He-Man and I have had a rocky relationship.
Wait. Can we go back? I just… Crap. OK.
In a past post, I asked you to decide which of The Big Three is the all-time biggest non-licensed action figure property; G.I. Joe, Transformers, or Masters of the Universe. Opinion was typically divided, but no one disputed those three properties are, indeed, The Big Three. Joe, BotsnCons, and He-Man have been part of geek culture since the early 80s and, in one form or another, are as powerful and influential as ever.
In one form or another…hmmm…
If you’re a G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero fan, your roots are almost certainly going to be in one of two camps, Sunbow’s cartoon or Larry Hama’s Marvel comics. The former has a lighter, lasery tone, the latter a bit more gritty and deathy. They are, however, separate halves of the same basic universe with characterization largely grown from the same seeds across both continuities.
Basically one big fandom.
Unless you prefer Sigma 6 or Sgt. Savage, in which case you can pretty much go screw yourself as far as the One Big Fandom is concerned.
But I digress…
If you’re a Transformers fan, things are far more fragmented, but also more compartmentalized for easy demarcation. You’ve got your Generation 1 continuity (which includes the Beast Era) and its comic book parallel, you’ve got Robots in Disguise, you’ve got your Unicron Trilogy (Armada, Energon & Cybertron), and then you’ve got Animated and Prime, the current (awesome) iteration. There’s also Generation 2 and some pocket stories and continuities for cons, comics, and clubs, but the main blocks of Transformers history are the ones listed above.
We won’t even get into anything exclusively Japanese.
There are many differences between all these alternate Transformers realities, but there are also some very basic commonalities. There’s always an Optimus Prime. There’s always a Megatron. There’s always a Starscream, or a Starscream-like character. There’s always transforming. Beyond that, each Transformers reboot or continuation is different enough to warrant interest from new fans, or renewed interest from old ones, and even if characters share the same names, they don’t always share all the same characteristics. The Animated Optimus Prime, for example, is an untested youngster with none of the John Wayne swagger of the G1 original. Likewise, Optimus Primal, from the Beast Era, is an explorer and, later, philosopher, forced, more begrudgingly over time, into military style combat and command.
So, even if it’s all called Transformers, there’s a tone, design aesthetic, and storyline for everyone and, if you don’t like how a character or origin, or indeed a toy line, is handled in one continuity, chances are there’s one, or two, to which you’ll be devoted.
Very clean. Very convenient.
Masters of the Universe, on the other, is a mess.
Despite being one of the hottest collector lines of the last several years, Masters of the Universe Classics commemorates the most fractured, inconsistent, contradictory universe in toydom. I know any storyline and characterization created for He-Man was done for the sole purpose of selling toys, but, whereas Transformers and, to a lesser extent, G.I. Joe: RAH have transcended mere promotional material to become bona fide nerd fare independent of plastic, Masters of the Universe has been the victim of its own nostalgia. Its resurgences have lead to multiple redefinitions of what the property is and who the characters are. As a result, Mattel is trying to reconcile pieces of He-Man’s shattered past into a new stew portioned out in monthly helpings on Masters of the Universe Classics’ cardbacks.
As you’ll soon see, though, inconsistency of tone and confusion of character are things from which mighty Eternia suffered long before Toy Guru got his meat hooks into its soil.
I’m someone who likes rules. Structure. Consistency. I’m also a huge story continuity wonk. I love when the little details matter over the long haul. So, with that in mind, you can imagine how frustrating I’ve found it to pick a Masters of the Universe…universe, and corresponding toy line, and stick with it.
Except now I have, and I’m as big a He-Fan as I’ve ever been.
Before I tell you which universe I’ve mastered, let’s look at what we have available to us. We’ll take them in the order of what, I believe, has had the most influence over the greatest number of fans.
1. Filmation’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
This is where Masters of the Universe really took off for most of us. I can’t tell you how excited I was for the premiere of this show in 1983. My best friend and I were front and center before the free-standing floor TV in my living room for the first episode. We took it in with wide eyes. All the colors. All the characters. All the absolutely no direct conflict or…physical fighting what…so…ever…?
Oh, make no mistake, we watched them all and squealed over character debuts, but, even then, every episode of Filmation’s He-Man was its own little disappointment. Before the cartoon debuted, and after, our “He-Men” beat the holy hell out of each other during their grand, violent adventures. All He-Man every did on TV was punch rocks or gently ease a charging Beast Man over onto his back and then toss his pageboy bowl cut and laugh about it. What fun was any of that?
Although I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my frustration, the Filmation cartoon was a huge hit and helped sustain the toy line for several years. It also introduced most fans to many of the core concepts of the property. He-Man’s alter ego, Prince Adam. Orko. Snake Mountain. It, along with its sister show She-Ra: Princess of Power, also introduced fans to some key characters who never made it into the original toy line. Some of them (Count Marzo, Queen Marlena, Shadow Weaver) have now been plasticized in Masters of the Universe Classics, much to fans’ delight.
So, as seminal as it was (first cartoon based on toys post-FCC ban, and all), Masters of the Universe as conceived by Filmation just isn’t for me, at this point. It was barely for me, at that point, to be honest. Let’s just move on.
2. Masters of the Universe Classics cardbacks
As I mentioned above, these represent Mattel’s acknowledgement of, and attempt to rectify, all the different variations and continuities of the property we’re discussing here into one consistent amalgam. I think they’ve done a good job, so far. So much so, I broke them down, to a point, and re-wrote them as a chronology you can see here.
Why haven’t I updated that chronology in a while? For the same reason I’m unlikely to ever update it again.
3. The 2002 Mike Young Productions He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
Also known as 200x Masters of the Universe, this was the cartoon made to accompany He-Man’s big return to store pegs…
…which was the biggest failure of a proven property the history of the industry, but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.
There’s a lot to like about this verison of Eternia. King Randor is a Norse-influenced warrior. Prince Adam isn’t a whining dandy (he’s also a kid, making his transformation to He-Man a lot more physical and, thus, believable). The Evil Horde is folded into the Masters universe proper with Hordak as Skeletor’s creator. The Snake Men return for an extended arc in the second season to reclaim both their mountain and the world once theirs. Yes sir, this was definitely not Filmation’s He-Man.
Or was it…?
I re-watched the show’s first season recently and, you know what, it’s really not that good. There’s definitely more and better action, better characterization, and a much tighter, intricate continuity, but…I dunno, it just wasn’t as good as I remembered it being when it first aired when, once again, we were all mesmerized by the colors and characters (literally, this time) flying around, glad to have He-Man back on TV.
On paper, the 2002 Masters cartoon, and the toys based on its designs, should blow their 80s counterparts away. Indeed, I do prefer them but, still, there’s something about even this version of He-Man I just found I couldn’t embrace as a 37 year-old nerd, even though I still considered myself, still want to be, a fan of the property.
What’s the problem?
4. The 80s Mini-Comics
This was the other big source of Masters stories for me as a kid and definitely the one I preferred. Unlike the He-Man of the Filmation show, the He-Man in these comics punched out Skeletor’s goons, slashed the occasional monster with his Power Sword, and even stood the chance of getting blasted with a ray gun or the Havoc Staff. Over the few pages allotted to each, these little comics told more fun, more detailed stories than anything on TV and, for me, they were my preferred way to enjoy He-Man. I remember going on weekend car trips with a stack of these things; I read them all dozens of times.
So, with that in mind, perhaps you’d think, that’s it; the mini-comics. They must be the version of Masters of the Universe he’s decided to adhere to, the version of the mythos he considers his Classics to commemorate. We’re done, right? I can check my Twitter feed.
Not so fast.
Yes, mini-comics are the source of my renewed, revitalized, perhaps even reborn He-Fandom…
…but not all of them.
Not even most.
There’s a reason I picked Stinkor’s comic above.
Let’s be brutally honest with each other, shall we? After a certain point, Masters of the Universe is ridiculous. Not cool, kitschy ridiculous, either. Embarrassing to be associated with it ridiculous, particularly when you’re not a kid anymore. I think most people who’ve read this far would probably, begrudgingly, admit they agree with me, and I’ll bet they’d hasten to add the property reached that point right…about…here…
Poor bastard. No respect.
While Snout Spout is a disgrace, I’d argue that point was long moot by the time he and other abortions like Ninjor and the Meteorbs hit the pegs. I’d say Masters of the Universe began its irreversible tailspin here…
…and crashed and burned here…
Oh, the humanity…
And that was my problem. I realized I fundamentally dislike a great deal of Masters of the Universe’s concepts and characters. Simultaneously, I realized what I do like about it, I really like.
There was distinct, specific crossover between those two revelations, the first 11 minicomics or, as they’ve come to be known, Mineternia.
Before they were Keldor and Prince Adam, they were Skeletor, an extra-dimensional demon, banished and bent on Eternian conquest, and He-Man, a barefoot, barbarian savage given magical armor and weapons to stop him.
The Eternia of these first stories, as created by writer Donald F. Glut with fantastic art from Alfredo Alcala, is battle ravaged after a great, seemingly apocalyptic, war, with only scattered bits of magic and technology. Still, there’s a sort of bleak vibrancy to the world and its environments not really seen in future interpretations, and the characters are raw and hard. Man-At-Arms is a technological rival/counterpoint to He-Man’s brutality, Teela a badass blond with a unicorn(!). When they battle the bad guys, Beast Man and Mer-Man are actually capable of laying He-Man out, as they do in The Vengeance of Skeletor. In that same issue, Skeletor tries to kill Mer-Man after their eventual failure by drying his skin out with magic energy.
Mineternia was no fucking joke.
In the second series comics, written by Gary Cohn with Mark Texiera art, things got a little more stable. The palace of Eternia is introduced, along with its guards and the their ruler who, though only named in an Alcala-drawn book & record adaptation of The Power of Point Dread, is indeed King Randor, albeit an older, frailer version (the book also features Zodac’s only Miniternia appearance, as a neutral cosmic enforcer despite being labeled evil on most toy packaging).
New allies and enemies appear, of course, with Ram Man joining the good guys after a bout with He-Man and a betrayal by Skeletor and poor Man-E-Faces (on the cusp of ridiculousness) used in a one-off story as a pawn between good and evil.
The evil warriors fair far more interestingly, with Trap Jaw introduced as a fugitive from another dimension whose defeat requires the combined efforts of He-Man and Skeletor in one of the best stories. Far from a bumbling inventor or generic thug, the Tri-Kops of Mineternia is a bounty hunter with a moral code. Hired by Skeletor to assassinate He-Man, he dispatches Ram Man, Battle Cat, and Teela first, but refuses to kill any of them. Both are folded into Skeletor’s crew after their intros.
I’ll leave it to you to explore the awesomeness of The Magic Stealer and The Tale of Teela for yourself.
Two final notes about this early, serious Eternia. First, the Power Sword. It’s not a prop to change pink vest He-Man into tan He-Man, it’s an all-powerful weapon split in two in the first few stories and hidden to keep it out of Skeletor’s hands. In the second series, Skeletor and He-Man both have a half, and the implied drama of that stalemate in the balance of Eternian power is very cool. Equally cool is the Mineternian Castle Grayskull, which is a dark source of mystery and fear for all involved, not a good guy clubhouse and bird lady sanctuary.
So, where does this leave my Masters of the Universe Classic collection? Square in Mineternia with my fandom. I’ve pared my collection down to only those characters who appear in the Mineternia comics (along with Evil Lyn and Faker who, though they don’t appear in any of the comics, were released with the original Series 2 and fit the same archtype/evil counterpoint mold the rest of the early characters do) and each remaining figure has become exponentially cooler.
The perfect Alcala Skeletor head included with Demo Man certainly doesn’t hurt, either, and may, in fact, have been the catalyst for my decision in the first place.
Speaking of Demo Man, he and Vikor survived the cut, too. But they’re not Demo Man and Vikor anymore. That’s silly new continuity. No, no, my Demo Man and Vikor are now, as they were originally meant to be, Concept Skeletor and Concept He-Man…
…and that perception has made all the difference.
No superhero alter ego. No bee man. No rock dudes. No spinning dwarves. No twin sisters, Star Sisters, or blue SpiderPools. Just demonic magical mayhem, head-bashing barbaians, and the odd laser gun.
That’s my Masters of the Universe.