TOY STORY: MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE
BYLINE: By DALLAS MIDDAUGH
were masters of their domain.
the past 12 months, we've examined a passel of action figure
franchises in the pages of "Toy Story," ranging
from the successful to the imitative, from the awesome to
the merely adequate. This issue it's time to look at one of
the true biggies, a toy line with an impact on the action
figure industry that can still be seen today.
right, it's He-Man time...and to celebrate, we've given good
Prince Adam and company a few extra pages to tell their story.
a doubt, Mattel's Masters of the Universe franchise was one
of the most influential action figure lines of the past 15
years. Thanks in large part to "He-Man and the Masters
of the Universe," an animated series based on the toys,
Masters was an unprecedented success. He-Man also capitalized
heavily on so-called "action features" which gave
each toy a built-in special, unique function. These two elements
would be a major part of toy lines that followed, including
Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Super Powers,
and many, many more. In his favor, He-Man took the mechanisms
to new levels. Kids got a new gimmick in every single He-Man
all started a little less than 30 years ago. In 1969, a landmark
decision by the Federal Communications Commission drastically
affected the American toy industry. In the late 1960's, Mattel
was primed to capitalize on "Hot Wheels," an animated
show based upon its toy car franchise. Critics charged that
the show was really just a glorified commercial for the immensely
popular toys, and efforts were made to keep the series off
the air. At first, the attempts to forestall it failed. When
"Hot Wheels" finally did air, the FCC stepped in
and made it illegal to create a children's television show
based primarily on a toy, and therefore deemed lacking of
necessary educational value. Fortunately, the decision didn't
really affect too many animated series or toy lines out there
at the time. It was an important moment in toy history, not
for the ban, but for the edict's reversal in 1983, a moment
that changed toys forever. Ironically, one of the first toy
franchises affected was Mattel's He-Man.
years earlier, in 1981, Mattel kept a watchful eye out for
its next big hit. Martin Arriola, now a senior staff designer
with Mattel, was a designer on Masters for most of its initial
six-year run. He remembers that the company was performing
market research into doing figures based on Robert E. Howard's
popular Conan the Barbarian character. Renderings of the Cimmerian
warlord were created, one of which was by staff artist Mark
Taylor. Arriola saw that what Taylor was creating was just
a little bit different. "It was Conan-like," Arriola
says, "but he had blond hair instead of dark. We also
had renderings for Skeletor and Beast Man."
Arriola won't swear this is exactly how it went down, to the
best of his knowledge these drawings were added into the market
research already being performed for a potential Conan line.
Faced with a choice between Conan and He-Man, more kids chose
squarely on this new franchise, Mattel then created a backstory
for the character and released the first figures to the market
in 1981, each with its own mini-comic. "[He-Man's]original
storyline was a lot different than what they did in the animation,"
recalls David Wolfram, now a design manager at Mattel, who
designed He-Man toys during their last years on the market.
"He was a lot more of a barbarian in the beginning, and
it was a lot more sword-and-sorcery oriented." The Conan
inspiration was shining through.
Christmas 1983 the FCC reversed its 1969 decision, stating
that the original legislation had been too broad. Initially,
the FCC feared that cartoons would become product advertisements
only, not realizing that a toy-based animated series could
still have intrinsic story value beyond the commercial appeal.
Moving forward, individual TV stations would have to show
a certain amount of educational programming to counterweight
the toy-based programming. a necessary concession for the
field was now wide open. Although it's not clear who approached
whom first, cartoon maker Filmation or Mattel, a deal was
quickly reached to create He-Man cartoons. Animators worked
fast, and "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe"
debuted in 1984. The new cartoon was less a barbarian story
and more a superhero tale: Whenever danger threatened the
land of Eternia (usually in the form of the arch-villain,
Skeletor), meek (yet strangely muscular) Prince Adam would
run off with his pet cat, Cringer, spout the phrase "By
the power of Grayskull!" and the two would be transformed
into the heroic He-Man and Battlecat, respectively. Two seasons
of 65 episodes each were created, and the show ran for several
years. It's also worth noting that Paul Dini (of animated
"Batman" and "Superman" fame) and J. Michael
Straczynski (creator of "Babylon 5") were involved
with "He-Man" and wrote several episodes each.
relaunched the figures in 1984 with great success. "He-Man"
soared to the top of the ratings, and Mattel sold in excess
of 55 million figures worldwide in 1984 alone. It brought
Mattel, which had posted losses for the previous five quarters
(due in large part to products like the failed Intellivision
video game system) out of the red and into the black. In fact,
Mattel then boasted a 51 percent gain in sales, thanks mostly
to He-Man. At its height in 1985, the line brought in a $450
million profit for Mattel and is rumored to have grossed over
$1 billion during its entire run.
in 1984, He-Man broke new ground in another way. Arriola notes
that the action figures prior to that date were pretty basic,
lacking the action features that would make them so notable
one day. "When they first started, [the figures] were
very simple," Arriola says. "We had to start goosing
up what the characters did because we wanted to keep the line
going." Someone on the team then suggested that the designers
should look to an older Mattel toy franchise: The 9-inch Big
Jim, which had been Mattel's answer to competitor Hasbro's
mega-popular G.I. Joe in the early 1970s. Big Jim had incorporated
many action features, such as the character's classic karate
chopping arms. So it came to pass that Battle Armor He-Man
and his nemesis, Battle Armor Skeletor, made their debut with
rotating torsos which unleashed power punches, the first in
a long string of action features. Obviously, action features
were not new, but this was the first time they were implemented
on every single figure in the line.
remembers how the figures were created. "We had a prelim
group and then a design group," he says. "The prelim
group would come up with mechanisms and concepts, and then
we would design toys around those [concepts]. Plus they brought
in a lot of different features from outside inventors. My
thing was trying to incorporate and make some of those different
things work. That was as much of a chore as actually just
coming up with the concepts themselves. It was our responsibility
to make a product that would look good and function as well."
to Wolfram, this was more of a challenge than it might first
appear, because sometimes the prelim group let themselves
get a bit carried away. "They'd promise all these great
features that [the figures] would do, and there's no way they
could ever do them. So we had to go back and try to give some
reality to their ideas. Sometimes we'd actually design [their
ideas] just to show them how bad they would actually look
or work. They'd fall in love with their ideas without any
thought to cost, safety or practicality."
popularity of the He-Man toys inspired Mattel to try to duplicate
its success with She-Ra, Princess of Power. Filmation debuted
the new "She-Ra" cartoon in 1985, and Mattel released
three series of figures as well. Neither the cartoon, which
was set in the same universe as He-Man, nor the figures achieved
anywhere close to He-Man's success. In 1986, Filmation and
Mattel tried again by creating "BraveStarr"--a completely
unrelated property--as an animated cartoon and action figure
line. Both failed and lasted only one year.
1987, the "Masters of the Universe" live-action
feature film, starring blonde muscleman Dolph Lungren as He-Man
and Frank Langelia as Skeletor, was released to theaters and
enjoyed moderate success. Interestingly, Courteney Cox ("Friends")
and Robert Duncan McNeill ("Star Trek: Voyager")
filled out the cast list as humans caught up in the conflict.
But despite the film's limited appeal, interest in He-Man
was waning. The movie tie-in figures were part of the last
series of He-Man toys produced. Curiously, it's clear that
Mattel wasn't planning on ending the line. Among the last
toys released were three dinosaurs (Bionatops, Turbodactyl
and Tyrantisaurus Rex), each with two logos on their respective
boxes: One was the familiar "Masters of the Universe"
logo, but it was small compared with the large "The Power
of Grayskull" logo beneath it. Wolfram recalls that the
plan was to relaunch the series yet again under this new name.
Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way.
not clear why Mattel made its disastrous decision. Perhaps
their earlier financial troubles were on the rise again. Maybe
the company was hoping to capitalize on the release of the
"Masters of the Universe" movie. Whatever the reason,
Mattel flooded the toy stores with He-Man product, and in
doing so, doomed the line. Masters of the Universe toys were
still in stores as much as two years later. The toys were
so common (and filled so much shelf space) that people just
lost interest in them and simply stopped buying.
tried a He-Man relaunch in 1989 with a new animated series
(titled simply "He-Man," and set in outer space)
and accompanying figure line. The new cartoon was produced
by a small animation company called Jet Lag, and Mattel's
new figures were slimmed down and more highly articulated
than their Schwarzenegger-like predecessors. Unfortunately,
neither performed well. "There was so much Masters of
the Universe product shipped in the waning days. The trade
had so much still on the shelves that they weren't interested
in [the new] He-Man," Wolfram says. Plus, the new cartoon
didn't compare with the original on any level.
notes another problem the new He-Man had to contend with:
some lean, green competition on the halfshell. "When
we tried to bring back He-Man, one of the toughest things
we had to go against was [Playmates' Teenage Mutant Ninja]
Turtles. Turtles was just kicking butt on everything. I don't
know if anything could have come back at that time."
the wave of nostalgia sweeping many toy companies, Mattel
has no plans to bring He-Man back, but that hasn't stopped
a dedicated group of fans from signing a petition asking Mattel
to do just that. Adam Tyner (whose website at http://www.awod.com/gallery/rwav/ctyner/he-man.html
is about as complete a He-Man reference as you're going to
find) recently sent the petition to Mattel listing over 1,000
names. Where it goes next is anyone's guess. He-Man's contemporaries,
the Turtles and the Transformers, have returned to the toy
market successfully, so why not ol' He-Man?
it or hate it, Masters of the Universe had a powerful effect
on how toys were made and marketed. Television tie-ins are
still going strong, and action features are standard for virtually
all modern action figures. Regardless of how you feel about
the end result, Martin Arriola best sums it up: "It was
a fun line and I enjoyed doing it," he says. "Without
a doubt, a lot of cool stuff came out of He-Man."