Note: I recently acquired my own copy of this catalog. I’ve updated this article with all-new, high resolution scans. Please allow a moment or two for the images to load. Open images in a new page if you wish to zoom in and see fine details.
Here is the 1982 Mattel Toys dealer catalog (or at least the portion relevant to the MOTU line). Intended for retailers, the catalog debuted at Toy Fair, February 17, 1982. Mattel’s dealer catalogs showcased all the latest and greatest releases, along with existing merchandise. Because the Masters of the Universe line debuted in 1982, this catalog has the smallest amount of space devoted to the line (only three pages) compared to subsequent years. What’s valuable about this particular catalog is that all of the MOTU items are prototypes (albeit late-stage prototypes, with a few exceptions), rather than factory-produced examples. The sculpt on most of these items is the final sculpt, with the exception of Teela, Wind Raider, Zodac’s armor, Castle Grayskull’s jaw bridge (specifically the locking mechanism) and Man-At-Arms’ armor. There are earlier prototypes of figures like He-Man and Skeletor that don’t appear here – so these photos represent a snapshot of what had been finalized at a particular point in time, very close to the debut of the line in stores.
Note that Battle Cat has orange paint around his mouth and a striped tail, which appear to be applied by hand. A few pre-production examples with this paint scheme are known to exist, although the production version lacks those details. Most of these figures appear to be hand-painted. That is most apparent on Castle Grayskull, which has a much finer paint job than any of the production versions I’ve seen. This hand-painted version pops up in product photography several times.
The prototype Teela that appears in this catalog is my absolute favorite version of the character. The mass-produced toy didn’t have nearly as much depth. I’m also quite fond of the prototype Wind Raider that appears here, which has a number of key differences from the final toy. I discuss those in greater detail in the toy features that focus on those toys.
I’ve included shots of all three pages plus closeups of each individual item.
As a side note, the photo spread on the first two pages was used as a basis for the line art that went into the Castle Grayskull instruction booklet. That line art also showed up on the back of the first version of the Castle Grayskull box.
Maybe it’s just my fan bias, but I can’t think of a more iconic playset than Castle Grayskull. To be sure there have been many great ones over the years from Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Ninja Turtles, GoBots and other lines. But I can’t think of one that’s as instantly recognizable and universally beloved as Castle Grayskull. But there’s no way I’m ever going to be objective about it, so why even try?
Castle Grayskull was released as the flagship item of the new Masters of the Universe line in 1982. Priced at about $20 ($50 now, accounting for inflation), the castle was marketed as being very much up for grabs by the heroes or the villains. When you’ve got a toy line with only one playset (as was the case in the first year), it helps to have one that can be controlled by either side. The play pattern was this: the castle could only be entered by combining both halves of the power sword. All kinds of traps and perils awaited the unwary inside, but great magical and technological power would belong to whoever controlled the castle. A two-sided flag would indicate which of the forces controlled the castle at any one time.
Castle Grayskull, created before the genesis of the MOTU line, began as a fantasy drawing by Mattel designer Mark Taylor. As you can see in the drawing below, the face and teeth are very similar to the final Castle’s design. However, the rest of the details (especially the turrets) are quite different. Interestingly, the skull face is hooded, like Skeletor’s:
Designers Mark Taylor and Ted Mayer sculpted the prototype castle themselves. They weren’t experienced sculptors, but according to Mayer Mattel’s in-house sculptors made a version for them that was far too boxy and conventional-looking. Frustrated, Taylor and Mayer procured a large quantity of clay and created this prototype:
This version of Grayskull looks much more familiar to us than Mark Taylor’s original drawing, but there are still some key differences from the final playset. The jaw bridge and mouth opening are pretty small and the teeth look ghoulish and blunt. The helmet is tall and rounded and features a pawn-like piece on top. There is no carrying handle on the back side of the playset. There is also a ledge on the side of the left facing tower for figures to stand on. And in general there is a bit more depth to the sculpt than was apparent in the final toy.
The inside of the prototype was quite different from the final toy as well. The elevator platform was circular rather than rectangular, and the throne looked like it came straight out of a medieval palace. There was a jet pack, a torture rack and a few other goodies. The prototype castle sat on a play mat that worked as a kind of moat. Unfortunately the moat didn’t appear in the final version.
The prototype, while different in many key ways from the final playset, nevertheless served as the basis for the cross sell artwork and also appeared in a number of comic books by Alfredo Alcala:
Interestingly, the turret canon on the prototype Grayskull was cobbled together from several pieces of a Micronauts Hornetroid (this fact was first discovered by Björn Korthof). Here’s another look at that canon:
Here are the original Hornetroid pieces that were used to create it:
The final playset probably lost the “pawn”, ledge and play mat due to packaging limitations. Many details on the final sculpt were relatively unaltered, but the mouth opening was enlarged significantly. In the version below, the sculpt is final, but it looks like it was painted by hand. No production Castle Grayskull ever had paint work this fine. This version made it into a lot of catalogs and was used in the first TV commercials:
Now let’s take a look at the actual production toy:
As you can see, there were many large and small changes from the prototype castle, especially in the interior. The combat trainer was flattened and simplified. The ladder was given two side rails instead of one in the center. The laser canon was changed out for a newly sculpted version. The elevator was made to be rectangular and was operated by gargoyle power. The updated throne looked a bit more science fiction than medieval fantasy (it probably was changed to allow the figures to sit in it more easily).
On December 21, 1981, Mattel filed for a patent on the trap door mechanism (inventors of the mechanism were listed as Raymond J. Douglas, Herbert May, Jeffrey B. Poznick, and Roger H. Sweet). The related drawings show the updated version of the throne:
From the patent application:
The toy trap door mechanism 10 of the present invention may be easily incorporated into a variety of toys and games where it is desired to provide an element of suspense or surprise. For example, miniature toy figures may be employed, one of which (a hero) sits on the throne or chair 48, and the other of which (a villain) stands on the trap door 16. When the hero turns in his chair 48, the villain is dropped through the trap door 16.
The dungeon grate sticker was still there, but the final version was decorated with some delightfully creepy creatures:
This thing fascinated me as a kid. I spent a lot of time staring at it, imagining what the various beasties and creepy crawlers would look like if you could see the rest of them. This apparently was the representation of Mark Taylor’s “well of souls” idea. Skeletor spent many years in there and the experience turned him into the evil lord of destruction. In a Q&A, Mark Taylor wrote:
“The visible Castle rises above a fetid Lake/Mote inhabited with assorted exotic and dangerous flora and fauna, the castle extends seven levels/floors into the bedrock of the lake. Each level distorts reality i.e. time and space more than the one above. For example; the levels below the weapons storage room (Armory) start with all the weapons that exists within one century each way from the present (MOTU time), the floor below that within five centuries years each way and so on.
“The Pit of Souls is a [dungeon] containing undying monsters from the beginning and end of time that also extends into the time and space continuum (probably a miniature black hole). The powers of the castle are linked to these evil captives, Skeletor and his minions would love them released but also fear their potential. One must be very careful when listening to their consul because they are extremely clever and totally evil.
The elevator when properly programmed (secret code) drops into these descending levels, of course, with each level potential danger as well as power lurks… This is obviously not the Eternia envisioned by marketing at Mattel, it is my world of He Man.”
The exterior of the production Castle Grayskull was given several shades of black and pea green spray paint in an attempt to add depth. Sometimes this was successful and sometimes it was not. Some Castles, depending on country of origin or year produced, had extraordinarily sloppy paint work. None of them were close to the model used for catalogs and advertising, although early versions seem to have the best paint jobs.
In rare occasions you could even encounter a castle that hadn’t been painted at all (image courtesy of Chris Stone):
The box art for the castle is, of course, probably the most iconic piece of artwork done for the entire line, which is really saying something. Rudy Obrero‘s depiction of Castle Grayskull was instantly transfixing and mysterious. It probably sold the toy almost single handedly for that first year. As discussed in my Wind Raider post, Obrero was given no notes on characters and assumed that the castle belonged to Skeletor, based on its appearance. In retrospect, Obrero wasn’t really in error on this. At this time in the brand’s history, the castle could belong to whatever warrior was powerful enough to hold on to it. It wasn’t established as a permanent base for heroic characters until later.
The box itself featured the Obrero art on front, some product pictures (with prototype figures) on the sides, and line art on the back featuring the castle and the first year’s figures and vehicles. The line art was made by tracing early product photos. The line art was altered after the first year to show off some of the new figures, and was created from the full color cross sell artwork that was featured on the backs of the figure and vehicle packaging.
On the Brazilian Estrela version of the box, the front and back artwork was modified for some reason. Even the product photos were changed out. Something similar was done with the artwork on the Estrela Battle Ram box.
One of the most iconic depiction of Castle Grayskull came from the Filmation cartoon. The cartoon design was quite unique. The teeth were enlarged and the proportions of the towers and helmet were changed. While the toy version contained quite a few technological artifacts, the Filmation version was pure fantasy.
Update: James Eatock recently surfaced an image of the remains of the creature, in the Filmation universe, that held up Castle Grayskull from underground. The creature was never shown in the actual cartoon:
For those of us who grew up in the 80s, every week we saw Prince Adam getting out of jams by invoking the power of Grayskull. No matter where he was at the time, the sequence would flash him back to the front of the fortress of mystery and power, amid flashing magical lightning and a pulse-pounding musical score. Castle Grayskull was burned into our brains.
The Filmation animated commercial, by contrast, gave us a more toy-accurate depiction of the castle:
No blog post on Castle Grayskull could be exhaustive – there is simply too much to cover. I may need to revisit the topic in a future post.
Here is the 1987 Mattel Toys Dealer Catalog. Intended for retailers, Mattel’s dealer catalogs showcased all the latest and greatest releases, along with existing products within its various current (at the time) toy lines. New releases included:
Buzz Saw Hordak
Megator (delayed until 1988)
Tytus (delayed until 1988)
Announced but unreleased items included:
Conventional wisdom about the 1987 lineup says that Mattel was putting out a lot of reused parts in the new figures (like Scare Glow, King Randor, Clamp Champ). But really parts reuse existed in every year of the line. Taken altogether, there was quite a lot of new tooling in 1987, and a lot of new ideas to expand the line in new directions. It’s a pity that the line fizzled out before these ideas could be fully explored.