Released with the first wave of characters in the original Masters of the Universe toy line, Skeletor would eventually become one of the most iconic and memorable villains of the 1980s.
I remember getting Skeletor along with He-Man, Beast Man and Man-At-Arms in 1982. I hadn’t even heard of these figures before getting them as birthday presents. I don’t remember what toys I owned before that day, but the experience of opening and playing with these toys for the first time is permanently etched in my brain. Skeletor especially made a big impression on 5-year-old me. I’d never seen anything like him.
Like all the other first-wave MOTU figures, Skeletor was designed by Mattel artist Mark Taylor. Taylor’s 1979 drawing (before the MOTU line was first conceived) featured his He-Man-like character “Torak” and included a villain in the background who bears a striking resemblance to Skeletor:
The concept character who has come to be known as Demo-Man (1980) is often considered to be an early version of Skeletor, although according to designer Mark Taylor he is a separate character. While this Taylor design does feature a skeletal face, it otherwise bears little resemblance to Skeletor. In fact, Demo-Man seems more similar to Beast Man in many ways. It’s unclear what might have become of this character had he been further developed.
The B-sheet for “D Man” gives us the first look at a close to final Skeletor design. Some differences from the production version include a decaying face rather than a skull face, some decay around the forearms, five-toed bare feet, and some yellow bat detail around his shin guards and chest armor. The head of the staff was meant to be attached via string and would have doubled as a flail. (The colored version shown below was a 2013 Grayskull Convention exclusive print put together by Emiliano Santalucia, showing the original colors for D Man).
In the lower left corner of the Grayskull Con print, you can see another version of Skeletor. It looks like Mark Taylor’s work, and I assume it is another, earlier incarnation of Skeletor. He almost looks like an undead Pharaoh, or some other ancient king. But I really don’t know anything about this one:
The D Man B-sheet was translated into a clay model by legendary Mattel sculptor Tony Guerrero. The paint details on the face were altered to the familiar yellow/green scheme, and the handle of the staff was left unfinished.
This design was highly detailed and would have required a lot of unique parts. Presumably to save money, Skeletor’s design was simplified and made more generic and reusable.
The cross sell art (above) seems to be the next step in Skeletor’s evolution, before the final toy. Skeletor was given legs that could be reused for Mer-Man, with three-toed feet and a more generic shin guard. Instead of the decrepit forearms, he was given unpainted gloved forearms that could be reused for Mer-Man (ironically Mer-Man would eventually lose the painted gloves, making this design change unnecessary). Other differences from the B-sheet include a wider “skirt” and a simplified bird motif on the belt.
This final prototype (above two images) shows some further changes to the design. The boots were given a scaly, organic appearance, and the “gloved” forearms were made to look more ambiguous, as if they could either be gloves or bony protrusions. Again, this seems designed to make these molded parts fit with either Skeletor or Mer-Man. Interestingly, the armor seems to sit higher on the body than the final toy.
The first release of Skeletor featured the iconic “8-back” packaging. Reissues featured a scene on the card back of Skeletor looking rather sneaky, with Castle Grayskull in the background (art by Errol McCarthy].
The very first run of Skeletor figures had an error in the face paint. As Mattel marketing director Mark Ellis explained:
As with all large scale endeavors, screw-ups happen. After production was authorized, the factories started to turn out the characters in amazing quantities. I walked by Tall Paul’s office one day and he had a set of MOTU figures on his desk. I picked up Skeletor and noticed on his right cheek there was an orange mark. I asked Paul and he deduced that before the paint master was shipped to the factory, apparently it was moved or some stray color was accidentally added to make that orange mark. So Paul went down and got it fixed, but not before thousands and thousands were produced with that “error.”
This was actually the version I had as a kid. I certainly didn’t see it as an error. When I re-bought Skeletor as an adult, none of the Skeletors looked quite right to me until I found the one with orange cheeks. I remember staring for hours at that face as a kid, memorizing every detail.
Early versions of Skeletor had half-painted boots, which were probably meant to represent shin guards. He also had purple shorts and a black belt. Later versions had fully-painted boots and black shorts (and of course the corrected face paint). The full boot version has traditionally been associated with the black shorts/corrected face, but I’ve also seen the orange cheeks version with black shorts and half boots:
Below: corrected face paint with full boots and black shorts. Probably the standard version for most collectors:
There are of course all kinds of international production variants as well, with subtle and not-so subtle differences from the initial Taiwan versions.
Skeletor was featured along with He-Man in this very early live-action commercial:
One of the most memorable depictions of Skeletor in any media was created by Alfredo Alcala, who did the artwork for nine MOTU mini comics, the Power of Point Dread comic book/record set, and the 1982 DC series (he is credited with the inks rather than the artwork for the DC series, but his stylistic influence is evident).
Notice the body and clothing in the above illustration almost exactly match Mark Taylor’s b-sheet (this example is from the first mini comic, He-Man and the Power Sword). The face looks like a creepier, more ghoulish version of the vintage toy, however.
This artwork from The Power of Point Dread (above) is based on the cross sell art, but again the design of the skull face is unique to Alcala.
Taylor wasn’t responsible for writing the back story for any of the characters, but he did have one in mind when he created Skeletor:
[Skeletor] is a corrupted super human. His father threw him into the “Pit of Souls” as a youth to eliminate him as a claimant to the throne (Grayskull). Years after, the tribe was completely eliminated by a malevolent witch poisoner (Skeletor’s mother) who then helped him escape from the “Well” but when she saw what it had done to him she went insane and drank her own poison.
His stay in the demonic “Well of Souls” morphed his body and soul forever, before he looked very much like He Man. …. [His] hood is to help hide his glowing eyes and camouflage his distinct silhouette. It is made of the eyelid of a dragon that tried to kill him just after he emerged from the “Well”. [His armor] is made from the hide of an armadillo type monster that dared to defy him, it is tougher than steel.
[Skeletor] is the ultimate bipolar, from quiet malevolent to towering rage. … Not counting the time warp in the “Well of Souls” he is about 317 years old but he doesn’t celebrate birthdays… he never sleeps.
Taylor had no involvement in the production of mini comics, other than seeing them and approving them. The first official origin story (written by Don Glut) gave a simple but effective origin for Skeletor. He was an evil demon from another dimension, bent on stealing the power from within Castle Grayskull, and bringing more of his kind into Eternia. He was apparently brought into Eternia when the “Great Wars” ripped a hole between dimensions.
Much later in the line, it was hinted that Skeletor was once Keldor, brother to King Randor, but the story was never fleshed out until the 2002 cartoon series.
Perhaps the most widely-recognizable look for Skeletor came from the Filmation cartoon series. Voiced to perfection by Alan Oppenheimer, Skeletor featured a stripped down, more humanoid design, and more angry-looking eyes than the original toy:
Jukka Issakainen and Dušan Mitrović pointed out to me that there is a brief reference to Skeletor’s origins in the cartoon. In “The Greatest Adventures of All” VHS release, the Sorceress mentions that Skeletor is a demon from another dimension, which accords with the Don Glut story. Thanks to both Dušan and Jukka!
In the animated commercial for the MOTU toy line produced by Filmation in 1982, Skeletor looked even more menacing than his later appearances:
Skeletor, as a toy, was sold in a number of configurations, apart from the single-carded figure. I won’t get into Skeletor variants (ie, Battle Armor Skeletor, Dragon Blaster Skeletor, etc) for now, as it would turn this rather long blog post into a novella. But the standard release Skeletor was available in the following gift sets:
- Battle For Eternia (Skeletor/Panthor/Man-E-Faces)
- Evil Warriors (Beast Man/Skeletor/Faker)
- He-Man/Skeletor (German set)
- JCPenney Skeletor/Beast Man
- JCPenney Skeletor/Mer-Man
You can explore what these gift sets looks looked like at the excellent Grayskull Museum site.
The box art for the sets featuring Skeletor with Panthor or Screech are particularly good. They capture the same Frazetta feel as Rudy Obrero’s artwork, but with a slightly different flavor. I include the single packaged Panthor art piece as well, because I like the artist’s depiction of Skeletor so much:
The Skeletor/Screech artwork was painted by Rudy Obrero, while the others were done by William Garland.
I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface on Skeletor. I could cover all his appearances in the box art, or the different comic book depictions and characterizations, or all the advertising and merchandising related to the character, but this really would turn this blog post into a novella. And maybe that’s what you’d need to really do justice to the evil lord of destruction!
I’ll return to the topic another time when I discuss Skeletor variant figures. Perhaps I’ll also do a separate post just on Skeletor-related box art, with some more detailed pictures of packaging.
Special thanks to Jukka Issakainen and Dušan Mitrović for some corrections and guidance on this topic.