I’ve mentioned this briefly before in the blog, but I thought this topic deserved its own post. It’s well known that early on in the development of the Masters of the Universe line, allegiances of certain characters were in flux. One of the most dramatic examples of that is Zodac, who is at times presented as heroic, neutral and evil in official Masters packaging, comics and cartoons. I go over that in depth in my post about Zodac. The history of Stratos and Mer-Man is actually similar, but the details are a bit murkier.
The very earliest surviving characterizations of Mer-Man peg him as a Heroic Warrior. In an early draft by Don Glut for what would eventually become the first minicomics (using the title “Fighting Foe Men” as the name of the line), Mer-Man is listed among the Heroic Warriors and is given this backstory:
MER-MAN (alternative name: Sea-Man) — The last survivor of an extraterrestrial race of water-dwellers. When his water-world was drawn into its sun by the force of gravity and evaporated, Mer-Man — a scaly humanoid with fishlike gills and fins — escaped to Eternia and took residence in its seas. There this intelligent being took command of the sea’s creatures. He can exist on land, where his strength, accustomed to the pressures of the sea’s depths, is increased — but extreme heat can dehydrate him, weakening and eventually killing him.
The same story also groups Stratos (who was called Wing Man at the time) with the Heroic Warriors:
WING-MAN (alternative name: Air-Man) — One of the last of a race of mountain-dwelling beings who have mastered the air. Wing-Man is a denizen of mountain peaks hidden high above Eternia’s clouds. He utilizes a flying craft equipped with various weapons resembling characters of flying creatures — a deafening bird’s cry siren, a hornet’s sting, etc. But he can fly without use of the craft, thanks to a set of foldable wings — including a set of bird’s wings, bat’s wings, insect’s wing, etc. He has a good sense of humor and is a natural practical joker, which makes him bearly [sic] tolerable to such brooding characters as He-Man.
An early internal Mattel document, as seen in The Power of Grayskull documentary, explicitly affiliates Mer-Man with He-Man, but is non-committal about Stratos.
In a series of early promotional slides intended to generate buzz about the new line (called “Lords of Power” at the time), Mer-Man is grouped with the Heroic Warriors. Skeletor and Beast Man seem to be the only Evil Warriors here.
Even in Mattel’s 1982 dealer catalog, the only figures explicitly called out as evil are Skeletor and Beast Man. Stratos, Mer-Man and Zodac at this point seem to be in a category apart from either the Heroic or Evil Warriors. Perhaps the idea was to leave it ambiguous and let kids decide how to use them.
At around the same time, Mattel put out a kit for manufacturers of licensed products, intending to direct them how to use the Masters of the Universe brand in their products. In here we see Stratos as a villain. Mer-Man is given no specific allegiance.
The minicomics that came with the first figures always characterize Mer-Man as evil. From that point on Mer-Man is solidly in the Evil Warriors camp. However in Stratos’ first appearance in the comics, he is shown with the Evil Warriors. Thereafter he is always grouped with the heroes.
In a 1982 JCPenney catalog, Stratos and Beast Man are listed together as a set, described as “Winged sky baron, and his savage henchman.” JCPenney sold many unique figure two-packs, although I’ve never seen any other evidence of this particular set, or the Man-At-Arms/Zodac set either. You can browse these gift sets here.
Finally, we see in 1983 and beyond an attempt to further solidify the two factions in Masters of the Universe. To that end, Mer-Man is given the title “Evil ocean warlord” rather than his original “Ocean warlord,” and Stratos is called “Heroic winged warrior rather than his original “Winged warrior”:
MOTU Origins is a fun line that I’ve enjoyed collecting, but there are a few aspects of the the line that are less well liked by fans. Probably the two biggest gripes (in terms of the figures themselves) are the default He-Man head and pretty much every retail Skeletor head to date). Lots of fans are looking for more vintage-accurate heads for the two main characters in the line. Mattel has released a good (although not 100% spot-on) vintage style He-Man head that comes with Battle Armor He-Man (as well as the convention exclusives), but they really haven’t captured the original Skeletor head in any version so far. Nature abhors a vacuum, so various customizers from the fan community have stepped up to fill that need.
I recently purchased a few custom heads from Lee’s Customs (you can reach him on Twitter, Facebook or eBay). I actually am less interested in nailing the vintage figures (I already have those) than I am in variants based on vintage artwork. Thankfully we have gotten several comic book variants in the line (such as the SDCC and Power-Con sets), and it looks like we’re going to get even more this year (Green Goddess and some kind of repaint or reissue of Lords of Power Mer-Man and Beast Man).
But I would also love to see some variants based on the vintage cross sell artwork. That was the source material for quite a few Masters of the Universe Classics figures, and I think that style would be great to see for at least the “8-back” characters in Origins.
To that end, I bought Lee’s custom Skeletor, He-Man and Lords of Power Mer-Man heads to try my hand at approximating at least some of those looks. (Lee also sells casts of the other Lords of Power characters, a custom Eternian Guard head, and various He-Man heads to help you create Faker, Slime Pit He-Man, Anti-Eternia He-Man or Savage He-Man.) The He-Man and Skeletor heads are cast from the 1982 figures, but altered to be able to fit on a MOTU Origins figure. They’re sturdy and good quality casts that closely match the Origins colors. Some Blu-Tack may be required to help the heads fit snugly on the pegs.
You can buy the heads fully-painted or cast in a base color. I opted for the latter. Here’s what I was able to come up with so far (I haven’t started painting He-Man’s head yet):
For Skeletor, rather than using the bold color lines of the vintage figure, I opted for a more subtle, cross-sell art inspired face coloring. I also painted his feet blue to replicate the bare feet of the artwork. Of course the sculpt of his shins and forearms don’t follow the cross sell art designs. I tried my hand at resculpting those parts on a spare Skeletor, but my skills aren’t quite up to the task, I fear.
For comparison, below is the stock MOTU Origins Skeletor. For the record, I think the stock head sculpt is pretty good, but the paint work doesn’t do it any favors. It’s a nice “alternative” head but not the one I’d have chosen for the standard Skeletor head.
Getting a cross sell-inspired Mer-Man of course required the custom head from Lee. But I also was able to get some hands, armor and a sword from the MOTU Classics Mer-Man (I found these for sale individually as parts on eBay). This allowed me to get the correct four fingers and ornate armor. Again, the shins and forearms aren’t accurate to the source material in terms of sculpt, but everything else is pretty close. (Mer-Man appears blueish in pictures, but in person he’s more green than blue.)
For reference, here is the stock MOTU Origins Mer-Man, which is based on the vintage figure, albeit with some changes to the specific color shades used and to the straps on the armor. In hand it’s a pretty good-looking figure, but I prefer the cross sell art look.
I’m glad there are fans in the community like Lee offering custom heads like this. It really shows the potential of what can be done with the MOTU Origins line beyond just highly articulated versions of vintage 1980s figures.
Post script: I contributed to the upcoming Dark Horse book, The Toys of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. It’s available to pre-order now!
Buying the exclusive combo pack (which includes a supplemental Character Guide) supports me and all the other contributors to these books: http://toyguide.thepower-con.com. Alternatively, the combo is now also available through Big Bad Toy Store.
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.
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 earliest Taiwan Stratos figures have the following characteristics:
Blue beard and eyelids
Three tabs each strap
Commonly referred to as “Blue Beard” Stratos, this figure is quite rare and difficult to find. The reason that it’s rare is that it seems to be a factory paint error – early Stratos prototypes all have blue goggles and a gray beard. It seem that the error was caught very quickly, which is why so few of these figures are around. From the beginning, Stratos was available with either blue wings and a red backpack, or red wings and a blue backpack. This continued throughout the production run.
V2: Short Strap
The next early run of Taiwan Stratos figures have the following characteristics:
Gray beard and eyelids
Four tabs each strap
Even this version of Stratos is a little difficult to find – the subsequent versions with elongated straps seem to be much more numerous. V2 can also be found on the first “no warranty” cards, so the run of Blue Beards must have been VERY limited. Like all US-release versions of Stratos, this one was available in both red and blue wing variants.
The first Taiwan Mer-Man figures have a couple of distinguishing characteristics that are easy to spot:
Short straps on the back of the armor
Subsequent Taiwan releases added the longer straps and eventually omitted the painted belt.
Taiwan Teela figures don’t have a ton of obvious variations during the first two years they were produced. The general characteristics are deep red hair and boots and dark red accessories in the figures released from 1982-1983.
However, an extremely rare first issue Teela has recently been discovered by John Oswald, who runs the Lords of Power blog on Facebook. Like the Striped Tail Battle Cat, this variant was probably an early sample used for catalog photographs (and indeed this version shows up in several of them.
V1: Green Snake Eyes Teela
Painted green eyes on snake armor with “v” pattern
Accessories seem almost translucent, like hard candy
More common early Taiwan Teela figures generally have the same characteristics as the above example, minus the green snake eyes and the deformed shield.
The earliest Taiwan release of of Zodac has a rather unique looking latch in the back of the armor, in addition to short straps. Subsequent reissues lengthened the straps and gave him a more conventional-looking latch.
The very first release of Castle Grayskull has a much neater paint pattern on the face, with black applied only within the eyes, nose, and down the center of the helmet. You can see this version in Mattel’s 1982 Wish List catalog. The teeth, helmet, and towers have some green spray applied to them. It’s not clear if this very first version (below) ever made it to consumers, or if it was only made for in product photography.
It’s also possible this early version came with black string for the elevator, rather than the usual white (first brought to my attention by John Oswald). That’s what’s shown in early catalogs, anyway. The early release castle was manufactured in the USA, and has the following codes stamped on it.
The next (but still very early) release of the castle, as near as I can tell, is similar to the first release, except the black paint around the eyes and nose is not so carefully applied, and it has a less structured paint pattern on the helmet. Overall there is more overspray across the face and towers.
Both early versions were manufactured in the USA, and have similar codes. The second release castle has the same codes as the first, with the exception of the marking under the entrance. The one in the image above is coded 1812C2.
Both early versions also have a flat turret floor in the shorter of the two towers. On later versions, the floor piece had slots added to hold the laser cannon in place:
As we learned in the MOTU documentary, The Power of Grayskull, factories initially were looking to use some kind of paint mask for Castle Grayskull, but they were instructed by Mattel to do the painting free-hand (presumably to save time and therefore money). As a result, the paint applications seem to be rather haphazard, especially in later editions of the castle.
Early versions of the castle came in a box that featured only the 1982 figures on the back. The artwork here was traced directly from a photo used in Mattel’s 1982 Dealer Catalog:
Starting in 1983, the back of the box was altered to feature cross sell art from both the 1982 and 1983 figures:
Update: I have some additional information about the first release castle in a separate article.
The first release Battle Ram box shows only the 1982 figures on the back of the packaging:
Starting in 1983, Battle Rams were manufactured in Mexico as well as the US. The Mexico versions omit the country of origin on the copyright stamp, as shown below:
The back of the 1983 packaging features contemporary figures like Trap Jaw and Man-E-Faces. Starting in 1983, the box also features the Rudy Obrero artwork on the bottom as well as the front of the box:
Like the Battle Ram, the first release Wind Raiders were produced in the US. The back of the packaging shows cross sell art from only 1982 figures. This holds true for both the single release Wind Raider and the He-Man/Wind Raider gift set.
The wings on first release Wind Raiders have the following markings (the tail and underside of the vehicle are also stamped USA, and orange plastic is darker than made in Mexico versions of the vehicle):
Starting in 1983, Wind Raiders were manufactured in Mexico as well as the US. The Mexico versions are stamped “Mexico” on the wing tips and the underside of the vehicle. 1983 boxes also feature the Rudy Obrero art on the bottom of the box, and include 1983 figures in the cross sell artwork on the back.
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Wouldn’t you know it, in my second and “final” Super7 Wish List, there was one more thing I neglected to mention. One of my biggest wants in fact. I’d really love to see 5.75″ scale figures based off the vintage cross sell art. I did cover a few of these, where they happened to coincide with early prototype designs. But there are a few more cross sell-based designs I’d like to see.
The 7″ Masters of the Universe Classics line drew heavily from this well, and it would be great to see the same thing in vintage-style figures, particularly for the following characters: