The Toys That Made Us: He-Man

The Toys that made us series returns with a look at the He-Man franchise, I admit I was really looking forward to this one from the very beginning and this didn’t disappoint, my first watch I couldn’t pull myself to stop and start it to take notes.

He-Man had a great, though short term run, at one point they eclipsed Star Wars and Transformers in the boys category. As we learned from a previous entry Star Wars was king, it was tough for Mattel early on for a few reasons, including they had an offer to be in charge of Star Wars but declined. To add salt to the wound Kenner took it on, led by a former Mattel employee and absolutely crushed the competition with it. Struggling to make headway, Mattel was paying upwards of 4 million for rights to movie franchises, but they never did well enough to earn a return on royalties. Some of those movies at the time included Clash of the Titans, and Flash Gordon, nothing, in any sector, was making it as big as Star Wars.

Mattel got the idea that they will just create a hit toy line itself and started working up an idea. Marketing did some research on what the kids wanted, after getting a number of five year old’s for a test market, they found that boys wanted the figures to be in charge, and not to be told what to do like their mothers and sometimes teachers did them. They wanted the power, so Roger Sweet a designer thought of making a big imposing action line so he took the Big Jim toy line as a base, which was an international market toy, and used clay to bulk him up to a large figure. Roger made a He-Man with a big battle ax and an action face that was a hit with the team, he had two other characters which weren’t used or as impressive, but it helped lay the groundwork of what was to come.

During the infancy stage, He-Man had a number of supporting characters, while the bad guy, Skeletor, had some other characters, around 4 good and 4  bad was part of the base set. He-Man had 2 vehicles but needed a third. They were running out of a budget for a third and the person who ran the Big Jim line remembered that it had a tiger and they wouldn’t need to have something made from scratch. It was scaled for a Big Jim figure which was a 9-10 inch figure, not the 5.5 inch figure size of He-Man, but they decided to push forward with it for the prototype, eventually putting a saddle on the imposing figure and calling him battle cat. Besides some good figures, bad figures, some rides and Greyskull, the castle of Skeletor where the battles took place, and a structure that could hold the figures they were ready to pitch it to buyers.

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First pitch was to Child World, which at the time was the 2nd largest toy retailer in the United States. The mascot was creepy. Photo Credit: Child World

The first pitch went to Child World, which went out of business for good in 1992, but in 1982 they were a force to be reckon with as the #2 toy retailer to Toys R Us. The initial pitch to the buyers went well, until one of the members of Child World mentioned that Star Wars, which everyone is gunning for, has a movie that people see, learn the story and the characters and in turns makes them want to get the toys. What is it that He-Man and the Masters of the Universe have? Mark, who was VP of boys toys at Mattel at the time, pulled something out of the air and said, “oh I didn’t tell you about the comic book?” He spit balled that the figures would come with free comics which would tell the backstory of the characters. The buyers thought that was a great idea so that bullet was dodged, for the moment, marketing was tasked now to come up with backstory for He-Man and the world he was from Eternia.

Two weeks later the pitch to Toys R Us was lined up, this time they had the comic book all ready for the pitch, when a member of Toys R Us said, well you mention that kids as young as 5 will play with these figures, but they don’t read. So Mark went back to the air and said, “oh did I fail to mention the 2 one hour specials we will be airing about the show?” The pitch to Toys R Us worked but now they had to figure out how to get a cartoon. Mark knew someone in Filmation who was big at the time making films. After looking at everything the makers at Filmation said for nearly the same price htey can make a show of He-Man instead of just a couple hour specials, so that was green lit.

Filmation was working on the project and had like 10 minutes of film together and when the He-Man creators saw it they knew that it was going to be a hit. With TV, you have to follow some unwritten rules, you have to make the mood a little lighter, interject some humor, and you have to do it in a way where parents believe that the show will have some value for the children to watch. So besides not making it as dark as it was always imagined, they changed He-Man and gave him a “wimpy” alter ego named Prince Adam, full on with a pink vest and plenty of time to slack off.

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You, verses the man you’re told not to worry about. Prince Adam on the left, He-Man on the right. Photo Credit: Mattel

The star of the show, and I don’t care what anyone says, is Skeletor, one his look is amazing, two he is absolutely hilarious, take some time to check some things out on YouTube you won’t be disappointed, with the help of the TV show the line really took off, kids were watching before school, after school, on the weekends, and it led to licenses opening up like bed sheets, shoes and all sorts of things.

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Skeletor thinking back on all his best one liners. One for instance, “I can write a book about all the things you don’t know.” This one cracks me up still. Photo Credit: Mattel

He-Man did something utterly unthinkable, help the boys toy line outshine Barbie. After Masters of the Universe’s first year, which did $38.2 million dollars, the total sales of boys toys eclipsed that of the female toy lines including Barbies. This was the first time that ever happened at Mattel, the female side wasn’t very pleased about that and wanted to change that in a hurry. They did some research, and 20% of the He-Man audience was females so they wanted to capture that, Barbie was not the type of toy that could go on these type of adventures so they thought things up, and decided why couldn’t He-Man have a sister? So they came up with She-Ra to ride the coat tails of the craze. She-Ra got the same treatment as He-Man with her own spin off cartoon show.

He-Man continued to grow, so they got a little to cocky thinking that they could throw anything out and it would sell, they made snake men, big jumbled up characters that were neon, or made no sense. They made a character that had a small stink capsule that was so bad workers were threatening to quit at the factories because it smelled like a dead person. But He-Man was smashing records, they originally promised $13 million in sales year one, but ended up doing $38.2. The next year was $80 million, followed by $111 million, up to $258 million, followed by $400 million. At that point the wheels fell off hard, and the sales dropped to $7 million for the year in 1987.

The reasons for the fall off vary depending on who you ask. Some members think that She-Ra had something to do with it. One, having the She-Ra figure the same size as He-Man made He-Man not seem as powerful as before. The other thought was if girls were playing with a figure like She-Ra instead of a Barbie it wasn’t viewed as cool as before. Another viable reason, was by year three the merchandising took a horrific turn. Stores were asking for inventory, so the warehouse would say they have the inventory to fill the shelves and would send off a full rack of say, Buzz-Off, by doing this you limit your customers buying power, as you would need 12 consumers to need that one figure, instead of if you had a rack of 12 different figures you might have someone who buys 3, another 2, and so on. You also are letting down new customers to that age group who found He-Man and wanted to start with the classic He-Man and Skeletor but those were not available.

To try to pump life back into the brand, they did a live action film in August of 1987, simply put it tanked, it was set on earth, characters didn’t have the look as the figures did, main characters were not in the film, and they introduced many new names nobody ever knew. With the brand hitting the wall and retailers stuck with inventory that wasn’t selling they marked the items down, which decreases profits, and in the consumers eyes makes the items seem not as appealing as before or as a dying trend, the magic at that point was gone and it was shut down.

In 1989 they tried to reboot it with a He-Man in space, with a sword instead of an ax and spandex and a ponytail, the figure line and TV show tanked big time and it hit hiatus again. In 2002 another resurrection happened, in the form of high end looking sculpts of original figures, more for the convention older collectors who were likely kids during the 80’s. That seems to be the market that Masters of the Universe and He-Man are with things like Power Con, and booths with old action figures, things are changing and kids might not ever want action figures like He-Man again.

In closing, I enjoyed the episode a lot, it didn’t seem to have as much drama as the other ones so far. Now that this is over, don’t be a flea bitten fool and go on Youtube and look for some of Skeletor’s best one liners.

Author: Jon Hicks

I am a wise cracking avid gamer, drawn more to the role playing games with the vast stories and characters. I collect Funko pops, my name is Riddler3 on the Funatics board. I’m a big DC fan, none bigger than Green Lantern as evidenced by my leg tattoo. My biggest fandom is zombies, namely all things Walking Dead. I love everything about zombies and can talk about it for hours. I enjoy Game of Thrones, sports, basketball, and football at the forefront. I support my hobbies as an office manager at a sign company. Please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk about all sorts of topics.

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