The State of He-Man
An Honest Yet Delightfully Brutal Assessment Of A Popular Toyline In Three Parts
.....If there is anything this website has come to excel at, it is taking an angry stand over things that upset your fair webmaster (and which, coincidentally, interfere with the pie-in-the-sky plans to review my favorite cartoon shows of the '80s). And the time has come again to say my peace.
Gary Bettman sucks.
.....OK, OK, that's not what really has me pissed (though, seriously, the NHL lockout is a joke). It's He-Man. Every facet of the franchise, be it the toys, how the Filmation series is distributed, and even how the fans are behaving online has me pulling my hair. How can something that was so insanely popular at one time fall into such a pit of obscurity? While there are a great many reasons, and time and space (mostly time) dictate some modicum of brevity, I think I can safely discuss the current state of affairs without embarrassing myself too much, by focusing on the areas of the franchise that I care about: the Filmation-produced cartoons (the only version of the character that really merits this website's time, as the ratio of praise-to-rage favors the former over the latter), the current Masters of the Universe Classics toyline (which owes a lot of its identity and success to the Filmation series), and the fandom itself (of which I am an admittedly aloof part of). So, let's begin, shall we?
Part 1 - The Filmation Series
.....Perhaps most symbolic of the fading of the
He-Man franchise has been the cartoons produced by Filmation. He-Man and
the Masters of the Universe and, to a lesser extent, She-Ra: Princess
of Power maintained an incredible level of support throughout the '80s, as
some of He-Man's stalwart syndicated stations (such as long-time
independent Boston station WSBK TV-38 and WFLD in Chicago, which was one of the
first Fox affiliates in the US) carried the series well into 1987 (and those
are simply the two we know about, based on fan recordings from the old
tape-trading circuit), to say nothing of USA's long run of both shows,
surprisingly uncut, which ended the fall after L'Oreal purchased Filmation and
essentially abandoned North America (excluding a run on Canada's YTV, which was
punctuated by the strange re-editing of episodes to fit a three-act format and
the extremely crusty film prints provided to the network), a policy that
persisted even after Hallmark purchased the Filmation library and began airing
The Archie Show and syndicated-era episodes of Fat Albert on
the Odyssey Network (which has since dropped the kids' shows and become the
Hallmark Network) at the turn of the century. It would not be until Mattel
looked for a bonus for certain figures in its revived 2002 toyline that any
episodes of either Filmation show would be seen in an officially-sanctioned
.....The episodes, released both with deluxe versions of He-Man and Skeletor ("Diamond Ray of Disappearance", "The Problem With Power", and in an odd variant for He-Man, "The Dragon Invasion") and as a Walmart-exclusive bonus to random figures ("To Save Skeletor" and "Into the Abyss"). Ignoring "The Dragon Invasion" and "To Save Skeletor" (as, by this time, I had both episodes' RCA/Columbia VHS releases from the '80s), "The Problem With Power" and "Into the Abyss" were happily uncut (and a great upgrade to my collection), though the restorations had clear DVNR issues. "Diamond Ray", however, was more troubling, as it was time-compressed, and missing a chunk of the episode, basically defeating my reasons for buying the toy and the tape. Little did I know at the time that this tape would be the pattern, and not the aberration.
.....Fast forward to 2005. A best-of DVD has been announced and its release is imminent with a plethora of special features promised. And then, practically on the eve of this release, it's announced to the fans that, sadly, all episodes are from PAL masters, and "Diamond Ray" will still be missing that big chunk mentioned above. Naturally, this bit of history still inspires rage in yours truly, but let me pose this question to you: has your negative opinion of a shoddy product, and (correct, I might add) argument that, "Hey, we had two episodes released on VHS in proper uncompressed NTSC just a couple of years ago, so why not now?" been shot down because a fan, who is unfortunately blind, is more important in fan circles than you are?
.....Well, I have, and it's one of the more aggravating things I've had to endure (however, this is beside the current point).
.....Anyways, where we stand in 2005 is still the case in 2012, even though a very reliable correspondent to this website has spoken with Lou Scheimer, and confirmed that Scheimer has 16mm prints of He-Man and She-Ra (and who knows what else, though even 1" broadcast masters are preferable to the time-compression, DVNR, and editing due to vaguely defined "print damage" and "rights issues"). Mill Creek's big 30th Anniversary DVD set doesn't look to change things, which should shock no one given that company's primary history as a "budget" label. This does not forgive the inclusion of 20 "fan favorite" episodes of the justly-forgotten The New Adventures of He-Man and all 39 episodes of the equally sorry 2002 remake series, as opposed to, say, She-Ra, or even a complete soundtrack (as even Mill Creek admits that the 11 tracks they are including on this release is nowhere near a complete soundtrack for the Filmation series). In fact, those 11 tracks were released on LP (that would be vinyl records, for those of you from before the rise of CDs) back in the '80s, and have been available in France for some time now. In a time where Doctor Who's missing episodes are still being found (and technology has restored nearly all of the Jon Pertwee era's episodes to full color) and nearly all of Metropolis has been found, it astonishes me that a bad remastering by a bad former owner is the definitive last word on the presentation of not only He-Man and She-Ra, but the bulk of an entire studio's output.
Part 2 - Mattel's Toys
.....Perhaps the most inept party in this
editorial is Mattel. The toymaker, who nearly went under in the wake of the
Great Videogame Crash of 1983 (in no small part because of bad management
decisions like the Mattel Aquarius), only to be saved by the enormous wave of
popularity of Masters of the Universe and then later nearly fall again in 1987
when the line collapsed (and again in the '90s when the
purchase of The Learning Company went sour), doesn't exactly have a sterling
track record beyond its perennially popular Barbie and Hot Wheels properties.
So, when the 2002 MOTU revival died, it was not a surprise. In fact, like the
Mattel Electronics debacle in the early '80s, the blame fell not on the highly
talented designers Mattel employed, but management for some epically dumb
.....Those designers, known as The Four Horseman, managed to essentially complete the 2002 line in statue form, and independently created what is now the Masters of the Universe Classics, an online-only, adult-targeted toyline that has been ongoing for some time now. They managed to get a champion at Mattel, a marketing guy named Scott Nietlich, which is why the line continues, and is actually quite successful. Successful enough, in fact, to have acquired the rights to make toy versions of Filmation-owned characters such as Shadow Weaver and Octavia (and even before then, most figures adhered to their Filmation models above everything else, quite a feat for a line that's intended to invoke the original '80s toys).
.....But this is where the praise ends. Despite greatly designed toys, the line is run like utter shit. First off, is the distribution. Unless you "subscribe" (which involves agreeing to buy all figures sight unseen, with most figures not even revealed at the time of subscription), you have to rush to Mattel's Mattycollector website on a specific day of the month (usually the 15th) at 9 AM Pacific time to purchase your figures. Best of all in this process is the ecommerce software, run by an inept firm called Digital River that has been utterly incapable of dealing with the website traffic, to say nothing of the ludicrous 10-figure quantity limit (great for resellers) or the problems with the shopping cart, with items either selling out while people have items in it, or items not being allowed to be bundled with other figures (impacting shipping costs for consumers). Despite many, many complaints, this hasn't changed very much. (And let's not even discuss the shipping of these toys, shall we?)
.....And then there's the figures themselves. Again, the designs kick all sorts of ass. But the construction and manufacturing? Oh boy. Limbs, particularly shoulders, have been regularly swapped, in manufacturing, and not just "some" figures, but every single figure in a production run. The best was Stinkor, whose affected limbs were swapped at Nietlich's order to make the toys "pop". And since reissues for more recent figures won't be happening, fans are either stuck with messed-up $20 (and rising) figures, or they have to attempt a fix on their own, or simply go without.
.....Perhaps most troubling is Nietlich himself. Despite casting himself as a great hero to the line (and, by extension, fans), the guy comes off as seriously condescending to us, the paying consumer. First, is the name he goes by online, ToyGuru. Uh, yeah. Second is how he refuses to step up and get the problems fans have fixed. Third, and perhaps most annoyingly, has been his behavior regarding the "subscriptions". The subscriptions, which initially included only the base 12 figures plus a subscriber-only bonus figure, have grown to include extra quarterly figures and "beasts" like Battle Cat and the Wind Raider, has become Nietlich's default answer to complaints about the ordering process. And, leading up to the subscription deadline this year, blatant scare tactics were used to get the subscriptions above the "minimum" amount of subscriptions needed to continue with the line. These actions are purely unacceptable for the "face" of the Masters of the Universe brand at Mattel, but yet he continues to serve as the brand manager, and has doubled down on his behavior by declaring that the line will be ended if he was to stop working on it. Presuming that Nietlich is some sort of a John Nathan-Turner for He-Man and is the only person at Mattel willing to manage this property means that Nietlich is either lying, or a cog in a truly inept corporation. Either way, it speaks poorly of Mattel and its employees.
.....I'd mention the storyline or the comics that Nietlich has conceived and included with these toys, but I'm trying to avoid the Mystery Science Theater 3000-style torture unless it's with the nice Joel Hodgson/Mike Nelson and robot pals buffer, and I'm sure you'd like to, as well.
Part 3 - The Fans
.....Oh, the fans. We keep the memory of
He-Man alive in our own little ways, and that is good. However, we all continue
to buy Mattel's toys (despite our growing discontent with how the line is run)
and buy those aforementioned PAL-compressed DVDs, and that, frankly, is bad.
Yes, the Powers That Be at Mattel are generally clueless, but it's not helpful
if Mattel is making money of the toys (and I would suspect that He-Man is still
at least a modest money maker for Mattel, given comments from Nietlich). Of
course, as I have mentioned, fans are complaining (as you are reading right
now) online, presumably when they are not partaking in porn (which Avenue
Q helpfully tells us is what the internet is for). In fan forums, in blog
posts like this, and even on Mattel's own forums, the bitching is ripe,
especially when a new screwup hits the Classics line (a seemingly monthly
occurrence). But, this is the kicker: online fandom is fucked up, and
.....For reasons not directly germane to this editorial, I've long thought that Transformers fandom is the numbest animation-related fandom online (though, to be fair, that fandom's level of silliness is nowhere near as bad as the worst elements of 4chan, or the money-rich but intelligence-poor crowd at NintendoAge), but recent events are really causing me to reassess my opinion. It seems as if online He-Man fandom, instead of becoming a better place in the face of adverse conditions, is becoming worse. Case in point: the shunning from he-man.org of Emiliano Santalucia.
.....While not a household name by any means, Emiliano Santalucia has been a well-known and well-respected figure in the He-Man fan community, at first for his considerable art skills (which turned into a job creating the artwork for BCI's Filmation-related DVD releases), and later for his charitable organization, The Power and The Honor Foundation, which tasks itself with preserving and sharing the history of the franchise. However, since Santalucia has joined the hordes of fans to voice his dissatisfaction the Masters of the Universe Classics line and how it is run, his he-man.org privileges have been revoked, and both him and his organization were declared to be unwelcome at the recent Power Con (a convention for He-Man and the K-Mart He-Man, the Thundercats; I have no word on whether or not Remco's grocery store He-Men, Warlord and Crystar, are included in this convention's scope). Apparently, the reason for this banishment lies with the whims of Val Staples, who runs he-man.org.
.....Without mincing words, the forums at he-man.org are beginning to resemble a military dictatorship, all on Staples' command. Any word aimed negatively at Mattel, Scott Nietlich, or the current toyline is dealt with swiftly and harshly. This is, to put it mildly, total bullshit. Now, sure, I can understand slapping down trolls, but people with legitimate complaints, and in Santalucia's case, highly constructive solutions to their complaints? No, No, No.
.....The problem here lies with Staples' desires to develop a relationship between his website and Mattel, in part because the Masters of the Universe comic books his company made to tie-in with the 2002 toyline ran afoul of Mattel for using unauthorized characters. All of this is, in theory, fine and dandy. It's not necessarily my style, per se (as I have this little habit of voicing opinions that are both blunt and unwanted), but it's not my place to argue. The problem is, Mattel seems to care so little for the fans (other than their money), and Val seems to view "developing a relationship with Mattel" as "eliminating all dissent to whatever Mattel is currently doing" with a side of, "I'm important in this community, so I know what's best for you".
.....Which brings me to one of my deepest problems with the fandom: being expected to listen and believe people who are dead wrong simply because they are well respected in the fan community. Many of the truths told about the airing of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and, to a lesser extent, She-Ra: Princess of Power, are just plain wrong, and are shaped by the prism of someone who grew up in England, as opposed to the US. This comes across as particularly comical since the English airings of both shows were wildly different than the American airings. While Filmation had to sell the two shows individually to stations across the country (which is part of the reason why I never even had a chance to see She-Ra until the '90s, as the show was not picked up by He-Man's Vermont station, WVNY), He-Man and She-Ra's first season aired on ITV, which was at the time one of two commercial networks in the UK (the other, Channel 4, launched in 1982 and had the coverage issues that Fox would later suffer in its early days in the US). Furthermore, the shows did not air daily, and were heavily edited to fit a 20 minute time slot. Other than the first six episodes (which were released on home video), She-Ra's second season wasn't seen in the UK until the '90s.
.....Among the nuggets of misinformation out there are that He-Man was seen in the UK first: this is wrong, as The Greatest Adventures of All was screened in July of 1983 at Grauman's Chinese Theater (then known as Mann's Chinese Theater), and RCA/Columbia's first VHS and Beta cassettes were released in August. Another doozy is that He-Man consists of two seasons. While technically true (as the show was commissioned in blocks of 65 episodes), this is also false, as evidenced by the 1984-85 season preview film, Skeletor's Revenge. He-Man's pitch at the end of the movie specifically states that viewers should watch out for 32 new episodes (and it even references that older episodes will be rerun). Granted, there are 33 episodes that carry a 1984 copyright date, but the references to Kobra Khan, Webstor, Whiplash, Buzz-Off, Mekaneck, and Fisto clearly identify the film as a product of 1984. Two other clues support this: the so-called "1985 episodes of Season 2" feature music from She-Ra to go along with the cameo by the Sword of Protection and soldiers of the Evil Horde in "Origin of the Sorceress", and the 1985 copyright dates themselves. As Filmation was extremely careful about copyright reporting on the episodes themselves (likely because Lou Scheimer took notice of the sad fate that befell fellow Pittsburgh native George Romero when Night of the Living Dead's late re-titling cost the film its copyrighted status), so it's highly unlikely that any episode of a show the studio made would bear an incorrect copyright date. Furthermore, the scripts for these 1985 episodes included in DVD releases have revision dates extending far enough into 1985 to ensure that there are really three seasons of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
.....The most distressing bit of misinformation lies in a recent anniversary commentary posted online (the UK anniversary, of course), which included puzzlement over Trap Jaw's Filmation color scheme, as the toy's legs are black with a minimal bit of lime green on each of Trappy's thighs (his attachment arm doesn't even have that luxury). This is not a hard question to answer. Since the beginning of the industry, black-on-black detailing in animation has been something to avoid-it's the source of the white gloves that Mickey Mouse wears, because his hands utterly vanished at certain points of his three gloveless shorts. While color alleviated this with its ability to have detail lines in a variety of colors, the rise of xerography made this impossible until The Rescuers was made. The New Adventures of Zorro was the only Filmation show in 1983 that had taken advantage of this then-new technology, and it was not only more robustly budgeted than He-Man, it was animated in Japan! So, it was a no-brainer that Trap Jaw would have more brightly colored legs, though the magenta may have been as much an issue with Filmation's infamous relationship with the color pink as it is with the color of Trap Jaw's helmet, furry underwear, and jaw. With the unsure realities of broadcasting in the pre-cable days, even colors other than black could have this effect (such the midnight blue color scheme Snake Eyes sported in the earliest produced episodes of G.I. Joe).
.....What I'm getting at is that instead of advancing knowledge of the history of He-Man and She-Ra in all its forms, fandom is engaged in a cult of personality. If you've been a fan for a long time and have a reputation, your agenda is going to exist practically unopposed.....until you piss on someone else with a reputation (and even then, you'll still have oodles of defenders). This simply isn't healthy. And, this editorial probably isn't going to positively change anything. But, when my Facebook feed gets repeated shakedowns for the subscription as the deadline approaches, and I continue to hear about Matty screwups during a year where I got suckered into the sub due to Shadow Weaver (2012's subscription bonus figure) while my pile of unwanted figures grows, I get kind of annoyed. And between the continued crappiness of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe DVDs (particularly in the light of the information that Lou Scheimer has everything-which I've been told includes The Greatest Adventures of All and Skeletor's Revenge) and this frankly embarrassing situation with Emiliano (whose artwork on said DVDs is the best part about them by a country mile), I gotta speak my mind. I shouldn't have to check the Mattycollector message boards monthly to see what's grinding fans' gears (as, obviously, he-man.org has dried up in this area due to reasons stated above), and the line's unofficial Facebook fan page shouldn't be a depressing affair full of bad news (when updated-the person running it has long since tired of the Mattel-caused crap). In fact, all I want are good, unaltered DVDs of the show, and a complete run of these MOTUC toys for the show's characters. Unfortunately, even this simple request seems impossible right now, and that's just sad.
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