Ask a longtime toy and pop culture fan to name the top three action figure lines of the 1980's, and the response, unless he's playing favorites, will very likely be, in no particular order, G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Masters of the Universe.
Although not as long-lived as its contemporaries, Masters of the Universe set its own standards for itself that in many respects set it apart from the other two. Its animated series was honestly the first to try for major first-run syndication, opening the doors for G.I. Joe, Transformers, and all that followed. And while G.I. Joe was concerned primarily with the semi-military and reasonably realistic conflict between the G.I. Joe Team and Cobra, and Transformers was entirely about robots, Masters of the Universe presented to us the amazing world of Eternia, a world where magic and certain barbaric overtones operated side-by-side with high technology, on a world populated by sentient creatures of a truly astonishing variety -- fish-men, ape-men, lizard-men, bug-men -- even at least one sentient robot, plus a few things that pretty well defied any sort of classification.
Amidst it all was the classic conflict of good vs. evil, personified in the form of heroic He-Man, a blond, muscle-bound superman in a loincloth and carrying a sword that allowed him to change back and forth between He-Man and his secret identity of Prince Adam at will. On the other side of the battle was Skeletor, a blue-skinned humanoid with a skull for a face. Each had their allies gathered from the wildly assorted denizens of Eternia.
The original animated series, produced by Filmation, ran for several years. The action figure line enjoyed a healthy life of about six years from 1982-1987, more or less. It started to fade not long after a dreadful live-action movie with Dolph Lundgren as He-Man and Frank Langella in some really bad make-up as Skeletor.
The original Masters line spawned a girl's line, called She-Ra, Princess of Power. She was He-Man's long-lost sister, and the animated series helped promote the line, but it, too, came to an end.
There was a brief attempt at an update a couple of years later, with a more sci-fi bent, called "The new Adventures of He-Man", but frankly, the less said about the toy line, and ESPECIALLY the animated series, the better.
The Masters returned in 2002, newly redesigned by the expert craftsmen known as the Four Horsemen. The one thing about the original toy line was that -- well, some of the figures looked a little goofy. They were all pretty musclebound, most of them had pretty short, stumpy legs, and tended to look bow-legged with it, and some of the character designs were virtually impossible to take seriously.
The Four Horsemen gave the Masters of the Universe a new dose of attitude. Although the articulation, limited to head, arms, waist, and legs, remained rather limited (although wrist articulation was added), the new designs were sleeker, more powerful-looking, better proportioned, and a whole lot less goofy. Skeletor was downright scary. Even Buzz-Off looked like he could kick some serious tail if he had to.
With the new Masters toys came a new Masters animated series, that took itself as seriously as the toys did. Character origins were presented. Skeletor was seriously nasty and downright cruel at times. The heroes were powerful and dedicated, the villains were seriously evil and occasionally sadistic. And things only got worse when the Snake-Men showed up.
Sadly, the toy line only ran about three years. The reasons for its premature demise are varied, but can largely be centered on the fact that, for whatever reason, the new Masters didn't catch on especially well with kids, which is pretty much a requirement for any mass-maker toy; and the distribution ratios of the figures were heavily towards one variant or another of He-Man and Skeletor, which inevitably gathered dust on the shelves, while the supporting cast, so vitally presented in the animated series, was next to impossible to find in the stores.
The impressive character design continued in a line of action-figure- sized statues, sculpted by the same Four Horsemen who had done the figures, and produced by NECA. Here, we got to see what some of the missing characters who had either been in the animated series, or should have been, and certainly should have been included in the action figure line, looked like in the new design style. Names like Hordak, Clamp Champ, Snout Spout, Rio Blast, and more, including the rest of the Snake-Men, finally came out in at least some sort of three-dimensional new-style format.
But, for all intents and purposes, the revival of Masters of the Universe was, tragically, dead. Even the statues finally ran their course.
But then, the rumors started to fly. Mattel still wanted to do SOMEthing with Masters of the Universe. Here was a concept, an entirely universe of characters, with years' worth of backstory and adventures, and a decent fan following. Mysteriously, a newly designed He-Man prototype figure turned up at a handful of conventions. Clearly taking some cues from the original He-Man, it was nevertheless not lacking the "attitude" of the more recent line. What was this? What was really going on? And then another figure started to appear. It looked SORT of like He-Man, but had longer hair, more details, and the figure clearly had more extensive articulation than any Masters figure ever made.
Finally, for the 2008 San Diego Comic Convention, the question was answered. Mattel was starting up its own online collectibles store, and the focus of it was going to be an all-new line called -- MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE CLASSICS! And the first entry in that series would have its debut at the 2008 San Diego ComiCon, and his name was -- KING GRAYSKULL!
So -- who exactly is King Grayskull? He is, in my opinion, the best possible choice to kick off this new collector-based Classics line of Masters of the Universe.
King Grayskull didn't exist in the original Masters of the Universe line. There was no toy of him. He did not appear in the animated series. Basically, the character has nothing whatsoever to do with the original Masters of the Universe. Ah, but the 2002-era Masters, that's a different matter entirely. Here, King Grayskull appeared in a flashback episode (and I'll get more into his origin shortly), to fight in battle against Hordak, which was also the only main appearance in the modern series of that particular character, although the belief is that had the animated series and the toy line endured for another year, Hordak and his minions would've been the main villains.
So what we have in King Grayskull is a figure that at once says, "We're going to capture some of the look of the original Masters concept and toys with this new line, but we're not going to neglect the cool stuff that came as part of the 2002 series." And that, in my opinion, is entirely how it should be.
So, what's the toy like? Well, first you have to get past the packaging -- no easy feat. This figure is very extensively packaged. A lot of cardboard went into this. There is a very sturdy outer box that measures about 10-1/2" x 9" x 4-1/2". This box has the rock-like image of Castle Grayskull on its front and sides, and King Grayskull's origin on the back, which I will relate shortly. The lid of the box has a fancy logo that says "King Grayskull", as well as the new MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE CLASSICS logo. This uses the "Masters" word style from the original toy line, but the "of the Universe" is somewhat different, and of course the addition of the word "Classics" is entirely new.
Open the box and there's an inner liner that looks like a four-sided castle wall. Then you come to the box that actually contains the figure. This box looks like a castle on all sides, has castle fold-out panels along the front, and there's an eerie Eternian sky along the top. The back panel shows photos of King Grayskull, as well as forthcoming figures of He-Man and Beast Man.
Finally, you open the drawbridge front of the box, and there is King Grayskull. *Whew*!
Oh -- one thing, which I sort of wish I'd known in advance. The box talks. And the activation switch is really, really touchy. It says "I HAVE THE POWER...!" followed by a blast of thunder.
Technically, the sound effects are SUPPOSED to activate when you open the drawbridge, and you see King Grayskull standing in the foyer of Castle Grayskull, he yells, "I have the power!" and two little blue LED's in the ceiling flash back and forth as the thunder blasts, effectively creating a nice lightning/backlight effect for a few seconds. Not a bad entrance for an action figure, really. By the way, the batteries are replaceable, and instructions included.
I should mention that there are two versions of King Grayskull -- a "live person" version, for lack of a better term, and another version that was colored to look like a statue. I definitely wanted the "person" version, which is what I have.
So, let's finally answer the question of, "Who is King Grayskull?", as a character within the Masters universe, anyway. The back to the outer box reads as follows:
"Long before Prince Adam held the Sword of Power to become He-Man, his ancestor, King Grayskull, defended Eternia from evil. Heroically mastering the secret power of his sword, Grayskull fought side-by-side with the cosmic warrior He-Ro against both the evil Hordak and King Hiss.
"Although Grayskull eventually fell before Hordak's magic, he was able to preserve his powers inside the sword, so that one day his descendants could reclaim the power and call upon Grayskull's name whenever evil threatens the peace of Eternia. To this day, Grayskull's spirit remains hidden away deep inside the castle which will forever bear his name."
Now, that's really not a bad summary of the storyline that played out in the flashback sequence in the episode of the modern Masters cartoon in which Grayskull appeared. However, there are a couple more things in those paragraphs worth noting here. First off is the mention of "the cosmic warrior He-Ro". There's a name that hasn't been heard in about twenty years. Had the original Masters of the Universe line continued beyond the point that it did, there were plans to present a line of figures and toys from a more primitive time on Eternia, specifically called "Preternia", if memory serves. A couple of these -- dinosaur-like toys -- were released, and made mention of a warrior named He-Ro. However, the character was never rendered into figure form, and I'm honestly not sure if any concept images of him exist.
Given that I don't believe that in his original form He-Ro was intended as a "cosmic" hero, and given that Grayskull here looks more than a little like an earlier form of He-Man from a rougher, earlier time period, Grayskull's current likeness might've been the original plan for He-Ro, but that's purely speculation on my part. As to He-Ro even being mentioned here -- that's rather interesting. Secondly, so is the fact that "King Hiss" is spelled as the character originally was, rather than the "King HSSS" of the modern line. And Grayskull's overall character summary is further indication that Mattel intends to take its cues from both major incarnations of the Masters with these figures.
As to Grayskull himself -- this figure is truly amazing, truly incredible. If this is the new face of Masters of the Universe, then we should all hope that it will have a very long and very successful run. The figure stands about 6-1/2" in height. He is powerfully built, and very muscular. Here is where an aspect of the original Masters comes into play. The 2002 figures were somewhat leaner in appearance. Grayskull is pretty husky.
However, there is absolutely none of the almost comical appearance of the original figures here. Grayskull categorically does NOT have weird little bow-legs. His overall body proportions are excellent.
Appearance-wise, Grayskull looks like what you'd expect him to -- even if you never saw the animated episode in which he appeared. Remember, his name is KING Grayskull. He was clearly a ruler, whereas He-Man is not. He also comes from an earlier time period, which one must assume was a more primitive time. And yet, He-Man himself tends to limit his wardrobe to a fur loincloth and rather primitive-looking boots. Where do you go from there? Well, fortunately, Grayskull not only has to look like he comes from an early time period, but he has to look more regal, as well. That gives the designers a little something more to work with.
King Grayskull has much longer hair than He-Man, and it's braided in the front. He is also wearing a thick fur collar, and he has a long brown cape. The cape is molded from plastic, but it's a very flexible rubber plastic, and thank goodness Mattel resisted the urge to "pre-pose" the thing too much. It simply hangs off of King Grayskull's shoulders and behind him in a nice draped shape. It's a little rough-looking around the edges, but maybe decent scissors hadn't been invented yet in Grayskull's time.
The harness over Grayskull's chest is also different from He-Man's. It has what look like leather straps, very nicely detailed, and the insignia in the center is more complex. Actually, the symbol is identical to that worn by the 2002 He-Man, which was different than that of the original He-Man, whose insignia, someone decided in this more politically-correct era, looked a little too much like a German Iron Cross in basic shape.
Grayskull's face is appropriately heroic, and has some resemblance to He-Man, although I think Grayskull has a stronger chin. The paint work on the figure is absolutely superb. All of the painted details are neatly done, and there is a moderate amount of airbrush detailing on the figure and his clothes. Normally I don't generally approve of this sort of thing, but in this case it's so neatly done that I can't complain.
Now, we come to the real treat -- articulation. The original Masters of the Universe figures were articulated at the head, arms, waist, and legs -- and more often than not the waist was a spring-action feature. The 2002 line decided to maintain this somewhat limited articulation, although they improved upon it a bit by allowing the arms and legs to move outwards as well as back and forth, something the originals could not do, and they added a wrist swivel. Even so, in a day when high levels of articulation were the norm, it seemed a little disappointing.
No worries about that on King Grayskull! He's not poseable at the head, but that's a result of the thick cape. However, he is very poseable at the arms, upper-arm swivel, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, waist, legs, upper leg swivel, knees, boot tops, and ankles! The Masters of the Universe are finally Masters of Articulation!
King Grayskull also comes with three nicely done accessories, which are attached to the walls of the inside display box, not unlike trophies. These include the Sword of Power, as well as a shield and axe, all of which He-Man himself has been known to carry. These are all, perhaps, even more "classic" in appearance than the figure, as their designs are somewhat simplified from their 2002 counterparts.
Now, I would like to discuss one point which has come up in some aspects of the fan community as a point of criticism. Sculpted detail. I brought out my 2002 He-Man for comparative purposes. And yeah, this figure's got a lot of sculpted detail on him. You can see the veins on the backs of his hands. The chestplate has the ridges one would expect from forged metal, and the dents and cracks that would come from battle. The wristbands and belt are similarly ornate. The loincloth has quite finely detailed fur, and even a pouch with a very elegant clasp in the center of it. His wrapped-together boots are very intricately detailed.
Is King Grayskull this intricately detailed? No. Not quite. He has well-detailed hair, fur, loincloth, belt, boots, and everything else, and honestly I would put the detail level up against practically any other action figure line currently available. Let's be fair here -- when the Four Horsemen worked on the 2002 Masters line, they were INTENTIONALLY going for as minute levels of detail as possible.
But -- King Grayskull is not intended to be an extension of the 2002 line. This is a new start for the Masters. I sincerely believe that this new line is intended to be a sincere acknowledgment of the best of BOTH Masters worlds -- the original and the more recent line, while giving us the one thing that neither line previously had -- an incredible amount of articulation -- to create a Masters of the Universe Classics line that is respectful to both of its previous major incarnations. The fact that this line started off with King Grayskull is proof of that even on its own.
And in my opinion, if King Grayskull is any indication of what's to come, then this new Masters of the Universe line has succeeded admirably in its objective. That's not to put down either of its predecessors. Although I never had a lot of the original Masters, I had a few, and was glad to have them. I do have the majority of the figures from the 2002 Masters line, and they're staying as an important part of my collection.
But I welcome this new MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE CLASSICS line, and as I said, I hope it has a very long and very productive existence. Several figures were showcased at the San Diego ComiCon, and the first six figures intended for the line will be He-Man, Beast Man, Skeletor, Mer-Man, Zodac, and Stratos. Twelve figures are planned for 2009, two of whom have never been made as toys before, and two of whom didn't make it into the 2002-era line.
I look forward to seeing the new incarnations of legendary characters such as Skeletor, Stratos, and more obscure characters which either were part of the last line, except no one could find them, or never got a chance. There's a huge universe of Masters characters out there. Heck, I'd like to see them all revisited.
As for KING GRAYSKULL? I'm not sure what his post-ComiCon availability
is like, but if you can track him down, then he most definitely has
my highest and most enthusiastic recommendation, and watch for the new
online store from Mattel to continue your collection of MASTERS OF THE