I notice you often sneaked in references to certain other sci-fi/action franchises, for instance with the Horde Troopers’ names (Trooper 007 referencing James Bond and Trooper THX1138 named after the George Lucas sci-fi movie), not to mention a doctor named Hart-Nell who time travels in a time box! Do you remember if any stories were specifically inspired by other media?
Some of our stories would be inspired by other covers (Issue #5 is based on a very famous Conan cover) and I think it’s issue #19, where we have this huge wheel, the Buzz-Wheel of Destruction. That one was based on an old comic from the 1950s, I think Strange Adventures or Mystery in Space. Occasionally I’d just be looking through my covers at home, and I’d see a cover and think, oh right, that’s something I can use on Eternia. I’m sure if I have a look in more detail there’ll be more written puns than visual ones in there, but yeah, we liked to just insert Easter Eggs, where if you see it you see it. The dimension of Nega-Space, which is mentioned in one MOTU story and one POP, was our version of the Phantom Zone.
There were a few others where, we didn’t steal the plot, but we were kind of inspired by it. There’s one where these kind of invincible aliens arrive and they put this dome up, and they seem to be building a kind of super weapon- but what they’re actually doing, it’s a film crew, they’re just alien filmmakers making a film! (Issue #46, story “Shooting!”) That was a kind of throwaway line that I read in a SF novel, that if aliens arrived, how would we ever know if they were threatening or if they were just going about their business. I think I’d been reading The Technicolor Time Machine by Harry Harrison, and the edition I had on the cover, was just these people in Roman times making a film and I just thought, what would happen if a film crew just came to Eternia? So I used that idea.
There was another idea we had where He-Man lands on a world- we didn’t do many space stories as we liked to keep the action to Eternia- he lands on a world and as the story evolves, these little clues are given that it’s not actually a world, it’s this giant creature in space that’s just sleeping, and then it awakens and flies off. (Issue #39, story “The Third Moon”) And that came again from some reference about the universe being born in a cosmic egg or something, and I just thought, that would be a great idea.
I always felt that the story “Double Split” in issue #7 was very similar to the scene in Superman III where Clark Kent and Superman split into two and fight one another… Was this deliberate?
I’m sure as an idea that probably came from another source, and it’s just coincidence about Superman III. But it’s a common thing, if you read a lot of comic books you see that the same story idea is often reused across different franchises.
When I started on MOTU, Mae Broadley gave me a list of writers and said, here’s some people you might want to work with. They were all World writers, and I ended up using none of them, because I decided from day one that I wanted to work with people who instinctively knew comics. So I brought in all my own co-writers because I wanted people to have that knowledge, where they know if this is a new plot or has been used before, and just understand the pacing of telling a comic book story. You’ve got 5 pages with maybe 30 frames, how are you going to tell a convincing story in 30 frames? So because I brought in a lot of people who had good comic book backgrounds, as readers and writers, the knowledge we had between us of all these plots… you’d find these little snippets of ideas, and we’d never directly copy them, but we liked the ideas so would reinterpret them our own way.
As we know, London Editions was a subsidiary of World International, who published the MOTU annuals from 1983-1990 as well as two POP annuals. The stories in the World Annuals often used the same ideas as the London Editions comics; did you work on these as well? And did you work on the annuals for any other franchises?
It was actually a subsidiary of Egmont. The parent group was Gutenberghus, based in Denmark. As you walked into the foyer, they had one of the original Gutenberg presses, so they’re named after Gutenberg the bible maker. They owned Egmont, and Egmont owned all these companies throughout Europe including World International, and us. We worked side-by-side with World rather than as a part of them. Although World did look after our accounts, because we didn’t have our own accountants, so we bought their services.
I didn’t write directly for the World Annuals; I would provide stories, and it was mainly MASK that I worked on, as well as providing some MOTU material, and I worked on the ALF annual. We ended up doing the ALF annual, and it eventually got to the stage, when we were asking for the new licence for ALF, that they asked us how would we treat it, so we would show them our mock-ups for it. But I didn’t actually write many annuals- Mike Wild wrote about 6 or 7 of them: Simon & Simon, Space Invaders and stuff like that. Also to embarrass him- he also did some romance novels under the name Michelle Wild!
The London Editions comics portrayed a lot of the MOTU characters very differently from other media, particularly minor and supporting characters. For instance, Webstor was a mathematical genius who could escape any trap, and he seemed to have a bit more of a conscience than the other villains, even willingly teaming up with He-Man at one point. Two Bad, meanwhile, was a scientific inventor, unlike in other media. This worked very well in making minor characters more memorable and well-rounded, can you tell me more about this?
We would always try to find some very quick and shorthand way to describe the characters, to give them a dramatic function in the stories. Some of the dramatic functions were really cruel- we had one story (Issue #34, story “Roboto’s Sacrifice”) where Man-At-Arms was trapped in a cave with Roboto and his weaponry ran out- so to save himself, he actually disassembled part of Roboto’s mechanical circuits! We had to use Roboto, because I knew I couldn’t use a living person, so it had to be someone who was mechanical; we could take parts of him for the weapon and save the day. Of course, it wasn’t really a ‘sacrifice’, because Man-At-Arms just took it! There was never any point where Roboto said ‘Just disassemble me!’
Um, Man-At-Arms, it might have been politer to have asked Roboto first...
Roboto was another character who got a unique portrayal- he was often demonstrating how there were certain advantages to being a robot. For instance he was immune to the slime in Hordak’s Slime Pit, he could download data from the Viper Tower computer system into his own circuits, and his mechanical nature often gave him advantages over the other heroes.
Exactly. It was a process of thinking up a unique trait for a particular character, and writing a story around it. The thing was, we had to make sure we didn’t do it too early- when a character has done something once, why aren’t they doing it every time they encounter that same menace? So you’ve got to make sure your menace is appropriate to that one situation, and won’t keep defeating itself. There’s always this thing in comic books about how the super villain nearly succeeds, but by some fluke doesn’t. So why doesn’t he use the same plan again? When you’re a villain, once you’ve used a plan, that’s it- you can’t use that plan again. That’s the rules.
That story featured the vehicle the Fright Fighter, which got its own unique story in the comics. Although it was Skeletor’s vehicle in the toy line, the comic presented it as Hordak’s creation (When a fan later asked about this apparent discrepancy on the letters page, the answer was given that Skeletor later stole the vehicle from Hordak).
That’s right- it was a nice vehicle to use, because we were always thinking about the visuals. But we had to execute it without it being just product placement, because I was always uneasy about just having this week’s new toy in the story for the sake of it. So it had to have a dramatic reason for being there.
One issue of the MOTU Adventure magazine features a story in which the heroes and villains time travel to Eternia’s pre-history, and encounter some of the beasts which were intended to be featured in Mattel’s planned Powers of Grayskull spinoff line, such as the Bionatops and Turbodactyl. Most fans had no clue about this planned line until many years later when we learned via the fan websites. How much did you know about the Powers of Grayskull toy line, and were there ever plans for a comic series based on this?
Now, wasn’t that about the same time as the Hasbro Battle Beasts toy line? I’m pretty sure that would have been what inspired Mattel with those beasts.
Now, our approach to it, we were always interested in those stories in the Superman family where Superman would go back to ancient Krypton, and would encounter these strange beasts. So our inspiration for that was doing the kind of pre-Krypton story as an excuse to feature these monsters. I don’t think we had much detail- when we would go to the toy fairs and meet with Mattel, they’d tell us what they were rolling out over the next 12-18 months. But their plans were never 100% fixed, because they would do their test market, and if a concept didn’t work in a test market, they’d kill it. So I think those beasts were probably one of those ideas that died at concept testing. I didn’t have a style guide for this new line, I didn’t have a list of characters, we just knew there was something there. Wasn’t there an episode of Toy Hunter where they tracked down those toys? It was a show where there was a guy who dealt in toys, and people would give him the list of impossible toys to find, and I think they featured in one episode of that. But in terms of our work, we just had the very basic outline of it and we ran with that. If we were using the actual names of the toys, there was obviously something somewhere. Chances are it would have been promotional material that Mattel was handing out to the toy trade. We worked very very closely with their launches, and when we’d include them in the comics it was roughly the rollout period in the toy shops as well. So I think we just invented the Eternian pre-history you see in that story, and slotted those toys in where we felt it was appropriate.
The Grayskull Dinosaurs from the unreleased Powers of Grayskull line in their singular UK Comic appearance
(Top to Bottom: Tyrantisaurus Rex, Turbodactyl, Bionatops)
An amusing point often noticed by fans is that in some of the later issues and Adventure Magazines, some of the characters were drawn with very unusual colour schemes, usually in background shots. For instance, in some of these we see a blue Beast Man, a blue and purple Whiplash, an orange-skinned Trap Jaw, etc. Was there any specific reason for this?
Those later stories, I think that might have been when Mike Butcher or Grey Rayner had taken over the editor role. It was possible they didn’t have as much knowledge about the characters’ appearances, or just relied on SI to get it right. So I think it was just human error. Or perhaps the Eternian air was denser, so it changed the light coming towards us! (Laughs)
A blue Whiplash and an orange Trap Jaw- two of numerous instances of unusual colouring in the later Adventure Magazines.
Did you ever push the barrier with what you could get away with regarding violence and sex? We mentioned earlier the cover of the Christmas issue- it’s often noticed by fans that The Sorceress is striking a sexually provocative pose on there, which is particularly uncharacteristic of her!
My interpretation of The Sorceress was, if you’ve ever seen the Italian Hercules and Goliath-type movies- Steve Reeves-type stuff- they would always start off with Greek or Roman Gods, and you’d have these characters kind of meddling in human affairs. I always saw The Sorceress as having that kind of remoteness to her. Now the sexualized cover- I think that’s down to Will Simpson. He had a very Neil Adams style- Neil Adams’ style brought in a kind of realism to comic books, so he’d have emotional characters, real people. And that was also Will’s style, he’d treat the characters as real people rather than animated characters. A lot of artists drew them as exaggerated cartoon characters, but Will made them real. A bit like Earl Norem- what would happen if these characters were real? And also I think Will just likes pretty women!
Now in terms of pushing barriers, I can’t think of anything we did that Mattel pushed back on. There was one bizarre one where we lost it, so we didn’t fight back- I think it was in the issue 40s, we had a cover where He-Man is in the air, and he has his sword out, and the sword went over the logo. And Mattel insisted that we could not hide any of the logo, so the sword had to disappear behind the logo instead. It was just little things like that occasionally, that got in the way of Mattel’s branding, which was very important to them, and that’s just something you’ve got to live with. But we got a bit more freedom later on, like with the Christmas issue where we were allowed to put snow on the logo despite the initial disapproval! The two main women who were approving our stories were non-genre experts, so they didn’t know if we were slipping in references, they wouldn’t notice these other little connections in there. They probably didn’t even notice that connective tissue that we were building as continuity; they’d just read the scripts. Which was a nice sense of freedom for us.
From issue #50 onwards, the comics changed radically, now featuring reprints of the German Ehapa comic series instead of their own original stories (The “Secret Files of Scrollos” strips continued to feature original UK stories, but these took second place to the Ehapa reprints). What was the reason for this?
Purely that our sales were declining, and it was a money-saving operation. The difficulty for me was that I would just receive the artwork, with the word balloons whited out. To start with I wouldn’t have a German translation- I would have nothing. I’m not sure if you’ve heard the story of Eric Thompson and The Magic Roundabout where he would receive the film and he’d have to make up a story to match it. I was doing the same with these; I would just look at the pictures, piece together what I thought the plot was, and I’d write in dialogue to follow my plot. And that’s why in some cases, the plots actually ended up being different from the German originals.
The comics' artwork changed dramatically after the switch to German Ehapa reprints...
That brings me to my next question. The dialogue in the German reprints was more or less rewritten completely rather than translated directly from the German, sometimes changing the meaning of the story as well as ensuring continuity with the previous UK issues. (For instance, in issue #55 where Evil-Lyn creates a shrinking serum, she states she has replicated the serum created in an earlier UK issue by the scientist Jodder- of course this was not part of the original German version.) Who was responsible for the translations and ensuring continuity?
That was me- eventually, we would get some very very rough translations, but all it would be was a sheet of paper with numbered pieces of dialogue. All they did was number the speech bubbles and write a very vague English translation of what was in them. But it wasn’t syntaxed grammatical English so much as globs of English, so I just took this as a general guide: this is roughly what’s being said. Plus, the relationships between the characters in the German stories were completely different to our version; the world they came from was a different Eternia to ours. Their stories were markedly different too; they were a bit more juvenile in some ways. I thought the artwork in the German stories was nice, but I didn’t like the stories as much. I didn’t like that they took you off-world in there, and there seemed to be much more reliance on battle solutions to stories rather than thinking solutions like we’d had.
It was a difficult period for us with MOTU- it looked nice, but we weren’t happy with the end product. The paper quality was nice, the artwork was there, but it was no longer MOTU to us and we knew we were now in that dip-down stage. I had put a proposal forward to Mattel- Earl Norem had done this graphic novel, about 64 pages I think it is, and I wanted to publish that in the UK. But by that time they said no, and it was such a shame, because it’s such a nice piece.
The problems you mention with the translations, or rather rewriting, of the German stories seem very apparent in issue #59, which features a very odd story called “Prince Adam: Bully” that is beset by logical flaws as well as internal continuity problems. It begins with Skeletor capturing He-Man seemingly so he can impersonate Prince Adam at the Royal Palace- which doesn’t make sense, because of course Skeletor is not supposed to know Prince Adam is He-Man. Then at the Palace, everyone is shocked by Adam’s sudden macho, brutish behaviour- except Teela, who is drawn to him and impressed with his apparent bravery and manliness. The real logic problem comes later, for Teela finds out that ‘Adam’ is really Skeletor when he reveals his true form to her in a Wind Raider, and pretty much attempts to kill her by hurling her out of the vehicle. But at the end, Teela seems to have forgotten about this, for she is shocked when she sees Adam has reverted to his previous cowardly behaviour and the story ends with her yelling at him “I thought you were now brave?! So you are still that meek, cowardly layabout!” In a later issue when a fan pointed out the problem with this story on the letters page, Scrollos pretty much held his hands up and said his computer must have been on the blink when that story was printed!
Yep- we had no defence, because we couldn’t change the images in the story, so we were locked into what we’d been given. It was just a question of trying to figure out- we’ve got a badly constructed story here, with logic flaws, what’s the most successful version of it that we can do, whilst knowing that it’s not going to work! So yes, as I say, it was frustrating, for we were going to press with this stuff that we thought, it’s not worthy of the previous period of the comic, we’re breaking our promise with the reader, we’ve established this in our earlier issues, but now you’re going to get that.
I did think you did a good job maintaining some semblance of consistency with the earlier issues following the switch to German reprints, despite the problems. You even went to good lengths to explain why Eternos City looked so different, by featuring the story in issue #8 of the Adventure Magazine in which Eternos City is destroyed and then rebuilt in a radically different style.
That’s it- it’s just haggling isn’t it, trying to make it make sense. And some of our original UK issues were themselves republished in Germany, in traditional American comic style. Which was weird, because they took some of our black and white pages and coloured them.
At this stage in the comics’ run, while the regular issues were reprinting German Ehapa stories, the Adventure Magazine continued to feature UK originals for a while, and these final original stories shifted the premise somewhat by explaining that the Heroic Warriors had relocated their base of operations to Viper Tower, rather than Eternos City (presumably this was done to avoid having to draw Eternos City in the Ehapa style now that the regular comic was running the Ehapa stories). Viper Tower was established as the Snake Men’s former command centre, which they had attempted to recover for themselves, but the Heroic Warriors managed to stop them and took it as their own new base instead. Viper Tower was given the appearance of the Eternia playset from the toy line- i.e. the Three Towers of Central Tower, Grayskull Tower and Viper Tower, the complex used by both Heroic and Evil sides. But this was simplified somewhat in the UK comics- instead the whole complex was referred to as Viper Tower; originally the Snake Men’s base but now belonging to the heroes. Do you remember the reasons for this?
I’m wondering now if that was because there was a different release schedule for the toys in the UK and the US, and the Mattel booklet was keeping us up to date with what was being released in the US, but we in the UK were a bit further behind. Or it might just be that I wanted to keep it simple, as Eternia was getting a very crowded place by that stage. We knew we’d always have new readers coming in, and we didn’t want to have so much baggage that new readers couldn’t get into it.
Were there any stories written that never made it to publication following the switch to Ehapa reprints? Issue #49, the last issue of the regular comic before the switchover featured a story called “Robot Rampage” where Skeletor teleports a robot from an alien world to Eternia and sets it on He-Man. Although He-Man narrowly defeats it, the story ends with a hint that Skeletor is going to bring the other robots from the same planet over and set them on He-Man, implying a sequel. Was that sequel ever written?
Not as far as I know; I think we used up all my inventory. I don’t recall writing the sequel to that story, sometimes we just put these hooks out hinting at the return of a character, and the reason there’d usually be a gap of a few issues before the sequel was because, you’d write the stories, they’d get produced, you’d get the printed copy, and by this time we’d written the stories for the next few issues. So we’d see the printed copy and we’d say “Oh yes of course, we said we’d do that”- so we’d go and write the follow-up story.
© Aidan Cross, 2017.