And so, as promised, let us now begin my obsessive geek analysis of the Masters of the Universe toy line, both as an artifact of my childhood and a potential plaything for my children. Before we begin I just want to say that I nearly entitled this series “Masters of the June-iverse” given the way it’s taking over this month’s Wednesdays, but ultimately I decided that moniker was a bit problematic. Anyway.
PART ONE: THE PRIMACY EFFECT
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Indulge me (as I assume you will or you wouldn’t be here) as I recall my own introduction to He-Man and his action figure friends. I want to stress it here one (hopefully) final time and then leave it to speak for itself, but Masters of the Universe started out as a collection of toys and later gave rise to a syndicated animated tv show. That’s how it went down historically, that’s how I personally experienced it, and that’s the way it’s always been in my mind: toys first, cartoon second.
So it was Christmas 1982 and I was 8 and Little Bro was 5 and He-Man was a pretty hot seller introduced earlier that year. The point in the future when Little Bro and I would really diverge wildly in terms of our tastes and interests was still reasonably far off, and really that made for kind of a golden age of childhood Christmases, in retrospect. It was fairly easy for our parents to keep things nice and equalized in terms of gift-giving: three Masters of the Universe toys for me, three Masters of the Universe toys for my brother, can’t really argue with that. That in turn was mutually beneficial for me and my brother because we could pool our respective collections (not that we were even thinking in terms of personal collections per se at that point) and have access to this deep bench of characters populating the imaginary world we wanted to play out adventures within.
My recollection of specific details in the single-digit-age years of my life is notoriously spotty, but I’m pretty sure this is how it went down: my brother and I each got a He-Man figure, which is not to say we got respective variants (because again this was MOTU’s Year One and there were no variants) but rather we each got our own copy of the exact same toy. (Told you my parents were really committed to equanimity.) I also got Stratos, He-Man’s winged ally, and my brother got Man-at-Arms, He-Man’s weapons-expert ally. I remember my brother getting Skeletor and me getting Mer-Man, but I also remember Beast Man being in the mix somewhere, but specifically that he belonged to my brother, which leaves me wondering who my corresponding fourth figure would have been.
I suppose it’s fairly beside the point, anyway, because my brother and I were quickly expanding our collective collection. Some new figures came into play when we were sent to my grandmother’s for part of the summer, which traditionally involved her buying us new toys to keep us from getting bored. I want to say I got a Man-E-Faces (the spinning-faced hero/monster/robot) and my brother got Faker (He-Man’s evil-clone). Then at the end of the summer we were in the process of relocating (which in itself was part of the longer process of our parents reconciling after a trial separation, so feel free to ascribe any stereotypical assuage-guilt-and-distract-kids-via-toy-bribery motives you can conjure because you’re probably dead on) and my brother got Trap Jaw and I got Ram Man. Also somewhere along the way someone got Zodac and someone got the Attack Trak vehicle and someone got the Wing Raider vehicle and someone (possibly both of us) got Castle Grayskull and so pretty much within a year or so we got almost every MOTU toy in the entire line, with a couple of notable exceptions: Battle Cat, Tri-Klops, Teela and Evil-Lyn (and I’m pretty sure my cousin, who is right between me and Little Bro in age, had all of those plus a lot of overlap with our collection).
And then for some reason we just kind of dropped He-Man not too long after that. Maybe it was the aforementioned move, which involved starting at a new school and making new friends who, as it turned out, were really into G.I. Joe and thought He-Man was a little babyish. Maybe it wasn’t even anything that conscious, and more just a factor of the production schedules of MOTU toys: we already had all the figures they had made, more or less, and I’ve always been easily distracted by the thrill of the acquisitive hunt involved in collecting, so my attention was bound to move somewhere else.
But Mattel didn’t stop making MOTU toys, so the point at which I stopped being into He-Man draws this line between a subset of the toys which I was perhaps over-familiar with and another subset of which I have almost no firsthand knowledge. I’ve become conceptually acquainted with them because that’s kind of my thing but I don’t know much about them as physical playthings.
So this was more or less the impetus behind me polling various friends about the ideal composition of a MOTU starter set for the little guy to compliment the Castle Grayskull on loan from his uncle. My brother and I back in 1982 started out with six or seven (or so, spotty recollections be damned) figures but at that moment of MOTU genesis there were only nine or so total that existed. By the end of the toy line’s run there were at least 50 or 60, so given that order-of-magnitude deeper bench, which seven would rise to the top as go-to must-haves?
Basically the same ones my brother and I started with in 1982.
I was shocked by just how uniformly all the poll results came back to me. And this wasn’t something where I cc’ed a bunch of people on the same question and the fastest person on the draw answered and everyone else started chiming in “me too, me too”. Everyone got asked separately and answered with no knowledge of other people’s suggestions, but they were all virtually identical. Everyone put He-Man number one, which I admit is a no-brainer but I was honestly curious if anyone would say “in hindsight, he is boringly generic and you might as well go with someone more fun like Mekanek or Rio Blast.” Everyone included Man-at-Arms, with a surprising number asserting he was He-Man’s sidekick (I’m not sure that’s true but I’ll come back to that). After that most people suggested Teela or Man-E-Faces. Apparently Stratos is pretty obscure and only seems quintessential to me because, as mentioned, I got him that very first Christmas. The deepest into latter-day MOTU anyone got was my wife, who kicked in a vote for Moss Man, which ironically is one of the few non-original MOTU toys that did make its way into my orbit during the brief period when I was no longer into MOTU but Little Bro still was.
For the bad guys, again everyone name-checked Skeletor, which is even less surprising because he is of course the counterpoint to he-Man but unlike the blond musclehead, Skeletor is one of the raddest character designs in any mythology, period. Beast Man got what seemed to me to be a surprising number of votes, but I think he fulfilled a certain logic of “He-Man and his sidekick versus Skeletor and his sidekick”. By the same token, Evil-Lyn got a lot of votes presumably (or in some cases explicitly) to face off against Teela.
The wildcard I very deliberately built into the question was the seventh slot, so of course it got the most varied response. Mainly it was split between Tri-Klops and Trap Jaw, though Mer-Man and Hordak (another late entrant into the series) got a vote apiece. One of my buddies gave the seventh slot to Battle Cat even though I specifically forbade animals and vehicles from consideration; his passionate insistence that Battle Cat was indispensible managed to soften my rules-lawyering heart, at that. There was also a lone shout-out to Orko the magician but perhaps the less said about that the better.
So what I had been hoping to learn was where the real gems and/or the real duds were in the sets of figures that post-dated my personal experience with the line. I’m reasonably confident in my own abilities to speculate and extrapolate, and after all these are just thirty-year-old action figures we’re talking about here, but I still thought it would be valuable to hear things like or “Clawful the crab man had a spring-loaded claw that could lock him onto things in defiance of gravity” or “Two Bad, the bad guy with two heads, tended to fall apart easily because of his non-standard double-wide torso mold” or “Do not buy Stinkor, that thing really does smell like rotten eggs” or whatever. But instead what I learned is that, at least among the circle of friends I posed the inquiry to, it turns out I was the biggest MOTU fan back in the day. Pretty much everyone knew the first wave of characters best (or exclusively) and based all their recommendations on that. If I had worded the question to request 9 or 11 figures for a starter set, I have a feeling I would have gotten back a lot of lists of 7 that ended with “I can’t think of any more, sorry!” Basically everyone could speak to the minimal level of familiarity you’d expect people to show re: a highly successful toy supported by a widely-watched cartoon from the 80’s, but nobody showed otaku levels of expertise.
I’d probably be more disappointed if I suspected that everyone was just parroting existing consensus or whatever, but I had pre-empted that by asking everyone to explain their votes and everyone obliged me so I know that everyone was on the level. Everyone I polled really does seem to believe that the best-of-the-best Masters of the Universe were the ones initially released, and the entire line declined Sturgeon’s Law-like from there. According to my admittedly non-scientific sample, the optimized MOTU starter set is one which seeks to emulate Christmas 1982 pretty closely.
So, question asked, question answered, but of course that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as offshooting thoughts resulting from the whole enterprise. Next Wednesday I’ll wade a little further out into the obscurities and reflect a little more on what “playtime” means when you’re two versus ten versus thirty-seven.