If I had to name three toy lines my friends and I were obsessed with growing up, they would be G.I. Joe, Transformers, and the Masters of the Universe. As the youngest in my family, I was extremely spoiled and I was the only kid amongst my group of friends who could proudly brag about owning every He-Man action figure. I had every character from He-Man’s royal alter ego Prince Adam to the Evil Horde, led by the evil tyrant Hordak, and so on. I even had all the vehicles including the Road Ripper, Bashasaurus, Attak Trak, and the Land Shark— not to mention Castle Grayskull, the Fight Zone and the slime pit (which drove my parents up the wall). I mean I had it all!
There was just something about He-Man that I loved so much as a kid. While I had plenty of G.I. Joe figures, my dad would always make me choose between Joes and the MOTU toy line and nine out of ten times, I opted for He-Man. The Masters of the Universe was like no toy line I’d ever seen—and I always preferred the 5 1/2-inch figures’ with muscular physiques over the tinier 3 3/4-inch Joes. Perhaps it is because at the time I was also a huge fan of the WWF and would spend more time playing with my He-Man in a WWF wrestling ring than say battling Skeletor and his evil minions while saving a make-believe world of Eternia from his evil grasps. While the He-Man action figures weren’t nearly as tall as the classic WWF toy line, they were still twice the size of their contemporaries, all of them featuring impossibly large proportions and colorful, eccentric personalities that somehow seem to fit right into the world of wrestling. And unlike their competition from Kenner, He-Man and company stood tall in action-packed poses inspired by characters found in Frank Frazetta’s fantasy paintings. Don’t get me wrong; G.I. Joe figures were and will always be cool, but they were just soldiers— He-Man, on the other hand, was like a God and he came packaged with larger weapons, including his trusty shield, his battle-axe and his Sword of Power.
At around the time I started collecting He-Man toys I also took an interest in reading comics which makes sense given that the original He-Man action figures came packaged with minicomics – an idea Mattel marketing director Mark Ellis came up with. He partnered with the folks at DC Comics and asked them to whip up a comic they could slip into the packaging so that the prospective retailers would get not just a toy line, but some built-in crossover marketing as well. While many of my friends were reading Marvel, my older brother controlled our weekly allowance and decided what comics we would buy — and well, he was a D.C. guy. As it turns out, D.C. at the time was running a series called DC Comics Presents which featured team-ups between Superman and a wide variety of other characters of the DC Universe. Debuting in issue #47 was none other than He-Man himself in a story titled, “From Eternia–with Death!”. Putting He-Man in a crossover with the Last Son of Krypton was a huge deal and it pretty much blew my small child mind. Here was one of America’s most adored and enduring heroes, the Man of Steel, battling the son of King Randor and Queen Marlena a.k.a. the most powerful man in the universe. The following months, a three-issue Masters of the Universe limited series was sold separately on newsstands and further sparked my interest in both comics and the MOTU.
Thinking back to my childhood I recall several debates with my friends about which toy line was better. Some preferred Transformers and others G.I. Joe, but for me, He-Man made more sense as a collector. Those robots in disguise will forever be one of the most revolutionary toy lines to ever exist but they were also far more expensive and for every Transformer toy my dad would buy; I could have two MOTU figures instead. G.I. Joes from what I remember were roughly the same price as He-Man figures, but most of the figures I wanted were nowhere to be found in retail stores nearby. Apart from a few faves like Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, the local toy shops didn’t carry a wide variety here in my town and as a collector, I was obsessed with getting the entire collection of whatever it was that I collected. I guess thinking back, there were a lot of reasons I chose He-Man as my favourite toy line but something I maybe didn’t notice or think about until I was older was He-Man’s appearance.
Early He-Man concept sketches by toy designer Roger Sweet and production artist Mark Taylor had ideas about a chiseled warrior who wielded a sword much like the heroes seen in the Frank Frazetta’s sci-fi/fantasy comics. In preparing for a meeting with Mattel executives, Sweet took one of Mattel’s Big Jim figures and sculpted three prototypes in military, fantasy, and space settings. Despite the success of space operas (such as Flash Gordon and Star Wars) and the success of G.I. Joe, Mattel opted to go in a different direction and settled for an entertaining mix of science fiction and sorcery designing He-Man as a Herculean Barbarian like-hero sporting the massive physique of a bodybuilder. As it turns out, not only was I a huge wrestling fan and D.C. Comics fan but Conan the Barbarian was one of my favourite movies at the time and Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) looked a lot like He-Man.
In the documentary, The Power of Grayskull, the creators of the Masters of the universe acknowledge, they based all of their early decisions when creating the toys on Mattel’s market research and feedback from various focus groups of five-year-old boys playing with toys. I guess focus groups really do work as Masters of the Universe entranced millions of kids when it premiered back in 1983. Mattel’s upstart toy line was flying off the shelves for several years in the mid-’80s, becoming a billion-dollar franchise thanks to toys, but it was the hit animated series that put it over the top.
Before the cartoon launched, He-Man’s backstory and mythology were established via the aforementioned mini-comics that accompanied the action figures sold in stores but given the size of these comics, they didn’t do much to flesh out the characters nor create any consistency among storylines. In these, neither Prince Adam nor the idea of He-Man having a secret identity was anywhere to be found but thankfully the Filmation animated series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe would remedy this problem. The Filmation show was, in many respects, groundbreaking and was one of the most popular cartoon shows of the 1980s. It broke the Saturday morning mold and proved that an animated series could have a large viewership in a weekday timeslot. It was one of the first children’s shows to air in first-run syndication and thanks to the cartoon, more and more of my friends started playing with He-Man toys while humming the catchy opening theme song composed by Shuki Levy and Haim Saban.
Before the animated series Masters of the Universe, TV shows and movies had spun off toys, but never in reverse. It was the first of its kind and everyone watching knew it was going to be something truly special. At its height, He-Man was the highest-rated kids’ show in America. According to the New York Times, the show’s premiere brought in nine million viewers in the United States alone. One can only imagine just how many people watched the animated series given that it was also broadcast in 37 foreign countries.
He-Man was notable for breaking the boundaries of censorship that had restricted the narrative scope of children’s TV programming in the early ‘80s. It helped evolve He-Man’s origins and ushered in an era of after school programming that was must-see for my friends and me. It helped too that the cartoon was controversial as pundits, educators, and parents argued the animated series was on the air solely to sell the toys. And because so many parents hated it, liking He-Man at a young age made you a rebel. While some of my friends weren’t allowed to play with He-Man, I was, and so many kids would often hang out at my house for a chance to get their hands on the toys. It sounds silly and it is, but for kids my age, He-Man was the coolest thing ever.
Even to this day, the He-Man cartoon is oddly entertaining which shouldn’t come as a surprise given the talent behind it which featured early script-writing work from J. Michael Straczynski, later the creator of Babylon 5; Paul Dini and Brynne Stephens, both of whom who would go on to write acclaimed episodes of Batman: The Animated Series; Beast Wars story editor Larry DiTillio; and David Wise, later the head-writer of the TV version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Like the toys, the cartoon became a beloved part of my childhood – and while the toys may have come first, the show cemented their place in pop culture history.
It’s crazy to imagine just how much money Mattel lost when CEO Ray Wagner passed on the chance to partner with George Lucas and develop a Star Wars toy line. As Mattel watched Kenner turn Star Wars into a toy giant, the manufacturing giant was desperate for a hit and looked to pick up the pieces by developing their own unique brand. He-Man gave Mattel their own piece of the action and for the time, MOTU was the biggest toy franchise on the market making selling $38 million the first year with profits soaring to a height of $400 million in 1986. Not only was MOTU outselling Star Wars, but the toy line was also beating Mattel’s other big star, Barbie herself. Some say, MOTU was born out of Mattel’s great failure in passing on the chance to work with Lucas— but I disagree. Just about everything related to MOTU was invented on the fly and despite some early test marketing, the employees at Mattel created one of the biggest toy success stories of all time through a combination of ingenuity, creativity and a lot of improvisation.
Another reason why I loved He-Man as a child was because of the amount of imagination that went into creating each and every character. Sure, there were some figures that were clones of older releases such as Beastman and Mossman but there were also a ton of figures that looked unlike anything else on the store shelves including Trap-Jaw, Leech, Mekaneck, Clawful, Webstor, Ram Man and Two Bad, to name just a few. With well over 50 figures in the classic line in addition to various vehicles and playsets, The Masters of the Universe stood out for its seriously weird and sometimes horrific designs.
My three personal favourites apart from He-Man, of course, were Prince Adam, Teela and He-Man’s archnemesis Skeletor. Prince Adam’s transformation into He-Man is arguably as iconic as Clark Kent changing into Superman’s outfit while in a phone booth. Superman clearly has his trademark catchphrases but my friends and I always thought it was so much cooler to hear the chant: “By the power of Grayskull. I have the power!” And as far as we were concerned, He-Man’s alter-ego Adam was way cooler than Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent with his largely passive and introverted personality.
Teela, on the other hand, was a fierce warrior goddess imbued with the spirits of great warriors of the past and her background was shrouded in mystery. She was first introduced as an abandoned child who was adopted by Man-At-Arms, only to later discover she was the biological daughter of the Sorceress but never learn who her real father is. Of all the characters, in both the comics and the animated series, Teela’s story arc was without a doubt the most complex and heartbreaking since after learning the truth about her mother, Sorceress erases the revelation from Teela’s memory for her own protection. In my young mind, Teela was to MOTU what Princess Leia was to Star Wars and what Wonder Woman was to the DC Universe.
And then there was Skeletor…
Skeletor isn’t just evil, he’s one of the most charismatic cartoon villains ever. The blue-skinned, skull-faced nemesis of the citizens of Eternia delivered arguably some of the greatest insults of all-time with his imperious cackling voice (courtesy of actor Alan Oppenheimer). In fact, his insults were so good he even inspired one of the funniest Twitter accounts. He-Man’s ultimate nemesis (a.k.a. the Evil Lord of Destruction) may be a coward who crumbles at the sight of the man he calls a “muscle-bound moron,” but Skeletor is also the ultimate entertainer.
For a good part of my childhood, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was the hottest thing (other than perhaps, Nintendo). I spent countless hours playing with the action figures, reading the comics and watching the animated series. And then 1987 hit.
For a good part of the ‘80s, He-Man was the master of the toy universe, eclipsing even Barbie, G.I. Joe and Transformers in sales. But business missteps caused MOTU’s sales to decline 98% plummetting from $400 million in 1986 to $7 million the following year. Unsold action figures littered the shelves and retailers weren’t happy and it didn’t help that 1987 was also the year the critically panned Masters of the Universe movie was released. In the end, it wasn’t Skeletor who killed He-Man but rather those that created him.
But what really hurt the popularity of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe?
Depending on who you ask, some people will point the finger at Mattel for not staying innovative and releasing new and exciting characters to add to the roster. Others will blame Cannon Films for producing an embarrassing and poorly made motion picture which turned He-Man from cool to dork. Others will turn to She-Ra: Princess of Power, a spin-off show which launched in 1985 and focused on Adam/He-Man’s twin sister, Princess Adora. While She-Ra was part of the same universe, the toys were ostensibly designed to hook young girls who might not have been interested in He-Man’s machismo antics, but the problem was, many boys quickly rejected She-Ra since they felt she resembled a doll and not an action figure.
I can’t speak for anyone else but my loss of interest in Masters of the Universe had everything to do with all three reasons mentioned above. Mattel’s later designs and character releases just weren’t as creative and interesting as those that came before. I found myself often returning to Toys ‘R’ Us to see the same figures stacked on the shelves, always waiting and hoping for a new “cool” figure to be released, but they were nowhere to be found. She-Ra also complicated matters as many of the boys in my neighborhood and at my school began to bully kids who played with He-Man, calling them gay and calling the action figures, dolls— just another part of the insidious homophobia that plagued ’80s culture. And yes, the motion picture starring Dolph Lundgren pretty much put the nail on the coffin but that’s something I’ll write about in the near future.
The truth is, I was also getting older and spending the majority of my free time either playing sports or playing video games. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe will always hold a special place in my heart but eventually, I became interested in other things, toys or otherwise. There’s only a certain amount of time in a day and with so much yet to discover, I just couldn’t fit MOTU into my then busy schedule. Looking back, however, I have very fond memories of the franchise and whenever I look at the action figures still sitting on my bookshelf, I can’t help but smile thinking back at simpler times.
- Ricky D