Saturday, July 24, 2010

Memories of the Masters of the Universe

The other day, I was flipping through an old issue of Wired (April 2010) and came across a small blurb I hadn't noticed before mentioning a blog showcasing art from a display with works inspired by He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: ihavethepowerart. Quite a wide range of takes on the denizens of Eternia, some of them quite good. My favourite was "The Fall of Stratos" (or "Star-toast" as my younger brother used to call him back in the day), although "Cosmo Skeletor" was worth a chuckle.

Of course, all of this got me thinking back to my childhood and the big pile of MOTU toys we had in the basement. Castle Greyskull was the best of the accessories - my mom thought it was a gruesome thing and refused to get it for us for Christmas when we asked, but my maternal grandmother, sweet lady, went behind her back and bought it for us anyway. My favourite action figure: Mer-Man. Don't ask me why, especially since the real action figure didn't look anything like the photo advertisement. The one that was available in the store had small eyes and big cat-like ears on the top of his head (it was the same head they'd use a couple of years later for Stinkor), rather than the big eyes and side-mounted fish-fin-type ears promised in the ads. Maybe it was because he had one of the coolest swords of all of the characters: a big sawfish bill.

The best part about buying the action figures though was the cool little comic that was included in the package, with each comic usually having an origin story for the character it came with. Forget about the shiny, happy, orderly Eternia presented in the Filmation cartoon. The first of the comics, issued with He-Man and Skeletor, painted a grim picture of their world as a post-apocalyptic wilderness; an overgrown, monster-infested ruin centuries after a devastating war between sorcerers and scientists. And He-Man? Not some pastel pink-wearing princeling. Nope. He-Man was a badass hunter and warrior a-la Conan (although I always thought the action figure looked like James Coburn's face with a bad blond bowl-cut on top of Arnold Schwarzenegger's body), best in his tribe, who set out one day looking for adventure, killed some fiendish beast that was attacking the Sorceress, and got his powerful equipment and weapons as a reward. About the only thing the cartoon kept from the comic was Skeletor's origin as an evil wizard exiled from another dimension. The only problem with the comic was that Mattel stopped commissioning new issues after a while - they came up with dozens of new characters over the years, but they kept packaging the same half-dozen or so issues they'd started with.

And speaking of characters, the original bunch were kinda cool: He-Man (obligatory strapping barbarian dude), Skeletor, Mer-Man, Beast-Man, Trapjaw, Man-at-Arms, Stratos. But then they started scraping the bottom of the barrel with guys like Stinkor, Buzz-off, and a large assortment of "-Man"s, Moss-Man being perhaps the lamest (until the cartoon forced an extension of the line to incorporate characters from its seperate storyline, the worst of which was Prince Adam). I mean, Moss-Man? Give him enough time and he'll grow a fuzzy green layer over things. Might be a serious threat if you like a nice front lawn that'll impress the neighbours, but in the heat of battle? Okay, okay, not all of the "-Man"s were a write-off: Ram-Man was pretty cool, especially because the action figure actually had spring-loaded ramming capability. But most of the new or later additions were dumb. Not that this prevented us from buying them. Because we did. Sigh.

What stands out most about the cartoon was that we watched the first season on VHS about a year before it was first broadcast on TV. It was a shock to see how they'd changed the story from what we'd devoured in the comic, and the whole Prince Adam transformation storyline was downright awful, but being kids we enjoyed the animated fight scenes.

By the time the movie with Dolph Lungren, Frank Langella, Courtney Cox (back when she was still attractive, before she got disturbingly skinny during the Friends years), and Star Trek Voyager's Robert Duncan McNeill came along, we were older and had long since stopped collecting the toys (had given them all away, as a matter of fact) and went more out of curiosity than anything, just to see what they'd do with it. Meh.

From there, I pretty much forgot about the whole franchise until a few years ago my wife and I were flipping through the channels and stumbled on YTV or Teletoon running a revamped version of MOTU with a completely different animation style. It wasn't bad, but nothing worth writing home about. More than anything, I think the appeal that caused us to watch a couple of episodes was the nostalgia factor for me - thinking back to those old days of the Mattel ads with a monotonous baritone dirging "He-Man, He-Man" as the camera swooped in towards Castle Greyskull, with the jawbridge clattering down and the kid onscreen dashing Skeletor out front saying "It's Castle Greyskull, and it's MINE!" - "Not so fast, Skeletor!" growls kid #2; "He-Man!" yelps kid #1. Ah, the good old days, when a couple of well-armed steroidal action figures would make you feel like one of the Masters of the Universe.
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