique character at the time? If there had been, I imagine they would have told you, yes?
RO: Ha ha, yeah, I didn’t get the memo or the story line. Not sure there was one. I thought that Battle Cat was what everybody would be riding. Like horses, right? I think Mark would’ve told me if he had known the story. My guess is there was no story yet.
BR: Your Battle Ram illustration is my personal favorite. What was your intention and inspiration behind that piece? I also notice there is a barbarian figure with a horned helmet in the background, near Skeletor – was that a nod to Frazetta?
RO: I could stretch the Battle Ram to make it look more rakish and powerful. Yeah it’s a cool looking vehicle. The guy with the horned helmet was just a made-up filler guy for that space. Again, “Frazetti”.
BR: In both your Battle Ram and Castle Grayskull illustrations you included flying enemy vehicles that look a bit like the front end of the Battle Ram, but with downward curved wings. What’s the story behind those?
RO: My friends from high school all keep telling me that I was forever drawing air battles in the margins of my home work. To this day I don’t ever remember doing that. Even those on the packaging, unconsciously I just need to see air combat. Maybe this explains it – I was born shortly after WWII in Hawaii. I grew up just outside of Pearl Harbor. We still could find shell casings from the air war on the ground where I played. I kept imagining what it would’ve been like watching the attack on Pearl Harbor.
BR: The original Castle Grayskull box illustration is probably your most beloved piece for MOTU. It’s got tons of atmosphere and energy. Can you talk about how you went about composing the scene?
RO: Well as an illustrator I have to work around layout constraints. IE, titles, subtitles, content, copy, bullets. What’s left is where I get to put things in. Again the fun aspect of this project is I got to do stuff the way I like it in this piece – including flying stuff that doesn’t exist. I really had fun doing this one. By the way, I did not know who belonged in the Castle until about four years ago. Ha ha, did not get that memo either.
BR: You did two illustrations for the Wind Raider – one for the standalone vehicle and one for the gift set that came with He-Man. Which is your favorite and why? Did the plastic window on the gift set packaging present a challenge?
RO: The first one is my favorite, It’s more action packed. Funny there’s an air battle here too. And the second one has the castle cannon shooting at He-Man. Jesus, air battles really were an obsession. In fact I just took a peek at the new Wind Raider art and there’s an air battle with a Roton attacking He-Man in his Wind Raider. I need help. Sigh…
BR: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that your Attak Trak illustration was the most challenging piece. Can you talk a bit about why that was?
RO: It’s the last piece I did for Mattel. I started to think the art direction came from a committee, seemed as though everyone in Mattel wanted in on package art because of its success as a toy line. These pieces were done in oil paint so changes were a pain to do.
BR: Your Skeletor/Screech illustration features some of the same kinds of craggy fissure edges seen in the Castle Grayskull, Battle Ram and Zoar packaging illustrations, with a suggestion that there is lava flowing at the bottom in each of them. Was this your personal vision for the landscape of Eternia? What influenced you here?
RO: If you’ve ever seen the caldera in Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, you will feel like you’re in a totally different planet. It just overwhelms you with sense of danger.
BR: You’ve done a lot of illustration work for the modern Masters of the Universe Classics line. What’s your favorite piece that you’ve done for the Classics line? What was most challenging?
RO: I love the castle again. The challenge coming from all the characters that had to be in the image. I finally got the memo on who was battling who. And by the way they made me take out the Wind Raider that was about to shoot at Mer-Man and Trap Jaw. So no air battle…
BR: What else are you working on now that you’re excited about?
RO: Got a call to work on Roton, but that died. Snake Mountain has been pushed back. I am currently working on key art for Filmation’s Ghostbusters. I have had a long career and it’s been fun, every project has it’s own set of challenges and rewards.