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
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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.

Mer-Man’s cardback art was first released with blue skin, then with green, following the evolution of the figure design. Image courtesy of Tokyonever.
Green version.

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.

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
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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.

Below is the early Mer-Man  prototype, sculpted by Tony Guerrero.  Notice the model is very faithful to the concept art, down to the pose.

Guerrero Mer-Man - Copy
Image source: The Power & The Honor Foundation, retrieved via Facebook
Image source: Andy Youssi
Image source: Andy Youssi

Mer-Man’s sword design is laid out in the Mark Taylor B-sheet design below. Note that the teeth of the sword don’t go out as far as the edge of the sword. I’m sure this had to do with limitations of manufacturing technology at the time.

concept mer-man sword
Mark Taylor B-Sheet – Mer-Man’s sword. Image via The Art of He-Man

Mer-Man’s final, hand-painted prototype appears below. The sculpt is identical to the mass produced toy, except the sword is missing the hand guard.

protomerman2
Image via The Art of He-Man

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 below), it would be much clearer that they were really the same basic character, just simplified, recolored and made a bit meaner looking.

Vintage toy with recolored B-Sheet design

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

The first edition Mer-Man came packed on the “8-back” cardback (pictured earlier in this post), while reissues starting in 1983 featured a painted scene by artist Errol McCarthy:

 

2576172-mermanback

Mer-Man was also sold in a giftset with Battle Armor Skeletor and Webstor, and in a JCPenny giftset with the original Skeletor.

jcp merman.jpg
Image source: Grayskull Museum

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.

MOTU-mini-28
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.
BattleClouds3
Cross sell artwork-style Mer-Man, victorious in the Alfredo Alcala illustration for Battle in the Clouds
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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.
merman_full
Black and white version of Errol McCarthy’s cardback illustration
mermanw_sword_full
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
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From the Ladybird story, Castle Grayskull Under Attack! Cross sell style head, vintage style limbs/shorts.
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Fred Carillo Golden Book illustration, featuring a cross sell style Mer-Man with the final toy’s color scheme
Mer-Man
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.
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Early Filmation models based off the vintage toys. Source: The Power and the Honor Foundation
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Talon Fighter box art, artist unknown, featuring the cross sell art style Mer-Man
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He-Man and Battle Cat box art by Rudy Obrero, featuring a shadowy cross sell art style Mer-Man
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Art by R.L. Allen, featuring a toy-accurate Mer-Man
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Art by R.L. Allen, featuring a toy-accurate Mer-Man
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Toy-based Mer-Man and prototype Wind Raider from the Castle Grayskull instruction booklet
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52 thoughts on “Mer-Man – Ocean warlord! (1982)

  1. As mentioned on previous comments I’ve left, I was always primarily a huge fan of the early origin stages of the line and it’s characters, and as such owned most of the figures from the classic first two waves, but – like Beast Man – for some reason never got round to saving my pocket money to add Mer Man to my childhood collection. I really liked the character, he looked awesome in various depictions, but as others also seem to feel, the actual figure itself didn’t really live up to most of those illustrations. The head was the biggest disappointment, it looked too ‘cat like’ over the back-of-box artwork (little surprise that it was later recycled for Stinkor), though it may now appear that it resembled the appearance of the earliest concept sketches, and maybe the colours didn’t ‘pop’ as well as some of the artwork – the body colour seems a little drab over some of the more vibrant illustrations of the character.
    Something that always stood out to me about the original figure’s head, is that he appeared to have ‘hair’ sculpted on the back of his head, or at least what resembled hair. Whereas many depictions of Mer Man seem to portray him as having a bald fish-like head, the actual figure did seem to resemble some sort of haircut!
    It wasn’t until the Classics version many years later that a more pleasing version of the figure was realised, complete with alternate ‘box art’-style head. Also interesting that, since the 200x incarnation, Mer Man has also carried a trident staff – which I (and I suspect others) had often drawn him with as a child, given his ocean connections.

    Either way, as one of the earliest characters from the line, Mer Man is a key character (although was reduced to odd cameos in later years) and it’s interesting how he is portrayed in different media. In many he is portrayed as a cold, cruel ocean warlord who very much works of his own will and has struck an alliance with Skeletor out of convenience to both parties (this cold ‘solo’ warrior even carried over to Filmation, a pleasing change from the many ‘dumbed down’ bumbling evil warriors), whereas in a few portrayals, including interestingly the very early mini-comics, he is seen more as a cowering, weak willed lackey, given more to following Skeletor’s orders (maybe even seen as as slave to Skeletor). I think the different possibly portrayals of characters, and their evolution, is one of the thing that appeals about the franchise to so many fans, including myself.
    It’s also interesting to read that one of the earliest character suggestions about the Mer Man that he might have been a heroic warrior, the last of an aquatic race wiped out by Skeletor.

    Liked by 1 person

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