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He-Man

Masters of the Universe
by Poe Ghostal

Hey, kids! Ready for a flashback?

He-Man and the Heroic Masters of the Universe must save Eternia from the clutches of the sinister Skeletor and his Evil Horde...

A headstrong teenager with a nose for trouble stumbles upon an ancient stone castle deep in the Eternia Forest. There he meets a beautiful sorceress who gives him a magical weapon, the Power Sword, and tells him that only he can save Eternia from the evil Skeletor. By raising the sword above his head, he transforms into He-Man, the Most Powerful Man in the Universe! Together with his heroic companions, the Masters of the Universe, He-Man takes on Skeletor and the Evil Horde in the battle for all Eternia!

Part of the success of the original line was due to Mattel's ultra-cheapo production values. As anyone who owned the original figures can attest to, each figure was made from a limited number of torso, arm, and leg sculpts. With a few clever color changes, some accessories and a new head, kids had a "new" action figure. But this time around, Mattel has opted to skip the cheapo methods.

They hired four former sculptors from McFarlane Toys, home of some of the finest toy sculptors in America. Dubbing themselves "The Four Horsemen," these sculptors set about redefining He-Man for a new age of action figure standards. The new figures are stunning, especially when compared to the cookie-cutter work of the originals.

He-Man's sculpt was probably the most worked and re-worked by the Four Horsemen. According to the Horsemen, it underwent numerous assessments by child focus groups. The kids seemed to prefer the "anime" look for He-Man - meaning more like Dragonball Z than the square-jawed Batman. Thus, he has the youthful features and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese hairdo seen here.

Other than the head sculpt, which I'm not personally fond of (but kids seem to like), the rest of the figure is excellent. He has a fairly basic super-muscled physique, though the shoulders are a bit too broad. Nonetheless, it's not nearly as bad as the squat, steroids-to-the-max look of the '80s toys. He-Man sports his trademark furry diaper, though it is now blessed with a sporran, which is a little pouch usually found on kilts. Anyone with an imagination, dirty or otherwise, can come up with an endless supply of possibilities for what He-Man carries in there.

In terms of articulation, He-Man has balljoints at the shoulder and smaller, hidden ones at the hips, swivels at the wrists, and a swivel joint for the waist and neck each. This is more than adequate for a 6" kids' line and a good compromise between sculpt and articulation, because it provides (near) maximum mobility without any ugly joints. The figures are made of a tough, durable plastic, though I've heard of occasional problems when twisting the waist or wrists. We recommend gently twisting the waists and wrists carefully first before play or display, just in case.

The accessories are fairly standard: He-Man features a sword, a shield, and an axe. The sculpting on each is good, though the plastic used for the sword seems a little cheap. The hilt of the sword twists for a "battle mode." He-Man's armor is also removable (just the vest, folks, not the furry diaper - don't worry).

For the kids (and adults who play with the toys), He-Man features a "twist and punch action." Execution is child's play: simply twist He-Man's waist and let go, and he'll smack whatever meets his fist (or sword, if he happens to be holding it). A fun feature, especially for the younglings.

As someone in his early 20s who was a great fan of He-Man in his youth, I am in a unique position to judge the impact of the TV-and-toys marketing techniques of the '80s and their effect on me. This was a huge issue for several parents' groups in the '80s, particularly the group Action for Children's Television (ACT). It was ACT who caused Filmation Studios to add those little mini-morality plays to the end of each He-Man episode.

In his book Out of the Garden: Toys and Children's Culture in the Age of TV Marketing, Dr. Stephen Kline argues that television shows suchs as He-Man, Transformers, and Power Rangers served not only to limit children's imaginations by inscribing their play within a limited fantasy world, whose boundaries were defined by the cartoon, comics and other ancillary media surrounding the toys, but that the shows and toys also served to induct children into a consumerist society, setting up a process by which the children will define themselves, and continue to do so throughout their lives, through the purchase of possessions.

Personally, I believe Dr. Kline makes some significant points. However, it's important to remember that children's marketing is a symptom of consumerism, not a cause. As a symptom it does reinforce these values, but most children will be introduced to them at some point or another regardless of whether they are allowed to play with He-Man and watch his cartoons.

While I have the usual consumerist baggage most Americans do, I'm perfectly aware of it, as most Americans are. All kids need toys, and for me, He-Man was one of the great pleasures of my childhood. The cartoon and the comics and whatnot were fun too, and I think it's a harsh world when toys, cartoons and comics are divorced from the word "fun" and viewed under a glaring critical eye. Will watching He-Man limit your child's imagination? I doubt it. Kline cites a few examples where kids would argue amongst themselves about certain toys being used "out of character" from the cartoon versions of the character or whatever, but in my experience it was only anal little kids like us OAFEs who did that. Most kids had He-Man and Transformers and GI Joe and Ninja Turtles all fighting one another.

Which leads me to another point - are these toys violent? All the action features do involve bashing things or missile-firing. There are some parents, I know, who simply don't like those types of toys, and if you are one of those parents, I obviously recommend you avoid He-Man. But I don't think these toys encourage violence. Better to give your kids some little toys with swords than a toy gun, if you ask me. Kids - especially boys - are going to make their toys fight anyway, regardless of whether they're He-Man or My Little Pony.

In summation, I loved He-Man as a kid, and I don't feel all the cartoons and comics and little biographies on the back of the toys limited my imagination any more than I allowed it to be limited. Most kids, I suspect, will be the same way. If anything, playing with toys inspired my imagination so much that I'm now an aspiring fiction writer. Of course, there are some parents who might want to avoid encouraging their children to that particularly lucrative career.

-- 08/05/02


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