Sunday, May 7, 2017

[Toys] He-Man and youthful disillusionment

Prior to discovering D&D, probably my main source of fantasy (along with movies like Clash of the Titans and The Last Unicorn) was Mattel's Masters of the Universe toys, which debuted in 1982 (truly the annus mirabilis of my childhood pop-cultural obsessions).

As toys, they weren't that great - all of the figures had the same super-muscular body, just with different heads, paint-jobs, and accessories, and I believe they only moved at the shoulders and hips - I don't think you could even really turn their heads. Nevertheless, something about them really clicked with me. Loking back, I think it was the way that all of the initial characters were all primal, mythological archetypes, more like gods than people: He-Man was Hercules, all strength and heroism, Teela was magic and wisdom, Man-at-Arms was science and reason, Stratos was the air and the sky; on the bad-guy side Skeletor was the personification of death and evil, Beast-Man was primal rage and fury and fear of the woods, and Mer-Man was the dark depths of the sea and fear of drowning. None of this was articulated at the time (I was, after all, 7 years old), but I think it must have been floating around in my subconscious. Plus they all looked really cool - sort of a kid-version of Frank Frazetta, with big muscles and deadly-looking weapons and Castle Grayskull all darkly foreboding and mysterious. This seemed like a strange, dark, violent, and dangerous world.

Anyway, I really loved those toys, probably even more than my Star Wars and G.I. Joe toys. I especially loved the little illustrated storybooks that came with them that provided details about the characters and their world. There were apparently four of them initially, but the only one I remember was King of Castle Grayskull - I must have read that thing 100 times, and a lot of the pictures are still embedded in my memory decades later.

Alas, things went downhill from there pretty quickly. The second and subsequent waves of toys got more gimmicky with lots of moving pieces and increasingly lame concepts, like the guy whose head spun and had three faces - one good, one evil, one (?) - or various figures with spring-loaded fists, or (a particular low-point) a guy who was covered with fuzz and smelled like a pine-scented air freshener. The little booklets also changed - they became mini-comics with a different style of art and (so it seemed to me at the time) cheesier stories. I lamented that it didn't seem as cool and dark anymore, but stuck with it nonetheless.

And, of course, anyone who was a kid in the 80s knows where the story went from there. In the fall of 1983 the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon premiered and it was just lame as hell. He-Man was no longer a Conan-esque barbarian hero, but was the alter-ego of wimpy and effeminate Prince Adam (who was, literally, He-Man in a pair of pink tights) and his pet tiger was also a wuss, and there was some comic-relief "thing" in a floppy hat, scarf, and oversized shirt with a big O on it called Orko that made no sense at all, and all of the bad guys were totally hapless and goofy, and nobody ever got hurt and there was always an explicit moral lesson at the end. Of course all of this was totally standard-issue for 80s cartoons, especially those based on toy franchises, and a lot of people a couple years younger than me seem to have a strong nostalgic connection to this series, but it felt like a huge betrayal to my 9-year-old self. He-Man was cool - it was dark and violent and dangerous, and the show wrecked that and turned it into garbage.

Luckily, right about that same time I discovered a new outlet for my dreams of a dark and violent fantasy world in D&D - and then watched over the next few years as it too grew increasingly sanitized, kiddified, and lame. Which is how I learned as a kid that nothing good lasts forever, so you need to hold onto it and cherish it while it lasts. Live in the moment, and accumulate a store of great memories that you can look back fondly on later. Good advice for a kid dealing with changes to their favorite toy franchises, and (I'd suggest) for life in general.


  1. I heard the real story a few years ago, that it was a botched Conan enterprises/Mattel deal that started but ended differently. The characters were going to be less sci-fi obviously. Skeletor was going to be Thulsa Doom is obvious but the others were most likely altered Conan characters. People have been disclaiming it but it turned out to be true. So because of the distancing further from "Conan", Mattel was up for whatever DC Comics did with the property, which was divorce the barbarian/caveman story for "Prince Adam". I recall reading the "new" Prince Adam backstory in free previews in most November 1982 DC Comics and thinking the figures with included mini-comics were cool but DC had a weak background. Then the cartoon started went with what DC started sort of and was even worse. Filmation cartoons had such a sketchy background I recall their live action being terrible like SPACE ACADEMY (1977) and JASON OF STAR COMMAND (1978-1981) Some of Filmation's cartoons were okay like STAR TREK (1973-4) and FLASH GORDON (1979-1980) but I couldn't stand the GROOVY GHOULIES (1970) which was syndicated throughout the 70's and BLACKSTAR (1981;rerun 1983-84) with the "trobbits" everytime I saw the Filmatian rotating logo I wondered what kind of sketchy crap I was going to get. Anyway, the story within the official Mattel comics was the "real" He-man for a while and it was a good time. I recommend it to anyone wanting to see a cool sword and science fantasy toy background.

  2. I was more of a Thundarr guy, myself. I never liked He-Man much. I remember liking Blackstar better than He-Man, but when I went back and watched a couple episodes a few years ago, I realized I had totally blanked out the Trobbits from my memory...probably for the better.

  3. Interesting stuff. I'd never been a fan of He-Man for a number of reasons, but I'd always assumed that the main one was generational disconnect. He-Man existed when I was a young teen-ager, and I was already transitioning into the edgier realms. Thundarr the Barbarian, for example, didn't seem to have the kiddified goofiness or (by my insecure perception at the time) homoerotic undercurrent that could be found in MotU. This opinion of course may have been colored by the fact that He-Man was the favorite of my younger, gay brother, but I always put more weight on the fact that MotU - much like B/X D&D - was geared towards a more kiddie audience, and for a generation after my own. After all, the Sid and Marty Krofft productions weren't the most teen-friendly fare, but I love their stuff just the same. Guess it just depends on where in life you are when you are exposed to something.

  4. 35 years ago most of the people that I knew kissed my ass because they thought that I was a gazillionaire. I had this wealthy and crazy godmother who wanted me around to help her in her wheelchair so I had every whim catered to. It was insane how many toys I had piled up. Enough to fill a small apartment as I later found out. I was buying randomly grabbed toys up until I was 19. It was like an addiction. I was buying entire series just for the hell of it. When she lost her mind, as if she didn't already, I was forgotten and had to throw out everything that wasn't small which included anything bigger than a STAR WARS figure with a few exceptions. The He-Man series didn't make the cut. The last thing that I bought, the entire series of was some armored guys fighting giant monsters (Inhumanoids) and the "Real Ghostbusters", in 1988 both went straight to the trash by the end of that year. The best He-Man figure was probably Faker. It was just a blue He-Man with an orange sword but cool nonetheless.

  5. ", and the show wrecked that and turned it into garbage"

    Regrettably, you have described the larger slice of animation for TV in the USA. Sketchy, goofy, kiddified. Children may be young, but by and large they aren't stupid and trying to figure out why anyone trying to make money by producing animation would think child consumers were all brainless sacks of amoebas leads to some grim speculation. Yes, I know there were "laws" regarding the subject, but when you look at He-Man vs. the obscure but vastly superior Exosquad, you realize that it is possible to do a good job, but some choose not to.

  6. Ah, yes. While I disparaged He-Man in an earlier comment, I was referring to the television show. Those Mattel comics were actually quite interesting...but even these came out AFTER I started playing D&D.

    My younger brother owned a few of the toys. I preferred Skeletor.