He-Man and She-Ra: A Complete Guide to the Classic Animated Adventures is a nearly-600 page love letter to the 1983 and 1985 Filmation He-Man and She-Ra cartoons. James Eatock, the author (the She-Ra section was co-written by Alex Hawkey) has been reviewing and researching the cartoon since at least 1997, and knows more about the series than perhaps any living person. In fact, Eatock published his own Unofficial Guide to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe back in 2010, so it’s fitting now that he has been able to publish an official guide through Dark Horse.
The book takes an exhaustive look at each episode of the He-Man and She-Ra cartoons, offering a synopsis for each episode, a list of characters, memorable quotes, reviews, morals, deleted scenes, information on animation reuse, trivia, artwork and more. There is also a forward by storyboard artist and writer Robert Lamb, as well as some information on abandoned episodes.
I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for these cartoons. I remember well the power struggles over control of the TV when I was a kid. My big sisters would always steer us toward episodes of Three’s Company, Different Strokes, The Monkees or Gilligan’s Island, but when I had a choice, I would always be watching He-Man.
Having said that, the Filmation cartoons have never been the focus of my own research in this blog. My research interests lie mainly in the development of the toys and packaging and comics. So for me, the book is actually a godsend. Anything I could possibly want to know about any episode in the series seems to have already been uncovered by Eatock and Hawkey (or if it hasn’t, it’s probably unknowable).
The book is called a guide, and it works very well in that capacity. I’ve found that the best way to digest this book is to read about an episode and then go immediately watch it, so you can catch all the behind the scenes facts and surprising connections across the series.
One of my favorite things about the book is all the marvelous artwork (in fact, I think a sequel that focuses entirely on artwork would be warranted, particularly rarer pieces from the animated commercial and Filmation’s highly detailed backgrounds). Dušan Mitrović illuminates the black and white character model sheets with colors that are authentic to the look of the series:
There is a great deal of development artwork in the book, including some lovely pieces by Fred Carrillo, known primarily among fans for his work illustrating many of the Golden Books series of He-Man stories:
Eatock’s enthusiasm for the series is infectious, and even non-Filmation fans will find themselves being drawn into the depths of the series through the eyes of the author. Even if you don’t consider yourself much of a fan of the cartoon, this book is a must-own.
Masters of the Universe was a unique blend of classic barbarian sword and sorcery high adventure crossed with the high-tech drama of Flash Gordon and Star Wars, with a splash of color and gimmickry to make it irresistible to six-year-olds. So what happens if you take Masters of the Universe and peel away the science fiction elements while keeping the colorful characters? You get something very much like The Bearer and the Burden, a new He-Man inspired minicomic from Hammer of the Gods.
The world of Hammer of the Gods is not simply Masters of the Universe minus the techno-gadgetry, however. He-Man bears the unmistakable influence of Conan the Barbarian, but He-Man’s morals were totally different. He-Man was always a selfless protector, even from his earliest “savage” minicomic days. Conan, driven mostly by id, was ever looking out for number one, even if he grudgingly got pulled into solving other people’s problems.
Punch-Out, the protagonist of Hammer of the Gods, splits the difference between the He-Man and Conan – that is to say, he is a tireless protector of the innocent, but he is frequently driven by ego.
In that way, Punch-Out is also a little like Dagar the Invincible. He-Man is perhaps a bit closer to Larn from Fire and Ice.
The Bearer and the Burden was written by Hammer of the Gods creator Walter Harris, and illustrated by Daniele Danbrenus Spezzani. Harris is best known for his custom HOTG and Thundarr the Barbarian action figures. Danbrenus, as he is known online, is known for his original minicomic illustrations done in the style of the legendary comic book artist, Alfredo Alcala. (Alcala actually worked on both He-Man and Conan, among other properties.) Danbrenus, like Alcala, works in inks and water colors rather than digital media, and the extra effort toward greater authenticity really pays off here.
The Bearer and the Burden is formatted like the original “adventure books” (illustrated by Alfredo Alcala) that came packaged with the first wave of He-Man figures. Each page has a single illustration and about 75 words of text at the bottom. Unlike conventional comic books, there are no word balloons.
We begin with Punch-Out, whose real name is Cestus, a gladiator fighting to win his freedom. Already we see a tonal shift away from the kid-friendly He-Man comics, as Cestus is pictured holding the severed head of one of his opponents.
In his post-gladiatorial life, Cestus relentlessly seeks purpose by throwing himself into danger, in a sequence with some amusing nods to Tarzan and Indiana Jones. The comic doesn’t take itself too seriously, but the humor is subtle enough that it doesn’t take the reader out of the story or erase the stakes in our hero’s journey.
When I say hero’s journey, I mean that quite literally. The Bearer is a pretty textbook example of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth in action, which is why I think it works so well.
Meanwhile, a dark threat surrounding rumors of a demonic sorcerer (Wrath Azuhl, the Skeletor to Punch-Out’s He-Man) and his cultic followers begins to grow. The Monks of Axis Mundi, who guard a legendary weapon forged by the gods, identify Cestus as the champion worthy to wield the Hammer of the Gods.
Through an intensely painful process, Cestus is fused with the Hammer, which is a metal gauntlet and sleeve imbued with divine magic. Now endowed with power from the gods, Punch-Out, as he is now called by the monks, goes to train with his new weapon. Of course, it doesn’t take long before the inevitable conflict with Wrath Azuhl and his colorful minions.
Incidentally, if there is something familiar about Punch-Out, it’s because the action figure he’s based on is made up of parts from an Apollo Creed figure, as well as bits from Man-At-Arms, Fisto, Trap-Jaw and Roboto.
I don’t want to spoil the climax or the ending, as the comic just went on sale. I will say that I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading The Bearer and the Burden, but I was pulled into the story from the first couple of pages onward. It’s a well-balanced blend of classic sword and sorcery story-telling with just enough pulpiness and humor to keep things fun. Harris’ skillful narration combined with Danbrenus’ charming Alcala-esque illustrations make for a very enjoyable read. Fans of Masters of the Universe will get what this is about instantly, and those familiar with the vintage minicomics will be delighted with the little Easter eggs that Danbrenus has left for them.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe Minicomic Collection (released October 21, 2015) is a comprehensive collection of minicomics from 1982 to the early 90s, plus a taste of the 2002 and modern Masters of the Universe Classics mini comics. It’s a concept that I think a lot of He-Man and She-Ra fans had been wishing for for quite some time.
The collection was edited by Daniel Chabon and Ian Tucker, with advisement from Val Staples. The comics themselves were scanned and collected by Leanne Hannah, Rod Hannah, Jon Kallis, Rachel Crockett, and Val Staples.
Many of these comics had been available for some time digitally from sources like He-Man.org and The Good Old Days, but not always scanned in high resolution, and certainly not always in a format that was easy to read. Collecting minicomics for the most part isn’t generally terribly expensive – that is, until you get to rare issues like The Ultimate Battleground or Energy Zoids. And certainly having the comics collected in one book is a more convenient to consume and digest them. Having a comprehensive collection in production order nudged me to read read comics I might have otherwise skipped. And of course the pages are blown up significantly larger than the original printings, with the exception of The Power of Point Dread.
Dark Horse’s Minicomic Collection covers more than just standard release comics. The previously unpublished Return From Terror Island (inked but uncolored) is included along with an introduction by James Eatock. There is also a script for another unpublished comic, Ring of Dreams, with an introduction by Danielle Gelehrter. The general rule for this collection is minicomics that were packed in with toys, or were intended to be packed in with toys.
We also get an introduction to mini comic variants. One of the most fascinating is the early promotional version of He-Man and the Power Sword, which features an early version of the Masters of the Universe logo, as well as references to the toyline’s early working name, “Lords of Power.”
That logo, by the way, has some points in common with the logo used on some French Masters of the Universe minicomics:
The collection is also peppered with with footnotes full of trivia and interesting connections, written by Jukka Issakainen:
Out of curiosity, I asked Jukka how the trivia portion of the book came about. This is what he told me:
Early on, there was no trivia planned. I had touched base with Dark Horse editor Daniel Chabon with some questions about minicomic order and variant differences, and later Val Staples who was coordinating the book contacted me back via Skype on these matters. During a couple of conversations he asked if anything popped into my mind that should be included in the book [comics, booklets, specials], but as they had most things already covered, I mentioned that if the book could include some trivia it would be a cool addition.
Scattered in between the many dozens of mini comic stories the collection is filled with quite a number of interviews (conducted by Danielle Gelehrter) with fourteen mini comic artists and writers, vintage and modern. They include:
All of this is icing on the cake for anyone who cares to delve into the history of the Masters of the Universe and Princess of Power minicomics. If not, then the comics themselves are worth the price of admission and then some
The large bulk of the book is made of up of the original 51 Masters of the Universe minicomics, which were packed in with figures and other toys from 1982 to 1987. Because the comics span six years and were produced by dozens of different artists and writers, there are some quite dramatic tonal shifts throughout the series.
The series begins with the stark jungle-barbarian post-apocalyptic wastelands of the Alfredo Alcala and Don Glut stories, which are the only comics in the series that don’t have speech bubbles. In fact, Mattel called them “adventure books” rather than comics or minicomics.
That distinctive style gives way to Mark Texeira and Gary Cohn’s faster-paced bronze age style adventure tales. I’m a big fan of the artwork and storytelling, but I find some of the color choices a bit perplexing sometimes, with emphasis on orangey-browns and vivid magenta throughout.
Following the Texeira/Cohn comics, Alfredo Alcala returns to illustrate another series of stories (this time with traditional word bubbles). The writer for the next run of Alcala-illustrated comics was most often Michael Halperin, who wrote the original Masters of the Universe Bible. The MOTU Bible contained the “proto-Filmation” canon – that is to say, elements that would influence the development of the Filmation cartoon, but were not identical to the world Filmation created. Some examples – Prince Adam exists, but is a more serious character and has a different costume. King Randor is also depicted as a much older man.
The tone remained somewhat serious throughout the second run of Alcala comics (perhaps with the exception of The Obelisk, written by Karen Sargentich). Some of the post-Alcala comics, illustrated by Larry Houston, were downright brutal:
After a few chaotic and frankly bizarre comics midway through the series (the mini comics for Leech and Mantenna spring to mind), the comics seem to settle into a predictable but solid rhythm and style, particularly when Bruce Timm was at the illustrator desk. The Filmation influence is present through most of the series, but the mini comics are often just a shade darker, with some actual action and violence (but almost never any real consequences).
The Dark Horse collection includes all eleven original Princess of Power minicomics, all of which were new to me. The first of POP comics, The Story of She-Ra, features a brief appearance by Hordak, but otherwise Catra is the main villain, and no other male members of the Evil Horde appear in the series.
These are tightly contained stories that for the most part focus on Princess of Power-branded characters. It’s an interesting alternative universe to the Filmation She-Ra series, which not only featured an almost complete line-up of Evil Horde villains, but regularly featured guest characters from He-Man’s world as well.
The Dark Horse collection also features all four original New Adventures of He-Man mini-comics (the short-lived sci-fi reboot that immediately followed the original line), a selection of two comics from the 2002 series, and three mini-comics from the modern Masters of the Universe Classics series.
The New Adventure (illustrated by Errol McCarthy, who was responsible for much of the post-1982 cardback art on the original He-Man figures) is a fun story, because in it Skeletor witnesses first-hand Prince Adam’s transformation into He-Man. Perhaps more could have been done with Skeletor’s reaction to this revelation, but all the built-up subtext almost tells that story for you:
The collection features the one 2002 minicomic that fans were already familiar with, plus another featuring Smash Blade He-Man and Spin Blade Skeletor that was never released. The comics were written by Val Staples and Robert Kirkman, with artwork and colors by Emiliano Santalucia, Enza Fontana, Marko Failla, Neal Adams,Kevin Sharpe, Brian Buccellato, Steve Cobb, and Val Staples.
Cover by Neal Adams
Cover by Emiliano Santalucia and Val Staples
Finally, we get a taste of three minicomics from the 2009 Masters of the Universe Classics series. All three were written by Scott Neitlich and Tim Seeley (the first in the series was based on the vintage Powers of Grayskull mini comic written by Phil White and penciled by Larry Houston) and illustrated by Wllinton Alves and Michael Atiyeh.
Dark Horse’s Minicomic Collection satisfies a need that had gone unmet for a long time among He-Man and She-Ra fans, but it also whets our appetite for more books along these same lines. Personally I’d love to see another collection comprised of full-sized MOTU comics and magazines from the 1980s to present day, not to mention a collection of the classic Golden Books adventures.