© Aidan Cross, 2019.

Interview with Brian Clarke

Were there any characters you particularly liked or disliked?

I liked doing the comedy characters. And I liked finding light and shade in the stories, and having a couple of nice comedy characters I could really balance things off with. And I enjoyed writing She-Ra a lot. In the MOTU I actually enjoyed Hordak more than Skeletor, and I think it’s because Hordak didn’t have as much baggage with him, we could just create stories and we had the freedom to say these things with him, and of course when we did the Twins of Power special he was a central character. King Hiss was more difficult for us, because I was feeling there was too many baddies lining up here. This was like a third force, and it just made it a little bit awkward coming up with appropriate plots. Which was why we gave the Snake Men their own story arc that ran separately from the rest of the stories, because otherwise, why is this a Skeletor story or a Hordak story, what makes it work with that dynamic there. So the decision was, they’ve got to have this reptilian snake force by themselves, they probably won’t interact much with other people.

The comics featured quite a few highly memorable original characters of their own. Notable ones were Jodder the scientist, Keclar the leader of the Elders, and a few recurring guest villains, like The Collector- and my personal favourite, Wraithbinder, who has a very dark and gothic appearance, similar to 17th century puritans. Do you remember who created these characters and how they came about?

 

Yes- in fact, when I was mentioning writers before, I mentioned Tom Sweetman. He was the person I co-wrote the Twins of Power special with. He came up with The Collector. Jodder, I came up with, and the name’s actually based on a friend of mine, John Cummins. And the look of him is based on John Cummins. I sent over a picture of him and said ‘John, I’m just going to put you in a comic!’ Wraithbinder, I think that may well have been James Hill, it feels like the kind of character he would create.

Jodder- or is that John?

And we had that really strange one, another Tom Sweetman one. You can’t really have Christmas on Eternia, same as you can’t have EARTHquakes, but we wanted to mark Christmas, so Tom Sweetman did this really charming story about this character called Mouse. (A mute peasant girl who speaks her first words after being given a doll as a present during a harsh winter) And at the end we had this thing, with her saying ‘Father, Kiss, Mouse’, which gives rise to the idea of a character called ‘Father Kis-Mus’. That was a Tom Sweetman story, and it took us ages to get the right payoff.

I actually write plays with Tom now, and we still have this relationship where we have to really nail the end in there, so eventually we got that. He also came up with this story where He-Man was set a series of puzzles to solve by an alien, a robot called Clartu. And Clartu is me, Clarke! It was also a homage to Klaatu from The Day the Earth Stood Still. (By the way:  the Leader of the Magicians Keclar is just my name Clar Ke.)

Clartu

Speaking of original characters, I have often wondered why The Collector had a completely different appearance in his second story. In his first story he had a more strange, alien appearance with orange skin, but in his second appearance he just looked like an ordinary human, Caucasian, white hair and a beard. Why was this?

I think we just missed it. What happened with Selecciones Ilustradas (SI), it was a studio, and we had one contact person there that we would send the scripts to. He would have four or five artists, who had all been approved by Mattel, who were confident they could draw MOTU characters in the right style. But there were different artists… For instance you’d come in on Tuesday, you’d give them the story, then you’d come back the following Tuesday with the next script. But there was no continuity, there was no ‘Ah, you’re the artist who worked on this character’, so I think it probably just went out to another artist with no character sheet attached that said ‘He needs to look like this’. Because unless I said to SI, ‘This is your character reference’, they wouldn’t do this.

The two faces of The Collector!

There is a lot of curiosity among the fans about the way Faker appeared in his second story. When we see Faker’s true form he is wearing Prince Adam’s clothes! Why was this, was this a suggestion he somehow knew He-Man’s secret identity?

That’s what we were getting at. Faker started off as our version of Bizarro. We thought, what if we took a kind of Bizarro-type character and put him into the world of MOTU? So he could pass himself off for Adam or He-Man but he’d be getting things slightly wrong, so yes, we were implying that he somehow had that knowledge.

We always left it fuzzy about just who knows He-Man’s secret identity. Because although his shirt changed, he didn’t! And Cringer, he had a pretty strong identity, it wasn’t as if Cringer and Battle Cat looked nothing like each other! I always assumed that Man-At-Arms knew, maybe Teela did as well, The Sorceress knew.

A few stories played on the Adam/Teela dynamic with Teela almost guessing He-Man’s secret identity, but not quite.

 

Yes, that’s right, we had those kind of Lois Lane moments in there.

 

I really loved your characterization of Faker. In most media he was a one-dimensional, forgettable character who was never used to his full potential. But you characterized him really well, as this embittered, angry clone of He-Man who was determined to surpass the man in whose image he’d been created after his first defeat.

 

Yes, I mean the thing with comics, there was a lot of controversy over whether or not we should have thought bubbles- some people don’t like having thought bubbles in comics, but you can make good use of them to bring out the character’s internal monologue and explain a character’s motivation very quickly. Otherwise you’re left with the character just talking to a room.

Continuing on the subject of unique traits in the UK comics- one of my personal favourite catchphrases in the stories was when Skeletor would exclaim “By the Fires of Sumason!” Where did this come from?

Sue Mason is a friend of ours! I wanted something that could sound vaguely supernatural, I just decided that Sue’s name worked in that way. And she’s quite big in science fiction fandom as well, does a lot of presenting at cons etc. So I thought, yes, ‘Sumason’! I might as well use that!

I have another similar story that might interest you. I’m not interested in football at all, but my wife watches the occasional match, and I always find the over-the-top commentary quite interesting. There was a footballer at the time called Bruce Grobelaar, I think he was a goalkeeper or something (Goalkeeper for Liverpool FC) and the commentator said something like ‘saved by the glove of Grobelaar!’ So I thought ‘brilliant’ and from that phrase I got the name and the plot of the story “Glove of Globolah”! (Issue #5) So it’s just one of those things, you’re always looking for little snatches you can use, and I just thought, ‘Oh yes, I’ll use that!’

We also bought The Delicate Sound of Thunder, the Pink Floyd album, that had a track on it called Dogs of War. I was listening to it and thought ‘Oh! Right, I can use that!’ and wrote the story “Dogs of War” around it. (MOTU Adventure Issue #7)  It’s one of those things where the phrase, that’s quite strong, I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll use that’.

The Dogs of War- straight out of a Pink Floyd album!

The character of Orko had his own short comic strip titled ‘Orko the Magician’, which ran throughout the entire 72 issues of the main comic series and featured short joke scenarios starring Orko, usually over just three panels. Who was responsible for writing and drawing these?

 

I did those, they were mainly visual puns, but I wanted an easy way into the comic, so we had this opening page where we had Strange Universe (A section that shared unusual real-life scientific facts with the reader) and I just wanted something a little bit comical to go in there. And I didn’t want to use Orko in a major way in the stories, because I didn’t like his character dramatically and I thought he dropped the age appeal too much; he made it very slapstick and juvenile. His character trait was, he got things wrong, so I thought, the way I can use him, I’ll shunt him off into this little gag, I can use him there, we can make it funny, we can use him in every issue and no-one can complain that ‘Orko isn’t there’. He does appear in a couple of regular stories, but I didn’t want to use him too much.

Orko the Magician strip drawn by Mike Kazybrid

Also there was the danger that he could have too much power. So when things happened, why couldn’t Orko just reverse it all with his magic, or turn the weapon to water, whatever. So I wanted him out of the way, but I also wanted something in there that was a little bit light and humorous. Orko was kind of our Bat-Mite- a little bit giddy, a little bit over-enthusiastic, wanting to run to the solution before he has all the facts, gets it wrong, but as I say, the main reason was that I was scared he would be too powerful.

Returning to the football reference from earlier- the UK comics had one unique feature that could only have appeared in a UK medium, in that the Eternians have their own version of football, called Kickball, and there was one story called “Match Point” in issue #47 that was written around it, in which two teams of kids from neighbouring football clubs (named Ev-Town and Elves-Pool, presumably after UK football clubs Everton and Liverpool) have their match disrupted by Spikor. What was the story behind this?

Well, the reason it’s called Kickball is because as I said before, I have no interest in football, but my best friend- besides my wife- Tom Sweetman, is a huge football fan, supports Manchester City, and I always call it Kickball as a joke, like ‘Oh yeah, that Kickball thing’. I’d always been calling it Kickball, and I call it Kickball even now, when my wife starts talking about it, my kids now call it Kickball. So I’m pretty sure that was a Tom Sweetman story and we just used the word because it was appropriate.

There’s an amusing joke in that particular story when Spikor yells at one of the kids “You young Skowzer!” and a footnote panel below says that ‘Skowzer’ is an Eternian word meaning naughty child or rascal (For international fans: ‘Scouser’ is a term used in the UK to refer to people from Liverpool and its surrounding regions).

(Laughs) Yes, it was interesting trying to get close to real world references, so things would still have a meaning! We got a bit of our own lexicon in there!

Spikor's presumably not a Liverpool FC supporter...

Let’s talk about the Princess of Power comic, which began fairly soon after the MOTU comic was launched, but was much shorter-lived, lasting for only 14 issues. How did this comic come into development?

A couple of things about She-Ra: I wanted to do She-Ra. I was getting lots of letters from people saying ‘Will you feature She-Ra’ and I just felt there was a market there. And I wanted to do something for a girls’ focus title. We had a number of female readers, and I thought POP could work quite well for us. Now, I wanted to bring over as many MOTU readers as I could. And I was convinced a boy of 10, 12 or 14 would not walk into his newsagents and buy a magazine titled ‘Princess of Power’. But I thought I had a better chance if it was titled ‘She-Ra’, because the character’s name doesn’t have that kind of sweetness associated with words like ‘princess’. So that’s why I fought to call it ‘She-Ra’. Mattel was against it, because they said, their toy range is called Princess of Power, the TV show is called She-Ra: Princess of Power. So I explained my logic to it, and they didn’t really have a strong enough argument against it beyond brand championship. So we came to a compromise and I said ‘Okay, we’ll put She-Ra: Princess of Power on the cover’. But we didn’t, we ended up just putting ‘She-Ra’ on every cover.

But I wanted to do it because one of my arguments had been that we should do the MOTU comic weekly. Licensed comics only have a shelf life of so long, and then people move on to the next thing. It was far better to sell 52 comics in a year rather than 26. But the way our deals were set up, they very much wanted to keep it to fortnightly sales. We did some analysis on what’s called EPOS, Electronic Point Of Sale, to see when copies were selling. And it was pretty much spread over the two weeks, so my argument that most copies were bought in the first week wasn’t true; they were selling over the two weeks. So they said, if you go weekly, you’ll just lose half your sales. So we stayed fortnightly, but I really wanted a weekly comic. So I said, well, let’s do She-Ra. Then in a sense we’d have a weekly comic, in that you’d get He-Man one week and She-Ra the next.

And as I was saying earlier, it had to reflect the sensibilities of the TV show, but I wanted it to be different to MOTU, which is why we went in a much more fantasy direction with She-Ra. We had winged characters- for a start, she has a fucking flying horse!- so you’re off on a fantasy kick there. And the tone is lighter as well.

I had slight problems with She-Ra- for instance, one of the battles I had with the artists in Spain, who got bored and wanted to do things a bit differently- because they were now dealing with these sexy female characters, they kept wanting to slip in sexual references. The most obvious one, which we caught in one of the early stories in issue #5, we have the character of Frosta making an ice sculpture.

Frosta was one of my first crushes as a kid!

Well, she obviously must have affected the artist in such a way! She was supposed to be using a hammer and chisel, but the artist had drawn the panel in such a way, that Frosta is shown leaning down, and where the chisel is, it’s like she’s going to give a blow job! So in the printed comic she’s seen leaning down when making this ice sculpture, but there’s a thing missing because we had to  white it out!

The missing chisel in this panel would have given it quite a different meaning...

Frosta is a character frequently considered sexy by the fan community, and she was sexualized in a Filmation episode, “Sweet Bee’s Home”.

I think the character has a lot going for her, and it’s not just her looks, it’s that as a character, she’s set apart from the main cast by being out in the icy regions, and it’s that standoffishness, that makes her more intriguing.

I very much enjoyed writing She-Ra. I think I enjoyed writing She-Ra more than MOTU. I think it’s because MOTU came with two dozen characters, and POP had a relatively small number, and it was much easier to deal with. And the Batmex were quite interesting to use in there, when you’ve got, you know, flying horses, but it was nice to do a purely fantasy mythos. Well not purely fantasy, because there were Batmex in there, there was some science fiction, but it was mostly fantasy. And Hordak didn’t have to be in it all the time- some of the stories we approached more like doing fairy tales.

So what factors brought the She-Ra comic to a close after just 14 issues?

The sales were never terrible, but there was always a feeling that we could bring out another title that would be more successful. And I think, I may have to check the dates on this, She-Ra may have been killed by BraveStarr. We brought out the BraveStarr comic for Mattel and I think there was this feeling that BraveStarr would be the next big thing, and of course it wasn’t a girls’ title, and if anything I thought the logic was that it would take sales away from He-Man. And if you have a look at comic sales now, something like The Beano still sells 20,000 copies, but back then we were cancelling titles at sales of 60,000. And She-Ra was just one of those, we could see the curve was going down.

 

She was also caught by the problem with the barcodes. Our traditional base was selling through local newsagents. And what that meant was, when a newsagent notices low sales and cuts their orders, the sales just go right down slowly. When we began to sell into supermarkets, supermarkets know minute by minute what’s selling. So when they look at a title, and it seems to be selling low, they just cut back on orders, they tell you ‘you’re out’. And when somebody like Tesco says ‘you’re out’, you might lose 20% of your slots. So instead of having a slow decline, your sales just drop like that. So I think She-Ra just got caught up in that phenomenon. Supermarkets at that time didn’t really have a proper comic display area, things were just thrown in there, and I think with She-Ra, they just didn’t know where to put it, they didn’t know what age group it was for. And She-Ra isn’t a title that parents would automatically pick up for their kids. They’d need their kids with them, and that older girl we were looking at- 8, 9, 10- tended not to go shopping with their mum, so they weren’t there to say ‘Mum, can we have that comic?’ So I think there were a lot of industry issues with it. It was a shame, because I really enjoyed working on it.

Were you also editor for the POP comic? The editorials and letters page (amusingly titled ‘She-Mail’!) were done in the character of She-Ra herself here, rather than Scrollos- was this you as well?

Yes, I just didn’t want to create ‘Scrollassa’ or whatever, because I thought, we’ve already got one omnipotent narrator of the universe, we don’t really want to bring in another one. Also, girls are much more into relationships than boys, and I thought girls would want to have that one-to-one relationship, feeling they were talking direct to She-Ra. Although of course most of them knew they weren’t really talking to She-Ra, I think it worked.

I remember a male reader on the letters page asking She-Ra “Will you marry me when I grow up?”!

And I don’t think that ever happened, I don’t think they did get married! (Laughs) “If you can find your way to Etheria, maybe we will!” Just let me tell you a little story about the launch of She-Ra. All of our comics had what are called trade launches, where the leading buyers from the industry are invited along. We would put on a little show or exhibitions etc., and when we launched the MOTU comics we had all the toys from Mattel, so in my office I had every toy, and we brought those down to the launch and the buyers really liked playing with them.

 

So we needed to do something interesting with the launch of She-Ra, and I said, what we’re going to do, is She-Ra will actually appear at the launch of the comic for us. So we got in touch with a company who supplied models, I said I’d like someone to play She-Ra, here’s an image of her. I said we would have the costume, because Mattel had a costume we could use. So we were having the launch in London, at the Ward Lock building, because Ward Lock was also a subsidiary of World, just off Regent Street. There were lots of very important buyers; Asda were there, Morrisons, John Menzies and all these very very important people. And I’d arranged for She-Ra, and the costume arrived, because that’s always a worry. So I’d got the costume, and it looked right. And then a girl Carol Beatty, who worked in our office, who was down there to help on the day, said ‘Brian, I think we have a problem’. I said ‘What’s up?’ and she said ‘Your She-Ra model’s here’ and I said ‘Great’, but she said ‘Well, I think that’s the problem, you’d better come and look’. So I came out, and She-Ra was there, and she was tiny, she was only like 4’8” or something! I said ‘Hold on, are you from the agency’ and she said ‘Yes’, I said ‘I think there’s an issue, just give me a moment’. I came back with the image of She-Ra, and I said ‘Right, this is She-Ra: you don’t look anything like her’. She said ‘She-Ra? I was told I was a Sherpa!” (Laughs) It had been put down as ‘Model wanted for Sherpa’, hence why this little girl turned up!

 

Brian about to be run through by the smallest She-Ra ever!

So the only thing I could do was to put the costume on her anyway, and said ‘You’re just going to have to go out and be She-Ra. Let me talk to you about She-Ra, you’ve got a sword, you’ve got a shield’- but the sword was like, almost her body length! We went out and just, well, bluffed it! I’d wanted a wow factor from the guys, like ‘Oh, wow!’, have their photo taken with her etc., but instead we had a Sherpa!

© Aidan Cross, 2017.

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