Roton was a toy that, as a kid, I admired from afar, but was never able to own (at least until many years later). I remember very clearly going over to my friend Tyson’s house in first grade and being bowled over by his collection, which dwarfed mine. Among other things I got to see in person for the first time toys like Zodac, Stratos, and the amazing Roton.
Design & Development
December 1, 1982 marks the earliest known mention of Roton, where it appears in the Masters of the Universe Bible. It was originally conceived as a vehicle for the heroic warriors:
ROTON – when this vehicle’s in the fight, He-Man’s enemies scatter, literally. He-Man rides atop the round vehicle which has a swiftly moving buzzsaw sipping around its center. Instead of blades, the buzzsaw’s blunted, club-like appendages sweep away anything or anyone in the way.
In a way, conceptually the Roton seems to have been merged with another early idea, called the Tornado Traveler (also from the MOTU Bible):
“TORNADO TRAVELER* – a wild, whipping flying craft which only Skeletor can control through the skies of both Infinita and Eternia. Whenever it appears it’s preceded by a violent windstorm.”
While the Roton seems to have been originally intended as a ground assault vehicle, its spinning blades make it look like it could plausibly fly, and so it was often depicted that way.
The first is a Roger Sweet concept call the Gyro. This does not seem to be directly related to the Roton, as the drawing is dated September 17, 1983, and the Roton had its name set already in December of 1982 and the trademark filed on August 22, 1983. Still, the rotating blade concept is very similar.
This undated drawing by Ed Watts shows a Roton that bears close resemblance to the final toy, with some key differences. The color scheme is red and white. The design around the sides is in keeping with the look of the final toy, except the decals are simple triangular shapes. The face on the front is quite different, as is the design of the seat back. All in all this version looks much less monstrous. I would guess that at this point it was still intended to be a heroic vehicle.
However, up until this point in the line (1984), there hadn’t been a single vehicle produced that was specifically intended for the Evil Warriors. Perhaps with that in consideration, the design was changed to make it look more sinister:
The above cross sell art, which matches exactly the look of the final toy, shows what changes were made to make the Roton fit with Skeletor’s crew. The vehicle was now black, with red blades. The face on the front became much more monstrous, and organic-looking spiny plates were added to the back side of the vehicle. The shape of the twin guns on the front was also overhauled.
Packaging & Toy
William George did the packaging artwork for the Roton. In his illustration, the vehicle is cruising along the ground, as a lizard and a tiny demon-like creature look on. George often included little creatures like this in his artwork.
The toy itself is relatively compact and simple. No batteries were required. You simply rolled it along the ground, and an internal set of gears would cause the buzz saw to rotate with a satisfying (or annoying, if you’re a parent) clicking sound. Of all the evil vehicles, this one seems to lend itself most to fleet-building. Like the Battle Ram, it works as a ground or air assault vehicle.
Model Kit & Artwork
Monogram produced a model kit version of the toy, as they did for the Attak Trak and Talon Fighter. In the case of those two vehicles, Monogram based the models on early prototypes or concept drawings of the toys. I wonder if that isn’t also the case with the Monogram Roton. It looks closer to the final toy than the to the Ed Watts concept art, but there are a few differences as well, the canopy being the most obvious one. Larry Elmore did the packaging artwork:
Curiously, the Roton doesn’t show up once in the mini comics, while the Land Shark (released a year later) shows up in multiple comics across multiple years.
Errol McCarthy illustrated this scene of Skeletor “mowing the grass” in the Roton. I believe this was intended for use on a T-shirt:
The Roton makes some prominent appearances in Golden Books stories, including Dangerous Games, The Rock Warriors, Secret of the Dragon’s Egg, and The Magic Mirror:
The vehicle also plays a supporting role in the Lady Bird story, He-Man and the Asteroid of Doom (images via He-Man.org):
The 1985 German Masters of the Universe Magazine is mostly filled with toy photography, but it does include a short comic story, and the Roton is a formidable presence:
The Roton appears in the background of a few different posters by Earl Norem and William George:
The Roton made several appearances in the Filmation He-Man cartoon, although it was never a regularly used vehicle. The Filmation design is simplified for ease of animation, and its buzz saw has longer (but fewer) blades, but otherwise it’s fairly true to the toy design:
Of all the evil vehicles produced for the line, the Roton is my favorite. You just have to take one look at it and you immediately get what it’s about and you feel sorry for any heroic warriors who have to go up against it.
Roton in Action
Øyvind Meisfjord has kind contributed the following image and video of the Roton in action:
Continuing from last week when I covered all of the US toy commercials released in 1982, let’s take a look at what came out the following year. In 1983, Mattel released commercials that technically featured every new product, although there were no ads that I know of solely dedicated to Evil-Lyn, Tri-Klops, Panthor, Zoar or Screeech.
Probably my favorite of the commercials released in 1983 is this ad featuring all of the MOTU product available to date. Note that Zodac is grouped with the Evil Warriors:
The little kid at the end I think perfectly captures my reaction to these toys when I was that age.
The Man-E-Faces commercial has one of my favorite lines of dialogue:
Dad: “He-Man, he’s your friend?”
Boy (speaking as He-Man): “Friend and ally. He’s just kind of weird sometimes.”
The Ram Man commercial shows off Ram Man’s action feature quite well, but also highlights the original play pattern behind the Castle Grayskull playset – that it could be controlled by either the heroes or the villains at any time.
The Trap Jaw commercial uses a stand-off with He-Man to showcase all of Trap Jaw’s unique gimmicks and action features, with the curious exception of the figure’s articulated jaw:
I included the following commercial in my post for 1982 US He-Man commercials, as there seems to be a chance that it was released in 1982. However, as Faker is generally grouped with the 1983 wave, I’ll include it here as well:
I don’t remember seeing this Attak Track commercial as a kid, but if I had I would have been begging my mom for one. This thing looks unstoppable (or at least, it can’t be stopped by cardboard props):
There were actually two slightly different versions of the Point Dread and Talon Fighter commercial. One was narrated by Peter Cullen (best known as the voice of Optimus Prime), and the other by an unknown voice actor (hat tip to Grimbot2).
The facial expressions of the kid holding Skeletor are pretty priceless.
Point Dread and the Talon Fighter somehow completely slipped off my radar as a kid. I probably saw it represented in cross sell art form at some point in my childhood, but I don’t think it ever made an impression. And that’s a shame because it’s one of the coolest items ever produced for the Masters of the Universe toyline. It’s certainly one of my favorites now.
Design & Development
Point Dread and the Talon fighter was a rather unique item, in that it combined a small playset with a vehicle as well as a story book with record.
The commercial (above) shows a prototype that seems to have less overspray on both the vehicle and the playset than the mass produced toys did. The cross sell art seems based on that prototype:
From my interview with Mattel designer Ted Mayer, I learned that the idea for the Talon Fighter originated with a sketch for the Eternia playset. There are a couple of those in existence, and both seem to feature a flying vehicle that bears some resemblance to the final Talon Fighter design, although the aircraft in the second image also resembles the Blasterhawk. The second image is dated February 5, 1985, so it would not have been a source used for the Talon Fighter. I would guess that the first image (called Mount Eternia) dates from some time in 1982.
There is also some rough similarity to the 1983 Big Jim Space Spy Vehicle (hat tip to Jukka for pointing this out), which also featured the radar dish on the top, a handle in the back, stubby wings, and a similar (but not identical) overall profile:
Point Dread seems to have been conceived at one point as the home of Skeletor and his Evil Warriors. From the Filmation Series Guide:
“Point Dread is a craggy peak emerging from the Eternian Ocean. It is an extinct volcano with a tunnel leading down to a fantastic ruined, Atlantis-like city hidden beneath the ocean floor. Inside Point Dread, Skeletor keeps all the treasure he has plundered from a thousand worlds. There are also mines and construction sites waiting for the slaves Skeletor plans to take once he has seized control of Eternia.
“But the heart of Point Dread is the great council chamber where Skeletor summons the sinister Masters of the Universe. Here Skeletor sits on a raised platform above the round table where are gathered the likes of…”
Notice that at the evil warriors are referred to as the “sinister Masters of the Universe”.
The same guide describes Talon Fighter as an agile air vehicle that only He-Man can control, and says that it is frequently perched atop Castle Grayskull. The top of what we would refer to as the Point Dread playset is also shown – perhaps at the time the rocky base for the Talon fighter was not yet named. It may have taken on the name of Point Dread after Skeletor’s home base was identified as Snake Mountain.
The 1985 UK Annual again describes Point Dread as the lair of Skeletor (images courtesy of Jukka Issakainen):
Let’s take a look at the actual toy and its packaging and accessories:
The Talon Fighter seems to be based on something like a hawk or an eagle. It has a rather wide body, stubby, downturned wings, and curved talon feet. There is room for two figures inside the roomy cockpit, and it features a handle on the back for easy zooming around the house.
Point Dread (tag line: frontier outpost) is a simple two-piece shell with a window and rather small stairs leading upward on the top piece. The top piece can clip to the tallest turret on Castle Grayskull. Inside the lower half is a cardboard control panel.
The box art is rather magnificent, in my opinion. The artist is unknown, but they seem to have been trying to imitate the style of Rudy Obrero. The artwork features Skeletor, Tri-Klops and Mer-Man launching an assault on Point Dread. He-Man and Teela are inside the Talon Fighter, and Man-At-Arms seems ready to take on the villains from the ground while his friends attack them from the air.
The comic book included with the playset is one of my very favorites. It’s two stories in one book – The Power of Point Dread and Danger at Castle Grayskull. The artwork is by the incomparable Alfredo Alcala, and features some fun and colorful stories that introduce us to not only PDTF, but new characters like Man-E-Faces, Trap Jaw and Tri-Klops. Zodac has a rather prominent role to play in the first story, which is a nice touch.
A record was included with the book, to help young readers read along with the story:
You can ready both stories in their entirety here and here.
Confusingly, there was a mini comic produced with essentially the same title – The Power of… Point Dread. The plot of the story is entirely different, however. It was penciled by Mark Texeira and includes some pretty exciting combat scenes:
While it’s true Point Dread was at one point intended to be the home of Skeletor and his minions, the Masters of the Universe Bible, written at the end of 1982, portrayed Point Dread as it was in the mini comics released the next year:
TALON FIGHTER – this winged flying vehicle carries two passengers and is able to execute death-defying aerial acrobatics. Equipped with a special bombpack under its belly, He Man can call the fighter when it’s needed. Its resting place is atop a far peak called PT. DREAD which materializes whenever the Talon Fighter comes to rest. Only He Man has the physical fortitude and strength of will to control it. The flying machine goes out of control unless He-Man’s in command.
Point Dread never made an appearance in the Filmation cartoon, and the Talon Fighter was used quite rarely.
There was also a kit version of the Talon Fighter produced by Monogram (which was owned by Mattel at the time). It had a much more bird-like design than the toy, and a simpler yellow and red color scheme. It also has a canon mounted on top of the cockpit, rather than the radar design of the toy version. Monogram also produced versions of the Attak Trak and Roton. The Monogram Attak Trak is based off of a concept version of the Attak Trak, so I wonder if the same isn’t true of the Monogram Talon Fighter.
The above design, but with toy-accurate colors, shows up in Dangerous Games, published by Golden Books:
There was also an illustration of the Monogram Talon Fighter kit that was apparently created for advertising purposes (images via Plaid Stallions). In this version the vehicle has a gold-colored body and green cockpit windows:
R. L. Allen featured the Talon Fighter in a couple of his illustrations, which are some of my favorites:
Talon Fighter in Action
Øyvind Meisfjord has kindly shared some images and a video of the Talon Fighter in action:
Ted Mayer is one of the original creators of the Masters of the Universe toyline. He designed many beloved MOTU toys, including the Battle Ram, Wind Raider, Attak Trak, Eternia, Slime Pit, and others. He has also worked on the Star Wars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles properties.
Ted was gracious enough to answer my questions about his work on He-Man. He also provided a number of photos and illustrations for this interview, some never published before now.
Battle Ram: How did you get into the design business?
Ted Mayer: I originally was trained as an aeronautical engineer in England. I did not like that, so I went on to study illustration. I came to the US and worked in the aircraft industry. I went back to school to study automotive design, but after graduation, I did not want to go to Detroit.
Eventually I got the job with Mattel. I loved working there. So many talented people of all kinds, painters, sculptors, etc. I could not wait to go to work each morning. That’s where I met Mark Taylor. We had cubicles next to each other. We found we had so many things in common. To this day he is my best friend. We see each other often. Mark was/is such a wonderful classic illustrator.
BR: Before He-Man, you worked on the set of the first Star Wars movie. Can you describe what that was like and what some of the projects you worked on were?
TM: I got the job there before Mattel. A friend of mine was working at ILM [Industrial Light & Magic], and got me a job as a set designer.
I was working under Joe Johnson. I was just laying out background scenes, then I started to do some illustrations of the vehicles for the model makers and for publications. At that time most sci-fi movies were low budget, and we all felt this was going to be just another one, even though we saw some of the new technology developing. It was not until we saw the final cut were we blown away!!
BR: How did you come to work on the Masters of the Universe toyline at Mattel? Can you talk a little bit about how it started and what your involvement was early on?
TM: The two design sections at Mattel were divided in two departments. There was Preliminary Design that was supposed to come up with ideas for toys, and Visual Design that actually did the design work (visualization). I was in Visual Design. We had about twenty designers, so each designer had many projects that we managed.
He Man came about because Mattel had turned down Star Wars, and was desperate to come out with an action figure line to rival [Kenner’s] Star Wars line.
Mark (who was a comic book maniac, and constantly sketching in his sketch book) was asked by a marketing person, who saw some of his sketches, to come up with something he could present. This was because prelim could not come up with anything. He presented the “Torac” drawing. It was accepted to go to the next stage. That’s when Roger Sweet came in, as he was the one who failed to come up with anything, he was selected to help Mark with the final presentation.
Mark did all the sketches of the various characters and Roger dressed up a GI Joe to look like Mark’s sketch for the big presentation. Meanwhile Mark and I had 5-6 other projects we were working on.
When the go ahead was given to go to production, Roger was out of it and it moved in to Visual Design. It was then that I was asked to come in and help Mark. We split the design chores up. Mark would do the figures, and I would do the vehicles, and we both would do the weapons and accessories that went with Castle Grayskull, including all the artwork for the decal sheets
BR: Tell me a bit about how you went about designing the Battle Ram. What influenced you at the time? Where there any challenges in designing it?
TM: Its been a long time to remember what I was thinking! As I mentioned, all the visual designers were grouped together in a big bullpen. All the guys were either into cars or planes. We used to go to air shows, car concourse and hot rod shows as a group — a lot of testosterone going round.
So the six big fat wheels, multiple exhaust pipes, Recaro-type seat, came out of that. Also recently coming out of working on Star Wars, I added all the surface detail that we put on all the vehicles. Added to that we wanted a shoot-out rocket. Mattel had just been sued over the missiles on the Battlestar Galactica vehicle, so they did not want a shooter. I had to design a missile that was big enough that would not choke a kid and would pass the safety department. And of course it had to be really, really bad ass!
Because the stuff Mark and I came up with was out of the realm of the engineering department (they were lazy and wanted everything to be simple, and a square box if possible!), we had to take them on and come up with our own solutions. I was assigned my own model maker (Jim Openshaw), and we worked to make my sketch come to life.
I think the two vehicles in one, was an idea both Mark and I came up with, while discussing the whole line. Mark and I worked closely together, we sat next to each other and had a lot of fun. Jim eventually did all the tooling models for production.
One other thing about working with the engineers. After the He-Man sculpt was done (by Tony Guerrero) Mark wanted the arms to swing across his chest, the engineers wanted them to just swing back and fourth, so I had the do all the engineering to prove it could be done.
On the same subject, we wanted tons of detail molded in to the interior of Castle Grayskull, but because it would take so much work and creativity on their part, they would not do it. We lost that fight!
BR: What was your design process on the Wind Raider? What influenced you?
TM: Just a lot of sketching with input from Mark
BR: Was the Wind Raider meant to be something of a seaplane? It looks a bit like a flying boat.
TM: Yes, it was loosely based on a sea plane, but the dominant thing was the big engines so it could skim across the water and also take off and fly. We added the anchor later as we needed an action feature. The front monster was later changed to resemble a crocodile. Jim also did the models and tooling patterns on the Wind Raider.
BR: Did you also create the stickers for the vehicles you designed? They featured some interesting creature designs.
TM: Mark did the stickers based on the shapes I gave him. His wife Rebecca, who is a graphic designer, did the final art.
BR: Can you talk about how you went about designing the Attak Trak? What influenced you at the time? I notice it originally had a canopy that was dropped from the final toy (but was included in a Monogram model kit version of the vehicle).
TM: It started out as a mechanical toy submission that Mattel bought from an outside inventor. It was given to me, to make in to a He-Man vehicle. I did about four different design directions , of which they picked one.
The canopy was dropped because it costed out quite high, so they looked at dropping as many extras as possible. By this time I was also doing all the control drawings, so when they went to the engineers, things were final.
BR: Can you tell me a little about some of the other concept vehicles for Masters of the Universe that you have on your website? I see there is a green vehicle with a yellow bird head that drops down to reveal a disc shooting mechanism. What’s the story behind that?
TM: Marketing was always trying to resurrect old Mattel toys and put them in current lines. I was asked to design a He-Man vehicle with this feature. That’s the vehicle I presented. I remember that I was always trying to come up with different types of illustrations. On this one I did the line drawing and had a cell made of it, then colored a background. The cell line drawing was then an overlay, just like animation.
The pencil sketch [below] was based on a swamp buggy.
BR: It looks like you also designed the Jet Sled vehicle, which got released in 1986. Can you talk a bit about that one?
TM: Mark left after the first year of He-Man. The line was such a success, but he/we got nothing, maybe a 2% raise! Mark was pissed, and left to go to Playmates where he developed the TMNT toy line. Mattel decided to reorganize, and combine Prelim and Visual Design.
At that time the Intellivision video game started to take off. I was promoted to design director and selected to be in charge of that division. That was when Roger was chosen to head up the He-Man group.
For that year Intellivision hit the roof. The next year, because of marketing and bad direction, it failed. They closed that division, and I was out of a job! Because I knew so many people there, Mattel offered me a job – in the He-Man group, under Roger! It was at that time I designed the other vehicles.
By this time there were about five other designers in this group. We would have group concept meetings, and out of those came the ideas for new figures and vehicles. That’s when I also started to do the figures. All the sketches we did belonged to Mattel and we were not allowed to take them. However some of us managed to get copies.
Here are some prototypes I did:
BR: Did you also design the Talon Fighter vehicle (a yellow/blue/red bird-shaped vehicle that perched on top of Point Dread)?
TM: Yes, That was just something that came out when I was doing the Eternia Sketch.
BR: Can you talk a bit about how Castle Grayskull came into existence?
TM: Mark did the original sketch. That was then be sent to the sculpting department. When we saw their rendition, it was awful. It was a square castle, just like you would find in the English countryside! We made a fuss and it was sent back for revision. The second go round was almost as bad. As I remember, it was square with turrets on the corners, very symmetrical.
Somehow Mark persuaded the powers in charge to let him sculpt it. The sculpting department was pissed! Mark set up a board in his office and with a bunch of Chevaler sculpting clay, set about modeling it. I took turns helping him, even my nine year old son had a go. When that was finished it went back to sculpting for molding and engineering.
BR: It looks like you came up with or at least worked on quite a few figure designs, some of which became toys (Snout Spout, King Hiss, Hordak, Leech, etc.). What was your favorite figure design?
TM: I worked on a lot of figures after I came back. I guess my favorite was Brainiac, but I don’t know if that was ever made. [Editor’s note: it was never produced]
BR: Can you talk a bit about your work on the Eternia playset?
TM: I was given the project to design a playset that would dwarf Grayskull. I just stood at my drawing board and started sketching. I remember for some reason that I wanted to do a big drawing. It came out at 40″ x 40″.
Everyone liked the design, and it was decided, by someone, to do a size mock-up. We started hacking foam and the result was the photo you can see on my website.
I left Mattel around that time so I never knew until recently, that that actually produced it.
BR: What is your fondest memory of working on the Masters of the Universe toy line?
TM: Just a lot of fun. It was a great learning experience because there were so many talented people to learn stuff from
BR: If you could design a new vehicle or figure or playset for He-Man, what would it be?
TM: That I would have to think about. Its been a long time since I was involved in that area. The things that I see being done by some of the up and coming generation are terrific, and I think they could do a better job than I!
BR: What are some highlights of your career after you left Mattel?
TM: I left Mattel to work for LJN Toys in New York. I ended up being VP in charge of design for the whole product line. We moved the design department back to California, and I hired Mark back to work for me. That was a great experience.
After that, Universal pictures bought out LJN. Later Mark again got hired as VP of Design for Playmates Toys. He then asked me to come work for him on the TMNT line where I designed a bunch of stuff, as you can see just a bit on my website. That was fun too!
I am still designing for other toy companies, and still enjoy it.
BR: Can you talk a bit about your jazz guitar playing? Is there any way for interested people to listen to your music?
TM: I have been playing jazz guitar since I was 13 years old. I practice two hours every day. I am now 75, so that’s a lot of hours!!! I have become good enough to play with some of the top jazz musicians in LA, I am very lucky.
Just like music, drawing and illustrating, practice makes perfect. I am still practicing and improving in both areas. You can hear some of my stuff on my website and there is some on Youtube I think.
Many thanks to Ted Mayer for taking the time to answer these questions, and for providing the wonderful illustrations and photos of these classic Masters of the Universe designs.
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