No stranger to breathing new life into forgotten Golden Age characters like Starman and The Shade, James Robinson may be facing his largest challenge ever as a comic book writer when he launches “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” for DC Comics in July.
While many creators would think an assignment like this would be an unenviable task — having to balance paying homage to the beloved ’80s cartoon for its power sword-wielding followers while making the concept relevant for a new generation of readers — Robinson told CBR News that he believes wholeheartedly in the franchise and is absolutely delighted to be bringing the legendary characters of Eternia, which according to the mythos is the center of the universe, to the front and center of the ever-expanding comic book landscape.
“He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,” an animated TV series produced by Filmation based on Mattel’s popular toy line, debuted in 1983. It was the first syndicated TV series to be based on a toy and by 1984 was watched on 120 U.S. stations and in more than 30 countries.
Set on Eternia, a planet of magic, myth and fantasy, the series primarily follows the adventures of Prince Adam, the heir apparent to King Randor and Queen Marlena. As the animated series’ intro explains, once fabulous secret powers were revealed to Adam, he merely had to raise his magic sword in the air and say, “By the power of Grayskull. I have the power” in order to become He-Man — the most powerful man in the universe.
In Robinson’s six-issue tale, illustrated by Philip Tan (“Hawkman”), He-Man’s archenemy Skeletor has altered reality, making himself the ruler of Castle Grayskull, leaving Adam cast as a simple woodsman who has visions of wielding a mighty sword in battles against fishmen, beastly humanoids and trap-jawed robots.
Robinson told CBR News his efforts are primarily focused on delivering a story that maintains the sense of wonder and excitement of the original Filmation cartoon, tempered with an increased level of seriousness and intensity.
CBR News: How did you come to write a “Masters of the Universe” project? The property certainly has a legion of fans —
James Robinson: Honestly, Warner Bros. came to me and asked me if I would be interested. And the fact they wanted to do it as a slightly more — I don’t want to say mature because that implies a Vertigo book — [with an] adult sensibility while still being true to the source material.
It was just a really interesting challenge that I thought would be fun. Knowing Philip Tan is the artist, you know it’s going to have a darker, more shadowy look, although having seen the artwork, it’s actually quite beautiful and quite bright. But at the time, he wasn’t the type of artist that I was expecting for “Masters of the Universe.” Again, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to work with someone like him on the book too.
Those were the initial reasons. I was also aware that “Masters of the Universe” is a fan favorite, and various generations have enjoyed the animated series either in original syndication or in reruns, but there wasn’t any new point of entry for “Masters of the Universe.” If they don’t know the characters from the TV show, it would be bewildering. The challenge was coming up with a storyline that was something that fans of the animated show and fans of the toys and fans of the prior comic books would enjoy but also would be an introduction for new readers into this world, and maybe Eternia would become a place that they would like to revisit and get to know based on this miniseries.
Were you familiar with the concept before accepting this project?
I was not familiar with it, but I have made myself familiar with it. Basically, I read up on the franchise without actually looking at the TV show, which allowed me to get what I believe was my own interpretation of the show first and developed a storyline. And then, once I saw the show, I was able to reconcile that with how the actual characters are depicted. That approach allowed me a little bit more freedom at the start in order to come up with a fresh idea that wasn’t anchored down by what had been done before.
I wasn’t a fan or familiar with “Masters of the Universe,” but I have become one since I started on the project.
You have a long history of writing epic stories with more traditional comic book superheroes and villains like Superman, Starman and the Justice Society. Do you approach a project like “Masters of the Universe” any differently or is this essentially another superhero series?
It’s definitely different. One of the things about the “Masters of the Universe” TV show is that, I think when they were first doing the show during its original run, they were just throwing anything that they could of think of in there. It was sword and sorcery, but there were robots, flying craft and all sorts of stuff. What that immediately gives a writer is a real open book to do whatever he wants in terms of drawing from inference to another. I was interested in making it a little more science fantasy. Another thing to remember is, since “Masters of the Universe” came out, we’ve become much more comfortable with those kinds of worlds through playing video games. People say they don’t read science fantasy, but they play “Skyrim” or whatever.
While the world of “Masters of the Universe” is not a comic book superhero universe, it’s one — due to my own love of video games and the art of Frank Frazetta and everything else — that I am very familiar with in terms of style. I am trying to bring more of that to this series to give it a modern vitality — and I have to stress this every time — whilst being true to the original source material. That’s not to say what happened before didn’t happen or was without validity. I am trying to give everyone what they want, both old fans and new readers.
Now, the series opens with Skeletor positioned as the ruler of Eternia. How does this come about?
I don’t want to say too, too, too much, but basically at the start of the series, Skeletor has won by wiping the memory of the Masters of the Universe from all of Eternia, including from the Masters of the Universe themselves. He’s taking great delight in being responsible for their very unhappy, uneventful, unnotable fates. He now watches over their lives as the Masters of the Universe have no memory of their past.
Adam, who is now a woodsman, slowly begins to think there is more to his life and he goes off in search of this piece of his life that he believes is missing. Thereby, he begins an odyssey, across all of Eternia, slowly finding and reuniting the other Masters of the Universe. In this way, we are introduced to them one after another and we get a clear picture of each character as this happens.
Orko and a number of Skeletor’s cronies like Beast Man, Mer Man and Trap Jaw were traditionally played for laughs on the TV show. On the variant cover for the first issue CBR is debuting today, Skeletor looks pretty bad ass. Are these other characters getting similar makeovers?
That’s definitely something I made sure of. Skeletor is a big, barbarian warrior with a skull face. He should be the most terrifying guy in Eternia. I saw an episode recently where he gets all pissy because the space circus arrived on Eternia and he wanted them to play on Snake Mountain. They don’t, so he turns into a school girl and decides to ruin the circus, just like a little kid that didn’t get ice cream at the end of the day.
That Skeletor is not in this series.
He’s scary. He’s plotted this downfall and he’s joyful in his triumph, but he’s also aware that he might lose it because he knows Adam is trying to regain his memories and his hold on all Eternia.
Beast Man should be this scary, feral villain, but like you said, he was played for laughs too. They all were. But that was the nature of the series. If you look at the toy line from Four Horsemen, there was an attempt to make the characters look a bit more sophisticated.
I’ve taken that as part of my inspiration and am now making what I believe to be a story that is a nice sophistication of those old TV shows, which used the villains primarily for comic relief. It’s slightly more serious but not without the same sense of wonder, excitement and fun the TV show provided to its fans.
This was announced as a six-issue miniseries, but having worked with the characters, do you think the world you’ve recreated could carry additional series or even its own ongoing title?
I am really enjoying these characters and it’s a very cool concept. And yes, potentially, it’s one that I would like to revisit if I am given the invitation and if this one is a success.
I think I know the answer to this last one, but just in case, I thought I would ask; is Eternia part of the New 52?
No, it’s not. In fact, everything I am doing in terms of my editor Kwanza Johnson and all of my approvals from Mattel and Warner Bros. are all handled on the west coast. This is not a DC comic at all — apart from them being the publisher, obviously.
“Masters of the Universe” #1 by James Robinson and featuring art by Philip Tan debuts in July.