Tuesday, July 20, 2021

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!

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