A Brief History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

I cannot think of a better example of the quintessential Saturday morning cartoon than He-man and the Masters of the Universe. It had everything a kid could ask for as part of their weekend plans: a hero they can look up to, a collection of characters with varied powers, colorful villains they can throw around, and a lush world full of adventure. Not to mention some classic comic relief and those helpful PSAs. The cartoon, combined with its incredibly diverse toyline, dominated the hearts of children in the early 80s, leading to a spin-off with his sister and even a live-action film. The love for the show has kept it alive for decades, leading to multiple reboots that are still going today.

I cannot understate my personal history with the brand. I remember it being my first favorite cartoon, and it taking up my entire childhood before Transformers came along two years later. He-Man was a favorite of mine and both my brothers, and we often fought over who got to play with which figure. I remember my older brother having a birthday party with a home-made Pin the Sword on He-Man game my mom drew, and I received three Man-E-Faces figures on my birthday that year, the last one being on my cake saying, “Happy Birthday and Man-E-More.”

But where did He-Man start? Though the origin of He-Man is tied in with a licensing agreement with Conan, the first hints of the toyline that would become the Masters of the Universe predated that. When Mattel pulled out of the contract to produce Conan figures, they went back to their original designs, with Toy Designer Mark Taylor adapting a character that he had been working on as early as 1950 that went by the name Torak: Hero of Prehistory. Skeletor’s look, he said, was influenced by a carnival scare ride he went on as a child that used a real human skeleton to spook its passengers.

Mark Taylor wanted to elevate the toyline above its Conan-like roots, adding sci-fi elements like blasters and robots to the sword and sorcery world – in an interview with the incredible Battle Ram Blog, he said he would have taken the mishmash of science fiction and fantasy further, adding “zombies, aliens, and time travel. Why not?”

The first wave of toys came out in 1982, including He-Man, Skeletor, Teela, Man-at-Arms, Stratos, Zodac, Beast Man, and Mer-Man. I’ll again be referring to the Battle Ram Blog, as it’s the most comprehensive collection of figure-related information. Many of the pictures in this section come straight from the site, so if you want to see more, check it out. The figures came with either hard plastic or rubberized plastic armor that clipped or buckled on and removed as you please, that varied between body harnesses and chest plates and pauldrons. Each also came with a signature weapon that included a ton of swords, maces, whips, or blasters. Skeletor’s Havoc Staff was a favorite of mine but would always end up bent because of its length. The figures featured bulging muscles and battle-ready poses, distinguishing themselves from GI Joe’s thinner, smaller figures. The figures also had a punching action feature – twist the waist to either side and it will swing back into place.

Later waves of the figures would introduce a plethora of action features. My favorites were Roboto, which replaced the spring waist gimmick with rotating gears inside a transparent chest, Whiplash, which added a rubber tail to his back that would swing around with the punch, and of course, Man-E-Faces, which I mentioned getting before, which had a wheel on the top of his head that rotated between three faces – a human, a robot, and a monster. Other prominent figures were Mekaneck, whose head would periscope up with a twist of his waist, and Tri-Clops, whose eyes would rotate on a ring around his face. He-Man and Skeletor would also get different action features, like battle-damaged armor and laser lights.

Thunder Punch He-Man Patent Image

Along with the toys came vehicles and playsets. He-Man’s faithful Battle Cat was the first, which was a recolored tiger from Mattel’s earlier Big Jim toyline with some added strap-on armor and was later recolored again and flocked for Skeletor’s pet, Panthor. Zoar, the eagle form of the Sorceress with wing flapping action, and also recolored into Screeech, was another carry-over from the Big Jim line. Vehicles like the Wind Raider, which had a working winch, and the Attak Trak with its rolling treads, combined mechanical designs and monstrous stickers. But the biggest and the best, was Castle Grayskull. Designer Mark Taylor always said “all the answers are in Castle Grayskull” as he felt it was the best chance to tell the story that connected all the toys. This massive playset featured a working “Jawbridge,” elevator, and trapdoor. Fantasy and sci-fi were both displayed front and center, with stickers showing a dungeon filled with monsters and a computer console showing various planets.

Original prototype with moat playmat

With the toys came mini-comics, and DC Comics also produced a series – both had some interesting changes from what we would know and love. Originally, Prince Adam was designed as a separate character by Mark Taylor, but the DC Comics Superman/He-Man crossover was his first appearance as He-Man’s alter ego. Even then, he differed from his later appearances, notably being a womanizer and a drinker and already strong enough to tie a barbell in a knot. To change into He-Man, he would go to the “Cavern of Power” and the Goddess would imbue him with power. Who’s the Goddess, you ask? That’s the other major change in the mini-comics. The Goddess, which would become the Sorceress, used the snake motif that was later assigned to Teela, and had green skin (or wore a green body suit, she appeared both ways). They later merged the Goddess with Teela into one figure when Mattel didn’t think two female figures would sell.

Mattel moved to produce an animated series and went into partnership with Filmation Studios, fresh off their series Blackstar, which also featured a tanned, muscular hero with super strength from an enchanted sword. Sound familiar? It’s hard not to draw parallels between the two. Anyway, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe premiered in September 1983. The cartoon lasted 2 seasons of 65 episodes each.

The show gained some controversy upon its release. Rules forbidding television shows to promote toys for children had just ended and He-Man became the first syndicated show to be based on a toy. Parents considered the show nothing more than a 30-minute advertisement for action figures, so Filmation added on public service announcements, small clips at the end of the show where the characters delivered messages directly to children about real-world dangers around them that sometimes related to the contents of the story.

Instead of listing off important or popular episodes which I’m sure everyone has watched a million times, I just wanted to pick out a few that stick out in my memory. Favorites of mine include Orko’s Favorite Uncle and other episodes that dealt with the character’s past on Trolla, and any episode that included the dragon Granamyr. Of course, I can’t forget to mention how much I loved Skeletor’s myriad of names for every character in the show. I always loved when he called He-Man “Flesh-face” as an insult. One of my favorite concepts explored in the show was that Prince Adam’s mother, Queen Marlena, was an astronaut from Earth that crash-landed on Eternia. It was another parallel with Filmation’s previous show, Blackstar – the main character, John Blackstar, was also an Earth space traveler that found himself in an alien world.

He-Man’s popularity exploded, producing an enormous collection of toys, a spin-off series featuring his sister, She-Ra, and two feature-length movies. The first movie was Secret of the Sword, a spliced-together version of the first five episodes of She-Ra: Princess of Power. She-Ra’s story – Prince Adam’s twin sister, kidnapped as a baby by Skeletor’s boss Hordak – lasted another two seasons with 93 total episodes. Taking place on the planet Etheria, Princess Adora splits from the evil Horde and becomes a hero to the Rebellion. Several episodes feature appearances by He-Man, Skeletor, and others from the original series, and they crossed over again in He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special, which features another connection with Earth.

He-Man and She-Ra

The second film, simply titled Masters of the Universe, starred action star Dolph Lundgren as He-Man and Frank Langella as Skeletor. This live-action film changed quite a few things from the cartoon, namely making Skeletor ruler of Eternia, having taken over Castle Grayskull, and He-Man leading the resistance. New characters such as Blade, Saurod, and Gwildor are introduced, while established players like Orko, Ram Man, and Trap-Jaw got left out in the cold. Teela, Man-at-Arms, the Sorceress, Evil Lyn, and Beast Man are the only other characters to survive the trip to the silver screen. Earth once again appears as the Cosmic Key teleports our heroes here. They meet Courtney Cox and eat some KFC, but then go back to Eternia and, with the help of a detective, defeat Skeletor – though he teases a return in a post-credits scene that never came to fruition.

The film bombed at the box office and was panned by critics, contributing to the eventual closure of Cannon Films. They planned a sequel with an absolutely insane story about Skeletor coming to Earth and taking over a tech firm and He-man hiding as a quarterback. Thankfully, it never happened. Unfortunately, production of the original He-Man and the Masters of the Universe ended when She-Ra started, and with both cartoons finishing their run, along with the abysmal reception to the movie and dwindling toy sales, He-Man and friends seemed at an end.

But there was no way that Mattel could leave He-Man there – after all, he’s the Strongest Man in the Universe. What better way to prove it than send him into space? The New Adventures of He-Man premiered in 1990, setting him on a new course to the planet Primus (really just a future version of Eternia) along with Skeletor. He-Man’s new allies, the Galactic Guardians, and Skeletor’s minions, the Mutants, are all new for the show, including characters like Flipshot and Slush Head.

The Adventures of He-Man

I have to admit this show somehow completely eluded me. Though I was still very much into cartoons as the 90s rolled around, but I wasn’t even aware of this one. I watched the first few episodes and I admit; I don’t care for it. My biggest problem is Skeletor; his menace is completely removed and replaced by the conniving of a used car salesman. Which is doubly depressing as the voice actor Cam Lane does such a terrifying job as Rampage in Transformers: Beast Wars.

Unfortunately, the new cartoon could not stem the flow of disinterest in the brand. A decade later, another series was produced, this time a reboot. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe premiered in 2002, along with a new toyline. Designed by the Four Horsemen, the toys feature excellent sculpts of the characters (who all had a weird hunch in my opinion). The cartoon had incredible animation and featured an origin story for He-Man and Grayskull, and for the first time, we see Skeletor as Randor’s brother, Keldor, before acid and magic gave him his familiar skull face. The show even had a pretty funny callback to the original cartoon, starting with Prince Adam’s introduction before Skeletor and his Evil Masters interrupt him.

He-Man cartoon 2002

I’m so glad I didn’t miss this show, which was broadcast on Cartoon Network instead of syndication. I appreciated the more mature storylines and deeper characterizations. The animation was top-notch, even though I thought some of it, like everyone’s ability to jump 20 feet in the air and do unlimited flips, was a little over-the-top. I don’t remember buying any of the figures, but I loved their designs – however, I disliked the themed designs He-Man and Skeletor got, especially the weirdly stilted Samurai versions.

Though the new series only lasted two seasons, with a planned third season going unproduced, renewed interest in the series continued to build. Four years later, Mattel released the Classics line, based on the first toyline with greater articulation, and added many figures not originally available, such as Queen Marlena and the dragon Granamyr. They even produced a Mo-larr, Eternian Dentist figure from one of He-Man’s many Robot Chicken skits. Now, Mattel produces three separate lines of He-Man figures, including my favorite version, their Mega brand – I can’t wait to put together Snake Mountain.

He-Man Mega

He-Man’s resurgence in popularity in the last decade is unmistakable. With two different shows coming out in the last few years, including a sequel series to the original (which ignores The New Adventures of He-Man) directed by Kevin Smith, and a CGI series acting as another reboot, He-Man is spreading to a whole new generation, while keeping lovers of the original still enthralled. Even She-Ra, He-Man’s sister, received a reboot on Netflix, and, while it takes the biggest steps away from its inspiration, all three shows are fantastic representations of what was and what will be in the future of the Masters of the Universe.

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About Brian Cave 29 Articles
Raised in the 80s on a strict diet of the most awesome cartoons to ever exist, Brian is the author of Old School Evil, a novel inspired by the likes of Megatron, Skeletor, and the other colorful villains that held our Saturday mornings captive.

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