Rewind: Christmas ‘95
The things we remember from our childhood say a lot about the things that matter to us as adults. Like many pop-culture junkies, the memories from my childhood I remember the most are often connected to a specific toy line and its corresponding properties.
We had lost my grandfather in the Christmas of 1995 and spent most of that time at Santuario de San Antonio in Makati for his wake. Filipino wakes are long affairs that become the social gathering of the season for people of a certain age. So naturally, our family wanted to wrap it up as soon as possible.
In the middle of all this, my then-brother-in-law took his son (my nephew) and I to his parents’ home in San Juan to give us a break from the church. Later that afternoon, his younger brother brought out a duffle bag filled with these strange and fantastical toys that came from a place where ancient history collided with science fiction in such a beautiful way.
This was the first time I had ever interacted with the Masters of the Universe toys and sadly, this was the most I was going to engage with this franchise for the next twenty-five years.
Who is He-Man and co.?
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is a toy-centered property launched by Mattel in 1982 in an attempt to compete against the popularity of Star Wars in the male toy market – a brand that the company famously passed on due to time constraints. Mattel conducted a focus study that looked at the way little boys played with action figures and found that the need for power was a central theme during play. Armed with this knowledge and inspired by the work of fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, a team of sculptors, artists, and marketers developed the property.
The premise of Masters of the Universe is simple: Two factions are fighting for supremacy of the universe. The Heroic Warriors are led by He-Man; the Evil Warriors are commanded by Skeletor. Both leaders have two halves of the Power Sword. When combined, the Power Sword unlocks the drawbridge of Castle Grayskull. Whoever yields the completed Power Sword takes control of Castle Grayskull, and with it, all the powers and secrets of the Universe. The winner and ultimate ruler of the universe would be decided by the child who owned the toys. The kids literally had the power.
Because the property was developed as an original concept, Masters of the Universe did not have any associated media. To correct this, a series of Mini Comics were packaged with each toy that told the story of He-Man. Developed by writer Don Glut and Filipino illustrator, Alfredo P. Alcala, these stories set the groundwork for the property’s associated media. The following year, Mattel would team up with Filmation to develop the iconic animated series that ran for two seasons.
To this day, the Filmation cartoon continues to inform and dictate public awareness around the property.
The rise, fall, return
The immediate success of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe in toy stores and on television ushered a golden age for Saturday morning cartoons. This was a dedicated weekly time slot that consisted of cartoons based on a number of toy-related properties such as Transformers, GI Joe: A Real American Hero, Thundercats, My Little Pony, and Jem and the Holograms.
Now, something that came to Mattel’s surprise was the popularity of Masters of the Universe among girls, who made up 20 percent of the market. Mattel and Filmation took notice and followed up with He-Man’s sister property, She-Ra: Princess of Power in 1983.
At its height, Masters of the Universe was a multi-million-dollar property with sales of over $400,000,000 by 1986. However, the brand saw an unprecedented decline in sales and popularity in the following years despite attempts to stimulate interest with a live-action movie. Even with further attempts to resuscitate the property in 1989 and 2002, Mattel couldn’t seem to recapture its past success. Thus, Masters of the Universe became a dormant property for many years.
Fortunately, by the late 2000s, many of the kids who had grown up playing with their He-Man and She-Ra action figures had found jobs in the toy industry. Armed with the power to bring the property back from the dead, a new team of fans at Mattel launched a specialty toy line aimed at collectors. They called it Masters of the Universe Classics and they were fully articulated and highly detailed reinterpretations of nearly every character in the franchise.
In addition, the annual Power-Con convention in Los Angeles showed that even after all these years, both the Masters of the Universe and Princess of Power properties still commanded a strong multi-generational audience. The enduring power of the property, combined with the success of Netflix’s “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” cartoon among younger viewers in 2018, led Mattel to begin work at reviving He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
The year 2020 left me feeling powerless, like every one else in this Earth. Any sympathy and understanding I once had soon gave way to anger: anger at the world, the government, my job, the people in my life, and really, just about everything that led us to this mess. And like everyone else, I found comfort in popular culture to cope with a situation we had no way of changing.
Among the shows I decided to watch was the reimagined She-Ra & The Princesses of Power reboot on Netflix. I had no expectations at all, but with its relatable (and open) depiction of queer characters, gripping storytelling, and spin on established lore and worldbuilding, I was hooked.
At the same time, the mounting frustrations I had towards my professional life, compelled me to seek out memes related to the character of Skeletor. The thing with Skeletor is that he is an intelligent and highly determined villain who cackles in the face of constant defeat. His only real detriment is that he is surrounded by people who make his job a lot harder than it should be. Anyone who has ever worked in mid-management can easily relate to the struggles that plague Skeletor’s very existence!
Through Skeletor and the classic and contemporary depictions of She-Ra, I felt strong. More importantly, it opened the drawbridge to a missing element of my childhood. With this growing love for the characters and the rich multiverse of lore that surrounds them, I surrendered myself to the power and spent the year diving head-first into this property.
I have the power
Coming into Masters of the Universe in 2020 felt serendipitous. That year, Mattel officially kicked off the first phase of a long-term, mixed media campaign to bring the brand back to prominence by focusing on what made Masters of the Universe such a beloved property in the 1980s. This began with the launch of the Origins collection of action figures. They are toys that look nearly identical to their vintage counterparts with updated articulation that can be appreciated by kids and adults. In fact, the central theme of the branding involves parents sharing the love for imaginative play with their app-obsessed children.
Outside of that one memory, I never had the chance to play with the Masters of the Universe toys growing up. That's why I avoided the cartoons. I was missing out on half the experience without the toys. So as an adult with varying levels of financial independence, in the middle of a pandemic, and despite my better judgment, I took the leap and started collecting these toys for myself.
It started with a vintage-styled She-Ra. Then, on one August morning, after months of searching online and calling every Toys R' Us store for updates, my first batch of Origins figures were delivered to me straight from Mattel Philippines. At long last, I had a Skeletor, and because I needed someone for him to fight, I got a He-Man too. Soon after, I got an Evil-Lyn and a Teela (the very same character I spent the day playing with during that one December afternoon). Over the next few months, I slowly acquired as many figures as my budget would allow. Before I knew it, I had most of the figures and the re-imagined Castle Grayskull playset.
Around this time, I started connecting to other fans. Some were people I had known for a long time. Others were strangers from different corners of the world. These are all people who come from all walks of life that are absolutely passionate about Masters of the Universe so much that they will come to the aid of other fans. This keeps the flame of the fandom going because many of these fans know what the world looks like without the magic of Masters of the Universe.
The beautiful thing about Masters of the Universe is that no matter where I am, the toys have the power to take me to new worlds where the fate of existence rests on my hands. I see pockets of Eternia around me wherever I go. It’s become my escape whenever I need a short break from the world.
The future of Masters of the Universe
Last weekend saw the release of the new Revelation animated series on Netflix. Revelation is a spiritual successor to the 1983 Filmation classic and borrows elements from every piece of media associated with Masters of the Universe. Despite a very vocal minority angry at the direction of the show, the response among fans new and old has been very supportive. And for good reason: Masters of the Universe is back in toy stores and television. People are engaging and talking about He-Man and Skeletor again. For people who grew up with the franchise, this feels like an unexpected return to their childhood. And for new fans like myself, it’s a chance to reclaim something that’s been missing from our childhood in the best way possible.
In a world with fluctuating degrees of limitations, Masters of the Universe and Princess of Power reignited my imagination. And through that, I was able to rediscover my own inner power. Masters of the Universe is filled with heroes and villains fighting for what’s right in a world steeped in magic. It is relatable and fantastical. And given how unpredictable the world is right now, the power of Grayskull is something we could all use to recapture the power in our own lives.
[Veronica M. Litton is a writer and absolute nerd from Manila, Philippines. Away from the keyboard, she collects action figures, serves the Manila Wrestling Federation as an executive producer, and collaborates with STRAP (Society of Transexual Women of the Philippines) as a member of its education and research committee. Veronica currently lives in Makati with her seven cats. Follow her on Instagram (@citizenbrat). Read more on Substack (citizenbrat.substack.com) and KoFi (ko-fi.com/citizebrat)]