In claiming “classic” status for early 80s futuristic warrior cartoon He Man & The Masters of the Universe (first series, 1983-85) it is arguable that you need to look very, very closely for justification. Perhaps the greatest challenge is the man himself, part beefcake He Man and part boy Prince Adam with shy pussycat Cringer. Further, the series was created by Filmation (Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1972), Mighty Mouse (1978), Tom & Jerry Comedy Show(1980)) and all the vehicles and weapons look a like something you might draw on the cover of a schoolbook or carve on a desk. And The Masters of the Universe moved at a time when cartoons were trying to do as little as possible through using a technique referred to as “limited animation” where studios (including Hanna-Barbera) cut costs by lowering frame rates, repeating scenes and having action occur off screen. So how can He Man be a classic?
The birth of the cartoon could be traced to the massive success of Star Wars(1977) where warrior types roamed around space thrashing out bureaucracy with a sword. The personalities and indeed the blond bob haircuts of both Luke Skywalker and He Man match almost identically and both characters alternate between warrior and ordinary man. The main difference was that He Man was an 80s renovation of Skywalker and rendered with bulging biceps and loincloth that resembled Conan The Barbarian (1982). Yet while Conan lived in the Middle Ages and was only a couple of years out of the cave, this new hero was decidedly more civilised (as Prince Adam) and polished off enemies with cheerfulness rather than grit (as He Man).
Everyone knows that Prince Adam (and his cat) transformed when he raised his sword to the sky and, while channelling electricity, screamed “By the power of Greyskull, IIIIII hhhhhaaaavvveeee thheeee poowwweeeerrrr”. At the time it was a battle cry that could be heard echoing around the playground before kids charged each other with eye gouging sticks. In addition to the division of this character into He Man and Man, the hero alone also represents another dichotomy – that of the future and the past. It was as if The Flintstones (Hanna-Barbera, 1960) and The Jetsons (Hanna-Barbera, 1962, 1982) shagged after meeting in a bar and both gentle comedies had given birth to the bastard caveman who came from the past to defend the future. But He Man was not aggressive. He only seemed savage because he didn’t solve mysteries like the crew in Scooby Doo (Hanna-Barbera, 1969) nor did he attempt to live in peace like The Smurfs (Hanna-Barbera, 1980), no, He Man solved problems by opening up a can of whoop-ass on the invading hordes while riding his savage green steed, a beast named Battle Cat. He Man’s principal enemy was the relentlessly evil (and stupid) Skeletor who wanted to find out the “Secrets of Greyskull” from the Sorceress(!). At the time I was uninterested in discovering these secrets for myself, but I sure enjoyed the fights.
So it seems that on a few fronts, there are grounds on which to complain about The Masters of the Universe but the cartoon was interesting despite of all this because ultimately it was all fight, fight and fight. With the brawling of He Man and Skeletor it seemed that cartoons had choked on the sweetness of Hanna-Barbera’s happy animals Yogi Bear and The Snorks, and finally grown balls. This has been attributed to US censorship laws that apparently relaxed the 1970’s US restrictions on depictions of cartoon violence. Legislative involvement was not all positive however because He Man did not only lift the Star Wars themes, it also borrowed its commercial ideas as well. Just as many kids from the 1970s own a few Star Wars figures there was also a He Man marketing campaign designed to flog expensive little figurines to little consumers. In Britain the Government was concerned at the exposure of children to marketing muscle and prevented cartoons from playing with associated advertising. Given the present youth market explosion and exploitation today, this objection appears quaint.
Masters of the Universe fights were a psychedelic spectrum of madness. For example, in one episode (episode 8, The Time Corridor) He Man and Skeletor use different groups of warriors the Ape clan and the Snake clan to do battle on Dragasaur Island with a variety of interesting stuff such as growth serum, a stasis ray and possibly best of all – a wheel of infinity. Let it be understood – this is a single episode of the riot of entertainment that is He Man. In other episodes there is a memory projector, invincibility helmets, the diamond ray of disappearance, robot birds and serpentoids among a galaxy of others. It was an avalanche of content to be chewed up every Saturday morning. The show was worth watching solely in order to see He Man’s pimped up ride the Attak Trak tank or Barbie-house-for-boys and He Man headquarters, “Castle Greyskull”. Finally there were the über sci-fi vixens Evil-Lyn (she’s bad, get it?) and the Sorceress (who could change into a telepathic hawk) clad in little enough to keep things interesting. But the show still proclaimed a fairly conservative stance by finishing each episode with a moral lesson.
I can remember thinking – even back then – what an amazingly diverse number of lessons could be taken from each fightin’ episode. For example: use your brain / working to achieve goals / dangerous practical jokes / learning from the past / treating animals with respect(!) / don’t use drugs / telling lies / appearances / obeying parents / checking with the doctor before exercising / and of course, saying “no”. Often these sermons were delivered by He Man’s drippy sidekick Ghost Orko. Of not talking to strangers Orko exclaimed, “There is nothing make-believe about how dangerous some strangers can be in real life. Never accept any food or toys or money from a stranger. Don’t even talk to them. And no matter what a stranger may say, never go away with them. Terrible things have happened to some kids who did”. I knew my paranoia came from somewhere.
The Masters of the Universe started – and continued – at fever pitch. For me, the series imploded when new regular villain Hordak was introduced. With this ridiculously evil character and his minions He Man had officially “jumped the shark” and landed in shit-ville. It was only after my interest in He Man and other Saturday morning cartoons passed that I looked mournfully over my collection of plastic figurines. Try raising some interest in He Man rather than Star Wars and you will quickly realise that He Man is not just uncool but actually embarrassing. Sure, even if anyone did give a toss my Masters of the Universe probably wouldn’t be worth much – they were gnarled and missing limbs and burnt from where I’d singed them with lighter fluid in an attempt to add realism – but by the late 80s He Man had definitely moved on the “What’s Hot” list to the “Not”. Of course if I had the smarts to collect early Star Wars figures I would be able to retire early but now I am left with Battle Cat and Castle Greyskull collecting dust under the stairs with a couple of Smurf figurines and a Garfield lunchbox.
When a He Man movie finally arrived in 1987 the first series had come and gone (finishing in 1985) and the film was not a success. Another He Man film was created but relabelled as Cyborg in order to amputate any relationship with the corpse of He Man in a move that underlines Hollywood integrity. But while the wreckage of new Star Wars prequels smashes up the films that went before (although chronologically occurred after) action auteur John Woo will be remaking the cartoon in the future so maybe we can all once again utter those words with pride “By the Power of Greyskull, I have the Power”.