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).
Filmation writer Robby London is credited as the creator of Orko, according to fellow He-Man writer Rowby Goren (in a facebook post Aug. 31st, 2021).
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 the art without re-drawing it all double.
While it helped with the animation pipeline for costs and time, it’s a fan myth that “they simply took an animated cel and flipped it”, as any animation cel collector will easily reveal, the animation cels were painted on the underside. So flipping an animation cel would not work.
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.
Ram Man, released in the second wave of Masters of the Universe Action figures, was a big favorite of mine as a kid. Sure, his legs were fused together and his articulation was rather limited, but his unique appearance and action feature made him a prominent protagonist in the battle against the forces of darkness (a battle that happened every day after school on the floor of my bedroom).
Ram Man’s action is demonstrated in this commercial:
Designed by Mark Taylor, Ram Man had several unique looks in the early stages of his conception:
In the left-most drawing he seems to have some technological elements in
his helmet design. In the drawing on the right his face is entirely
obscured by his helmet, and he looks more Lord of the Rings than Buck
Rogers. The second image is ultimately closer to the final Ram Man
design than the first.
Update: another stage of the design is shown in the concept below, which is much closer to the final look of the character. The costume is quite similar to the design shown above and to the right, but the face is exposed.
Update: This design was developed into a similar character called Jumping Jack Flash (below). Aside from the helmet and facial hair, he looks very close to the final Ram Man figure. He also features metal gauntlets rather than leather straps. He carried a “mace grenade” that would fly loose when the character popped up from internal springs.
Another Mark Taylor design for a dwarf figure named Hercule featured a similar action feature. Instead of simply ramming, the idea was that this figure’s spring-loaded legs would cause him to tumble forward in the air at his opponents. I’m not sure exactly how this would have worked in practice, but several elements from Hercule made it into Ram Man’s final design.
The prototype Ram Man figure (below) carries over the color scheme from Jumping Jack Flash. The face and helmet design have been greatly modified, however. The prototype looks very close to the final figure, color scheme aside. Some differences include the fact that his eyes are closed and that his silver upper arm/shoulder armor is incorporated into his arm pieces
The cross sell art was based on the prototype, and includes all the same elements, down to the color scheme:
Ram Man appears in the 1983 dealer catalog along with all the other new figures released that year, with a new red and green color scheme:
Ram Man was the first figure in the MOTU line whose parts were not reused for any other figure. He came packaged with his axe weapon and a comic book. His arm bracers were sculpted and covered with a silver sticker rather than a layer of paint. The sculpt of his arms is quite soft compared to most MOTU figures, but he has a lot of detail elsewhere. The color scheme of the toy is red and green; however, the packaging artwork portrays Ram Man in the prototype colors:
Aside from the single carded figure, Ram Man was available in the following gift sets:
Ram Man had his own mini comic dedicated to him called He-Man Meets Ram-Man (incorrectly hyphenating the character’s name). Rammy is portrayed from the start as a bit thick, which is appropriate for a character whose primary attack involves self-inflicted brain injury. There is an early misunderstanding where Ram Man gets in a fight with He-Man and loses. Skeletor is able to use that to trick Ram Man into bashing his head repeatedly against Castle Grayskull’s doors.
Ram Man is essentially good-hearted, and in the end he turns on Skeletor and comes to He-Man’s aid:
Artwork similar to the Ram Man mini comic was used in this French coloring book:
Ram Man as portrayed in the Filmation cartoon was even slower than he was in the mini comics. In certain frames it’s also evident that the artists envisioned Ram Man’s legs as actual springs that propelled him toward enemies (or more often, walls).
In the Filmation Series guide, Ram Man resembles the cross sell art more than the toy:
Ram Man made fairly frequent appearances in mini comics, story books, and marketing materials:
For some reason Ram Man made no appearances in box art, and few appearances in posters, despite being one of a select number of figures that had a commercial dedicated just to him. Still, Ram Man frequently appeared on the Filmation cartoon and remains a popular character to this day.
Released with the first wave of characters in the original Masters of the Universe toy line, Skeletor would eventually become one of the most iconic and memorable villains of the 1980s.
I remember getting Skeletor along with He-Man, Beast Man and Man-At-Arms in 1982. I hadn’t even heard of these figures before getting them as Christmas presents. I don’t remember what toys I owned before that day, but the experience of opening and playing with these toys for the first time is permanently etched in my brain. Skeletor especially made a big impression on 5-year-old me. I’d never seen anything like him.
Design & Development
Like all the other first-wave MOTU figures, Skeletor was designed by Mattel artist Mark Taylor. Taylor’s 1979 drawing (before the MOTU line was first conceived) featured his He-Man-like character “Torak” and included a villain in the background who bears a striking resemblance to Skeletor:
Mark Taylor did another sketch, predating his work at Mattel, that informed his later Skeletor design. In the drawing below, we see a mummy-like character, complete with torn bandages. He has a decaying body and face, but he also has elements of the final Skeletor costume that are recognizable – most notably in the cross bones on his chest. From the crown and collar, he looks like some kind of undead king.
The sketch was recently found by Rebecca Salari Taylor (Mark Taylor’s wife). Of the sketch, she said:
It was done before Mark went to Mattel. I found it in a sketchbook. He has a few versions of skeletons as warriors and royalty. It is based off of a story he wrote once when he was a kid in college… about a skeleton king called “The King of Styx” … circa 1971. I found a new stash of sketchbooks when they repaired our garage.
The above drawing was first teased in this poster image sold at Grayskull Con in 2013, produced by the Power and Honor Foundation:
The concept character who has come to be known as Demo-Man (1980) is often considered to be an early version of Skeletor, although according to designer Mark Taylor he is a separate character (possibly designed as a villain for the abandoned Conan line, per Emiliano Santalucia). While this Taylor design does feature a skeletal face, it otherwise bears little resemblance to Skeletor. In fact, Demo-Man seems more similar to Beast Man in many ways. It’s unclear what might have become of this character had he been further developed. His sword design seems influenced by the sword in the “undead king” sketch Mark did before coming to Mattel.
The B-sheet for “D Man” gives us the first look at a close to final and “official” Skeletor design. He retains the decaying face and general body shape and pose from the mummy sketch. His costume is much more recognizable as Skeletor, however, and he has his characteristic blue skin. He has the five-toed bare feet and yellow bat detail around his shin guards and chest armor that would later appear in the first minicomics. The head of the staff was meant to be attached via string and would have doubled as a flail.
The D Man B-sheet was translated into a clay model by legendary Mattel sculptor Tony Guerrero. The paint details on the face were altered to the familiar yellow/green scheme, and the handle of the staff was left unfinished.
Update: As late as July 9, 1981, Mattel was still going to use the “rotting face” version of Skeletor’s head. You can see that in the toy head design sheet below.
This design was highly detailed and would have required a lot of unique parts. Presumably to save money, Skeletor’s design was simplified and made more generic and reusable.
The cross sell art (above) seems to be the next step in Skeletor’s evolution, before the final toy. Skeletor was given legs that could be reused for Mer-Man, with three-toed feet and a more generic shin guard. Instead of the decrepit forearms, he was given unpainted gloved forearms that could be reused for Mer-Man (ironically Mer-Man would eventually lose the painted gloves, making this design change unnecessary). Other differences from the B-sheet include a wider “skirt” and a simplified bird motif on the belt.
This final prototype (above two images) shows some further changes to the design. The boots were given a scaly, organic appearance, and the “gloved” forearms were made to look more ambiguous, as if they could either be gloves or bony protrusions. Again, this seems designed to make these molded parts fit with either Skeletor or Mer-Man. Interestingly, the armor seems to sit higher on the body than the final toy.
The first release of Skeletor featured the iconic “8-back” packaging. Reissues featured a scene on the card back of Skeletor looking rather sneaky, with Castle Grayskull in the background (art by Errol McCarthy].
Image courtesy of Axel Giménez.
The very first run of Skeletor figures had an error in the face paint. As Mattel marketing director Mark Ellis explained:
As with all large scale endeavors, screw-ups happen. After production was authorized, the factories started to turn out the characters in amazing quantities. I walked by Tall Paul’s office one day and he had a set of MOTU figures on his desk. I picked up Skeletor and noticed on his right cheek there was an orange mark. I asked Paul and he deduced that before the paint master was shipped to the factory, apparently it was moved or some stray color was accidentally added to make that orange mark. So Paul went down and got it fixed, but not before thousands and thousands were produced with that “error.”
This was actually the version I had as a kid. I certainly didn’t see it as an error. When I re-bought Skeletor as an adult, none of the Skeletors looked quite right to me until I found the one with orange cheeks. I remember staring for hours at that face as a kid, memorizing every detail.
Early versions of Skeletor had half-painted boots, which were probably meant to represent shin guards. He also had purple shorts and a black belt. Later versions had fully-painted boots and black shorts (and of course the corrected face paint). The full boot version has traditionally been associated with the black shorts/corrected face, but there are in between versions as well:
All of the above have a hit of light blue in the eye sockets as well, which would eventually be cut. Below we see corrected face paint with full boots and black shorts, and no light blue in the eyes:
There are of course all kinds of international production variants as well, with subtle and not-so subtle differences from the initial Taiwan versions.
Skeletor was sold in a number of configurations, apart from the single-carded figure. I’ll t get into Skeletor variants in future posts (ie, Battle Armor Skeletor, Dragon Blaster Skeletor, etc), but the standard release Skeletor was available in the following gift sets:
A photo and a short video of Skeletor in action, contributed by Øyvind Meisfjord:
The box art for the sets featuring Skeletor with Panthor or Screech are particularly good. They capture the same Frazetta feel as Rudy Obrero’s artwork, but with a slightly different flavor. I include the single packaged Panthor art piece as well, because I like the artist’s depiction of Skeletor so much:
The Skeletor/Screech artwork was painted by Rudy Obrero, while the others were likely done by William Garland.
Skeletor was featured along with He-Man in this very early live-action commercial:
One of the most memorable depictions of Skeletor in any media was created by Alfredo Alcala, who did the artwork for nine MOTU mini comics, the Power of Point Dread comic book/record set, and the 1982 DC series (he is credited with the inks rather than the artwork for the DC series, but his stylistic influence is evident).
Notice the body and clothing in the above illustration almost exactly match Mark Taylor’s b-sheet (this example is from the first mini comic, He-Man and the Power Sword). The face looks like a creepier, more ghoulish version of the vintage toy, however.
This artwork from The Power of Point Dread (above) is based on the cross sell art, but again the design of the skull face is unique to Alcala.
Taylor wasn’t responsible for writing the back story for any of the characters, but he did have one in mind when he created Skeletor:
[Skeletor] is a corrupted super human. His father threw him into the “Pit of Souls” as a youth to eliminate him as a claimant to the throne (Grayskull). Years after, the tribe was completely eliminated by a malevolent witch poisoner (Skeletor’s mother) who then helped him escape from the “Well” but when she saw what it had done to him she went insane and drank her own poison.
His stay in the demonic “Well of Souls” morphed his body and soul forever, before he looked very much like He Man. …. [His] hood is to help hide his glowing eyes and camouflage his distinct silhouette. It is made of the eyelid of a dragon that tried to kill him just after he emerged from the “Well”. [His armor] is made from the hide of an armadillo type monster that dared to defy him, it is tougher than steel.
[Skeletor] is the ultimate bipolar, from quiet malevolent to towering rage. … Not counting the time warp in the “Well of Souls” he is about 317 years old but he doesn’t celebrate birthdays… he never sleeps.
Taylor had no involvement in the production of mini comics, other than seeing them and approving them. The first official origin story (written by Don Glut) gave a simple but effective origin for Skeletor. He was an evil demon from another dimension, bent on stealing the power from within Castle Grayskull, and bringing more of his kind into Eternia. He was apparently brought into Eternia when the “Great Wars” ripped a hole between dimensions.
Much later in the line, it was hinted that Skeletor was once Keldor, brother to King Randor, but the story was never fleshed out until the 2002 cartoon series.
Perhaps the most widely-recognizable look for Skeletor came from the Filmation cartoon series. Voiced to perfection by Alan Oppenheimer, Skeletor featured a stripped down, more humanoid design, and more angry-looking eyes than the original toy:
There is a brief reference to Skeletor’s origins in the cartoon. In “The Greatest Adventures of All” VHS release, the Sorceress mentions that Skeletor is a demon from another dimension, which accords with the Don Glut story. (Thanks to both Jukka Issakainen and Dušan Mitrović for the information.) This idea is even more fleshed out in the December 1982 MOTU Bible, written by Michael Halperin:
A new vitality soared through their veins as they woke their new bodies to the horrid laughter of Infinita’s remaining ruler — the evil, megalomaniacal, power-mad monster, SKELETOR.
Beneath his hood eyes peered at them from the dark sockets of his skull face and his voice rang hollowly from the recesses of his bony jaws. In his hand he grasped the black, ram-headed HAVOC STAFF. He knew they were the minions he needed to break the Space Portal seal so he could invade and conquer Eternia. On the other hand Evil-Lyn, Beast-Man and Tri-Klops recognized Skeletor as their device for wreaking vengeance throughout the universe.
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.
Skeletor waved his staff and a charge of energy sprang forth rolling back a huge boulder from one wall uncovering a screen. A wave of his hand and a picture swam into view — a picture of Eternia then that of King Randor and Marlena. At the sight of the former captain, the trio snarled and clenched their fists – and it wasn’t lost on Skeletor.
“I see you feel as I do. You’d like to invade Eternia and conquer it. My reasons are simple enough. Infinita can no longer sustain life. We need Eternia’s air and food and I intend to take it by force. If you are with me we can accomplish our aim. But before we do we must break through the Space Portal sealed centuries ago against my ancestors. Once that’s done we’ll wipe out that simpering Eternian goodness and our dark powers will reign over all Eternia — over all the universe.”
In the animated commercial for the MOTU toy line produced by Filmation in 1982, Skeletor looked even more menacing than his later appearances in the show, with a more detailed design:
I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface on Skeletor. I could cover all his appearances in the box art, or the different comic book depictions and characterizations, or all the advertising and merchandising related to the character, but this really would turn this blog post into a novella. And maybe that’s what you’d need to really do justice to the evil lord of destruction!
I’ll return to the topic another time when I discuss Skeletor variant figures. Perhaps I’ll also do a separate post just on Skeletor-related box art, with some more detailed pictures of packaging.
Special thanks to Jukka Issakainen and Dušan Mitrović for some corrections and guidance on this topic.