Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Guttor #5 - You Can't Do That on Television!

As someone whose main connection to the Masters of the Universe franchise is through the original cartoon, it was a breath of fresh air to be able to crack this first Marvel/Star issue and read dialogue that felt like it was in those familiar character voices. It's not completely consistent on that front, but the characters feel right to me in a way they didn't in the earlier stories. 

But, like the DC Comics, this series exists in its own strange liminal space. Sure, it draws mostly from the cartoons in terms of characterization and design, but occasionally a location or a character looks like the toy version instead of the animated version. 

Toy Snake Mountain...

...and cartoon Eternos...

...and a kind of hybrid Grayskull, with the toy playset's handle visible.

This series started in 1986, while new episodes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe had ceased production the year before, and instead She-Ra: Princess of Power was the spotlight series for new toys in the sibling lines. As a result, the new characters introduced in this Filmation-inspired setting—which is to say, the new toys that get a spotlight—are ones that only showed up on She-Ra's cartoon, if at all. Which results in strange things like stories that reference Etheria, She-Ra's adopted homeworld, but not the Princess of Power herself.

And, to be clear, that's how it was in the toy pack-in minicomics as well. Hordak and the Horde come from Etheria, but any other denizens of that world are unmentioned. That’s one of several reasons why this series feels like extended versions of the minicomics—right down to getting more creative with the storytelling and continuity just before they end. 

The consequence is that characters like Hordak, Stonedar, and Rokkon get three separate introduction stories between the Marvel/Star comics, the minicomics, and their spotlight episode of She-Ra. Meanwhile, Extendar’s appearance in these pages feels like a follow-up to his minicomic origin. 

Basically, if you think Donna Troy and Hawkman are complicated, try making sense out of He-Man’s continuity.

These first issues follow a story structure that would be familiar to viewers of the cartoon: there’s a scene early on with Prince Adam and Orko, where Orko demonstrates some childish character flaw, the inciting incident occurs, and then the resolution requires Orko to acknowledge and overcome his mistakes. With that in mind, these should go fairly quickly. 

Issue #1 introduces us to Hordak, and does a pretty solid job of making Hordak seem like a serious threat—Skeletor is afraid of him, and decides he needs to break into Castle Grayskull so he can increase his power to keep Hordak away. To do this, he breaks out the Terror Claws!

Which are considerably less impressive than their toy counterpart. 

Though using them to basically try to dig through the wall of Grayskull like a skull-faced mole certainly is an interesting application of the accessory. 

Meanwhile, Adam and Teela are training, and this is one of those instances where Adam is the one being irresponsible. Orko’s magic goes wrong, endangering Adam when he tried to help, but there’s no time to dwell on that because the Sorceress shows up in her guise as Zoar to summon He-Man. 

One thing that really stands out about Ron Wilson’s art in these issues is the transformation sequences; being freed from the confines of Filmation’s budget restrictions means we get to see new variations on the transformation, and every one of them is stunning. 

He-Man, Battle Cat, and Orko race to stop Skeletor, and the interaction is actually pretty good, with Skeletor treating He-Man as an annoyance rather than a threat. For once, his plan to take over Castle Grayskull isn’t so he can defeat He-Man, which changes the dynamic. 

Skeletor manages to capture Zoar, and Orko uses a spell to summon additional help, which turns out to be exactly the boost Hordak needs to break through Skeletor’s protective magic. 

The Horde attacks He-Man and Skeletor, which puts them both in the unfortunate position of being on the same side.

Orko eventually puts his spell from earlier to better use. 

This is notable, because the structure of subsequent issues will make “Orko learns a lesson” pretty central to each plot, but it doesn’t quite gel here in that same way. We come back to his original problem here and at the end of the story, but not in a way that feels like a problem’s been resolved. 

Skeletor challenges Hordak to one-on-one combat, so Hordak teleports everyone else to the prison in the Fright Zone on Etheria, where no one has ever gotten out alive! But apparently no one had thought to just cut through the wooden bars of the prison cell before.

It’s implied that maybe the further traps our heroes encounter are the really deadly threats, but they’re all dispatched fairly quickly, and then Orko teleports them back to Eternia. 

Skeletor and Hordak battle…

…but Hordak gets the upper hand, until our heroes—including a cavalry in the form of Man-at-Arms and Teela—arrive to turn the tides. 

Hordak runs away, and Skeletor follows suit, but we haven’t seen the last of them. 


In issue #2, Orko screws around and causes the Laser Bolt (one of my personal favorite He-Man vehicles) to go haywire, which shoots a meteor out of the sky. Adam, Cringer, and Orko investigate, encountering the Evil Meteorbs for the first time.

I like Gore-illa's little pirouette.

It is wild to me that two entirely different toy companies decided in 1986 that the best way to compete with Transformers was to introduce figures that turned into rocks or eggs. Were the Rock Lords the direct inspiration for that scene in "Big" where they have a skyscraper Transformer? Both the Meteorbs and Rock Lords use Bandai figures, but He-Man's Rock Warriors are their own thing. 

And the thing that Orko shot out of the sky is secretly the Rock Warrior Rokkon, a real "4:59 on Friday" name. 

Turns out Rokkon, like Orko, just loves to fool around and have fun, and that's what got him hurt. He-Man sends the Rock Warriors and the Heroic Meteorbs to a rendezvous at the Palace, but Skeletor and the Evil Meteorbs are invisibly lying in wait, and attack the newcomers. They retaliate, thinking the attack came from the palace, and Man-at-Arms re-retaliates, escalating things until He-Man arrives. Neither side will relent until Rokkon and Orko use their combined abilities to reveal the actual threat, uniting the heroes against a common foe. 

It's at this point that I should probably point out that all these rock creatures come from a planet they call Granite, which I have to imagine was only in order to make this joke:

The villains are defeated, and we get a nice sitcom ending. 

Issue #3, inexplicably titled "The Garden of Evil," begins with Adam and Orko sparring. Orko expresses jealousy about the Power Sword, especially after Adam is able to use it to turn his magic back on him. 

Meanwhile, Hordak is assembling an army of robotic Horde Troopers to travel to Eternia and bring back He-Man. Instead, they capture Adam, which leads to a very interesting scene that I don't think happens elsewhere in the mythos:

So, first, we have direct confirmation that despite appearing similar to the viewers, He-Man and Adam look nothing alike. But we also have confirmation that He-Man's sword is distinctive enough to be recognized by Hordak.

Back in the day, I proposed two different headcanons about these issues, the first somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the second very serious. For the first, I suggested that cultures on Eternia and Etheria both lacked commonplace stories about characters with secret identities, or even characters in disguise. For whatever reason, it just wasn't part of their shared story traditions. This would help to explain why every disguise on either world, no matter how flimsy, always seemed to be almost completely effective. It would also fit nicely with my belief that Queen Marlena definitely knew that Adam and He-Man were the same person, since she's from Earth where we are all about people in disguise.

The more serious theory is that the reason no one notices that He-Man and Prince Adam have the same sword is because the Sword of Power is so plain, like the Holy Grail in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." While we don't see any swords exactly like He-Man's in the series, the basic sword design we frequently see is similar enough that you could understand why someone would mistake the two, especially if they've only seen it in fast-paced battle situations. 

The Sword of Power

Similar to, but legally distinct from, the Sword of Power

Hordak tries to take the sword, but it defends itself, so he sends Adam to the Slime Pit, a torture chamber where...eventually he'll be covered in slime!

Like, the slime isn't poisonous or anything as far as I can tell. Adam just gets to experience what it's like to be to be on the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards. For comparison, here's what happens when He-Man gets slimed in the mini-comic:

That red-eyed mind-controlled He-Zombie is burned into my brain. According to the footnote in the Mini-Comic Collection, this was the intent for victims of the Slime Pit. 

Meanwhile, only Cringer and Orko know what's happened to Adam, but Orko knows that they don't need help to save him. They travel to Etheria and find Adam trapped, but Adam tries to warn Orko not to touch the sword. 

Orko, though, has other ideas...

...but instead he decides that his magic is good enough, and levitates the sword over to Adam, who gives very little thought to his secret identity. 

Or Cringer's, for that matter. 

Not that it matters, because Hordak is kind of an idiot. He shows off a couple of additional toys, but there aren't enough pages left, so Orko teleports our heroes back to Eternia. He-Man compliments Orko on making a mature decision, and the story ends. 

To sum up these first issues, I think the strong focus on spotlighting several specific toys each issue—the Terror Claws, Horde members, and Fright Zone in #1; the Rock Warriors, Meteorbs, and Laser Bolt in #2, and Hurricane Hordak, the Mantisaur, the Slime Pit, and Horde Troopers in #3—is a big part of what makes these stories feel more like the mini-comics than the cartoon. While the cartoon certainly existed to sell toys, most episodes were less transparent about it, or at least wove them into the plot more naturally. Some of that is down to the amount of space for storytelling, some of that is from animation budget restrictions that limited how many new designs a given story could have, but I think it ended up working in the show's favor.

Next time, issues #4-6!

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Guttor #4 - Enter...The Marvel Age!

Before we dig into the series proper, there was an issue of Marvel Age promoting this series, including an interview with the creative team written by Sholly Fisch, who has apparently had a much longer history in comics than I was aware of. There’s not a ton to say about the interview; it feels very effusive in that promotional enthusiasm sort of way. 

The issue starts with a note from editor Jim Salicrup about why Marvel features so many licensed characters on Marvel Age covers. In short, comics based on licensed characters bring in a new audience:

When Marvel buys the rights to license characters from a movie, TV show, or even a toy, we usually try to find characters that are incredibly popular—that have a huge following of their own. That way, when we publish the comic book based on such a character we're hoping to reach thousands of people who may not have picked up a comic book in years!

That passage starts with a potshot at their competition, which is both kind of funny since He-Man started at DC, and kind of fitting since (for whatever reason) DC didn't hang onto the license. 

Before we cover the cover feature, there's an issue I need to head off at the pass: Mike Carlin is the writer on the first eight issues of this series, and I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his history as a (credibly alleged) sexual harasser. It sucks, and if I’d realized when I started this project that he was the main guy for a bit here, I might have had second thoughts. 

Fisch begins with a brief summary of the He-Man concept and characters, then gets into an interview with writer Mike Carlin and penciller Ron Wilson, who had previously been working on Ben Grimm's solo title, and editor Ralph Macchio. "He-Man will be a mixture of fun and adventure that won't just be for kids!" Fisch says, (the "biff! pow!" is presumably implied) before Carlin promises not to "write down" to the readers. That's a comment I'm going to come back to over Carlin's tenure on the book, because so far in my reading, it feels like it's increasingly untrue as the series progresses. 

Macchio compares Wilson's art style to Jack Kirby and John Buscema, which is high praise that I'm not sure comes through in this series. Then there's this baffling comment:

While it [Wilson & Janke's art] will be slightly different from that of the HE-MAN cartoons, it will be every bit as down to earth!" 

Nothing says "down to earth" like the show about a man in furry shorts fighting a skull-faced wizard for control of a castle shaped like a head. 

Carlin compares the simplicity of the He-Man comics to Silver Age storytelling, with "clear-cut stories without plot complications that carry on for years." He also says that the biggest shift from previous collaborations with Wilson is that now Carlin is doing full-script with panel layout thumbnails, presumably in contrast to a more Marvel Method approach to The Thing. I wonder if this change was necessary in order to get stories cleared by the people at Mattel in a timely fashion. Macchio discusses later how the stories have to be cleared by Mattel, something that's true even with modern licensed comics, but "so far, the stories have been so good that Mattel hasn't asked for any major changes!" 

Unspoken in that is how much input Mattel had on the stories before they were written, particularly in terms of which characters/vehicles get the spotlight in each issue. I suspect the answer is "a great deal."

The sample sketches Wilson did were apparently good enough that Mattel wanted to hire him on the spot. 

And then Fisch goes into a description of upcoming issues, including erroneously claiming that #2 introduces the Slime Pit. That would end up being the story for issue #3, and #4 has a slight credit change, with Wilson on breakdowns and Dennis Janke finishing, which makes me wonder what behind-the-scenes shuffling and deadline stuff was going on. 

The meat of the exuberantly effusive article (wherein nearly every sentence and quote ends with an exclamation point) ends with the claim that "Ralph was so overcome talking about HE-MAN that he leaped on his desk, pulled out a tennis racket, and cried, 'By the power of Cresskill!' (invoking the name of his hometown)." I'm trying to pinpoint exactly what makes me feel like that story absolutely did not happen as described, and I think it's the tennis racket. 

Fisch ends, as each episode of the He-Man cartoon does, by offering a moral:

Listen to your mother and father, brush your teeth after every meal, look both ways before crossing the street, never take candy from a stranger with a blue hood and a skull face, and most of all, accept no imitations!

I'll follow suit by offering this moral: sponsored content and promotional writing hasn't really changed in 30 years. Reading that gives me flashbacks to the SEO-infused content I was once paid to write for online stores. 

The next article in the issue is a promo for Doctor Who Monthly, published by "Marvel's British division," and then a new talent spotlight for the late, great Tom Lyle. 

Huh, I did not expect to fill a whole installment of this with just the Marvel Age promo, but here we are. Next time, we dig into the wild world of Marvel's Star imprint. 

Friday, July 30, 2021

Guttor #3 - Within These Pages...Confusion!

I'll give one thing to DC Comics Skeletor: he's a quicker study than the animated version.

Turns out that searching for the Power Sword and trying to take Grayskull hasn't been working, so Skeletor decides to kidnap the Sorceress Goddess and make He-Man find the Power Sword instead.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Masters of the Universe #1 came out in August, 1982, the month after the Preview insert. Paul Kupperberg returns as writer, with George Tuska on pencilling duties. Mini-storybooks artist Alfredo Alcala is back to ink the first two issues, with Rodin Rodriguez taking over in #3. Adam Kubert and Ben Oda are our letterers, and Adrienne Roy and Anthony Tollin are the colorists. Getting Alcala back, even just for inks, really does make a difference; he brings a Prince Valiant quality to Tuska’s pencils in the first issues, which is lost a bit in Rodriguez’s cleaner style. Tuska definitely feels more suited to this setting than Curt Swan did; much as I love Swan, this era of Masters of the Universe really lives in a more brutal, Conan-inspired place than what would come later, and that’s just not what Swan’s classic superheroic style is best at.

Our story begins at another party, where Prince Adam is continuing with that playboy lifestyle, though we get explicit confirmation that this is at least in part an act.

I think this is a really interesting hook for the character, even if it clearly wasn’t very sustainable for a children’s property, particularly one as beset by watchdog groups as Masters of the Universe. The alter ego with a different personality from the hero is nothing new in superhero comics, and we’ve even seen characters like Batman playing the carefree Casanova, but Adam feels a little distinct here, characterized closer to Johnny Storm than Bruce Wayne. Usually the immature, impulsive character who’s always thinking about the opposite sex is played straight, as character flaws that the hero genuinely needs to overcome; it's less common to make those the hallmarks of his secret identity.

Adam gets attacked by demons in his bedroom, and finds Cringer when he hides under the bed, which is a solid gag. We never do find out what the demons were doing there. They rush off to the Goddess's magic cavern, where they are transformed—but find Skeletor instead of the Goddess (who is occasionally also called the Sorceress in the story). Skeletor has imprisoned her, and will only release her if He-Man retrieves the Power Sword for him, which the Goddess has hidden away. In order to find the sword He-Man will need to find three talismans (talismen?) representing the sea, the sky, and the cosmos. 

It's a fetch quest to start the fetch quest. Not the most auspicious start to a series. Or end to one.

He-Man returns to the palace, where we get confirmation of something that fans have always speculated about: do He-Man and Prince Adam really look that similar? In the DC Universe, the answer appears to be yes:

It also plays into a longtime fan theory that Queen Marlena knows Adam's secret. Now that he's back to the palace, He-Man seeks help from the palace wizard, Tarrak, who is being attacked by demons himself! 

He-Man, Teela—wearing for this issue only a sword-and-sorcery standard metal bikini—Battle Cat, and Man-at-Arms manage to defeat the demons, but not before they take the cosmos talisman. Meanwhile, the Bird-People of Avion are attacked by a squad of Beastmen, who are after the sky talisman, which Stratos wears. Stratos seeks help from He-Man, and with Tarrak's assistance, the heroes set off to find the other two talismans. 

This specific outfit and pose feels so familiar.

He-Man and Battle Cat head into the jungle, where they meet a clan of barbarians that He-Man has encountered before, in what feels like a nod to his classic origins. He-Man once helped them battle a sexy evil wizard named Damon.

The barbarians know where the cosmos talisman is, but before they can retrieve it, the group is attacked by demons again. He-Man takes the talisman, and is transported away. 

Out in the Sea of Blackness, Man-at-Arms, Teela, and Stratos are looking for the sea talisman, which is being held by the Mer-People. Fortunately, Tarrak gave them potions so they could breathe underwater. Mer-Man leads a fight against them, because this version also has ambitions of his own, until Skeletor pulls a Darth Vader from a distance. Teela is less than grateful, so Skeletor leaves them to the mercies of the Mer-People.

Just going to admire how great Skeletor looks in that first panel for awhile.

But Stratos claims the sea talisman just in time, and the whole crew is transported into a Steve Ditko drawing. 

They get attacked by demons again, but are saved by Zodac, who refuses to give them any information about the person sending the demons, but a page later we learn that it's the wizard Damon, who wants the Power Swords so he can control Eternia, not that dimensional-carpetbagging wizard-come-lately Skeletor. He's gotten considerably less sexy and more...problematic since that brief appearance in the previous issue. 

Seriously, he looks like the antisemitic caricature from that Carman video. He also happens to be right next to where the Goddess stored the two halves of the Power Sword, but they're in an impenetrable force field, which is not mentioned again. 

Zodac uses the talismans to open a portal to the Sword's location (sort of?) and then gives them to Zoar the poorly-drawn falcon before sending the heroes on their way. 

Feels like the reference got away from you a bit.

Meanwhile, Damon decides to tip his hand by attacking Skeletor, who lashes out with magic that is strong enough to teleport them both into Castle Grayskull, just as Damon had planned. But in a pretty great moment of both villains trying to two-steps-ahead each other, that was all part of Skeletor's plan, and he apparently kills Damon. 

These comics go pretty hard for stuff that was based on toys for babies.

Also, this happened earlier in the issue.

The heroes also end up in Castle Grayskull, which is apparently where the Power Sword is, even though we already saw Damon with the Power Sword before he was able to access Castle Grayskull.

You and me both, He-Man. The heroes split up to search the castle. Stratos gets caught in a giant spiderweb, Man-at-Arms gets blown up by a tripwire, and Teela ends up in a hedge maze until she stumbles on Skeletor, who pulls the Power Sword out of a magic warp. 

He-Man shows up shortly after, but Skeletor sends Beast-Man (singular) and a monsterized Man-E-Faces (who was briefly introduced earlier in this third issue) against the hero. Eventually He-Man, Teela, and Zoar get the sword away from Skeletor, and then the Goddess appears to say "actually I wasn't in any danger, but your friends are all caught in booby traps." The End. 

What an absolutely bizarre miniseries. It feels like it was initially intended to be four issues and cut down to three, but that change had to be made before the first issue—with its "Mini-Series 1 of 3" banner—went to the printers. The promotional push makes it seem like DC was intending to do a lot more than three comics and a handful of mini-comics. Editor Dave Manak speculated that there might have been an issue with contract negotiations, but I'd be really interested if there's a clearer answer. Every aspect of the DC Masters of the Universe license feels abnormally cut off, right down to the end of this story. 

Whatever the reasons were, this would be the last full-sized Masters of the Universe comic from DC for almost 30 years. Next time we'll pick up with the Marvel/Star Comics.