UK London Editions Comics
Release Date: March 1986
Legend of Grayskull
Orko to the Rescue
Cover by: José María Ortiz Tafalla
Issue #1 of the fortnightly Masters of the Universe comic, published by London Editions, hit the British newsstands in March 1986. The cover style is noticeably different to what would be the regular format for the comic covers, with clear mechanical tints as opposed to hand-drawn artwork. This is because the image which would become the cover of issue #2, showing He-Man and Skeletor in combat, was originally intended as the cover for issue #1, but three days before the comic was due to go to press Mae Broadley, Editorial Director of World International, said the first issue required a shout cover as opposed to a story point cover. So within three days, the London Editions team put together the cover above, taken from Mattel Style Guide material. It is clear the image has been composed of different pieces of artwork hastily rushed together to create the impression of a single image, particularly seeing as the snakes He-Man is about to face look very out of place. But it works nevertheless as an eye-catching cover. Note also the epigraph “I Am The Power” rather than “I Have The Power”. This error was quite common at the time, also recurring frequently in the newsletters sent out by the UK MOTU fan club run by Mattel itself.
This intro page sets the scene for the comic ahead, giving readers a friendly in-universe introduction to the world of Eternia by the character of Scrollos. As yet there is no clue as to the identity or role of Scrollos; he is merely an unseen introductory voice, an enigmatic entity. The ‘Strange Universe’ feature adds a nice educational touch by outlining real-life scientific facts certain to arouse interest in the reader.
The three-panel ‘Orko the Magician’ strip, in a sense the first story to appear in the comic, gives an easy, light-hearted introduction to the world of the MOTU characters. Note the artist’s curious habit of showing us Orko’s mouth through his facial muffler, a trait unique to the UK comics.
Story 1: “Legend of Grayskull”
Writer: Brian Clarke
Art: José María Ortiz Tafalla
Summary: This strip outlines the backstory of the world of the MOTU characters. Over 5,000 years ago on the planet of Eternia, a council of Elders met to discuss how best to protect their world from the increasing danger it faced from the forces of evil. Forging their mystic powers together, the Elders created the fortress of Castle Grayskull, a secret domain housing the greatest secrets of the universe within its walls. The castle was to be watched over by The Sorceress of Grayskull, who many centuries later, when Eternia’s darkest moment came, selected the young Prince Adam to become the defender foretold by legend who would wield the powers of Grayskull to defend Eternia from the forces of evil. At that moment, the evil Skeletor, himself the essence of evil, dwelt within the fortress of Snake Mountain plotting to conquer Eternia and use it as his base to dominate the universe. His former mentor Hordak, stranded on an alien world by his ex-pupil, had also managed to escape and set his sights on wreaking revenge on Skeletor, in the process forming the desire to conquer Eternia himself. The Sorceress summoned the brave warrior Man-At-Arms and instructed him to bring Prince Adam to Castle Grayskull, where the prince was given the magical Sword of Power, imbuing him with the power to transform into He-Man, most powerful man in the universe. He-Man vowed to use his powers to rid Eternia of the evil forces and formed a team of mighty heroes around him, calling them the Masters of the Universe. Skeletor had also gathered a team of Evil Warriors, while Hordak had formed an as-yet small group of warriors serving him as the Evil Horde. Only Man-At-Arms, and the alien wizard Orko from the world of Trollah, share in the knowledge of He-Man’s secret identity. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe live in the Royal Palace of Eternos City, from where most of their adventures begin as they do battle against the forces of evil.
The first story strip of the fortnightly comics, and with most readers already familiar with the world of MOTU and its characters, the brand having been big in the UK for three years by this time, no detailed origin story is needed- just a summation of the mythos’ backstory is sufficient. And it does a mighty fine job of setting the scene for the comics and gripping the reader.
Beginning in Eternia’s ancient past with the Elders is a nice touch, especially since this aspect of the saga had been only loosely touched on in the Filmation cartoon series and the Mattel minicomics at this stage- and this striking illustration of the Elders introduces us to recurring characters unique to the London Editions comics: the character of Keclar, the Elders’ leader, in the centre, while the Elder dressed in green on the far left would later be named in the Twins of Power special as Tyn-Mah, the rogue Elder who betrayed the others and forged the Sword of Evil.
Skeletor and Hordak are established as twin threats to Eternia, and Hordak’s introduction alludes to Etheria, a planet that would of course come to play a significant role in the mythos’ development, known already to most readers as the homeworld of He-Man’s sister She-Ra.
The artwork shows some indications that the Spanish art team (Selecciones Ilustradas) are only just getting used to drawing the MOTU characters, for there are some curious oddities: Man-E-Faces appears to be flying in the Heroic Warriors illustration (an ability he did interestingly possess in the German Interpart-Condor Comics), while the illustration of the Evil Warriors features the now infamous errors of Clawful being shown with human hands rather than claws, and Kobra Khan with Trap Jaw’s mechanical hook arm.
But these errors only lend a curious charm and a touch of eccentricity to the strip, and we have a nice concise and captivating backstory outlined here that is sure to inspire the reader, no matter their level of familiarity with MOTU, to read on.
It’s worth giving a quick showcase to this competition page, since these competitions to win MOTU toys would feature in almost every single issue of the comic, and featured some very impressive illustrations of the characters. Since they would focus on the chance for the reader to win new releases in the toy line, the big challenge was for the reader to name each character and vehicle featured in the picture, and this was often an intriguing challenge since these items were brand new at the time and the readers, myself included, would often not know the names- in fact for me, these competitions were often my very first introduction to certain characters and vehicles, whose names I would later find out through TV advertisements or by browsing the toy shelves. This was a nice way of expanding the mythology for young toy collectors of the time, by presenting us with the mystery of these new characters and the challenge of finding out their names.
Story 2: “Skeletor’s Surprise”
Writer: Brian Clarke
Art: José María Ortiz Tafalla
Summary: Evil-Lyn interrupts Skeletor in his private domain to tell him she has great news- her magical powers have sensed that a space warp will open the next day near the Cave of Karnack. If Skeletor enters the space warp, he will be able to pass unseen into the grounds of the Royal Palace of Eternos, thus allowing him to attack unexpected and seize rulership of Eternia. In the meantime, as Prince Adam accompanies Teela, who is recovering from a fever, on a stroll through the Royal Gardens, he receives a telepathic summons from The Sorceress, who tells him of Skeletor’s plot to attack the palace via the space warp at the Cave of Karnack. Prince Adam excuses himself and sneaks away to become He-Man, then summons Fisto, Sy-Klone and Buzz-Off to his side, the four of them setting off to the Cave of Karnack. When they reach the Twilight Land, they are attacked by Ice Thieves, whom Sy-Klone defeats with his tornado powers. Reaching the Murky Mountains, the heroes use their might to smash a tunnel through the vast mountain range. Reaching the rear of the Cave of Karnack, they walk into a trap set by Trolls, whom He-Man has no trouble defeating with blasts from his sword. The heroes arrive at the mouth of the cave just as Skeletor- with his minions Whiplash, Jitsu and Two Bad- is getting ready to enter the space warp, which is about to open. The heroes strike at the Evil Warriors and quickly overpower them in battle, but as the space warp begins to open, Skeletor uses his staff to create an Energy Wall to hold back the heroes long enough for him to enter the space warp to attack Eternos. But he is shocked to hear a familiar voice emanating from the space warp, out of which steps his old mentor Hordak, accompanied by his Evil Horde- Grizzlor, Leech, Mantenna and Modulok. Stranded on an alien world by his former pupil, Hordak has escaped and found his way to Eternia to wreak vengeance on Skeletor. Hordak mistakenly believes that He-Man and the Heroic Warriors are part of Skeletor’s evil army, and believing himself to be outnumbered, Hordak declares he will go elsewhere on Eternia for now and bide his time before striking. Hordak and his Horde disappear, and the space warp closes. Skeletor then retreats with his own warriors, but He-Man realizes that he and his comrades now have two evil threats to deal with- the forces of both Skeletor and Hordak. Hordak retreats to the Fright Zone and begins plotting his own conquest of Eternia.
The first normal story to appear in the comics, this story rises to the double challenge of establishing the regular setting and conflict upon Eternia, and simultaneously introducing the new villains- Hordak and the Evil Horde- whom Mattel were pushing for inclusion in the comics. At any later stage in the comics’ run, a plot development as large as the introduction of a new faction of villains would typically take up at least two story strips rather than just a single regular one. But as this is the first issue this is easily forgivable and the story does a great job of accomplishing what it sets out to do. It begins like a regular, typical MOTU story, with Skeletor forming a new plot to defeat He-Man, and The Sorceress contacting Prince Adam about the danger, who becomes He-Man and sets out to save the day. But what seems like a regular story that will likely have an easy outcome turns out instead to become a key turning point in the saga of the Masters of the Universe by introducing a brand new permanent threat to Eternia. And rather than resulting in your typical happy ending with He-Man saving the day, the story instead ends on a more solemn and inauspicious note for our heroes, with He-Man realizing the seriousness of this new threat and the need for great caution. This is a great opening for the comic as it indicates that its stories are not going to be just regular good vs evil stories, with the heroes winning at the end and everything being blissfully peaceful. No, this is a world of ongoing serious conflict where things can indeed take a turn for the bleaker, and our heroes have to be on constant guard; their lives are clearly far from easy. What better way to urge both younger and older readers- including parents- to read on?
The opening scene between Skeletor and Evil-Lyn is particularly gripping, and observing these panels closely they convey an almost disturbing indication of physical violence and even borderline sexual predation towards Evil-Lyn on Skeletor’s part. After Evil-Lyn has revealed her news, Skeletor is shown to grip her right arm tightly in one hand, chastising her for ‘teasing’ him, then to physically thrust her away from him, flinging her to the ground after deeming her information useless to him. And needless to say he makes no apology when he changes his mind about the usefulness of her information! This establishes Skeletor as a convincingly dark and maniacal villain who is an open threat to his very own assistants, and it is unlikely any childrens’ comic nowadays would be able to get away with depicting this level of direct physical violence, bordering on sexual, towards a female character.
The next scene serves to establish the character of Teela- a key character but unmentioned in the ‘Legend of Grayskull’ introduction- and the love-hate relationship between her and the lead character of Prince Adam. Again there are some signs of the artists’ early adjustments to the characters and world they are depicting, for Teela is shown with black hair rather than her usual reddish-brown, and Prince Adam’s jacket is drawn and coloured differently from usual, with no shirt underneath and the addition of a medallion around his neck. Interestingly Teela plays no role in the action scenes that are to come, although she frequently would in later stories. Her appearance here is only brief and serves purely to establish her character, her lack of participation in the action explained away by stating that she is recovering from a fever and not in the right frame for combat. The dynamic between herself and Prince Adam is established nicely, with her open admiration for He-Man and Adam’s feigning of jealousy towards He-Man, Teela being completely unaware that the two are in fact one and the same. The scene also establishes Adam’s own identity crisis as he ponders to himself how strange it is that Teela loves him as He-Man but finds him a bore as Adam, as well as indicating his frustration at this and his hope of being able to tell her his secret some day.
When Prince Adam changes into He-Man, it is curious with hindsight to note that here he uses the correct phrase of ‘I Have The Power’ since most early issues of the comic used the incorrect ‘I Am The Power’; it seems there was some uncertainty over this early on. There are also some very curious points to note over the next few panels, absurdities that could only occur in a first issue. When He-Man, Sy-Klone, Fisto and Buzz-Off set out to catch up with the Evil Warriors, the former three are all depicted riding ordinary horses. This seems particularly odd, since of course He-Man would typically be shown riding Battle Cat (who curiously isn’t mentioned at all in this first issue, even though he’s on the cover) and Fisto probably Stridor, while Sy-Klone of all characters should not need a horse since he is capable of flight at super-speed! Presumably this is another sign of the Spanish artists getting accustomed to the world of MOTU, but having the heroes riding completely normal horses (which seem to vanish altogether after just three panels) seems a strange choice regardless, since there were plenty of vehicles in the toy line that could have filled the role of transport more aptly as well as satisfying Mattel’s demand for exposure for its products. Both the obstacles the heroes come up against- the Ice-Thieves and the Trolls- are creative and entertaining adversaries, and we get a good demonstration of the abilities of both Sy-Klone and Fisto, two of the newer toy releases, without it seeming like pure action figure gimmickry. He-Man is shown here firing power blasts from his sword, an ability shown only very rarely in the cartoon series but one which would be used frequently throughout the comics.
The heroes of Eternia on perhaps their most unusual form of transport ever- ordinary horses???
The ensuing battle against Skeletor and his minions, although it is very straightforward and the heroes easily have the upper hand, makes for some entertaining and humorous panels as the individual heroes tackle the villains, each using their personal power to overcome their adversary. Also it is interesting to note how Skeletor has no idea how He-Man came to know that he and his men would be at the cave; clearly unaware of He-Man’s psychic link to The Sorceress and her own powers of extra-sensory awareness.
The introduction of Hordak, first as an off-panel voice familiar to Skeletor before he and his Horde make their entry through the space warp, is a nice culmination to the story that completes the status quo for this comic series by establishing the new villain and his role on Eternia. It is a nice touch that he is unfamiliar with He-Man and the Heroic Warriors at this stage and mistakenly believes they are part of Skeletor’s Evil Warriors, for he at this point believes Eternia will be an easy conquest for him once he has obliterated Skeletor and is yet to learn what a great obstacle He-Man and the Masters will be. Although it is quickly established that Hordak is cowardly and will run away when outnumbered, He-Man instantly views him as a dire threat to Eternia, fearing that Eternia will be much worse off when Hordak’s grudge is settled. The story closes with a nice striking panel of Hordak, bat in hand, declaring his plans to avenge himself on Skeletor and rule Eternia.
Overall, as the first regular story in the comic series, ‘Skeletor’s Surprise’ does a very effective job of both establishing the conflict on Eternia and its lead characters, whilst wasting no time in introducing the new villains who will share the spotlight with Skeletor and his crew throughout the coming issues. A solid and entertaining start!
Story 3: “Orko to the Rescue”
Writer: Brian Clarke
Art: Amador Garcia
In the dead of night, the Royal Palace of Eternos is awoken by the sound of a peasant knocking frantically at the palace gates. The peasant tells Man-At-Arms that his village was attacked the previous afternoon by Skeletor and his Evil Warriors. The villagers managed to fend them off, but Skeletor vowed they would return before dawn, and the villagers need the help of the Heroic Warriors. He-Man and several of the Heroic Warriors arrive on the scene, and they set out to defend the village, leaving Orko behind to protect the palace. Once they have gone, Skeletor and a team of his Evil Warriors are revealed watching the palace from a distance. It transpires that the summons to the village by the peasant was in fact part of Skeletor’s scheme to lure the heroes away from Eternos so he could seize the city for himself while there was no-one there to defend it. Skeletor presents himself outside the gates of the palace, and with only Orko present within its walls, Skeletor demands Orko surrender and hand the palace over to him. Orko refuses, and Skeletor orders his troops to attack, climbing over the palace walls on ladders. But Orko uses his magic to defend the palace and conjures up serpents, which confuse the Evil Warriors and send them scurrying back to the ground. Skeletor orders his minions to attack from the air, and the warriors board Wind Raiders and attack from above, so Orko casts a spell causing the Wind Raiders to retaliate against their pilots and blast them back down to the ground. Skeletor orders Trap Jaw to blast the palace door down, and Orko attempts to thwart the attack with another spell, but this spell backfires and Orko himself destroys the palace gates with his magic. Just as Skeletor prepares to enter Eternos, He-Man and the Heroic Warriors arrive on the scene, much to Skeletor’s surprise. Although they are outnumbered by the villains, the Heroic Warriors are significantly stronger, and after setting into battle, they send Skeletor and his minions fleeing. After the villains have gone, Man-At-Arms asks He-Man how he knew Skeletor was not going to attack the village, and He-Man explains that he knows Skeletor’s mind, and because he is so obsessed with capturing Eternos City and Castle Grayskull, everything he does is part of that same evil plan. So He-Man knew that with only Orko to guard the city, Skeletor would inevitably attack Eternos rather than the village. Orko then owns up to having destroyed the palace gates by mistake, and He-Man jokes that he should use his magic to build some new ones.
This is a very curious- but surprisingly intelligent- story with clear signs that this is the first issue and the comic is only just finding its feet. It focuses on some of the more comedic elements which were central to the Filmation cartoon series, namely the incompetence of the Evil Warriors and Orko’s comical antics. With hindsight it seems unusual that the first issue should feature a story so heavily centered on Orko, since he was purposefully shafted to the sidelines in the early issues to avoid skewing the tone of the comics too heavily towards a much younger audience, as well as preventing conflicts from being resolved too easily via Orko’s magic. Neither of these two factors would dominate too heavily as the comics progressed- as well as Orko’s role being more minimal, the villains were generally portrayed as being significantly more competent than the cartoon series often depicted them. But despite this, the story also features a key element that would come to define the London Editions comic stories very profoundly; i.e. ending with a twist and He-Man using his thinking skills and logic to save the day rather than pure muscles. Just when the reader is pondering the sheer inanity of He-Man willingly leaving the Royal Palace to be protected solely by Orko (surely there should at least be a team of palace guards on hand), it transpires that that very illogical move was in itself part of He-Man’s own plan to save the day. He deduced that the peasant summoning the heroes away to the village was in fact a false alarm to allow Skeletor to attack the city, so he beat Skeletor at his own game by tricking him into thinking he was on a straight road to victory, before re-emerging with the Masters at the last minute to save the day. This neat twist not only changes the outcome and dynamic of the story, but also the reader’s very perception of the comic- just as the older reader is thinking this comic is going to be all too willing to abandon sense and logic for silly plot developments that younger readers are not likely to complain about, the writer pleasantly surprises us by giving us an intelligent and logical ending that presents He-Man as every bit the thinking person’s superhero. He-Man is not just a man of muscle who’ll mindlessly smash his opponents to pieces; he’s a hero who uses foresight and deductive reasoning to anticipate his adversaries’ next move and thus catch them out and beat them at their own game just when they think they’ve won. (Something tells me I should think twice before challenging writer Brian Clarke to a game of chess…)
In all fairness to the Filmation cartoon series- a great show in its own right, well deserving of its popularity- it did often feature plot points and developments that were plain silly, purely under the assumption that kids wouldn’t notice, so the writers could get away with it. For instance, there is at least one episode of the cartoon in which Orko is left alone to guard the palace all by himself. Perhaps then it was intentional on Brian Clarke’s part that he end this first issue with a plot centring on these silly aspects so common to the cartoon series, purely for the purpose of confounding the reader’s expectations and showing them there’s more intellectual depth to these comics. This comic is not going to patronize or speak down to its readers; no, this comic credits its readers, young and old, with intelligence and logic and is quite happy to challenge their brain power and surprise them on an intellectual level. By completely confounding the reader’s expectations, this story that seems so silly at first sets the tone for the comic brilliantly by revealing this comic’s true purpose: to challenge its readers to think critically and logically, and play some fun mind games with them.
The use of the ‘peasant’ to open the story by pounding frantically on the doors of the Royal Palace to alert the Heroic Warriors is a neat device, since readers are very unlikely to suspect the truth, that this is in fact a false alarm to lure the heroes away. (And they’re even less likely to suspect that He-Man has already seen through the scheme.) It is never revealed who the peasant really is; is he a spy for Skeletor or one of his minions in disguise, but it doesn’t really matter that we don’t find out, it just indicates how cunning Skeletor’s schemes can be in that something seemingly innocent can in fact be a device to lure He-Man into a trap. It shows us the extent to which the heroes of Eternia have to be extra vigilant at all times.
Orko’s magic seems a little too powerful at times here; he has no trouble fending off a whole team of Skeletor’s minions purely by conjuring up snakes with his magic, then by causing the Wind Raiders to attack and reject their pilots (another clear sign here that this is the first issue: as fans know, the Wind Raiders should be Heroic vehicles). Since we were told in the ‘Legend of Grayskull’ strip that Orko’s magic is weak on Eternia and usually goes wrong, his level of sheer power here seems rather surprising, and even Skeletor remarks on the humiliation of being ‘thwarted by a pipsqueak’. However, Orko’s accidental destruction of the very gates to the palace shows that he is not a reliable guard, and his characterization here justifies Brian Clarke’s decision to keep Orko to his own personal strip on the comics’ opening page rather than feature him too heavily in the main stories- while his comical mishaps could easily lower the age range of the stories, his powerful magic could also cause plots to be resolved too easily.
Despite the obvious signs that the comic is only just finding its feet, this is an endearing story with a very clever twist ending, providing a nice closure to a very effective first issue that has shown us this comic series certainly isn’t going to just give us mindless action fare nor pure kiddy stories. The signs are all here that this is going to be a unique take on the MOTU mythology which will continuously challenge and surprise its readers, as well as imploring them to think for themselves, and in the process provide equal entertainment and fun for both child and adult readers. Scrollos, bring on more!
It’s worth doing a quick showcase of this page since it appeared in nearly every single issue of the magazine, advertising the UK-based MOTU fan club that was run by Mattel at the time and sent out four newsletters a year. The fan club did some great stuff!
Issue #2 >
© Aidan Cross, 2017.