Friday, September 7, 2018

HE-MAN MINICOMICS 1982

"HE-MAN AND THE POWER SWORD" | "KING OF CASTLE GRAYSKULL"
"BATTLE IN THE CLOUDS" | "THE VENGEANCE OF SKELETOR"

Written by: Donald F. Glut | Illustrated by: Alfredo Alcala

The first couple years of MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE minicomics are an interesting curiosity in the property's history. I touched on this a bit when I looked at a graphic novel from the eighties called THE SUNBIRD LEGACY, which was sort of a transitional state from the early comics world to the more familiar setup with He-Man as an alter ego for Prince Adam, along with a generally more light-hearted/superheroic tone. But in these four earliest MASTERS tales, none of that was even remotely established.

These stories instead paint a drastically different picture of the planet Eternia than what most fans have come to expect thanks to the Filmation TV series. Here, Eternia is a wild, untamed world. He-Man is a barbarian who leaves his tribe to defend the planet from the forces of evil. Castle Grayskull, rather than being the benign source of He-Man's power, is a mysterious fortress, neutral to good and evil alike, but which holds the power to rule the planet. References are made to a "Great War", which turned Eternia into a wasteland. As a result, high technology is an unusual artifact of the past.

Now, I'd never trade away my memories of the Filmation cartoon, which I loved as a child (and really, I still like it quite a bit today). And as that same child, I never really warmed up to the early minicomics, different as they were from the TV show -- heck, even the later minicomics, which as we'll see generally hewed pretty closely to the Filmation setup, didn't always float my boat either due to smaller inconsistencies. But nowadays, there's room in my head for different interpretations of the He-Man mythos, and I actually really like this early minicomic continuity quite a bit. It's more of a post-apocalyptic dark fantasy than the straight science-fantasy that later interpretations would present.

So this version of He-Man's story begins in the inaugural comic, "He-Man and the Power Sword", which sees our hero depart his tribe and, in short order, bump into a Sorceress who proclaims him the man to protect Castle Grayskull from the villainous Skeletor. The Sorceress provides He-Man with weapons and gear to carry out this mission, including the hero's iconic chest harness -- but, as presented by Don Glut, He-Man actually owns two such harnesses. One endows him with superhuman strength as long as he wears it, while the other generates a personal force field, making him virtually invulnerable. Without either harness, He-Man is still quite strong, but is mostly a mere mortal.

Also of note is that the Sorceress presented here is depicted as He-Man's female ally, the "warrior-goddess" Teela, clad in her action figure's snake-themed armor, and with green skin. Teela herself also appears in this story (and subsequent ones) sans the armor and with her normal Caucasian skin. As far as I know, the original Teela figure was never released with green skin, so this seems to be a case of Glut and artist Alfredo Alcala utilizing the existing figure as a springboard to create two separate characters from her.

Besides the Sorceress and Teela, the story also introduces Eternia's master of weapons, Man-At-Arms, as another ally for He-Man. Together, this group saves Castle Grayskull from Skeletor. The subsequent story, "King of Castle Grayskull", finds Skeletor and his second henchman, Mer-Man, searching for both halves of the Power Sword -- a mystical weapon whose legend is spelled out early in the story. By the time Filmation comes around, the blade will belong to He-Man and He-Man alone; however in these early minicomics, the sword is actually split into two halves. Whoever joins both halves together will possess the key to enter Castle Grayskull. I seem to recall this bit of mythology found its way into other He-Man fiction even after the cartoon series started, but of course my childhood memories could be jumbled on that front.

Anyway -- Skeletor and Mer-Man acquire both halves of the sword -- one of which they take from He-Man's final ally, the winged Stratos -- and enter Castle Grayskull, where they imprison Teela, who has been recently appointed the ancient edifice's guardian by the "Spirit of the Castle". He-Man springs Teela and together, the duo defeats Skeletor and Mer-Man.

The third story properly introduces Stratos, as He-Man works with him to once again battle Skeletor and Mer-Man. Then, the fourth tale wraps up the inaugural run of minicomics with an all-out slugfest between He-Man, Man-At-Arms and Teela against Skeletor, Beast Man, and Mer-Man.

It should be noted that, while these little books are generally called minicomics by all parties concerned, they’re actually presented in more of a storybook style, with one large illustration per page, accompanied by prose text. Beginning with the second year’s figures, the pack-ins will actually be comic books, as we’ll see next week.

As I said above, I really like this somewhat darker, post-apocalyptic version of Eternia. Not necessarily as a replacement for Filmation’s series, but as an alternate universe alongside it. And Don Glut’s script captures this world nicely, with suitably eerie descriptions of Castle Grayskull, as well as some slightly darker stuff you might not expect from a comic included with a toy marketed to children (a map of Grayskull is said to be drawn in blood, for example).

The artwork in these early tales is magnificent, by the way. Alfredo Alcala defines the barbaric prototype Eternia beautifully, with a sort of dark fantasy atmosphere that fits Glut’s scripts to a tee. It’s almost impossible to imagine these four stories drawn in any other style.

I believe there’s one more round of minicomics, from 1983, which take place in Glut’s Eternia (though they’re written by others). We’ll look at those next week before moving into the ‘84 chapters, which will begin to hew more closely to the familiar Filmation continuity that would eventually come to define the MASTERS saga for the remainder of the eighties.

19 comments:

  1. Some site refer to the Sorceress here as the "Goddess", and consider her to be a different character from the bird-themed Sorceress we get later.

    I do remember once the TV show started, I drew a mustache on my Man-At-Arms figure.

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    1. I think nowadays she's referred to as the Goddess in order to keep her straight from the actual Sorceress we came to know later. She may have been referred to as the Goddess occasionally in books and other licensed products from this time as well, though the minicomics are pretty consistent in calling her the sorceress.

      And I drew a mustache on my Man-At-Arms too! It came out sloppy as heck, but I was pleased he looked more like the cartoon character anyway!

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    2. Speaking as a fan of Burt Reynolds, I'm glad you guys know where's it at.

      Which also reminds me of the insane popularity of the non-licensed Pontiac Trans-Man Hotwheels die cast car due to a certain TV show, and the eternal challenge to recreate the obligatory red hood scoop light on the fully black metal car. Red nail polish was the most creative way I ever saw.

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  2. As far as I know, the original Teela figure was never released with green skin, so this seems to be a case of Glut and artist Alfredo Alcala utilizing the existing figure as a springboard to create two separate characters from her.

    According to the Battle Ram blog, Teela and the Sorceress/Goddess were conceived as two different figures/characters but Mattel felt there wasn't enough demand to sustain two female toys so merged them into a single figure.

    I came to MOTU a little later so the only one of these mini-comics I saw back in the day was King of Castle Grayskull - in the German translation due to a purchase abroad. Not knowing the language I tried to understand the story from the pictures alone but it was extremely confusing because the set-up was so different to just about everything else.

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    1. Wow, thanks, Tim! I had never run across that blog before, but it's terrific. Nice to finally learn that Mattel actually did intend for Teela without armor and Teela with armor to be two different characters. This is actually spelled out in a couple of 1983 minicomics which we'll see next week, but I must have missed them or not paid attention (I was only four years old, after all), because I never realized that was the case.

      Other merchandise of the era didn't get the memo, though. Most storybooks tended to present Teela's snake armor as exactly that -- armor that she wore most of the time.

      I have a particular memory of "King of Castle Greyskull" as well -- it was the source of a MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE View Master disc I had as a child, so I was more familiar with that particular story than with any of the other very early minicomics.

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  3. And thus clears the mystery of the two-headed battle axe that came with the action figure.

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    1. Yeah, I don't believe that axe ever put in a single appearance in the cartoon (though Skeletor has one in an episode), but it was all over the minicomics and lots of merchandising artwork.

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    2. It was such a given that He-Man has the power sword as his choice of weapon that the axe in the toy package made absolutely no sense.

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    3. He-Man only had one half of the power sword in his toy package. Skeletor had the other half.

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    4. This is turning out to be an Everything You Knew Was Wrong experience for me.

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    5. It drove me nuts as a child that if you united the two halves of the Power Sword, you had a weapon that was half gray and half purple -- plus, the union never stuck very well. The blade always split apart up at the top.

      I feel like a few years into the line, Mattel finally produced a fully molded Power Sword for one of their He-Man variants, but it was in a color other than purple/gray. Though it's possible I'm totally misremembering that.

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  4. Man, that original minicomic continuity sounds AMAZING. Why hasn't someone dug that up as a reboot for the line, assuming one of the later comics didn't do that?

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    1. I have let myself be told that Mattel originally conceived Masters of the Universe as a very Conanesque toy line, to the extent that there was litigation that Mattel won on the premises that MOTU had nothing to do with the Conan the Barbarian film. I guess the prince Adam of Eternia layer glued on top of it afterwards instead of the original barbarian warrior leaving his village take is too important element as for the plausible deniability to roll it back.

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    2. The story used to go that MotU was originally going to be a Conan line, but was retooled because the movie was too violent for kids -- but I think that's been debunked. However for years, that was what you'd usually read about the origin of the line.

      Jack, I think the more recent Masters of the Universe Classics action figures have integrated some of this early continuity into their backstory. They basically decided that "He-Man" is a title passed down through generations to the protectors of the Power Sword. The He-Man who immediately preceded Prince Adam is actually the barbarian version from these comics, and he even fought Skeletor before Adam did.

      That's only based on information from actin figure card backs, though, I think. I don't believe the continuity has ever been picked up in comic books or anything like that.

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  5. So are you writing any reviews about the DC Comics version?(the Superman team up in DC COMICS PRESENTS, the preview story with Supes and Zodiac, and the LS)

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    1. I don't own any of those old DC issues, and I haven't found any reprints of them. Ideally, I'd just buy them digitally, but I don't think they're on Comixology -- though you'd think they would be, since DC currently holds the MotU rights, so there should be no legal issues about it.

      But someday I would like to check them out. I've never actually read them before, but I know they're in sort of a transitional period between this pre-Filmation era and the more familiar cartoon continuity. The 1984 minicomics are like that as well.

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  6. After these, you should cover the MASK mini comics that came with the toys and the GI Joe inserts that generally told a story and you could special order those figures from them.

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    1. Wow, I had MASK toys as a kid, and I totally forgot they even came with minicomics! I wonder if there's an archive of them online anywhere.

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  7. I'm happy that you're on board with reviewing the old "Masters of the Universe" minicomics. And just in time, too, because this year is the 35th anniversary of the Filmation "He-Man" cartoon.

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