Interviews

Mark & Rebecca Taylor on the origins of He-Man

Mark Taylor is the designer behind so many beloved icons in the He-Man universe: He-Man, Skeletor, Man-At-Arms, Teela, Stratos, Beast Man, Mer-Man, Zodac, Castle Grayskull, Battle Cat, Man-E-Faces, Ram Man, and even an early version of Prince Adam. Mark and his wife Rebecca were gracious enough to answer some of my questions about the origins of these characters, and the process of bringing them to life.

Battle Ram: Thank you both so much for agreeing to answer my questions. I recently interviewed Ted Mayer and Rudy Obrero. It’s a thrill and an honor to also be able to interview you now!

Mark: Adam, thank you for your interest, both Ted and Rudy are my friends as well as excellent designers.  It was a pleasure to work with them on He-Man.  I do not call the brand MOTU because that was just a Mattel marketing and management concept. “Masters of the Universe” also helped them separate it from a potential lawsuit with the Conan property owners.  It also was part of their effort to remove the concept from the original creator and inventor, me.

BR: You were originally hired by Mattel to work on packaging. How did you come to be the designer for He-Man?

Mark: At the age of eleven I was a compulsive reader and drawer, I love story telling and adventure, influenced by Hal Foster’s beautiful strip and Burroughs and Howard’s books. I started telling my own heroic story.

I went to Art Center, Cal State and worked for the US Navy (Combat Illustrator). Then through a friend I found out there was an opening at Mattel in Visual Development group.  They were a very talented “bullpen” who were responsible for the appearance of the product which included packaging but also the products’ labels, color, details and early engineering drawings.  This was a perfect fit for me, and I was promptly assigned to work on Barbie product, which was a honor because Barbie has always been Mattel’s cash cow.

Mark Taylor in his early Mattel days. Image courtesy of Ted Mayer
“Death of Mark Taylor From Night Visitation.” Artwork by Colin Bailey, January 23, 1981. Given to Mark when he was working on his “dark project” (He-Man). Image courtesy of Rebecca Salari Taylor.

BR: He-Man and Skeletor seem very primordial and archetypal to me.  He-Man is the embodiment of life and vitality; Skeletor is the embodiment of death and decay. When you were designing these characters, was any of that running through your head?

Mark: He-Man’s original name was Torak, Hero of Prehistory. He was the defender of the weak and righteous and foe of bullies and villains.  This powerful hero needed a worthy adversary who embodied evil and sorcery on every level.

Torak, by Mark Taylor. Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation, via the Toy Masters documentary sneak preview.

Skeletor was influenced by many literary sources but visually by a carnival scare ride with a skeleton like figure that dropped down and rattled (turned out to be a real mummified outlaw); also a lot of Mexican Day of the Dead art and sculpting. Skeletor had to be powerful in his own right and believe completely in his cause as much as Torak (He-Man).

The battle was set, a righteous hero mounted on a giant Battle Cat verses a nefarious villain imbued with mystical evil powers.  The clash of arms could be heard to the ends of the earth.

The Sunbird Legacy cover art by Earl Norem

BR:  So He-Man originated with your Torak character, which I believe you had been working on since the 1950s. Did Skeletor originate from that same time?

Mark: Absolutely. Skeletor evolved simultaneously with Torak, it had to be this way.  They were the yin and yang,  the reason for being, opposites to battle forever.

BR: As far as I can tell, Stratos was originally supposed to be an evil warrior (correct me if I’m wrong!), but then he was released as a heroic warrior. Were there any other characters who ended up switching sides?

Mark: Yes many, the early figures that switched sides were, Beast Man, Teela, Stratos, Man-E-Faces and Ram Man. It was a money thing, we had to release the figures, vehicles, playsets and accessories in waves to pay for the tooling and advertising.  Mattel did not really believe in the line until after Castle Grayskull was a big hit. Then it was just a matter of corporate greed as to how much we could jam down the public’s throat. I left to work on TMNT.

BR: Can you talk about your working relationship with Ted Mayer on the Masters of the Universe toy line?

Mark: Ted is an industrial designer, I am a designer/illustrator. I sketched out the line but needed help with the vehicles.  I requested Ted and he did a great job. It was important that the figure controlling the vehicle be very visual, we didn’t have a movie to explain and promote our product like Star Wars did.

Battle Ram concept by Ted Mayer

BR: How did you come to hire Rudy Obrero to do paintings for the packaging artwork? Can you speak a little bit about your experience working with him?

Mark: He was the only guy who could paint like Frank Frazetta, he was great to work with.  Always came back with more and better than I expected.  He would do great stuff from very little reference material. We were turning out stuff like crazy fast.  It was like we were joined at the imagination.

Battle Cat box art, by Rudy Obrero

BR: Mattel took quite a risk in producing your designs that were not based on any previous intellectual property. It was a risk that obviously paid off. Do you think toy companies today are more hesitant to take those kinds of risks?

Mark: Mattel took no chances at first. Ray Wagner, President of Mattel at that time, laid his reputation on the line and went against everyone else to give Masters a lift off.  We were forced to do illegal child testing early on (another lame boys toy was supposed to be tested, but the Preliminary guys weren’t ready). We snuck in thanks to Angie DiMicco.  I was there with He-Man, Teela,  Beast Man, Battle Cat and Skeletor. The kids tried to steal the prototypes after the testing. We had a hit.

BR:  A lot of characters went through color changes as they went through development (either to themselves or their costumes or both). Examples include Beast Man, Mer-Man, Teela and Ram Man. What was driving those changes?

Mark: Sorry to admit it, but cost.  Later when the brand was making billions no one cared but in the beginning engineering pinched every penny, especially in paint masks.  Also there was a conscious effort to avoid anything that resembled Star Wars or Conan in any way.

BR: Mer-Man went through quite a few changes from B-sheet to final toy. What was behind the changes to his design, particularly the changes to his face?

Mark: Mer-Man tested the lowest. Tony Guerrero the great sculptor and I chased the negative child test comments until we finally realized the marketeers were just messing with us and then we went with what we had.  Mer-Man was the weakest but people who like him really like him (I based him on Bernie Wrightson’s Swamp Thing).

Swamp Thing, by Bernie Wrightson

BR: There is a character you designed who fans refer to now as Demo-Man. Do you see him as an early incarnation of Skeletor or Beast Man?

Mark: No, he was a separate concept that I was too busy to exploit, I was working until the sun came up and the Mattel building was empty. I was pretty much running on fumes.  I would have loved to take him further but like so many concepts corporate profit came first.

Demo-Man, by Mark Taylor

BR:  You designed the armor and helmet for Battle Cat as a way to reuse the Big Jim tiger. Can you talk a little bit about that design? The helmet design is quite striking, like some mythical beast.

Mark: I had used the Cat on the Tarzan line, I liked the sculpt but the 5.30″ He Man figures wouldn’t ride on him and I wanted him to ride on a huge cat.  Nobody messes with a guy riding a huge armored cat!  I had seen a guy ride a regular tiger in the circus and wow!

The head armor came from my childhood sketches and had to be engineered for costs and molding ease or the marketeers would lose it (thanks Ted).

Battle Cat, by Mark Taylor

BR:  The colors green and orange seem to be pretty prominent on those early toys (Battle Cat, Man-At-Arms, Wind Raider). Is there a story behind that color scheme?

Mark: Not just a story but a lot of work and fighting, those colors were not very common in action toys. They pop but looked somewhat alien. I definitely did not want Battle Cat to look like a real tiger, he was much more that but they sold out on him in the animation and later toys after I left.  He or He-Man were NEVER supposed to be silly in my imagination.

He-Man and Battle Cat box art by Rudy Obrero


BR:  Did you have an origin story in mind when you designed Man-E-Faces? How about Ram Man?

Mark: Yes, but no one was interested, they wanted to ship it out immediately to animators and movie producers, you know “professionals”.  I designed him to have a different and interesting feature besides a twist waist. All the answers to my original story are in clues in Castle Grayskull, where they should be like a puzzle.

BR: Teela and the Sorceress/Goddess (the one with the snake armor) were originally separate characters. Whose decision was it to combine them into a single action figure? How did you feel about that? Did you intend the sorceress character to be a hero or a villain?

Mark: She was actually supposed to be a changeling but the comic book guys had a hard time with that. Also, the head of girls toys wanted to rip her off for Princess of Power (because now the line was very hot!). She was intended to be like a spy and play both sides with some magic but the “professionals” felt that was too complex (I guess they don’t get Game of Thrones either).

BR: In the first couple of years of the toyline, all of the vehicles seem to be geared toward the good guys. Why was that?

Mark: Don’t forget Skeletor used MAGIC but He-Man never did. Skeletor could animate anything and go anywhere.  In my mind that was one of the main differences between the main characters and their followers.

BR: The late Tony Guerrero sculpted a lot of the early He-Man figures. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to work with him?

Mark: Tony was a great artist and a really nice man and it was my honor to work with him. I also worked on another project, TMNT with a nice and super talented guy named Scott Hensey. Working with both of these sculptors allowed me to break custom by adding a step to the development process. On the He-Man line we did a looks like beauty sculpt, non articulated from my “B” sheet (design sketch) for testing and sales and until we got the first shots from China.  This was Tony’s idea and without this extra step,  the confidence in this “weird” concept wouldn’t have happened.  I repeated this process with the Turtles.

Early He-Man sculpture by Tony Guerrero. Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation

BR: These toys were a surprise, runaway success. What is it about He-Man that made it so successful, do you think?

Mark: Everybody pushes us little guys around, we secretly want to strike back at all the bullies.  We need to feel like we can make things better and are willing to fight to do it.  With He-Man we have the power!  We have a chance.  I feel that the  basic concept of courage cannot be taught, it can only be shown.

BR: What did you envision for Zodac when you designed him? What were his abilities and where did he fit in to the MOTU universe?

Mark: Zodac was all about flying. He was the air wing. I was influenced by Flash Gordon and the flying Vikings.

BR: Castle Grayskull is probably the greatest playset ever made, and I understand that you sculpted most of it yourself? What was that process like? What does Castle Grayskull mean to you?

Mark: Yes I did because Tony was busy with the figures and the other sculptors kept making it too architectural.  I wanted it to the castle to be organic, coming to life to tell its story.  I made a wood armature and sculpted it in green clay. Ted helped with the plaster mold and vacuum forming, Rebecca did the labels. Marketing (now everyone wants in on the game) wanted it to retail for twenty nine dollars.  The imaginative user applied labels themselves to offset the lack of interior walls.  Toys R Us sold all they could get fifty dollars which was quite a mark up.


BR: Rebecca, I understand you worked on the stickers and cardboard inserts used in Castle Grayskull. The style ranges from regal to almost psychedelic. What did you have in mind when you were working on that project?

Rebecca: The only chance Mark had to tell the story was with the castle. He always said, “all the answers are in Castle Grayskull”, which is quite a different direction that it eventually went. Once the president of Mattel Ray Wagner chose to go with it, everything moved at such a high velocity because he wanted it and no one else understood it.

Mark asked me to combine classic icons along with futuristic ones because he was going against Star Wars and after all it was a ” warrior-type” premise that had to somehow be more than Conan, Tarzan etc.

Mark had sketches in ancient sketchbooks which I took and redesigned stickers from. I did the designing, drawing, inking and coloring, that includes labels for vehicles as well as directed by and revised by Mark. Just like every label job, I was given areas that I had to fit. Because everything was going so fast, sometimes those areas would change shape and would have to be redrawn on the fly in those cases Mark was redrawing my stuff because he was hands on with the castle. Because we’ve worked together for decades, we speak in brain waves.

I think the reason they are perceived as “psychedelic” is because Mark said, “We’re already going somewhere no one else has so don’t render the labels in the normal hard edged graphic way. I used Dr. Martin’s Dyes and let the colors run and wash into the line art. I think it went through because it was so fast and still no one really “got it”.

It wasn’t until after it looked like it might be “big” did people start making decisions to get connected to the project or shall I say get their “scent” on it if you know what I mean. The innovation on those labels happened because Mark was approving and controlling this project and I knew what he wanted. I’ve done many labels for other toy companies and no one has ever asked me for “something really different” and yet these were a big hit.

I was always disappointed that the Mylar printed moat that surrounded the castle was costed out.

Printed Mark Taylor moat reproduction from the Power & Honor Foundation

BR: Was Errol McCarthy responsible for creating the cross sell artwork on the back of the packaging (below)?

Mark: In the beginning it was someone else and then Errol came in.

BR: MOTU differs a bit from traditional sword and sorcery in that it includes laser guns and flying vehicles. What was behind the inclusion of science fiction with barbarian elements?

Mark: I never wanted it to be a traditional. If I was still working on it I probably would have added zombies, aliens and time travel.  Why not?

BR:  Often in the process from b-sheet to prototype to finished toy, there are a lot design changes. Which finished toy were you most pleased with? Which one do you feel didn’t live up to its potential?

Mark: Castle Grayskull was the best and most innovative, Mer-Man left me a little unsatisfied.

BR: In a nutshell, what is your vision for Eternia? What kind of place is it?

Mark: Eternia is a stupid name to me (not my name). I imagined that world be like a nightmare that you can modify as you go.  ALWAYS about hope.

BR:  In public appearances you often talk about Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey. What has been your personal hero’s journey?

Mark: My wife Rebecca epitomizes attaining a fulfilling goal, she is my Nirvana.  My life is filled with beauty and love, I wish everyone could be as lucky as I.

BR: Are you both still actively involved in creating artwork? What kinds of projects are you passionate about now?

Mark: I am writing a the original prequel to He-Man based on the original Torak.  Also an autobiography about my life in the toy biz. I am fascinated by computer 3D design but it is very non-intuitive for me.  I still love to read and watch movies, I wish I had the resources to make one.

Rebecca: I work on digital art because it is so easy to create my style of graphic art which is strongly based on shapes and color. It is so exciting to me to be able to have such a magnificent palette and to be able to experiment with unlimited color combinations with a couple of keystrokes.

Many thanks to Mark and Rebecca for patiently answering all of my questions. Hopefully we can look forward to a book or two from Mark in the future!

Additional interviews and appearances by Mark and Rebecca:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYYnq_NfQGM

10 Things We Learned From Mark Taylor, the Designer of He-Man – The Robot’s Voice

Q&A with Mark Taylor – Zetaboards

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Heroic Vehicles

Battle Ram – Mobile Launcher (1982)

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I was obsessed with the Battle Ram the moment I saw it on the shelf as a kid. Maybe that’s obvious from the name I chose for this blog. Unlike most of the other MOTU items I got as a kid, there was no window box or bubble in the packaging. The Rudy Obrero art sold the toy all by itself, and it was more than up to the task.

Box Art

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To this day it remains my favorite piece of art ever produced for the Masters of the Universe line. Let’s take a closer look at the full painted scene:

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Artwork by Rudy Obrero

Every piece Rudy Obrero did for Masters of the Universe was moody and full of movement and mystery (with the possible exception of the Attak Trak box art). This illustration, like the Wind Raider pieces he did the same year, features two separate action scenes. The bottom scene, which would have been facing front at about eye level for kids wandering the toy isles of Toys ‘R’ Us (or in my case, the White Elephant), depicts He-Man guiding the Battle Ram over difficult terrain as evil warriors rain down fire from above.

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He-Man is shown here with white colored fur at the tops of his boots. Every time Obrero depicted He-Man, he had these boots (sometimes the fur is white, other times it’s more of an ocher color). They’re actually based on the prototype version of He-Man that Obrero used as a reference. The mass-produced toy had fully red boots.

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Prototype He-Man with two-toned boots

The top portion of the art was subdivided into two sections on the actual box. The top-most section was again facing front and featured He-Man shooting through the air on the front portion of the Battle Ram (aka the Sky Sled). Evil versions of the Sky Sled (which also appear in the Castle Grayskull box art) send out twin laser blasts while a fierce battle rages below.

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The middle section faces up rather than forward due to the shape of the box. Several back halves of Battle Rams are launching missiles. Skeletor, Beast Man, Stratos, Man-at-Arms and Teela (sporting her concept spear that never appeared in the vintage toy line) are seen, along side a warrior with a horned helmet and Castle Grayskull in the background. It looks like all-out war.

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Top and middle sections flattened out. Source: Issakainen/Cyrce

As a kid, I was instantly hooked. I had never seen anything like it. As I said, Obrero’s artwork (done in oil) really sold this vehicle. It didn’t hurt that the artist tended to add extra details, like a protruding jet engine on the back of the Sky Sled and under-guns that the actual toy only hinted at (but were actually present in the prototype version).

A modified version of the artwork appeared in the Japanese Takara toy catalog. It looks like a cross between the Battle Ram box art and the Power of Point Dread comic book cover:

Takara Cover

Yet another modification to the artwork was done on the Brazilian Estrela version of the Battle Ram. They even modified the cross sell art on the back of the package. It’s unclear to me why this was done. My speculation is that they had the rights to produce and sell the toys, but opted not to purchase rights to the packaging artwork.

A Swedish language advertisement took elements of the Rudy Obrero Battle Ram artwork and modified it to advertise a number of MOTU vehicles:

Image source: “pH6”

Design & Development

The toy was designed by Ted Mayer, who also designed the iconic Wind Raider, Attak Trak, Eternia, Slime Pit, and quite a few figures that came out between 1985 and 1987. Let’s take a look at some of the artwork and prototypes leading up to the creation of the Battle Ram.

Before Ted was brought in, Mark Taylor (who designed all of the early figures as well as Castle Grayskull) tried his hand at designing the vehicles as well. An early vehicle concept was a three wheeled battle chariot. It bears little resemblance to the Battle Ram, except for the design of its back wheels:

Image Source: The Power and the Honor Foundation Catalog. Added 08/28/18

Mark also created another vehicle design called the Battle Catapult. Again, not much resemblance to the Battle Ram, other than the wheels, color scheme, as well as the bird sticker on the side, which designer Ted Mayer would incorporate into some of his early Battle Ram concept art. In early minicomic line art by Alfredo Alcala, this vehicle was depicted, but it was later replaced by the Battle Ram in the final colorized artwork.


Image Source: Power of Grayskull documentary. Added 08/28/18

The image below is an early Battle Ram concept by Ted Mayer. Notice that the vehicle has six wheels (four within tank treads) and no figurehead on the front. It does include the bird decal from the Battle Catapult concept:

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Image courtesy of Ted Mayer
Image courtesy of Ted Mayer. Updated October 21, 2018

The first two of the above concept drawings are recognizable as ancestors in the Battle Ram family tree. There are several differences from the final toy, of course. In both images, the Battle Ram had six wheels, four of them set with tank treads. The first image features a Recaro-type seat and lacks the gargoyle figurehead in the front. The second version has the familiar gargoyle figure head. However it’s clear from the background image that the idea was for the front wheels to detach along with the front section. At this point the Battle Ram had no flight capabilities. According to Ted Mayer, there would have been an additional wheel under the nose of the vehicle to allow it to roll freely, separate from the back half.

The drawing below is actually a separate vehicle concept, called Battle Chariot, and actually appeared in the first MOTU mini comic, He-Man and the Power Sword, along side the front half of the Battle Ram:

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Battle Chariot concept, by Ted Mayer; image courtesy of Ted Mayer
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Ted says he was influenced by hot rod and WWII aircraft design, and you can certainly see those elements in in the form of exhaust pipes and nose art.

Close to final Battle Ram concept by Ted Mayer. Updated 10/21/2018

The above concept drawing shows the Battle Ram (featuring He-Man in a helmet, which he had in most early concepts) looking much closer to the final vehicle. At this point it has only four wheels, and the detachable front section has been re-envisioned as a flying vehicle.

The prototype (sculpted by Jim Openshaw) is a bit more detailed in places than the toy was. The guns on the front section are certainly more detailed and distinct. The stickers are also different (there is a skull on the back of the vehicle rather than the masked face image), and the rocket is missing its gargoyle face. The expanded horizontal “handle” area in the very back of the vehicle is also missing from this prototype:

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Control Drawing – “Catapult Vehicle” by Ted Mayer. Image courtesy of Ted Mayer

Production Vehicle

Let’s take a closer look at the final toy:

As suggested by the packaging artwork and concept drawings, the front half of the production toy detaches from the main vehicle, and is something of a flying WaveRunner. I’m not sure if a toy vehicle had come out before with that concept, but as a five year old I’d never seen anything like it, and it added a tremendous amount of play value. The back half features a spring loaded rocket launcher with a red firing mechanism. The rockets themselves (called battering rams on the packaging) came with sculpted gargoyle faces. The wide profile of the rockets was designed to help prevent accidental choking.

In the original concept, the front half wasn’t actually supposed to be able to fly very high through the air. It was supposed to hover close to the ground, which is apparent in both the minicomic, He-man and the Power Sword and in the description in the 1984 UK Annual:

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Description from the 1984 UK Annual, which drew from very early source material.
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Image from He-Man and the Power Sword, showing the front half of the Battle Ram scooting along the ground.

A griffin face adorned the front of the vehicle. The back also featured an image of a masked face. The labels were created by Rebecca Salari Taylor, who also did the labels for Castle Grayskull and Wind Raider:

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Rear sticker. Image source: “e-man

The Battle Ram is the first and best example of what made Masters of the Universe vehicles so great. They were a marriage of Gothic aesthetics with futuristic tech, relics in the MOTU universe of a bygone age of mass-produced technological wonders.

Battle Ram in Action

Øyvind Meisfjord contributed the image below as well as some videos of the Battle Ram in action:

Marketing

The Battle Ram was heavily promoted in catalogs and marketing materials:

Minicomics

It also made several appearances in the first few mini comics (along with that unproduced Ted Mayer concept discussed earlier):

Other Appearances

The Battle Ram of course was also depicted in a number of other contexts, from story books to posters and coloring books:

Animation

Filmation primarily depicted the Sky Sled portion of the Battle Ram, although occasionally the complete vehicle would make an appearance. A green version with a snake head called the Doom Buggy was also created. As with most Filmation depictions, the design was simplified to facilitate animation:

In the Filmation-produced MOTU commercial (as well as the series guide), however, just about everything had the level of detail of the actual toys. The image immediately below looks rotoscoped:

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There were many great vehicles produced for the Masters of the Universe toyline, but in my opinion, none greater than the amazing Battle Ram.

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Evil Beasts

Panthor – Savage cat (1983)

Panthor graphic

Today we’re taking a look at Skeletor’s savage cat, Panthor. At first glance you could dismiss him as a cheap Battle Cat repaint without the helmet. When I first saw him as a kid, it was immediately apparent that that’s what he was. Battle Cat’s pose and saddle are instantly recognizable, making reuse of his sculpt more obvious than other parts (say, for instance, the standard male chest).

I think if Mattel had left him as a straight-up repaint, we as kids might have felt a bit cheated. Wisely they opted to produce Panthor with some short flocking, giving him a realistic furry texture and making us feel better about spending our allowances on him. Instead of just a an inferior copy of Battle Cat, Panthor became a deluxe toy with realistic fur. What kid could resist that?

1983 Dealer Catalog

Apparently, earlier in Panthor’s development, he was slated to reuse the Battle Cat helmet as well, and was black with purple armor:

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From the Filmation series guide

In retrospect it was wiser (not just cheaper) to omit the helmet, which is probably Battle Cat’s most distinctive feature. Panthor’s final color scheme was chosen by Mattel designer Martin Arriola.

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On the shelves, there were a few options in 1983 if you wanted to pick up a Panthor. All of them featured some pretty epic artwork by William Garland:

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Garland did box arts for Mattel after Rudy Obrero but before (and concurrent with) William George. The style is very much along the lines of Rudy Obrero’s (that is to say, moody and Frazetta-like). That’s probably why I like it so much.

Mattel also offered a Skeletor/Panthor gift set, again illustrated by William Garland, this time with a battle scene featuring Skeletor/Panthor vs. He-Man, Man-At-Arms vs. Beast Man, and Castle Grayskull standing in the background:

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Skeletor Panthor hi res

The pose you see for Beast Man and Man-At-Arms comes straight out of the 1981 Licensing Kit. Thanks to Jukka for pointing that out to me!

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Image via He-Man.org. Artwork by Errol McCarthy.

There was a third way to get your hands on Panthor, in the form of the Battle For Eternia giftset (again illustrated by William Garland). Apparently this was produced in low quantities, as buying the boxed version in 2015 will require taking out a second mortgage:

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Image courtesy of Tokyonever

This set featured Skeletor, Panthor and Man-E-Faces, and might be my favorite of the Panthor box arts. It’s something about how Man-E-Faces is portrayed and the craters and moons in the background, I think. There were two versions released: one with the standard Skeletor, and another with Battle Armor Skeletor, presumably released in 1984.

A fourth way to get your hands on the purple panther was to buy the Battle Armor Skeletor and Panthor gift set, featuring artwork by William George:

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BA Skel Panthor Bill George

A year after Panthor’s release, Mattel was apparently considering releasing a deluxe version of Panthor, with articulation and some sort of pouncing action feature. This July 13, 1984 illustration by Ed Watts demonstrates the concept. This version of Panthor was, unfortunately, never released in the vintage line, although the 200x version wasn’t far off from this idea.

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Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation Catalog, Vol 1

In the finalized Filmation version of Panthor, he looks very much like the vintage figure (with green eyes), except for the fact that they’ve cut back on the extra fur around his face, giving him an appearance more like a real panther (ignoring the fact that he’s oversized, purple, and domesticated enough to wear a saddle).

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In The Sunbird Legacy, published by Golden Books, some humanoid panther men appear. From their coloration they seem to be inspired by Panthor:

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Panthor was on of the first in a series of evil opposites in the Masters of the Universe toyline. Battle Cat had his opposite in Panthor, He-Man had his opposite in Faker, Zoar had his opposite in Screeech, and Stridor had his opposite in Night Stalker. It was a fun and creative way to refresh existing molds. The goal was undoubtedly to maximize profits, but in the end it’s amazing what can be accomplished with a simple change of colors.

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From the 1985 German MOTU Magazine. Image via He-Man.org

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Evil Warriors

Mer-Man – Ocean warlord! (1982)

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Masters of the Universe probably could not have happened in any decade other than the 80s. In 1982, it came at the heels of two  disparate but very popular movie franchises – Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian. Those influences weighed  heavily on the first wave of He-Man figures, playsets and vehicles. Almost every figure, although generally barbaric in appearance, featured some kind of subtle sci-fi element. Even the grim, Frazetta influenced Castle Grayskull had a laser turret and a computer system.

Frazetta invades kindergartens

Does not compute.
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Luke, who’s your daddy? (Image via MOTUC Figures)

As the line grew long in the tooth it tended rely more on gimmicks, but the early figures were mostly about cool designs. Mattel artist Mark Taylor was responsible for the lion’s share of the early figures and for Castle Grayskull. Ted Mayer assisted with the sculpting of Castle Grayskull and created the line’s first two vehicles, Battle Ram and Wind Raider. He also went on to design many of the 1985-1987 figures.

It’s normal for toys to have some inconsistency between first promotional material and finished product. That happened all the time in the Filmation He-Man and the Masters of the Universe Series. Filmation would receive early concept art for a figure and create a story based on that art. By the time the toy came out it would sometimes be radically different.

For young kids in the 80s, often the first glimpse of upcoming figures came from the cross sell art on the back of MOTU packaging. When Mattel released the first four figures in 1982, we could see on the back of the package that more were coming.

A lot of us already had our He-Man, Skeletor, Beast Man and Man-At-Arms figures. But who were these other guys? Mer-Man especially caught my eye. These were the first action figures I ever had, and the idea of an aquatic half-man half-fish warrior really fascinated me.

Mer-Man’s cardback art was first released with blue skin, then with green, following the evolution of the figure design. Image courtesy of Tokyonever.
Green version.

Those of us who got in on the very first release of He-Man and Skeletor lived with that cardback image of Mer-Man for months. Imagine our surprise when we got this instead:

The gloves and shin guards were unpainted. The sword bore a closer resemblance to corn than coral (note: I am informed by Mantisaur82 that Mer-Man’s sword is supposed to be a weapon made from a sawfish rostrum, and that actual weapons have been made after this fashion). The furry shorts were orange instead of yellow. The armor’s detail was softened considerably. And most of all, the design of the face seemed markedly different from the cross sell art we had memorized.

A lot of MOTU collectors talk about Mer-Man a little bitterly. Like they were so disillusioned with the way the toy was changed from the artwork that it soured them on the figure. And yes, as a kid I was a little dismayed at the difference at first. But when I really looked at him closely, I realized I was still kind of in love with Mer-Man. And let’s face it, he looks a lot more villainous in his toy form than he did on the card back illustration.

Mer-Man’s initial concept design (by Mark Taylor) was actually quite different from both the action figure and the cross sell art. The original concept (known as “Sea Man”) would have had unique legs, arms and a scaly loin cloth. The cross sell art cut down on the fishy details, and the toy version even more so.

mer-man b-sheet
Mark Taylor B-Sheet – black and white copy. Image via The Art of He-Man
mer-man
Colored version of Mark Taylor’s Mer-Man concept art, published by Super7 and the Power and the Honor Foundation. Note the original colors – blue skin with yellow gloves and boots, and yellow and copper outfit. Image courtesy of Axel Giméne

Below is the early Mer-Man  prototype, sculpted by Tony Guerrero.  Notice the model is very faithful to the concept art, down to the pose.

Guerrero Mer-Man - Copy
Image source: The Power & The Honor Foundation, retrieved via Facebook
Image courtesy of Andy Youssi
Image courtesy of Andy Youssi

Mer-Man’s revised sword design is laid out in the Mark Taylor B-sheet design below. Note that the teeth of the sword don’t go out as far as the edge of the sword. I’m sure this had to do with limitations of manufacturing technology at the time.


Mark Taylor B-Sheet – Mer-Man’s sword. Image via The Art of He-Man

Mer-Man’s final, hand-painted prototype appears below. The sculpt is identical to the mass produced toy, except the sword is missing the hand guard.

If you take a close look at the head on the original concept art, it’s actually somewhere between the somewhat goofy cardback and the simplified but more intense vintage toy face. In fact, if you were to color that original concept design just like the vintage toy (as I did below), it would be much clearer that they were really the same basic character, just simplified, recolored and made a bit meaner looking.

Vintage toy with recolored B-Sheet design

But why were the painted gloves and shin guards removed? Almost certainly to cut costs. The second half of the first wave of figures that came out in 1982 (Mer-Man, Stratos, Teela, Zodac) all had reduced paint apps and/or accessories compared to the first four (He-Man, Skeletor, Beast Man, Man-At-Arms). This despite the fact that the line outsold all expectations, even in the first year. Mark Taylor and Ted Mayer have both said that Mattel was very reluctant to invest money in new tooling for the MOTU line, even after its unexpected success.

The first (1982) release of Mer-Man had his belt painted green, as shown previously. Subsequent releases left the belt unpainted. I would assume the idea was to cut costs, and much of the belt was obscured by his armor anyway.

Orange belt re-release

The first edition Mer-Man came packed on the “8-back” cardback (pictured earlier in this post), while reissues starting in 1983 featured a painted scene by artist Errol McCarthy:

2576172-mermanback

Mer-Man was also sold in a giftset with Battle Armor Skeletor and Webstor, and in a JCPenny giftset with the original Skeletor.

jcp merman.jpg
Image source: Grayskull Museum

I’ve heard scuttlebutt around the internet that Mer-Man was originally conceived of as a heroic warrior from an oceanic world that was destroyed. However, I’ve never seen any real evidence that Mer-Man was once heroic. Even in the first mini comic, where Stratos’ affiliations seem to be with Skeletor, Mer-Man was portrayed as an evil warrior.

Update: I finally saw some evidence for Mer-Man as a heroic warrior. An early internal Mattel document describes him this way: “Mer-Man – uses his aquatic powers to help He-Man.”

Interestingly, in Mattel’s 1982 dealer catalog, Mer-Man is not explicitly affiliated with either Skeletor or He-Man:

According to designer Mark Taylor, Mer-Man wasn’t the most popular toy when the figures were undergoing child testing:

Tony Guerrero the great sculptor and I chased the negative child test comments until we finally realized the marketeers were just messing with us and then we went with what we had.  Mer-Man was the weakest but people who like him really like him (I based him on Bernie Wrightson’s Swamp Thing).

Perhaps because he didn’t test as well as other early characters, Mer-Man nearly went into the bin of rejected concepts. As Mark Taylor explained:

Well, they almost rejected Mer-Man. They didn’t understand him, and wanted to take him out of the line. I had a hard time convincing them to keep him. I said “Don’t you understand? There has to be someone who lives in the water!” I was envisioning a magnificent line of toys that could be played with in the water. Decades later, George Lucas did a similar thing in The Phantom Menace. I worked for the US Navy for almost ten years in the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, so I really wanted to do undersea stuff. I was a diver, and I felt the mysticism of being under water. That’s such an amazing area to get into.

Mer-Man’s most notable minicomic appearances are probably in the first four, written by Don Glut and illustrated by Alfredo Alcala. In the series, the design of the character is based on Mark Taylor’s early concept art (and in Battle In The Clouds, based on Mer-Man’s cross sell art. In this series, Mer-Man is arguably Skeletor’s most competent and dangerous ally:

Likewise, Mer-Man is a formidable foe in the early Golden Book MOTU stories:

Perhaps Mer-Man’s strangest appearance is in Leech – The Master of Power Suction Unleashed. For whatever reason, Mer-Man is depicted with a beard:

In the Filmation He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon, Mer-Man was again one of Skeletor’s most devious and competent allies. As king of his own undersea kingdom, he often undertook plots against the heroic warriors apart from Skeletor.

Of course, that didn’t mean he wasn’t still tossed around by He-Man at the end of the day:

Image source: Heritage Auctions

Mer-Man’s filmation design seems to be a simplified version of Mark Taylor’s original concept design, complete with the yellow gloves and boots. However when Filmation was producing an early He-Man Television commercial, they came up with a model for Mer-Man that was closely based on the actual toy:

Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation

In Filmation’s Series Guide, Mer-Man looks like a cross between his vintage toy and and Mark Taylor’s concept art. In the description below, it’s mentioned that Mer-Man has command over sea creatures (similar to Beast Man’s command over beasts of the land). In this description, Mer-Man’s powers can be effected by the tides, although that wasn’t really explored in the cartoon:

Image courtesy of Jukka Issakainen

Mer-Man makes various appearances in box art and posters as well, and his design is usually based either on his cross sell artwork or his 1982 toy:

Mer-Man underwent subtle and radical redesigns in different media over the years. He may be the most inconsistently portrayed character in all of MOTU. He’s also my favorite. There’s something about him I’ve always found fascinating and a little bit mysterious.

wind-raider-mer-man

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