The prototype Castle Grayskull was not something that most fans had ever seen until relatively recently. Certainly as kids we were oblivious to its existence. It did, however, make its way into story books, mini comics, games, and cross sell artwork. Many of us wondered why the castle in the early mini comics looked so different from the one in our collections.
“I [sculpted the castle] because Tony [Guerrero] was busy with the figures and the other sculptors kept making it too architectural. I wanted it to the castle to be organic, coming to life to tell its story. I made a wood armature and sculpted it in green clay. Ted [Mayer] helped with the plaster mold and vacuum forming, Rebecca did the labels… The imaginative user applied labels themselves to offset the lack of interior walls.”
The exterior of the prototype Castle Grayskull was similar in many respects to the final toy, but there were many notable differences as well.
There are several details on the prototype exterior that are missing or altered in the final toy that I’d like to draw your attention to:
Many of these design elements found their way into the Castle as depicted in Golden Books, mini comics, DC Comics, and other sources, as well both versions of the cross sell artwork.
Below: He-Man and the Power Sword, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala. In all of Alcala’s early artwork, Castle exteriors are almost 100% faithful to the prototype design. In a couple of panels, however, the ledge is omitted:
Below: King of Castle Grayskull, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala. Notice that Skeletor opens the jaw bridge through a lock located to the right of the entrance. I’m not sure if this was a feature Mattel intended to add – I don’t see any indication of it in the prototype. In the final toy, the lock was located on the jaw bridge itself.
Below: The Sword of Skeletor, illustrated by Fred Carillo:
To Tempt The Gods, pencils by George Tuska, inks by Alfredo Alcala:
The Trap, illustrated by Dan Spiegle:
Masters of the Universe Pop-Up game:
From the 1984 UK Annual:
The interior of the prototype Castle was also different in many ways from the final toy:
There are various details on the prototype interior missing or altered in the final toy:
Elements from the interior of the prototype also found their way into mini comics and story books:
Below: He-Man and the Power Sword, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala
Below: King of Castle Grayskull, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala. There are many interior shots featuring the prototype throne, trap door, ladder, computer systems and laser turret:
Below: The Sword of Skeletor, illustrated by Fred Carillo, features several scenes depicting the prototype throne:
Below: The Trap, illustrated by Dan Spiegle, also features the prototype throne:
This is of course not exhaustive. I’m sure aspects of the prototype castle made it into other vintage Masters of the Universe media or collectibles.
While Mattel made several changes to the castle before its release in 1982, at least one bootleg manufacturer seemed to take inspiration directly from depictions of the prototype Castle Grayskull:
Zoar, released in 1983, is at once a toy with a fascinating history and a character with a conflicted set of origins.
I was given Zoar as a birthday gift along with Ram Man and Man-E-Faces. I had endless fun zooming around the house with him. There was something fascinating to me about the rubbery texture of his wings and his surprisingly effective wing-flapping action feature.
Like Battle Cat, Zoar was made from a previously existing mold. The Fighting Falcon started life as The Eagle in the Big Jim toy line. Released in 1973, the Eagle featured realistic colors and was packaged in several different configurations.
Indeed, it’s possible that Zoar might have been intended to look exactly like the original Big Jim bird, if this 1982 Masters of the Universe Pop-Up Game is any indication:
Update: Tokyonever has contributed pictures of a potential Zoar prototype. It has a lot of similarities to one of the Big Jim birds, although the exact color scheme is more complex, with a mix of brown, magenta, orange, black and white. Mattel may have been trying out a number of different color combinations for use with MOTU. It can’t absolutely be confirmed the the prototype below is Zoar and not a Big Jim bird, but my opinion is that it probably was, given some of the other authentic MOTU items that were sold to Tokyonever by the same source:
Zoar was soon given a more vivid color scheme. An early prototype image shows Zoar with a reddish color scheme, sitting on an apparently gray perch. The colors don’t show well in the image, so there is some ambiguity here about the exact shades used:
Another stage of Zoar’s design can be seen on the back of this mini comic book. Zoar appears in varying shades of orange, and he’s also wearing green armor outfitted with rocket boosters and bombs:
As an aside, the cross sell artwork for Zoar was drawn by Mattel artist Errol McCarthy. Here is the original line art:
The red and orange color schemes also appears in some of the 1983 mini comics, which were no doubt produced while Zoar was still in development. Earlier DC comics feature what appears to be a brown Zoar:
The final toy was given a much more colorful paint job, with orange wings and body and blue and white accents. His stand and bomb pack were a bright red instead of the original green.
As with his Big Jim ancestor, a lever on the back of Zoar’s legs could make his wings flap. His red bomb pack somewhat hindered the movement of his wings, but it was removable.
Zoar is featured quite prominently in this commercial from Top Toys (a licensee based in Argentina):
Zoar was sold in a number of different configurations. As a single figure, his packaging featured an illustration by the amazing Rudy Obrero. The artwork catches Zoar in mid-dive in the foreground while He-Man and Skeletor duke it out in the distance, presumably fighting over Castle Grayskull:
Zoar was also sold in a gift set with Teela. It is not known who painted the artwork, but they clearly based their depiction of Zoar on Rudy Obrero’s artwork:
Zoar was also sold in a two-pack with Ram Man, although the box itself was nothing to write home about:
Interestingly, in the early 1970s Mattel produced a flying eagle toy named Zorr (thanks to Tokyonever for pointing that out). So the name as well as the figure seem to have been recycled from a decade earlier.
Although Zoar had sometimes been associated with the Sorceress (the version with snake armor from pre-Filmation comic books), it was Filmation that made them quite literally inseparable.
In the Filmation Series Guide, it’s made clear that the Sorceress can only leave Castle Grayskull in falcon form – as Zoar. Until the debut of the Filmation cartoon, Zoar had always been referred to as a male falcon. The Series Guide design for the Sorceress is quite radically different from both previous and final designs, of course. Presumably they were trying to move away from the snake armor version of Sorceress, to avoid confusing her with Teela.
The Filmation cartoon eventually settled on a design for the Sorceress that followed the cues from the toy version of Zoar. Her costume had orange wings, with blue tipped feathers and white accents. When in falcon form, she never wore the bomb pack that came with the toy.
In Zoar’s appearances in the Golden Books, she (as the animal form of the Sorceress) was more or less colored like the toy, but with some additional red accents, and sometimes with a white body:
In later mini comics, Zoar would be portrayed in pale blue or sometimes pink:
A toy-accurate version of Zoar eventually made it into the mini comics in 1985:
Notice that Teela rides on Zoar (hat tip to Jukka Issakainen). In this 1983 Kid Stuff audio book, Man-At-Arms is also said to ride on Zoar:
Man-At-Arms also rides on Zoar’s back in the Kid Stuff audio book, He-Man and Battle Cat:
Like Battle Cat before him, Zoar’s existence is probably due to the desire to flesh out the MOTU toyline with minimal capital expenditure. Despite the cheapness inherent in that philosophy, a lot of truly great figures came to us in that way. I think that says something about the creativity and ingenuity of the Mattel design team.
Special thanks to Jukka Issakainen for providing many of the images used in this blog post.
Mark Taylor is the designer behind so many beloved icons in the He-Man universe: He-Man, Skeletor, Man-At-Arms, Teela, Stratos, Beast Man, Mer-Man, Zodac, Castle Grayskull, Battle Cat, Man-E-Faces, Ram Man, and even an early version of Prince Adam. Mark and his wife Rebecca were gracious enough to answer some of my questions about the origins of these characters, and the process of bringing them to life.
Battle Ram: Thank you both so much for agreeing to answer my questions. I recently interviewed Ted Mayer and Rudy Obrero. It’s a thrill and an honor to also be able to interview you now!
Mark: Adam, thank you for your interest, both Ted and Rudy are my friends as well as excellent designers. It was a pleasure to work with them on He-Man. I do not call the brand MOTU because that was just a Mattel marketing and management concept. “Masters of the Universe” also helped them separate it from a potential lawsuit with the Conan property owners. It also was part of their effort to remove the concept from the original creator and inventor, me.
BR: You were originally hired by Mattel to work on packaging. How did you come to be the designer for He-Man?
Mark: At the age of eleven I was a compulsive reader and drawer, I love story telling and adventure, influenced by Hal Foster’s beautiful strip and Burroughs and Howard’s books. I started telling my own heroic story.
I went to Art Center, Cal State and worked for the US Navy (Combat Illustrator). Then through a friend I found out there was an opening at Mattel in Visual Development group. They were a very talented “bullpen” who were responsible for the appearance of the product which included packaging but also the products’ labels, color, details and early engineering drawings. This was a perfect fit for me, and I was promptly assigned to work on Barbie product, which was a honor because Barbie has always been Mattel’s cash cow.
BR: He-Man and Skeletor seem very primordial and archetypal to me. He-Man is the embodiment of life and vitality; Skeletor is the embodiment of death and decay. When you were designing these characters, was any of that running through your head?
Mark: He-Man’s original name was Torak, Hero of Prehistory. He was the defender of the weak and righteous and foe of bullies and villains. This powerful hero needed a worthy adversary who embodied evil and sorcery on every level.
Skeletor was influenced by many literary sources but visually by a carnival scare ride with a skeleton like figure that dropped down and rattled (turned out to be a real mummified outlaw); also a lot of Mexican Day of the Dead art and sculpting. Skeletor had to be powerful in his own right and believe completely in his cause as much as Torak (He-Man).
The battle was set, a righteous hero mounted on a giant Battle Cat verses a nefarious villain imbued with mystical evil powers. The clash of arms could be heard to the ends of the earth.
BR: So He-Man originated with your Torak character, which I believe you had been working on since the 1950s. Did Skeletor originate from that same time?
Mark: Absolutely. Skeletor evolved simultaneously with Torak, it had to be this way. They were the yin and yang, the reason for being, opposites to battle forever.
BR: As far as I can tell, Stratos was originally supposed to be an evil warrior (correct me if I’m wrong!), but then he was released as a heroic warrior. Were there any other characters who ended up switching sides?
Mark: Yes many, the early figures that switched sides were, Beast Man, Teela, Stratos, Man-E-Faces and Ram Man. It was a money thing, we had to release the figures, vehicles, playsets and accessories in waves to pay for the tooling and advertising. Mattel did not really believe in the line until after Castle Grayskull was a big hit. Then it was just a matter of corporate greed as to how much we could jam down the public’s throat. I left to work on TMNT.
BR: Can you talk about your working relationship with Ted Mayer on the Masters of the Universe toy line?
Mark: Ted is an industrial designer, I am a designer/illustrator. I sketched out the line but needed help with the vehicles. I requested Ted and he did a great job. It was important that the figure controlling the vehicle be very visual, we didn’t have a movie to explain and promote our product like Star Wars did.
BR: How did you come to hire Rudy Obrero to do paintings for the packaging artwork? Can you speak a little bit about your experience working with him?
Mark: He was the only guy who could paint like Frank Frazetta, he was great to work with. Always came back with more and better than I expected. He would do great stuff from very little reference material. We were turning out stuff like crazy fast. It was like we were joined at the imagination.
BR: Mattel took quite a risk in producing your designs that were not based on any previous intellectual property. It was a risk that obviously paid off. Do you think toy companies today are more hesitant to take those kinds of risks?
Mark: Mattel took no chances at first. Ray Wagner, President of Mattel at that time, laid his reputation on the line and went against everyone else to give Masters a lift off. We were forced to do illegal child testing early on (another lame boys toy was supposed to be tested, but the Preliminary guys weren’t ready). We snuck in thanks to Angie DiMicco. I was there with He-Man, Teela, Beast Man, Battle Cat and Skeletor. The kids tried to steal the prototypes after the testing. We had a hit.
BR: A lot of characters went through color changes as they went through development (either to themselves or their costumes or both). Examples include Beast Man, Mer-Man, Teela and Ram Man. What was driving those changes?
Mark: Sorry to admit it, but cost. Later when the brand was making billions no one cared but in the beginning engineering pinched every penny, especially in paint masks. Also there was a conscious effort to avoid anything that resembled Star Wars or Conan in any way.
BR: Mer-Man went through quite a few changes from B-sheet to final toy. What was behind the changes to his design, particularly the changes to his face?
Mark: Mer-Man tested the lowest. Tony Guerrero the great sculptor and I chased the negative child test comments until we finally realized the marketeers were just messing with us and then we went with what we had. Mer-Man was the weakest but people who like him really like him (I based him on Bernie Wrightson’s Swamp Thing).
BR: There is a character you designed who fans refer to now as Demo-Man. Do you see him as an early incarnation of Skeletor or Beast Man?
Mark: No, he was a separate concept that I was too busy to exploit, I was working until the sun came up and the Mattel building was empty. I was pretty much running on fumes. I would have loved to take him further but like so many concepts corporate profit came first.
BR: You designed the armor and helmet for Battle Cat as a way to reuse the Big Jim tiger. Can you talk a little bit about that design? The helmet design is quite striking, like some mythical beast.
Mark: I had used the Cat on the Tarzan line, I liked the sculpt but the 5.30″ He Man figures wouldn’t ride on him and I wanted him to ride on a huge cat. Nobody messes with a guy riding a huge armored cat! I had seen a guy ride a regular tiger in the circus and wow!
The head armor came from my childhood sketches and had to be engineered for costs and molding ease or the marketeers would lose it (thanks Ted).
BR: The colors green and orange seem to be pretty prominent on those early toys (Battle Cat, Man-At-Arms, Wind Raider). Is there a story behind that color scheme?
Mark: Not just a story but a lot of work and fighting, those colors were not very common in action toys. They pop but looked somewhat alien. I definitely did not want Battle Cat to look like a real tiger, he was much more that but they sold out on him in the animation and later toys after I left. He or He-Man were NEVER supposed to be silly in my imagination.
BR: Did you have an origin story in mind when you designed Man-E-Faces? How about Ram Man?
Mark: Yes, but no one was interested, they wanted to ship it out immediately to animators and movie producers, you know “professionals”. I designed him to have a different and interesting feature besides a twist waist. All the answers to my original story are in clues in Castle Grayskull, where they should be like a puzzle.
BR: Teela and the Sorceress/Goddess (the one with the snake armor) were originally separate characters. Whose decision was it to combine them into a single action figure? How did you feel about that? Did you intend the sorceress character to be a hero or a villain?
Mark: She was actually supposed to be a changeling but the comic book guys had a hard time with that. Also, the head of girls toys wanted to rip her off for Princess of Power (because now the line was very hot!). She was intended to be like a spy and play both sides with some magic but the “professionals” felt that was too complex (I guess they don’t get Game of Thrones either).
BR: In the first couple of years of the toyline, all of the vehicles seem to be geared toward the good guys. Why was that?
Mark: Don’t forget Skeletor used MAGIC but He-Man never did. Skeletor could animate anything and go anywhere. In my mind that was one of the main differences between the main characters and their followers.
BR: The late Tony Guerrero sculpted a lot of the early He-Man figures. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to work with him?
Mark: Tony was a great artist and a really nice man and it was my honor to work with him. I also worked on another project, TMNT with a nice and super talented guy named Scott Hensey. Working with both of these sculptors allowed me to break custom by adding a step to the development process. On the He-Man line we did a looks like beauty sculpt, non articulated from my “B” sheet (design sketch) for testing and sales and until we got the first shots from China. This was Tony’s idea and without this extra step, the confidence in this “weird” concept wouldn’t have happened. I repeated this process with the Turtles.
BR: These toys were a surprise, runaway success. What is it about He-Man that made it so successful, do you think?
Mark: Everybody pushes us little guys around, we secretly want to strike back at all the bullies. We need to feel like we can make things better and are willing to fight to do it. With He-Man we have the power! We have a chance. I feel that the basic concept of courage cannot be taught, it can only be shown.
BR: What did you envision for Zodac when you designed him? What were his abilities and where did he fit in to the MOTU universe?
Mark: Zodac was all about flying. He was the air wing. I was influenced by Flash Gordon and the flying Vikings.
BR: Castle Grayskull is probably the greatest playset ever made, and I understand that you sculpted most of it yourself? What was that process like? What does Castle Grayskull mean to you?
Mark: Yes I did because Tony was busy with the figures and the other sculptors kept making it too architectural. I wanted it to the castle to be organic, coming to life to tell its story. I made a wood armature and sculpted it in green clay. Ted helped with the plaster mold and vacuum forming, Rebecca did the labels. Marketing (now everyone wants in on the game) wanted it to retail for twenty nine dollars. The imaginative user applied labels themselves to offset the lack of interior walls. Toys R Us sold all they could get fifty dollars which was quite a mark up.
BR: Rebecca, I understand you worked on the stickers and cardboard inserts used in Castle Grayskull. The style ranges from regal to almost psychedelic. What did you have in mind when you were working on that project?
Rebecca: The only chance Mark had to tell the story was with the castle. He always said, “all the answers are in Castle Grayskull”, which is quite a different direction that it eventually went. Once the president of Mattel Ray Wagner chose to go with it, everything moved at such a high velocity because he wanted it and no one else understood it.
Mark asked me to combine classic icons along with futuristic ones because he was going against Star Wars and after all it was a ” warrior-type” premise that had to somehow be more than Conan, Tarzan etc.
Mark had sketches in ancient sketchbooks which I took and redesigned stickers from. I did the designing, drawing, inking and coloring, that includes labels for vehicles as well as directed by and revised by Mark. Just like every label job, I was given areas that I had to fit. Because everything was going so fast, sometimes those areas would change shape and would have to be redrawn on the fly in those cases Mark was redrawing my stuff because he was hands on with the castle. Because we’ve worked together for decades, we speak in brain waves.
I think the reason they are perceived as “psychedelic” is because Mark said, “We’re already going somewhere no one else has so don’t render the labels in the normal hard edged graphic way. I used Dr. Martin’s Dyes and let the colors run and wash into the line art. I think it went through because it was so fast and still no one really “got it”.
It wasn’t until after it looked like it might be “big” did people start making decisions to get connected to the project or shall I say get their “scent” on it if you know what I mean. The innovation on those labels happened because Mark was approving and controlling this project and I knew what he wanted. I’ve done many labels for other toy companies and no one has ever asked me for “something really different” and yet these were a big hit.
I was always disappointed that the Mylar printed moat that surrounded the castle was costed out.
BR: Was Errol McCarthy responsible for creating the cross sell artwork on the back of the packaging (below)?
Mark: In the beginning it was someone else and then Errol came in.
BR: MOTU differs a bit from traditional sword and sorcery in that it includes laser guns and flying vehicles. What was behind the inclusion of science fiction with barbarian elements?
Mark: I never wanted it to be a traditional. If I was still working on it I probably would have added zombies, aliens and time travel. Why not?
BR: Often in the process from b-sheet to prototype to finished toy, there are a lot design changes. Which finished toy were you most pleased with? Which one do you feel didn’t live up to its potential?
Mark: Castle Grayskull was the best and most innovative, Mer-Man left me a little unsatisfied.
BR: In a nutshell, what is your vision for Eternia? What kind of place is it?
Mark: Eternia is a stupid name to me (not my name). I imagined that world be like a nightmare that you can modify as you go. ALWAYS about hope.
BR: In public appearances you often talk about Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey. What has been your personal hero’s journey?
Mark: My wife Rebecca epitomizes attaining a fulfilling goal, she is my Nirvana. My life is filled with beauty and love, I wish everyone could be as lucky as I.
BR: Are you both still actively involved in creating artwork? What kinds of projects are you passionate about now?
Mark: I am writing a the original prequel to He-Man based on the original Torak. Also an autobiography about my life in the toy biz. I am fascinated by computer 3D design but it is very non-intuitive for me. I still love to read and watch movies, I wish I had the resources to make one.
Rebecca: I work on digital art because it is so easy to create my style of graphic art which is strongly based on shapes and color. It is so exciting to me to be able to have such a magnificent palette and to be able to experiment with unlimited color combinations with a couple of keystrokes.
Many thanks to Mark and Rebecca for patiently answering all of my questions. Hopefully we can look forward to a book or two from Mark in the future!
Additional interviews and appearances by Mark and Rebecca:
Here is the 1983 Mattel Toys Dealer Catalog (or at least the portion relevant to the MOTU line). Intended for retailers, Mattel’s dealer catalogs showcased all the latest and greatest releases, along with existing merchandise. The catalog showcases all the 1982 items plus everything new for 1983. As we’ve seen in other catalogs, the “new” items tend to be hand-painted rather than final factory examples.