Back in 1987, Tom Bradley, mayor of Los Angeles, declared April 28 to be Masters of the Universe Day, in celebration of the live MOTU Power Tour performance that was running at the time.
It continues to be commemorated by fans to to this day, but I would propose an additional day to celebrate the most powerful toyline in the universe: March 1.
From December 1981 to January 1982, Mattel filed trademarks for their completed Masters of the Universe toyline, in preparation for the big product launch. The line (largely designed by Mark Taylor, vehicles by Ted Mayer) was first shown to the public on February 17, 1982, at New York Toy Fair. I believe it was first made available in retail stores on March 1 of 1982. That’s based on a piece of evidence taken from the first MOTU minicomic, He-Man and the Power Sword.
Included near the back of the minicomic was a cash rebate offer. Parents who purchased two of the eight MOTU figures available that year could get a rebate of $1.25.
There was a purchase date restriction on the offer. Purchases had to be made between March 1, 1982 and January 31, 1983.
I believe the earlier date represents the earliest date that these toys would have been available in stores – shortly after they were unveiled at New York Toy Fair. That would mean that March 1, 1982 was the day that children all over the country (and later, the world) were first introduced to the world of He-Man.
Since Masters of the Universe Day is already taken, I’d suggest we commemorate March 1 as He-Man Day.
Incidentally, in the animated He-Man episode, The Energy Beast, King Randor tries to create a He-Man Day, but He-Man is too modest at the time to accept it. I’d say after 36 years defending Eternia and Grayskull from the evil forces of Skeletor, he’s more than earned it.
Chema Villalba recently sent me another piece of evidence for a spring 1982 release of He-Man. In The Business of Children’s Entertainment (referencing 1982 promotional material) it is said that Mattel had introduced the Masters of the Universe line in the spring of that year:
Dragon Blaster Skeletor was the “deluxe” version of Skeletor that everyone in my grade school peer group coveted. You could tell he was a deluxe figure because he came on an oversized card and wore an oversized dragon backpack and came with a real metal chain. These were the unmistakable tokens of quality in the secret language of childhood.
Dragon Blaster Skeletor actually has a fascinating backstory. In my interview with Martin Arriola, he explained to me that the action feature was once quite dangerous:
MA: Prelim, guys like Rogers Sweet would always over-promise to marketing, and sometimes add stuff that was unsafe or not practical.
BR: Oh, like what?
MA: There was Dragon Blaster Skeletor. Prelim design came up with breadboard model. It was unpainted, using old legs and arms and a body sculpted from square styrene blocks. Sweet was touting this one, Smoke and Chains Skeletor, it was called. It had a bellows on its back. You would load the bellows with talcum powder, and there was a pipe going from a cavity to the figure’s right hand. Talcum powder would come out like smoke. The figure was draped with chains, so the working name was Smoke and Chains Skeletor.
I was thinking about doing the final design. Around that same time there was a big grain factory in Texas that exploded. It killed a lot of people, so it made big news back then. Everyone smoked back then.
I said, wow, this has powder. I lit a match and squeezed the bellows. A four foot flame came out of Skeletor! Luckily I hadn’t pointed it at anybody. I remember going to the VP of Design, Gene Kilroy. I had Smoke and Chains Skeletor and a lighter. I just happened to come across the greatest TV moment. I lit the thing and a big old flame came out it.
BR: That’s insane!
MA: When safety got a hold of this, obviously it couldn’t be released. We tried diluting the powder with baking soda, but then it didn’t look like smoke anymore.
So we brainstormed, me and Tony Rhodes. We didn’t do much with water squirting at the time. We had a big brainstorm, and thought, what about squirting water? So we ended up sculpting the dragon on the back of Skeletor, and being able to load that up with water.
This concept art by Colin Bailey (below) seems to have been for some kind of dungeon master Skeletor. The lock, chains and cuff from this design ended up being used for Dragon Blaster Skeletor.
Early catalog images of the figure seem to depict a standard hollow head Taiwan figure with the new dragon backpack piece. They also include the original Skeletor’s balteus accessory, although that was cut from the final figure. This look was carried forward into the cross sell art as well.
The actual production toy had a solid, rubbery head. Mexico versions had face paint reminiscent of earlier incarnations of Skeletor, but Hong Kong examples have quite a jarring “M” pattern on the green sections of the face. Some Mexico examples had the original Skeletor feet, but most had enlarged feet (with reduced sculpting detail) for the purposes of greater stability, given the weight of the backpack. Boot colors ranged from reddish purple to blueish purple to a very dark purple. The balteus was also cut from the production version.
As mentioned earlier, this version of Skeletor was packaged on an oversized card. It features some artwork by William George on the front and an action scene by Errol McCarthy on the back:
Note that the dragon is supposed to paralyze victims with venom – which seems to be muscling in on Kobra Khan’s raison d’etre. Maybe that ‘s why he ultimately defected to the Snake Men faction.
The 1987 Style Guide talks a bit about Skeletor’s dragon pet:
Weapons: Skeletor stalks the land with his evil pet, freezing foes with the dragon’s vicious paralyzing venom.
Dragon Blaster Skeletor came packaged with the minicomic Skeletor’s Dragon, which shows off his new action feature as well as the Battle Bones carry case toy.
In the story, Skeletor’s chains have mystical energy draining powers, and his dragon frequently walks around off his leash:
Skeletor’s design has a strong Filmation influence (especially around the face and boots), and a differently colored costume than the toy. The colors may be based off of early concept art for the figure. The minicomic artwork is by Peter Ledger, with colors by Charles Simpson.
Errol McCarthy depicted the variant for use in a T-shirt design in the artwork below:
McCarthy also illustrated the character in the poster below that appeared in the UK Masters of the Universe Magazine:
He also appears in a 1985 MOTU poster by William George. He is again shown with the balteus from the original Skeletor figure:
Dragon Blaster Skeletor also appears in this Bashasaurus poster by William George:
Dragon Blaster Skeletor isn’t my favorite Skeletor variant – in fact he’s probably my second least favorite, next to Terror Claws Skeletor. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like him. Skeletor is Skeletor, and it’s hard to make a bad Skeletor figure.
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.
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.
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
Removable handle in the side allows for concept Castle’s side battlements
Skull motif at top of elevator
Hidden side door
Material taken from the vintage playset:
Ladder and laser blaster design
Banner, trap door and dungeon grate decals
Drawbridge design, front and back
Handle on the side piece (removable)
Vintage box art material:
Enlarged lower teeth
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
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.
This time around I’m going to take a closer look at Castle Grayskull as it appears in the minicomics. I won’t post a picture of every single appearance of the castle, just a representative sample from every issue it appears in. My focus will be on the exterior, especially the front.
There seem to be two primary influences on the way the castle was depicted in the minicomics – Mark Taylor’s original prototype of the Castle, and the version Mark Texeira drew in the second series of minicomics in 1983.
Alfredo Alcala, who illustrated minicomics from 1982-1984, always patterned his drawings of the castle after the original prototype. Even when his character depictions evolved past early prototypes and started resembling their mass-produced counterparts, his Castle Grayskull never changed:
Mark Texeira did the pencils for the DC-produced second wave of minicomics. His version of the Castle has squared-off walls, a tall jaw bridge, and a skull that seems rather small in comparison to the rest of the castle. Ted Mayer described an abandoned attempt at sculpting Castle Grayskull by Mattel engineers that actually reminds me of the way Texeira’s castle looks. According to Ted:
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.
It makes me wonder if Mattel might have sent one of these discarded attempts to DC to use as a model. I don’t know for sure, but it’s an interesting thought. Note however that some versions of Texeira’s illustration seem just a bit closer to the actual playset than others.
From 1984 onward, the Texeira look seems to pop up quite frequently. Larry Houston seems to use that as a basis for his illustrations:
It continues to pop up in the 1985 wave of comics as well. One notable exception is Bruce Tim’s illustration in The Power of the Evil Horde. His seems like a mix of many different influences, from Filmation to Texeira to the actual playset.
Castle Grayskull sees its final minicomic incarnations with the 1986 series of minicomics. Here the depiction of the castle begins to mutate. While the Texeira influence still pops up here and there, we also begin to see an interesting interpretation from Jim Mitchell, starting with Escape From the Slime Pit. His castle has an almost mummified-looking face, without any of the sharp teeth of previous incarnations. In a way it comes around full circle to the Alcala depiction.
Bruce Tim gives us our final look at the castle in The Ultimate Battlegound, which follows the same look as his illustration for The Evil Horde.