Reviews

Custom MOTU Origins Heads by Lee’s Customs

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):

Poor He-Man!

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.

Vintage cross sell art
Rear view

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.)

Vintage cross sell art
Rear view

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.

Image source: Smyth’s Toys

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.

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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.

You can also purchase the individual toy guide at Amazon or through Big Bad Toy Store. Thank you!

Super7 5.5" Figures

Skeletor: Evil lord of destruction! (2018)

Announced in 2017, Super7’s vintage style, 5.5″ Filmation inspired Skeletor figure was released in 2018 along with similar versions of He-Man, She-Ra and Hordak. The design ethos seems to be based on the following premise: what if, in the 1980s, Mattel released a series of He-Man variant figures that were “as seen on TV”? That’s pretty much exactly what we get with this series, including the occasional design shortcuts that Mattel might plausibly have implemented in the 80s.

Design & Development

Within the packaging for Skeletor we get a brief write-up of the history of how Skeletor’s design was translated from toy to cartoon:

In the above sheet (put together by The Power and The Honor Foundation), we see the vintage Skeletor figure, along with a work in progress and a finalized version of Skeletor’s animated design. His animated appearance in an early Castle Grayskull commercial is also referenced, although an image isn’t included, likely because most images of Skeletor in the commercial are close-ups.

In Skeletor’s first animated appearance (a commercial animated by Filmation Studios to help advertise the toyline), Skeletor more or less follows the design of the action figure, including the highly detailed costume, monster feet, and red eyes. The only liberty taken is with his face, which doesn’t feature the green paint applications of the action feature. The commercial can be viewed in its entirety here: https://www.instagram.com/p/BpmvudrnPlj/

Image source/owner: Rob Hexevo

As shown in the card that came with the Super7 Skeletor figure, Skeletor’s more detailed action figure design was simplified for ease of animation once the animated series was greenlit for development. The evolving and finalized designs can also be seen in the images below. He also has a more realistic hood design compared to the vintage action figure, and an angrier-looking face.

Image source:
He-Man and She-Ra: A Complete Guide to the Classic Animated Adventures (James Eatock)

In some ways these changes brought him a bit closer to Mark Taylor‘s original design, which also featured a larger hood and relatively human-looking feet

In fact, material from the Series Guide shows an intermediate Skeletor design that is partway between Mark Taylor’s original concept and the Filmation version:

Image source: He-Man.org

The prototype Skeletor figure was revealed in February of 2017 at New York Toy Fair. It’s pretty close to the mass produced figure, although his colors are a bit different, with paler blue skin, a more vivid yellow skull, and black fingernails:

Image source: He-Man.org

Production Figure

Design-wise, the sculpt of the chest and pelvis seem to be taken directly from the vintage 1982 figure. The arms are based on the vintage figure as well, but the “fin” structures on the forearms have been removed. The feet have been changed, removing the three-toed feet and substituting the streamlined boots from the cartoon.

The production figure, as is always the case, isn’t quite as sharp as the prototype. It’s pretty closely based on the Filmation source material, but of course with the bulky proportions of the vintage toy.

The figure comes with a pretty Filmation-accurate Havoc Staff, with the exception of the color, which came out more pink than light purple. Skeletor also includes a purple version of the He-Man’s cartoon style Power Sword (not a weapon Skeletor used in the cartoon, but a nod to the vintage figure), as well as a half Power Sword that fits together with the 2018 Super7 He-Man figure. The Swords are pretty closely based on the animated design, but also feature a hand guard, which Mattel tended to use on almost all of its swords in the vintage line.

Out of the packaging the armor tends to ride a little low, and it’s fairly stiff plastic, making it difficult to adjust. However, 10 seconds with a hair dryer makes it temporarily rubbery and pliable, which allowed me to adjust the armor to sit correctly, as shown in my example above.

Compared to the vintage figure, the 2018 version is certainly less detailed, but the face actually looks a bit more evil. The new version has a hard head as opposed to the soft, hollow polyvinyl of the original. The Filmation-inspired Skeletor’s blue skin is also quite vivid compared to the pale blue of the original.

Packaging

The design of the packaging was directed by The Power and the Honor Foundation. The main carded version (which was actually released second) is based on the original 1980s design, with an “AS SEEN ON TV” burst which, although not featured on vintage MOTU packaging, was pretty commercially ubiquitous at one point. The shape of the bubble on the front has been altered compared to the vintage packaging.

The main artwork on the back was done by Errol McCarthy, who worked on cardback art for most of the vintage MOTU figures. The cross sell artwork and the insert were illustrated by Emiliano Santalucia:

The first version to be released was actually a two pack, in the style of some of the vintage figure gift sets. This set was released in limited numbers.

Another limited release of the figure came in the form of a “Los Amos” package, based on the design of vintage “Los Amos” (Mexico) figures:

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Super7

My Super7 MOTU Wish List, Part 2.5

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:

Mer-Man

Teela

Skeletor

Man-At-Arms

Zodac

Stinkor

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Production Variants

1982 MOTU Figures: The First Production Run (Part 1)

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.

Much assistance for this article was given by John Oswald. The research of Mantisaur82 and Tokyonever has also been invaluable.

Broad Characteristics

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.

On the lower backs of the figures (or in Teela’s case, the lower part of the back of the head) they are stamped © Mattel Inc. 1981 Taiwan. This stamp can also be found on the undersides of the male heads. These figure were released in 1982, but most MOTU figures are stamped the year before they were sold in stores, when the tooling was being created. However, as these Taiwan figures were released in subsequent years, they often retain the 1981 date, albeit sometimes with a slightly larger font.

He-Man

The very first versions of He-Man tend to have a certain coloring – dark orange belt (later versions could range from light orange to mustard yellow to coral), brick-red boots and loin cloth, and dark gray accessories. He has a belly button, which was eventually removed from the mold starting in 1983 (although some 1983 figures seem to still have it). Some of the early accessories seem to be slightly blue-tinged. The straps on the back of his harness have short tabs on them – they were lengthened in subsequent releases to make it easier for children to hold when putting the armor on.

Early versions seem to have a tighter fitting latch in back as well, and intense yellow hair. It’s very common to see the boots not painted all the way up to the top in these early figures. If they are painted all the way to the top, there is usually some uneven overspray in some areas regardless. Later figures have the boot color applied by dipping the legs in paint.

His accessories are stamped with code numbers that indicate He-Man’s SKU number (5040), a number to indicate which accessory it was, and “© Mattel Inc. 1981 Taiwan.” All of them, except for the shield, include another number that is separated from the others. I believe it’s a batch number. So an axe marked 2 is from an earlier batch than one marked 7. That’s my theory – I don’t know this for sure. His shield lacks any code numbers, and is simply marked “Taiwan.”

Update: I’ve added some more detailed observations about the earliest Taiwan He-Man figures. The differences I’m noting immediately below are not from year to year, but within the first year of production of He-Man figures (1981, sold beginning early in 1982):

Hair: the early figures’ hair seems to be intense yellow, almost orange tinged. Slightly later in year the hair starts to be a lighter yellow color. I’ve found two main types of paint used – a glossy textured kind of paint, and a non-textured paint that seems almost like a dye.

Two very early He-Man figures. The example on the right has the textured, glossy paint. I think both were used concurrently.

Belt: the earliest ones are dark orange. The color is a bit lighter as you get later in the year, for instance on carded 8-back He-Man figures that have the warranty information added.

Belly Button: the earliest ones (sold on 8 backs without warranty) are a bit uneven looking. By the time you get to the 8-backs with warranty, the belly button looks anatomically correct.

From left to right, you can see as the figures get later, the belt gets lighter and the belly button becomes more anatomical.

Waist Punch Feature: the earliest versions have a stopper, so when you twist the waist, it swings back to punch, but stops in the middle. A bit later in the year that stopper was removed, so the punch action doesn’t stop quite in the middle, but keeps moving a bit beyond that. This is also evident in early Skeletor figures, as well as all other first release first wave figures.

Sword: the early ones seem to be marked 4 or 9. The earlier numbered swords tend to be a darker blue/gray color, although you can look at many examples and few will be the exact same shade.

Axe: the early ones are marked 2 or 7. The earlier numbered axes tend to be a darker blue/gray color, although you can look at many examples and none will be the exact same shade.

Harness: the early ones are marked 5 or 10. The 5s I’ve seen seem to be a dark gray/blue, with small oval tab on the latch in back. The 10s seem to have more of a almost multi-hue gray plastic, slightly brighter red paint, and a slightly elongated tab on the back. Both have short straps, and both seem to appear very early, although the 10s seem to persist later in the year. 15s look very similar to 10s and come later still.

The dark blue/gray harness on the left is marked “5”. The one on the right is marked “10”. I’ve found examples of both in very early packaging (no warranty carded He-Man figures and the first release He-Man and Battle Cat gift sets)
The dark harness on the left has the small oval tab (where the harness latches) and is marked “5”. The one on the right has an elongated tab and is marked “10”

I should say that I believe sometimes accessories with the markings outlined above did persist later than early 1982. In general, however, the trend seems to be for the numbers to go higher with time. I’ve seen numbers as high as 33 on later figures.

Shield: Early ones are marked Taiwan. The tabs on the back should be more or less intact. Slightly melted at the top, but not completely melted to the back of the shield, as happened later in production. The exact shade of gray varies quite a bit.

Early shields look like the example on the left.

Here are some examples of four early He-Man figures. The two figures on the left are the earliest, although I couldn’t say which came first. The figure second from the right came later in the year (it lacks the stopper in the waist punch feature), and the one on the far right came later still.

And here are my two earliest Taiwan He-Man examples (below, and above on the left). Both have harnesses marked 5. The one on the left has some overspray on the chest emblem, which isn’t too uncommon. The one on the left also has weapons with the earlier number markings, and they are slightly darker gray/blue.

Here is an example (below) of a very early carded Taiwan He-Man, which can be recognized by the lack of warranty and lack of SKU/character subtitles on the back. This is often referred to as the “test market” card. This example of He-Man has boots painted closer up to the top and the darker blue/gray harness and shiny hair paint, similar to the loose example (above, on the right)

Image source: Hake’s Americana

After 1982, the first substantive change to Taiwan He-Man figures was the lengthening of the straps, as shown in this comparison image:

The second substantive change to Taiwan He-Man figures was the removal of the “belly button”, as shown here:

Skeletor

The first Taiwan Skeletor is unique in the following ways:

  • Orange marks on his “cheeks”
  • Half-painted boots
  • Purple trunks
  • Light blue paint in his eye sockets
  • Short straps on the back of his armor

The subsequent Taiwan release omits the orange cheeks. The next version after that has black shorts, and the version after that gives him fully-painted boots. Later still, he loses the light blue paint in his eye sockets. There are “mix and match” versions out there too, with odd combinations of these features. Perhaps this was from the factory mixing older leftover parts with newer parts. Later versions also omit the “belly button.”

The early Skeletor’s staff is marked Taiwan, and his sword is also marked simply as Taiwan (later versions of the sword add some code numbers on the underside as well). This early example has rather brittle accessories, so I won’t remove them to discover what codes are under his chest armor and belt.

Here is an example of a very early carded Taiwan Skeletor, which can be recognized by the lack of warranty and lack of SKU/character subtitles on the back.

The images below show the evolution of the face paint on the Taiwan figures, in chronological order from top to bottom:

The images below show the evolution of the boots on the Taiwan figures, in chronological order from top to bottom:

The images below show the evolution of the straps on the Taiwan figures, again in chronological order from top to bottom:

And finally, the images below show the evolution of the trunks and belt on the Taiwan figures, in chronological order from top to bottom:

Battle Cat

There are at least three distinct very early Taiwan Battle Cats.


V1: Striped Tail Battle Cat

Only a handful of examples of this ultra-rare variant are known to exist. This version matches the color scheme of the original hand-painted prototype. Distinguishing characteristics include:

  • Striped tail
  • Orange around the mouth
  • Teeth painted white front and back
  • Stripes crisscross over part line on back
  • Longer, rough-looking stripes on the left shoulder
  • Extra stripe on right front leg
  • Marked “© Mattel, Inc. 1976 Taiwan” on inner right rear leg
  • White dots in eyes
  • Marked “1” underneath saddle and helmet
  • Textured “fur”

You can spot this variant in early catalog pictures of MOTU figures. The orange lines on this cat match the black lines on the original Big Jim Tiger the figure is based on. It also has finely textured fur (difficult to see unless it’s in hand), again like the Big Jim Tiger.

Enlarged to show texture!
Striped tail paint pattern (left) crosses over the back, while the more common Battle Cat paint pattern (right) does not. Left image is from Tokyonever. Thanks to John Oswald for pointing this out.

V2: Textured Battle Cat

The first mass-produced version of the Taiwan Battle Cat retains the textured “fur” of the first sample version (and the Big Jim Tiger), but omits the extra orange paint applications on the mouth and tail. The teeth are also only painted white from the front. Like the rare striped tail model, it is marked © Mattel, Inc. 1976 Taiwan. It also is marked “1” underneath the saddle and helmet.

V1 (left) vs V2
V1 (left) vs V2
Enlarged to show texture!

V3: Non-Textured Battle Cat

The next incarnation of the early Taiwan Battle Cat is missing the texture from V1 and V2. It’s marked © Mattel, Inc. 1978 Taiwan. It also is marked “1” underneath the saddle and helmet, and retains the white dots in the eyes. The orange paint is somewhat lighter than previous versions. My particular example came from a damaged early 1982 Battle Cat box featuring only the 1982 cross sell art on the back. It also seems to have a brighter red saddle and helmet, although this doesn’t necessarily come across in the photos below. I’m not sure if the textured version was more likely to come in either the single Battle Cat box or the early He-Man/Battle Cat gift sets – it’s difficult to tell with mint in box examples whether or not the texture is present.

V1 (left), V2 (middle), V3 (right)
V1 (left), V2 (middle), V3 (right)

Man-At-Arms

The first Taiwan release of Man-At-Arms has the following characteristics:

  • Red dots on his helmet
  • Blue belt, in the same color as his helmet
  • Light to medium green body and light orange armor
  • Short straps at the back of the armor
  • Light red trunks/boots, similar to He-Man’s

On the example below, the chest armor is marked 5041-2289A © Mattel Inc. 1981. All the other accessories are unmarked.

The next Taiwan releases omitted the red dots, and have longer straps at the back of the armor. Later Taiwan releases feature a gray belt and much darker colors all around, and a helmet that is somewhat teal-colored.

First issue Taiwain red dot (top), vs. second Taiwan release
First issue short straps (top), vs. long straps reissue
Early blue belt (top) vs. later gray belt. The gray belt version also omits the “belly button,” as did later He-Man figures
First release Man-At-Arms figure on card. Image source: Hake’s Americana
“Test market” first release cardback

Beast Man

Early Taiwan Beast Man figures aren’t dramatically different from later versions. The most obvious differences are that the first versions have white dots in the eyes (some of them, at least – I’ll get into that), light blue face paint, even and circular blue paint on the front of the armor, and a short strap around the back of the armor. I believe I have identified some differences between the “test market” G0 figures and the subsequent G1 release.

There are two variants available on the initial “test market” cards – a version without dots in the eyes, and a version with bright white dots in the eyes. I have now seen examples of both on the first release packaging. I really can’t say which came first, although the version with dots more closely follows the intended design, based on the look of a hand-painted Beast Man prototype.

I would also note that the whips on these first release figures don’t fit as well in the figures’ hands. That seems to have been corrected with later releases.

The second “G1” card release often has the dots on the eyes as well, but the dots are more of an off-white color, like the rest of the face. The armor also tends to be slightly more pinkish. On both G0 and G1 versions, the strap around the back of the figure is short. The G1 version often has no waist stopper on the spring waist feature.

Early short strap version vs long strap reissue
Image via John Oswald. Bright white dots vs off-white dots.

Below is an example of a very early carded Taiwan Beast Man, which can be recognized by the lack of warranty and lack of SKU/character subtitles on the back. This version lacks the dots in the eyes. The off-white dots seem to be prevalent on G1 and G2 cards 8-back cards.

Olmo (catone82) shared with me some images he found of a G0 “test market” card for Beast Man (owned by MOTU Gefter), which does feature white dots. These do seem to be the bright white dots, although I’m going to try to get that verified with the owner of this figure.

Covered in part two: Stratos, Mer-Man, Teela, Zodac, Castle Grayskull, Battle Ram and Wind Raider.

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