Friday, September 21, 2018

HE-MAN MINICOMICS 1984

"DRAGON'S GIFT" | "MASKS OF POWER" | “HE-MAN AND THE INSECT PEOPLE”
“SIEGE OF AVION” | “THE OBELISK” | “THE SECRET LIQUID OF LIFE!"
"DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD" | "TEMPLE OF DARKNESS!" | "SLAVE CITY”
"THE CLASH OF ARMS"

Writer: Michael Halperin
Artists: Alfredo Alcala & Larry Houston | Inks: Tod Smith, Michael Lee, & Gerald Forton
Colors: Anthony Tollin & Charles Simpson | Letters: Stan Sakai | Editor: Lee Nordling

1984's minicomics are written by Michael Halperin, the man who was hired by Mattel and Filmation to create a MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE "bible" which informed much of the development of the cartoon series. As a result, these tales hew more closely in the Filmation direction than ever before, in terms of story. The artwork is mixed, on the other hand -- Alfredo Alcala continues to draw extremely literal interpretations of the characters' action figures, though for certain characters he appears to be working off of Filmation model sheets -- while Larry Houston, who draws most of the later stories in the year's run, goes Filmation all the way.

Footnotes in the Dark Horse collection of these tales indicate that they were produced while the cartoon was still in development, which gives some fascinating insight into the lead time involved in crafting the minicomics. These were released with the 1984 line of characters, and they feature lots of not-quite-finalized character designs -- but the TV series itself premiered in the fall of 1983 (and mostly featured the toyline's earlier characters for that first season)! As a result, the minicomics include characters who would not even debut in the cartoon until the second season (such as Buzz-Off, Mekaneck, and Fisto) fighting alongside "prototype" versions of Man-At-Arms and Teela.

We're also done with character origins in this year's comics. From the get-go, He-Man is palling around with Fisto and Buzz-Off out of nowhere, while Evil-Lyn is on Skeletor's team without explanation. Presumably this was done because the Filmation series would provide origins for some of the characters, and with the minicomics now sticking to the same continuity as the show (more or less), printing origins in the comics would be redundant at best, and contradictory at worst. That said, the origins are missed. A large part of the fun of the first two years' worth of minicomics was seeing how characters like Ram-Man came to work alongside He-Man, and how he wound up fighting against the likes of Trap Jaw and Tri-Klops.


So -- our first story is "Dragon's Gift", adapted from a Filmation episode with a nearly idential title. In it, Skeletor turns Man-At-Arms to crystal, promising he will shatter in two days. He-Man and Teela head out to find the legendary dragon, Granamyr, as he is the only being capable of restoring Man-At-Arms. Granamyr presents He-Man with a few challenges, and ultimately restores Teela's father. This story is notable as the first appearance of Prince Adam in minicomic continuity (though he's dressed differently from normal), as well as featuring Eternia's Queen Marlena in a look that resembles her Filmation design -- though King Randor still looks far older and more wizened than his TV counterpart. I'd say the king and queen look to be in their sixties or older here, while the TV show versions are clearly much younger.

Next is "Masks of Power", again adapted (albeit quite loosely in this case) from a Filmation episode of the exact same name. In this one, Evil-Lyn -- in her minicomic debut -- sends two orcs to steal a pair of masks which transform them into powerful warriors. When the orcs turn on Skeletor's crew, He-Man and Fisto (also showcased for the first time) team up with the villains to stop the creatures. Aside from Fisto's first appearance, this one is pretty inconsequential -- though it's notable that Battle Cat's secret identity of Cringer may not have been conceived at the time this one was produced, as Battle Cat appears hanging out with Prince Adam in the opening pages.

"He-Man and the Insect People" sends our heroes underground to stop some earthquakes, and they wind up fighting Beast Man and a group of sentient insect-beings under his thrall. Two more characters appear for the first time here, once again with no introduction; this time it's Buzz-Off and Mekaneck, accompanying He-Man on his mission. This story also features Filmation's Sorceress as the guardian of Castle Grayskull, officially marking the end of both the castle as a nonaligned fortress and the existence of the "Goddess" in the minicomics. In this tale (and in all the other 1984 stories as well), the Sorceress appears in her TV character design, but with an entirely white costume.


It's nice to note that, even as they introduced the newer toys in these minicomics, Mattel kept the older characters in circulation as well. He-Man, of course. Teela and Man-At-Arms, too. These core characters will continue to appear in all the minicomics for the rest of the toyline's life, and my childhood recollection is that you could just easily purchase, say, Man-At-Arms in year five of the line as you could in year 1 -- which was something most other toylines didn't do at the time. You couldn't find an original Autobot like Prowl on a store shelf in 1987, for example, because he had long since been discontinued by Hasbro. Anyway, what I'm getting at is that the next story, "Siege of Avion", reminds us that Stratos still exists. Adapted yet again from a Filmation episode, this one sees He-Man and friends aiding the winged warrior in the defense of his kingdom -- and also introduces us to his wife, Delora -- a normal non-winged human, unlike her husband.

"The Obelisk" is one of the lesser lights among these minicomics, featuring the premise of a mysterious structure that appears on Eternia once per year and does something different every time. This year, any time He-Man exclaims, "Power to good!", it releases something or someone to aid the heroes of Eternia -- but whenever Skeletor says "Power to evil!", it does the same for him. A fight ensues, the good guys win, and the day is saved.

Alfredo Alcala bows out of minicomic art at this point, and the subsequent stories are all drawn by Larry Houston, a Filmation storyboard artist who would go on to work on nearly every high profile animated series of the eighties and nineties, including SPIDER-MAN AND HIS AMAZING FRIENDS, G.I. JOE, JEM, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, X-MEN, and many more. (Seriously, look up the guy's resume -- it's really impressive! He was also a producer and director on X-MEN.) Houston's style is much looser and more fluid than Alcala's -- and while I like Alcala a lot for his definition of the early pre-Filmation version of Eternia, Houston lends the minicomics a more "animated" look that fits with the Filmation aesthetic way better.


"The Secret Liquid of Life", first of these Houston-drawn tales, is -- unless I'm misremembering -- the first of the minicomics not to feature Skeletor or at least one of his henchmen as the villain. Instead, He-Man goes up against a warlord named Geldor to save the father of an old friend. I note this because it's something I always appreciated about the MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE TV series -- while Skeletor was always the main villain, appearing in more episodes than not, the show would also often feature one- or two-off bad guys with no connection to Skeletor. THUNDERCATS took this approach as well, as I recall. And much as I adore Sunbow's TRANSFORMERS and G.I. JOE cartoons, that's something they never quite pulled off. The Decepticons and Cobra showed up in every single last episode of both those series, giving both universes sort of a claustrophobic feel that HE-MAN and THUNDERCATS managed to avoid via their presentation of threats other than the main villains throughout their runs.

“Double-Edged Sword” comes next, featuring the first appearance of Cringer in minicomic continuity, in a simple story about He-Man and friends defending the royal palace from an attack by Skeletor. But if the story is lacking here, the artwork absolutely isn't. While his He-Man is off-model from the Filmation design, Houston turns in absolutely spot-on interpretations of nearly everyone else. Skeletor looks absolutely perfect, like he stepped straight out of a TV set and into the comic. Indeed, all the bad guys are drawn just about perfectly and colored correctly as well. The good guys are still being figured out though, but are mostly all drawn according to the Filmation style. Man-At-Arms even has his mustache for the first time in these comics. The colors on the good characters are pretty much all off-kilter, however, indicating that perhaps Filmation finalized the villainous palettes prior to the heroic ones.

"Temple of Darkness!" sees Skeletor capture the Sorceress in a mystical temple that appears on Eternia once every three hundred years. This is, I believe, the first time the Sorceress transforms into the falcon, Zoar, in the minicomic continuity. Up to this point, the two had been depicted as separate characters; it was the Filmation series that presented them as alternate forms of one another. But more importantly, nobody in the story comments on the odd fact that this temple appears on the planet once every three hundred years, Point Dread appears once every twenty years (as seen in the 1983 minicomics), and the Obelisk, as noted above, shows up every one year. That seems a little... weird.


The next story, "Slave City!", is adapted from a Filmation script called "A Tale of Two Cities", and finds an amnesiac He-Man fighting in gladiatorial games after he's captured while rescuing a young woman from a group of kobolds. It's another Skeletor-less installment, which again helps with the world-building of Eternia -- not all of He-Man's adventures need to revolve around Skeletor's plots. Also, I'll pause at this moment to note that a number of DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS monsters show up in these stories by Michael Halperin. As noted some paragraphs back, orcs appeared in "Masks of Power". This story features kobolds, and "Temple of Darkness" had some gnolls pop up. Halperin notes in an interview in the Dark Horse collection that he met Filmation writer Larry DiTillio through a D&D fan magazine, so it seems pretty clear he intended some of that game's trappings to find their way into the MASTERS' world -- and as an avid tabletop RPG player in my youth, I heartily approve of this idea!

Finally we have "The Clash of Arms", a spotlight on Fisto -- to the point that He-Man barely factors into the action until arriving at the very end, a deus ex machina to bail his buddy out of danger after he's spent the majority of the comic fighting a bunch of Skeletor's new henchmen in an arena of sport! And yes, I did say "new" -- this comic features the debuts of a whopping four bad guys: Clawful, Whiplash, Jitsu, and Webstor. Add to this the fact that I neglected to mention Cobra Khan had a cameo appearance in "Double-Edged Sword", and Skeletor's forces have been rounded out as nicely -- and as unceremoniously -- as He-Man's in this years minicomics.

So -- these minicomics may lack some of the creativity of the previous ones, not bothering with introductions and featuring much less world-building (though there is some, of course) -- but it's not for lack of creativity on the part of their writer. As noted above, I suspect a lot of the origin stuff was being moved to the cartoon for handling, making the minicomics pretty straightforward adventure stories at this point. But Michael Halperin did write the series bible. He essentially came up with the full MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE mythology as we know it today, though it would be tweaked by Filmation and others throughout the years.

The Dark Horse volume collecting these stories features interviews with most of the creators who worked on them, and I was very impressed with what Halperin had to say. The batch of 1983 comics had a chat with Gary Cohn, and all his answers basically boiled down to, "it was a job, it paid well, but I really had no interest in the material and I don't remember the answer to your question." It was understandable, but a little disappointing. Halperin, however, is at the total opposite end of that spectrum. Here was a guy who had invested a lot of creative energy into the MASTERS franchise -- and not once, but twice! He wrote the original series bible in 1983, and he was called upon again by Mattel to write a revamped bible for the toyline's 2002 relaunch. Halperin's interview is filled with facts about the universe as he conceived it, how he went about coming up wit the backstory, and so forth. It's always a pleasure to read an interview with somebody who worked on a toy tie-in and see that they took it as seriously, and remember it as well, as any other creative endeavor they may have tackled.

(And for the record, Larry Houston's interview is pretty good too! As a Filmation employee, he had a lot of investment in MASTERS as well.)

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