Friday, October 30, 2015

Kid's Stuff, Part XIII: Masters of the Universe #5

In which He Man and Skeletor give each other crabs

There’s this Robot Chicken episode where Skeletor, Lex Luthor, Mumm-Ra and Cobra Commander are driving into work and get stuck in traffic. Skeletor’s driving and he has the child door locks on and control of the electric windows. The funniest part is where he lets one rip and then commands the others to “feel the power of Skeletor’s breakfast burrito”. That’s Skeletor for you, pure evil through and through.

Masters of the Universe has had many different story incarnations. They began as toys produced by Mattel back in 1981. Each action figure came with a 4 1/2 inch square mini comic that told of the brave wandering barbarian He-Man of Eternia (a war-ravaged post-apocalyptic world) who was fighting the extra dimensional warload Skeletor. Both were seeking the ancient Castle Grayskull’s power (I swear every single one of these has a powerful fortress just to sell a playset) and each carried one half of the Power Sword which was the key to the castle itself. He-Man was supported by several allies and a magical being known as ‘The Goddess’. A true fan of the TV series that came later will notice subtle differences in this tale than what they remember but the base details are the same.

DC comics jumped in with a four-issue comic series in 1982 after the success of the toy line was established. Several adjustments were made to the ‘Universe’ depicted in MotU. He-Man ceased to be a wandering warrior and instead became the secret identity of Prince Adam, the son of Eternia’s rulers King Randor and Queen Marlena. Adam is chosen by The Sorceress to have the power to turn into He-Man. Only she and Man-At-Arms know of his dual identity. MotU got a premier kickoff in DC Comics Presents #47 in which none other than Superman was transported to Eternia for a He-Man team up.

A majority of these changes to MotU are thought to have originated with Filmation studios, who were in preproduction on a He-Man cartoon series. Their creation, dubbed He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, debuted in 1983. Combining some of what had gone before, He-Man again had a magic sword yet still had the Prince Adam secret identity and parents. It wasn’t until this version that we got the “By the power of Grayskull…I HAVE THE POWER!” line. Additionally Filmation added humorous elements to the story to tone down the violence from the early DC comics. And so it was that the dreaded comic relief character Orko was added to the cast.

I admit to being a bit psyched about the MotU when it was first announced. ABC had just cancelled Thundarr the Barbarian the year before, Motu looked to be a series with similar story elements (barbarians, mutant hordes, post apocalyptic worlds and magic swords). Boy was I in for a shock by MotU’s heavy-handed moralizing and ‘Bat-mite’ inspired humor. The villains weren’t menacing and even Skeletor was lame. I’m talking about a dude with a green-glowing skull for a head. You have to work very hard at goofing up to make a skull-headed dude wielding a sword not seem threatening. Maybe they should have added flatulence as a character trait or feed him breakfast burritos.

Filmation’s production of He-Man was a mixed bag of good and bad. Even though they were expensive to make, the episodes used limited animation techniques that Filmation is famous for. Specifically recycling scenes for common actions to cut costs. The scriptwriters were very talented people (including J. Michael Straczynski, Paul Dini and even one episode by D. C. Fontana), even if the product that resulted from the scripts was so weak. Likewise the voice work was great, especially given that all of the cast was voiced by only five people.

HMatMotU is credited with breaking some of the boundaries of censorship because He-Man would hit people and use his sword (I believe Thundarr did as well, a full two years before this series hit the airwaves). Where it did break a record was being the first ever animated series produced directly for syndication, a tactic that caused a massive 65 episodes to be created all at once so the series could be stripped across 13 weeks. When you think of the investment that must have taken in a cartoon about a toy line that might fall out of favor or be replaced by the next hot thing before even one episode hit the air, you have to take your hat off to Mattel and Filmation for having the balls to go through with it.

He-Man was a success, however. It ran for two years before Mattel and Filmation decided to diversify the product line by adding a decidedly female counterpart to He-Man. Thus was borne She-Ra: Princess of Power, a feminine counter-part of He-Man. Story wise, she was Adam’s twin sister Adora and her tales lasted two seasons (1985-1986) and a total of 93 episodes. The mini comics included with the products for He-Man and She-Ra toys followed the storyline of the new animated series from 1983.

In 1986, Marvel’s two-year old kid line imprint ‘Star’ comics put out a Masters of the Universe monthly, the property having moved from DC in the intervening years. The line as a whole was aimed at younger audiences and the MotU was no exception. A further blending of the storylines available, MotU featured He-Man and Skeletor but also She-Ra’s nemesis Hordak. A three way fight for Castle Grayskull and Eternia ensued that lasted 13 issues before being axed, as were most of the Star line. It did stick around long enough to produce a one-shot adaptation of the 1987 live action MotU film, a movie that could kill pretty much any company that dare put it out. What I found in the crapbox was issue number 5 of the ill fated ongoing title.

The issue starts off showing the crab-thing toy from the cover. It's called Monstroid and it is floating around in the depths of the ocean surrounded by text that reads like the back of a toy box. “He is Monstroid and he is HERE!!” Ages 3 and up, batteries required, Monstroid is not a flying toy." After that opening we switch to Prince Adam as he begins his day. As the heir to the throne, Prince Adam has many weighty matters that rest upon his head. Such as…

My first thought, if I were him, when I woke up each morning would be “How do I defeat Skeletor and Hordack.” I’d train for hours, build alliances, send out scouting parties and do everything possible to catch those bad boys and their assorted accomplices. I wouldn’t rest until they were cooling their heels in a Castle Eterina dungeon cell. Pretty silly of me. But I guess his parents and Man-At-Arms are the ones that actually try to do something proactive.

Instead, Prince Adam just lords it over poor Orko. 

I’ve always wondered what the heck Orko is. He’s always dressed in that hat and cloak which cover all of his face and his body shape. All you see is a black blob with eyes, blue hands and those odd ears that poke through his hat at angles that couldn’t possibly attach to his head. I did some digging and was surprised what I found. Orko was actually played by another familiar icon who found it impossible to get work since the late 50’s-early 60’s. He adopted a disguise to hide his distinguishing and inflammatory physical characteristics. Using this disguise, he played Orko for many years. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Orko was actually…

 …Little Black Sambo. 

But enough of my ruminations, on with the story:

It appears that Prince Adam isn’t the only one about to give Orko an earful.

This is Extendar, who was a normal joe until the evil Hordak got his mitts on him. Hordak and his henchman Grizzlor replaced his poor fellows arms and legs with extendable robot limbs. These robot limbs can stretch to many times their length. Which really made Extendar mad and angsty. What Extendar doesn’t talk about is the one other modification Hordak and Grizzlor made which makes him very popular with the ladies. He’s still pissed about the arms and legs thing, though. And he’s also mad at Orko for not fixing his cybernetic circuitry so he can stretch out longer. I’m sure it’s just affecting his arms and legs. And it has nothing to do with his date tonight.

Meanwhile the evil Hordak and his minions are hiding in a cave and trying to make mental contact with Monstroid. This was the “roll call” scene that every Marvel comic did back in the day. If you had a group of characters together whose names/powers might not be common knowledge, then the author would do their best to introduce each one by having them refer to themselves or to name the last character that spoke. While it appears clunky and unrealistic, it’s very effective. I had no idea who any of these guys were. I do know that if that last dude (Mantenna) were real, he’d scare the crap out of me. Who wants to see a guy who’s eyes are popping out of his head on stalks?

So they bring out the new character, Multi-Bot. From Modulok’s statement about “We made him look like us…” I can only assume that the actual toy was made from the moulds of Modulok’s action figure. This was a common practice back in the 80’s when you could get a bit more life from a toy by changing the coloration or adding a different weapon. It kept the product line looking fresh and new while allowing you to cut production costs. Whatever Multi-Bot’s figure’s origins, the summoning of Monstroid (by standing in a circle holding hands – hippies!) succeeds! They start the monstrous robot crab beast heading toward shore.

Skeletor, sitting around brooding about He-Man, senses the mystic energies used by the Horde. He hurries to his scrying pool and sees Monstroid. Suddenly he is struck by the idea of taking over the monsters mind when it reaches land. He hustles out of Snake Mountain alone. Speaking of which, where is Beast man and all those other Skeletor followers? None show up to help him or even make an appearance. I figured a hip dude like Skeletor would have Snake Mountain pimped out enough that all his old buddies would like to hang there. Instead he’s shown completely alone. Maybe he’s had one to many breakfast burritos?

On the other side of Eterina, Monstroid shows up on one of Extendar’s monitors. He springs into action (get it? Springs?) and summons Prince Adam. Prince Adam sends Exendar to the beach to stop Monstroid, stating that he do his best till they arrive. Note that this is the same Prince Adam that everybody thinks is a cream puff. The same one that disappears whenever trouble rears its head. Yet Extendar obeys him without question. Maybe Hordak did something to make Extendar stupid as well as giving him those robotic limbs. Whatever the reason for his blind loyality, Extendar’s exit gives Prince Adam a chance for a costume change.

Have we yet to establish why He-Man dresses like the sixth Village Person? That outfit just screams biker bar or ladies strip club. Maybe the villains in these books are really just homophobic and can’t stand the metrosexual vibe He-Man extrudes.

Speaking of which, the “I have the power” line was suppose to have originated back when the product was being conceived. Three different sets of mock-up figures were created with He-Man done up as a barbarian, a military man and as a futuristic spaceman. Supposedly the chief of Mattel's toy division pointed to Roger Sweet’s barbarian prototypes and said “those have the power”. Neat story.

Back to our not so neat story, three different groups are fighting over possession of the Monstroid. Of those groups, Hordak’s guys arrive first. Mantenna and the rest of the horde are a bit shocked by the size of the beast. I’m stunned that those eye stalks can poke out so far. 
The Horde flees in fear of the beast, all except Hordak and Multi-Bot. Hordak takes mental control of the beast when a surprise guest arrives on the scene and blasts him. Hordak turns to face Extendar, who appears to be nursing quite a grudge and has a degree in Dinner Theater Acting.

I’m not sure which is funnier: Extendar’s getup or his horrendous dialogue. Hordak sics Multi-Bot on him and the odd looking android makes short work of him. However, the way he “imprisons” Extendar looks unorthodox if not borderline sexually abusive.

I’m thinking Extendar has a good chance of bringing up Multi-Bot on charges of sexual assault. Being humped by the dozen or so legs of Multi-Bot leaves Extendar in no position to stop what happens next. Skeletor arrives and has Panthor (his version of battle cat) keep Hordak busy while he attempts to take mental control of Monstroid. At this point Monstroid is like a giant version of an RC car. It doesn’t appear evil or destructive, just easy to manipulate and highly susceptible to mind control. Sort of like most evangelical Christians.

Panthor is no match for Hordak's mind magic and he soon has Skeletor in the death grip of a giant Monstroid Claw. With impeccable timing, He-Man shows up right before Skeletor is crushed and has a moment of confusion.

Truth is, he’d really rather just watch some more as Multi-Bot gets it on with Extendar. This “should I help or not” ruse may have Orko fooled, but I’m wise to the homoerotic vibe He-Man is sending out. All this “helping” does is get He-Man caught in claw number 2, after which Hordak commands Monstroid to walk out into the ocean until both hero and villain are drowned. Extendar tries to come to their rescue, but Orko still hasn’t fixed his cybernetic whatchacallits, leaving him (and his date) a little short changed. Throwing off Multi-Bot, Extendar strides into the ocean and to his doom.

But Orko comes through at the last moment, taking command of Multi-Bot and having him lift Extendar up on his shoulders. Extendar fires a direct hit on the Monstroid which releases its prey. As they bob to the surface, all that wet erotic leather Skeletor wears is too much for He-Man.

Kinky! Orko has the Multi-Bot swim into Monstroid’s mouth. This gives the giant crab indigestion and he bee-lines it out of there. Hordak is gone by the time He-Man and Skeletor reach shore. Panthor is there to help the Skel-Man escape He-Man’s loving embrace. And Extendar and He-Man make fun of Orko for procrastinating. There is a disclaimer that no toys were injured in the making of the comic, so I can only assume that Multi-Bot survives being eaten.

A 1987 live action movie that was poorly received by both fans and critics didn’t reverse an already downward sales spiral on the MotU product line. Dubbed a financial disaster, future additions were cancelled and MotU disappeared for a time. It has resurfaced twice since the late 80’s: in 1990 as “The New Adventures of He-Man” and “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe in 2002. “New Adventures” didn’t move the product well and featured a vastly different take on the two main characters Skeletor and He-Man as they battle each other after being transported to the world of Primus (no relation to the rock band. I think). It got 65 episodes. HMatMotU got an even shorter run and the toys from it only had a shelf life of a couple of years. HMatMotU was known for retroconning a bunch of elements from the original series, re-envisioning Adam and Teela as teenagers and delving into the backstories of much of the MotU universe.

In my mind there is just far too much story going into these toys already.

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