Masters of the Universe was a unique blend of classic barbarian sword and sorcery high adventure crossed with the high-tech drama of Flash Gordon and Star Wars, with a splash of color and gimmickry to make it irresistible to six-year-olds. So what happens if you take Masters of the Universe and peel away the science fiction elements while keeping the colorful characters? You get something very much like The Bearer and the Burden, a new He-Man inspired minicomic from Hammer of the Gods.
The world of Hammer of the Gods is not simply Masters of the Universe minus the techno-gadgetry, however. He-Man bears the unmistakable influence of Conan the Barbarian, but He-Man’s morals were totally different. He-Man was always a selfless protector, even from his earliest “savage” minicomic days. Conan, driven mostly by id, was ever looking out for number one, even if he grudgingly got pulled into solving other people’s problems.
Punch-Out, the protagonist of Hammer of the Gods, splits the difference between the He-Man and Conan – that is to say, he is a tireless protector of the innocent, but he is frequently driven by ego.
In that way, Punch-Out is also a little like Dagar the Invincible. He-Man is perhaps a bit closer to Larn from Fire and Ice.
The Bearer and the Burden was written by Hammer of the Gods creator Walter Harris, and illustrated by Daniele Danbrenus Spezzani. Harris is best known for his custom HOTG and Thundarr the Barbarian action figures. Danbrenus is known for his original minicomic illustrations done in the style of the legendary comic book artist, Alfredo Alcala. (Alcala actually worked on both He-Man and Conan, among other properties.) Danbrenus, like Alcala, works in inks and water colors rather than digital media, and the extra effort toward greater authenticity really pays off here.
The Bearer and the Burden is formatted like the original “adventure books” (illustrated by Alfredo Alcala) that came packaged with the first wave of He-Man figures. Each page has a single illustration and about 75 words of text at the bottom. Unlike conventional comic books, there are no word balloons.
We begin with Punch-Out, whose real name is Cestus, a gladiator fighting to win his freedom. Already we see a tonal shift away from the kid-friendly He-Man comics, as Cestus is pictured holding the severed head of one of his opponents.
In his post-gladiatorial life, Cestus relentlessly seeks purpose by throwing himself into danger, in a sequence with some amusing nods to Tarzan and Indiana Jones. The comic doesn’t take itself too seriously, but the humor is subtle enough that it doesn’t take the reader out of the story or erase the stakes in our hero’s journey.
When I say hero’s journey, I mean that quite literally. The Bearer is a pretty textbook example of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth in action, which is why I think it works so well.
Meanwhile, a dark threat surrounding rumors of a demonic sorcerer (Wrath Azuhl, the Skeletor to Punch-Out’s He-Man) and his cultic followers begins to grow. The Monks of Axis Mundi, who guard a legendary weapon forged by the gods, identify Cestus as the champion worthy to wield the Hammer of the Gods.
Through an intensely painful process, Cestus is fused with the Hammer, which is a metal gauntlet and sleeve imbued with divine magic. Now endowed with power from the gods, Punch-Out, as he is now called by the monks, goes to train with his new weapon. Of course, it doesn’t take long before the inevitable conflict with Wrath Azuhl and his colorful minions.
Incidentally, if there is something familiar about Punch-Out, it’s because the action figure he’s based on is made up of parts from an Apollo Creed figure, as well as bits from Man-At-Arms, Fisto, Trap-Jaw and Roboto.
I don’t want to spoil the climax or the ending, as the comic just went on sale. I will say that I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading The Bearer and the Burden, but I was pulled into the story from the first couple of pages onward. It’s a well-balanced blend of classic sword and sorcery story-telling with just enough pulpiness and humor to keep things fun. Harris’ skillful narration combined with Danbrenus’ charming Alcala-esque illustrations make for a very enjoyable read. Fans of Masters of the Universe will get what this is about instantly, and those familiar with the vintage minicomics will be delighted with the little Easter eggs that Danbrenus has left for them.
Anyone who has been collecting Masters of the Universe long enough has heard about the mysterious brown-haired He-Man figure that goes for so much money on eBay. He is often (and erroneously) called Wonder Bread He-Man, based on a long-running fan theory that he was sold as part of a promotion that Wonder Bread was running with Mattel. The promotion was actually for a series of He-Man trading cards featuring artwork by Errol McCarthy.
The figure itself is a He-Man figure with brown hair, a brown loin cloth, a black belt and black boots. He seems to have come only with the maroon sword and axe that came with the special edition of Man-E-Faces (which in turn were originally created as accessories for Castle Grayskull). Sometimes he is sold with additional maroon weapons and a black version of Zodac’s armor that was released in the 1984 Weapons Pak, however the feeling among many collectors is that those were not original to the figure.
The most intriguing find so far comes from David and Darren Fowler, who first bought the figure about 17 years ago. Theirs is the only example known to date to come bagged with weapons and a buy three, get one free offer from Mattel. According to the offer, the purchases had to have been made between January 2, 1982 and June 30, 1983, and submitted proofs of purchase postmarked by July 15 1983. In the terms set out in the coupon, Mattel would send one random toy from the selected category (Barbie, Dazzle, Monchhichi, or Masters of the Universe). Those dates, plus the inclusion of the maroon Man-E-Weapons, makes me think this figure might have been released in 1983, even if it was actually manufactured earlier (it has a date stamp of 1981, like other first wave figures released in 1982).
The figure also has two manufacturing details that seem characteristic of figures that came out either late in 1982 or early in 1983. The first is his belly button, which is perfectly formed. Early 1982 He-Man figures had irregular-looking belly buttons, and starting sometime in 1983 they started doing away with the belly button altogether, so this version looks like those He-Man figures released in the middle, where the belly button was normalized. He-Man figures from that era also started having boots that were dipped in paint rather than sprayed, so the paint comes up all the way to the top of his boots, with no overspray. Savage He-Man has the “dipped” boots. For further reading on that topic, see this article.
To me this seems like the most plausible source for the mysterious Savage He-Man. However, the offer doesn’t specify what figure will be given, and there is no known packaging associated with it, so we really can’t be certain.
Other possible theories as to how it was sold include a Nestle Quick/Masters of the Universe promotion, a Jell-O/Masters of the Universe Promotion, and a promotion at the Children’s Palace. So far none of these has been confirmed – all we have so far is speculation.
Perhaps a more interesting question is why the figure was produced in the first place. Why would Mattel have produced a brown-haired He-Man with darker-colored boots and loin cloth? As you can imagine there are many theories. The most popular and persistent theory to date has probably been the notion that He-Man was originally Conan the Barbarian, and he was given a different paint job at the last minute so Mattel could reuse him for He-Man. And indeed, Conan Properties International (CPI) thought the same thing, and sued Mattel over it in 1984. CPI lost that case, partly because they were laying claim to some generic attributes that could also apply to a dozen different heroes in the sword and sorcery genre.
But more than that, the timeline just doesn’t support the notion that He-Man was a repainted Conan figure. On April 24, 1981, there was an internal memo within Mattel urging negotiation for the Conan license. By May 5 a draft licensing agreement was secured, and by July 21 the agreement was finalized. From July 23 to September 21, 1981, Tony Guerrero worked on sculpting toys for the CPI license. However, in January of 1982, Mattel, realizing that the movie was going to the opposite of kid-friendly, requested the termination of the CPI license agreement, and by April 14, 1982 the termination was finalized.
Long before Conan was even a twinkle in Mattel’s eye, work was underway on the He-Man project. Ultimately He-Man originated decades earlier in Mark Taylor‘s childhood drawings, but the character started to see serious development at Mattel by late November of 1980. Furthermore, almost every single character for the first wave of Masters of the Universe had been designed before Mattel entered into its agreement with CPI. (Of course, He-Man was certainly influenced by Conan – there is no question about that.)
However, that does not rule out the possibility that Savage He-Man was an attempt to reuse the original He-Man mold to make Conan toys. Mattel would do that whenever possible to save tooling dollars (as they did when they reused previous Big Jim and Tarzan molds to make Battle Cat, Panthor, Zoar and Screeech). And, as Savage He-Man’s colors do seem to roughly match Conan’s, this seems like a fairly plausible theory on the surface.
Update: however, court filings indicate that Mattel’s actual plan was to sculpt a new head and reuse the taller Big Jim bodies for the Conan line (thanks to jzguitars for the tip):
CPI and Mattel consummated their deal on July 31. In the meantime, Mattel’s employees had continued work on a Conan doll. Mattel’s marketing department decided early in June that Mattel should attach the Conan heads to the torsos of Mattel’s “Big Jim,” a doll with less exaggerated muscles, and a body closer to that of the average weightlifter (though not, apparently, to that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, see Affidavit of Mimi Shapiro ¶¶ 7-9 (May 19, 1988)). Memorandum from Joe Morrison to Mark Ellis (June 3, 1981). Guerrero then worked on the Conan doll from July 23, 1981, to September 21.
Some people are of the opinion that the figure itself is a hoax. I don’t think that’s plausible. While fakes do exist, authentic versions of this figure have the look of a mass-produced toy. The loin cloth is molded (not painted) in a shade of brown plastic that doesn’t exist in any other Masters of the Universe figure. Most of them seem to have some fairly unique mold artifacts in that area as well (shared by some versions of Prince Adam). And finally, the figure has shown up in large figure lots where the seller doesn’t seem to be aware that the figure has any special value.
Skepticism is understandable. After all, Mattel has not found any records of this figure or its promotion, and no former employees to date seem to remember it (including Martin Arriola). Still, the physical evidence alone strongly suggests this is an authentic Mattel figure.
Authentic Savage He-Man figures seem to generally have the following characteristics in common (images courtesy of Arkangel):
Another theory is that Savage He-Man was just a way of getting rid of some extra test run He-Man figures that were produced in alternate colors.. And to be sure, there is a test shot example out there that is reminiscent of the Savage He-Man, although his loin cloth is molded in black rather than brown. However, test shot examples from the factory are generally produced in very small numbers, certainly not enough to account for the number of Savage He-Man figures we find in the vintage toy market.
A similar theory holds that this was perhaps an alternate color scheme for He-Man that Mattel was toying with but ultimately rejected. That’s certainly possible, although that color scheme doesn’t match either of the B-sheet designs that were done for He-Man, and it doesn’t match the colors on any of the known prototypes, or at least not the prototypes that would have been anywhere close to toy production.
Yet another theory is that Savage He-Man may have something to do with Buzz-Off. As I’ve discussed in an earlier article, Buzz-Off’s prototype actually had a brown-haired He-Man head, with a bee mask that would go over it. Of course the mock-up also had Zodac arms and legs, so this is by no means a slam dunk. For more on that, see this video by Alternative Mindz.
One of my favorite theories, advanced by mozartpc27, is that Savage He-Man was actually an early version of Prince Adam, made before Filmation finalized the purple, white and pink look. Despite being released in 1984, the trademark claim for Prince Adam was filed May 23, 1983, earlier than any other third wave figure. In fact, the claim was filed the same month as Faker.
Perhaps Adam was meant to be a late 1983 figure with brown hair, but development on the look of Prince Adam for the Filmation cartoon caused Mattel to scrap their plans, leaving them with a number of brown-haired Prince Adams to deal with. There are even early versions of Prince Adam with the same mold artifacts as Savage He-Man (hat tip to Tokyonever):
However, it should be noted that the earliest pre-Filmation comic book depiction of Prince Adam gives him brownish-tan boots (subsequent versions had blue and yellow boots or red boots), and blond hair. So if this was Prince Adam, it was a somewhat novel color scheme.
At the end of the day, we really don’t know which of these theories is right, or even if any of them are right. And, frustratingly, we may never know the truth.
If you’re interested in reading more about the topic, there is an epic, 2600-post thread spanning 14 years on the He-Man.org forums. Give it a read if you’ve got ten hours to spare.
Update: An intriguing video recently surfaced, shared by Hong Kong Kilnt. It’s a claymation sequence from a movie featuring Masters of the Universe characters, including what appears to be Savage He-Man.
You can watch the full movie here (thanks to Dušan Mitrović for the link).
Update 2: Manic Man (from the comments below) mentions that in the Japanese versions of Mattel’s Dino-Riders toyline, blue-eyed and blond-haired figures were often repainted with darker hair and eyes. So it’s also possible that Savage He-Man was recolored for the Asian market. Perhaps Mattel did a test run of He-Man in these alternate colors before abandoning the idea. It seems as reasonable a theory as any.
Former Masters of the Universe Classics brand manager Scott Neitlich adds some additional evidence from Mattel archives, indicating that Savage He-Man (or Special Edition He-Man, as it’s described in letters) did indeed come out in 1983, was offered through a buy-3-get-one-free offer, and that the coloring was intended to make the figure special, so kids didn’t get an exact duplicate of a figure they already had. In retrospect this seems like the simplest possible explanation.
The letters referenced in Scott’s video (copied from the video):
Everyone knows that He-Man is the most powerful man in the universe. If you bought the action figure in the 1980s, it was there right under his name:
If you watched the Filmation He-Man cartoon, you heard him call himself that at the beginning of every episode:
I am Adam, prince of Eternia and defender of the secrets of Castle Grayskull. This is Cringer, my fearless friend. Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me the day I held aloft my magic sword and said, “By the power of Grayskull, I have the power!” Cringer became the mighty Battle Cat, and I became He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe. Only three other share this secret. Our friends the Sorceress, Man-At-Arms and Orko. Together we defend Castle Grayskull from the evil forces of Skeletor.”
But before He-Man was the most powerful man in the universe, he was merely the strongest man in the universe. Is there a difference between the two, or is it just semantics? Before I get into that, let’s take a look at the places where He-Man was called the strongest man in the universe.
The first published instance comes from the 1982 Mattel dealer catalog, which was made available at Toy Fair, February 17, 1982. This is where the new Masters of the Universe line was first unveiled to the public. The catalog itself is a treasure, because almost every He-Man toy shown is a prototype (granted, most of them are late-stage prototypes). As you can see below, the catalog calls He-Man the “strongest man in the universe”:
The Mattel 1982 Wish List, released in November, gives He-Man the same appellation:
He-Man is also called the strongest man in the universe in a couple of Masters of the Universe Gift Sets – “He-Man and Wind Raider” and “He-Man and Battle Cat”. In both cases it is only in the earliest, first editions of the gift set that He-Man is called the “strongest”. In all reissued editions his tag line was changed to “most powerful”.
In a 2013 interview, Mark Ellis, former Director of Marketing for Mattel, seems to use the two taglines interchangeably:
What became clear was that for a five year old, power was a central issue because seemingly they were always being bossed around. Psychologically, they wanted to be the boss. They wanted the power. This then was manifested in the figure by making him “the strongest man in the universe.” The idea is, if you are in charge of the most powerful man in the universe, then this feeds directly into the “why” of their play. As the line developed, the phrase “I have the power” was born to emphasis that point.
This is an interesting bit of trivia, but what does it mean? Maybe nothing, but as you might have guessed, I have a theory or two. He-Man, in his first incarnation, was not the nearly omnipotent superhero powered by Castle Grayskull’s magic that he would later become. In the first minicomic, He-Man and the Power Sword, He-Man was a jungle warrior chosen by the Sorceress to be the guardian of Castle Grayskull. She gifted him with a costume, “made before the Great Wars by Eternia’s scientists”. It gave him superhuman strength – enough to punch through solid rock. (This recalls Thor’s belt Megingjord, which, when worn, doubled Thor’s strength.) However, He-man could still be overpowered by a quick-witted enemy like Mer-Man.
In months following the publication of these early minicomics, however, He-Man’s astounding strength was reinvented as a magical force gifted from Castle Grayskull. By the time the Filmation cartoon aired, his power became amped up to such an extent that he became something of a flightless Superman. He could create whirlwinds just by spinning his arms. He could move the moon out of its orbit. He could lift and throw Castle Grayskull itself. He-Man truly went from “strongest” to “most powerful” man in the universe.
Another thing to consider – He-Man was, by far, the most muscular-looking figure who had ever been produced at the time. I remember very clearly my older brother telling me how unrealistic he thought those muscles were when He-Man, Man-At-Arms, Skeletor and Beast Man first arrived in our house late in 1982. I remember pouring over the mini comics, but at that age I was mostly just looking at the pictures, and I never got the idea that He-Man’s strength came from anything more than the size of his muscles. As an observant kid, I took note that He-Man’s arms were much bigger than Skeletor’s or Beast Man’s arms. I was a little annoyed when I realized that Man-At-Arms had the same build as He-Man – I thought only He-Man should look that strong.
The “strongest man” tagline might very well simply have been driven by He-Man’s remarkably muscular appearance, before any thought of either technological or magical enhancements entered the scene.
Now, is any of this really why his tag line was changed? Maybe not. Maybe in the end marketing decided that “most powerful” just had a nicer ring to it. Whatever sparked the revision, it certainly reflected the change in characterization that we got from the early 1982 stories to the ones that started to come a year or so later.
Let’s not forget, of course, that even the very first editions of He-Man, which predate the gift sets I mentioned earlier (but postdate the Toy Fair catalog), give He-Man the “most powerful man” tagline. So whatever was driving the change, it was going on very early, even if “strongest man” persisted here and there for almost a year.
One more note: in Mark Taylor’s original conception, He-Man’s strength was supernatural, making him the strongest man in the universe, but not so strong that he could lift castles. He didn’t need a sword or any other external items to augment his strength – it was innate.
I’d like to acknowledge Tokyonever, curator of the Grayskull Museum. He first brought to my attention the fact that early He-Man/Wind Raider gift sets had the “strongest” tagline.
The end of the year seems to be a traditional time for top 10 and top 25 lists. It seems like an American ritual to tabulate lists of the most popular things we did, said, ate or watched over the course of one trip around the sun.
I didn’t do this for 2015 (it would have seemed somewhat meaningless, as I didn’t start this blog until August of that year), so I thought I’d formulate the top 20 articles I’ve written to date (by number of views).
I’ll post them in ascending order of popularity. Try, if you can, to imagine this list read by David Letterman:
And that’s the list! Thanks everyone for reading and commenting. I appreciate all the kind support and encouragement from all the readers, and for all those who have contributed to my blog with information, images, and corrections. Special thanks to Mark, Rebecca, Ted, Rudy and Martin for taking the time to let me interview them. Here’s hoping for a great 2017.
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