Since it started two years ago, DC Comics’ take on Mattel’s’ “He-Man & The Masters of the Universe” line of toys has shaded in the details of the titular strongman warrior and his vast supporting cast. This July, writer Dan Abnett fills in the final corner from the classic Masters: She-Ra.
Star of her own ’80s toy line and cartoon, the Princess of Power was a major female counterpoint to the testosterone-driven boys toys of the era. Falling in line with the more complex take on “Masters,” She-Ra’s introduction has been a story long in the planning for the series.
With issue #12 of the series on sale now, CBR News spoke with Abnett about the end of the current Snake Men arc, Mattel and DC’s intent to introduce a more grown up take on the franchise, how She-Ra’s origin will be a redemptive arc for Princess Adora and what new ideas lie beyond it.
CBR News: Dan, I know that for a lot of young men who grew up in America in the ’80s, “Masters of the Universe” is a kind of omnipresent piece of pop culture. And I’ve known people from as far as Iran who watched it growing up, but did He-Man and company have any impact on you in the UK?
Dan Abnett: It’s interesting. I started my career back in about 1986 or ’87 when I worked at Marvel UK, which at the time was essentially a publishing house that dealt in creating material for the big franchises. We did “Transformers,” “Ghostbusters,” “Care Bears,” “Thundercats” and all that kind of stuff. Not only did I train there editorially, but I also served as writer for every franchise you can imagine. But the one franchise I never got to do was He-Man! So when DC asked me initially to do a fill-in arc on the regular “Masters of the Universe” book, I thought, “That’s great. It’s another world famous franchise I haven’t worked on, so that’ll be lovely.”
When I began to investigate and examine what He-Man is all about, what really drew me in was the fact that DC was working so closely with the team at Mattel who are fantastic people. They’re basically wanting to reinterpret all the old stories and old characters in new ways. They want to present them for people like you, really — people who knew this stuff when they were growing up and would like to see what a slightly more grown-up version of “Masters of the Universe” would be if it were played straight. They said to me that they wanted an epic fantasy feel of “Game of Thrones” or Tolkien or the kind of stuff I’ve done with “Warhammer” — something with a proper sword and sorcery feel to it. So I’ve been able to do things with the characters that I never thought I’d be able to do.
When they first asked me about the job, I thought, “Oh, this will be quite light and fluffy. It’s kids toys. It’s something very simple on the Thundercats level of an adventure of the week.” But then they presented me with templates of stories that they’d like to see that would be more dark and serious and have the most extraordinary things happening in them that I never expected to write. I guess to be honest, it was one of those things where you take a job thinking it’ll be a freelance job, and then you find it’s way more exciting than you thought. The potential is there, and it’s been incredibly rewarding stuff. I’ve been writing stories and getting Mattel’s approval for some pretty gruesome things, actually. When I was younger, I was slightly too old for He-Man as a kid. So I looked at it and thought, “He-Man has a sword, but he never cuts anybody!” [Laughs] This is He-Man as a warrior who does stuff. The implications are real, and it’s been great.
I’ve also got to work with some fantastic artsits. Tom Derenick has done a wonderful job on the past few issues, and Pop Mhan’s stuff on the issues yet to appear has been amazing. I knew this would be fun, but I didn’t know it’d be this much fun.
Your first arc seemed to put some effort into fleshing out the characters a bit more than they had been in the past. I mean, in the past the only difference between He-Man and Adam was that the latter’s voice was higher. [Laughter] I felt like you wanted to focus in on Adam/He-Man’s relationship with King Randor amidst all the Snake Men action. Why pull on that thread?
I really wanted to show the idea that if Eternia is a real place and Greyskull was a real place and Prince Adam was the heir to the throne, then there would be a dynastic feel to things. His love an honor for his father would be immense. His father would be a powerful character — of course he would, he’s He-Man’s father! But the threat they’d face, no matter how outlandish, would have to be a genuinely credible threat. By now, people have read far enough to know that the big bad is King Hiss. So how do you make him really, truly scary? And how do you make him not only an immediate threat but a threat that’s permeated this world for tens of thousands of years? To be given the free reign to do that has been fantastic. As I’ve said, Mattel has been particularly good not just at that but giving great suggestions. They say, “Try to show the first time this happened” or “Try and get this feel.” But when I’ve suggested new things, they’ve also embraced it. I guess the best way to describe this would be as a grown-up version of the toys. We’ve given them the dynastic relationships which were always implied but never explored.
In the next arc, you’re paying off on the long-running plotline in the DC He-Man comics about Princess Adora’s transformation into She-Ra. That’s interesting territory both because I think the original storyline from the cartoon was maybe one of the spots in the He-Man canon that had a bit more of a real story to it, and She-Ra as a character is someone a lot of young women who grew up in that time still strongly identify with. With that kind of background, how does that impact your approach to this origin story?
I’ve sensed that. When I get e-mails from Mattel about plans for what we can do, I sense their excitement for this story, and I appreciate the importance of treating She-Ra very carefully and doing justice to it. This is a very big deal. And I wonder if because I am slightly older and was a teenager when this first appeared that my detachment from it might allow me to be slightly more objective creatively. I can say, “What could I do with this that would really make an impact?” rather than be blinded by a childhood association with it. That may or may not be helpful, but I certainly realize the significance of the stuff I’ve been given to write.
And I think the second story arc is immensely powerful. It’s got fantastic art supporting it, like I said, but it really gets to the root of Eternia, the legacy of Greyskull, the importance of She-Ra and all the prophecy that surrounds that. It’s more complicated than I expected it to be, which is delicious. It’s like expecting “The Hobbit” to be a simple children’s story, and then when you’re invited to write a Hobbit comic, you realize that it’s got its own language. It’s a really enjoyable thing to do.
Also at the heart of this that’s a new element is that She-Ra’s story is a redemptive one. After years in Hordak’s army, she’s done some pretty brutal things. Is that an element that dominated how you approached this?
I think so. She’s really got a lot to come back from. She’s been a very dark, dangerous character, and yet we want to admire her and see her relating to the people close to her like Adam. We want to make it seem possible that she can be as good as he is while also coming from this very dark place. I hope we pulled that off. In many respects, she is the most interesting character in the book because of her history and how far back she’s got to come from her origin. She was a prisoner raised in a circumstance she didn’t understand, turned into a killer and forced to do some abominable things for what she perceived as her father. Now we need to explore her and also understand her. I hope that balance has been struck.
And She-Ra’s introduction also represents the kind of final piece where you can say that the original cartoon continuity has been set into place. So after this, will we see the world of He-Man getting pushed into some new territory?
I feel like that’s really the intention. I think Mattel’s mindset — and also DC’s — is that this comic is the first time the story has been presented in a more grown up way but also the first time it’s been presented at all. We want to give the modern, definitive version of those things, and that means we will be opening this up and pushing it forward. I love dropping in little things that make fans go “Oh, I remember that from the show” but the meaning is a little more complex. But the second arc is huge also because I think it sets up something huge for new stuff and new developments in the future.
“He-Man And The Masters of the Universe” #12 is on sale now from DC Comics. Click here to read a complete preview of the issue.