Sunday, March 24, 2013

365 Comics...83: Masters of the Universe #5 (1987)

I don't know how I became so enamored with He-Man as a kid.  I remember receiving some of the first wave of characters and Castle Greyskull as a Christmas gifts in '82.  I would have been 6 at the time, so I'm not quite sure how I came to know what He-Man was.  Did I ask for it or did my parents just intuitively know I would absolutely love it?  This was well before the cartoon, which didn't appear until 1984, but by then I was already firmly a He-Man fan.

I strongly suspect that it was DC Comics Presents #47 (July 1982), in which Superman teams up with He-Man to battle Skeletor (but not before fighting one another first, naturally), or possibly one of the comics, such as All-Star Squadron #15 (see yesterday's 365 Comics #82), which featured the 16-page MOTU "preview" (not entirely sure what it was a preview for... the 3 issue mini-series that followed?  That seems odd.  I'm almost certain that the appearance in DCCP and in the Preview was more advertising for the toy line than any real attempt at storytelling with the characters).  I don't know where my original copy of DCCP #47 disappeared to, but when I acquired a new one about 10 years ago, it felt instantly and intimately familiar (including the, to me, mind-blowing Whatever happened to... Sandy The Golden Boy back-up, which in some regard informed James Robinson & Geoff John's use of him as Sand in JSA).  Reading the Preview yesterday was less intimate, but still familiar.

The DC Comics Masters of the Universe stories were always very interesting to me, even as a kid. There was a waywardness to them, an obvious lack of planning for who these characters were, what their abilities were, what their conflict was about, what the rules of the world were... that sort of thing.  There's a definite sense of winging it, and, if I recall correctly, the DC Comics diverge drastically from the mini-comics that came with the early figures, just as the Filmation cartoon diverges quite wildly from the DC Comics, and just as the movie would diverge from the cartoon (consistency across media was not a strong point for the property).  I lost the mini-comics rather quickly, so the DC Comics stood as character canon for me until the cartoon quickly usurped it to become the official He-Man.

I liked DC's less juvenile take on the characters as a kid, mostly informed by the artwork of Curt Swan (in DCCP and the Preview) and George Tuska (in the mini-series) which were informed more by fantasy tropes than superhero ones.  DC introduced the Prince Adam/He-Man dual identity, as well as Cringer, as Adam's timid pet who transforms into a ferocious fighter.  They used Teela as chief of security, but Teela with her snakeskin armor and staff was used as visual reference for the Sorceress.  Mattel obviously was just starting to construct some sort of mythology  on the way to getting the cartoon made, and Paul Kupperberg had a vastly different approach to the limited concepts than the Filmation writers did.

Kupperberg used the actual toys to guide his stories with the characters.  He-Man and Skeletor each came with a sword (He-Man's sword was grey, Skeletor's blue) that could join together and "unlock" Castle Greyskull's front door.  Kupperberg used that idea in the Preview, with Skeletor needing to join two halves to reveal the mighty secrets of Greyskull.  Of course he had to shoehorn Superman in somehow, leading to an extremely disjointed story (the use of Zodak, the Metron of the MOTU, also caused a lot of confusion... was he good, or seemed like nobody really knew what he was up to?)

The Star Comics (an imprint of Marvel) Masters of the Universe stories were more in-line with the Filmation version of the characters, however, it seemed that the series was even more blatantly used to promote new action figures and toys than the early DC Comics were.  As well, since Star was Marvel's "young readers" line, the writing of the series (from Mike Carlin, up to issue 8) was exceptionally patronizing, lacking any depth, passion or seeming interest in the characters.  But then, if you're tasked with devising a 22-page story about Monstroid and the origin of Extendar that also weaves in the three-way conflict between Hordak, Skeletor and He-Man, while also containing a life-lesson about responsibility for (kid-proxy) Orko to learn, well, anyone would be hard-pressed to come up with anything less silly than this.

I loved this comic as a pre-teen for the very reason it existed.  It featured all the new toys I could go out and buy.  This was unlike the cartoon, which had ended production sometime in '85 and thus had no inclusion of new toys.  My favourite episodes of He-Man were always those that featured more of the characters, vehicles and playsets from the toy line.  But most episodes of the show frustratingly centered around the core cast, or worse, characters who were not toys!

I poke my head into the Masters of the Universe comics and animation and video games from time to time and am rarely happy with what I see, the two recent Origin one-shots about He-Man and Skeletor written by Joshua Hale Fialkov being the exception.  There's not a lot of younger He-Man fans out  there (the toys being produced are boutique toys for adults at this stage, never to be found in Toys-R-Us), the Masters of the Universe of the 1980's was lighting in a bottle and should not try to be recaptured.  Instead, like Fialkov did, treat it seriously.  Don't worry about the kids, because the kids aren't reading.  The Masters has always been a unique hybrid of sci-fi and fantasy, so if there's any interest in modernizing the series, look towards Game of Thrones for inspiration.  Or the complete opposite, make it an outright comedy (I mean, those names alone do half of the heavy lifting).

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