When it debuted in 1982, Mattel's "Masters of the Universe" toy line and its cartoon and comic book tie-ins were decried as the most shameless kind of consumerist pandering. However, beneath the action figure-hocking exterior, the story of He-Man, Skeletor and the rest of Eternia represents a unique creative achievement. Just ask Tim Seeley.
The cartoonist, whose horror, sci-fi and superhero series span the comics landscape, grew up on the muscle-bound adventures of Prince Adam's alter ego and, over the years, Seeley has become known as a de facto spokesman for the artistic potential of the "Masters of the Universe" brand. That reputation led him to a dream gig, co-writing Dark Horse Comics' recently released "The Art of He-Man & The Masters of the Universe" hardcover -- a massive 320-page exploration of the franchise's history and imagery.
The book, which Seeley writes with his brother Steve, includes a look at rarely seen drawings, notes, designs and more from Mattel's archives, and features the work of legendary pop culture illustrators like Earl Norem, as well as interviews with He-Man affiliated talent like "Masters" film star Dolph Lundgren and longtime animation writer Paul Dini. To hear Seeley tell it, the volume does more than catalogue the look of He-Man for diehard fans; it also makes the case for why the weird mix of fantasy, science fiction and superheroics is more than a marketing scheme meant to get parents to buy toys. CBR News spoke with the writer about his love of the franchise, determining who exactly created He-Man and looking at the lasting legacy of Masters of the Universe beyond children of the '80s.
CBR News: When I heard you were doing this book, I knew they picked you because you're just kind of a "He-Man" guy. Can you identify how you've gotten that rep as being an expert on the character?
Tim Seeley: I'm not sure how everybody knows that. I must talk about it uncomfortably at length and make everyone feel weird. [Laughter] But I'd done some stuff with Dark Horse and became really good friends with [Editor-in-Chief] Scott Allie. He would always talk about how we share really similar interests in horror stuff and pop culture stuff, but he'd say to me, "The one thing I do not understand is why you like 'Masters of the Universe.' I just don't get it." Scott's a little older than me, so he was in high school by the time it came out and had no interest in it. When Dark Horse hooked up with Mattel and got the rights to do mini comics to go with the new toys, Scott said, "I know the perfect guy for this." So he hired me for that.
Then there were whispers about the possibility of this art book for a while, and I was just waiting for it to go. When the greenlight finally came through, I was pretty busy with other work, but I said, "I'm going to do this. But I need to bring in some help." And that was my brother, so it became this weird recreation of when we were kids playing He-Man in the yard. We didn't even do any research. We just came prepared with all the "Masters of the Universe" knowledge necessary. We ended up just writing this at bars while having drinks and talking "Masters of the Universe." It was awesome.
The book seems to have gotten a terrific initial response, and there was even a little late-game promotion from Dolph Lundgren.
Yeah! We actually interviewed him for it, and then he took a picture as he got it and posted it on Twitter, and we all went, "Oh my God! That's awesome!" It definitely went on the bucket list.
So much of what is in the book is previously unseen by most fans, dating back to the early conceptual work on the property. Does Mattel literally just have a vault of stuff saved somewhere?
They do. They sent us this box with photos of everything they had, which was a fair amount of stuff, but it wasn't everything. They just said, "What would you use of this stuff, what would we need and how would you organize it?" So our job for the first part of the book was putting together what we thought would be a good layout, using all the pieces they had that we thought were good and then pointing out the stuff they didn't have. So there was a fair amount of things, like Earl Norem paintings, that they didn't have, and we all had to track down old posters and stuff. Impressively, they were able to get it all. I think a lot of this was that they wanted to flesh out their vault because they didn't have everything. We helped them find it all, and now we get to share it with the world.
I know a few years ago there was a documentary made about who exactly created He-Man, and with so many people working at a company like that back in the '80s, it must be hard to track who contributed what. Did you get a sense of how the franchise was really created as you were working on this?
Yeah. It's really clear when you look at the old stuff that a lot of people had input on it, and it's really hard to tell who did what first. They knew that they wanted a boys' toy line, and they had interest in doing both "Conan" and Jack Kirby's "Fourth World." Neither of those worked out because "Conan's" movie was too violent, and the "Fourth World" stuff just didn't come together. As they were chasing down these two ideas, they started working on designs for original characters, and it became clear that those two influences of "Conan" and Jack Kirby came into play a lot. Then the design came from multiple people.
When you look at the book, you see how the concept changed a lot over the early years. At first, it was just He-Man as one guy who is a soldier in the future, in the past or whatever. It was almost like G.I. Joe. He-Man was the name of all these guys like Captain Action. As they created more characters and added bad guys like Skeletor, there were so many people throwing in ideas that making it was something they couldn't have tried to do. The world just became this thing that had to form by accident over a bunch of comic books that tested ideas and different people's approaches.
So how did you end up taking all of that an organizing the book as a whole?
The first chapter kind of goes over the origins, and you see there was a pitch document for them trying to figure out what the price point would be -- and that has a lot of ideas in it. Then, we get into the development, before breaking things down by the figures, the cartoon, the film and so on. That kind of dictated things because of the order they came out. The film was in 1986 after the line was sort of diminishing, so it does have a kind of shape to it. You get to see weird stuff like knitting patterns.
Having gone through all this as a He-Man fan to start, are you now better able to articulate to someone like Scott Allie why this thing is cool and worth your time?
Yeah, absolutely. I think what I always liked about it was the notion that it encompassed everything. The names were goofy and silly, like "Two-Bad" was the two-headed guy. At its core, it combines the best things about superheroes, fantasy and science fiction into one world. There's an unlimited potential for crazy stories, and that's what I always liked about it. Now having learned how all that crazy stuff came together makes me appreciate it even more -- especially because it was a whole world just designed to make cool toys. That was all it was supposed to be. For all this story to come out of several hunks of plastic that were only meant to sit on K-Mart shelves and get kids to buy them? It's amazing that now there's this whole myth and backstory to it all.
I know Dark Horse had a huge hit with their "Legend of Zelda" art book, and I'm wondering if they have similar high hopes for this.
I think so. On the Amazon pre-orders, "The Art of He-Man" was on the top of the chart for months. There's this thing where nostalgia for the '80s came back in the early 2000s, but now, when you see these things, it's not just nostalgia. These things just stick around. "Masters of the Universe" is on Netflix now, and we did a signing at a book store where little kids were coming in with He-Man shirts on to buy old action figures. To them, the cartoon is eternal. It doesn't age, really. They just watch the cartoon and enjoy it. So it's no longer a nostalgia property. It's been raised up to the level of Transformers or Batman or Spider-Man -- just something that will always be there.
Meanwhile, at Dark Horse, your psychotic superhero series "Sundowners" will continue as a digital-first series. The ending of that book was really something else, as it came all the way up to confirming that the cast were just insane but not quite pulling that trigger. It was an ending that almost begged for more story. Did you write that way just in case you didn't get any more issues?
I always knew there was going to be a next chapter. Dark Horse said, "We'll do six issues and, if it does well enough, we'll do another trade." So it didn't sell well enough to get a whole other series, but now it's a digital-first book with a print trade coming. Obviously, I wish it had sold better so I could keep doing it as a monthly, but now we're looking to see how the trades do. If there's interest there, we'll do even more. It's one of my favorite things I've ever worked on, but I think it was just too weird for some people. [Laughter] It was a superhero thing that was also a horror thing but, maybe if you were a horror person, you didn't want to buy a superhero book? I don't know. It hit all the notes I wanted to.
I think maybe it got too real with some of the characters. It was not a fantasy series in the least bit.
Well, I did not want to make fun of mental illness in any way. I have anxiety, so know what it's like to struggle with things and feel like you're going crazy. I tried to put all that in there. So, it's probably occasionally searing. "The light is too bright." But I'm proud of what we did with that book, and I'm glad people read it.
"The Art of He-Man & The Masters of the Universe" is on sale now from Dark Horse Comics.