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. 

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