He-Man poised to conquer toy shelves again
By JOHN SIMCOE
I grew up in the 1980s, and I was one of those kids who always had to have the hottest toy out there. But, unlike the Furby-loving kids of the 1990s, I never got into the “girly” fads, like Cabbage Patch Kids. Nope, I was a “man” of action, and the biggest man of action back then was He-Man. He was six inches tall, and could snap G.I. Joe’s Kung-Fu Grip and pound Darth Vader into bits of cybernetic goo.
Hardly a day went by when I wasn’t pitting He-Man against his arch-nemesis, Skeletor, as they battled for the land of Eternia. When my mom would drag me to a relative’s house, a Masters of the Universe-brand dufflebag, shoved full of Castle Greyskull, Snake Mountain and various other Universe vehicles and action figures, would come along.
The original He-Man was a bulky bodybuilder type that captured kids’ imaginations.
Inhabiting the world of Masters of the Universe were 82 action figures, 24 vehicles, 6 playsets, two spin-off toy lines, a cartoon show, a movie starring Dolph Lundgren and all sorts of extra items, including books, comics, party decorations, pencils and oodles more.
The toy line even managed to stir up some controversy. At one point, parents and preachers were upset that the line was called “Masters of the Universe,” because that title was reserved for God. In another but related controversy, some complained that the Skeletor action figure had weapons accessories that hinted at a Satanic influence.
For the most part, Mattel ignored the criticism, and the hit toy line kept chugging along; but since his debut nearly twenty years ago, good ol’ He-Man has fallen on to hard times.
He’s been rummage-sale fodder. He’s had his squishy-head ripped off. His Power Sword has lost its charge and he’s been hanging around the dump instead of out digging for lost treasures and ancient artifacts. But in the last year, that’s all been changing. Thanks to a resurgence of interest in the hero, things are turning around for Eternia’s main man.
Mattel redesign Masters of the Universe and He-Man for a new generation
Beginning early in 2001, Mattel, the toy company which created He-Man and the Masters of the Universe toy line, has been re-issuing some of the old action figures in special commemorative packages. These retro-figures were limited to runs of 15,000 each, and included the main characters, such as He-Man and Skeletor, as well as lesser characters, including Zodac, an outer space alien, and Faker, a blue-skinned robotic double of He-Man.
In 2001, Mattel introduced a new He-man at a toy convention. The new He-Man was a slightly younger looking figure with an anime’ influence.
That’s not all, either; in an attempt to reclaim the thrown in the Kingdom of Action Figures, Mattel is ready to release a new series, not for nostalgia but instead targeted directly at the children of the kids who started the craze in 1982.
“The characters are the same. We have updated the look,” said Sara Rosales, director of marketing communication at Mattel. “We’ve added a bit of an anime’ influence to the look.”
The decision for a new He-Man line was an easy one, she said.
“This was one of Mattel’s most popular brands ever, so we did some research by showing a test group some of the old cartoons, and found that kids today really, really liked (He-Man),” Rosales said. “The storyline of the good guy vs. the bad guy is a pretty timeless play pattern, and (the kids) responded quite well to the fantasy aspect of his story.”
Back in the toy line’s first run, the whole Masters of the Universe line was designed with a few neat concepts in mind. First off, unlike so many action figures before, each character had a unique gimmick. Some figures had a “thunder punch” that toppled enemies with a single, spring-loaded blow. Others had special armor that would show battle damage or house unique attack features, like a giant claw or big bug wings.
Secondly, each figure was packaged with a little comic book, usually only 12 or 16 pages long, that told of He-Man’s adventures and helped kids like me know what the action figures were supposed to do. Other kids could watch the immensely popular Filmation cartoon, but I couldn’t. I didn’t have cable.
The designers: The new Masters of the Universe figures are designed by The Four Horsemen, a Butler, N.J., firm whose partners, Chris Dahlberg, James Preziosi, Eric Treadaway and H. Eric “Cornboy” Mayse, worked in the business for nearly a decade at MacFarlane Toys, a company created by comic-book artist Todd MacFarlane, before setting out on their own.
“We all met at MacFarlane Toys,” Dahlberg said. “We were pretty much the premier design team for Todd MacFarlane.”
With its amazing design and attention to detail, MacFarlane’s company revolutionized the action-figure business. Dahlberg said at MacFarlane, he and his partners were responsible for about 60 to 70 percent of the action figure design. In 1999, the soon-to-be-named Four Horsemen approached Mattel, looking for some financial support to start their own company. Mattel, recognizing the talent involved, snapped up the design team in an exclusive contract.
At the same convention, Mattel showed off new designs for a variety of Masters of the Universe characters and packaging.
From the beginning, the Four Horsemen knew they wanted to work on a new He-Man because they were fans of He-Man themselves, Dahlberg said.
“We had already had designs on doing the line. It was fantasy project, like ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could do He-Man?'” he said. “Eric and Cornboy are both huge fans, Jim and I were on the fringe. He-Man is always great — he’s kind of like the Conan of my generation.”
The new wave: As an homage to the old toy line, Dahlberg said Mattel and The Four Horsemen tried to make the new figures look a lot like the old ones.
“We just added an updated, hipper look, with better anatomy and better attention to details,” Dahlberg said. And, according to Dahlberg, the new figures will have a special voice chip that is activated when they’re placed near a playset.
In the first wave of the new line there will be six figures, all of whom were in the original line: He-Man, Skeletor, Man-At-Arms, Beast Man, Stratos and Mer-Man. Those figures could hit the stores as early as December, Rosales said, and Dahlberg said he hopes they arrive even earlier. A second wave will probably follow in the spring, Rosales said, and she expects the playsets and vehicles to come in late 2002.
A few concerns still linger, though. Can He-Man capture the enthusiasm of millions of 8-year-olds crazed for Harry Potter and Dragonball Z? Will He-Man take his place beside Barbie as Mattel’s, or even the toy industry’s, greatest action figure? Can he overcome the probing eyes of his critics?
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