Tag Archives: Battle Cat

Rudy Obrero: Heroic master of illustration

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.

The other Rudy Obrero

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.


Source: Illustrated 007

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:

  • Battle Cat
  • He-Man/Battle Cat
  • Wind Raider
  • He-Man/Wind Raider
  • Castle Grayskull
  • Battle Ram
  • Zoar
  • Screech
  • Skeletor/Screech
  • Attak Trak

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.

Battle Cat pencil sketch by Rudy Obrero. Image source and owner: Eamon O’Donoghue. Note that in this version, Castle Grayskull has the prototype “pawn” piece on top of the castle’s helmet.
Battle Cat illustration by Rudy Obrero

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 imaging 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.

He-Man and Battle Cat Illustration

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”.

Battle Ram Illustration
Frazetta-like warrior to Skeletor’s right

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.

Evil Sky Sleds attack

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.

The iconic Castle Grayskull illustration
Another view with more vibrant colors.

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…

Original Wind Raider Illustration
He-Man and Wind Raider gift set illustration
Wind Raider packaging mockup by Mark Taylor (image courtesy of Ted Mayer)
Classics Wind Raider
Masters of the Universe Classics Wind Raider illustration

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.

Attak Trak illustration  

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.

Source: History.com

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…

Masters of the Universe Classics Castle Grayskull illustration

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.

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1983 Mattel Toys Dealer Catalog

Here is the 1983 Mattel Toys Dealer Catalog (or at least the portion relevant to the MOTU line). Intended for retailers, Mattel’s dealer catalogs showcased all the latest and greatest releases, along with existing merchandise. The catalog showcases all the 1982 items plus everything new for 1983. As we’ve seen in other catalogs, the “new” items tend to be hand-painted rather than final factory examples.

The new for 1983 lineup includes:

  • Ram Man
  • Man-E-Faces
  • Trap Jaw
  • Tri-Klops
  • Faker
  • Evil-Lyn
  • Panthor
  • Attak Trak
  • Point Dread and the Talon Fighter
  • Screeech
  • Zoar

Close up shots:

Attak Trak
Hand-painted Evil-Lyn
Panthor with a hand-painted, glossy saddle
Panthor with Battle Cat and the 1982 vehicles
Ram Man, Man-E-Faces and Faker
Trap Jaw and a hand-painted Tri-Klps. Notice the lack of orange detail on the bracers
Zoar. Notice the green detail on Teela’s armor.
Screech
Talon Fighter. Notice there is no heavy red spray paint in front of the cockpit, just as depicted in the cross sell art.
Point Dread, Talon Fighter and story book with record. Point Dread appears to be hand-painted.

Source: Orange Slime

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1982 Mattel Toys Dealer Catalog

Note: I recently acquired my own copy of this catalog. I’ve updated this article with all-new, high resolution scans. Please allow a moment or two for the images to load, or try refreshing the page if some images are missing. Open images in a new page if you wish to zoom in and see fine details.

Here is the 1982 Mattel Toys dealer catalog (or at least the portion relevant to the MOTU line). Intended for retailers, the catalog debuted at Toy Fair, February 17, 1982. Mattel’s dealer catalogs showcased all the latest and greatest releases, along with existing merchandise. Because the Masters of the Universe line debuted in 1982, this catalog has the smallest amount of space devoted to the line (only three pages) compared to subsequent years. What’s valuable about this particular catalog is that all of the MOTU items are prototypes (albeit late-stage prototypes, with a few exceptions), rather than factory-produced examples. The sculpt on most of these items is the final sculpt, with the exception of Teela, Wind Raider, Zodac’s armor, Castle Grayskull’s jaw bridge (specifically the locking mechanism) and Man-At-Arms’ armor. There are earlier prototypes of figures like He-Man and Skeletor that don’t appear here – so these photos represent a snapshot of what had been finalized at a particular point in time, very close to the debut of the line in stores.

Note that Battle Cat has orange paint around his mouth and a striped tail, which appear to be applied by hand. A few pre-production examples with this paint scheme are known to exist, although the production version lacks those details. Most of these figures appear to be hand-painted. That is most apparent on Castle Grayskull, which has a much finer paint job than any of the production versions I’ve seen. This hand-painted version pops up in product photography several times.

The prototype Teela that appears in this catalog is my absolute favorite version of the character. The mass-produced toy didn’t have nearly as much depth. I’m also quite fond of the prototype Wind Raider that appears here, which has a number of key differences from the final toy. I discuss those in greater detail in the toy features that focus on those toys.

I’ve included shots of all three pages plus closeups of each individual item.

As a side note, the photo spread on the first two pages was used as a basis for the line art that went into the Castle Grayskull instruction booklet. That line art also showed up on the back of the first version of the Castle Grayskull box.

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Battle Cat: Fighting Tiger (1982)

Battle Cat is one of the most iconic characters to come out of the Masters of the Universe line. In fact, when discussing the most famous fantasy steeds to come out of the 1980s, it’s probably a neck and neck race between Battle Cat and Falkor from The Never Ending Story.

One of the first three items released in the original Masters of the Universe toy line (along with He-Man and Skeletor), Battle Cat was a fearsome beast with a bizarre color scheme. Green fur with orange stripes and dark red armor shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. That orange and green theme would show up over and over again in the MOTU line (Man-At-Arms, Wind Raider, Tri-Klops, Filmation’s Palace Guards, etc). My grade school’s colors were also orange and green, so it all made sense to five-year-old me.

There has been much discussion online of Battle Cat’s origins at Mattel. The cat body (an unarticulated statue) originally came from Mattel’s 1971 gift set, Tarzan and the Jungle Cat. The cat mold was reused in 1976 in the Big Jim line for the Big Jim on the Tiger Trail set, and was in scale with 10-12” figures.

When Mattel wanted to reuse the mold again for the new MOTU line, something had to be done to explain why it was so huge compared to the relatively small (5.5”) He-Man figure. It was decided that the cat would be used as a steed. Mark Taylor (who designed almost every MOTU product released in 1982) designed a fantasy-themed saddle to allow He-Man to sit on the cat without falling off, and a helmet/mask to further disguise the cat’s origins in the Tarzan and Big Jim lines.

Original Mark Taylor color study, via Grayskull Museum
Finalized Mark Taylor B-Sheet

The first prototype Battle Cat appears in the 1982 Mattel dealer catalog, and features a vivid red saddle. The cat itself is hand-painted, and features stripes around the mouth and down the tail:

The saddle and helmet were revised to a darker red color, which you can see in the promotional image below, featuring a number of early prototypes:

The very first Battle Cats produced were followed the above color scheme, including the orange paint on the tail and around the mouth. Very few were produced, however, and this version is very difficult to find:

The first Battle Cats, including the striped tail variant, were made in Taiwan. Other early release Taiwan Figures have the same color scheme as the example above, minus the extra stripes on the tail and around the mouth:

The helmet is striking. As a kid I thought it looked like a stylized bird. Maybe Mark Taylor was going for a griffin look. But it definitely caught my attention. The fact that Battle Cat had no articulation was a bit of a let down at first, but he looked so cool with that saddle and helmet that he soon became one of my favorite toys of all time.

Beginning in 1984, Battle Cat was released with pale yellow stripes instead of the vibrant orange:

In fact, there were a number of different configurations and color schemes released in the many manufacturing plants around the world that Mattel used over the course of the MOTU line:

Source: Mantisaur82

Battle Cat was sold in stores in three different packaging configurations – on his own, in a gift set that included He-Man, and in an another gift set featuring Battle Armor He-Man. The first two were originally sold in 1982 and featured box art by Rudy Obrero. I distinctly remember seeing both at toy stores as a kid, and being bowled over by the figures and the artwork.

The artwork for the single release Battle Cat featured He-Man riding Battle Cat, with no other characters in the picture (aside from some shadowy barbarian figures in the background). Battle Cat’s helmet is off, and Castle Grayskull stands in the background, partially shrouded by mist.

Rudy’s original painting was somewhat darker than what ended up on the final product:

Color shifted box art print

The 1982 gift set artwork was just as amazing, if a little confusing. He-Man is seen riding into battle on a helmeted Battle Cat, and Skeletor and Beast Man are riding their own fighting tigers. Man-At-Arms and Mer-Man are the odd men out. Apparently no one bought them Battle Cats for Christmas.

When Rudy Obrero was given the models to use as references for the artwork, he was provided with no details as to the story line, which is why he also painted things like Skeletor defending Castle Grayskull and He-Man ripping out the side of Castle Grayskull with the Wind Raider. Really, though, that doesn’t contract early canonical ideas about the castle, which could be held and defended by either the heroes or the villains.

The Battle Armor He-Man and Battle Cat gift set came out in 1984, a year after Rudy had stopped working with Mattel. By this time William George was producing box art for MOTU pretty regularly, and the piece he produced for this set is absolutely fantastic:

He-Man and Battle Cat were practically inseparable in most published media. He-Man was often depicted driving the many vehicles produced for the line, but more often than not, if the most powerful man in the universe wasn’t walking, he was riding his green and orange steed.

The concept of Cringer as Battle Cat’s mild mannered alter ego was introduced in the 1982 DC Comics series. I believe this is also the first time that Battle Cat is portrayed as having the power of speech:

Filmation in particular put Battle Cat to frequent use. Every episode began with a transformation sequence that featured the cowardly Cringer transforming into the ferocious fighting tiger. By comparison, Skeletor was rarely depicted with his equivalent steed, Panthor.

Battle Cat also featured prominently in Filmation’s 1982 MOTU commercial, as well as in its style guide and series guide:

If you ask the average person on the street to name any character from the MOTU series, probably one of the top three or four names mentioned would be Battle Cat’s. It’s no wonder then that Battle Cat also turned up in a lot of MOTU-themed merchandise over the years.

Battle Cat was, of course, heavily featured in a number of ads and catalogs as well. He was no doubt a consistent seller throughout the duration of the toy line. Not bad for a character that was created as a means to recycle an old mold and flesh out the fledgling MOTU toy line without much capital risk in the first year. If Masters of the Universe excelled at anything, it was making soup from stones.

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