Playsets

MOTU Classics Castle Grayskull

MOTU Classics Castle Grayskull box art, by Rudy Obrero

Masters of the Universe Classics Castle Grayskull, released in December of 2013, was quite an achievement in an era when big playsets are becoming rarer and rarer. Larger, more complex and more detailed than the original, Classics Castle Grayskull was offered for a preorder price of $250 – more than three times the inflation-adjusted cost of the original, but still not bad given the size, complexity, and lower number of units produced.

Source Material

MOTU Classics Castle Grayskull’s biggest single influence is the original prototype playset sculpted by Mark Taylor in 1981, although the Classics version is somewhat tamer and less decrepit looking.  Some of this influence is no doubt filtered through the cross sell artwork and minicomic depictions by Alfredo Alcala (both based on the prototype).  Other influences include some invented details from Alfredo Alcala’s artwork, the original, vintage Castle Grayskull playset, the original Rudy Obero box art, and a concept Dungeon playset designed by Ted Mayer.

The large weapons rack on the right was sold separately from the castle. The manhole cover on the floor is a custom by BadVermin, and the triangular weapons rack is a custom by Barbarossa
Throne room. The purple banner on the left was invented for this castle – the one on the right based on the vintage castle’s banner.
Concept-inspired computer and jet pack
Dungeon  section of the castle, with manacles and vintage toy inspired sticker
Classics Grayskull came with this orb stand (but not the marble sitting in it). It hides away in the secret orb room, inset behind the helmet of the castle
The Spirit of Grayskull haunts the throne room.
Castle Grayskullman guards the dungeon.
Secret door above the ledge
Into the throne room
Scare Glow, produced several years before MOTU Classics Castle Grayskull. came with a secret key to Castle Grayskull.
Scare Glow’s key fits into a keyhole on the secret side door, providing enough leverage to open the door.
He-Man stands on the open jaw bridge. The jaw bridge opens by inserting the power sword into the small opening to the right – a nod to the vintage minicomics.
The evil warriors sneak around the back.
Clawful climbs the scaling ladder

Here’s a more detailed breakout of the influences that went into creating the Masters of the Universe Classics Castle Grayskull:

Material taken from the vintage prototype or vintage concept art includes:

  • Ledge on the left tower
  • “Pawn” piece on top of the helmet
  • Taller helmet and battlements
  • Eye shape
  • Removable handle in the side allows for concept Castle’s side battlements
  • Throne design
  • Computer design
  • Skull motif at top of elevator
  • Hidden side door
  • Battle Tester
  • Jetpack
  • Manacles
Original 1981 prototype Castle Grayskull, by Mark Taylor. Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation
Original 1981 prototype Castle Grayskull, by Mark Taylor. Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation
Another copy of the vintage prototype. Photo courtesy of Andy Youssi.
Mark Taylor’s concept for the “Battle Tester”. Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation

Material taken from the vintage playset:

  • Elevator design
  • Flag design
  • Ladder and laser blaster design
  • Banner, trap door and dungeon grate decals
  • Drawbridge design, front and back
  • Handle on the side piece (removable)
Image source: Transformerland

Vintage box art material:

  • Nose shape
  • Elongated fangs
  • Enlarged lower teeth
Vintage Castle Grayskull box art by Rudy Obrero

Minicomics material:

  • Third floor
  • Dungeon walls (window and skull designs from Ted Mayer’s dungeon playset)
  • Secret slot to gain entrance to Castle located to the side of the jaw bridge
From King of Castle Grayskull, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala
From King of Castle Grayskull, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala
From King of Castle Grayskull, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala
Ted Mayer’s dungeon playset. Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation

There are several unique touches to the playset as well, including an additional secret door off the side of the throne room, a secret orb room in the back side of the helmet, and extended floor with plug for Wind Raider stand, and an “evil” throne room banner to match the original “good” one.

The original design for the Classics Castle Grayskull (artwork by Nate Baertsch, who is a frequent collaborator with the Four Horsemen) was to include a number of other goodies as well, including a clear “Spirit of Grayskull” display (from Alfredo Alcala’s artwork), a removable dungeon, a triangular weapons rack, a mechanism to open the secret door on the castle’s left tower, a sculpted dungeon grate, and a few other goodies. These seem to have been removed from the final product due to cost.

Image source: The Art of He-Man

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Artwork

Castle Grayskull in Box Art

As a kind of sequel to my post about Castle Grayskull in the minicomics, I’d like to turn to Castle Grayskull as it was depicted in the box art. It shows up less frequently than you might expect.

Although Rudy Obrero painted the box art for the first year and a half of the Masters of the Universe toyline, most of the pieces of box art that feature Castle Grayskull were painted by him. That makes sense, as the the time to most heavily cross-promote the playset would be around the time it was released.

Battle Cat (1982)

Rudy Obrero’s first piece for MOTU was actually for the Battle Cat packaging. Castle Grayskull really isn’t the star of this illustration. Most of the detail is saved for Battle Cat and He-Man, while the castle is half-shrouded in mist in the background.

Notice the barbarian warrior on top of the turret.

Most of Rudy’s depictions of the Castle generally follow the design of the playset However, this one is kind of a transitional piece, in between the prototype and the final toy design. It has the rounded teeth, full towers (these were shortened on the production playset) and red laser cannon of the prototype, but has lost the prototype’s tower ledge and “pawn” piece on the helmet. The “pawn” was actually present in Rudy’s original charcoal drawing (below). That indicates that some of the changes made to the castle happened while Rudy was still illustrating this piece.


Image via the Rudy Obrero Box Art Collection (Super7/The Power and the Honor Foundation)

Castle Grayskull (1982)

The landscape around the castle seems to change with each depiction. In Battle Cat, it seems to be sitting in a valley. In the Castle Grayskull packaging illustration, the scenery is much more dynamic. The castle is surrounded by a deep chasm, seemingly filled with lava. We don’t get a good view of the ground directly in front of the castle, but it seems that the jaw bridge is the only thing making it accessible by land.

The castle itself is highly detailed, based on the playset but amped up with bigger teeth and a meaner looking face. It has the finalized laser blaster and flag designs. In my opinion this is probably the single most iconic piece of artwork ever done for the Masters of the Universe line.

Battle Ram (1982)

In Rudy Obrero’s Battle Ram illustration, the castle is is in the distant background. It has the general look of the version of Castle Grayskull that appeared in the Battle Cat illustration. In this instance, the castle is set some distance away from a deep chasm.

He-Man and Wind Raider (1982)

The castle is a bit more finely detailed in Rudy Obrero’s He-Man and Wind Raider illustration. It follows the general look and design of the Castle Grayskull packaging, but now the castle sits on a rocky, smoke-filled battlefield, with no hint of any trenches or chasms.

Wind Raider (1982)

Rudy Obrero’s Wind Raider illustration (below) is interesting for a few reasons. First of all, it again seems based on Rudy’s Castle Grayskull packaging illustration, complete with oversized jaw bridge. In this scene one tower has been destroyed by He-Man’s Wind Raider anchor (remember at this point the castle was no one’s home base).

Finally, the Castle this time sits on small, rocky island in the middle of a lake (or so it appears). That’s significant because that’s the setting that designer Mark Taylor originally had in mind for the castle:

“The visible Castle rises above a fetid lake/moat inhabited with assorted exotic and dangerous flora and fauna, the castle extends seven levels/floors into the bedrock of the lake. Each level distorts reality (i.e., time and space) more than the one above. For example: the levels below the weapons storage room (armory) start with all the weapons that exists within one century each way from the present (MOTU time), the floor below that within five centuries years each way and so on.

“The Pit of Souls is a dungeon containing undying monsters from the beginning and end of time, that also extends into the time and space continuum (probably a miniature black hole). The powers of the castle are linked to these evil captives. Skeletor and his minions would love them released but also fear their potential. One must be very careful when listening to their counsel because they are extremely clever and totally evil.

The elevator when properly programmed (secret code) drops into these descending levels, of course, with each level potential danger as well as power lurks… This is obviously not the Eternia envisioned by marketing at Mattel, it is my world of He-Man.”

Attak Trak (1983)

For whatever reason, Rudy Obrero’s Attak Trak illustration is a mix of influences. In most respects it looks very much like the playset, but at the top of the helmet it features the prototype “pawn” piece.

Location-wise, this looks like another rocky battle field, like the one in He-Man and Wind Raider or in Battle Cat:

Zoar (1983)

Rudy Obrero’s Zoar illustration has Castle Grayskull on top of a rocky hill. Design wise, it’s a very close match to Rudy’s Castle Grayskull packaging illustration.

Skeletor and Panthor (1983)

This illustration by William Garland features a Castle Grayskull that very much resembles the way Rudy Obrero depicted it in Battle Cat. Garland, however, seems to prefer to set his battle scenes in the desert, with blowing clouds of dust everywhere.

Point Dread & Talon Fighter (1983)

This William Garland illustration features a mirror image Castle Grayskull – the tallest tower with the window is on the wrong side. It also seems to have the prototype “pawn” piece on top, and feature’s Garland’s usual desert location.

Panthor (1983)

Castle Grayskull is easy to miss on William Garland’s Panthor illustration. It’s off in the distance and it happens to face upward on the box.  The design and location of the castle are more or less identical to Skeletor and Panthor.

Battle Armor Skeletor and Panthor (1984)

William George didn’t illustrate Castle Grayskull all that frequently, but when he did, he tended to put it on top of a mountain, often with a winding path leading to it. His castle generally follows the look of the playset, albeit with longer teeth.

Eternia (1986)

William George included both Castle Grayskull and Snake Mountain in his Eternia box art illustration. Interestingly, this version of the castle seems more closely based on the prototype than the playset. The castle seems to be set on a small hill rather than a mountain, but the winding road leading to it is still there.

Flying Fists He-Man & Terror Claws Skeletor (1986)

William George again sets his Castle Grayskull up on a mountain, although there is no path leading up to it this time. The face on the castle is a little compressed looking in this interpretation, with an upper jaw that seems to hang far out over the entrance.

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Reviews

Rudy Obrero & Errol McCarthy portfolios

I haven’t had as much time as I’d like for writing blog posts lately, so I’ve tried to focus more on toy features than reviews of current offerings related to the vintage toyline. However, I would like to give a quick review of two portfolios from two of my favorite artists – Rudy Obrero and Errol McCarthy.

Produced by The Power and the Honor Foundation in collaboration with Super7, the portfolios consist of large, high definition prints of the artwork used on the original packaging. In Errol McCarthy’s case, it was the artwork used on the back of carded figures, starting in 1983, when the cardbacks switched away from the “8-back” format. In Rudy Obrero’s case, it was packaging for playsets, vehicles and beasts, starting at the beginning of the the line in 1982.

The quality and presentation is very similar to the Mark Taylor portfolio that was released in the fall of 2016. On the back of both portfolios we get a nice photo and biography of each of the artists:

Rudy Obrero’s portfolio comes with the following pieces:

  • Battle Cat
  • Battle Cat charcoal drawing
  • Battle Ram
  • Castle Grayskull
  • He-Man and Battle Cat
  • He-Man and Wind Raider
  • Wind Raider

Rudy is my favorite artist to work on the Masters of the Universe toyline, so this set is particularly dear to me. The chance to have nice crisp versions of Rudy’s Frazetta-like interpretation of these characters on one’s wall is not to be missed. The inclusion of the original charcoal artwork for Battle Cat (the first piece of box art done for the toyline) is the icing on the cake. The original is owned by Eamon O’Donoghue, so we have him to thank that this piece is included in this collection.

Note that in the charcoal drawing, He-Man’s pose is different from the final illustration in oils, and Castle Grayskull has the “pawn” piece on the top from the original prototype.

If you check out part one of my feature on MOTU box art, you might notice that there were some changes made to some of these pieces when they were printed on the actual packaging. The most obvious is Battle Ram – the image was reversed and lightened for the packaging. He-Man and Wind Raider, Castle Grayskull, and Battle Cat were also lightened and color shifted.

This particular portfolio does not include any of the illustrations Rudy did for toys that came out in 1983 – perhaps they will appear in a future collection.

Errol McCarthy’s portfolio is of a more uniform size – the cardback illustration dimensions were all equally proportioned, while the box packaging was not. The McCarthy portfolio, like Rudy Obrero’s portfolio, focuses on the first year of the toyline. However, it also includes two pieces that were produced for 1983 and 1987 (Evil-Lyn and Faker, respectively). Faker was actually released in 1983 (or perhaps early 1982), but his original release featured the 8-back card. His re-release in 1987 featured the artwork included in this portfolio. Perhaps Errol’s illustration was done earlier, but not used until 1987 – I’m not certain.

Update: Miguel Ángel in the comments confirms that the Faker artwork was indeed done much earlier than 1987. Thanks Miguel!

In Argentina, the 8-back blisters never came into use. The figure of Faker was always packed with the blister that had the illustration of Errol McCarthy in the reverse and went on sale between December of 1984 and January of 1985. Obviously, that illustration of McCarthy about Faker already existed in 1984 and I dare to say that it was created in the same stage that the artist made those others for the 8 initial characters and those that would join them in the second wave … With the intention to relaunch and / or re-pack Faker in 1983, as with the other 8 of 1982? I would say yes, although for some reason that would only take place in 1987. The illustration itself, however, was much earlier.

Errol McCarthy’s portfolio comes with the following pieces:

  • He-Man
  • Man-At-Arms
  • Teela
  • Stratos
  • Skeletor
  • Beast Man
  • Mer-Man
  • Zodac
  • Evil-Lyn
  • Faker

Errol McCarthy is another one of my favorite MOTU artists. His vision for Eternia, like Rudy Obrero’s includes plenty of rocky and volcanic looking landscapes. But he also has some cleaner, more familiar looking locations that speak to me as well. In fact, two of my favorite pieces are Teela and He-Man, which place the characters in a region with windswept, rolling hills.

Errol McCarthy was perhaps the most prolific Masters of the Universe artist. He not only did artwork for cardbacks through the life of the toyline, he also produced quite a lot of illustrations for merchandising and marketing purposes. I suspect if there was enough interest, there could be at least another 10-20 portfolios of his work.

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