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REVIEW: MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE CLASSICS 30th ANNIVERSARY FEARLESS PHOTOG
By Thomas Wheeler

2012 is the 30th Anniversary of the Masters of the Universe concept, which debuted in the toy stores in 1982, and was soon followed by an immensely popular animated series, a spin-off, and much more.

I think it could be fairly stated that there are three major toy-based pop-culture concepts, that are still around today in some form, that all got their starts in the early 1980's. Those three would be Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, which is also celebrating its 30th Anniversary in 2012, and Transformers, which has a couple years to go before reaching the big 3-0.

Masters of the Universe has honestly been a lot more scattered, and more absent from the shelves. Following the original run, which lasted from 1982-1987, along with the spin-off product based on She-Ra, Princess of Power, the characters were remade into the "New Adventures of He-Man" concept, opinions towards which tend to vary rather considerably, but following the demise of this line, the Masters were gone for an extended period of time.

Remakes of the original figures returned in a "collectible" format, and, I believe, to test the waters to see if a new Masters product might be workable. This was introduced in 2002, with dramatic new sculpts, and an accompanying animated series and comic book. The line fared well for several years, but eventually came to a rather abrupt and unfortunate end, although characters originally intended for the line would be made as figure-sized statues for the collectors' market for a time.

Not long after this, the sculpting and design team known as the Four Horsemen, which had been responsible for this new take on the Masters, came up with, largely just for the heck of it, a new design for He-Man. Evincing a more classic look, the figure had superior bodily proportions relative to his rather stumpy-legged and bow-legged ancestor. Really, he looked like he'd stepped right out of the Filmation animated series. And the design was far better articulated than any previous Masters incarnation.

The conceptual figure was shown at a San Diego Comic-Con. Fans went nuts. Mattel realized they had a hot property with, by this point, a considerable supply of characters and a vast, if occasionally confusing, history to work with. The end result was the introduction of the Masters of the Universe Classics line, exclusive to Mattel's online retail site, MattyCollector.Com (except for some two-packs where some of the Masters are paired up with DC Universe Classics characters). This amazing line is easily the finest incarnation of the Masters ever, and has been going strong on a monthly basis for years now, and hopefully shall continue to do so for years to come.

So although there might not be thirty entire years' worth of Masters of the Universe product, it is certainly appropriate to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the concept, and Mattel is doing just that, with a special series of figures that will be released bi-monthly throughout the year, concluding with the winner of the "Create-A-Character" Contest that ran in late 2011.

Given that, and the celebratory nature of the 30th Anniversary line, it seems abundantly fitting that the first entry in the Masters of the Universe 30th Anniversary series, should be the winner of the FIRST "Create-A-Character" Contest, which was held during the original run of the original line. Unfortunately, the winning character was never made as a figure. This character, and its creator, have had to wait twenty-five years to finally see that particular dream fulfilled.

The character's name is FEARLESS PHOTOG. According to the details provided by his young creator, he had the ability to "focus in" on his enemies and drain their strength. His chestplate displayed silhouettes of his defeated enemies.

In 1986, a contest was held for children to send in designs for new characters. Five finalists were chosen, and people were then allowed to vote for their favorite. In the last page of the Spring 1986 issue of The Masters of the Universe Magazine, they announced 12-year old Nathan Bitner as the winner of the contest with his submission of Fearless Photog. Nathan was awarded a scholarship for 100,000 dollars, plus a five-day trip to Disneyland.

That wasn't the only place where the contest results were shown, as I distinctly recall seeing about a half-page spread in the Sunday newspaper comics which showcased the contest winner, including a drawing of the character.

At the very least, I hope Nathan Bitner enjoyed his trip to Disneyland (and I can't imagine he didn't), and a $100,000 scholarship, especially in the late 1980's, would pay for a very decent education.

Unfortunately, one early bit of education that Nathan Bitner received was just how mercurial the toy world can be. There was a live-action Masters of the Universe movie in 1986, which starred Dolph Lundgren. Unfortunately, the storyline didn't really have all that much to do with established continuity as shown most prominently by the Filmation animated series, and the movie wasn't exactly the blockbuster that had been hoped for.

A couple of the movie-distinct characters did make their way into the action figure line, but apart from the fact that they were distinct movie-related characters, there wasn't anything else that really set them apart from the rest of the action figure line.

Plans were certainly afoot for Masters of the Universe in 1987. Along with, presumably, Fearless Photog, there was going to be an entirely new branch of the Masters of the Universe toy line, taking the name "The Powers of Grayskull". Set during a more primitive time, known as "Preternia", with the new main character being named He-Ro, this new concept got as far as releasing three large dinosaur-like characters named Bionatops, Turbodactyl, and Tyrantisaurus Rex, before the plug was pulled on the entire Masters of the Universe line.

That included He-Ro. And it certainly included Fearless Photog.

Since then, what little was known of where the Masters of the Universe line would have gone has become very much the stuff of legend. Almost any sufficiently prominent action figure line has no shortage of "might-have-beens" -- products and characters that were at some stage of planning, enough for there to be some public knowledge of them, before that given item was simply scrapped or canceled, or the entire line was ended.

It happened with G.I. Joe. 1995 was well in the works. Ask well-informed G.I. Joe collectors about the Ninja Commandos sometime. If Transformers Generation One hadn't ended, some additional Action Masters were in the works, mostly based on the movie. Action Masters may have a dubious reputation among some Transformers fans, but imagine figures of Galvatron, Ultra Magnus, Rodimus Prime, Cyclonus -- or Arcee.

For Masters, it was the entire 1987 line, including not only the Preternia material, but everybody else.

Fortunately, with the Masters of the Universe Classics line, everything is fair game at this point. The original series. The 2002 series. Princess of Power. The animated series. The New Adventures of He-Man. And -- those poor guys who just didn't make it the first time around. He-Ro finally saw figure form as a San Diego Comic-Con exclusive a while back. And now, we finally get a figure of Fearless Photog.

If Nathan Bitner was twelve years old in 1987, he's in his mid-to-late-30's now. I have no idea how Mr. Bitner's life has gone. Hopefully it has been a good one. And it is also my sincere hope that Mattel was able to track him down, and make sure that he got a free Fearless Photog figure. Even if Nathan Bitner isn't into action figures in his adult years the way some of us are, he still deserves it.

So, how's the figure? Extremely impressive. Obviously, I regard the Classics line to be superior in virtually all respects to the original Masters. The figures are better proportioned, more detailed, and certainly better articulated. If waiting 25 years to finally be rendered in plastic was the price that Fearless Photog had to pay, then I'd say it was worth the wait.

The package very clearly states, "Created by Nathan Bitner!" I'm truly pleased that he's been properly credited with this, as well he should have. The back of the package has a very impressive 30th Anniversary logo on it. At the center is the traditional "Masters of the Universe" logo. Atop this is an image of Castle Grayskull, and below it is the number "30", with a short banner on either side with the years "1982" and "2012". The entire logo is backed by a silver gray shield.

Fearless Photog is not exactly a typical Masters of the Universe character -- if there even is such a thing. At the very least, he's both a bit more high-tech, and a little more super-heroic in appearance, than one typically expects from the Masters.

His head is a large, high-tech-looking camera, definitely looking like a motion picture camera. His torso is blue, and he has a wide, rectangular screen on his chest, with images of silhouettes of running people. He doesn't have the traditional "furry" loincloth, but rather has ridged blue shirts. He has a belt that has eight small film reels around its circumference.

That alone shows you how far back this figure goes. If Fearless Photog had been developed today, these would've been video discs. They're about the right size, too.

Fearless Photos is wearing blue gloves, and his arms and legs are half black and half yellow. The outsides of the arms and legs are yellow, the insides of the arms and legs are black. Also notable is the fact that Fearless Photog doesn't have any distinct boots. The leggings just go right down all the way to the feet.

What impresses me here is the sheer number of entirely new parts involved in this figure. Not just the camera head, but the upper torso is entirely new, with the rectangular screen embedded in it; the ridged trunks and film reel belt is new -- not to mention extremely intricate, and the lower legs, with the lack of any distinct boot division, are also new pieces, which also as such had to make sure the musculature was well-designed.

It's a little odd, in a way, since in some respects Fearless Photog looks a little simpler in design than some of the other Masters, but what it took to actually bring him into the action figure line was really more complex.

The remarkably even division between the yellow and the black on the arms and legs is some extremely impressive paint work. Obviously the limbs were molded in yellow, and then sprayed half-black. It's been my experience over the years that the single most difficult paint color to accomplish is spraying yellow on top of black, and I've seen it in any number of toy lines from multiple manufacturers. And it always takes a thicker spray, and sometimes even then it doesn't work all that well.

Need it be said, Mattel "chose wisely" to mold the arms and legs in yellow, and paint them half-black. And we're talking multiple parts on each limb, as well. Shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, upper legs, lower legs, feet. I won't say that the alignment of the color division is perfect, but it's a lot closer than one might usually expect.

The chestplate is actually a lenticular motion screen, only the second figure in the line to have this feature (the first was Sy-Klone), and it shows images of human silhouettes running against a white background. An odd choice? Perhaps, and it might only be the twelve-year-old incarnation of Nathan Bitner that would be able to explain it. But it's not that unusual in the world of photography. I recall having some very old art study books, years ago, that had lines of photos of people walking, running, and performing other actions in front of a measured backdrop. The intention was to study how people moved, so that an artist in training could better duplicate it himself. I'm a little reminded of this with Photog's chestplate.

The head is obviously the most unusual feature. It looks like a very high-tech motion picture camera. It's mostly a light metallic blue, but there's a distinct clear lens in the front, and if you press a sliding button in the back, the lens actually extends outwards a bit, along a silver housing. Time for your close-up, Skeletor!

The film reel belt shares the same color scheme as the camera head, with the film reels being a light metallic blue, each with a silver center and six black holes along the inner circumference. This is easily the most unusual and one of the most detailed belts I've yet seen in the line. It's really a very nice piece of work.

Fearless Photog comes with two accessories. One is a large circular shield. Measuring about two inches in diameter, it is mostly silver, but the front features a transparent, lens-like covering, with multiple ridges, and a silver grid over that, and the interior underneath the "lens" is bright yellow, the same bright yellow as on Photog's uniform. Really, the shield looks something like a huge portable movie light of some sort. Could it have a similar function? Aim this thing at an enemy and if it were to light up, they wouldn't be able to see where they were going very well.

The second accessory borders on the hilarious. It is extremely well-sculpted, and exceptionally well detailed. It is mostly black, with some metallic pewter gray trim, and a few buttons and switches and such that have been detailed in red, silver, and yellow. And it looks entirely like a cross between a movie camera and a machine gun. That's the only way I can put it. I love it!

Let's consider Fearless Photog's backstory on his bio card, something the original figure, had it ever been manufactured, would not have received, so here's another perk to waiting a quarter of a century.

FEARLESS PHOTOG
Heroic Master of Cameras
Real Name: Jey

Apprentice to Gwildor, Jey often daydreamed of life as a member of the Masters of the Universe. His dreams became a reality when he was selected along with five other inventors by the Science Council to journey to Eternos to present his latest creation; the Photog Emulator. During the presentation, a slight miscalculation led to a flux overload, merging Jey with his invention. Finding he could drain his enemies' powers and display their defeat on his chest, Jey called himself the Fearless Photog, and was offered membership with his idols in the Masters of the Universe. He heroically fought during the Second Ultimate Battleground, helping to defeat several of Skeletor's warriors including Clawful and Whiplash. Photog drains his enemies' power, displaying their defeat for all to see!

There's that "Second Ultimate Battleground" reference again... However, there are some other interesting references in this backstory.

Gwildor is a character from the live-action movie. He never appeared anywhere else, although there was a figure of him. Played by longtime "little person" character actor Billy Barty, Gwildor -- well, frankly, he looked like what the leprechaun from the "Lucky Charms" cereal commercials would've looked like if he'd been created by J.R.R. Tolkein.

Of course, the one thing that really gets me on this card is this sentence: "During the presentation, a slight miscalculation led to a flux overload, merging Jey with his invention." Excuse me -- he's got a lenticular stereoscope in his chest, the man has a CAMERA FOR A HEAD! I'd call that a heck of a lot more than a "slight miscalculation". Makes me wonder what it takes on Eternia to be regarded as a serious catastrophe. One would suspect that whatever dreams Jey might have had of joining the Masters of the Universe, they didn't include spending the rest of his days as a walking Candid Camera commercial.

Oddly, I do seem to recall seeing a picture of the prototype for this figure, presumably on display at some convention or other, which did show a very human head as an accessory. For all I know, it might have even been based on the adult Nathan Bitner. However, no such second head was included with the figure. Probably a cost-saving measure, if I'm right.

Still, one does sort of wonder just how thoroughly Jey has been merged with this device. How does he eat? How does he speak? Okay, it's a toy line, and it's been obvious for nearly the entire 30 years of Masters that traditional rules of science do not apply to Eternia. It's still a question in my mind.

However, I have no complaints about the figure itself. Fearless Photog is superbly designed, very neatly painted, and certainly superbly articulated. He is poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, waist, legs, upper leg swivel, knees, and ankles. And I would also like to mention that every one of his articulation points is nice and tight. If all of my Masters of the Universe Classics (and for that matter, DC Universe Classics) figures had this sort of articulation assembly, I'd be one happy camper.

So, what's my final word? Well, it took twenty-five years, but we finally have a figure of the contest-winning Fearless Photog! My personal congratulations to Nathan Bitner, and my sincere thanks to Mattel for finally producing this interesting and unusual character. I can't imagine any longtime Masters of the Universe fan with a sufficient knowledge of the history of the line NOT being immensely pleased with this figure. I'm very glad to have added him to my collection.

The MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE CLASSICS 30th ANNIVERSARY figure of FEARLESS PHOTOG definitely has my highest recommendation!