When Mattel’s Masters of the Universe action figure toyline was released in 1982, it boasted a remarkable mix of elements that’d been snaking their way through the pop culture of the day. Like much of what’s “new,” Mattel took familiar elements and constructed something greater than the sum of its Frankenstein parts. For young boys, Mattel’s toys offered a plastic-molded snapshot of an age when the Saturday morning ‘toon Thundarr the Barbarian (1980) was viewed by kids of all ages, and films like Flash Gordon (1980), Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), and Conan The Barbarian (1982) pulled in audiences reflecting multiple demographics into movie theaters.
Realizing Mattel’s desire to make something different from anything made for toy stores before, the Masters of the Universe toys combined medieval mysticism with sci-fi futurism and made something that would take both the toy world and pop culture at large by storm. With the added arsenal of mini-comics packed with each action figure, a mini-series of full-size funny books by DC Comics, and an after school cartoon produced by Filmation, He-Man forever changed the toy and entertainment game. And we’ve combed through 35-years of history and assembled this list of 15 things you never knew about He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
15. MATTEL PLAYED THE NAME GAME
He-Man He-Man Bo Bee Man / Banana Fana Fo Fee Man / Me Mi Mo Me Man / He-Man! Before the release of Mattel’s Masters of the Universe action figure line in the fall of 1982, artists received prototypes and promo materials introducing the toymaker’s upcoming new action figure line. The figures were united under the working title “Lords of Power Collection.” Featured in the image are early versions of Mer-Man, Beast-Man, He-Man, Skeletor and Man-At-Arms.
Apparently the reason why the Lords of Power wasn’t used was because it sounded somewhat “religious” in nature. Another promotional image from the time shows a different image with a gold font spelling out the details of the “He-Man Collection.” It may have been at some point shortly after that a Mattel exec had a stroke of genius with the name “Masters of the Universe.” It certainly has a ring to it.
14. HE-MAN WAS A ‘CONAN’ FAIL
A persistent legend about the origins of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe comes from Mattel’s one-time relationship with the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian. In 1980, producer Edward R. Pressman, after winning the rights to make a film based on pulp writer Robert E. Howard’s popular anti-hero, approached Mattel to discuss a toy tie-in based on the in-production Conan film.
In July of 1981, Mattel entered into an agreement with CPI Productions to produce a line of Conan toys. Six months later, however, in January of 1982, assumedly after learning the film was given an R rating for nudity, sexual situations and graphic violence, Mattel asked that the license be terminated. Likely still recognizing the possibilities for a barbarian toyline — Hanna Barbera’s Thundarr the Barbarian (1980) was a popular Saturday morning cartoon after all — Mattel reworked the line and released its barbarian-themed He-Man toyline in late 1982.
13. HE-MAN MADE IT RAIN
Since the release of the Barbie fashion doll in 1959, that iconic toy has consistently proven to be one of Mattel’s most successful and profitable toylines. As reliable as Barbie has been for Mattel, though, in the 1980s sales for the toyline averaged only about 16 million. In 1983, sales for He-Man, Skeletor, Man-At-Arms, Teela and the rest of their motley crew grossed a senses-shattering $736 million.
Despite the semi-uniqueness of the MOTU action figures in the marketplace, much of He-Man’s success was logically attributed to what, in the eyes of many parents (and critics), constituted 30-minute toy commercials aired weekday afternoons on 160 TV stations across America and two dozen more in nations ranging from South Africa to the United Arab Emirates. That daily fix of He-Man cartoons given to impressionable kids helped to make Masters of the Universe a tremendous moneymaker for Mattel.
12. HE-MAN VS. SUPERMAN
Did you know that He-Man battled Superman? That’s right true believer. In his first appearance in a full-sized comic book from DC Comics, He-Man slugs it out with the Man of Steel who travels to planet Eternia and soon finds himself under the control of He-Man’s archenemy Skeletor. This story appears in the pages of DC Comics Presents #47 (July, 7 1982), which was written by Paul Kupperberg with illustrations by famed Superman artist Curt Swan and cover art by Ross Andru and Frank Giacoia.
In November of 1982, DC published an insert preview of He-Man stories that was carried in several different books dated November 1982. In December the following month, a three-issue Masters Of The Universe limited series was sold separately on newsstands and spinner racks. A Masters of the Universe comic book series was also produced by Marvel in 1986.
11. HE-MAN MADE UP FOR ‘STAR WARS’ FAIL
A long time ago in a chief executive’s office far, far away, one of the worst screw-ups in the history of screw-ups was committed. In 1976, film writer-director George Lucas offered Mattel the chance to secure a license to produce a line of toys based on his then upcoming science fiction epic Star Wars.
Mattel CEO Ray Wagner, wary of the requirement of an upfront fee of $750,000 for a license to an unproven film property, declined the offer. Lucas found their lack of faith…disturbing. The license went instead to Kenner, one of Mattel’s biggest competitors and permitted Kenner to sell ba-jillions of toys based not only on characters from 1977’s Star Wars, but the 1980 sequel The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Mattel’s successful launch of the He-Man toyline in 1982 was the only thing that could cure nearly eight years of heartache.
10. THE FIRST TOY-BASED ‘TOON
In the history of American popular culture, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe holds the unique position of being the first animated cartoon ever created that was based on a toy. From the early days of animated cartoons like Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, Bugs Bunny and Popeye the Sailor Man, toys were always made in the image of animated properties that had proven themselves successful with kid audiences. But Mattel’s Masters of the Universe toys broke the mold.
Understanding in advance the potential appeal of its adventure-inspiring action figure toyline, Mattel licensed the characters to Filmation, a producer of both live-action and animated cartoons for TV since the early 1960s. Debuting in the fall of 1983, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe ran for two seasons until the end of 1984, and produced 130 action packed episodes.
9. HOLLYWOOD’S FIRST TOY-BASED FILM
In addition to having the unique place in history as the first cartoon ever based on a toy, Mattel’s Masters of the Universe simultaneously holds the unique position of being the first toy upon which a live-action film was based. Today, toy-based movie franchises like Transformers and G.I. Joe have an established record of winning at the box office. Back in 1987, when Masters of the Universe was released, a toy-based movie was risky business.
Produced by Cannon Films, Masters of the Universe starred Dolph Lungren as He-Man and Frank Langella as Skeletor. Audiences naturally expected the film to be a live-action adaptation of the popular cartoon. The film, however, was actually an adaptation of earlier tales printed in the mini-comics packaged with MOTU toys, which depicted He-Man as a barbarian warrior with no secret identity. Fan confusion (and bad acting) led to failure at the box office.
8. THE SON OF SATAN?
In the book Lou Scheimer: Creating the Filmation Generation, Filmation’s Lou Scheimer shares an amusing anecdote about a letter received from a parent accusing the animation studio of doing “Satanical things.” Scheimer says that he had no idea what the letter writer was actually ranting about until they focused their paranoid accusations on the scepter carried by Skeletor. The ram’s head seen atop Skeletor’s Havoc Staff is viewed by worshipers in various faiths to be one of the many symbols of Satan.
Admittedly, though, in the 1980s it was impossible for anyone to keep up with the many “manifestations” of the devil. Every other week or so, religious loons were raving about one thing or another: From Dungeons & Dragons RPGs to heavy metal records played backwards, Beelzebub was lurking behind every corner, planning his seduction of the innocent. Apparently, not even He-Man cartoons were safe.
7. ORKO WAS GORPO
Did you know that the impish wizard Orko wasn’t an original Masters of the Universe character? That’s right true believer. Orko was created for the animated series to serve as comic relief. He was also originally named Gorpo in the early original series drafts, but was renamed Orko, and after his addition to the show an action figure based on the character was produced.
Orko’s creation played into a weird trope that existed in cartoons from both Filmation and Hanna Barbera in the 1970s and ‘80s. For some strange reason, a character of diminutive statue that adults apparently believed would appeal to kids — as if cartoons in and of themselves didn’t — was added to various shows. Aside from Orko, examples of this trend were Scooby-Doo’s Scrappy-Doo, The New Adventures of Batman’s Bat-Mite, Godzilla’s Godzooky and the robot Herbie, who replaced the Human Torch on The Fantastic Four. They all sucked.
6. WHO’S YOUR SORCERESS?
In 1982, when the first wave of Mattel’s Masters of the Universe toys were released, Mattel planned on having two separate female characters: the skilled warrior Teela and the green-skinned Sorceress (aka “the Goddess”), who holds a cobra-shaped staff and wears a matching headdress. Before the toyline’s release, Mattel chose instead to only produce Teela, but outfitted her with the mystical accoutrements of the Sorceress, making her a warrior-goddess.
Meanwhile, in one of the Masters of the Universe mini-comics, the green-skinned Sorceress is depicted alongside He-Man, whom she recognizes as a man of valor and presents with special armor and weapons. At the same time, in promotional art on the back of the Teela action figure, she is pictured standing with He-Man and her adoptive father Man-At-Arms wearing the same cobra-shaped headdress. Suffice it to say that in their rush to retrofit Conan, Mattel hadn’t ironed out all the kinks.
5. SHE-RA HAD THE POWER, ACTUALLY
At the height of its popularity with young boys across the world, Mattel sought to extend the reach of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to young girls, targeting this new demographic with the swift creation of He-Man’s sword-wielding fraternal twin sister She-Ra. In September of 1985 the animated spin-off series She-Ra: Princess of Power, also produced by Filmation, made its TV debut. The first season of the show ran five days a week, like He-Man.
Shortly after it’s debut, She-Ra actually managed to muscle He-Man backwards into the #3 spot in the ratings, and ranked second only to The Transformers, America’s #1 animated TV show then. The second season of She-Ra: Princess of Power was aired on Saturday mornings. After two seasons and 93 episodes, the series ended was cancelled in December 1986.
4. STOP. ADVENTURE TIME!
In what’s sure to be viewed as one of the most confusing moments in modern custom toy making, in 2016 the UK-based Robotic Industries produced an extremely limited edition (micro edition?) of so-called “He-Fin” figures, a hilarious mash-up of the muscle-bound He-Man and the fuzzy-eared-cap-wearing Finn from the modern cartoon classic Adventure Time. RI’s He-Finn figures were produced for Toycon UK, an event billed as Britain’s “only dedicated designer toy convention.”
Only the He-Finn figure was produced, and in an extremely limited quality of 15 figures. His loyal, shape-shifting canine companion Jake the Dog — who assumed the partial form of He-Man’s fierce feline Battle Cat — was produced only for display purposes. The figure also came accessorized with the Adventure Time hero’s trusty wooden sword and his big green backpack. Too friggin’ cool.
3. BARBIE PRINCESS OF POWER
On first glance, you might think that you’re looking at a She-Ra-inspired Cosplay Barbie. But Mattel’s 2016 SDDC Exclusive She-Ra figure is actually a Barbie-sized remix of the MOTU’s legendary Princess of Power. Standing at a lean, mean 11-inches tall, the Comic-con Exclusive boats an impressively styled likeness of She-Ra and a slew of dress-up accessories.
In addition to the classic She-Ra costume, the figure also comes with a very accurate version of the red and white suit She-Ra wears when she assumes the guise of her mild-mannered alter ego Adora, Princess of Eternia. The action doll also comes with a third outfit that appears to be an updated take on the original 1985 costume. In addition to all that, She-Ra comes with a reversible headdress, her silver shield two, swords (gold and silver), and the traditional mini-comic. Mattel broke the mold with this one.
2. MERKED BY MUMM-RA
In the mid-1980s, boys frequently used their fertile imaginations to team up their He-Man toys with their ThunderCats toys in epic bedroom or backyard adventures. This childhood truism was mined brilliantly for a gag in an episode of TV’s Family Guy. The bit featured Stewie in his room playing with his He-Man and ThunderCats action figures and using them to mount a hilarious philosophical attack on toxic masculinity.
The year of 2016 also offered the senses-shattering teaming of He-Man and the MOTU with the ThunderCats in the epic DC Comics crossover event that fans had waited for 30 years to see! And was worth the wait! Written by Lloyd Goldfine and Rob David, and beautifully illustrated by Freddie E. Williams II, this dimension-spanning story offered old school fans a six-part story that would also feature the shocking death of a major character. But…which one?
1. FEARLESS PHOTOG, FINALLY
In 1987, Mattel announced its imagination-igniting “Create a Character” contest. Making up the impressive grand prize package was a $100,000 college scholarship, a five-day trip to Disneyland, the opportunity to serve as honorary president for a day and — best of all — the production of the winning design in the next wave of MOTU toys! Fearless Photog, a brave robot warrior with a camera-shaped head designed by 12-year-old Nathan Bitner was the winning entry.
In a controversial move, Mattel later reneged on the toy production part. But 1987 would also see the end of production for Mattel’s Masters of the Universe toyline. 24 years later, though, in a surprise reveal by Mattel it was announced that Fearless Photog would actually see the light of day as the first entry in Mattel’s six-figure Masters of the Universe Classics 30th Anniversary series. The little toy that could finally did.
Which of these facts blew your mind the most? Let us know in the comments!
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