The early Masters of the Universe prototypes were a trio of macho figures with the idea that He-Man would span many action settings, much like G.I. Joe or Mattel’s own Big Jim line. The figures were designed with simplicity in mind and the male form exaggerated in its heroic proportions.
Repurposed Big Jim figures were bulked out to super-musculature with modelling clay and then molded in plaster and given painted sheet wax outfits. There was a soldier who literally had a neck-breaking tank gun on his face, a fantasy spaceman with a suspiciously Boba Fett style helmet and rocket pack, and a familiar looking barbarian.
One of the most abiding rumours when it comes to the hazy beginnings of Masters of the Universe is that it was originally being created by Mattel in the very early 1980s as a direct tie-in with the upcoming 1982 Conan the Barbarian movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Mattel were in negotiations but eventually declined and released the Masters figures with their own mythology. Conan’s right’s holders did attempt a lawsuit but Mattel won. Presumably because Conan wasn’t the only Barbarian in comics or popular mythology and the toy company were not under obligation to follow through with making kids toys for a very adult-themed movie, crammed with sex and violence. Though clearly there were influences from the artwork and the world, especially in those early stages and the pre-cartoon fiction.
Fans of the later Masters of the Universe Classics line will be aware of Vikor, based on the barbarian from that original trio that was chosen to set the tone for the whole Masters of the Universe line and a clear wink and a nod to Robert E. Howard’s most famous creation. And in 2012 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the line, Mattel released a figure with three outfits corresponding with this early trio and named Vykron.
Masters of the Universe conspiracy theorists would have much to chew on regarding the Wonderbread He-Man or Savage He-Man. This mysterious figure made his way into various kid’s collections, possibly from a bread promotion, possibly from buying multiple other figures. It is supposed that he was mail-order in return for proofs of purchase, shares the exact same sculpt and detail as regular He-Man which rules out a dodgy bootleg. He had brown underpants, brown hair, black boots and a maroon axe and sword combo and bears a passing resemblance to Conan. In early photos he also had black Zodac chest armour, though this could be found in the Weapons Pack.
Nobody at Mattel can give a straight answer on this but here’s a possible and entirely speculative theory that certainly isn’t new. Mattel in 1981 made a thousand Conan figures as per their agreement with the movie release schedule. Then they dropped the Conan license and went their own way but still had these erroneously coloured and attired He-Man figures taking up space in the factory. They could not repaint and repurpose on this scale with the figures already produced so their choices were either landfill them in the desert with all those copies of E.T. on the Atari 2600 and hope that nobody ever dug them up OR give them away in a promotion. This would explain the lack of a solid story for the Savage He-Man’s origin. Tinfoil hats off now. This is a legendarily rare and sought-after action figure and Mattel made a Classics version cheekily named Wun-Dar which came with a plastic loaf of bread.
Throughout the entire run Masters of the Universe figures had recurring body parts and accessories rearranged in different colours to create new characters inexpensively. The designers gave each figure the same torso, either smooth or hairy in different skin tones, which saved on new molding. There were four kinds of standard arm; regular, hairy, cyborg and evil monster. Four kinds of leg; regular, webbed, cyborg and three-toed monster. Almost every figure sported the same pair of shaggy barbarian underpants in a rainbow of different colours. The legs were attached to one another with a simple rubber band, perfect for posing and play. The waist joint was attached to this and could be wound back for a power punch.
(…although winding too hard would snap the rubber band and cause the legs to fall off as my original Skeletor sadly found out. He spent the rest of his campaign of evil perched on the throne in Castle Greyskull directing troops.)
In Wave 3 Buzz-Off had Clawful’s claw, he and Whiplash had the same torso and legs. Both of them had a differently coloured previously released weapon. Stinkor had Mer-Man’s head, arms, torso and legs, all recoloured with Mechaneck’s armour and a previously released shield. His more pleasant, pine-scented heroic equivalent Mossman was just Beast Man with green flocking and a previously released club.
What made each Masters of the Universe figure unique and worth owning was that Mattel came up with a fun action feature for each of them. Buzz-Off had bee wings, Whiplash a long rubber crocodile tail he could thrash other figures with and Stinkor had a soft rubber head with patchouli oil mixed into the material at the factory stage which gave him his pungent skunk whiff.
The first wave of He-Man and Masters of the Universe figures established the classic heroic warriors versus evil warriors dynamic with Zodac thrown in as a neutral cosmic enforcer to make play more interesting. Heroes included He-Man, Man-At-Arms, Teela and Stratos. The evil warriors included Skeletor, Beast Man and Mer-Man.
In the second wave more characters were added to the basic assortment which remained on shelves as consistent favourites for many years, much like Star Wars. These reinforcements included Man-E-Faces, Ram Man, Faker, Evil Lin, Trap-Jaw and Tri-klops.
As well as basic figures there were an abundance of vehicles, accessories, playsets and companions. Most notably of course was Battle Cat, He-Man’s steed of choice and a character in his own right. This was actually an old tiger toy from the Big Jim line repurposed again with armour. The falcon Zoar was also from Big Jim and of course, never one to pass up on selling us the same thing twice with a palate swap Skeletor’s ride, Panthor was the same cat with purple flocking and green armour minus the helmet, and Schreeech the wicked falcon was a recoloured Zoar, who was in turn recoloured from Big Jim’s Eagle.
Likewise Trap Jaw the evil warrior was very similar in nature to Big Jim’s enemy Iron Jaw, who looked like a combination of Bond henchmen Tee-Hee from Live and Let Die and Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me mixed with the Red Skull.
Castle Grayskull was a curious place, with everything suggesting it should be a villain’s fortress. It’s possible the fact that this shadowy, mysterious and ancient stronghold was to be protected from Skeletor lent the mythology more of an intriguing angle, as did the lack of clearly defined history and origins for the characters and world in the contradictory comics and TV show, which rarely went into any motivations, allowing children to make up their own. The Grayskull playset included a string-powered elevator, a trapdoor, a jaw-bridge and a weapons rack filled with wicked looking implements of war. Snake Mountain was its purple opposite and featured a snare net, a bridge and a voice changer. Vehicles included the Battle Ram, the Attack Trak, The Road Ripper, the Wind Raider and the Dragon Walker.
These first two figure runs were released before the cartoon, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe hit TV screens, plenty of time, back in those days to get themselves embedded in toy shelves so that when the cartoon launched kids would be actively seeking out the animated adventures of their plastic hero.
Over those first few years, however, stories needed to be told to give the figures context and motivation. This was done in two forms. The first was the mini comics, written by professionals, some of whom would go on to even greater things, including animation legend Paul Dini of Batman and Donald F. Glut who wrote many of the Star Wars novelizations.
These comics depicted a sword and sorcery world named Eternia, touched by space age technology, a curious mix that proved hugely popular. In the very first comics there was no Prince Adam secret identity (which, by the way is the least convincing of all time, He-Man literally looks like a tanned, half-naked Adam.)
He-Man had two different battle harnesses, one for super strength and one for a force field. He was given these mystical items by the goddess who later became The Sorceress.
Back then Castle Greyskull required a key made of two swords combined. This is why He-Man and Skeletor have this quirk of their weapons in toy form, though it is never mentioned in the cartoon. If you’re a fan of these original minicomics you can pick up the whole collection in one hardbound book or two digital volumes.
The Eternian royal family and Teela existed, but He-Man was a protector from the outside, a barbarian from a warrior tribe rather than the teenage prince imbued with the literal power of a mighty king of the past named Grayskull, which is what the canon of the 2000s cartoon eventually laid down is actually going on when the famous transformation occurs.
He-Man of the mini comics also spoke in a completely different manner, from the “aye verily, forsooth mayhap we find a varlet on the nonce” variety. By the time the cartoon emerged he was talking to himself all the time and pondering what the most morally upright and violence-avoiding course of action would be.
The other storytelling aid, often overlooked, especially for today’s figures was the box art. This stuff took the Frank Frazetta style of fantasy drawings and masterfully worked the toys in, keeping remarkably faithful to their colour schemes and proportions, giving kids a vibrant way of seeing their playthings and stoking their visual imaginations. Incredible scenes were laid out before us as children and it was our duty to give our figures adventures that equaled and surpassed these.
One of the breakthroughs in the production of the Filmation series was that it would air every day of the week. This was virtually unheard of in those days as most cartoons were aired on Saturday morning. So the first season ran from September through to December 1983, to be repeated again after its initial airing, and its ever-presence combined with the toys being on shelves made it ubiquitous for kids.
The cartoon borrowed heavily from Superman with Teela playing Lois, always disparaging the meek and feeble Adam for being useless while his apparently identical tanned twin brother saved the day, though never when Adam was present. Man-At-Arms became considerably more fatherly and was in on the secret identity.
Orko was created as comic relief, which was odd considering everything in the cartoon was silly. Battle Cat’s alter-ego was a genuinely cowardly Scooby Doo style kitten of a giant green tiger named Cringer.
Skeletor and his minions would bumble and bicker, much like every other villain group of the 80s, their inability to hold together and follow through on a domination plan being their greatest enemy. And as mentioned above nobody was ever stabbed or cut or even punched, sword fights did not take place.
It was mostly firing energy beams at the ground and throwing Beast Man into the mud over and over. Despite this the comic writers like Paul Dini and J Michael Straczynski got to flex their creative muscles and occasionally characterize the colourful cast of heroes and villains in a manner uncommon in kid’s entertainment at the time.
This ran parallel with Hasbro’s G.I. Joe, the six episode mini-series of which aired at the same time as He-Man but which didn’t hit the same 50+ episodes per season format for another two years giving Mattel a head start. Transformers had its mini series in ’84 and again hit mass production in ‘86. Thundercats began in January 1985 and ran for 130 episodes and an extensive LJN toy line. It was really these four shows and their tie-in lines that took the baton from Star Wars set the tone for the 1980s evolution of the action figure and ran the race for viewing numbers and shelf dominance.