Legendary Villains: Skeletor (Part 1 of 3) -Early Origins and Lore

The ancient rivalry between Skeletor and He-Man rages eternally across space and time. Blades meet in ferocious battle and brighten the cosmos with their erupting sparks. It’s a timeless tale of swords and sorcery, a tale as old as mankind. It is a thrilling reincarnation of the old Good vs Evil morality play. And it all took place before our little eyes right on the center stage of our living rooms. The magic words “By the Power of Grayskull” unlocked the secrets of the cosmos and a fantastical world would unfold. Toys, cartoons, and comics all fueled the ever-lasting battle for Eternia over our lives. For many, it introduced us to the esoteric concepts of Good and Evil as well as the hefty responsibility of power. 

In this new series dedicated entirely to villains, we’ll be discussing the devious merits of villainy and the loneliness of Evil. Their victories, their defeats, and, most importantly, their origins and the roots of wickedness. Where did they come from and what is the end game for some of our favorite bad guys? That and more awaits!

And who better to start this off with than Skeletor, the Lord of Destruction himself?

It truly goes without saying any hero worth his salt needs a significant villain. An embodiment of darkness and someone to upset the tranquility of life. A definite negative to the heroic positive. An opposite that matches the hero in some way and provides threats for our champion to face. If the hero is all about selfless sacrifice the villain is about selfish conquest and will slaughter anyone to make it happen. 

For many of us, Skeletor was our first look into the face of pure evil. And what a visage it was! There was no hiding his malice, no denying his diabolic intentions. He (with the possible exception of Darth Vader) was our first villain and his pursuit was nothing short of obtaining the celestial power of the universe eternal to play with at his will. 

Skeletor is the perfect villain. You look at him and just know he’s pure evil. His face is that of living death beneath a sorcerer-hood. His weapon is crowned with the head of Baphomet and bears the name of Havoc Staff, a creation of pure sorcery. He’s singular-minded in his purpose to crush, kill, and ruin all who defy him. And his body of pure muscles reveals lunatic self-discipline. He is evil through and through. 

Many evil doers set goals towards wealth, influence, or world domination. Skeletor on the other hand seeks nothing short of ruling the entire universe and will stop at nothing until he, at last, holds the Power of Grayskull in his hands. Woe be to those foolish enough to stand in his way.

“Yes, I feel it! The power fills me… I feel the universe within me. I am, I am a part of the cosmos. Its energy flows, flows through me. And what consequence are you now? This planet, these people, they are nothing to me. The universe is power! Pure, unstoppable Power! And I am that force. I am that Power!” Skeletor (Frank Langella) Master of the Universe (1987)

concept art for Skeletor, image via Canon.

Origins Rooted In Macabre Horror

Fittingly for one such as Skeletor his origins reach out of a nocturnal hall of shadows, twistedness, and decaying fear. The concept artist (Mark Taylor) behind the iconic design for Skeletor recalls visiting a creepy funhouse as a kid at Pike’s Amusement Park where an event would leave a mark on his subconscious for years to come.

Mark Taylor’s early concept design of Skeletor

He recalls how the further down the dark corridor he traveled the air soured ahead of him as if he were walking toward an open grave. The acute smell of rot grew more cumbersome until a skeleton dropped from a hidden door in the ceiling and dangled grotesquely before his horrified eyes.

The smell of the macabre sight was overwhelming and young Taylor knew he was looking at a real human corpse, and years later it would be confirmed he was right. The skeletal face stared at him with lifeless sight and blocked the child’s path. He swears it was the scariest thing he’d ever seen and, years later, admits that’s where the persona of Skeletor took root in his subconscious.  

early concept art for He-Man and Skeletor via artist Mark Taylor

Taylor’s further attributed his inspirations come from the scandalous horror comics of EC. That’s right the comic company banned for being much too graphic for polite society’s eyes played a hand in Skeletor’s beginning. Now our readers will gladly recognize the heinous works of EC Comics, the guys who made Tales From the Crypt and the Vault of Horror (to name a few) are well beloved around here.

image via EC Comics

Whether it’s grizzly depictions of scarred killers mutilating innocent victims, or the rotting undead rising out of wormy graves to feed on warm human guts, their images linger in the soul. Who can forget the devilish monsters brought to life by pen and paper under the EC seal of macabre quality? Most of us here were born in the ‘80s and EC Comics were already far long gone by then but even we recognized the art and wonder these old comics held in them. I remember finding one of my dad’s old EC comics and was disgusted by what I saw in there. I, being a child psychopath, needed to see more of course. So EC Comics – in part – helped inspire the conceptional-design of MOTU.

Fun Fact: in his earliest genesis, Skeletor was originally known as D-Man or ‘demon.’ And as you can see by this grizzly concept sketch EC was heavily part of his character. You can definitely see Skeletor in the face, but there’s a strange other-worldly nature to the design too. Something almost alien. This early-on concept manages to be even more ghastly than the finished product.

early Skeletor concept

Mark Taylor intended Skeletor to be both the very essence of Evil and the manifestation of fear. And who can deny it? There’s something dreadfully hypnotic about Skeletor. A demonic charm that enthralls the attention and has never really let us go. 

Skeletor’s origins may have started as one boy’s initial jump scare back at an amusement park, but as his background fleshed out and grew it transcended generations and rose above and beyond what anyone thought a small plastic toy could ever do.

What are the basics?

Skeletor is the arch-enemy of He-Man. Skeletor is the devious bad guy at Snake Mountain and has one goal in mind: to take control of Castle Grayskull.  He is a skilled swordsman as well as a cunning sorcerer. He’s a powerful warlord with an army of demons at his command. He is a very real and ever-present threat to all life.

Fans of the cartoon also know him as a cackling wiseass whose plans never quite turn out how he intends. He’s always bitching out his lackeys and being a constant thorn in King Randor’s side. In pop culture, this is his most recognizable identity.

Nevertheless, as we’ll be discussing, Skeletor’s legacy has spread out from the animated campiness and allowed him to go all-out Hellish.  Not that there’s anything wrong with cartoonish camp. I just happen to like my Skeletor a little darker is all.

Early Origin Story

Shortly lived as it was, according to the earliest conceptual work (and the mini-comics) Skeletor was from an evil dimension where the hellish denizens looked uncannily similar to him. We’re not told much about his home planet or dimension. It very well could be Hell or a version of Hell in that part of the Universe. Now interestingly enough this ‘alien’ or outsider background hasn’t exactly left Skeletor as his lore later developed and found itself at the heart of his origins in the updated 200X series, but we’ll get all into that a bit later on. 

So overall Skeletor is a Hellish entity that entered into the calm beauty of Eternia with the sole plan to rule the universe.  His archenemy though has a few different origin stories.

Admittedly each of the original comics holds different explanations as to how He-Man became He-Man. At first, he was a barbarian (but an even earlier background had him originally raised by apes) who walked away from his village and wound up in the favor of the Goddess who bestowed upon him magical armor and weapons. Weapons and armor Skeletor and his evil minions coveted and sought to steal.

Originally it was this armour of the Goddess that made He-Man the most powerful man in the universe. So if Skeletor wore the same armour he would then hold the same power.

This origin is also more akin to Frank Frazetta’s fantastical artwork and is metal AF. The world of this He-Man is a far more savage place inhabited by barbarians and demons. I dig it.

But then later the comic license was transferred to DC who quickly changed things up and gave the man with superpowers a secret identity and thus Prince Adam was born. In this version, Prince Adam would jump into a cave and come out as HE-MAN! The most powerful man in the universe! It can get confusing but the core thread these differing origins share is the idea that He-Man is the hero sent out to answer his destiny. Meanwhile, as the hero was setting out to answer the Universe’s call so was his opponent, the villainous Skeletor. And so the balance of Good and Evil was set in place and the battle has never stopped.  And speaking of balance…

Of the Sword of Sorcery

The Power Sword was split in two. One half went to He-Man and its twin fell into the hands of Skeletor. In order to unite both halves and complete the sword one of the two champions would need to fall. Only by fusing the broken Sword back together could you unlock the jaw-bridge of Grayskull and gain access to all the secrets hidden within. 

Skeletor knew that only by the power of Grayskull could he achieve his goals. In order to do so he would need an army of demons to attack Eternia. Skeletor’s (original) goal was to use the Power Sword and tear an opening in the fabric of reality to gain access back to his evil dimension. Only then could he lead his legions in a merciless invasion over this new world where he would take control of Castle Grayskull and finally become the Master of the Universe. Ambitious as all fucking Hell right from the start. 

Why won’t anyone make a film about that? I’m serious. Could you imagine that kind of movie? It would be as epic as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. 

It’s funny but I can’t really find what He-Man would have done with the complete Sword other than keeping it safe. Skeletor on the other hand has a very definite goal and pursues it with Hell-bound determination. One (of many) gripe I have with Kevin Smith’s take on MOTU – and if you’re a fan of Revelations go ahead and skip forward because I’m going to get critical – is the man’s complete lack of understanding of the property. Smith’s Skeletor obtains the Power Sword and commands Grayskull but in no time at all gets to the point where he has really no clue what to do with it. Well other than kill He-Man. Which, I must point out, he can’t even pull off. The established lore contradicts this notion by already revealing, and in various ways, how Skeletor has a definite goal at work and what he would do should he obtain the coveted Power. Guess that’s what happens when you give a man a property he claims he never even liked to begin with. 

Now the Filmation cartoon introduced the notion of the Power Sword being lifted up and the magic words being said, ‘By the Power of Grayskull!” In this version, Skeletor does not have half of the Power Sword and the sword, as far as I know, is complete in the cartoon. I personally like the idea of one half being held by the champion of Good and its equal in the hands of Evil. Something deep about that notion. Something about the loneliness of Good equalling the loneliness of Evil if you know what I mean.

Some have had a real issue with all the lacking continuity found in the different background stories. So much so that it frustrates and overwhelms some people. You can tell a lot of this stuff was made up on the fly and as Mattel swung by the seats of their pants to get toys out to kids they wound up conjuring forth some of the coolest characters anyone had ever seen in the whole universe.

And kids don’t care much for this stuff. They’ll make up their own stories. The fact that Mattel even gave any background or a moment’s thought to the history and world these figures inhabited is astounding really. Today we just come to expect lore. Back then though, the early ’80s, this was all brand new! So one guy came up with a cool look for the characters and another gave it a gander and spun a bullshit story about who the toy was and then the toys hit shelves. Later on, as the comics were being written more lore could be included. As that went along a fresh idea came to mind and so the lore was broadened even at the cost of continuity. The same happened when writing the cartoon.

At the end of the day we can’t expect some almighty cohesive storyline as fundamental cannon. I personally like each one, although I favor the Frazetta-inspired saga. The one thing they all agree on is Skeletor’s always been a demon of some kind. And he fights the mightiest hero in the cosmos, He-Man! But don’t miss the point here: Mattel sold demons to kids! Fucking legendary.

And who’s to say it’s not all somehow connected? It’s a story about the Universe after all. So while He-Man walks away from his barbarian tribe to become the champion of Eternia in another reality Prince Adam simultaneously walks into Grayskull and meets the Sorceress. Bottom line, to me, a lifelong fan, they all work together rather than against each other. As long as the basics stay the same the lore stands intact.  At its heart its a saga about Good vs Evil. And we can all relate to that.

It’s up to you to choose which background you prefer. That power is entrusted to the fan’s hands. 

To wrap things up I want to leave off with the cliffhanger of the final mini-comic of 1987. The story revolves around King Randor’s long, lost brother who vanished years before the events of MOTU took place. So there’s, even more, to explore, and believe me, it’s going to get wild as we not only look at the finale of the ’87 story but then jump ahead to the 200X series to meet its conclusion.

As the above panel shows the secret of Keldor was meant to be a major breakthrough in the lore surrounding the Lord of Destruction. In true villainous fashion Skeletor’s story didn’t end in ’87. Our beloved villain would not just make a return in the decades to come, but he would come back with much more power and weave a spell over generations to come.

So be sure to join us next time as we cover this secret in Part II of Skeletor’s origins and legend. We’re far from over, my Nasties. They’ll be plenty of twists and turns as well as a few familiar faces making an appearance.

In the meantime, if you crave more of that lovely nostalgic goodness be sure to check out more of our stuff like my thoughts on the classic 80s Transformers: The Movie. I’m Manic Exorcism and wish you all a very Happy New Year!

 

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2 thoughts on “Legendary Villains: Skeletor (Part 1 of 3) -Early Origins and Lore”

  1. Pretty thorough text. I like it. Its important to give context in most media related to MOTU because it evolved at the early stages in a fractured way. One hand doing something the other hand didn’t, hence lack of continuity.

    Couple nitpicks. While Skeletor had early name ”D-Man”, that illustration according to Mark Taylor was for a Conan villain. Its been mixed up as concept for Skeletor (and ”classics” toyline made it as a new character alltogether). The other early concept art (crown bearing figure) was actually done in the 70s before Mark Taylor was working at Mattel. According to his widow Rebecca, it was a skeleton king of river styx type idea. Not associated to Skeletor, other than maybe the notion of a character with a skull for its face. 🙂

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  2. Nice write-up!

    The split sword thing was a hold-over from Blackstar, Filmation’s proto–He-Man cartoon. I’ve always felt the He-Man cartoon was scripted to include much littler boys than most…so there were no complications to He-Man’s most-powerful status, like a missing half-sword. He-Man didn’t really have any problems that couldn’t be solved with one punch, and Skeletor and his minions were pretty much incompetent anyway.

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