The Surprisingly Awesome Comics History of ‘Masters Of The Universe’
Despite bearing the Masters of the Universe banner, He-Man, Skeletor, and their legion of barely-dressed companions have rarely been associated with capital “Q” quality. Mattel’s 1981 toyline and Filmation’s ensuing 1983 cartoon are beloved generational touchstones, but are often remembered for their respective recycled sculpts and animation. And let us not even speak of live action MoTU movie starring Dolph Lundgren, a certain 4 Non Blondes video, or Robot Chicken‘s MoLarr the Eternian Dentist parody.
That hasn’t stopped a dedicated legion of fans (myself included) from supporting a myriad of relaunches and redesigns hoping to capture the inherent magic of the early 1980s. The most recent comes from DC Comics, which is following up last year’s digital-first Masters of the Universe miniseries and associated one-shots with He-Man and the Masters of the Universe #1, the first issue of a brand new ongoing from writer Keith Griffen, artist Pop Mhan and cover artist Ed Benes on April 17. Although the new comics won’t come packed in with corresponding action figures, it does bring the MoTU franchise back to its first publishing home. Hit the jump to learn more about the history of MoTU in comics.
At its core, Mattel’s Masters of the Universe is essentially an attempt to cash in on the massive popularity of the science fiction and fantasy aesthetics dominating pop culture in the late ’70s and early ’80s thanks to (among other things) Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian. To introduce its new brand, Mattel hired two well-established creators from each genre; Don Glut and Alfred Alcala. Glut’s novelization of Empire Strikes Back was a bestseller for nearly two months, and Alcala had done spectacular work as both a penciler and inker on Marvel’s Savage Sword of Conan. Together, the two created a universe for the heroic He-Man and evil Skeletor unlike any of the many interpretations that followed.
In “He-Man and the Power Sword” (1982), the first of four MoTU miniature storybooks packaged with the original lineup of action figures, He-Man is a brave warrior leaving his jungle tribe to help defend Castle Grayskull when he saves a green-skinned version of Teela in snake armor known as “The Goddess” from a wandering monster. She immediately takes the stranger back to her cave and bestows upon him ancient weapon technologies created by Eternian scientists “before The Great War.” The depiction of Eternia as the barbaric remains of a once technologically advanced world certainly works better than subsequent stories where Man-At-Arms is capable of inventing space travel but not long pants.
With his new superpower-granting equipment, He-Man immediately begins work on what every superhero needs: a headquarters. But when you’re the Most Powerful Man in the Universe (TM), you don’t need to stop by Home Depot or toss as alien crystal into the Arctic. No, He-Man punches a home into existence. Literally.
Following this Eternian edition of This Old House, the story shifts to follow the Overlord of Evil, Skeletor. In this continuity Skeletor is not He-Man’s mystically scarred uncle, but rather a creature from another dimension populated entirely of Skeletors. I would be curious to read what sort of evolutionary factors created a race of beings entirely devoid of face skin, but these mysteries are left unanswered. All the reader is told is that Skeletor wants to use both halves of the Power Sword to bring his people to Eternia in the name of conquest, but first he peeps “Tee-La” and instantly develops a mad crush.
The rest of the story plays out much the way you’d expect. Skeletor storms Castle Grayskull with an unconscious Teela in tow. Man-At-Arms reminds He-Man he’s supposed to be protecting said castle and not just punching homes into existence. Skeletor finds the power sword and immediately forgets his original plan and decides to instead just fling magical stuff at He-Man until “The Goddess” shows up to even the odds.
Although the story is entertaining (especially for the novel way most characters are handled), the credit for the ongoing popularity of the early comics has to go to the outstanding work of Alcala. His work embraces He-Man’s weird and goofy world with a visual nuance not afforded the low budget animated effort, and even outshines most mainstream comics of the time thanks to Mattel’s high quality color printing. Instead of falling back on the flat fills and limited palate common to the medium until the advent of digital printing, Alcala uses watercolors to subtly ground his bizarre landscapes and fantastic figures. In fact, his version of these characters is so well liked, Mattel’s Matty Collector recently produced a special Skeletor head and recolored Mer-Man based on his designs.
Glut and Alcala would go on to introduce popular characters Mer-Man, Stratos, and Battle Cat in the three other minicomics Mattel and DC produced in this fashion. For the remainder of the pack-in minicomics produced by DC Comics, newcomer Mark Texeira would take over art duties, and Gary Cohn would pen eight stories introducing Ram Man, Trap Jaw, Tri-Klops and Man-E-Faces.
The new team traded the picture book format for a more traditional comic book aesthetic while Glut settled into a repetitive formula of Skeletor recruiting new characters and He-Man defeating them. Teixeira would also trade Alcala’s moody and atmospheric Eternia for a kinetic, almost florescent world of villains almost universally clad in lime green and pink.
One of the greatest challenges faced by the new creative team was a way to fix early confusion about the role of Teela in the young toyline. If you’ve stuck with this article this long, I assume you’re aware the Teela action figure came molded into her recognizable white and gold singlet as well as with attachable snake armor. The character rarely appeared in the snake armor outside of comics, and when she did appear in snake armor in the early comics she wasn’t even Teela. She was an entirely different character called The Goddess, who acted as a sort of protoSorceress protecting Castle Grayskull.
In “The Tale of Teela” (1983), they attempted to solve this confusing problem in what I consider to be, “The Craziest Damn Comic I Have Ever Read” (phrase copyright Chris Sims, all rights reserved). When faced with the puzzling question of why one Teela toy is two characters, Cohn responded with the only logical solution: Because Teela is actually the magically cloned daughter of The Goddess created by Skeletor to be his child bride. Duh.
The comic opens on Teela, fitfully writhing in her bed as Skeletor beckons her to, “Come to me!” Which she promptly does, because comics would be much less exciting if heroes didn’t foolishly dash off into danger every chance they got. However, given the right creative team, I might seriously be interested in a comic about Teela’s morning routine.
Teela puts up a valiant fight, but is shortly in Skeletor’s monologuing clutches. It is here that he reveals his master plan of raising a magical baby he made with The Goddess to help him conquer Castle Grayskull as his child bride. Solid plan, dude. In my experience, there’s nothing young girls like more than marrying their fathers. Unfortunately for Skeletor, Man-At-Arms interrupted the nuptials and agreed to raise the daughter as his own.
Back in the present, He-Man and company are out to find Teela, who is now under the spell of Skeletor’s irrepressible charm. Normally I would assume the self professed “Most Powerful Man in the Universe” and someone calling herself “The Goddess” would have no problem whatsoever defeating Teela, but evidently they’re worried about defeating her too badly. And this is where the comic starts getting really crazy, because the only way The Goddess can see to defeat Teela is by giving her what can only be described as a magical bear hug.
After their magical embrace the two become a sort of Teela/Goddess Megazord capable of delivering the smackdown Skeletor deserves, and fixing toy-based continuity weirdness. It may have been a stretch of believability and good taste, but Cohn managed to fix oh, wait, the comic’s not over? That’s right, just when you think this comic goes to extraordinary lengths to turn these two characters into one person, we still have two whole pages left. And just like any classic comic, the last two pages disavow all the issue’s craziness to reestablish the status quo.
I guess the moral here is that although having children is like having a part of your life force literally ripped from your body, they end up having a life of their own so you can’t magically reabsorb them to become powerful enough to defeat an evil death wizard. Something like that. This comic makes it abundantly clear why Filmation would create The Sorceress to occupy The Goddess’ role in their new animated series.
On an interesting side note, Gary Cohn would go on to co-create Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld for DC Comics, which many (including Cohn, himself) consider more than just an inspiration for He-Man’s eventual sister series, She-Ra: Princess of Power.
DC Comics Presents #47: “From Eternia With Death!” (July 1982) by Paul Kupperburg and Curt Swan
Growing up, this comic lumbered through the realm of myth and folklore like a popculture Sasquatch, balancing precariously between “too good to be true” and “too awesome to not exist”. In second grade, Neil MacKenzie told me his older brother’s best friend had a comic where He-Man fought Superman, but he might as well have told me Indiana Jones once battled Darth Vader or Marty McFly had joined the Ghostbusters, the prospect was just too fantastical to believe. Eventually, I tracked down the issue, fully expecting to be let down by years of anticipation, but…
Superman actually visited Eternia twice; the first in DC Comics Presents #47 and the second in a special insert that was included in the back pages of every DC book published in September of 1982 to herald their upcoming MoTU miniseries.
In the first issue, Superman is transported to Eternia via cosmic storm clouds when Skeletor attacks Castle Grayskull “with the force of Hell unleashed, but more.” Although Skeletor does not have any kryptonite or women with the initials L.L., he does have a surplus of Superman’s third major weakness: magic. So He-Man and Superman are compelled to obey the First Law of superhero team ups and do battle. It’s worth noting that He-Man isn’t trading punches with some third-string, electrically mulleted Superman, either. This is full-on, Pre-Crisis Curt Swan Superman at the height of his powers. He-Man might as well be trading punches with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Which also explains why He-Man is completely nonplussed when Superman shows up in Eternia. His Mother is (of course) a lost Earth astronaut who told her son about this guy she knew back on Earth who could rearrange molecules by vibrating his hands or fly around the Earth to turn back time.
In the end, turns out Superman’s eyes are immune to being magically controlled, or something, and he foils Skeletor just before colliding with Castle Grayskull. Even Superman admits the whole thing makes absolutely no sense before spotting a nearby timewarp.
Even though He-Man and Superman’s first teamup ends up being completely mistitled, their second, “Fate is a Killer” (September 1982) by Kupperburg and Swan, is not.
This time Supes arrives in Eternia via an underwater whirlpool that connects the two planets, while He-Man’s alter ego, Prince Adam engages in a good bit of wenching.
There is some short back and forth between the players (including MoTU’s resident Metron ripoff, Zodac) and ends when He-Man throws a sword right through Skeletor’s chest. That’s right, He-Man kills Skeletor and absorbs his life force in his very second official DC Comics appearance! Again, Superman is completely confused by the whole ordeal.
DC went on to publish a well done three issue miniseries again written by Kupperberg, with art from George Tuska which serves as a missing link between the unfamiliar backstory of the early minicomics and the new status quote established by the Filmation cartoon. Unfortunately it is also the last MoTU comic of any quality for several years as readers found it was actually possible to further dumb down the plots of the already broad animated series. Even the reappearance of Alfredo Alcala for a handful of issues couldn’t cover for the fact that most of the comics feel like they were written in less than five minutes.
All of that changed in 1985 when little known character designer and background artist Bruce Timm published his first sequential comic work. All the hallmarks of Timm’s work are evident from his very first issue the action pops, the storytelling flows easily, and the character design seems effortless to the point of inevitability.
Fortunately Mattel seems to have realized they had something special on their hands, as well. Timm worked on 11 of the last 19 minicomics produced as either a penciller or inker. Unfortunately, most of the comics produced in the final years of the toy line focus on the increasingly diluted pool of villains, and increasingly convoluted Eternian backstory. However, Timm did manage to pencil one classic He-Man vs. Skeletor story that stands out as one of the best of his minicomic work.
“Terror Claws Strike!” (1985) by Tim Kilpin and Timm, tells a fairly standard story: Skeletor is after one of the thousands of magical items located throughout Eternia. At this point the only thing Eternia has more of than magical items, is warriors with innuendo-packed IDs (Ram Man? Tung Lashor! Fisto!?!)
However, this time Skeletor doesn’t want the magical gem to force his way into Castle Grayskull, he wants it because the gem is what makes all the crops in Eternia grow. No word on what Skeletor plans to eat while the people starve (other than “Eternia’s misery!”).
Timm wisely forgoes the design of Terror Claws Skeletor‘s horrible, sportsbra-looking action figure, in favor of a traditional Skeletor wearing a rad pair of Freddy Krueger-meets-Lady Deathstrike gloves. He also makes one of the greatest (nobrainer) contributions to the universe’s aesthetic when he adds Kirby Krackle to Prince Adam’s transformation to He-Man. It’s a real shame it didn’t continue with any of the other artists.
Of course, all the small things Timm does well are on display, but his greatest strength is creating dynamic figures in beautifully drawn action. He certainly doesn’t disappoint here.
It’s easy to look at these pages in the context of Timm’s career, to focus on the more angular and stylized artist he will evolve into. But that’s missing the point. His sequential work is so rare it really has to be savored. When it comes to full-on sequential work, the only character Timm’s told more comics stories with is probably Batman.
Bruce Timm’s stellar work would be the final triumph for the minicomics as the newer series of action figures failed to meet the high sales expectations set by earlier success. The comic book adventure of He-Man did continue for another couple years in the short-lived Marvel Star Comics children’s line. The only issues of which are worth the paper they were printed on is the bizarre last two issues which features the tombstone of a hero on the cover of his own comic troupe, but the story gets truly bizarre when a swordless Prince Adam is sent to a future where Skeletor has already won. Only by uniting with his bearded future self and finding the power sword are the two Prince Adams able to transform into two He-Mans (He-Men?) to defeat King Skeletor.
What the Masters of the Universe perfectly exemplifies is that no one can predetermine which comics are going to be great. The accidentally wordless G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #21 sounds unusual, but is amazing. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again sounded amazing, but is… critically polarizing, to say the least. Silly pack-in comics for a goofy action figure line shouldn’t have been as good as they were, but artist like Alcala and Timm had the talent to create He-Man and Masters of the Universe comic book imagery that endures.