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By Thomas Wheeler

The return of He-Man and his friends (and enemies) continues unabated, as one of the most popular concepts of the 1980's is enjoying a comeback that might rival those of G.I.Joe or Transformers. I've been checking out the new entries here and there, and would like to provide basic reviews of some of the new characters.

One note: Mattel has GOT to get away from the practice of stuffing every new assortment with some new version of He-Man or Skeletor, and short-packing the supporting cast. The aisles are clogged with Spin Blade Skeletors and Jungle Attack He-Mans, while new characters like Trapjaw, Teela, Mekaneck and others remain almost as elusive and hard to find as dignified good losers among the Democratic Party. This'll kill the new Masters line far sooner than these quality toys warrant if Mattel isn't careful.

Still, the new faces can be found here and there, and there's no question that the designers are respecting the spirit of the original figures and characters while coming up with very impressive new and highly-detailed sculpts that don't go too far and end up in the range of the grotesque or excessively pre-posed.

MAN-AT-ARMS: Pretty much third fiddle after He-Man and Skeletor, getting a couple of new versions himself, and not especially hard to find even in his basic form. The figure is well made, with his green outfit looking distinctly armored, and he has a whopping big spring-loaded weapon that can be attached to one arm. He's got one of the cooler gimmicks in the animated series, where his arm actually "morphs" into a variety of weapons, but that's a bit much for current toy technology. And on the figure, this time around, they remembered his mustache.

BEAST MAN: One of Skeletor's most prominent henchmen, he was originally portrayed as a dim-brained goofball. He's not exactly a Rhodes scholar now, but he's a lot more menacing than ever. Huge and vicious, he also has the ability to control other animal species, and some of the critters on Eternia would have even the "Crocodile Hunter" running for cover. Beast Man is undoubtedly one of the figures to most benefit from enhanced sculpting. His furry hide has been sculpted right down to the individual hairs. He's probably fourth after He-Man, Skeletor, and Man-At-Arms as far as "ease of finding" is concerned.

RAM MAN: In his original form, Ram Man was a silly, short figure with non-poseable legs. You pressed down on his head, he locked in place, you pressed a button, and he sort of jumped. Unfortunately, he's still got the grouped-together non-poseable legs. This is one time when tradition should've been sacrificed for a little more poseability. But, he's no longer short. He's as tall as any of the others, and decidedly broader. The distinctly greater detail to his outfit makes him look a lot more like a warrior, as well, even if he can't move his legs. He's probably fifth after the others in "ease of finding". The rest -- good luck.

MER-MAN: Skeletor's aquatic henchman and the first of the really hard-to-find figures. The new sculpting format has resulted in a slimmer and much less goofier-looking version of this classic character, even if on the show he still talks like he's gargling. Somewhat like Beast Man, Mer-Man has the ability to control undersea life. He doesn't turn up in the animated series as often. Probably doesn't care for hanging around dry land that much. Overall, the figure is excellent, if you can find him.

STRATOS: While not especially hard to find, not on the level of Mer-Man or the others, he's not that easy, either. Stratos is the furry and feathery ally of He-Man. He was always an odd figure, and the new version is even stranger. The arms are more limited in their articulation -- needlessly so, in my opinion. They only move out to the side, and can be made to have a flapping function. The wings attached to his arms fold outward, but the overall look just doesn't quite work. Ultimately, the figure looks like someone tried to come up with a new way to design a humanoid flyer and didn't think it through well enough. If one figure in the current collection just doesn't quite work, it's Stratos.

TRAPJAW: I really wondered how they were going to make this guy look threatening. This villain had one of the more comical appearances originally. Bright green face, magenta helmet, dark turquoise body with black details, a robotic right arm, and a magenta lower jaw that looked like half of a comical bear trap. Well, I don't know how much of a challenge it was for the sculptors, but they managed to turn out a Trapjaw that no one's especially likely to take lightly. All of the colors are maintained from the original, although I think the magenta is a bit darker, but the detail put into the face is right out of a horror show, and the cybernetic right arm would scare Todd McFarlane. The level of detail is incredible on this piece of equipment, and it looks scary as heck. Also comes with additional attachments. One of the more effective upgrades for this series, definitely.

TRI-KLOPS: The fairly bland three-eyed henchman of Skeletor remains fairly bland, and is indicative of the report that the sculpting team was given pretty much free reign to bring anybody into the toy line that they wanted provided the principal cast was maintained. But Tri-Klops got a good sculpt, and the turning three-eyed visor he wears has an effect where it looks as though the eye that faces forward at any given time lights up. The eyes are red, green, and blue, and none of them look especially friendly. Overall, it's a good figure, although one of the legs is distinctly too pre-posed outwards, and sometimes it's difficult to have the figure stand as such.

MEKANECK: Probably the least changed from his original version, this oddball good guy with the mechanical neck is still outfitted in his blue and red uniform, although admittedly the overall detail has been enhanced. Twist him at the waist and his cybernetic neck stretches up several inches. On the animated series Mekaneck's been shown to stretch his neck through entire mazes of tunnels and the like. It's just a little creepy. Although the detail work is impressive. Studying the cybernetic (I almost typed "cybernecktic" there...) details, one can see what looks like a mechanical spinal column on he reverse side. Nice bit of work.

TEELA: In the new animated series, Teela's attitude has been amped up so much she's not especially likeable. The figure has been redesigned very effectively, however. It does suffer from "Tri-Klops Leg", though, in that one of the legs must be posed outwards quite a bit for the foot to be level. And standing the figure is not easy. However, Teela is a major character in the concept, and the overall design and level of detail is excellent. She's probably one of the most accurate animation-to-toy (or vice-versa) translations of the lot.

ORKO: When I first heard about this, I couldn't believe it. Orko was the bumbling little wizard from another dimension that was thrown into the original animated series by Filmation to give it some slapstick comedy relief. He wasn't even initially a Mattel character, although a figure was eventually released. It had a zip-cord that allowed it to spin like a top. Could Orko possibly fit into this new, more "extreme" version of the Masters? Amazingly enough, yes, he does. The sculptors at Mattel have crafted a very cool Orko, that is attached to a blue translucent base that makes him look like he's hovering, which is what he does. The figure is pre-posed, but very nicely designed. Head and arms move, and the design of the arms is such that however you pose him, he looks ready to do his best against any adversary, even if he's hopelessly outmatched. I never would've thought that a "cool" Orko was possible, but somehow, they managed it.

So, what does the future hold for the line? Hopefully more agreeable shipping ratios, for one thing. As far as new figures are concerned, the only ones I know about for certain are a Prince Adam figure (He-Man's secret identity) and Sy-Klone, a fairly obscure character from the original series that, based on a picture in ToyFare, has been given a very nice update. Speaking of ToyFare, they're also offering an exclusive Faker figure. Faker is the blue-skinned android version of He-Man built by Skeletor. As with the original line, it's a recolored He-Man wearing Skeletor's shoulder armor.

Apart from that, I'm honestly not sure what's in the works. Some time ago I saw a sculpt of Whiplash, a large reptilian being on the side of Skeletor's forces, so I suspect we can look forward to him. The show has also featured updated versions of Clawful, Buzz-Off, Man-E-Faces, and Evil-Lyn, but whether any of these are in the works as toys I really don't know. I know that a lot of people are clamoring for Evil-Lyn, who has a very prominent role in the show. I'd like to see her myself, and wouldn't mind if they did a Buzz-Off based on the show design. Turning that silly bee-man into something more imposing would've been almost as difficult as making Orko look cool.

I have to give credit to the continuing adventures of the new animated series, as well. An episode that aired in December featured the introduction of Sy-Clone, who looked very much like the picture of the forthcoming figure I'd seen in ToyFare, as well as presenting the "Samurai Armor" versions of He-Man and Skeletor, which I thought looked pretty silly (if nicely detailed) as toys, and actually managed to come up with a plausible explanation for why and how such armor could exist on Eternia. Made for a pretty impressive episode.

If I have one minor complaint about the line apart from the packing ratios, it would be with the hero-to-villain ratios. We presently have seven good guys to five bad guys -- not counting additional versions. I'm counting characters, not figures. If you throw in the forthcoming Faker, Prince Adam and Sy-Clone, that brings the ratio up to nine to six. We need to get some more villains in this line, and there was certainly no shortage of them in the original line.

Mattel's sculptors for this line, "The Four Horsemen" as they are known, continue to impress with their upgraded sculpts while not sacrificing the spirit of the original character and toy. It's got to be a tough balancing act at times, but so far, for the most part, they've done an impressive job, and based on interviews in other publications, they enjoy their work. Let's hope they keep it up for a long time to come!