Evil Warriors

Mer-Man – Ocean warlord! (1982)

merman graphic

Masters of the Universe probably could not have happened in any decade other than the 80s. In 1982, it came at the heels of two  disparate but very popular movie franchises – Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian. Those influences weighed  heavily on the first wave of He-Man figures, playsets and vehicles. Almost every figure, although generally barbaric in appearance, featured some kind of subtle sci-fi element. Even the grim, Frazetta influenced Castle Grayskull had a laser turret and a computer system.

Frazetta invades Kindergartens
Frazetta invades Kindergartens
Does not compute
Does not compute
Luke, who’s your daddy? (Image via MOTUC Figures)

As the line grew long in the tooth it tended rely more on gimmicks, but the early figures were mostly about cool designs. Mattel artist Mark Taylor was responsible for the lion’s share of the early figures and for Castle Grayskull. Ted Mayer assisted with the sculpting of Castle Grayskull and created the line’s first two vehicles, Battle Ram and Wind Raider. He also went on to design many of the 1985-1987 figures.

It’s normal for toys to have some inconsistency between first promotional material and finished product. That happened all the time in the Filmation He-Man and the Masters of the Universe Series. Filmation would receive early concept art for a figure and create a story based on that art. By the time the toy came out it would sometimes be radically different.

For young kids in the 80s, often the first glimpse of upcoming figures came from the cross sell art on the back of MOTU packaging. When Mattel released the first four figures in 1982, we could see on the back of the package that more were coming.

8back large

A lot of us already had our He-Man, Skeletor, Beast Man and Man-At-Arms figures. But who were these other guys? Mer-Man especially caught my eye. These were the first action figures I ever had, and the idea of an aquatic half-man half-fish warrior really fascinated me.

He's waving at me, Mom
He’s waving at me, Mom

Those of us who got in on the very first release of He-Man and Skeletor lived with that cardback image of Mer-Man for months. Imagine our surprise when we got this instead:

IMG_9658 IMG_9659 IMG_9660 IMG_9661

The gloves and shin guards were unpainted. The sword bore a closer resemblance to corn than coral (note: I am informed by Mantisaur82 that Mer-Man’s sword is supposed to be a weapon made from a sawfish rostrum, and that actual weapons have been made after this fashion). The furry shorts were orange instead of yellow. The armor’s detail was softened considerably. And most of all, the design of the face seemed markedly different from the cross sell art we had memorized.

As a side note, the first (1982) release of Mer-Man had his belt painted green. Subsequent releases left the belt unpainted. I would assume the idea was to cut costs, and much of the belt was obscured by his armor anyway.

1982 original release
1982 original release
1983 release with unpainted belt
1983 release with unpainted belt

A lot of MOTU collectors talk about Mer-Man a little bitterly. Like they were so disillusioned with the way the toy was changed from the artwork that it soured them on the figure. And yes, as a kid I was a little dismayed at the difference at first. But when I really looked at him closely, I realized I was still kind of in love with Mer-Man. And let’s face it, he looks a lot more villainous in his toy form than he did on the card back illustration.

So what happened to Mer-Man? He’s actually not as different from the original design as you might think. Let’s take a look at the Mark Taylor B-sheet design:

mer-man b-sheet
Mark Taylor B-Sheet – black and white copy. Image via The Art of He-Man
Colored version of Mark Taylor’s Mer-Man concept art, published by Super7 and the Power and the Honor Foundation. Note the original colors – blue skin with yellow gloves and boots, and yellow and copper outfit. Image courtesy of Axel Giménez.
Guerrero Mer-Man - Copy
Mer-Man prototype, sculpted by Tony Guerrero. Image source: The Power & The Honor Foundation, retrieved via Facebook.com. Notice the prototype is very faithful to the concept art, down to the pose.
concept mer-man sword
Mark Taylor B-Sheet – Mer-Man’s sword. Image via The Art of He-Man
Hand-painted production prototype, much simplified from earlier designs. Image via The Art of He-Man
Vintage toy with recolored B-Sheet design
Vintage toy with recolored B-Sheet design

The original concept (known as “Sea Man”) would have had unique legs, arms and scaly loin cloth. The cross sell art cut down on the fishy details, and the toy version even more so. But take a look at the head on the original concept art. It doesn’t look quite like the card art. Look at the face and the top of his head. He’s somewhere in between the somewhat goofy card back and the simplified but more intense vintage toy face. In fact, if you were to color that original concept design just like the vintage toy (as I did above), it would be much clearer that they were really the same basic character, just simplified, recolored and made a bit meaner looking.

I’ve heard scuttlebutt around the internet is that Mer-Man was originally conceived of as a heroic warrior from an oceanic world that was destroyed. However, I’ve never seen any real evidence that Mer-Man was once heroic. Even in the first mini comic, where Stratos‘ affiliations seem to be with Skeletor, Mer-Man was portrayed as an evil warrior.

evil warriors
From He-Man and the Power Sword

I should note that in Mattel’s 1982 dealer catalog, Mer-Man is not explicitly affiliated with either Skeletor or He-Man:

But why were the painted gloves and shin guards removed? Almost certainly to cut costs. The second half of the first wave of figures that came out in 1982 (Mer-Man, Stratos, Teela, Zodac) all had reduced paint apps and/or accessories compared to the first four (He-Man, Skeletor, Beast Man, Man-At-Arms). This despite the fact that, apparently, Mattel made a boat load of money from He-Man that first year. Mark Taylor and Ted Mayer have both said that Mattel was very reluctant to invest money in new tooling for the MOTU line, even after its unexpected success.

According to designer Mark Taylor, Mer-Man wasn’t the most popular toy when the figures were undergoing child testing:

Tony Guerrero the great sculptor and I chased the negative child test comments until we finally realized the marketeers were just messing with us and then we went with what we had.  Mer-Man was the weakest but people who like him really like him (I based him on Bernie Wrightson’s Swamp Thing).

Perhaps because he didn’t test as well as other early characters, Mer-Man nearly went into the bin of rejected concepts. As Mark Taylor explained:

Well, they almost rejected Mer-Man. They didn’t understand him, and wanted to take him out of the line. I had a hard time convincing them to keep him. I said “Don’t you understand? There has to be someone who lives in the water!” I was envisioning a magnificent line of toys that could be played with in the water. Decades later, George Lucas did a similar thing in The Phantom Menace. I worked for the US Navy for almost ten years in the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, so I really wanted to do undersea stuff. I was a diver, and I felt the mysticism of being under water. That’s such an amazing area to get into.

There are many other incarnations of Mer-Man. Our fishy friend underwent subtle and radical redesigns in different media over the years. He may be the most inconsistently portrayed character in all of MOTU. He’s also my favorite. There’s something about him I’ve always found fascinating and a little bit mysterious.

From Alfredo Alcala’s Vengeance of Skeletor, featuring Mer-Man in his original Mark Taylor B-Sheet colors and details, albeit with slightly simplified colors.
Cross sell artwork-style Mer-Man, victorious in the Alfredo Alcala illustration for Battle in the Clouds
Card back illustration by Errol McCarthy appearing on reissue versions of the Mer-Man’s packaging. Here Mer-Man is mostly true to the vintage toy, but with something of the cross sell art in the head fins.
Black and white version of Errol McCarthy’s cardback illustration
Illustration by Errol McCarthy, featuring a toy-accurate Mer-Man (with augmented details in the form of scales). Image via He-Man.org
Bumbling henchmen
Danger at Castle Grayskull artwork, by Alfredo Alcala, featuring a toy-accurate Mer-Man
attak trak best
Rudy Obero’s Attak Trak box art, featuring a toy-accurate Mer-Man
From the Ladybird story, Castle Grayskull Under Attack! Cross sell style head, vintage style limbs/shorts.
Fred Carillo Golden Book illustration, featuring a cross sell style Mer-Man with the final toy’s color scheme
Filmation Mer-Man
Weird Beard
The strange bearded Mer-Man in the Leech mini comic
Mer-Man Filmation Guide
Mer-Man from the Filmation Series Guide. He’s a curious mix of the vintage toy, the cross sell art, and the original prototype (boots). Image courtesy of Jukka Issakainen.
Early Filmation models based off the vintage toys. Source: The Power and the Honor Foundation
Talon Fighter box art, artist unknown, featuring the cross sell art style Mer-Man
He-Man and Battle Cat box art by Rudy Obrero, featuring a shadowy cross sell art style Mer-Man
rl allen 2
Art by R.L. Allen, featuring a toy-accurate Mer-Man
rl allen
Art by R.L. Allen, featuring a toy-accurate Mer-Man
Toy-based Mer-Man and prototype Wind Raider from the Castle Grayskull instruction booklet

45 thoughts on “Mer-Man – Ocean warlord! (1982)

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