This article contains SPOILERS for “He-Man/ThunderCats” #1–3
DC recently unleashed the crossover fans of 1980s cartoon and toys dreamed of: “He-Man/ThunderCats” together in one universe, for a no-holds barred series. When the dust settles, there is an unexpected outcome: He-Man, Master of the Universe, is killed. Yes, He-Man the mightiest man in Eternia, Master of the Powers of Castle Grayskull, who during the course of his history, has brought in over a billion dollars in his 35 year reign as one of the princes of the 80’s television toy kingdoms, is dead.
The Answer-Man Muses:
When was the last time He-Man was relevant? When was the last time you thought about him, Castle Greyskull or any of Team Skeletor? If you’re like most people, the answer is… Skeletor’s Motivational Affirmations promoted at Heal Yourself, Skeletor.
This was the last time anything from Eternia had any value in my life. I still think the very idea of Skeletor providing motivational information to others is brilliantly twisted. It keeps me laughing for hours.
Hadn’t He-Man and his crew been dead to most of us for a long time? Born of a lawsuit and given a generic name “He-Man” by Roger Sweet, He-Man’s creator thought the character could appear anywhere. Poised to take advantage of the rise of Star Wars toys, a burgeoning market based on film properties, Sweet was certain he was onto something, big.
In the race to design the next hit action figure, Roger Sweet (a lead designer working for Mattel’s Preliminary Design Department during much of the 1970s and 1980s) realized that simplicity was the key to success. According to his 2005 book Mastering the Universe: He-Man and the Rise and Fall of a Billion-Dollar Idea, Sweet knew that if he gave marketing something it could sell, he had won 90 percent of the battle.
“The only way I was going to have a chance to sell this [to Wagner] was to make three 3D models?—?big ones. I glued a Big Jim figure [from another Mattel toy line] into a battle action pose and I added a lot of clay to his body. I then had plaster casts made. These three prototypes, which I presented in late 1980, brought He-Man into existence. I simply explained that this was a powerful figure that could be taken anywhere and dropped into any context because he had a generic name: He-Man!”
— Roger Sweet (From The Birth of He-Man article: The Sneeze Blog)
And Sweet was right. In some form or another, despite his generic name, silly castle and clearly undeveloped realm of Eternia, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe continued to exist as toys, action figures, animated features and comics. No one could possibly know just how hungry this market for toys would be and how much it would shape later television (in my opinion, for the worse) because of the need for cartoons to be able to be marketed for toys. For all intents and purposes, most cartoons are little more than 11 -20 minute product placement ads. Masters of the Universe has been a multi-billion dollar enterprise in its thirty five year run.
In 1987, six years after their creation, Mattel was selling $400 million dollars worth of MOTU products. To be fair, this would be the end of their peak existence and they would ride waves of boom and bust for the apparently undying enterprise, until today. No matter what I may think of these heroes, to a whole bunch of people, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe were as important as air to them. The later iterations, spin-offs, fan fiction, comics and related artwork litter the internet, with these characters having firmly ensconced themselves in the psyche of a generation. Even characters like Orko (who acted as bumbling comic relief and occasional side-kick to He-Man) get to appear bad-ass in someone’s artistic eye.
Honestly, the first few years of their existence, I was psyched but by 1987, at the height of their toy power, I lost touch with the heroes and programming which was on a momentary downward slope. Mattel had saturated its market and for a while, there was no need for He-Man to save the day. He was in every home who wanted him to be.
I admit to being baffled and even a bit surprised as I did research for this piece until I remembered the wow factor was easier to understand when I was a whole lot younger.
The End of an Era
Given his origins as a cartoon character whose primary goal was to teach a simple moral lesson at the end of every episode, He-Man’s life and existence seemed assured. He would engage one of Skeletor plans, defeat the villain, and end the episode with a witty pun having driven the villain away.
Lessons learned, those of us from the 80s watched him fade into our childhood with the ridiculousness of his villain, Skeletor and his bumbling band of nitwits.
I always thought it was sad, that villains whose collective power was incredible enough to destroy New York in an afternoon lacked the collective brainpower sufficient to activate a lightbulb. For all of their power, they never posed a significant challenge to Team Eternia. It could have been the format of the show or perhaps the underlying ethos which made the show possible: Sell those toys!? From where I sit, this probably undermined any dramatic tension the stories could have had.
With that in mind, we accepted Skeletor had to lose and He-Man had to win for him to continue to matter. Who wants a toy line where the hero dies and the villains win the day?
Are we surprised that another moralistic loser in the cartoon aether, once crossed over into comics, Mumm-Ra, the Ever-Living (buyer of bandages, master of soliloquy, and 24 Hour Fitness gold member) would be the baddie to do the deed? This guy failed in the much shorter-lived series, ThunderCats again and again so it only makes sense he would be involved in the death of He-Man. Call it a redemption and renewal of his supervillain credentials.
The writers correctly deduced that if you crossed-over the two Universes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe with The ThunderCats, the least interesting person in the room would be Prince Adam and He-Man. He was also the most expendable.
Yes. Just think about it for a second. Their stories are not all that dissimilar. A story of two kings-to-be:
- One, a happy go-lucky prince with an intact family and mostly intact kingdom, who has secret identity, a connection to a great power and his super-powered entourage. Why no one has ever made the connection between Prince Adam and He-Man remains a mystery.
- The other, a sad prince, Lion-O, whose father has been killed, his kingdom in ruins, with only the powers of his family at his call and a mysterious artifact, the Sword of Omens, to sustain him against a world of challenges.
Lion-O with all of his issues, is far more interesting. He’s far more challenged and likely to have a greater pool of emotional angst to draw from. A king in training, is always the better draw.
He-man dies heroically. Should we have expected anything less? But in comics, we know heroes don’t tend to stay dead. Thus, the death of He-Man is a figurative one, a death designed to make us question our own love and history with this character.
- Do we approve of this cross-time adventure? Can these two properties sustain each other better than they did individually?
- Will we spend money on the series of comics because they depict a world different from our precious memories of Eternia and the winning nature of Team He-Man?
- Can this be the start of something great? A collaborative universe as amazing as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the DC Entertainment Universe?
- Is there anything that can give this property a shot in the arm for a new generation?
- Or is this death a signature statement, indicating an awareness that the sun has set on Eternia and to a lesser extent Third Earth, and creators need to start thinking about what might replace these two titans of the 80s kiddies entertainment arena?
- Or will their transition into a more real storytelling mode signal new life for He-Man and a continued expanded existence for the ThunderCats? (In 2011, the ThunderCats had a brief resurgence with new art, new stories but alas not enough viewership to sustain them. Too bad. I really liked that reboot.)
Other comic companies are experimenting with such collaborations such as my friend, Brandon Easton (@BrandonEaston) is working on IDW Publishing with their IDW-Hasbro Universe.
In September, IDW Publishing embarks on one of its most ambitious ventures in its 17 year history… REVOLUTION! This massive, multi-title crossover will reinvent and re-imagine the IDW-Hasbro Universe of titles into a single shared Universe. Imagine the possibilities as some of IDW’s most popular comic characters find themselves in an all-out war! G.I. Joe, Transformers, ROM, Micronauts, Action Man, MASK: Mobile Armored Strike Kommand.
—?The Revolution Will Be Toy Shaped and Action Packed
DC Comics has also entered the fray with another collaborative universe based in the famed Hanna-Barbara properties called Future Quest (on the right). I love the properties and my taste of Future Quest thus far, I just haven’t had a chance to fully review it yet. In my experience, thus far, these particular rebooted properties are being given a chance to shine collaboratively in a way they never could of due to issues from the periods they hailed from. So far, in the hands of capable writers, they are all they could have been and more.
Have we reached peak superhero collaborative Universes? Signs point to no, given the current lust for supers and their related properties but like most things, while a rising tide lifts all boats, it may not help boats whose hulls have not been maintained or have lost the ability to inspire anyone to care about them through another refit.
Eternia may be forever, but for now, it’s Prince and its greatest Champion are dead.
I will get back to writing reviews next week. Happy New Year, everyone!
The Answer-Man’s Archives are a collection of my articles discussing superheroes and their powers in relationship to their respective universes. We deconstruct characters, memes, profiles and how superheroes relate to real world culture. You can find Archives on Quora and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange or at The World According to Superheroes. Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. You can follow him on Twitter at @ebonstorm.