The 2019 San Diego Comic Con Mattel exclusive He-Man and Prince Adam two-pack took most Masters fans by complete surprise. After years of larger scale MOTU Classics figures with modernized proportions and articulation, Mattel was finally doing another line of vintage-inspired 5.5″ He-Man figures. Unlike the 2000 Commemorative Line, however, it was clear that Origins was to be updated with modern articulation, while keeping the overall vintage look.
Because the initial offering, in the form of a He-Man/Prince Adam two-pack, was done in the style of vintage minicomics, many fans (including myself) assumed that the new MOTU Origins line would plumb the “origins” of the MOTU franchise, which generally lie in the early concept figure designs that often showed up in minicomics (minicomics had to be illustrated ahead of production schedule, with artwork often based on prototype designs).
As it turns out, Origins will mainly be based on the vintage MOTU figures as they appeared in the toy aisles. The minicomic styling of this set will be the exception rather than the rule. I certainly hope that Mattel will find creative ways to get more minicomic style figures out to hardcore fans (perhaps in the form of a mini subscription, like the MOTU Classics model), even while the more well-known vintage toy designs appear on toy shelves in the fall of 2020. I would love to see minicomic/concept versions of Skeletor, Sorceress/Goddess, Mer-Man, Beast Man, Teela, Man-At-Arms and Stratos.
The SDCC exclusive set comes with the most richly-detailed and indulgent packing I’ve seen from Mattel. The set is collector friendly – the figures inside can be removed and replaced without damaging the packing in the least. I have to applaud this move from Mattel. Interestingly, the packaging includes credits for all the people who worked on the finished product:
Toy designer: Brandon Sopinsky • Packaging Designer: Roy Juarez • Packaging Engineer: Adam O’Connor • Copywriter: Robert Rudman • Comic Book Writer: Tim Seeley • Line Art: Axel Gimenez • Colorist: Val Staples • Background Painter: Nate Baertsch • Comic Book Letterer: Ed Dukeshire • Illustration Support: Joseph Zacate • Sculpt: Adam deFelice & Sean Olmos
The outer box for the set features He-Man’s harness (in the Alcala/minicomic/concept style, featuring red squares along both the front and back of the harness) over a Grayskull-green stone texture:
The inner box features a transparent cover that adds character and other art over the backgrounds featured on the box itself. All of the artwork is stunning. Below I will show the design of each side of the box, with and without the transparent cover:
The artwork is largely inspired by the first MOTU minicomic, He-Man and the Power Sword, illustrated by the legendary Alfredo Alcala. There is also inspiration drawn from Alcala’s He-Man and the Insect People, and Battle Cat box art by Rudy Obrero. Those influences are more apparent in the included minicomic, written by Tim Seeley and featuring a retcon of the traditional “savage” origin story written by Don Glut that makes room for multiple He-Men as well as Adam as he appeared in early DC Comics (penciled by Curt Swan and George Tuska) and third wave Alcala comics.
Axel Giménez, who did much of the line art, often directly credits the Alcala influence in the artwork, although for the box cover that was removed from the final colored version:
The comic in the set is situated between two windows, featuring Prince Adam and He-Man:
Early photos released by Mattel show some slight differences compared to the final set. Originally the Adam of the set was to include his own boot knife, as well as a gold-painted handle on the Power sword. He-Man’s boot knife originally went all the way through the cuff of his boot, making the tip of the blade visible (as shown below):
The final figures of course have those peculiarities removed. Let’s take a closer look at He-Man. He comes with a vintage toy style head as well as a new minicomic style head. He also comes with three pairs of removable hands, an axe and a shield. In the photo below I show him with the vintage toy style head, compared with an original, first-release Taiwan He-Man from 1982:
Aside from the added articulation, He-Man of course features the two-tone boots, boot knife, symmetrical bracers, rounded shield, modified axe and modified harness that are all hallmarks of the character as he appeared in the minicomic, He-Man and the Power Sword:
The minicomic design is based on a prototype of the figure, designed by Mark Taylor and sculpted by Tony Guerrero:
The alternative head is meant to represent the look that Alfredo Alcala gave him in the minicomics, with a shaggier hairstyle:
He-Man’s sculpt is closely based on the vintage 1982 figure, albeit with a lot more articulation. The arms and chest in particular are very faithful to the original, although the legs are a bit softer in sculpt. Where the vintage version was rather miserly regarding paint applications, the Origins figure features painted bracers (symmetrical this time, based on the “punching rocks” scene shown earlier) and three colors on his boots. His boots are also slightly larger, which makes him a bit more steady on his feet.
He-Man’s added articulation allows for a great degree of posability. The additional removable hands are a nice touch as well.
He-Man’s head, arms, hands, torso and boots are all removable – a feature that will allow for some fun mix and match swapping down the line.
Prince Adam is a much bigger departure from the vintage 1984 figure. Like He-Man, he comes with two different heads and three sets of hands. He also comes with a power sword in the style of the version that appeared in the early Alfredo Alcala minicomics as well as the early DC Comics:
Prince Adam first appeared in the 1982 DC story, From Eternia With Death! This version of Adam, however, is most closely based on the character as he appeared in To Tempt The Gods (pencils by George Tuska, inks by Alfredo Alcala) as well as He-Man and the Insect People (illustrated by Alfredo Alcala).
Prince Adam’s cloth vest and elastic belt recall the 1984 figure, although of course the colors of his costume are quite different.
The plastic used on this set is the usual high quality material we’ve come to expect from Mattel. It’s actually fairly similar in feel to the material used in the vintage figure (aside from the heads, which in this release are hard plastic rather than soft, hollow polyvinyl. All of the joints work well, with no looseness or issues. The joints around the elbows and hips are, however, a bit inelegant. I have heard that issue will be addressed in future MOTU origins figures.
As the early minicomic source material is the MOTU canon I find most exciting, I was thrilled by this release. I just hope we’ll be able to complete a full cast of characters of early minicomic style variants in the MOTU Origins line.
Announced in 2017, Super7’s vintage style, 5.5″ Filmation inspired He-Man figure was released in 2018 along with similar versions of Skeletor, She-Ra and Hordak. The design ethos seems to be based on the following premise: what if, in the 1980s, Mattel released a series of He-Man variant figures that were “as seen on TV”? That’s pretty much exactly what we get with this series, including the occasional design shortcuts that Mattel might plausibly have implemented in the 80s.
Design & Development
Within the packaging for He-Man we get a brief write-up of the history of how He-Man’s design was translated from toy to cartoon:
In the above sheet (put together by The Power and The Honor Foundation), we see the vintage He-Man figure, along with the animated commercial version, and a finalized version of He-Man’s animated design.
In He-Man’s first animated appearance (a commercial animated by Filmation Studios to help advertise the toyline), He-Man more or less follows the design of the action figure, including the rectangular details on his harness and the round designs on his belt and bracers. He also carries his axe and sword, which were originally intended to be his primary accessories. The commercial can be viewed in its entirety here: https://www.instagram.com/p/BpmvudrnPlj/
As shown in the card that came with the Super7 He-Man figure, He-Man’s more detailed action figure design was simplified for ease of animation once the animated series was greenlit for development. His primary weapon became his power sword in the series.
The prototype He-Man figure was revealed in February of 2017 at New York Toy Fair. It’s pretty close to the mass produced figure, although his colors are a bit different, and the hair separation is better on the prototype. He also has a nice matte finish throughout.
An early factory sample with some quality control issues was also shown a bit later along in the process. The red paint is flaking off of the harness, which seems to have been made from some sparkling metallic plastic material. This issue would be corrected on the final figure.
Design-wise, the sculpt of the chest and pelvis seem to be taken directly from the vintage 1982 figure. The arms are based on the vintage figure as well, but the bracers have been made symmetrical and their design simplified. The feet have been changed, removing all the wrap detail from the original boot design.
He-Man has the same spring-loaded power punch feature of the 1982 original. The figure comes with a cartoon style power sword, as well as a shield (used rarely by Prince Adam in the cartoon) and a half sword that fits with the corresponding Skeletor half sword. Incidentally, He-Man was depicted with the shield in Filmation’s promotional materials, and the half sword almost made it into the show:
The figure’s harness unfortunately doesn’t fit very well around the back, and sits a bit low. It can be made to sit more or less correctly, but requires some finessing. Also, the figure is extremely glossy. I was able to coat the figure with Vallejo Matt Varnish to somewhat reduce the glossiness:
The design of the packaging was directed by The Power and the Honor Foundation. The main carded version (which was actually released second) is based on the original 1980s design, with an “AS SEEN ON TV” burst which, although not featured on vintage MOTU packaging, was pretty commercially ubiquitous at one point. The shape of the bubble on the front has been altered compared to the vintage packaging.
The main artwork on the back was done by Errol McCarthy, who worked on cardback art for most of the vintage MOTU figures. The Filmation-style cross sell artwork and the insert were illustrated by Emiliano Santalucia:
The first version to be released was actually a two pack, in the style of some of the vintage figure gift sets. This set was released in limited numbers.
Another limited release of the figure came in the form of a “Los Amos”
package, based on the design of vintage “Los Amos” (Mexico) figures:
Yet another version will also be released in the style of the Japanese Takara packaging:
Because Masters of the Universe figures were produced over many years in a number of different countries, there is no shortage of production variants, some subtly different and some radically different from the norm. In my own collecting, I’ve always gravitated toward the earliest figures released in the US, particularly for the first wave of figures. They tend to have the nicest paint and plastic applications, in my opinion. All of the 1982 lineup was manufactured in Taiwan, except for Castle Grayskull, Battle Ram and Wind Raider, which were initially manufactured in the US. A common term for the very earliest figures in the line is “test market figures”, although the term isn’t usually used for the vehicles or Castle Grayskull.
Much assistance for this article was given by John Oswald. The research of Mantisaur82 and Tokyonever has also been invaluable.
The early Taiwan figures tend to have the sharpest detail and the finest paint applications compared to later reissues. Subsequent releases tend to cut down on the paint applications and sometimes on the sculpted detail. The earliest figures tend to have boots that are painted on using spray paint and a paint mask, which sometimes shows up as unevenness at the boot tops. Later figures seem to use a dipping method. Since this seems to apply to all the early figures (or at least those with painted boots), I won’t mention this when I talk about each individual figure.
The very first versions of He-Man tend to have a certain coloring – dark orange belt (later versions could range from light orange to mustard yellow to coral), brick-red boots and loin cloth, and dark gray accessories. He has a belly button, which was eventually removed from the mold starting in 1983 (although some 1983 figures seem to still have it). Some of the early accessories seem to be slightly blue-tinged. The straps on the back of his harness have short tabs on them – they were lengthened in subsequent releases to make it easier for children to hold when putting the armor on.
Early versions seem to have a tighter fitting latch in back as well, and intense yellow hair. It’s very common to see the boots not painted all the way up to the top in these early figures. If they are painted all the way to the top, there is usually some uneven overspray in some areas regardless. Later figures have the boot color applied by dipping the legs in paint.
Update: I’ve added some more detailed observations about the earliest Taiwan He-Man figures. The differences I’m noting immediately below are not from year to year, but within the first year of production of He-Man figures (1981, sold beginning early in 1982):
Hair: the early figures’ hair seems to be intense yellow, almost orange tinged. Slightly later in year the hair starts to be a lighter yellow color. I’ve found two main types of paint used – a glossy textured kind of paint, and a non-textured paint that seems almost like a dye.
Belt: the earliest ones are dark orange. The color is a bit lighter as you get later in the year, for instance on carded 8-back He-Man figures that have the warranty information added.
Belly Button: the earliest ones (sold on 8 backs without warranty) are a bit uneven looking. By the time you get to the 8-backs with warranty, the belly button looks anatomically correct.
Waist Punch Feature: the earliest versions have a stopper, so when you twist the waist, it swings back to punch, but stops in the middle. A bit later in the year that stopper was removed, so the punch action doesn’t stop quite in the middle, but keeps moving a bit beyond that. This is also evident in early Skeletor figures, as well as all other first release first wave figures.
Sword: the early ones seem to be marked 4 or 9. The earlier numbered swords tend to be a darker blue/gray color, although you can look at many examples and few will be the exact same shade.
Axe: the early ones are marked 2 or 7. The earlier numbered axes tend to be a darker blue/gray color, although you can look at many examples and none will be the exact same shade.
Harness: the early ones are marked 5 or 10. The 5s I’ve seen seem to be a dark gray/blue, with small oval tab on the latch in back. The 10s seem to have more of a almost multi-hue gray plastic, slightly brighter red paint, and a slightly elongated tab on the back. Both have short straps, and both seem to appear very early, although the 10s seem to persist later in the year. 15s look very similar to 10s and come later still.
I should say that I believe sometimes accessories with the markings outlined above did persist later than early 1982. In general, however, the trend seems to be for the numbers to go higher with time. I’ve seen numbers as high as 33 on later figures.
Shield: Early ones are marked Taiwan. The tabs on the back should be more or less intact. Slightly melted at the top, but not completely melted to the back of the shield, as happened later in production. The exact shade of gray varies quite a bit.
Here are some examples of four early He-Man figures. The two figures on the left are the earliest, although I couldn’t say which came first. The figure second from the right came later in the year (it lacks the stopper in the waist punch feature), and the one on the far right came later still.
And here are my two earliest Taiwan He-Man examples (below, and above on the left). Both have harnesses marked 5. The one on the left has some overspray on the chest emblem, which isn’t too uncommon. The one on the left also has weapons with the earlier number markings, and they are slightly darker gray/blue.
Here is an example (below) of a very early carded Taiwan He-Man, which can be recognized by the lack of warranty and lack of SKU/character subtitles on the back. This is often referred to as the “test market” card. This example of He-Man has boots painted closer up to the top and the darker blue/gray harness and shiny hair paint, similar to the loose example (above, on the right)
After 1982, the first substantive change to Taiwan He-Man figures was the lengthening of the straps, as shown in this comparison image:
The second substantive change to Taiwan He-Man figures was the removal of the “belly button”, as shown here:
The first Taiwan Skeletor is unique in the following ways:
Orange marks on his “cheeks”
Light blue paint in his eye sockets
Short straps on the back of his armor
The subsequent Taiwan release omits the orange cheeks. The next version after that has black shorts, and the version after that gives him fully-painted boots. Later still, he loses the light blue paint in his eye sockets. There are “mix and match” versions out there too, with odd combinations of these features. Perhaps this was from the factory mixing older leftover parts with newer parts. Later versions also omit the “belly button.”
The early Skeletor’s staff is marked Taiwan, and his sword is also marked simply as Taiwan (later versions of the sword add some code numbers on the underside as well). This early example has rather brittle accessories, so I won’t remove them to discover what codes are under his chest armor and belt.
Here is an example of a very early carded Taiwan Skeletor, which can be recognized by the lack of warranty and lack of SKU/character subtitles on the back.
The images below show the evolution of the face paint on the Taiwan figures, in chronological order from top to bottom:
The images below show the evolution of the boots on the Taiwan figures, in chronological order from top to bottom:
The images below show the evolution of the straps on the Taiwan figures, again in chronological order from top to bottom:
And finally, the images below show the evolution of the trunks and belt on the Taiwan figures, in chronological order from top to bottom:
There are at least three distinct very early Taiwan Battle Cats.
V1: Striped Tail Battle Cat
Only a handful of examples of this ultra-rare variant are known to exist. This version matches the color scheme of the original hand-painted prototype. Distinguishing characteristics include:
Orange around the mouth
Teeth painted white front and back
Stripes crisscross over part line on back
Longer, rough-looking stripes on the left shoulder
You can spot this variant in early catalog pictures of MOTU figures. The orange lines on this cat match the black lines on the original Big Jim Tiger the figure is based on. It also has finely textured fur (difficult to see unless it’s in hand), again like the Big Jim Tiger.
The next Taiwan releases omitted the red dots, and have longer straps at the back of the armor. Later Taiwan releases feature a gray belt and much darker colors all around, and a helmet that is somewhat teal-colored.
Early Taiwan Beast Man figures aren’t dramatically different from later versions. The most obvious differences are that the first versions have white dots in the eyes (some of them, at least – I’ll get into that), light blue face paint, even and circular blue paint on the front of the armor, and a short strap around the back of the armor. I believe I have identified some differences between the “test market” G0 figures and the subsequent G1 release.
There are two variants available on the initial “test market” cards – a version without dots in the eyes, and a version with bright white dots in the eyes. I have now seen examples of both on the first release packaging. I really can’t say which came first, although the version with dots more closely follows the intended design, based on the look of a hand-painted Beast Man prototype.
I would also note that the whips on these first release figures don’t fit as well in the figures’ hands. That seems to have been corrected with later releases.
The second “G1” card release often has the dots on the eyes as well, but the dots are more of an off-white color, like the rest of the face. The armor also tends to be slightly more pinkish. On both G0 and G1 versions, the strap around the back of the figure is short. The G1 version often has no waist stopper on the spring waist feature.
Below is an example of a very early carded Taiwan Beast Man, which can be recognized by the lack of warranty and lack of SKU/character subtitles on the back. This version lacks the dots in the eyes. The off-white dots seem to be prevalent on G1 and G2 cards 8-back cards.
Olmo (catone82) shared with me some images he found of a G0 “test market” card for Beast Man (owned by MOTU Gefter), which does feature white dots. These do seem to be the bright white dots, although I’m going to try to get that verified with the owner of this figure.
Covered in part two: Stratos, Mer-Man, Teela, Zodac, Castle Grayskull, Battle Ram and Wind Raider.
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I thought it might be useful to put all the cross sell artwork together for easy reference. I’m busy working on some long-term projects at the moment, so my free time is at a premium. But, this is something I can put out that is relatively quick and painless.
Images come from Axel Giménez, Tokyonever, Jukka Issakainen, He-Man.org, and my own scans and pictures. I’ve got nice images for all of the 1982 cross sell art, but unfortunately the quality of what I have will vary for other pieces. I should note that as far as is known, all of the standard cross sell artwork that appears on MOTU packaging was illustrated by William George. Update: per Joshua Van Pelt apparently William George’s work can only be confirmed from 1985 onward.