Back in 1987, Tom Bradley, mayor of Los Angeles, declared April 28 to be Masters of the Universe Day, in celebration of the live MOTU Power Tour performance that was running at the time.
It continues to be commemorated by fans to to this day, but I would propose an additional day to celebrate the most powerful toyline in the universe: March 1.
From December 1981 to January 1982, Mattel filed trademarks for their completed Masters of the Universe toyline, in preparation for the big product launch. The line (largely designed by Mark Taylor, vehicles by Ted Mayer) was first shown to the public on February 17, 1982, at New York Toy Fair. I believe it was first made available in retail stores on March 1 of 1982. That’s based on a piece of evidence taken from the first MOTU minicomic, He-Man and the Power Sword.
Included near the back of the minicomic was a cash rebate offer. Parents who purchased two of the eight MOTU figures available that year could get a rebate of $1.25.
There was a purchase date restriction on the offer. Purchases had to be made between March 1, 1982 and January 31, 1983.
I believe the earlier date represents the earliest date that these toys would have been available in stores – shortly after they were unveiled at New York Toy Fair. That would mean that March 1, 1982 was the day that children all over the country (and later, the world) were first introduced to the world of He-Man.
Since Masters of the Universe Day is already taken, I’d suggest we commemorate March 1 as He-Man Day.
Incidentally, in the animated He-Man episode, The Energy Beast, King Randor tries to create a He-Man Day, but He-Man is too modest at the time to accept it. I’d say after 36 years defending Eternia and Grayskull from the evil forces of Skeletor, he’s more than earned it.
The 1989 He-Man reboot is often considered by most fans to be a failure. It’s true that the line was less commercially successful than the original line (a high bar to clear). On the other hand, the rebooted “He-Man in space” line lasted for four years – twice as long as the more popular 200x reboot. So, perhaps it’s not fair to call it a failure.
I was never a fan of the “New Adventures” reboot, until one day I was. I think it was a sudden and intense interest in Laser Light Skeletor that drew me in that direction. Still, while I love most of the evil characters in the 1989 line, most of the heroes are a bit under-cooked for my tastes. My theory is that they kept the heroes more generic-looking so that they could be reused for other toylines (and indeed, several of them were reused in Mattel’s Demolition Man toyline).
I remember running into this toyline on the shelves and thinking “that’s not He-Man” and walking away. I’m sure that’s not the reaction Mattel was going for. At the time I was reluctantly collecting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – reluctantly, because I considered myself too old for toys. Little did I know.
The 1989 edition of He-Man was designed by Martin Arriola. Two versions of the concept art were shared in Dark Horse’s Art of He-Man book, depicting the figure with and without his snap-on armor and gold helmet.
Unlike the “New Adventures” Skeletor, this He-Man would have almost no visual references to any previous version of the character. He’s got gold boots, blue pants, a totally redesigned sword and shield, redesigned harness, and a retro-futuristic armor and helmet. Without any context, I don’t think anyone would immediately connect this design to He-Man, which is I think one of the areas where the reboot went astray. That’s not to say that it’s a bad design – it’s a pretty neat space adventurer design. But is it He-Man?
The idea for the shield and probably the sword seems to have been to use clear plastic (giving it something of a connection to the previous year’s Laser Power He-Man). However, in prototypes that showed up in catalog artwork, we see a solid gold sword and a dark, transparent shield.
The gold sword and dark shield would make their way into the packaging artwork and other media:
The final toy seems to use LISA (light collecting) plastic in the sword and shield, which were also used in Lego sets around that time. The figure also has a combined H/M symbol added to his belt, a feature not present in the concept art or prototype. The face does resemble the original 1982 He-Man’s face, but it’s subtle enough that it would be easy to miss that this was a He-Man figure, with no other visual references to previous versions. The figure could be displayed with or without the snap-on armor and helmet.
The design is somewhat reminiscent of Bow from the She-Ra line:
He-Man’s boots are a metallic gold plastic with a bit of swirliness. That type of plastic would pop up in toys all over the line, in various shades of silver, gold, bronze, and copper. This is especially apparent in figures like Optikk:
He-Man was sold in a number of configurations: a single card, or in giftset with either Skeletor, Flogg or Slushhead.The design of the single card’s bubble is a bit little different on the Euro card, which has a smaller section for He-Man’s accessories.
He-Man was also sold packed with a story cassette:
He-Man appeared in toy form and in CGI form in a promo for the new line in 1989:
As mentioned previously, Mattel had planned to ask Filmation (the studio that had produced the first He-Man cartoon) to make a cartoon series for the He-Man reboot. Its title would have been He-Man and the Masters of Space (information via Dušan M./James Eatock). Filmation went out of business in 1989, but they did create some artwork and a basic storyline for the pitch. He-Man’s look here more or less follows the design of the toy, although he has a solid gold sword like the prototype, as well as some additional red detail.
Filmation tended to prefer symmetrical character designs, allowing them to flip cells over reuse them in the reverse pose. To that end, this look was also created.
For more information on some of the details of Filmation’s vision for the reboot, see this post at the Ancient Library of Grayskull Facebook group. Or, check out cereal:geek issue 14.
After Filmation went out of business, the job of animating the series went to Jetlag. The series starts off on Eternia, before He-Man and Skeletor are whisked off into the future, but both of them already sport their New Adventures costumes.
Startlingly, after getting a warning from the Sorceress, a redesigned Prince Adam transforms into He-Man right in front of his parents, who hadn’t been aware of his secret identity previously. From there he rescues Hydron and Flipshot from Skeletor‘s clutches, and returns with them to the future to save Primus from the mutants.
The Jetlag version of the character I think looks a bit better than the action figure, at least color-wise. In my opinion the brown works much better with blue than gold does. Even his sword is silver rather than gold. But I’ve always had a weird bias against blue and gold together.
He is not the all-powerful collossus as depicted in the Filmation series. He has to struggle to defeat even ordinary villains. Strength-wise, he’s very similar to He-Man as depicted in the 1987 Masters of the Universe movie.
He-Man very rarely has his shield in the Jetlag series, but when he does, it resembles the dark prototype version.
Mattel put out four minicomics for the series, illustrated by three different authors. In this canon, a familiar-looking Prince Adam (holding a power sword that looks like Mattel’s 1989 light-up power sword) actually permanently transforms into his new He-Man self in front of Skeletor. Skeletor had tricked Hydron and Flipshot into transferring the power of Castle Grayskull into their ship. Skeletor planned to hyjack it and take the power for himself, but Prince Adam stops him, and permanently transforms into his futuristic-looking self on the ship.
On the cover of The New Adventure, He-Man wears his helmet and armor, but otherwise he goes without these accessories for the rest of the short series (images are from Dark Horse’s He-Man minicomic collection).
The UK He-Man Adventure Magazine covered the New Adventures series, sometimes depicting the character with breastplate and helmet, sometimes with just his helmet, and sometimes without either accessory. The design is, again, based on the prototype figure (images via He-Man.org):
So, finishing my thought from earlier in the article – what to make of this radical He-Man redesign? I have to say I like the design, but I think it was a mistake. Without the label on the package, no kid would have looked at this figure and guessed that it was supposed to be He-Man. There should have been some kind of call-back to the original character, beyond just giving him blonde hair and a sort-of similar face. He should have retained some of his original colors – gray, red and orange.
He could have retained the helmet and chest armor (ideally in silver or gray), but underneath there could have been the usual X-shaped harness with either an H or a cross symbol, with some futuristic embellishments. We needed something to tell us that this was not just future space man, but future space He-Man.
The 1989 He-Man reboot included no characters from the original Masters of the Universe line, other than He-Man and Skeletor. The so-called “New Adventures” line is filled with colorful, oddball villains (and, frankly, some less-than-exciting heroes). My favorite figures from the line are the various Skeletor variants, and the 1989 version is no exception.
The New Adventures series isn’t well loved by most He-Man fans, but in a way it seems like an effort by Mattel to step things up a notch. These figures that had better articulation, more sculpted detail, and quite a bit of painted detail compared to the original line, and with little or no reuse of parts.
All of the New Adventures Skeletor variants were designed by Dave Wolfram, who had previously designed figures like Scare Glow and Snake Face. The initial 1989 version was developed from his original Laser Light Skeletor design, inspired by the work of HR Giger:
The broad conceptual ideas were carried over for the New Adventures design, but the color scheme was modified, initially with a lot of dark blue and red details, with a purple cape. In the concept art below he was also given some kind of pouches at his legs, and a new red staff design featuring a human skull with a bat on top. He was given different boots and, for the first time, gloves. He also features a helmet rather than his usual cloth hood:
The concept version of the character actually makes an appearance on a 1989 bag, although this version has a red cape:
A CGI version of the concept Skeletor (albeit with a finalized staff) also appears in a promotional video (thanks to Dušan M. for the tip):
In the produced toy, the color scheme was altered again, with much more red throughout the costume, and contrasting purple boots and gloves. The staff was redesigned, with some prongs at the end that look like they could shoot bolts of electricity. The helmet and staff were molded in gun metal gray. The pouches he was wearing on his thighs were changed to cybernetic implants.The final figure has a white face with a forest green border around it – the only Skeletor to feature that particular color scheme.
A hand-painted version of the final figure appears in the 1989 French He-Man catalog:
In the 1989 German He-Man magazine, Skeletor is depicted a couple of times wearing a bizarre-looking helmet. I’m not sure exactly what it’s supposed to be:
The final production figure appears in the US 1989 dealer catalog:
One of the coolest things about the figure, in my opinion, is some of the sculpted detail on his back and the back of his head. This is obscured by his cape and helmet normally. It’s quite creepy looking:
The staff has a rather creepy looking, chitinous creature around the back of the skull, which wraps its tail around the upper handle:
Skeletor has a fun but rather subtle action figure. When you turn his waist his hands raise up, making him lift his staff as if to fire.
The commercial for the electronic He-Man Power Sword actually has really great footage of an actor dressed as “New Adventures” Skeletor. This costume also shows up in the He-Man vs Skeletor commercial shown earlier in this article.
Skeletor was sold on his own card and in a gift set with He-Man. The artwork on the front was painted by long-time MOTU packaging illustrator, William George.
According to the 1989 Sears Christmas Wishbook, Skeletor was supposed to be available in a gift set with Hydron, but I’ve never seen an example of that:
There were four minicomics produced for the 1989 He-Man reboot, and all of them featured Skeletor. In the first, The New Adventure (illustrated by Errol McCarthy), Skeletor interrupts Prince Adam as he transformed into He-Man, and is badly injured. In Skeletor’s Journey (illustrated by Carrol Lay), he uses bionic replacements to heal himself and we see him finally in his new costume.
The character looks particularly dynamic in the Bruce Timm-illustrated The Revenge of Skeletor:
The New Adventures of He-Man animated series (produced by Jetlag Productions) features the character for a surprisingly few episodes before he’s upgraded to his Disks of Doom variant costume. The series starts off on Eternia, before He-Man and Skeletor are whisked off into the future, but both of them already sport their New Adventures costumes. Unfortunately Skeletor has some off-putting and comical-looking eyes for the first five episodes. Otherwise his costume is fairly true to the toy, minus the electrical implants in his body:
By episode six the eyes are blackened, but he also changes to his Disks of Doom costume by the end of the story:
Character-wise the New Adventures version of Skeletor was a more comical figure, manipulating and flattering rather than pounding his fists and demanding. He wasn’t leading his own army at this point – he was dependent upon the cooperation of the Evil Mutants, lead by Flogg.
Initially Mattel had planned to ask Filmation (the studio that had produced the first He-Man cartoon), to animate the new reboot, to be titled He-Man and the Masters of Space (information via Dušan M./James Eatock). Filmation went out of business in 1989, but they did create some artwork and a basic storyline for the pitch. Skeletor’s visual depiction is somewhere midway between the original concept design and the final toy:
The 1989 He-Man series was featured in the UK He-Man Adventure Magazine. In this story Skeletor is beamed aboard the ship of Flipshot and Hydron, but Prince Adam tags along for the ride. Strangely we don’t get an explanation for Skeletor’s costume change (images are from He-Man.org):
There was a series of Italian notebooks that featured New Adventures artwork. The cover of one of them features a concept-art inspired Skeletor (thanks to Petteri H. for the tip):
The Italian magazine Magic Boy featured several New Adventures stories. In one of them, Skeletor acquires a magical chest harness from a six-armed statue and soon after grows six arms of his own (images are from He-Man.org):
Overall I think the rebooted 1989 Skeletor has quite a compelling design, and is worth picking up even if you’re not, generally speaking, a New Adventures fan. In fact, all of the revamped Skeletors are worth a look.