It is without a doubt He-Man dominated the toy market of yesteryear. Making his way to our local toy shelves he took his rightful place as the reigning king of figurines and promptly slaughtered the competition. Not even the galactic juggernaut toy line of Star Wars could withstand the power of Grayskull and Eternia’s mighty champions.
He-Man and Masters of the Universe did not have a movie’s storyline to follow and upon initial creation-stages, the classic cartoon wasn’t even a thought at the time. What He-Man did have was his immense look and all the charm each figure brought with them.
That and the breathtaking artwork eruptoing across each package!
These were toys, true, but these were also thrilling works of art. A thing unseen back in the day and it set MOTU apart from its competitors. There was time and passion put into these. Muscles, savagery, feminine beauty (in Teela’s case), and undeniable evil as seen in Skeletor’s demonic visage. The divide between good and evil was clearly revealed in each figure and it didn’t take rocket science to figure out who was who.
Likewise, each figure was a puzzle piece and when all brought together uncovered a fantastical picture of a far-off universe where the never-ending conflict between good and evil raged imperially on the distant planet of Eternia.
The artwork on the display packaging helped fill in the world where swords and sorcery akin to the barbarian world of Conan met technical superiority – such as monstrous tanks and hovering battle crafts – of sci-fi grandeur! It was a brilliant fusion of genres. And power, pure and unstoppable power.
I daresay anyone of us gazing upon Castle Gray Skull was immediately pulled into the vortex of its wondrous world of secrets and sorcery. What exactly was Gray Skull? None of us had a clue. Truth was we weren’t sure if it was meant for good or evil. There’s always been a grim neutrality about the castle and that makes it more wondrous. Plus it looked METAL as all Hell and that made us want it so much more!
First, you’d see the toy but then there’s that Frazetta-inspired artwork on each packaging and it just demanded your attention. It filled the imagination. They didn’t have to put that much detail into packaging, you know, the thing we were going to tear into and throw in the trash. Looking back I now wish I had all the cards and boxes to proudly display and gloat over. Back then we didn’t know better.
Of course, I have to mention the cartoon for a moment.
Originally it wasn’t even in the mind of the creative team behind the toy line. But it was believed that something had to help kids piece together Eternia and the battles for Castle Grayskull. So a daily cartoon was made up out of thin air and pitched. Again, MOTU was an instant hit among kids!
The show was appropriately campy. I guess the laughs and silliness was needed for us stupid kids. For example, Skeletor is a treacherous villain but he’s not too scary, or else kids would’ve had nightmares. And no parent wants to put up with that shit. So he was a bad guy but also kinda a dope. But hey, he’s a lovable dope.
That sort of attitude wasn’t expressed on the package art – or the original comics for that matter. Originally the Masters of the Universe was much more mature in tone and a lot darker. Eternia was expressed as someplace bordering on Hell. A place of dark wonder and sensational battles.
However, rather than being in conflict with each other that darker tone happily balances out the show’s campiness. The two work in harmony. A yin-yang coequality that resonates in fans to this very day. Some look back at the camp and are filled with nostalgic glee. Others look at the inspired art and feel a thrill for dark sorcery and battles in Eternia. The toys fit perfectly into both interpretations thus creating a nice harmony for fans. And both are masterpieces when it comes to art.
He-Man and Masters of the Universe could adorn the walls of any prestigious gallery around the world or be slapped on the cover of heavy metal albums! I mean this was stuff you expected to see on DIO tapes. This was great stuff. It didn’t look sloppy or rushed. There was power displayed in each and every one.
We were too young and innocent to fully grasp what a phenomenon this all was. I know I took it for granted and just came to expect to always have He-Man in my future. And, crazy enough, here I am in my 40’s and I just bought a Viking He-Man and Skeletor, so I guess, in a way, he has been.
Did any of us know we were living through pop-culture history? Of course not. I don’t know if that term even existed back then. We were too busy playing in our living rooms or outside in sandboxes, living and reliving new and bigger adventures (thanks to our toys). We couldn’t have realized people would later covetously look back on our childhoods longing for the magic we all shared in.
For many of us He-Man was all we had and that, at least, gave us something to look forward to. This was something wonderful and we were lucky enough to experience it all firsthand. We all reached up and touched a little bit of magic and it lit our imaginations and really never left us.
Before kids started playing with wands and imagining the wizarding world of Harry Potter we were holding plastic swords aloft in the air and commanding the powers of the universe!
I recently walked through Target and I saw He-Man and the Masters of the Universe on the shelves. I also saw retro Transformers toys and some great Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle stuff from NECA. There were G.I. Joes and I even saw Ghostbusters! “What year is this?” I had a moment, a good moment, where I realized I’m honestly not alone.
This stuff not only inspired me but it had to have stayed with all of us. The good old days can’t be relived I guess but they never left us. Not really. A lot of us have kids (well not me personally) and get to now introduce them to the toylines we ourselves grew up with. With the holidays upon us, it might be a good time to go look around the toy aisles. Give Santa a helping hand.
So who knew the Power of Grayskull would follow us this far?
The Power of Grayskull
Art never dies. Not when there’s passion behind it. Today MOTU has been explored across several animated shows, a live-action movie (hey, rise above the hate), and, oh yes, the toy lines. Four Horsemen rolled out their brilliant Classics line that charged new energy (dare I say Power) and searing details into each figure that echoed the original look of the toys we all grew up loving.
Not to mention the Origins line that’s a glorified return of the MOTU toys we all played with. But there’s also the Revelations and New Eternia stuff. I think it’s clear that He-Man isn’t going anywhere. Fans find ways to breathe fresh life into the property.
There are the comic book runs that extend the legacy of Eternia. There’s even a great crossover with Thundercats (I know right???), a thing I always thought should happen. Glad I wasn’t alone because that’s one Healluva cool story! Maybe I’ll do a review on that one. You guys let me know.
And other artists have come out to lend their talents to strengthen the legacy further. One artist of note is none other than Boris Vallejo, legendary fantasy artist. And it’s little wonder considering how Frank Frazetta’s original Conan work initially inspired the look and feel for He-Man. It began in fantasy and continues by it today.
I was just speaking with someone this week about MOTU and he said that it’s possible all his collecting could have begun way back then when, as a kid, he had to get everything He-Man related. And that’s it. That could be the gateway for all of us collectors. For some, it was an introduction to high adventures, magic, heroism, morals, and the responsibility of power. MOTU led way to many things we would adapt as adults later in life. A toy line!
In closing, it would be sinful if I didn’t share a small memory.
I fondly remember one figure in particular just because it was given to me by my Great-Grandma Phillips. She (no doubt) had no clue what these things were but she knew her little Manic loved He-Man so she got me an amazing BATTLE DAMAGE Skeletor. Whoa! I never saw a figure that took battle damage before! I loved it. Now looking back I love it so much more because of my great-grandmother’s associated memory attached to it. I think that’s the only thing I got from her, at least it’s the one thing that stands out to me. She wasn’t long for this world and any time I saw that little toy she came to mind.