I can’t hear those opening chimes, which accompany the Filmation logo, without being struck by a powerful and immediate sense of nostalgia.
And by the time you get to “By the Power of Grayskull!” I am pretty much a three-year-old boy again.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was, on paper, the most nakedly commercial cash-grab possible. A five-day-a-week, half-hour long action figure commercial. It was also, by all accounts, my first favorite thing and essentially forms the foundation for everything (fictional) I have loved in my life since childhood, including: science-fiction, fantasy, magic vs. science, space travel, super powers, giant cats, strong female characters (considering the time and media), Lovecraftian horror1, and awesome swords.
The setting for He-Man, the planet Eternia, was an unapologetic mash-up of weird fantasy landscapes and pulp sci-fi technology. Equal parts Conan and Buck Rogers. But unlike many science-fiction/fantasy melting pots, it never boiled down to magic=evil and science=good (or vice versa). Skeletor himself used magic–as did his second-in command, Evil-Lyn–but had plenty of robot and cyborg minions to go around. Likewise, the royal palace of Eternia was protected by laser wielding guards in varying forms of hovercraft, but He-Man himself drew power from (the incredibly sinister-looking) Castle Grayskull.
He-Man is also a study in the narrative effects of censorship. Though he was strong enough to lift mountains, and wielded an indestructible magic sword, He-Man wouldn’t kill anyone2. The Power Sword was usually used more as a tool (or to deflect energy blasts, lightsaber style) than as a weapon. And if He-Man was using his sword, you could be certain that his foes were robots of golems or some other non-living entity.
Much like similar restrictions on violence, through the Comics Code, turned Golden Age Superman and Batman from intermittently murderous vigilantes into heroes who held human3 life sacred above all other concerns4, restrictions on violence in kid’s TV shows meant He-Man couldn’t punch or stab people5. The most he’d do would be toss villains around now and then, and even then it was typically the super-durable ones.
He had unlimited strength, but he still chose to solve problems through planning and cooperation. It sounds cheesy (because it is), but I’d say it was a helluva positive influence. Might doesn’t make right. When you’re a skinny little kid who constantly feels like an outsider, it’s nice to be shown that just because people are tougher than you doesn’t mean they’re inherently right or better or anything else. It’s actions define us; not attributes. That, more than any of the ’80s-tastic morals they tacked on to the end of each episode, always stuck with me.
I could write about He-Man all day, but I think I’ll call it there for the moment. Odds are high that I’ll be talking more about him sometime later. Also: I apologize for the footnote storm. I’ve been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace, plus I didn’t previously know how to do footnoting in HTML. So, yeah…
See you in The Future.
1. In the episode “To Save Skeletor,” the titular villain summons the extradimensional horror Sh’Gora–gotta love the extraneous apostrophe–that he hopes to use in some evil plot or other. The beast laughs in Skeletor’s face, shrugs off all assaults (both physical and magical), imprisons the villains, easily breaks into Castle Grayskull, turns the Sorceress into his mind-controlled servant, and comes quite close to dragging the whole planet to his home dimension. This was the only episode I owned on VHS as a child–not counting a recorded-from-TV copy of The Secret of the Sword, the TV Movie that introduced She-Ra–so I had it committed to memory mong before I ever heard H.P. Lovecraft’s name or read a word of his writing.↩
2. There was an episode, titled The Problem with Power, where He-Man was tricked into believing he’d taken a life. While the viewers were shown ahead of time that this was a ruse (because the kids always have to know that He-Man doesn’t hurt people), He-Man himself was so distraught that he threw his Power Sword down a (supposedly) bottomless ravine.↩
3. Superheroes always seem to be fine with killing off demons or aliens. The latter of which, considering Superman’s heritage, has always struck me as bizarre.↩
4. This commonality leads to one of my (many) favorite exchanges in Alex Ross and Mark Waid’s brilliant graphic novel, Kingdom Come.↩
5. One thing I absolutely hated about the recent He-Man and the Masters of the Universe comic put out by DC was that, once Adam became He-Man (which wasn’t until the end of the next-to-last issue, due to evil brainwashing magic), he cut a bloody swath through various faceless minions. The very first time you see He-Man in the final issue, his iconic sword is covered with blood. It’s like if, at the climax of “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?” Superman just killed off the Elite because he could. Just awful.↩