Reviews

Hammer of the Gods: The Bearer and the Burden

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.

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From Danbrenus’ The Triumph of Skeletor

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Heroic Warriors

Strongest Man in the Universe

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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:

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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