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. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Guttor #2.5 - Masters of the Lettercol

I wanted to know what the regular readers of DC Comics Presents got out of the Masters of the Universe crossover, and in 1982 the only way to do that was to check the letters page. Here’s the relevant page from DC Comics Presents #52:

The late, legendary letterhack T.M. Maple leads the pack and sets the tone, generally praising the Masters of the Universe material and expecting more spotlight on the franchise down the line. Maple also notes, as I did, how DC seemed to be taking the plunge into licensed works the way Marvel had over the preceding five or so years. 

Next is Alexandra Peers, which is interesting to me because Alexandra Spears was a prominent member of the He-Man fan community in the early 2000s, though I suspect that's pure coincidence. She remarks that the names are silly, something that the next letter writer also says. I'm not sure I entirely buy the "sexist" remark, but I can kind of see where she's coming from. What's particularly interesting is that Tamsyn O'Flynn (according to the Grand Comics Database, she's the "TOF" answering the letters here, though she's not credited in the issue) shares the concern, but more or less alludes to the idea that three-year-olds are kind of the target market in this case. As someone who was three years old at the height of He-Man's popularity, you can see how well that worked. 

W. Gregg Stamey, Jr. praises DC's licensed materials over Marvel's, praises He-Man over G.I. Joe, and compares the story favorably to Nightmaster. The story left him with questions and intrigue, which shows at least that it did its job as a hook for further adventures. 

So, more positive and less baffled than I would have expected, though there's also the inherent bias of these being the letters DC chose to print. But given a positive response even from die-hard old-school comics readers, it's baffling to me why the licensing fizzled out after five comics. 

But fizzle it did, until the flame reignited across the street three years later. But before we can dig into that, we'll be taking a look at DC's Masters of the Universe volume 1!

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Guttor #2 - He-Man and Superman Fistfight in Liminal Space

A Masters of the Universe toy cardback that reads "GUTTOR: Heroic master of comics" and "Figure substitutes SPACE for TIME!"

It's interesting to look back on DC and Marvel's history of licensed comics. Marvel famously acquired a lot of properties and incorporated most of them into their shared universe, to one degree or another. Star Wars and G.I. Joe were mostly siloed off into their own corners of the universe, but J. Jonah Jameson yelled at Godzilla and Spider-Man met the Transformers. And then there's Rom: Spaceknight, who's so Marvel Universe that Rick Jones was his sidekick. 

DC, by contrast, is a lot more conservative. I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of DC's licensed properties—I know Power Lords and Atari Force showed up around this time, and there were certainly a bunch in the 60s, like a long-running Jerry Lewis series—but it seems like they were a lot less integrated. But then, the DCU as a whole has always been more compartmentalized than the 616, so I suppose that makes sense. I also wonder how much of the difference is because DC was already a subsidiary of Warner Bros. by this point. 

Which makes it all the more interesting to me that they decided to kick off their Masters of the Universe comics with the kind of special guest star move you'd expect from a Marvel book. DC's first story with the Masters of the Universe license would be 1982's DC Comics Presents #47.


It's a comic I have some fondness for...


Look, Superman is definitely my biggest obsession, but He-Man was my first, so putting them together is kind of a dream come true. And I think it works better here than it would have a year or two later, when the cartoon had eclipsed everything else as the dominant version of He-Man. Because cartoon He-Man is just classic Superman in furry underwear, the heroic strongman with a milquetoast secret identity. 


This era's He-Man has a bit more in common with Batman, with Prince Adam as the carefree, womanizing playboy alter ego. Though it's suggested that this isn't really an act with Adam: he really is this unserious ale-loving goof-off with a strong sense of pride, but puts that aside when it's time to do his He-Man duties. He's also super-strong, even before transforming? It seems like the people of Eternia are just generally extremely strong, similar to Golden Age Kryptonians. 


DC Comics Presents #47, "From Eternia--with Death!" is written by Paul Kupperberg, with art by Curt Swan and Mike DeCarlo, letters by Ben Oda, and colors by Gene D'Angelo. It is wild to see the He-Man characters in Curt Swan's distinctive, timeless style. There's an interesting theme in the first part of the story, about keeping up appearances. Clark Kent is playing the klutz to maintain his image, while Adam is picking fights in a bar and chafing under Teela's heavy-handed guardianship, a threat to his masculine pride.

It's at this point that the Sorceress summons Adam to stop Skeletor from another assault on Castle Grayskull. The attack inadvertently brings Superman to Eternia, where he fights Skeletor and Beast-Man, but learns quickly that he's vulnerable to Skeletor's magic powers. He meets He-Man, and the two quickly become allies, but Skeletor takes control of Superman and pits the Man of Steel against the Most Powerful Man in the Universe and it's glorious. 


I wish this could go on for twenty more pages. But Superman manages to use his heat vision to distract Skeletor and free himself, and Skeletor teleports away. And I feel a little like Superman's parting sentiment might be what fans of DC Comics Presents thought about this issue:

"Welp, that was confusing." 
"Want me to explain it to you?"
"Nah, I'm good."

The story has extremely strong backdoor pilot energy. But it also serves as this nice showcase of the buffet-style approach taken to what little He-Man lore there was at the time. From the Series Bible, we have Prince Adam and his talking pet Cringer, Teela is the Captain of the Royal Guard, and Queen Marlena is a traveler from Earth (which is how Adam has heard of Superman, though that suggests that Superman's been active for at least nineteen years, or that time passes differently on Eternia, or that Superman traveled both in space and in time, any of which are possible). We've traded a quasi-medieval setting for the post-apocalyptic Hyborian landscape of those early minicomics.


But we also take the story structure from those first four minicomics: the Sorceress summons Adam to protect Castle Grayskull (which she is not the guardian of), and he gets power not from a sword and incantation, but from a cave. Skeletor seeks the two halves of the Power Sword, which he can use to steal Grayskull's secrets. Skeletor attacks the Castle and gets the upper hand, but through teamwork He-Man sends him packing. 

This transitional state is where we find the rest of this era of DC stories, continuing with "Fate is the Killer," a promotional 16-page preview inserted into several comics a few months after DC Comics Presents #47 hit. According to ComicBookRealm, this preview was included in 16 titles that month, which is considerably more than similar previews for Atari Force or M.A.S.K., both of which came later. I wonder if the fact that DC only managed a 3-issue miniseries was a factor in scaling down the preview tie-ins for later properties. 

For the creative team, Kupperberg, Swan, and Oda carry over from the DCCP issue, with Dave Hunt sharing art duties, and Anthony Tollin coloring.


The preview begins with a glimpse of Zodac, the cosmic enforcer—think half Metron, half Watcher—zooming through space as narration describes Eternia as one world in the DC multiverse. He interrupts a party at the palace—where life of the party Prince Adam has recently arrived with "only two wenches"—to demand the world's greatest champion be handed over, forever. Adam and Cringer head off to meet the Sorceress—or Goddess, this time—at her magic cave. We're treated to more of those interesting departures from the Series Bible: Zoar the falcon is not actually the Sorceress, just her emissary, and Man-at-Arms is not privy to the details of He-Man's origins. 



Meanwhile, Skeletor is still searching for the other half of the Power Sword, which has been hidden in the deepest ocean trench on Eternia—an idea that showed up in King of Castle Grayskull, where the two halves of the Power Sword were on Eternia's highest peak and buried beneath its strongest rock. So while He-Man fights Zodac, Skeletor sends magic through a portal at the bottom of the ocean to bring back the half of the Power Sword, which has been hidden on Earth.

The side effect of this is that an Eternian creature that looks like a Muppet octopus has ended up on Earth, where it encounters our guest star, Superman!


Superman is pulled into the portal and quickly realizes that he's on Eternia again, and manages to stop Skeletor from uniting the Power Sword as the stars reach their proper alignment for him to take Grayskull's power (a plot point that would show up again in the "Masters of the Universe" movie). Skeletor attacks Superman with magic, and Superman throws away one half of the Power Sword, which slaps He-Man in the back some distance away. He-Man leaves the battle with Zodac to go after Skeletor, but Zodac warns that He-Man is fated to die in this battle. 


And he does, shot by a magic bolt from Skeletor's hand, just as he hurls his half of the Power Sword into Skeletor's chest, wounding Skeletor so severely that his life-energy is pulled into He-Man, reviving him. He-Man wakes up, and Superman is once again left in a state of confusion.


And they wouldn't meet again for 31 years, outside of my toybox and fanfic.

It really is interesting how much of a push DC gave this property. At this time, DC was also producing the second wave of minicomics for the toys, which were written by Gary Cohn, co-creator of Blue Demon and Amethyst. They were very heavily involved with He-Man for what feels like maybe a year, before ties were, apparently, completely severed. The Marvel/Star series, the Magazine, and the daily Newspaper strip would all start in 1986, after the cartoon had finished original episodes and as the toyline was in decline. I wonder if it just wasn't profitable for DC, or if Mattel decided they could do better in-house, but it seems an odd choice to go for three years at the height of the property's popularity without a full-sized comic series on the newsstands, particularly when comics were such a major part of this line's popularity. 

Meanwhile, between the DC Comics Presents issue and the Preview, a little comic called G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero launched across the street at Marvel, and would publish continuously until 1994, outlasting even the "New Adventures of He-Man" reboot. Between the DC and Marvel/Star MOTU series, Marvel also launched Transformers, and continued into 1991. MOTU and G.I. Joe were the first vanguard of the deregulated market that allowed these multimedia franchises based on toylines, so it's interesting to see how MOTU kind of fumbled the ball, while G.I. Joe would become the model for basically every intellectual property that followed, with market saturation in every conceivable medium.

Next time, we'll wrap up the first DC Comics era of Masters of the Universe by looking at the three-issue miniseries. 

Guttor #1 - Prototypes

A new He-Man series premieres on Netflix this week, and I'm cautiously optimistic about it, despite being pretty disappointed by the first issue of the new prequel series. But that comic got me thinking about the history of He-Man comics, and how despite being published by six different American companies—DC, Marvel/Star, Image, CrossGen, MV Creations, and now Dark Horse—there aren't actually that many He-Man comics. Or at least, there aren't that many if we exclude the minicomics, the newspaper strips, the magazines, and the foreign stuff.

And, well, while I've been a life-long fan of the Masters of the Universe properties and of comic books, I haven't actually read many of the MOTU comics. I've read the DC miniseries before, but I've never had all of the Star comics issues, and I fell off the MV Creations series around the same time I fell off the 200X cartoon (that Snake Armor just didn't do it for me). I read the first of the recent DC Comics minis, and I read Masters of the Multiverse, which was pretty great. 

So I've decided to read them all, which should prove to be a much less onerous undertaking than reading Mark Gruenwald's Captain America run, which I am also doing. And, since I am perpetually stuck in the past, I'm going to write about it here, in a series I'm going to call... 

A Masters of the Universe toy cardback that reads "GUTTOR: Heroic master of comics" and "Figure substitutes SPACE for TIME!"

To kick things off, I read the first four minicomics—which, to be clear, are not comics but illustrated prose. I won't be reading all the minicomics for this series, but I think these represent an interesting time, because it's before any of the He-Man concepts had really been fleshed out. These extremely rough stories became the foundation of the Masters of the Universe Series Bible, which I also read for this project. 

In my head, there's basically three eras of early He-Man: before the Series Bible existed, the transitional period that borrows from these original stories and the Series Bible, and the stuff that takes its cues from the cartoon. I'm taking a look at the first chunk today, as well as the Series Bible, because just as it's interesting to see how the Superman origin has changed over the decades, it's interesting to see He-Man before he was He-Man. 

The first four minicomics-storybooks—He-Man and the Power Sword, King of Castle Grayskull, Battle in the Clouds, and The Vengeance of Skeletor—were written by Donald F. Glut and illustrated by Alfredo Alcala. Alcala is very probably the first comic book artist I knew by name, and it's because of his work on the MOTU minicomics. I was born in '83, so I didn't have access to these stories as a kid, but Alcala's art on some of the other minicomics, like Siege of Avion and Dragon's Gift, always stood out. His art was so much more detailed and grotesque—and to a kid, kind of terrifying—compared to the other frequent minicomics artists like Larry Houston and Bruce Timm. 

As someone whose main entry point into the franchise was the FILMation cartoon, Alcala's art always seemed weirdly off-model. But looking at these booklets, Alcala may be the only artist who's ever really captured the ludicrous musculature of the He-Man action figure on the page. His He-Man is squat and thick, a mass of muscles who continually loses most of what passes for his clothing. And his Skeletor is monstrous, with lurid red points in his eye sockets and too many teeth. 


His action sequences are dynamic, with great physicality that reminds me of those great Sal Buscema punches. And the detail he puts into even minor character designs or environments is shocking for booklets that were basically wallet-sized.


The art is often good enough to obscure the almost complete lack of continuity, not just from story to story, but from page to page and even between the art and the text. Teela and the Sorceress bear the brunt of the story-to-story lack of continuity, owing to the decision to try to get two characters out of one figure, a problem that extends into the next wave of minicomics and MOTU's answer to "Who is Donna Troy?"

But even within stories, Teela's hairstyle changes, He-Man loses his vest without acknowledgement, and there are other fairly simple errors that you wouldn't expect from an experienced artist like Alcala. So I would be fascinated to hear how these were put together. Based on the interviews in "The Toys That Made Us," I would guess that the turnaround time was pretty tight, but I wonder if something close to Marvel Style was going on, where Alcala worked from Glut's rough outline and Glut filled in the detailed text afterward. It would help to explain some of the spots where Glut seems to be trying to fill in gaps between images, but it wouldn't really account for all the places where Glut's writing seems to be at odds with the art.
Maybe snow is just yellow on Eternia.

Overall, the story is pretty simple, stitching together a variety of sword and sorcery tropes with the established toys. He-Man is an extremely strong barbarian who leaves his tribe to fight evil. He rescues a powerful Sorceress who gives him weapons, including an axe, a shield, and a harness, which were designed by technologically-advanced ancients. His allies include Battle Cat, a fierce giant tiger; Man-at-Arms, a hero from a society who keep and develop advanced weapons and vehicles; Stratos, the bird-man (who initially is shown working for Skeletor, though not named); and Teela, a beautiful warrior-goddess who becomes the protector of Castle Grayskull. Grayskull is a fortress full of powerful magic, dangerous traps, and advanced technology, overseen by a skull-faced spirit. 

Skeletor is a powerful wizard from another dimension who seeks the two halves of the Power Sword in order to take the power of Grayskull for himself. His ultimate goal is to open a portal back to his home and bring the rest of his people through. Skeletor is aided by his henchmen Beast-Man and Mer-Man, the latter of whom has ambitions of his own. 

What struck me about reading this now is how similar Skeletor's plan here is to Hordak's plan in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, down to there being a whole horde of people identical to the villain, just waiting in some other dimension.

Three of the four stories have the same plot structure: Skeletor seeks the Sword and makes an attack on Castle Grayskull, followed by a battle in which He-Man seems to be defeated, but through the help of his friends he's able to recover and they send Skeletor packing. The only one that deviates significantly from this is Battle in the Clouds, where Mer-Man defeats He-Man and takes his strength-enhancing harness, so He-Man must enlist the help of Man-at-Arms to retrieve it and his other weapons. This story just...ends, with He-Man describing the things he needs to do to resolve the plot now that he's got his vehicle back. It's a shame, because otherwise this is the most interesting of the books. 

Beyond the plot, the stories...well, again, I suspect that there wasn't a lot of time for second drafts or editing. They tend to read like a small child who loves Conan telling a story with a list of SEO keywords peppered in. He-Man has a harness that generates a force field, but he accidentally shuts it off when he gets shot by a ray gun. But he has another harness, which looks exactly the same, which gives him super strength. Mer-Man takes his super-strength harness so he can fight Skeletor but then he never uses it or fights Skeletor and he takes the Battle Ram which can fly and has lasers but can also teleport, and He-Man has to find Man-at-Arms to take the Wind Raider which can fly up the mountain where Teela is but Mer-Man attacks them and they smash head-on and Man-at-Arms is thrown from the Wind Raider but then Stratos shows up and whoops we ran out of pages. 

There's a lot of what you'd expect from stories designed to sell toys, with descriptions of how the action features of the toys work, how the characters relate to each other, what the main conflicts are, so kids at home have a framework to build their play sessions on. But there's also descriptions of the kinds of things you could pretend the characters are doing, like Stratos shooting lasers from his hands or Mer-Man's sword firing blasts of seawater. It's strange, but in an interesting way. 

Then we come to the Series Bible, written by Michael Halperin. What's surprising to me is how much of the document is basically like a pilot episode that the animated series never had, detailing much of Eternia's backstory in prose. Here is where we introduce the idea that He-Man is secretly Prince Adam, son of Eternia's King Randor and Queen Marlena, and Battle Cat is secretly the cowardly talking tiger Cringer. We learn that Marlena was originally an astronaut from Earth, and that Teela is secretly the daughter of the Sorceress, who was adopted by Man-at-Arms. The characters who would become Orko, Webstor, Jitsu, and Kobra Khan are all introduced here as well. 

And then there are the ideas introduced here that never took hold, such as Skeletor's base being on Infinita, a counter-Eternia orbiting on the other side of its sun, or Beast-Man, Evil-Lyn, and Tri-Klops originally being members of Marlena's shuttle crew (Biff Beastman, Evelyn Powers, and Dr. T. E. Scope, respectively), transformed by Infinita's dark magic. Mer-Man and Trap Jaw are mentioned, but are not part of the shared origin for some reason. 

The Bible also jettisons a lot of what little we learned from the four storybooks. The Power Sword is no longer the key to Castle Grayskull, nor is it broken into two pieces. He-Man is not a barbarian with a hi-tech harness, but a carousing Prince who can transform into a mythical hero with a magic phrase. Teela is not the guardian of Castle Grayskull but the Captain of the Royal Guard, and it's the Sorceress who protects Grayskull's secrets. And Eternia itself, which in those first four stories often seems like a barren place inhabited by a handful of named action figures, becomes a fleshed-out setting with different landmasses and environments. 

And it's those changes from the earliest media that make the next section so interesting. DC's MOTU Comics, including the second wave of minicomics (or, technically, the first wave of minicomics since the previous four weren't actually comics), exist in this weird transitional state, borrowing both from the Series Bible and these early concepts to create something that's not quite as rough as those first four stories, but not quite as polished and kid-friendly as the cartoon. 

Oh, and Superman shows up. Check it out next time!

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Supervillains, Politics, and Discourse

So, I haven't watched "The Falcon & The Winter Soldier" yet (though I have been working my way through the Gruenwald run on Captain America in conjunction with the War Rocket Ajax "FalChris and Wilson Soldier" series), but even before the show started, a discourse that's become common, especially regarding MCU movies, cropped up regarding the "anarchist" Flag Smashers. The complaint goes like this: 
Corporate capitalist Disney creates villains who have good, correct politics, but then makes the villains do evil stuff to undermine those politics.

Or something to that effect. And on the surface, it seems true. Setting Magneto aside (the ur-example of this particular issue), the MCU has given us Killmonger, Vulture, Thanos, and (arguably) Baron Zemo as sympathetic villains who espouse various leftist political ideas. Killmonger is a vocal opponent of colonialism, Vulture was a critic of billionaire Tony Stark and a champion of the working class, Thanos wanted to end environment-ruining overconsumption, and Zemo...well, something something his family died. I assume he gets more characterization in the TV series.

But in order to undermine those political philosophies, Disney has each villain do bad stuff! Killmonger kills his girlfriend! Vulture tries to kill Spider-Man! Thanos...well, there's a distressingly large number of people who don't see what Thanos did as particularly villainous. 

On the surface, it's compelling, and it pre-empts my usual "[Villain] was right, actually!" response, which is "maybe pay more attention to their actions than their rhetoric." But I still think it's a really facile read. Killmonger talks a big game about opposing colonialism, but he's a CIA-trained operative who destabilizes governments, and his plan is verbatim what we're told he learned from the Agency. He isn't an opponent of colonialism, he just wants to be the colonizer. Vulture has the folksy accent of a working-class guy, and is certainly a small businessman next to Tony Stark, but he's a boss. He owns his business from the start, and ends up using his wealth to buy a mansion, while his employees sure seem to be living a lot more lean. Thanos gets an omnipotence glove and instead of using it to increase the amount of resources or improve distribution, he destroys half of all living things, which would include a whole lot of the resources that he's so concerned about. 

These aren't leftist characters who do a villain thing out of nowhere to make sure the audience connects leftist politics to villainy, they're villains who use a veneer of leftist politics to justify their heinous actions. Something that you might note if you're the kind of person who's ever had to explain that while "Nazi" is short for "national socialist," they weren't actually trying to seize the means of production for the working class.

And MCU movies aren't exactly subtle about this. Every sympathetic MCU villain I can think of shares the screen with some counterpart who espouses the same kinds of leftist ideals in a genuine way. From the start of "Black Panther," Nakia argues that Wakanda needs to be less isolationist and use their resources to help people. Vulture and Spider-Man both have tech taken from Tony Stark, but Peter still lives in an apartment and uses his resources to help the everyday people around him, not to enrich himself. Gamora shows us the human cost of Thanos's fanaticism. Hell, the very next thing he does is destroy the Infinity Gems, further reducing the resources of the universe. 

But leaving all that aside...there are also a whole lot of people out there who share a lot of my politics and still end up taking them to extremes that I find abhorrent. People who I'd agree with about the problems of capitalism, but who think "identity politics" is a neoliberal psyop and trans people are the result of bourgeoisie decadence. There are people I'd agree with about the horrors of American imperialism, but who think North Korea is just hunky-dory. "Left-leaning person who goes too far off some deep end" is definitely an overused trope in media (see also: "Community") but it's not like it's unrealistic. 

The thought finally crystallized for me when I was (to bring this full circle) reading Flag Smasher's first appearance in Captain America #312. There's a lot of back-and-forth about philosophy between him and Cap in that comic, and there are definitely places where I agree with Flag-Smasher and disagree with Captain America. 

Panels of Flag-Smasher and Captain America having a really wordy debate.

Another panel of Flag-Smasher and Captain America having a really wordy debate.

But for as much as I might agree with some of Flag-Smasher's theory, I can't get behind his praxis. And as much as I might disagree with Cap, I can recognize that he does good things for the world. Like, this issue is about Cap using an unexpected financial windfall to set up a hotline so average people can call him and get him to help them, and that is a much better use of time than burning down a factory that makes American flags.

In short, Flag-Smasher is doing grand but ultimately meaningless media stunts, and Cap is doing actual activism. Who would you rather have on your side?

So, anyway, I started this post a couple of weeks ago. I've since watched "The Falcon & the Winter Soldier," thought it was mostly fine (though they really needed to do more with Isaiah Bradley), and figure most of what I said here applies there too. Now let me just take a big sip of coffee and check in on the current comics discourse...

Tweet with Killmonger, Joker, Thanos, & Omni-Man saying "Growing up is realizing, they were all right."

*spit take* Batman won't do what?!