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By Thomas Wheeler

Name the top three pop-culture toy-based concepts of the 1980's. Ask that question to anyone reasonably knowledgeable about the time period, and the answer is likely to be, in some order or other: G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Masters of the Universe.

Although it didn't have as lengthy a run as the other two properties, Masters of the Universe set its own marks in a variety of ways. For example, although G.I. Joe was devoted fairly specifically to the adventures of reasonably realistic soldiers, and Transformers was very much robot-based, Masters of the Universe was all over the map. The planet Eternia, upon which the adventures were based, would've been an anthropologist's -- not to mention a zoologist's -- dream. You had humans, amphibians, insectoids, reptilians, robots, and a few sentient beings defying easy description, all apparently native to this amazing planet. You had a dominant culture that managed to make use of high technology, but also had a "sword-and-sorcery" element to it.

If G.I. Joe was the reality, and Transformers was the science-fiction, then Masters of the Universe was the fantasy.

Mattel created a wide range of action figures over the line's approximate six-year run. Most of these were in the form of action figures -- muscle-bound, rather short-legged, but very capably detailed figures. They had limited articulation, mostly the head, arms, and legs, although most of them had a spring-action in their waist, as well.

The main protagonist of the series was He-Man. As his origin was revealed, it was discovered that he was in fact Prince Adam, who, thanks to a magical sword and an oath, imbued with power by the enigmatic Sorceress of Castle Grayskull, could transform himself into the super-human He-Man, to combat the forces of evil led by Skeletor, a skull-faced evil-doer who wanted all the power of Eternia for himself.

Both, of course, had their allies, resulting in a massive action figure line with amazing vehicles and accessories. The concept spawned one of the most popular animated series of all time - He-Man and the Masters of the Universe - produced by Filmation Studios and notable for being the first-ever all-new animated series distributed by syndication, rather than sold to a specific network. Masters opened the door for the animated series based on G.I. Joe, Transformers, Thundercats, M.A.S.K., Spiral Zone, DuckTales, and dozens of others. The amazing level of animated series that we enjoyed during this time period would not have been nearly the same without Masters of the Universe.

Masters even spawned a sequel. She-Ra, Princess of Power, one of the few times a girl-based action figure series actually worked. She-Ra was He-Man's sister, and garnered her own animated series for a healthy run, and remains a popular component of the overall concept.

Alas, the Masters concluded their run in the late 1980's, and an attempted sequel in the early 90's -- The New Adventures of He-Man -- while not as reviled as some sequel attempts to other popular concepts, is generally not as highly thought of in either toy or animated form, and usually charitably considered as not quite as inspired, with only the core characters of He-Man and Skeletor being carried over.

In 2002, the Masters returned! The new line of toys were, for the most part, no more articulated than their predecessors, which some argued was a strike against them, but the overall design of the toys was far more "extreme", for lack of a better term, and somewhat anime inspired. The concept was a decent hit with long-time fans, who found the new designs fascinating, especially when such formerly goofball characters such as Buzz-Off were actually turned into something that looked a lot more bad@$ $ this time around.

A new animated series was produced, and it was just as hard-edged as the figures. More in-depth character origins were brought forth, something which had been distinctly lacking from the original, and the bad guys were a lot badder this time around. There was also a very capable series of comic books that went even more in-depth and was even more hard-edged.

Unfortunately, the line fared for only a few years. The concept didn't catch on with kids this time around, as well as Mattel had hoped, and many collectors argue, I think rightly, that the line was hindered by the fact that packing ratios of the figure cases leaned heavily on He- Man and Skeletor, while the supporting characters were frustratingly difficult to find. The line saw something of an extension in the form of figure-sized statues, turned out by the same sculptors, the renowned Four Horsemen, who had designed the figures. Sadly, you couldn't have a figure of Hordak, or Grizzlor, or any number of others, but you could have a statue that would work well in a display setting with the figures.

But the failure of this latest line left the Masters up in the air, and that didn't sit well with certain parties -- including the Four Horsemen. Would it be possible to create yet another Masters line, that captured the classic look of the original, with modern articulation and detailing, and turn it into a collector-based line? A mysterious He-Man sculpt turned up unannounced at the Mattel booth at the San Diego ComiCon a while back. Reaction was extremely positive, but nothing seemed to come of it.

That is, until Mattel announced plans to start up their own online collectors' shop - MattyCollector.Com -- and the centerpiece of this new online shop would be -- MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE CLASSICS!

These would be all-new figures, with more or less a classic appearance. Fairly heavy, muscular bodies, instead of the leaner-and-meaner 2002 Masters. But -- they would have modern detailing and articulation. No stumpy little bow-legs here. Full range of motion. Generous detailing on armor, faces, hair, fur, or whatever.

A preview figure was offered at the 2008 San Diego ComiCon -- KING GRAYSKULL, an ancestor of He-Man's and an interesting choice for the Classics line, since he was a character who had been featured in the more modern animated series. This, however, showed Mattel's willingness to incorporate details from the modern concept into the new Classics line when and where appropriate. I was able to get King Grayskull, and I have always been immensely pleased with the figure.

Which brings us to now, and the first official MattyCollector.Com offerings for Masters of the Universe Classics. And I really wanted this first review to be He-Man. And I really wanted it to start off on a positive note. Unfortunately, I can do neither.

I'll admit, I was almost reluctant to order the Masters figures. There was a delay in their release. "Quality issues". That wasn't exactly inspiring. Still, maybe Mattel was really trying to deal with the matter. I'll also admit I tend to be a bit reluctant to mail-order figures from ANYBODY. Books are one thing. DVD's are one thing. But figures -- I tend to be really picky about figure condition, and I am very hesitant about buying "sight unseen" from anybody, whether it's an official company Web Store, a fan site, a collectors' store, or just someone trying to do me a favor. Unless it's the only way to acquire the toy, which in this case, it was.

But, I figured, Mattel is trying to start off this new MattyCollector project, they've designed these new Masters figures as collectibles, they have to know they need to get it right, so the horrible plague of defects that's been running amok in DC Universe won't happen here, right?

Wrong! My He-Man figure showed up with the plastic "rivet" in his right knee so badly shot through the joint that it had bent the upper right leg area around the knee outwards. Add to that part of the harness he was wearing looked either mis-molded or mis-painted or something, but it wasn't right, either.

As of this writing, I shipped him back to Mattel -- a procedure arranged through a phone call and only slightly less complicated than filling out a government tax form -- and we'll see what I get next time around.

Which leaves us with Beast Man, who was available in the same month as He-Man. Technically, these figures are going to be coming out once per month, but the delay resulted in He-Man and Beast Man turning up at the same time.

So, let's consider Beast Man. He was one of the first Masters of the Universe figures when the line first came out. Rather bright orange in color, he looked like a cross between a human and an ape. He was furry, with longer than usual arms, and white and blue patches around his face that was either some sort of warpaint.

In the original animated series, he was portrayed as an idiot. In the modern animated series, he was portrayed as only slightly less of an idiot, but with the distinct capability of controlling animals -- especially big mean nasty ones that could be thrown in the direction of the good guys. He also had a meaner streak to him -- not that he was exactly Mr. Friendly in the original series.

Interestingly enough, the package he came in -- a surprisingly small bit of cardboard and plastic that borders on the claustrophobic -- featured a fairly decent character history on the back. This was NOT something that the original Masters figures had. One massive favor that G.I. Joe did for other toy lines was the creation of the character file card in 1982. Previously, a toy line either used characters were people were already supposed to know who they were, such as Star Wars or assorted super-heroes, or, one might surprise, you were just supposed to take your best guess. Heck, it wasn't until the original Masters animated series started airing that I was even certain who the good guys and bad guys were.

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero changed all that with their in-depth bios, and now, Masters has finally caught up. And it seems to me that, given the lack of origin material presented the first time around, it is here that Mattel is taking the greatest advantage of the 2002-era material, and not just the animated series. Here is Beast Man's profile.

Savage Henchman

Real Name: Raqquill Rqazz

After being banished from his home in the Vine Jungle, the Beast Man named Raqquill Rqazz joined up with a young alchemist named Keldor during a skirmish in the Berserker Islands. Like others of his race, Rqazz has the ability to control beasts and monsters. He currently uses this particular talent as chief henchman to Skeletor, the Overlord of Evil.

Okay, now I'll admit that I don't have all the history of the original series. There was a series of mini-comics sold with the original figures, and the illustration on Beast-Man's file card appears to derive from that, and Mattel did state that they intended to use some of that material when and where appropriate. And yet I don't believe that the name "Keldor" came along -- a reference to Skeletor's pre-bone-faced name -- until the 2002 line, and this origin, bereft of certain specifics, reads a fair bit like Beast Man's origin as outlined in a modern comic book that was part of an "Icons of Evil" series published by MVC.

Either way, it's nice to see the Masters characters getting some background like this. They were pretty much the only major 80's line that didn't. And just as an aside, if my real name was anything remotely like "Raqquill Rqazz", I think I'd change it to just about anything else, too, even something as relatively simplistically descriptive as "Beast Man".

So, how's the figure? Extremely impressive. Mattel's objective was to capture the classic look of the original Masters figures, with with modern detailing. In this they have certainly succeeded.

Beast Man is a less intense orange than his original version, but he is still more orange than his 2002 version, which, if standing next to this guy, looks more tan than orange. It's a good color, really. It maintains the concept of Beast Man being "orange", without being such an intense color that you really have to wonder how someone native to a jungle region could have turned out in such a bizarre color.

Most of the other colors are back, as well, if somewhat toned down appropriately. Where the 2002 Beast Man figure had a brown furry -- well, I don't know that I'd call it a vest, it's more like some sort of adornment on his chest and shoulders, the new Beast Man returns that adornment to its original reddish color. So, too, are the upper arm shields with their spikes returned to a reddish color. I'd honestly forgotten how much I missed the original color scheme in comparison until I had both figures standing here.

Beast Man stands a little over 6-1/2" in height, which is a bit taller than his ancestor. If there was one thing that always griped me about the original Masters of the Universe figures, apart from their limited articulation, it was their stumpy little bow-legs. They were really pretty disproportionate. That, thankfully, has been nicely remedied with the new line, due in part to the design, and due in part to the articulation.

However, Beast Man is just a little bit shorter than King Grayskull. This surprised me. I checked the overall body measurements, and it's most in Beast Man's legs. Granted, if memory serves, the original Beast Man had somewhat shorter legs than most. My only concern here is that Mattel has stated that they will be reusing body molds on different characters, just as the original line did. Anybody else using Beast Man's legs, which as of this writing looks like it could include Stratos, at least in the lower legs, is going to be a bit short. But we'll see. This is really not a major issue, just an observation.

The detailing on the figure is superb. Anyone concerned that a return to a classic look relative to the 2002 line would mean a minimization of detail need not be worried. Beast Man, as one would expect, is a pretty furry fellow, and that has been rendered very effectively on the figure's body. He is very furry, slightly shaggier on the lower arms and lower legs. His hands and feet have been very carefully crafted, with long fingers and toes ending in clawed nails, each of which has been painted, and quite neatly.

Beast Man's headsculpt is excellent, a superb update of the original while avoiding the exaggeration of the 2002 line. The peculiar facial coloration of white and blue has been worked in very nicely and painted extremely neatly.

The various "uniform" details, mostly spikes, shields, and wristbands, have all been very well done and very highly detailed. Ridges along the spikes, a few cracks or dents here and there in the armor pieces, no doubt from being om the wrong end of He-Man's sword.

Articulation -- here is where this line really excels. Even the 2002 Masters were rather intentionally limited in articulation, and it was easily my biggest complaint about the original line. Well, that's certainly been dealt with. Beast Man is very fully articulated, and is poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, waist, legs, upper leg swivel, knees, and ankles. Now, that's how it ought to be!

Beast Man comes with a single accessory, a black whip, no doubt to better control the animals around him. It's curved, but molded from a very flexible plastic, and when stretched out fully, is a little over 10" in length.

Any complaints? I wish I could say this figure was perfect. He's not. He LOOKS great. Unfortunately, his right knee is a little loose than it should be, and his right foot, although the "back and forth" ankle movement is decently tight, there's a sort of "side to side" motion that is very loose, as if something was supposed to snap into place and didn't quite get there. But Beast Man's got a pretty floppy foot.

Unfortunately, I've been hearing that the Masters line is as plagued by quality issues just as severe as DC Universe Classics, and some fans are already giving up in frustration. Not that I blame them, but that's a sincere shame. Even so, there is no excuse on Mattel's part to allow two potentially amazing action figure lines get treated like this. Whatever they're going through, there's just no excuse.

So what's my final word here? There is endless potential for this line. The Masters of the Universe concept is as rich and varied a pop culture toy-based concept as you could ask for. It's got something for everyone. Like robots? Maybe they'll make Roboto. Like ninjas? There's a character called Ninjor in the concept. Like freakishly weird beings? Man -- take your pick. There is endless potential.

BUT -- if Mattel can't get their act together on these (and on DCUC), they might as well close down MattyCollector.Com right now and forget about it. Because they're marketing these toys as collectibles, and heck, that He-Man that I ordered didn't even look good in the package, never mind had I opened him. For myself, I'm thinking I'll order Skeletor because -- well, he's Skeletor -- but if I don't hear some word that the quality level around Mattel is taking a pretty sharp upturn, I'm going to be pretty reluctant to continue. And Skeletor had better be perfect. So had my replacement He-Man.

With that in mind -- as a CONCEPT, and as far as what they INTEND from a toy standpoint, I have to give the MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE CLASSICS and BEAST MAN my highest and most enthusiastic recommendation! As far as the results are concerned -- that decision is yours. If you're a major Masters fan, you'll probably want to head over to MattyCollector.Com and get him. And really, really hope and pray for the best.