THE ART OF HE-MAN Review: A Nostalgic Look at a Cultural Icon

From its debut as a Mattel action figure back in 1982, He-Man captivated a generation of Saturday morning cartoon watchers with his heroic bravado and daring adventures. Since then, He-Man has evolved from toy line to a cultural phenomenon spanning the decades, seeing two popular television series, several lines of comic books, and even an internet theme based on a popular 4 Non Blondes hit from 1993, all the while defending Castle Greyskull from the evil forces of Skeletor.

It is a series that evokes nostalgia in those that grew up during the 80’s and it is one that continues to persist to this day exciting both young and old with the spark of imagination. In that regards, The Art of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe serves as a look back on this nostalgic Saturday morning classic from its early days as a Mattel toy line to its debut to the world of comics and television with a wide variety of interviews from people who had worked on the franchise throughout the ages, from illustrators to writers and from actors to directors. So let’s take a moment to free ourselves from the humdrum of daily life and visit the land of Eternia, where adventure lurks around every corner.

The History: From Humble Beginnings…

After Stars Wars‘ unprecedented merchandising success, toy companies were scrambling to create the next hottest thing for kids to clamor over, and Mattel had just the thing. Sticking to what they knew best as the producers of the Big Jim action figure line at the time, Mattel launched a sort of fantasy Jim named He-Man, gave him a rather typical ‘good vs. evil’ back story, and a ridiculously superb arch-nemesis. Mattel may not have fully known what they had just created at that time, but He-Man would fly off store shelves in such a fashion that we can still feel its ripple effect 30 years later.

First and foremost, the Masters of the Universe franchise was designed with the young male audience with many documents and correspondents who had worked on the series attesting to Mattel’s desire to create a “Male Action Figure” that would fight the forces of evil with the powers of strength, virtue, and the sort of dogged determination you’d typically see from the Dark Souls fandom.

They wanted something that would appeal to that wild imagination of the early-80’s youth, something that would present a breath of fresh air in an industry that has already seen the rise and continuing dominance of Hasbro’s popular G.I. Joe toy line, the franchise that had originally coined the term “action figure”. So, rather than directly competing with the military-themed market, Mattel designers decided to go for a “fantasy make-believe” theme: a sort of Conan the Barbarian meets a Frank Frizetta illustration with the looming air of sci-fi hanging over the entire thing courtesy of Flash Gordon and Star Wars.

Thus began the He-man and the Masters of the Universe franchise that carved its niche into the societal conscience and won its place in the hearts of many bright-eyed adolescents across the world dreaming of adventure in a world far beyond their own. It’s an interesting read, looking into the history of a popular line of action toys that spawned a hit TV series, but the authors took that extra step and went out and interviewed people who not only worked within the franchise itself but dedicated fans who are proud of sharing their love for the series.

One of the more memorable interviews conducted within this book was with Dolph Lundgren, the man who had played He-Man in the 1987 film adaptation and was previously known for his role as the Soviet heavyweight boxer, Drago, in Rocky IV. Despite starring in other movies throughout  his career such as the aforementioned Rocky IV and in a few of the Expendables, Lundgren mentions that 24 years after his starring role in Masters of the Universe people still come up to him around the world with him as He-Man asking him for an autograph.

Despite the movie itself failing to meet financial expectations and Cannon Films, the studio behind its production, cut corners frequently in order to reduce costs and get the film out to theaters sooner, Lundgren argues that the “brand must have a special quality” because the fans themselves loved Masters of the Universe worldwide.

Source: Dark Horse

Source: Dark Horse

The Art: An Evolving Hero

Building off of that theme of “fantasy make believe” that was mentioned within a few documents regarding the toy lines development, initial iterations of He-Man bore a striking resemblance to a certain barbarian that had roamed the ancient world for treasure and glory before donning that trademark blond hairstyle for the sake of a note from Mattel’s upper management arguing that the concept would be too frightful for the little ones. In fact, the book mentions that the hair color was in homage of Tom Kalinske, who had worked as upper management for Mattel at the time.

The same could be said for Skeletor, or “Demo-Man” as he was called during development not because he was a demolitions expert but just because it was short for Demon Man, who bore the look of a gaunt, undead berserker-king that would typically inhabit the crypts of bygone eras.

Not something that would exactly be considered “safe for the kiddies”. To be honest, the early sketch they showed for Demo-Man looked more fit to don the cover of an Iron Maiden album than anything else so that kid-friendly Heavy Metal theme has some power in that regards. Thus was born the Skeletor, the skull-faced, blue-tinged, master sorcerer that would serve as He-Man’s main antagonist.

Another early concept that really stuck out was that of Red Beast, later known as Beast Man, who was altered not because he was too graphic or violent – though that argument certainly could have been made based on the artwork – to be marketed to the younger demographic but because upper management wanted to avoid any legal action that the makers of Chewbacca might levy against them in regards to his design. So instead they opted for the more humanoid in order to avert such issues.

The franchise itself is something that has undergone several modernizations and it is something that we can see ‘play out’ in front of us. Early designs that were meant to develop a toy line gradually become the concept sketches behind the first animated series that graced television screens across the nation in the early 80’s. Stills from the early 1983 TV series depict something of an early era comic-book action hero sort of feel and eventually gave way to the 2002 reboot which evoked a sense of Batman: The Animated Series.

The Masters of the Universe is a brand that has worn many hats throughout the ages from its early artwork depicting a Dungeons and Dragons-esque sort of world where science and technology mingle together in a this miasma of high fantasy to its later and more sleeker, grittier younger brother which felt more geared to its older audience. Yet, despite all these masks and styles over the years, the world of Eternia will always have one noble prince set against one maniacal wizard.

The History: 4.5/5

  • A comprehensive look at the birth of the He-Man franchise.
  • You can only rephrase “we wanted a male action figure” so many times before it becomes repetitive.
  • Represents the evoltion of this figure over the decades.

The Art: 5/5

  • From early concepts to finished artworks, this book offers a wide variety of He-Man works throughout the years.
  • A glimpse of the franchise as it aged over the years.
  • Wide variety of styles yet the characters are still recognizable throughout.

Overall: 4.5/5

Final Thoughts: A Sense of Nostalgia

Whether a veteran fan of the series or a newcomer to the world of Eternia, The Art of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is a nostalgic look back at this sci-fi/fantasy epic over the years: from its birth into the competitive world of toy production to the glossy sheen of the silver screens of movie theaters. It’s an art book that invites its audience, whether they be die-hard fans or curious onlookers, to take a journey through this series that has stood the test of time and won its ways into the hearts of many a youth throughout the nation.

It presents itself on a platter of finely polished nostalgia and the lid is removed to reveal a delectably well-presented meal of content and intrigue collected from the many years that The Masters of the Universe had seen throughout its lifetime. For anyone looking for blast-from-the-past — perhaps even to share with the kids — The Art of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe delivers on every imaginable front and is filled with far more bad-assery than your 5-year-old self could have handled.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars


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