After I interviewed retired Mattel designer David Wolfram a few weeks ago, he graciously agreed to answer some fan questions. Many thanks to David and to all the readers who submitted questions!
Blaine H.: I have a general question for Mr. Wolfram. If he can give us any details or secrets in the Eternia Playset. Like why did Mattel produce such a large playset at the end of the line when interest was waning. Also does he remember any parts or ideas that were scrapped during production? Why did they use such brittle plastic for the original tracks that break all the time? I have the repro tracks, but sometimes my support arms pop off the towers when the tram is traveling on them and it falls off. No toy is perfect I guess.
David Wolfram: Eternia was already well in the works, so I guess they decided to go ahead with it. It was actually produced in very low numbers, so I am pretty sure that Mattel lost a bundle on it; mostly because of the huge tooling bill, but also because of the extensive D&D (design and development) on it. One of the best engineers, Mike McKittrick, was the engineer on it. He was also the engineer that made Spydor work. Regarding the brittle plastic, all plastic will break down with age, which might account for some of your issues. I’m also guessing the vehicle ended up being heavier than originally planned for as well, after having to pass drop tests, etc.
John A: [David] mentioned that he worked on the movie toys. Could you ask him sometime if he worked on any movie toys beyond Blade, Saurod and Gwildor? I know they went and took photos of Karg in costume. Would be nice to know what else was planned with the movie.
DW: Thanks, the only other movie toy that I can recall was a child-size role play Cosmic Key. I can’t remember if it was actually produced, or not. Martin Arriola worked on it. My recollections are very vague, but I think it had some electronics in it.
Mark L: Awesome read. A great insight into the thought & design process. How proud you must feel to see your design on the shelves as a toy! I’d just like to thank David for his amazing creativity that led to awesome toys. I am truly inspired.
DW: Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. It’s a funny thing, but at least for me, there was so much time as a designer between when the toy is out of your hands, and when it finally hits the shelves, that it feels like ancient history. I do remember on the T-Rex and Bionatops that by the time they hit the shelves they were at Pick & Save (a discount store), priced at less than the original “A” price. I think I bought four T-Rex’s and gave three of them away to my family. The fourth I sold a few years ago on eBay in a slightly damaged package, when I was trying to make some room in my garage and storage areas, for over $900. Made me wish in retrospect that I had bought all that I could find!
When I left Mattel, I had a pile of toys in boxes that was at least six feet tall, six feet wide, and eight feet long. The need for space in my garage quickly overtook my sentimentality, except for a few rare exceptions.
Dejan D: What was inspiration for Clamp Champ?
DW: I think that there were calls for a little more diversity in Eternia. As I mentioned in the interview, the concepts on the four re-themed figures had already been sold in before I started working on them, but that would be a logical conclusion. On the girl’s side they had done black Barbies, and other dolls for years. I don’t remember the background story very well, but I seem to recall he was some kind of guard or soldier.
It’s often the case that when I write about a toy on my blog, I become much more interested in it the process of my research. That certainly happened when I covered Laser Light Skeletor (designed by David Wolfram). For several years I’d had some interest in the figure simmering in the back of my brain, but finally writing about it brought matters to a full boil.
The problem is, of course, that Laser Light Skeletor was only released in Europe, and in limited quantities. A vintage example, even a beat up one without accessories, is far outside of my price range. Enter Barbarossa Custom Creations.
If you’ve ever purchased a custom action figure from any customizer/builder, you know they’re not cheap. That’s just a factor of economies of scale. It’s considerably more difficult for one person to create one figure at a time than it is for a fully equipped factory (with steel molds, paint masks, etc.) to pump out one figure among tens of thousands. It’s even more difficult with a complex toy like Laser Light Skeletor, with its extensive paint applications, stitched cloth cape/hood, and internal electronics. Even accounting for all those factors, Barbarossa’s version still costs only a small fraction of the price of a vintage example, making it my best option for acquiring my own Laser Light figure without having to take out some kind of loan.
The Barbarossa version of the figure seems to be patterned after the Spanish release of Laser Light Skeletor, with its shorter cape and bolder colors. The figure comes standard with the original translucent havoc staff (in a slightly orangey shade, like the Spanish release), along with a somewhat simplified, translucent cast of Saurod’s gun:
A set of additional accessories are also available upon request, for $25 more:
Original Skeletor Havoc Staff, minus the ball the the bottom, in translucent red/orange:
A mashup of Laser Power He-Man’s sword with Spikor’s wrist cuff, with added handle, in translucent red/orange:
Skeletor power sword (with modified handle to allow him to hold it), in translucent red/orange:
He-Man battle axe, in translucent red/orange:
The plastic material has a good, realistic feel to it, and the figure stands without any issues. He retains his original ball and pivot joints in the legs. It probably would have been easier to have fashioned the legs with the older-style rubber connectors, and I appreciate the extra step here to keep the original joints.
The light-up mechanism has been modified. Instead of raising his right arm to activate it, there is a green push-button on/off switch on the figure’s backpack. The pack fits a bit loosely in its chamber – I’m not sure if that’s a result of the modification, or if the original was like that. As a result, it’s helpful to hold the pack steady while you push the button. The circuit runs on a button cell battery rather than the AA used in the vintage figure. I would imagine the reduced weight in the back also makes the figure easier to stand up.
The details on the body and head are nice and crisp – this is a good cast of the original figure, and the paint work is sharp too. The copper metallic paint has black base coat, which I think adds a bit of realism to the look.
Laser Light Skeletor is certainly a departure from the more traditional Skeletors produced by Mattel. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who love the design, Barbarossa’s offering is a great way to get your hands on a credible-looking replica at a price that makes it more realistically attainable for many (but certainly not all) collectors.
The 1989 He-Man reboot included no characters from the original Masters of the Universe line, other than He-Man and Skeletor. The so-called “New Adventures” line is filled with colorful, oddball villains (and, frankly, some less-than-exciting heroes). My favorite figures from the line are the various Skeletor variants, and the 1989 version is no exception.
The New Adventures series isn’t well loved by most He-Man fans, but in a way it seems like an effort by Mattel to step things up a notch. These figures that had better articulation, more sculpted detail, and quite a bit of painted detail compared to the original line, and with little or no reuse of parts.
All of the New Adventures Skeletor variants were designed by Dave Wolfram, who had previously designed figures like Scare Glow and Snake Face. The initial 1989 version was developed from his original Laser Light Skeletor design, inspired by the work of HR Giger:
The broad conceptual ideas were carried over for the New Adventures design, but the color scheme was modified, initially with a lot of dark blue and red details, with a purple cape. In the concept art below he was also given some kind of pouches at his legs, and a new red staff design featuring a human skull with a bat on top. He was given different boots and, for the first time, gloves. He also features a helmet rather than his usual cloth hood:
The concept version of the character actually makes an appearance on a 1989 bag, although this version has a red cape:
A CGI version of the concept Skeletor (albeit with a finalized staff) also appears in a promotional video (thanks to Dušan M. for the tip):
In the produced toy, the color scheme was altered again, with much more red throughout the costume, and contrasting purple boots and gloves. The staff was redesigned, with some prongs at the end that look like they could shoot bolts of electricity. The helmet and staff were molded in gun metal gray. The pouches he was wearing on his thighs were changed to cybernetic implants.The final figure has a white face with a forest green border around it – the only Skeletor to feature that particular color scheme.
A hand-painted version of the final figure appears in the 1989 French He-Man catalog:
In the 1989 German He-Man magazine, Skeletor is depicted a couple of times wearing a bizarre-looking helmet. I’m not sure exactly what it’s supposed to be:
The final production figure appears in the US 1989 dealer catalog:
One of the coolest things about the figure, in my opinion, is some of the sculpted detail on his back and the back of his head. This is obscured by his cape and helmet normally. It’s quite creepy looking:
The staff has a rather creepy looking, chitinous creature around the back of the skull, which wraps its tail around the upper handle:
Skeletor has a fun but rather subtle action figure. When you turn his waist his hands raise up, making him lift his staff as if to fire.
The commercial for the electronic He-Man Power Sword actually has really great footage of an actor dressed as “New Adventures” Skeletor. This costume also shows up in the He-Man vs Skeletor commercial shown earlier in this article.
Skeletor was sold on his own card and in a gift set with He-Man. The artwork on the front was painted by long-time MOTU packaging illustrator, William George.
According to the 1989 Sears Christmas Wishbook, Skeletor was supposed to be available in a gift set with Hydron, but I’ve never seen an example of that:
There were four minicomics produced for the 1989 He-Man reboot, and all of them featured Skeletor. In the first, The New Adventure (illustrated by Errol McCarthy), Skeletor interrupts Prince Adam as he transformed into He-Man, and is badly injured. In Skeletor’s Journey (illustrated by Carrol Lay), he uses bionic replacements to heal himself and we see him finally in his new costume.
The character looks particularly dynamic in the Bruce Timm-illustrated The Revenge of Skeletor:
The New Adventures of He-Man animated series (produced by Jetlag Productions) features the character for a surprisingly few episodes before he’s upgraded to his Disks of Doom variant costume. The series starts off on Eternia, before He-Man and Skeletor are whisked off into the future, but both of them already sport their New Adventures costumes. Unfortunately Skeletor has some off-putting and comical-looking eyes for the first five episodes. Otherwise his costume is fairly true to the toy, minus the electrical implants in his body:
By episode six the eyes are blackened, but he also changes to his Disks of Doom costume by the end of the story:
Character-wise the New Adventures version of Skeletor was a more comical figure, manipulating and flattering rather than pounding his fists and demanding. He wasn’t leading his own army at this point – he was dependent upon the cooperation of the Evil Mutants, lead by Flogg.
Initially Mattel had planned to ask Filmation (the studio that had produced the first He-Man cartoon), to animate the new reboot, to be titled He-Man and the Masters of Space (information via Dušan M./James Eatock). Filmation went out of business in 1989, but they did create some artwork and a basic storyline for the pitch. Skeletor’s visual depiction is somewhere midway between the original concept design and the final toy:
The 1989 He-Man series was featured in the UK He-Man Adventure Magazine. In this story Skeletor is beamed aboard the ship of Flipshot and Hydron, but Prince Adam tags along for the ride. Strangely we don’t get an explanation for Skeletor’s costume change (images are from He-Man.org):
There was a series of Italian notebooks that featured New Adventures artwork. The cover of one of them features a concept-art inspired Skeletor (thanks to Petteri H. for the tip):
The Italian magazine Magic Boy featured several New Adventures stories. In one of them, Skeletor acquires a magical chest harness from a six-armed statue and soon after grows six arms of his own (images are from He-Man.org):
Overall I think the rebooted 1989 Skeletor has quite a compelling design, and is worth picking up even if you’re not, generally speaking, a New Adventures fan. In fact, all of the revamped Skeletors are worth a look.
Battle Blade Skeletor is the last Skeletor variant produced in the New Adventures of He-Man toyline. This is probably an odd place to start my foray into this series of toys, but I’ve been slightly obsessed with this figure since I first encountered it in a vintage toy shop a couple of years back. Part of it is I think there is something in the face that reminds me of Laser-Light Skeletor – another figure I’m obsessed with.
Because the figure came out at the tail end of the New Adventures line (actually simply called He-Man, but most fans call it New Adventures of He-Man after the associated cartoon), there isn’t any real media or stories to go along with him, at least that I’ve been able to find.
Like Laser-Light Skeletor and the other New Adventures versions of Skeletor, Battle Blade Skeletor was designed by David Wolfram. He bears all the hallmarks of Wolfram’s style, including the narrow lower face, tech-infused body and suit, and generally creepy, asperous design language.
All of the Wolfram-designed Skeletor variants depict him has having a skull face, but not a full skull head. In other words, his head (face excluded) has the same blue skin as the rest of his body. I had always assumed that his entire head was a skull, and that’s how he is is depicted in Danger At Castle Grayskull, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala:
This early sketch of the figure by David Wolfram (digitally colored long after it was drawn) shows a nearly finalized design. The bottom jaw on the skull costume is located a bit higher, but otherwise this is very close to how the action figure looked in production. Notice the scraggly hair on the drawing. That shows up on hand-painted prototypes, but on the production figure it was straight.
Regarding the figure’s hair, David (in the comments) had this to say:
The hair on BB was supposed to be a lot gnarlier, but we had to work with someone from the Barbie group, who couldn’t give me what I was looking for- they only did pretty.
Battle Blade Skeletor has some general elements in common with his predecessor, Disks of Doom Skeletor – also designed by Wolfram. Both have star shaped boots, recalling the feet of characters like Buzz-Off and Whiplash. Both have tall boots and a skull themed costume, but Disks of Doom Skeletor’s costume looks more “heavy industrial” (particularly around the torso):
Curiously, a similar design is present in the principle villain (illustrated version) in Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom (thanks to Stradlemonkey for pointing this out). The game was released in 1990, the same year as Disks of Doom Skeletor. Disks of Doom Skeletor’s trademark was filed on November 16, 1989, so I would guess Mattel’s design came first.
We might also see some early iteration of the concept in the artwork below by Errol McCarthy. Errol says he just did illustrations for New Adventures of He-Man, and was never a designer of the characters. In the art below, we see the skull motif again in Skeletor’s costume. In this instance Skeletor has a fully-robotic body. Interestingly he also has hair – a trait he shares with Battle Blade Skeletor.
We get a look at a hand-painted final prototype version of the figure in the 1991 German He-Man magazine below. This version has crisper paint as well head articulation – the final figure has a static head. We also see an early version of Thunder Punch He-Man (the 1992 version). Both figures are quite a bit bulkier-looking than the 1989 versions of He-Man and Skeletor. I think Mattel was trying to capture a little of the chunkiness and heavily-muscled appearance of the original 1982 He-Man and Skeletor figures here.
Skeletor is described in the German magazine, roughly translated, like this:
The new ruler is now even more dangerous and ambitious. With his strong articulated right arm he smashes his new throwing machine in the direction of his opponents. His new haircut of real hair, his new shield and his new skull and crossbones make him undoubtedly the most beautiful among the Nordor.
An exploded view of Battle Blade Skeletor’s test shot is shown below, over a copy of the “He-Ro Son of He-Man” bible:
This is the only version of Skeletor to feature rooted hair. It’s a strange look. My particular copy doesn’t have the rooted hair (no doubt someone pulled it out), and I think it looks better without:
Battle Blade Skeletor has a spring-loaded, ball-jointed right arm that allows him to toss his “quadro-blade” weapon. He also comes with a shield that continues with the creepy skull motif. The white paint on his torso glows in the dark. Unlike the 1989 Skeletor, this version is almost in scale with the original 1982 MOTU line. He stands at about the same height, although of course that’s while standing up straight – something most of the original figures couldn’t do.
William George painted the artwork on the front of the figure’s packaging, but I don’t know who was responsible for the illustrations on the back.
The back of the package (above) gives us a little bit of a bio:
The Evil MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE! Skeletor has been transformed by lumina radiation absorbed in an atom-smashing explosion. His eyes blaze with evil and his Battle Armor glows with power.
Mission: 1) To slice He-Man down to size and lead him to a shameful end at the Galactic Guardian Games on the planet Primus. 2) To seize all of the power in the universe.
I guess it’s good to have life goals! The Galactic Guardian Games refers to a storyline in the animated series, produced by Jetlag. Skeletor appears (more or less) in his Battle Blade outfit toward the end of the series (thanks to DarkAlex1978 for pointing that out). Essentially this is his look after he lost his “Disks of Doom” helmet during a battle with He-Man in “The Tornadoes of Zil” (thanks to Dave for the tip):
It’s strange to me that Mattel was still making Skeletor figures in the era of grunge music. Come to think of it, this is certainly a grungy-looking figure, so he somewhat captures the spirit of the era.
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