Heroic Beasts

Stridor: Heroic Armored War Horse (1984)

I never owned Stridor as a kid – I only had his evil counterpart, Night Stalker. Both of them were more interesting to look at than they were to play with, having no action features and articulation only in their guns and tails.

Design & Development

According to Martin Arriola, Stridor was created by Mattel designer Colin Bailey, who also worked on characters like Buzz-Off, Whiplash and Fisto. I’m not aware of any concept art that has surfaced for Stridor, but a hand-painted prototype without decals appears in a 1984 French catalog (below). The tail is shaped differently from the final toy, and the prototype helmet looks rather crude:

Image source: Grayskull Museum

The final toy was given a number of decorative stickers, and changes were made to the tail and helmet:

Stridor cross sell artwork

Production Figure

Stridor in Action

Photos and a short video of Stridor in action, contributed by Øyvind Meisfjord:

Packaging

Stridor was sold individually and in a gift set with Fisto. Both sets feature artwork by, I believe, William Garland, who also did the artwork on the three Panthor boxes.

Note that Stridor is described as “Half war horse/half war machine. Stridor carries He-Man to victory!” To me that implies that he was supposed to be some kind of cyborg horse rather than a pure robot.

Comics and Storybooks

Fisto is often associated with Stridor, just as Jitsu is associated with Night Stalker. It’s a rather unique relationship. In general He-Man seems to be given the heroic vehicles and steeds and Skeletor is given their evil counterparts. But Fisto seems to have been popular enough to merit his own steed. That’s certainly the case in one of my favorite mini comics – The Clash of Arms.

In the story, Fisto, riding on Stridor, is ambushed by Clawful, Tri-Klops, Webstor, and Jitsu. He is captured and forced to fight for his life in Skeletor’s arena. He’s successful in beating off Clawful and Jitsu in turn, but Whiplash nearly spells the end for Fisto before He-Man, riding on Stridor, comes in and breaks up the fight. Stridor had apparently escaped, found He-Man, and warned him of Fisto’s plight. (Note: in this story, Stridor has a saddle rather than a bucket seat, and he is ridden like a normal horse.)

Sadly, this is the first and only appearance of Stridor in the minicomics. However, he does make a couple of appearances in Golden stories, including in Secret of the Dragon’s Egg and Teela’s Secret.

Stridor also appears on the cover of this 1985 Golden coloring book:

Stridor appears a few times in the 1985 Ladybird annual, having apparently been mass-produced:

Animation

A robotic horse called “Strider” appears in several Filmation He-Man episodes, including “Pawns of the Game Master” and “A Friend in Need”, but it looks nothing like the Mattel toy, and it’s not immediately obvious that there is a connection beyond the name. It’s possible Mattel got the name for their toy from Filmation, but I don’t know for sure.

The familiar toy-like Stridor appears in “Origin of the Sorceress,” where we learn that Man-At-Arms created the robot horse in his laboratory. Stridor sacrifices himself in order to defeat the evil Morgoth. After he is repaired, He-Man and Man-At-Arms learn that Stridor wants to roam free, and that after his confrontation with Morgoth he had become a living thing. Consequently, they release him into the wild.

Design-wise, Filmation’s Stridor is close to his toy counterpart, except he lacks his red helmet and some of his decorative details.

Other Artwork

Stridor and Fisto were illustrated by Errol McCarthy for use in licensed T-shirts:

Image source: He-Man.org

Stridor also appeared in this 1984 poster by William George:

Stridor also appears in my favorite poster by Earl Norem, which appeared in the inaugural issue of the US Masters of the Universe Magazine:

As limited as Stridor was as a toy, he’s got a terrific design, and his partnership with Fisto lends him a rather unique position within the Masters of the Universe mythos.


Image source: Grayskull Museum

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Evil Warriors

Jitsu: Evil master of martial arts (1984)

Jitsu Graphic2

My  introduction to Jitsu came in first grade, when a classmate pulled out several of his newest He-Man figures to show the rest of us. The three figures I remember him showing us were Tri-Klops, Jitsu and Fisto.

I already owned Tri-Klops from back in kindergarten, but I hadn’t seen these two new figures with their spring-loaded right arms that terminated in either a giant metallic fist or chopping hand. The entire group was suitably impressed, and we each took turns testing out their action features.

Jitsu’s development starts quite early in the series, in the December 1982 MOTU Bible written by Michael Halperin, under the working name, Chopper:

CHOPPER – has a right hand that’s enormous. With one mighty blow this villain can chop through bricks, trees, anything that gets in his way. He’s formidable in hand-to-hand combat.

There is actually some overlap between Chopper and a Filmation character called Strongarm – James Eatock goes into detail in this video for the He-Man Official Youtube Channel:

According to Martin Arriola, Jitsu was created by Mattel designer Colin Bailey. Although no concept art for Jitsu as a toy has been either found or made public, there is an image of his prototype.

jitsu org
Image source: He-Man.org
Proto 2
Image source: Grayskull Museum

The prototype is quite different in some respects from the final figure. As you can see, the prototype was originally to reuse Skeletor’s legs. Like Fisto, he was also going to reuse Tri-Klops’ sword (the example in the image above isn’t even repainted). He also uses He-Man’s arms, rather than Fisto’s arms. Everything else in the rough prototype seems to match the general thrust of the figure’s final design.

The Filmation design may represent an intermediate stage in the character’s design, or it may be a “Filmationized” version of the final toy. This incarnation of Jitsu features human feet with unique red samurai boots and an enlarged but ungloved right hand. He also has a purple belt and bracers:

Jitsu appears in a single episode – “The Dragon Invasion”.  In this scene, he squares off against Ram Man, and they both come out a bit worse for wear in the end:

Jitsu gif
Images used in the animation courtesy of Jukka Issakainen

On August 22, 1983, Mattel filed a trademark for the name Jitsu, instead of the original Chopper. The toy was released the following year.

The final design utilizes He-Man’s legs, with two toned gold and black boots. He is also given a unique katana weapon, although the finger guard is molded on the wrong side of the handle. He reuses the left arm, right upper arm, and slightly shallower chest from Fisto. He has a unique head sculpt and unique two-piece armor – the latter would later be used for Mattel’s King Randor figure:

The action scene on the back of Jitsu’s packaging was illustrated by the inimitable Errol McCarthy:

Jitsu Graphic
Image source: Starcrusader
karatechopguyvshemanonsteps_full
Image source: He-Man.org

McCarthy also illustrated the character, along with Fisto, for this T-Shirt design:

Jitsu’s cross-sell artwork is quite faithful to the toy, down to the backwards hand guard on the sword:

Jitsu cross sell from Axel
Image source: Axel Giménez

Jitsu was also sold in a JCPenny two-pack with Clawful, and in a gift set with Night Stalker. The artwork for the Night Stalker gift set was done by William George.

JPJC
Image source: Grayskull Museum
01
02
Jitsu Night Stalker

Jitsu and Nightstalker are the “evil opposites” of Fisto and Stridor, who were also sold as a set. Evil opposites is a theme that pops up over and over again in the vintage Masters of the Universe line.

Battle Cat and Panthor

Aside from the Night Stalker gift set, Jitsu appears on one other piece of box art for the Masters of the Universe line – Battle Bones, by William George:

battle-bones-main

Jitsu is never really center stage in any story he appears in. His biggest moment in the minicomics is definitely in The Clash of Arms, where he faces off against Fisto and is quickly defeated:

Jitsu also makes some very minor appearances in Mantenna and the Menace of the Evil Horde and in Hordak: The Ruthless Leader’s Revenge.

Jitsu is a little less camera shy in the Golden Book stories, The Rock Warriors and Demons of the Deep, both illustrated by Fred Carillo. He is far from front and center here, but at least he’s operating at the level of henchman of the week, together with Webstor in the first story and Mer-Man in the second:

Jitsu also makes an appearance the Golden Giant Picture Book, also illustrated by Fred Carillo. Here Jitsu commits the worst sin imaginable – he smashes the Battle Ram with his giant golden chopping hand. The images below come from the Bustatoons blog.

Jitsu also appears in several posters painted by William George from 1984 to 1986:

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Evil Warriors

Whiplash: Evil tail-thrashing warrior (1984)

Whiplash, released in 1984, was part of a series of five animal-themed figures released in the third wave of the Masters of the Universe toyline, which also included Clawful, Buzz-Off, Webstor and Kobra Khan.

I had something of a love affair with the figure as a kid. I distinctly remember the existential agony of having to choose between him and Clawful at the store. Ultimately I went with Clawful, but it could have gone either way. I remember spending a lot of time playing with Whiplash despite that, so I think I was either able to borrow one from a friend or get my own later.

Just about everything I have to say about the development of Whiplash’s design was already said several years ago by James Eatock, in his excellent “Behind the Scenes – The Evolution of Whiplash” video. I’m including James’ video below, but I’ll also go over the details myself.

Whiplash was designed by Colin Bailey in July of 1982. His original concept, shown below, is in many ways quite different from the final toy, but there are points of convergence as well. The character has the same widely-splayed four toed feet and troll-like facial features that the final toy had. However, this concept character, called Lizard Man, had strangely furry calves, yellow legs, prominent spinal ridges, spikey violet bracers, and two prominent horns.

Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation Catalog

Lizard Man made it into the December 1, 1982 MOTU Bible, and was listed among He-Man’s allies:

LIZARD MAN – moves quietly, quickly and has the agility of his namesake. He climbs perpendicular walls and his tough lizard skin provides protection against most of his enemies. Liz has one drawback — every year he molts and becomes vulnerable to attack and completely useless to anyone.

The Colin Bailey concept was translated into into a simplified design suitable for animation by Filmation’s artists (see above video), but it was never used, and Lizard Man went back to the drawing board at Mattel. In the mean time, Filmation created a new character with the same name for their episode, “She-Demon of Phantos”:

Mattel made some changes to the shape of Lizard Man’s (or at this point, I should say Whiplash – Mattel filed the trademark claim for that name on August 22, 1983) head, legs and tail. You can see this step in the evolution of the character in the minicomic, The Clash of Arms. Whiplash looks much closer to his final design here, except for his color scheme (green, yellow/orange and purple, like the original concept drawing) and the shape and length of his tail:

The final toy would have a much simplified two-tone green color scheme for his skin, with blue boots and loin cloth, and an orange belt. The hand-painted prototype figure, shown below in Mattel’s 1984 dealer catalog, has his final alligator tail design, and sports a purple repaint of the spear that came packed with Castle Grayskull. He reuses arms from Skeletor, as well as the legs and torso from Buzz-Off.

In this German catalog, you can see the prototype again, this time with some paint wear showing his Skeletor arms. He is holding Man-E-Faces’ sword:

The production toy would come with an orange spear, but otherwise the design remained unchanged compared to the prototype:

Whiplash cross sell art, courtesy of Axel Giménez

Whiplash’s face is somewhat perplexing. He has two large fangs sticking up out of his lower jaw, but he has a third, downward pointing fang that seems to come from the tip of his nose. You can also see that where the concept version had very prominent spikes on the top of his head, the final toy has two short nubs on either side of the crest on his head.

The final design is somewhat reminiscent of a couple of other lizard themed toys that Mattel released in 1980 – an inflatable lizard monster toy called Krusher, and Lizard Woman from the Flash Gordon series:

Whiplash was sold in several configurations, including, of course, the standard blister card packaging, which has some lovely artwork by Errol McCarthy on the back:

McCarthy also depicted Whiplash in several other contexts:

The last image from the series above was used for a T-Shirt design. The final design (below) was colored, with the purple spear that appeared on the prototype version (images courtesy of Unsung Woodworks):

Whiplash was also sold in two giftsets – in a three-pack with Webstor and Stinkor, and a JCPenny two-pack with Kobra Khan:

Whiplash makes only two appearances, apart from his debut, in the minicomics. He shows up, confusingly, as a member of the Evil Horde, along with Clawful, Jitsu, Leech and Grizzlor, in Mantenna and the Menace of the Evil Horde!


He also makes an appearance, this time as part of Skeletor’s crew, in Hordak – The Ruthless Leader’s Revenge! While his depiction in the Mantenna comic was relatively toy-accurate, here he borrows the design from The Clash of Arms, albeit with corrected colors:


Whiplash appears in several of the Golden Books stories. One of my favorite is a scene from Secret of the Dragon’s Egg, where Whiplash lies in wait within a cave to ambush Man-At-Arms. Interestingly, the artist (Louis Eduardo Barreto) depicted the scaly villain with spikes around his shoulders:

A more toy-accurate Whiplash plays a minor role in The Magic Mirror, illustrated by Fred Carillo:

Whiplash is again depicted with spikes around his shoulders in Maze of Doom, illustrated by Al McWilliams. It seems likely he used Barreto’s art as a reference for the character.

Filmation’s He-Man cartoon usually depicted Whiplash as one of Skeletor’s more competent Henchmen. Design-wise, the animated version of the character is more or less a simplified version of the action figure, but with Mer-Man-like feet, blue wrist bracers, and no orange belt.

One of my favorite episodes where Whiplash plays a prominent role is “To Save Skeletor”. In the story, Whiplash arrives half-dead at the royal palace, pleading for help from the heroic warriors. As it turns out, Skeletor had summoned an extra-dimensional being named Sh’Gora with the intent of using him to take over Eternia, but the creature had quickly overpowered the evil warriors and was threatening to destroy the planet.

Whiplash makes a couple of appearances in the box art – once in the Fisto and Stridor giftset, and once in the Battle Bones box art:

Whiplash also makes a couple of appearances in posters by William George, from 1984 and 1985 respectively:

Whiplash appears prominently in one of my favorite pieces of MOTU artwork – a poster by Earl Norem that appeared in the inaugural issue of the US release Masters of the Universe Magazine. The poster features He-Man, Stridor, Buzz-Off, Webstor, Clawful and a somewhat Filmation-inspired Whiplash:

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Playsets

Snake Mountain: Evil stronghold of Skeletor (1984)

Snake Mountain was a toy I only ever saw twice as a kid. I never owned one, but I certainly admired it from afar. Up close it was perhaps not as exciting to play with as it looked (and certainly not as instantly memorable as Castle Grayskull), but as Skeletor’s evil hideout, it had undeniable evil charm.

The first known mention of Snake Mountain seems to come in the December 1, 1982 Masters of the Universe Bible by Michael Halperin. (Note: there is one episode of the Filmation cartoon (“Diamond Ray of Disappearance”) that was written a bit before that (November 30, 1982), but it was revised months later, and I don’t know if Snake Mountain was included in the original script.)

Skeletor led them to his lair beneath the twin peaks of SNAKE MOUNTAIN. Around one of the crags twisted a terrible carved snake. A portal along the snake’s back until it reached the fanged mouth. Entrance here entrapped the incautious stranger for once a person stepped into the snake’s jaws they snapped shut thrusting the trespasser into almost inescapable dungeon.

A footbridge connected one mountain with the other where a blood red waterfall cascaded over crags, past blasted trees and murky swamps. Skeletor’s chamber hid behind BLOOD FALLS and only he knew its entrance, its traps and snares. The lair itself was a dark cavern dripping with venom. In one corner, its eyes blazing red, its tail twitching, sat Skeletor’s pet and charger, the giant cat PANTHOR. Its purple fur glistened as its muscles rippled when it stretched out iron claws from the mighty paws.

In other media, Skeletor’s stronghold was being called Point Dread. The 1983 Filmation Series Guide described it this way:

Point Dread is a craggy peak emerging from the Eternian Ocean. It is an extinct volcano with a tunnel leading down to a fantastic ruined, Atlantis-like city hidden beneath the ocean floor. Inside Point Dread, Skeletor keeps all the treasure he has plundered from a thousand worlds. There are also mines and construction sites waiting for the slaves Skeletor plans to take once he has seized control of Eternia.

But the heart of Point Dread is the great council chamber where Skeletor summons the sinister Masters of the Universe. Here Skeletor sits on a raised platform above the round table where are gathered the likes of…

Image via He-Man.org

This idea was echoed in the 1985 UK MOTU Annual (the UK annuals seemed to consistently draw on older source material):

In the end, Point Dread became the magical/technological moving perch of the Talon Fighter, which could relocate from the top of a mountain to the top of Castle Grayskull. Snake Mountain became the fortress of Skeletor.

In September of 1983, when the He-Man cartoon debuted, kids were introduced to Snake Mountain for the first time. It was an imposing structure – a large pointed peak punctuated with jagged “teeth” and a giant snake carving wrapped around it. Nearby was another, smaller peak, and Blood Falls flowed in between them:

The interior of the mountain featured a bone throne and a table with a magical globe for spying on enemies, a docking bay for Skeletor’s fleet of vehicles, various creepy creatures, and myriad twisting passageways. The snake carving was also hollow, and Skeletor could stand in the open mouth and overlook his dark domain:

Snake Mountain was trademarked by Mattel on August 15 of 1983. At some point in 1983 Mattel started working on the playset design. Rather than basing the toy off of Filmation’s fortress, they elected to come up with a completely different look, based off of a previous jungle playset design that had been abandoned:

Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation Catalog by way of James Eatock

Mattel wasn’t saving any tooling by reusing the idea, but perhaps it was a way to quickly re-sculpt a previous effort into a viable product.

Colin Bailey did some of the preliminary design work on the toy, as is visible in this design drawing from The Power and the Honor Foundation Catalog:

His drawing is simply called “Skeletor Playset” and shows the goblin-like face and manacles that would be built into the right half of the design.

The main attractions of of the playset are clustered on the exterior – the shackles, the “talking” goblin face, the wolf echo microphone, the bridge (a fragile piece even in the 80s, and too narrow for figures to cross any way but sideways), numerous semi-hidden sculpted faces and claw-like root structures, the stairway, the gate and trap door, and the “striking” snake. There was also a scaling ladder, reused from the original Castle Grayskull playset.

1984 Mattel France Catalog. Image Source: Super Shogun Blog.
Production Snake Mountain

The interior was pretty bare bones by comparison. There was a net to catch warriors who fell through the trap door, there was a volume control/switch for the echo microphone, and a couple of stickers on the floor. The goblin mouth could be articulated from the rear.

The box art was painted by William George. Early versions of the art, dated 1983, show Man-E-Faces in shackles, but the final artwork replaced him with Man-At-Arms. For more on that read this interview with Bob Nall, by Jukka Issakainen.

Image source: Jukka Issakainen, from interview with Bob Nall
Image via He-Man.org
Image via He-Man.org

There were a couple of variations on the packaging. In some versions, the mountain is quoted as saying “I am the spirit of Snake Mountain” and in others it says “I am the voice of Snake Mountain.” I don’t know the reason for the change, but if I had to guess it would be because some parents might have objected to the “spirit” of Snake Mountain for religious reasons.

Image source: Tokyonever

As a playset, Snake Mountain felt a bit undersized compared to Castle Grayskull. It was technically taller, but only because of the archway. The rest of the playset was about 25% shorter, and the stairs were out of scale with the chunky He-Man figures. It was still an impressive and coveted item, but it paled in comparison to Grayskull.

According to the 1987 Style Guide, Snake Mountain was the “talking mountain of evil.” The style guide gives the mountain several characteristics that were never used in any canonical materials, to my knowledge:

Power: Ultimate evil power center, which commands and controls Skeletor and his minions.

Character Profile: Snake Mountain is the home base for the Evil Warriors. Within it resides the horrible spirits of the Lords of Destruction. It is from these wicked spirits that Skeletor and his henchmen draw their evil power. A baffling series of catacombs are built beneath Snake Mountain. Exploration there has been limited; even Skeletor is fearful of what may reside there.

Errol McCarthy did the artwork for the Style Guide, and depicted Snake Mountain in several other illustrations as well:

Snake Mountain’s first several appearances in the minicomics follows the toy design. You can see that here in Siege of Avion and The Obelisk, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala:

Siege of Avion, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala
The Obelisk, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala

In The Clash of Arms, illustrated by Larry Houston, a simplified version of Filmation’s Snake Mountain makes its minicomic debut:

With the advent of the Snake Men in 1986, Snake Mountain was reimagined as having been the fortress of King Hiss and his minions thousands of years in the past, before they were locked away in a pool of energy (the “Pool of Power”) in the caverns under the mountain:

In the 1986 Kid Stuff story book/record, Battle Under Snake Mountain, the fortress seems to be under the control of King Hiss, with no mention of Skeletor at all:

When Snake Mountain appears in the Golden Books stories, it is typically modeled after the toy:

The UK Masters of the Universe comic series (issue 22, 1987) tried to harmonize the toy and Filmation designs, although the reasoning used (Skeletor needed more protection, and so rebuilt the mountain) seems to require more explanation – I don’t quite follow the logic here:

Snake Mountain, in its toy form, makes an appearance in all of the posters illustrated by William George for the toyline:

The fortress also appears in posters by Esteban Maroto and Earl Norem:

Skeletor’s stronghold was also used to sell other Masters-related merchandise, including games, puzzles, and even a themed Hot Wheels stunt set:

Snake Mountain had a lot to live up to, following Castle Grayskull. It could never quite measure up to it, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The design itself was certainly creepy, although perhaps in a more childish kind of way compared to Grayskull. It gave you a lot to look at and a lot to play with, but lacked the depth and archetypal pull of its predecessor.

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