Interviews

Errol McCarthy: Cardback Legend

Errol McCarthy at the CARtoons art show at LACMA (LA County Museum of Art) in 2016

I recently got the chance to interview Errol McCarthy, one of the most prolific artists ever to work on Masters of the Universe. Errol started out providing illustrations for Mattel’s first licensing kit in 1982, and moved on to illustrate the majority of the cardback artwork scenes for vintage MOTU figures. He worked on other license kit and style guide illustration projects, and he illustrated a number of scenes for apparel for Bates Nightwear

To begin with, Errol sent me the following bio detailing some of his life history:

Errol McCarthy was born in Los Angeles long long ago, but grew up in Billings, Montana. As a teen, he developed an interest in anything with an engine. This included airplanes, sports cars and motorcycles. His high school buddies had real hot rods and many, many evenings were spent cruising and occasionally actually picking up girls. “American Graffiti” was right on!

The closest thing to a real rod that he had was a bored out ’48 Chevy coupe with a split manifold. While writing a ticket, a cop said:”It was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard”! Plans to install a ’50 Olds V-8 with a Lincoln Zephyr tranny remained just plans. Drawing was a different thing,since, if you can draw, he reasoned, you can create anything. Errol became the school cartoonist and study hall was all about drawing cars and airplanes.

A short stint in the Air Force as an Aviation Cadet convinced Errol that he was not the military type; art school would be a better fit. He went back to Los Angeles to attend Art Center school and to meet his future wife, Mitzi, who was also an artist. Their first date was a hot rod show and a trip to a comic book stand; she passed the “test” and they were married. They both found that it was possible to make a living in art.

Errol’s first freelance comic book job came from answering a want ad in the paper. It was a one shot entitled “CarNuts” published by Quentin Miller. That job,plus an Underground comic story led to Petersen Publishing which had 3 comic books at the time: CAR Toons, Hot Rod Cartoons and Cycletoons. He soon had work in all 3, plus a full time job as an illustrator at McDonnell-Douglas. There were a few jobs for underground comics, Road and Track and Hustler magazines. A Master’s degree followed with a thesis on the influence of underground “comix” on art. Teaching art followed and then a stay at Mattel doing action figures like He-Man and Big Jim. There was also Hot Wheels work, where, he says, the high point of his art career was the design of the “Toilet Mobile”. There was other free lance toy work including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

To pay the bills, both he and Mitzi have done tech drawings for Clymer Publications motorcycle magazines for over 30 years, continue to this day and love it.

And now on to the interview!

Battle Ram: How did you come to be involved in Masters of the Universe?

Errol McCarthy: I started to do free lance work for Mattel about ’79. [My] old Art Center pal Mark Taylor hired me.

BR: Would your first project for MOTU have been the 1982 Licensing Kit? What can you remember about it?

EM: That was sooo long ago, I have no idea what the first MOTU work was about. I do remember doing lots figure and playset concepts, but I don’t remember if they were all produced.

BR: You went on to illustrate the action scenes on the cardbacks for most of the figures. Can you talk about how that started and what you were trying to achieve with your illustrations?

EM: I think it was just to illustrate what the figure was about & what it did like Mekaneck with his telescoping neck.

BR: Were the landscapes and scenery of the cardback illustrations created totally from your imagination, or did Mattel give you some direction for the look of Eternia (for example, the sinister-looking swamp for Evil-Lyn, the sweeping plains for He-Man)?

EM: All of that stuff was pretty much from my imagination. It’s fun to draw creepy creatures and landscapes.

BR: You illustrated cardbacks for characters like Skeletor, Mer-Man, He-Man, Teela, Faker, Fisto, Trap Jaw and many others. Which ones are your favorites and why? Any interesting stories associated with any of them?

EM: I liked all of them but particularly the main ones like Teela, Stratos and Mekaneck. I think there were about 100 or so characters in the line. It was great fun to draw all of them.

BR: It looks like your License Kit Castle Grayskull shows up in the background of your Skeletor illustration, and other illustrations as well. Did you commonly reuse your art where you could?

Image source: He-Man.org

EM: Drawings of things as complex as Castle Grayskull and other things like that are used over and over again and why not? The trick is to try to make it look fresh.

BR: You continued to do additional license kit artwork, as well as artwork for a MOTU style guide. Any stories or memories about either project?

EM: Not really-I think the Style Guide was meant to indicate what colors were to be used for each of the parts of characters or machines.

BR: You did some work for Bates Nightwear to create licensed MOTU artwork for T-shirts or pajama shirts, correct? Can you talk about that project?

EM: I think I did about 100 drawings for Bates Nightwear.It was great fun!

Image via He-Man.org

BR: Sometimes you signed your art EM, and other times you signed your full name. Was that based on your own preference, or did Mattel sometimes dictate how you were to sign your art?

EM: The signing sort of depended on the space available. Mattel or Petersen Pub. didn’t care about signing.

BR: Are there any other projects you worked on for the original Masters of the Universe toyline?

EM: I really can’t think of any other than the ones done recently for Super 7 which was for the collector’s market; they were done as card back art, the same as the original line back in the ’80’s. I think that Mattel has taken back the rights now.* We’ll see if they continue the line.

BR: You illustrated two comic books for the “New Adventures” He-Man reboot. Can you talk about how you got involved in that project? What did you think of the new futuristic He-Man concept?

EM: I wish that I could’ve done more with the comic books, but was too busy at the time with other free lance work, but they had a pool of great talent to do the books. A few years ago, Dark Horse reprinted the comics in a hard cover single volume and doubled the size of the art. They did an excellent job of it!

BR: You also illustrated some “New Adventures” futuristic He-Man concept art as well. Can you talk about how that came about? Do you remember anything about the idea behind the concepts you drew? Were these your character designs?

EM: These were all someone else’s concepts. I don’t know who was involved in it, but it was well done.

BR: Did you work on any other non-MOTU projects at Mattel?

EM: Yes, I contributed occasionally to Hot Wheels. My proudest project was doing the art for the Toiletmobile on the Real Monsters line and doing a lot of art on Big Jim packaging. There were others as well like Mighty Max.

BR: Were you always a contractor at Mattel, or did you ever join as a permanent employee?

EM: I freelanced for Mattel from about 1978 to ’89. I was a Mattel employee from ’89 to 1995, then back to freelancing again for Mattel and other toy companies. I think Mark [Taylor] did bring me in specifically to work in house on MOTU in 1989. Mark left after I did in 1995 and went on to work at other toy companies. We collaborated occasionally on projects.

BR: Recently you’ve done some new cardback illustrations for some of the vintage style Super7 MOTU figures. How did that come about? How did it feel to work on Masters of the Universe again?

EM: I guess they knew I was still alive and drawing stuff so I got to do the card backs. One of the biggest perks for me was to be able to work with Emiliano Santalucia over the internet. He lives in Sicily and I live in Long Beach, but the internet makes it possible to work together.

BR: As I understand it, you’ve done illustration work for a number of different toy lines, including Star Wars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Can you summarize some of the major work you’ve done outside of MOTU?

EM: Yes, I worked on both of those lines doing mostly concept art which may or may not become a toy. My biggest accomplishment was doing the TMNT blimp!

BR: What do you think made MOTU such a success?

EM: I understand that Mattel wanted to do a Conan the Barbarian line but couldn’t get the rights, so did their own version.Little boys love that sort of thing, plus there was no limit to the imagination when it came to weird characters and odd scenarios; it was also the time of Star Wars, etc.

BR: Are you working on anything exciting at the moment?

EM: The most exciting thing for me now is to be able to still work on He-Man and that it still exists!

Image via The Art of He-Man.

Many thanks to Errol McCarthy for taking the time to answer my questions!

*Note: according to a recent Roast Gooble Dinner interview with Brian Flynn, the status of future 5.5″ figures is somewhat uncertain because of the upcoming Masters of the Universe Movie. The strategy for how Super7 and Mattel release MOTU figures ahead of that film is still to be determined.

Evil Mutants

Skeletor – Ultimate Evil Lord of Destruction (1989)

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:

Laser Light Skeletor concept art (working title: Bio-Mechazoid Skeletor), by Dave Wolfram
Laser Light Skeletor, released in Europe in 1988.

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:

Concept art by Dave Wolfram, from May 25, 1988. Image via The Art of He-Man.

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:

Image source: Grayskull Museum
Image source: Grayskull Museum

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:

Hand-painted final prototype on a Spanish playing card. Source: http://cuevadelterror.blogspot.com

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.

Cross sell artwork. Image courtesy of Jukka Issakainen.

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.

Packaging art by William George. Image from The Art of He-Man.

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:

Image source: http://www.wishbookweb.com/
Image source: http://www.wishbookweb.com/

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:

In the bottom right panel, we get a look at the cybernetics on Skeletor’s back.

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:


Image via the Ancient Library of Grayskull Facebook group/Dušan M.

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):

UK He-Man Magazine pinup

Pinup from German He-Man magazine. Artwork by Giuliano Piccininno – information is from the MOTU Art Facebook page.

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.

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Evil Mutants

Battle Blade Skeletor (1992)

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.

Image courtesy of David Wolfram

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.

Artwork by Boris Vallejo

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.

1991 French catalog, with image flipped the right way around. Image source: Grayskull Museum.
Battle Blade Skeletor playing card. Image source: http://cuevadelterror.blogspot.com

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:

Figure missing rooted hair
Unaltered version with rooted hair. Image source: He-Man.org

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.

Instructions
Cross sell art
Bio

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.

Battle Equipment: Quadro-blade, deflector shield & luminactive Battle Armor.

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):

Battle Blade Skeletor production sketch from the animated series.

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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Reviews

Rudy Obrero & Errol McCarthy portfolios

I haven’t had as much time as I’d like for writing blog posts lately, so I’ve tried to focus more on toy features than reviews of current offerings related to the vintage toyline. However, I would like to give a quick review of two portfolios from two of my favorite artists – Rudy Obrero and Errol McCarthy.

Produced by The Power and the Honor Foundation in collaboration with Super7, the portfolios consist of large, high definition prints of the artwork used on the original packaging. In Errol McCarthy’s case, it was the artwork used on the back of carded figures, starting in 1983, when the cardbacks switched away from the “8-back” format. In Rudy Obrero’s case, it was packaging for playsets, vehicles and beasts, starting at the beginning of the the line in 1982.

The quality and presentation is very similar to the Mark Taylor portfolio that was released in the fall of 2016. On the back of both portfolios we get a nice photo and biography of each of the artists:

Rudy Obrero’s portfolio comes with the following pieces:

  • Battle Cat
  • Battle Cat charcoal drawing
  • Battle Ram
  • Castle Grayskull
  • He-Man and Battle Cat
  • He-Man and Wind Raider
  • Wind Raider

Rudy is my favorite artist to work on the Masters of the Universe toyline, so this set is particularly dear to me. The chance to have nice crisp versions of Rudy’s Frazetta-like interpretation of these characters on one’s wall is not to be missed. The inclusion of the original charcoal artwork for Battle Cat (the first piece of box art done for the toyline) is the icing on the cake. The original is owned by Eamon O’Donoghue, so we have him to thank that this piece is included in this collection.

Note that in the charcoal drawing, He-Man’s pose is different from the final illustration in oils, and Castle Grayskull has the “pawn” piece on the top from the original prototype.

If you check out part one of my feature on MOTU box art, you might notice that there were some changes made to some of these pieces when they were printed on the actual packaging. The most obvious is Battle Ram – the image was reversed and lightened for the packaging. He-Man and Wind Raider, Castle Grayskull, and Battle Cat were also lightened and color shifted.

This particular portfolio does not include any of the illustrations Rudy did for toys that came out in 1983 – perhaps they will appear in a future collection.

Errol McCarthy’s portfolio is of a more uniform size – the cardback illustration dimensions were all equally proportioned, while the box packaging was not. The McCarthy portfolio, like Rudy Obrero’s portfolio, focuses on the first year of the toyline. However, it also includes two pieces that were produced for 1983 and 1987 (Evil-Lyn and Faker, respectively). Faker was actually released in 1983 (or perhaps early 1982), but his original release featured the 8-back card. His re-release in 1987 featured the artwork included in this portfolio. Perhaps Errol’s illustration was done earlier, but not used until 1987 – I’m not certain.

Update: Miguel Ángel in the comments confirms that the Faker artwork was indeed done much earlier than 1987. Thanks Miguel!

In Argentina, the 8-back blisters never came into use. The figure of Faker was always packed with the blister that had the illustration of Errol McCarthy in the reverse and went on sale between December of 1984 and January of 1985. Obviously, that illustration of McCarthy about Faker already existed in 1984 and I dare to say that it was created in the same stage that the artist made those others for the 8 initial characters and those that would join them in the second wave … With the intention to relaunch and / or re-pack Faker in 1983, as with the other 8 of 1982? I would say yes, although for some reason that would only take place in 1987. The illustration itself, however, was much earlier.

Errol McCarthy’s portfolio comes with the following pieces:

  • He-Man
  • Man-At-Arms
  • Teela
  • Stratos
  • Skeletor
  • Beast Man
  • Mer-Man
  • Zodac
  • Evil-Lyn
  • Faker

Errol McCarthy is another one of my favorite MOTU artists. His vision for Eternia, like Rudy Obrero’s includes plenty of rocky and volcanic looking landscapes. But he also has some cleaner, more familiar looking locations that speak to me as well. In fact, two of my favorite pieces are Teela and He-Man, which place the characters in a region with windswept, rolling hills.

Errol McCarthy was perhaps the most prolific Masters of the Universe artist. He not only did artwork for cardbacks through the life of the toyline, he also produced quite a lot of illustrations for merchandising and marketing purposes. I suspect if there was enough interest, there could be at least another 10-20 portfolios of his work.

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