For the first episode of Nerd Beards, Captain Blackheart and Anexandros asked me to look into the history of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The question my bearded friends had was, “Moon, which came first, the toy or the toon?”
The answer is simple: the toy.
It began in 1976, when Mattel declined a 750,000 offer to purchase merchandising rights to the Holy Trinity. After Star Wars toys made it big, Mattel realized its mistake and tried for years to make toys to compete.
While the actual designer of He-Man is up for debate, in 1980, Mattel’s production team came to the conclusion that they toys needed to be easily marketable. The designers came up with three models for He-Man: the Barbarian, a Soldier, and a Spaceman. They gave him the generic name “He-Man.” and when the marketing team chose the barbarian version of the character to become the centerpiece.
Around the same time that Mattel started developing He-Man, the copyright holders to Conan the Barbarian started negotiations with the toy company to begin developing a line of toys. However, Mattel pulled out of the deal, and when He-Man launched, Conan’s rights holders sued for copyright infringement. Ultimately, Mattel won the case, though the original concept art and construction of He-Man could easily be described as “homage.”
If you look at He-Man and Conan, you can see similarities. However, Conan the Barbarian was an old franchise already by 1980, and the artwork and styles of Conan could have easily influenced the design and concepts for He-man.
But the idea wasn’t just to have these cool toys. Toys without a story won’t sell. Mattel needed a way for kids to know what these characters were, so they used D.C. to develop an initial 11 comics to describe the characters before Anyway, comics arrived almost as soon as the toys did as a means of promotion. The first 11 comics were produced by D.C. comics, then Mattel took over, releasing comics with the toys.
While Mattel was developing the toys and DC was designing the early comics, Mattel approached Filmation producer Lou Scheimer and asked if he had an interest in developing the cartoon. Scheimer did not like the story presented to him, but he saw the potential in the deal. He agreed, to develop it if Mattel gave him creative control, they would try to syndicate it. Which they did, successfully. He even managed to get Filmation’s parent company, Westinghouse to help finance the show.
The show played in syndication, which meant it had no specific network that paid for it. This helped spread the show to a wider audience, without a network intervention in the program. Over a course of 130 episodes, a Christmas Special, and the She-Ra cross over, Mattel and Filmation created a franchise that sits in our memories still to this day.
Interestingly enough, Scheimer provided the voice talent for Orko, King Randor, and Stratos. For example, John Erwin voiced Prince Adam and He-Man, Ram-Man, and Beastman. Linda Gary provided the voice for Teela, the Sorceress, Evil-Lynn, as well as several voices for She-Ra. Alan Oppenheimer provided the voices for Skeletor, Man-at-arms, Cringer, and Battlecat. And all of these actors voiced miscellaneous other roles when needed.
Why do all these actors do so many roles? It is a time and money saver. The fewer actors you have doing more roles, the fewer actors animators have to pay.
Oh! Let’s also not forget that movie, Masters of the Universe (1987) with Dolph Lundgren as He-Man of Rocky fame and Frank Langella (who has had roles in films such as The Ninth Gate, Sweet November, Frost/Nixon, Cutthroat Island, and on the television show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) as Skeletor. By the time this film aired, the cartoon was off the air, but the toys were still quite beloved by children everywhere.
Surprisingly, the role of Skeltor was one of Langella’s favorite roles who won massive cool points as a dad with his four year old kid because of the part.
The film had very little to with the animated series. He-man comes to Earth, has to find a ‘key’ that looks like a synthesizer, fights Skeletor. Honestly, the only thing I remember of the film from my childhood is that it is the first film I remember with a post-credit scene: Skeletor whispering “I’ll be back” after having been defeated.
But to the original question of the half-hour toy commercial, the FCC wouldn’t allow actual commercials for the toys to air during the cartoons, because the cartoon was commercial enough. It really was a brilliant marketing program, so much so that Mattel soon thought that they were only reaching half the child market, leading them to develop spin-off, She-Ra.If He-Man was a way to sell toys, She-Ra was a way to sell toys to the girls. Which brings us to….
In He-Man, there are really only a few women: Teela, the Queen, the Sorceress, and Evil-Lynn that appear on a regular basis. Then there’s the world of She-Ra, which is not the focal point of this discussion. He-Man does not have very many strong female role models, (even in the She-Ra).
Let’s take a moment to examine these women (For sake of brevity, I’m not going to discuss Evil-Lynn).
Teela: She’s the Captain of the Guard. She’s the (adopted) daughter of Man-at-Arms. She’s the (actual) daughter of the sorceress. She’s constantly caught as a damsel in distress, and flirts with He-Man every chance she gets. I get the impression she is only Captain of the Guard because of the nepotism involved with her father’s position in court. (In the first episode, she ASKS PERMISSION to call the guards from the King and Queen, to do her job).
Queen Marlena: An Earth Astronaut turned queen. That she was an astronaut was pretty awesome: Cool, look, a woman in a science job. But, she ends up being little more than a wife and mother, around to justify Earth references.
The Sorceress: She has magic powers. She lives in Castle Greyskull, and can turn into a bird. She has AMAZINGLY AWESOME POWERS, acts as the mentor, spiritual guide to the Heroes of the program. She is Teela’s mother. She is powerful and intelligent. She’s probably the most powerful woman in the Universe. But, she’s much like a ‘lady of the lake.’ She can leave Greyskull, but it weakens her power. Does this weaken her as a role model? Perhaps not. But she is on sucha high pedestal that she is a nearly impossible to follow role model.
Nerd Beards Discussion:
The First three episodes of He-Man: “The Diamond Ray of Disappearance”; “Teela’s Quest,” and “Colossor Awakes.”
He-Man, Barbie, and Body Issues.
The tacked-on morals on the shows.