ill LYTeracy – On the Appeal of He-Man to Me


Polish Toys Collector

This blog post is inspired by a couple of comments I noticed during my first week on the job, and I hope those who made them will forgive my not remembering who exactly they were. One wondered why exactly both Rob and I found He-Man so appealing, while another suggested I hadn’t given enough information about myself since coming onboard. There were a number of reasons for this latter point, chief among them being that I didn’t want to look like I was touting any prior achievements as my reason for being here, nor did I want the posts to be so much about me – I figured things would come out in time, when relevant, and was occasionally amused by assumptions people would make.

Still, I don’t think I can make my particular case for He-Man without a bit of biographical background…

You should know, then, that while I was born in the U.S., I grew up in Ireland, the son of an art history professor from southwestern Virginia and a vicar’s daughter from England (perhaps you’ve noticed that I have a low tolerance for actors who try to fake those accents). And one thing to know about Ireland during the time I grew up there is that times were very different – take this recession we’re in now and multiply it by ten years or so. As far as the pop-culture sphere goes, things took ages to cross the Atlantic. Put it this way: you know how Kenner missed the boat on getting Star Wars figures out in time over here? In Ireland, we got the figures before the movie (as far as I’m aware, anyway). The Ray Parker Jr. song “Ghostbusters” was a hit six months before any Irish kid had any idea there was a movie attached to it. And G.I. Joe was named first Action Man, then Action Force, and augmented with original characters and evil Soviet-like villains called Red Shadows.

That Roboskull was seriously badass…note the mix of repaints and other stuff

Once I became interested in Star Wars toys, my parents tried their damnedest to keep me to that one toy line, to spare their sanity and their wallets, no doubt. They also wanted me to be interested in the classics, so I read a lot of Greek mythology, sanitized down to kid-level (the degree of sex and gore in those books were mostly glossed over, though I still heard the one about Prometheus having his liver eaten every day). It was the interest in mythology that drew my eye to another toy line that appeared to be drawing strongly from it: Masters of the Universe.

Understand that when those figures first came out, there was no He-Man cartoon. There were just the basic characters, all of whom appeared to have analogues amongst the classical deities: Man-At-Arms could be Ares, Mer-Man would be Poseidon, Skeletor the grim reaper – we couldn’t even be sure who was good and who was bad (the cards the figures came on were multilingual, so finding the right character descriptor was no casual feat), although it was clear skull-face guy had to be bad. And next to the spindly sculpts of the Star Wars toys, MOTU looked like McFarlane-level detail to our eyes then. I craved them because I wanted mythological gods to rule over my smaller figures, and after saving my own money, finally got a Skeletor, which I was so embarrassed by when confronted by my father that I promised I’d never by any more of them (little did we know I would ultimately own a near-complete collection). I had my grim reaper, my death.

I think the second one I owned was Webstor, because his climbing backpack gimmick was so cool. After him, I got a couple more via a grocery store promotion – Irish chain Quinnsworth (a grocery store that also had a small-but-decent toy section) would give you stamps with every purchase, and filling out a book could earn you a MOTU toy. For my eleventh birthday, I asked my wealthy grandmother to get me Snake Mountain, which came at the absurd price tag of 80 Irish pounds, which would have been about $150 – in 1980s dollars! She didn’t really want to get it for me, but did anyway. By then I was fully in, pretty much.

At that point, I was aware of He-Man in other media – cartoons, storybooks, etc. And I was hugely disappointed. He felt like a joke; a character who beat all of Skeletor’s elaborate traps simply by being too absurdly powerful. I bought the Battle Armor version of He-Man just so Skeletor could smash his chest armor again and again.

And then it occurred to me that to maintain the balance of power, He-Man had to win. If He-Man wins, Skeletor and his guys are still around, but if Skelly wins, all the good guys die, and there are no more stories to be had. That the mini-comics which came with the figures presented a marginally less kiddiefied version of Eternia helped. And by this point, the appeal of the toys wasn’t necessarily about god archetypes any more, but about gimmicks – each figure had a different, unique action feature, and it was always exciting to find out what the next line would bring – I think King Hiss shedding his outer skin was the one that really made me lose my shit with excitement.

My parents divorced before I turned ten, though divorce wasn’t legal in Ireland (they hadn’t gotten married there, so it didn’t matter as far as that went, but it made me a freak to everyone else). I found my stability in pop-culture, from the weekly TV shows I had to watch religiously (some of them reruns, but we didn’t own a VCR, so it was time-slot viewed or nothing) to the recurring adventures of He-Man versus Skeletor versus Hordak (Hordak made for an interesting three-way dynamic) that took place on my bedroom floor. I didn’t think I’d like Dolph Lundgren’s portrayal (the cape bothered me in the promo images) but I wound up finding the live-action movie to be most representative of how I saw things. It was also a reminder of my real home country – when I’d visit America there’d be brand new and wonderful Masters figures that wouldn’t see their way to Dublin’s toy shelves until a year or so later.

So I can’t speak for Rob, but He-Man and Skeletor helped me through childhood. And when the 2002 animated series arrived, I realized there were fans like me who had enjoyed the potential of what the story could be, and happy to remove some of the silliness of what it had been. I look at the Filmation cartoon now in the same way, perhaps, that fans of the Paul Dini animated Batman look at Adam West’s TV show – it’s not my preferred interpretation of He-Man, but it can be enjoyed as the camp take. (Just don’t get me started on the atrocities of the She-Ra cartoon like Madame Razz and Broom. And giving Hordak a boss after the figure’s card art declared him “the most evil being in the universe.” I enjoyed the idea of the bad guys being in charge, for what that was worth.) And Rob has thoroughly dissected the Christmas special, so I’m not even gonna go there.

I did often fantasize that I could visit Eternia, though – the guns they used never killed, and no matter how much you screwed up, He-Man would save you. When I had my wisdom teeth taken out, I tried to influence my anesthesia dreams, Nightmare on Elm Street 4 style, and wish myself into Eternia the only way that might actually, briefly work. I only have vague memories but I think it was the Lundgren movie version.

And today, I still buy a bunch of plastic crap to keep the dream alive.