The 1989 He-Man reboot is often considered by most fans to be a failure. It’s true that the line was less commercially successful than the original line (a high bar to clear). On the other hand, the rebooted “He-Man in space” line lasted for four years – twice as long as the more popular 200x reboot. So, perhaps it’s not fair to call it a failure.
I was never a fan of the “New Adventures” reboot, until one day I was. I think it was a sudden and intense interest in Laser Light Skeletor that drew me in that direction. Still, while I love most of the evil characters in the 1989 line, most of the heroes are a bit under-cooked for my tastes. My theory is that they kept the heroes more generic-looking so that they could be reused for other toylines (and indeed, several of them were reused in Mattel’s Demolition Man toyline).
I remember running into this toyline on the shelves and thinking “that’s not He-Man” and walking away. I’m sure that’s not the reaction Mattel was going for. At the time I was reluctantly collecting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – reluctantly, because I considered myself too old for toys. Little did I know.
The 1989 edition of He-Man was designed by Martin Arriola. Two versions of the concept art were shared in Dark Horse’s Art of He-Man book, depicting the figure with and without his snap-on armor and gold helmet.
Unlike the “New Adventures” Skeletor, this He-Man would have almost no visual references to any previous version of the character. He’s got gold boots, blue pants, a totally redesigned sword and shield, redesigned harness, and a retro-futuristic armor and helmet. Without any context, I don’t think anyone would immediately connect this design to He-Man, which is I think one of the areas where the reboot went astray. That’s not to say that it’s a bad design – it’s a pretty neat space adventurer design. But is it He-Man?
The idea for the shield and probably the sword seems to have been to use clear plastic (giving it something of a connection to the previous year’s Laser Power He-Man). However, in prototypes that showed up in catalog artwork, we see a solid gold sword and a dark, transparent shield.
The gold sword and dark shield would make their way into the packaging artwork and other media:
The final toy seems to use LISA (light collecting) plastic in the sword and shield, which were also used in Lego sets around that time. The figure also has a combined H/M symbol added to his belt, a feature not present in the concept art or prototype. The face does resemble the original 1982 He-Man’s face, but it’s subtle enough that it would be easy to miss that this was a He-Man figure, with no other visual references to previous versions. The figure could be displayed with or without the snap-on armor and helmet.
The design is somewhat reminiscent of Bow from the She-Ra line:
He-Man’s boots are a metallic gold plastic with a bit of swirliness. That type of plastic would pop up in toys all over the line, in various shades of silver, gold, bronze, and copper. This is especially apparent in figures like Optikk:
He-Man was sold in a number of configurations: a single card, or in giftset with either Skeletor, Flogg or Slushhead.The design of the single card’s bubble is a bit little different on the Euro card, which has a smaller section for He-Man’s accessories.
He-Man was also sold packed with a story cassette:
He-Man appeared in toy form and in CGI form in a promo for the new line in 1989:
As mentioned previously, Mattel had planned to ask Filmation (the studio that had produced the first He-Man cartoon) to make a cartoon series for the He-Man reboot. Its title would have been He-Man and the Masters of Space (information via Dušan M./James Eatock). Filmation went out of business in 1989, but they did create some artwork and a basic storyline for the pitch. He-Man’s look here more or less follows the design of the toy, although he has a solid gold sword like the prototype, as well as some additional red detail.
Filmation tended to prefer symmetrical character designs, allowing them to flip cells over reuse them in the reverse pose. To that end, this look was also created.
For more information on some of the details of Filmation’s vision for the reboot, see this post at the Ancient Library of Grayskull Facebook group. Or, check out cereal:geek issue 14.
After Filmation went out of business, the job of animating the series went to Jetlag. The series starts off on Eternia, before He-Man and Skeletor are whisked off into the future, but both of them already sport their New Adventures costumes.
Startlingly, after getting a warning from the Sorceress, a redesigned Prince Adam transforms into He-Man right in front of his parents, who hadn’t been aware of his secret identity previously. From there he rescues Hydron and Flipshot from Skeletor‘s clutches, and returns with them to the future to save Primus from the mutants.
The Jetlag version of the character I think looks a bit better than the action figure, at least color-wise. In my opinion the brown works much better with blue than gold does. Even his sword is silver rather than gold. But I’ve always had a weird bias against blue and gold together.
He is not the all-powerful collossus as depicted in the Filmation series. He has to struggle to defeat even ordinary villains. Strength-wise, he’s very similar to He-Man as depicted in the 1987 Masters of the Universe movie.
He-Man very rarely has his shield in the Jetlag series, but when he does, it resembles the dark prototype version.
Mattel put out four minicomics for the series, illustrated by three different authors. In this canon, a familiar-looking Prince Adam (holding a power sword that looks like Mattel’s 1989 light-up power sword) actually permanently transforms into his new He-Man self in front of Skeletor. Skeletor had tricked Hydron and Flipshot into transferring the power of Castle Grayskull into their ship. Skeletor planned to hyjack it and take the power for himself, but Prince Adam stops him, and permanently transforms into his futuristic-looking self on the ship.
On the cover of The New Adventure, He-Man wears his helmet and armor, but otherwise he goes without these accessories for the rest of the short series (images are from Dark Horse’s He-Man minicomic collection).
The UK He-Man Adventure Magazine covered the New Adventures series, sometimes depicting the character with breastplate and helmet, sometimes with just his helmet, and sometimes without either accessory. The design is, again, based on the prototype figure (images via He-Man.org):
So, finishing my thought from earlier in the article – what to make of this radical He-Man redesign? I have to say I like the design, but I think it was a mistake. Without the label on the package, no kid would have looked at this figure and guessed that it was supposed to be He-Man. There should have been some kind of call-back to the original character, beyond just giving him blonde hair and a sort-of similar face. He should have retained some of his original colors – gray, red and orange.
He could have retained the helmet and chest armor (ideally in silver or gray), but underneath there could have been the usual X-shaped harness with either an H or a cross symbol, with some futuristic embellishments. We needed something to tell us that this was not just future space man, but future space He-Man.
The 1989 He-Man reboot included no characters from the original Masters of the Universe line, other than He-Man and Skeletor. The so-called “New Adventures” line is filled with colorful, oddball villains (and, frankly, some less-than-exciting heroes). My favorite figures from the line are the various Skeletor variants, and the 1989 version is no exception.
The New Adventures series isn’t well loved by most He-Man fans, but in a way it seems like an effort by Mattel to step things up a notch. These figures that had better articulation, more sculpted detail, and quite a bit of painted detail compared to the original line, and with little or no reuse of parts.
All of the New Adventures Skeletor variants were designed by Dave Wolfram, who had previously designed figures like Scare Glow and Snake Face. The initial 1989 version was developed from his original Laser Light Skeletor design, inspired by the work of HR Giger:
The broad conceptual ideas were carried over for the New Adventures design, but the color scheme was modified, initially with a lot of dark blue and red details, with a purple cape. In the concept art below he was also given some kind of pouches at his legs, and a new red staff design featuring a human skull with a bat on top. He was given different boots and, for the first time, gloves. He also features a helmet rather than his usual cloth hood:
The concept version of the character actually makes an appearance on a 1989 bag, although this version has a red cape:
A CGI version of the concept Skeletor (albeit with a finalized staff) also appears in a promotional video (thanks to Dušan M. for the tip):
In the produced toy, the color scheme was altered again, with much more red throughout the costume, and contrasting purple boots and gloves. The staff was redesigned, with some prongs at the end that look like they could shoot bolts of electricity. The helmet and staff were molded in gun metal gray. The pouches he was wearing on his thighs were changed to cybernetic implants.The final figure has a white face with a forest green border around it – the only Skeletor to feature that particular color scheme.
A hand-painted version of the final figure appears in the 1989 French He-Man catalog:
In the 1989 German He-Man magazine, Skeletor is depicted a couple of times wearing a bizarre-looking helmet. I’m not sure exactly what it’s supposed to be:
The final production figure appears in the US 1989 dealer catalog:
One of the coolest things about the figure, in my opinion, is some of the sculpted detail on his back and the back of his head. This is obscured by his cape and helmet normally. It’s quite creepy looking:
The staff has a rather creepy looking, chitinous creature around the back of the skull, which wraps its tail around the upper handle:
Skeletor has a fun but rather subtle action figure. When you turn his waist his hands raise up, making him lift his staff as if to fire.
The commercial for the electronic He-Man Power Sword actually has really great footage of an actor dressed as “New Adventures” Skeletor. This costume also shows up in the He-Man vs Skeletor commercial shown earlier in this article.
Skeletor was sold on his own card and in a gift set with He-Man. The artwork on the front was painted by long-time MOTU packaging illustrator, William George.
According to the 1989 Sears Christmas Wishbook, Skeletor was supposed to be available in a gift set with Hydron, but I’ve never seen an example of that:
There were four minicomics produced for the 1989 He-Man reboot, and all of them featured Skeletor. In the first, The New Adventure (illustrated by Errol McCarthy), Skeletor interrupts Prince Adam as he transformed into He-Man, and is badly injured. In Skeletor’s Journey (illustrated by Carrol Lay), he uses bionic replacements to heal himself and we see him finally in his new costume.
The character looks particularly dynamic in the Bruce Timm-illustrated The Revenge of Skeletor:
The New Adventures of He-Man animated series (produced by Jetlag Productions) features the character for a surprisingly few episodes before he’s upgraded to his Disks of Doom variant costume. The series starts off on Eternia, before He-Man and Skeletor are whisked off into the future, but both of them already sport their New Adventures costumes. Unfortunately Skeletor has some off-putting and comical-looking eyes for the first five episodes. Otherwise his costume is fairly true to the toy, minus the electrical implants in his body:
By episode six the eyes are blackened, but he also changes to his Disks of Doom costume by the end of the story:
Character-wise the New Adventures version of Skeletor was a more comical figure, manipulating and flattering rather than pounding his fists and demanding. He wasn’t leading his own army at this point – he was dependent upon the cooperation of the Evil Mutants, lead by Flogg.
Initially Mattel had planned to ask Filmation (the studio that had produced the first He-Man cartoon), to animate the new reboot, to be titled He-Man and the Masters of Space (information via Dušan M./James Eatock). Filmation went out of business in 1989, but they did create some artwork and a basic storyline for the pitch. Skeletor’s visual depiction is somewhere midway between the original concept design and the final toy:
The 1989 He-Man series was featured in the UK He-Man Adventure Magazine. In this story Skeletor is beamed aboard the ship of Flipshot and Hydron, but Prince Adam tags along for the ride. Strangely we don’t get an explanation for Skeletor’s costume change (images are from He-Man.org):
Overall I think the rebooted 1989 Skeletor has quite a compelling design, and is worth picking up even if you’re not, generally speaking, a New Adventures fan. In fact, all of the revamped Skeletors are worth a look.
Dragon Blaster Skeletor was the “deluxe” version of Skeletor that everyone in my grade school peer group coveted. You could tell he was a deluxe figure because he came on an oversized card and wore an oversized dragon backpack and came with a real metal chain. These were the unmistakable tokens of quality in the secret language of childhood.
Dragon Blaster Skeletor actually has a fascinating backstory. In my interview with Martin Arriola, he explained to me that the action feature was once quite dangerous:
MA: Prelim, guys like Rogers Sweet would always over-promise to marketing, and sometimes add stuff that was unsafe or not practical.
BR: Oh, like what?
MA: There was Dragon Blaster Skeletor. Prelim design came up with breadboard model. It was unpainted, using old legs and arms and a body sculpted from square styrene blocks. Sweet was touting this one, Smoke and Chains Skeletor, it was called. It had a bellows on its back. You would load the bellows with talcum powder, and there was a pipe going from a cavity to the figure’s right hand. Talcum powder would come out like smoke. The figure was draped with chains, so the working name was Smoke and Chains Skeletor.
I was thinking about doing the final design. Around that same time there was a big grain factory in Texas that exploded. It killed a lot of people, so it made big news back then. Everyone smoked back then.
I said, wow, this has powder. I lit a match and squeezed the bellows. A four foot flame came out of Skeletor! Luckily I hadn’t pointed it at anybody. I remember going to the VP of Design, Gene Kilroy. I had Smoke and Chains Skeletor and a lighter. I just happened to come across the greatest TV moment. I lit the thing and a big old flame came out it.
BR: That’s insane!
MA: When safety got a hold of this, obviously it couldn’t be released. We tried diluting the powder with baking soda, but then it didn’t look like smoke anymore.
So we brainstormed, me and Tony Rhodes. We didn’t do much with water squirting at the time. We had a big brainstorm, and thought, what about squirting water? So we ended up sculpting the dragon on the back of Skeletor, and being able to load that up with water.
Early catalog images of the figure seem to depict a standard hollow head Taiwan figure with the new dragon backpack piece. They also include the original Skeletor’s baltea accessory, although that was cut from the final figure. This look was carried forward into the cross sell art as well.
The actual production toy had a solid, rubbery head. Mexico versions had face paint reminiscent of earlier incarnations of Skeletor, but Hong Kong examples have quite a jarring “M” pattern on the green sections of the face. Some Mexico examples had the original Skeletor feet, but most had enlarged feet (with reduced sculpting detail) for the purposes of greater stability, given the weight of the backpack. Boot colors ranged from reddish purple to blueish purple to a very dark purple. The baltea was also cut from the production version.
As mentioned earlier, this version of Skeletor was packaged on an oversized card. It features some artwork by William George on the front and an action scene by Errol McCarthy on the back:
Note that the dragon is supposed to paralyze victims with venom – which seems to be muscling in on Kobra Khan‘s raison d’etre. Maybe that ‘s why he ultimately defected to the Snake Men faction.
The 1987 Style Guide talks a bit about Skeletor’s dragon pet:
Weapons: Skeletor stalks the land with his evil pet, freezing foes with the dragon’s vicious paralyzing venom.
Dragon Blaster Skeletor came packaged with the minicomic Skeletor’s Dragon, which shows off his new action feature as well as the Battle Bones carry case toy.
In the story, Skeletor’s chains have mystical energy draining powers, and his dragon frequently walks around off his leash:
Skeletor’s design has a strong Filmation influence (especially around the face and boots), and a differently colored costume than the toy. The colors may be based off of early concept art for the figure. The minicomic artwork is by Peter Ledger, with colors by Charles Simpson.
Errol McCarthy depicted the variant for use in a T-shirt design in the artwork below:
McCarthy also illustrated the character in the poster below that appeared in the UK Masters of the Universe Magazine:
He also appears in a 1985 MOTU poster by William George. He is again shown with the baltea from the original Skeletor figure:
Dragon Blaster Skeletor isn’t my favorite Skeletor variant – in fact he’s probably my second least favorite, next to Terror Claws Skeletor. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like him. Skeletor is Skeletor, and it’s hard to make a bad Skeletor figure.