He-Man über Alles

One man’s lifelong love.

“Stace! You’re not gonna believe this!”

I ran into the kitchen where my wife Stacey was doing something productive while I surfed the ’Net.

“They’re making a new ‘He-Man’ cartoon!” I exclaimed.

She paused, and then looked up at me with a combination of pity, amusement, annoyance, and worry.

“Oh dear,” she said.

What she meant was, “What kind of a mess have I married into?”

I should back up a bit. Playing with He-Man and the Masters of the Universe toys defined my childhood. My exposure to He-Man action figures as a kindergartner touched off an obsession that lasted for years. It cemented a life-long preoccupation with superheroes of all kinds — from Zorro to Batman, from the X-Men to the Gargoyles. This new He-Man show (which is quite good, by the way) is just the latest chapter in the history of this obsession.

For the uninitiated, some background: He-Man, the Most Powerful Man in the Universe, was the central character in a line of action figures in the 1980s from toy manufacturing behemoth Mattel, of Barbie fame. For reasons unexplained, the action figures were called, none too modestly, “The Masters of the Universe.”

The over-arching plot involved He-Man’s never-ending war with Skeletor, a skull-faced maniac with an ego complex who represented pure evil. On the distant planet Eternia, He-Man and his friends battled Skeletor and his minions to protect truth, justice, and … um, Castle Grayskull, a green-colored castle with a giant face carved into it.

Castle Grayskull was valued not only for its innovative architecture but also for its magical powers. For example, it housed the forces that transformed Adam, a wimpy Eternian prince, into the mighty He-Man.

By the time it was done, Mattel had built the Masters of the Universe into a marketing juggernaut. There were action figures. There were He-Man stickers, books, and learn-to-read records. There were He-Man Halloween costumes. There was a He-Man cartoon show (one of the first to be commissioned by a toy company). By the time Mattel was done with the franchise, there was even a He-Man live-action movie that Courtney Cox probably wishes she could take off her résumé.

It’s not shocking that a toy company invented He-Man, since the premise was obviously created by committee. Start with the battle-axes and magic swords, warriors and wizards of Arthurian legend. Then, create a setting on a planet “far, far away” and add robots, laser guns, and flying vehicles, la Star Wars. Next, focus on a mild-mannered individual who secretly transforms into a hero with “Super” strength, and have him join with a team of his “Super [-powered] Friends” to fight an army of similarly powered bad guys. Finally, have everybody dress like Conan the Barbarian, and you’ve got the Masters of the Universe.

Oh, and there’s one more crucial element: the stupid names. Every character in the He-Man universe had a name that was either obvious or stupid. He-Man himself was a “strong, virile man” — in other words, a he-man. His man-at-arms was named, coincidentally, Man-At-Arms. Similarly, the most powerful sorceress on Eternia was called The Sorceress. And so on.

Other characters had even sillier names, along with sillier powers. Ram Man had a battering ram for a head. Mekanek had an extending, mechanical neck. Fisto had, um, a giant metal-plated fist.

Also, they could create almost any character just by making any noun end with “-or”: Skeletor, Panthor, Spikor, and even Stinkor, whose power was his unbearable B.O.

Over time, things got increasingly ridiculous. There was an elephant-headed firefighter called Snout Spout. There was a bee-shaped character called Buzz-Off. There were even meteorites that transformed into warriors named Rokkon and Stonedar. Mattel also added a Texas-style gunslinger named Rio-Blast, a token black character named Clamp Champ, and two characters of Asian descent, both of whom were bad guys.

In short, it was silly, derivative, and not very socially progressive. But none of that mattered to me when I first saw the toys at a friend’s house during my formative kindergarten years.

He-Man was the coolest concept my little brain had ever wrapped its mind around. I’m sure I barely talked about anything else.

My parents weren’t sure how to respond to this. Since they’re generally peaceful people, they weren’t thrilled that I idolized a guy who solved his problems with his Power Sword. But they figured there couldn’t be any harm in indulging my hero-worship just a little bit, so they bought me the stickers and the jigsaw puzzles and the books. Just not the action figures.

But the battle wasn’t over. I read the books and did the puzzles, and then regaled my parents with lengthy explanations of minute details of the He-Man mythology. I played endlessly with He-Man-shaped erasers. And finally, after watching me moon over the plastic-enshrouded action figures at Kmart for more hours than I could count, my parents caved in and bought some for me. Besides, my parents rationalized, the toys were getting cheaper, since He-Man was getting less popular.

There was one key exception, however: I wasn’t allowed to have any bad guys. I could get as many good guys as I wanted, but my pacifist parents still hoped that I’d imagine He-Man, Fisto, and Buzz-Off sitting around and having a tea party or something, instead of bashing Skeletor’s brains out.

Despite their best efforts, though, I worked the fighting back in by pretending that one of my extra He-Man figures was actually the evil, android He-Man. (This was an actual character, believe it or not. His name, stunningly, was Faker.) After a friend of mine slipped up and bought me my first bad guy, I then had my legions of good guys beat up on poor Beast Man for hours at a time.

I had moved on to other preoccupations by the end of elementary school, but I never forgot this early obsession. My wife knows this well, having fought those action figures for my attention. At one of our first meetings at a party in high school, she tried to get my attention for over an hour while I drooled over old He-Man figures somebody found in a closet.

So it comes as no surprise that I’m happy somebody’s putting out a new He-Man cartoon. The show itself is quite good. It would be a stretch to call it smart TV, but it has moments of wit: the opening sequence of each show, for instance, starts with a great spoof of the original He-Man cartoon. The new show’s cleverer moments balance the inherent woodiness of requisite lines like: “I am He-Man, defender of Eternia!” (Hey, you try to say that line and not make it sound corny.)

Above all, the new series respects the original He-Man concept. Unlike the short-lived “New Adventures of He-Man,” which bombed when it tried to update the premise, this new show goes back to the basics. It’s got all the elements — medieval weaponry, robots, sorcery, furry loincloths, etc. — in their original proportions.

It does add its own up-to-the-minute touches, of course. In an interview with TV Guide, one of the shows producers acknowledges the show’s debt to anime and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This just means that before any two people fight on the show, they’re required to spend at least three minutes striking poses, twirling their weapons, and soaring through the air. But it’s easy enough to accept within the context of the show, and everything holds together pretty well.

In short, it’s very cool. It’s enough to make me want to get out my old action figures again!

Please offer your condolences to my wife.

Article © 2002 by Michael Duck