I recently read most of a book called Mastering The Universe: He-Man and the Rise and Fall of a Billion Dollar Idea, written by Roger Sweet who, according to his book, created the concept of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. I only read "most" of it, because it comes across as the paranoid ramblings of a nut job who claims that other designers have attempted to claim creativity of the line and discredit him. Despite all that, it stirred up nostalgia for one of my favorite toy lines from when I was a kid.
For whatever reason, though, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe doesn't inspire the same nostalgia in a lot of other people. GI Joe, Transformers, Voltron and (the DREADFUL) Thundercats are all beloved 80s icons and are considered "cool" among fans, but most often, He-Man is looked at as the subject of ridicule. I don't know why that is. Did you see Michael Ian Black's rant against He-man on VH1's I Love Toys? And why all the gay jokes? The toy line was the first HUGE toy hit after Star Wars. But compared to the "realistically" proportioned Star Wars action figures, the Masters were like nothing ever seen. He-Man made even the hugest real world body builder look anemic in comparison! And MotU was the first toy line to give each figure a built in action feature. The first batch all shared the same, a twistable waist that allowed them to throw a spring-powered punch. But later toys had more and more elaborate gizmos that allowed them to interchange body parts or spin really fast or squirt water or whatever else the designers could concoct, including smelling like pine (Mossman) or skunk (Stinkor)!
It worked! MotU went on to generate almost two billion dollars in revenue, from not just the toys, but tie-in merchandising, two movies (one live-action-- see above, one animated) and two live tours. But for whatever reason, He-Man's rise and fall was extremely quick. In 1986, MotU toys generated $400 million. In 1987, they generated $7 million. Jigga WHAT?! But more on that in a bit...Like I said, when they arrived the Masters figures were a completely new concept, hefty, colorful and fanciful. Opening one from a package, you really felt the power which you didn't get from a smaller Star Wars or GI Joe figure. And the initial back story was epic and mysterious.
ORIGINALLY, He-Man was from a tribe of cave people/barbarians.He rescued a green-skinned "Goddess" wearing brown cobra armor, who in gratitude gave him a metal breastplate that granted him even greater strength and power.Originally, He-Man's nemesis Skeletor was really scary and sinister. Things got watered down with the introduction of the He-Man syndicated cartoon.I LOVED the cartoon as a kid, but watching it now... sigh, it's still a high quality show. You can tell they put a lot of effort into creating it, BUT it's clearly meant to be "positive." Each episode is a little morality play where someone learns a valuable lesson. It's more than a little After School Special. It's also clearly all-ages. It's so nonviolent that even the youngest toddler can watch it and enjoy it. But that doesn't work for older kids. It's also the first show to establish a precedent that sadly was replicated on nearly every 80s toon, in that Skeletor went from a spooky menace to a bumbling idiot. From that point on, seemingly every super villain on a cartoon followed in his stumbling footprints. How heroic is He-Man if his enemy is a moron who can't do anything right? Same for GI Joe and Cobra Commander. Sigh.
Of course my favorite character was Teela. One problem I had is that the Teela toy was almost completely different from any depiction of her, whether in the mini-comics that came with the toys or on TV.Her leotard looked similar, but her hair was usually drawn long and flowing, not up in the ponytail the toy had. And she NEVER wore the cobra armor. That belonged to The Goddess who in subsequent depictions was changed from green to Caucasian and referred to as The Sorceress. Of course then came the TV show and The Sorceress received an extreme makeover, losing the cobra theme in favor of this falcon-based look:Teela, on the cartoon, basically looked like the toy, just without the cobra armor or staff.
He-Man was also overhauled. No longer was he from a barbarian tribe, but was Prince Adam of the ruling family of Eternia, who gained his powers not from his breast plate, but from the magical sword that the Sorceress gave him. Roger Sweet HATED the Prince Adam concept. But reading his book, he seems obsessed with hyper-masculinity and aggression. Still... I think even I draw the line at lavender tights! Or maybe Prince Adam was an homage to Prince! He was big back then, after all!"Dearly beloved..."
Regardless, I loved the Teela action figure. I thought she looked really pretty and "girlie" which the Princess Leia figure never accomplished.
I was sad to read in the book that the Mattel designers referred to her as "Ol' Thunder Thighs." But I guess I can see their point. I should say, Teela WAS my favorite, until they introduced Evil Lyn!Something about those bad girls! An early concept drawing had Evil Lyn as a green skinned witch with pointed black hat. Thank goodness they abandoned that idea! I liked her eye-catching yellow and blue color scheme too, which sadly they did NOT replicate on the cartoon...... where she was given pasty white skin and her costume was colored purple, black and blue. I don't dislike that look, but when the toys were relaunched in 2002, they stuck with that coloration instead of (in my opinion) the more appealing yellow and blue look.
The cartoon may have added to older kids not thinking too highly of He-Man. Then there was She-Ra Princess of Power.
In 1986, Mattel launched a female fantasy line, tied through it's titular heroine to the Masters' universe.It was revealed in the animated theatrical movie The Secret of the Sword that Prince Adam had a long lost twin sister, Adora, who'd been kidnapped by Skeletor's mentor a conqueror named Hordak who commanded a powerful army, The Evil Horde. Hordak and his forces escaped to a another world, Etheria, where he raised Adora to command his evil army. (Skeletor was apprehended before he could escape with him.) Using the power of love... okay, that and a magic sword, He-Man freed Adora from Hordak's influence. Adora became She-Ra, leader of the Great Rebellion, seeking to free Etheria from the Horde's control.The She-Ra line was a pain in the ass. It was clearly aimed at girls. Every doll had real long brushable hair and their weapons were all bejeweled. Most frustrating of all, though was that the dolls simply didn't LOOK like the characters on the cartoon! At the very least, most were colored differently, but in other cases, there is simply no similarity. Take for example She-Ra's enemy Catra. See what I mean? No resemblance at all!
With She-Ra herself, her bodice and skirt looked different, but the biggest difference was her headdress. The cartoon's was sleek and golden, but the doll had this enormous, cumbersome THING around her face... it was completely wrong! In the above picture, She-Ra is standing in front of Crystal Castle, her answer to He-Man's Castle Greyskull. On the cartoon, the building resembles her headdress, with a golden "wing" design and an enormous jewel on front, which acted as the entrance. This is the toy version:Oh don't get me wrong. I avidly collected as many She-Ra toys as I could. Part of the thrill was that I was getting away with buying dolls which had previously been verboten in my house. But dammit the VAST differences between the toys and the toons was a giant pain even at that age.So He-Man basically died after 1987. I must admit that I'd outgrown him by this time. There are later toys and concepts that I am clueless about. I think the juvenile nature of the cartoon made me turn to more "sophisticated" shows like GI Joe and especially Jem. He-Man just wasn't considered cool anymore. There was a nugget of coolness in the initial concept but I think the cartoon and the later toys themselves strayed too far from that idea.
The toys and cartoon were relaunched in 2002, with bad ass new modernized designs, influenced by anime. It was AWESOME!!! Unfortunately, kids didn't embrace the toys. In a vicious cycle, the line was crafted based on kid-skewing toys, meaning that every assortment of figures featured a ridiculous alternate version of He-Man and Skeletor (like Arctic He-Man or something silly like that), which adults didn't want. What's worse is that in each case, there were like three of these ridiculous He-Man and Skeletor figures and one one each of the unique characters! So adult collectors were scrambling to acquire these rare figures, but leaving the tons of He-Man and Skeletor figures on store shelves to gather dust. Since retailers couldn't move THOSE blasted figures, they weren't reordering the newer toys that were being put out, making each subsequent wave harder and harder to come by! The final wave was sold, to my knowledge only at, of all placed, Aldi! NIGHTMARE! The line died, despite Mattel's continued efforts to try rebranding the line to appeal to kids.
But you can't keep a good He-Man down and today, Masters of the Universe lives on as an online only collection, with one new figure released each month. However, if you thought the 2002 line was a nightmare, this new one takes the cake. Fans are so ravenous for these figures that they tend to sell out within MINUTES of going on sale, leaving a lot of fans high and dry, having to over-pay on eBay to get the figures they want.
I will say that I do not collect these. I think the 2002 line was enough for me. The toys retained the chunkiness and "essence" of the originals, right down to each figure having the same power action as their original 80s figure. They were the best parts of the originals, but sleek and modern and cool. The new ones look more like the originals, but are still modern in construction. But... I guess the 2002 line was enough to satisfy me. I just don't feel compelled to buy the current series. HOWEVER, this month's release is...
Evil-Lyn, in her yellow and blue glory! So you KNOW I gotsta get that, right?! We'll see if I can get her directly from Mattel or if I have to go the eBay route. Either way, she shall be mine!
And that's not all. She-Ra is slated for release this summer! AND she's designed to look like she did on the cartoon! (The original doll headdress IS included as a bonus, either for completionists or for the few idiots who preferred that look.) Okay, those two, and that's it! I swear! Eh... we'll see.