Masters of the Universe, for all its diversity and creativity, was quite an economical toyline, creatively (and sometimes uncreatively) using and reusing the same molds over and over again throughout its run. Sometimes this was done fairly invisibly, and other times it was as plain as the nose on Faker’s face.
In this series I’ll be cataloging the reuse of existing molds, in context of what is known and what is likely about which figures were created in what order. For example, He-Man’s prototype was almost certainly finished before Man-At-Arms, so Man-At-Arms reused He-Man’s legs, rather than vice versa. I’ll also include parts that were reused from other toylines.
Sometimes existing parts were modified for use in new toys. For example, Beast Man’s chest seems to have been based on He-Man’s chest sculpt, albeit with a great deal of hair added to it. This didn’t save money on tooling, but it did save some time and effort for the sculptor. I’ll point this out whenever I see it. Whenever a modified part is used again, however, I’ll refer to it as belonging to the toy that used it first (for example, Stratos and Zodac reuse Beast Man’s chest).
I won’t comment on “invisible” parts, such as neck pegs or waist springs that are normally not seen.
First, the toys from 1982 that had (when they were created) all new parts:
I recently purchased my first custom action figure by MasterEnglish customs. As a rabid fan of the early Masters of the Universe minicomics (particularly those illustrated by Alfredo Alcala), his take on the first appearance of Beast Man inspired me to sell off a few things so I could add this savage brute to my collection.
Early appearances of MOTU characters in minicomics often draw from unfinished concept art or prototypes. Often minicomics and toys were being developed simultaneously, and there was no time to go back and modify minicomics after the toy had undergone significant changes.
In Beast Man’s first appearance in He-Man and the Power Sword, he is colored entirely red, with the exception of the yellow medallion on his chest, as well as his teeth, eyes and claws.
That’s reflective of earlier iterations of the design, which were also dominated by red.
However, by the time the toy got released, Beast Man was given orange fur, a blue loincloth, and white and blue patterns on his face. That got reflected in later minicomics, but the change happened too late for He-Man and the Power Sword.
MaterEnglish’s custom seeks to recreate the look of the first appearance of Beast Man, using the original vintage toy sculpt. It is cast in bright red plastic, with hand-painted gold, white, yellow and black details, expertly applied. Given the amount of red on this character, a new cast is really the only way to go. Trying to slather a vintage figure in that much red paint really wouldn’t work well.
Whatever material was used by MasterEnglish for the body, it’s very close to the look and feel of the original mass-produced made in Taiwan figure. The armor feels slightly more flexible than vintage, and the head of course is not the soft, hollow polyvinyl of the original, but I wouldn’t expect that from a custom. Unlike the late hard head releases in the original vintage line, the hard head on Red Beast Man remains as sharply detailed as the original soft head release was.
Red Beast Man does not include the original spring-loaded waist action feature, but this is again something I wouldn’t expect from a custom, hand-cast figure. The arm joints are a touch loose, but remain poseable. He comes with a red version of his signature whip, complete with red string, which is a nice touch. He is packaged on a resealable card that gets at the general feel of the original MOTU packaging without replicating it too closely.
The back of the card shows off more vintage-style customs by MasterEnglish, including his (sadly) sold out, brilliant take on the Goddess/Sorceress character that also appeared in He-Man and the Power Sword.
Red Beast Man works surprisingly well as an action figure, despite his monochromatic color scheme. I understand why the original designer (Mark Taylor) modified the colors of the figure before its release. Orange, red and blue work well together, and help break up the design. An almost universal design characteristic of MOTU figures is their bright complementary and contrasting colors. Still, a mostly-red Beast Man looks great in hand.
This is, of course, not the only take on a red Beast Man action figure. There are red variants of the character in the Masters of the Universe Classics line as well as the Loyal Subjects MOTU line, but I feel like the 1980s format most closely resembles the general body shape of Alcala’s depiction of the character.
Of all of the He-Man toys I got when I was young, Orko was perhaps the most disappointing to me at the time. I had no interest in him at all. Like many fans, I was introduced to He-Man through the first wave of toys and mini comics. While I loved the Filmation He-Man cartoon (which debuted in September of 1983) as a kid, I never gelled with Orko. To me he represented a softening of the brand to something silly instead of awesome. He-Man to me was about axe-wielding barbarian dudes fighting skeletons and monsters. Orko didn’t fit with that image for me.
That’s not exactly how I feel about the matter as an adult. While my preferred vision will always be the world of the early mini comics and story books, I have a great deal of affection for the little Trollan wizard.
In any case, I received both Orko and Prince Adam as birthday presents in 1984. I wouldn’t have chosen either of them had I been consulted. I had similar problems with Prince Adam and was always wanting the cartoon to get to the “good part” where the weak Prince Adam would be replaced by the hero, He-Man. But, on some level I was still happy to get anything He-Man related, and Orko came with a fun action feature and some interesting goodies (more on those later).
Orko makes his first appearance in the December 1, 1982 MOTU Bible, written by Michael Halperin. His original name was Gorpo, and he was described this way:
GORPO* – a tiny, mystical alien who dropped in quite unexpectedly from another dimension and made himself at home in the royal palace. Gorpo doesn’t usually walk, instead he floats a couple of feet off the ground. His amusing tricks and quick wit entertained the king and queen who decreed the alien to be the official Magical Jester-in-Residence. Unfortunately, Gorpo’s magic doesn’t always work as well as it should. Gorpo has a hard enough time just pulling a rabbit from a helmet or making an egg materialize. The rabbit inevitably gets loose and sends Cringer up a tree. And the egg may materialize in Man-At-Arms’ pocket — broken. Because he’s always popping up at odd place, Gorpo discovers Adam’s other persona and is sworn to loyal secrecy by the Sorceress.
Fans of the Filmation He-Man cartoon will recognize this description of Orko instantly, because that is exactly how he is portrayed in the series.
Gorpo shows up again in the 1984 UK Masters of the Universe Annual. Despite it’s relatively late date, the Annual obviously draws from some very early source materials, as it features pictures of early prototype figures and refers to Orko as Gorpo. In the annual we get a look at the character of Gorpo, who looks very much like the Orko fans are familiar with, except his colors are completely different. Here he is shown with a blue costume and Caucasian skin:
Gorpo’s name was changed to Orko by Filmation. Giving him an O on his chest instead of a G would allow animators to flip animation cells and get double the use out of them, saving time and money.
In the Filmation MOTU Series Guide, we see an intermediate step in the evolution of the character’s design. In the image below, we see Orko with the familiar magenta robe and orange hat. Notice that his skin has a grayish hue and his scarf is magenta rather than purple. He also lacks any design on the front of his robe.
At some point in the design process at Filmation Studios, his colors were altered yet again. He was given a purple scarf, blue skin, and a black O on the front of his robe. This was his final design:
Based on the success of the Filmation cartoon series, Mattel started working on an action figure version of Orko in 1983. The earliest prototype looks rather crude, but it gets the general idea across. It seems to be made from clay and felt, with a conical body. Notice he has pink hands, orange ears, and a pink scarf.
A second, more polished prototype appears in the 1984 Mattel Toys Dealer Catalog. This one looks quite similar to the final toy, except his hat is a bit cruder, his right hand is angled differently, and the “O” on his robe is more oblong. His ears and hands are still orange and pink, respectively, but his scarf is now purple.
The cross sell artwork for Orko seems to be a hybrid of the above prototype and the final toy:
A different version of the cross sell art was used in the Brazilian Estrela packaging:
Orko was given a rather fun action feature. The included ripcord could be used to spin a small metal rod on the bottom of the figure, causing him to “run” around in circles.
Orko also came with a magic trick consisting of plastic coins with pictures of evil and heroic warriors. You were supposed to be able to cover the coins with a plastic implement and “replace” the evil coins with heroic ones. I could never get it to work, which I suppose is fitting given that Orko’s magic never seemed to work quite right for him.
Unlike every other figure the vintage MOTU series, Orko was stamped with a Filmation copyright rather than a Mattel copyright. I assume that means Filmation retained rights to the character they created, and Mattel had to pay licensing fees.
Orko’s hat was removable, but given that his face was supposed to be in the shadows of his hat, he never quite looked right without it.
Errol McCarthy created the scene on the back of Orko’s card, and illustrated quite a few other pieces staring or featuring the character:
Orko was a nearly ubiquitous presence in the Filmation He-Man cartoon. Voiced by the late, great Lou Scheimer, Orko played a couple of roles in the series. He was the traditional “fool” character, often getting the heroes into scrapes by acting impetuously. He also played the role of the child in the series, with Man-At-Arms as his surrogate parent. (I first heard this analysis articulated by Emiliano Santalucia on the Roast Gooble Dinner podcast.)
Throughout the series, Man-At-Arms often tells Orko to do things like clean his room and do his chores, and it is Man-At-Arms who metes out punishments when Orko misbehaves. I think Orko was created as a character that children could relate to, but personally I related most to He-Man.
In the third or fourth act of many stories in the series, however, Orko also played a pivotal role in turning the tide against the villains. In Orko’s Return, the little wizard is kidnapped by Beast Man and Trap Jaw, who have secured a magic amulet. With it, they are able to create for themselves a magical fortress, and force Orko to obey their words exactly. Orko takes advantage of their inexact language to thwart many of their plans by giving them what they asked for but did not want.
The mini comics and Golden Books stories portray Orko in pretty much the same way.
He-Man has been depicted in many different ways over the years. Sometimes he’s something of a knight, complete with archaic English pronouns, keeping a close watch over a medieval fiefdom. Sometimes he’s a square-jawed, unbreakable man of steel, protecting a futuristic monarchy from comically-inept enemies. Sometimes he’s a barbarian warrior piloting technological wonders from another age through war-torn battle fields.
But in his first ever media incarnation, He-Man was a jungle man, something of a blond Tarzan with a dash of Conan the Barbarian, gifted with special weapons and equipment from the Sorceress of Castle Grayskull.
Indeed, it’s not surprising that early media depict He-Man as a Tarzan-like character. In the 1970s Mattel had produced a line of Tarzan toys, so it would have been a natural direction to take the new Masters of the Universe line. He-Man the jungle warrior was a short-lived concept and was soon replaced with other themes, but I’d like to explore it in this article.
The first minicomic of the toyline, He-Man and the Power Sword, kicks off the MOTU mythos with the theme of He-Man as jungle tribesman turned defender of Eternia. And really, it’s not so surprising that He-Man would be characterized in this way, given that the comic was written by Don Glut (artwork by Alfredo Alcala). Glut was the creator and writer of the Dagar The Invinciblecomic series from the early 1970s, which features as its protagonist a blond-haired jungle warrior in a primitive costume.
In a 2001 interview conducted by Matt Jozwiak, Glut explained:
Originally, when I came onto the [MOTU] project, there were no stories at all. Not all the characters and places were yet named and not all of the characters had been invented. All that existed then were some prototype toys and some general ideas of who and what they were and what they could do.
I’d been writing comic-book and filler text stories for Western Publishing Company (a.k.a. Whitman, Gold Key Comics and Golden Press). Western then had an account with the Mattel toy company. One day my editor at Western, Del Connell, told me that Mattel was coming out with a new line of toys called Masters of the Universe and needed someone to write four booklets that would be included with the toys…
It’s hard to remember much of this, as it was long ago and so quickly executed. Basically, I was given Polaroid photos of the prototype toys. I’d written lots of sword and sorcery and heroic adventure type stories by this time and so it was relatively easy to come up with the personalities. He-Man, for instance, was your typical “noble savage stereotype” a kind of combination Tarzan and Conan. I just used the same standards and principles I’d applied to earlier stories to “Master of the Universe”. And the plots were similar, too. Most such plots involve a villain who needs “something” (a magic jewel, a secret formula, etc.) to achieve a goal (conquer the world, achieve immortality, etc.) and a brave hero who fights to prevent the villain from accomplishing this. You simply “fill in the blanks,” changing the particulars from story to story.
And indeed, this exactly the kind of story-telling used in He-Man and the Power Sword. He-Man, the mightiest warrior of tribe, sets out to defend Eternia and Castle Grayskull from unknown threats. How he comes to the conclusion that they are threatened is not explained. In this scene we get a glimpse of He-Man’s tribe in the background as he sets off with spear in hand.
Although He-Man is simple and primitive, the Sorceress soon gifts him with force field armor that adds to his strength, a battle axe, a shield, and a futuristic time warp device (the Battle Ram).
With his augmented strength, the primitive He-Man carves his home out of the bare rock using nothing but his fists.
The MacGuffin that Glut refers to as the basis for his story telling is, in this case, the Power Sword, hidden deep within Castle Grayskull. Skeletor manages to force his way into the castle and succeeds in retrieving it.
Another early Glut-penned mini comic, Battle in the Clouds, has a more subtle portrayal of the “jungle He-Man”. We don’t necessarily see He-Man as a Tarzan-like figure here, but when he needs assistance from Battle Cat, He-Man returns to the forest and makes an animal call to summon his friend:
An advertisement for the Masters of the Universe Pop-Up Game appeared in He-Man and the Power Sword that again makes reference to He-Man as a jungle warrior. From the advertisement:
Based on the Mattel jungle man. Pop-up sections are two volcanoes and the graphics of He-Man and other characters. Object of play is to cross the treacherous terrain of jungle, climbing the volcanoes which open, causing a man to fall through.
This is probably the strongest jungle-themed depiction of He-Man. The board features a thick jungle with three active volcanoes and twisting paths. Skeletor and Beast Man are the “volcano keepers” who try to destroy He-Man on his journey to save Eternia.
In the 1983 DC Comics-published The Key to Castle Grayskull, He-Man is not a jungle man per se, but he does have old friends who live in the forest – a tribe of jungle warriors led by Ceril, their chief (images via He-Man.org):
Ceril and He-Man’s story goes back further than He-Man’s partnership with Battle Cat. After He-Man defeated the sorcerer Damon, who had enslaved Ceril’s people, the tribe was ever after loyal to He-Man.
The instruction sheet that came with Castle Grayskull depicted He-Man holding a spear, hearkening back to how he was depicted in He-Man and the Power Sword. The same illustration, but with the boot knife from the aforementioned comic (as well as the original Mark Taylor b-sheet) was also used in retail ad sheets:
Finally, at one point, (probably in late 1982 or early 1983, judging from the photo below) Mattel was planning to make a jungle-themed playset for He-Man and his friends. The playset featured thick foliage, a waterfall, caves, boulders, a rickety rope bridge, and a giant python. You can also see the laser canon from Castle Grayskull peeking out from the cave on the far right. The playset was later repurposed for Snake Mountain.
In his later days He-Man seemed to lose all vestiges of his early barbarian/jungle warrior heritage, becoming instead a kind of Superman-like figure in furry shorts. However, as someone whose first exposure to the character was the earliest mini comics and the first wave of toys, my heart will always lie with the He-Man of spear, sword and sorcery.
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