The UK London Editions Comics
The Backstory and the Legacy
The Early Days
Issue #1 of the fortnightly MOTU UK comic hit the newsstands in March 1986. It came at a time when MOTU was pretty much at the height of its popularity in the UK, following its debut in 1982. Mattel’s toy line was still one of the best-selling boys’ lines on the shelves, and while Filmation’s cartoon series had come to an end the previous year to make way for its companion series She-Ra: Princess of Power, it took five years for all 130 episodes to be screened on UK TV, so as far as UK viewers were concerned, they were still seeing brand new episodes.
The magazine was published by London Editions; a subsidiary of the Egmont company in Copenhagen. Egmont were also the owners of World International, who had already produced several MOTU annuals and storybooks in the preceding few years. The MOTU comic immediately met with strong sales, and an enthusiastic response from readers.
While there were several writers who worked on the stories for the comics throughout their run, the lead writer and editor for the magazine was Brian Clarke. Brian wrote 80% of the stories that appeared in the comic, and oversaw all the others to ensure consistent continuity. He also wrote most of the editorials that began each issue, and answered readers’ questions on the letters page, under the guise of a character called Scrollos, the Keeper of the Scrolls (more about him later). So ultimately, the entire UK comics canon is the vision of Brian Clarke.
From the start, the comics presented their own distinct take on the MOTU legend. While they may have taken a few subtle cues from the Mattel minicomics and the Filmation cartoon series, the comics operated within a completely separate continuity of their own, unafraid to ignore other canons and present their own unique take on the mythos.
The Elders of Eternia as depicted in "The Legend of Grayskull"
Issue #1 set the scene nicely with a short introductory story titled “The Legend of Grayskull”. Over five pages, the backstory to the MOTU mythos was swiftly narrated, summarizing how the council of Elders came together 5,000 years ago to create Castle Grayskull, the fortress which would protect their planet from the forces of evil- and centuries down the line, Grayskull’s power would come to be wielded by He-Man in countering the twin threats of Skeletor and Hordak.
From there, the comics’ narrative jumped straight ahead into the present day and followed the regular adventures of He-Man and his friends. A story titled “Skeletor’s Surprise”, which closed issue #1, detailed the arrival of Skeletor’s old mentor Hordak on Eternia, together with his Evil Horde, and the scene was set for the regular issues.
Each edition of the magazine would feature three short, self-contained stories. Due to financial limitations, the first and third story in each issue (both of which were five pages long) would be in mostly black-and-white with only one or two colour pages (Page 1 of story 1, and pages 1 and 5 of story 3) whilst the second story (six pages long instead of five) would appear in full colour. Despite the short length of these stories, the level of detail and complexity of the plots was nothing short of astounding.
The thinking person’s superhero…
Each story gave us a vivid, original and striking plot line in which He-Man and his friends would encounter a brand new challenge or threat. You could guarantee it would never be the same story twice- every story had a highly innovative premise, keeping the reader intrigued as to just what would happen and how He-Man would defeat this particular threat. As was the case with the Filmation cartoon series, Mattel’s guidelines were strict- violence had to be kept to an extreme minimum, and no characters could be seriously hurt or injured. In the case of the UK comics, this guideline proved fortunate- rather than softening the tone, this allowed for complex challenges which would usually be solved by a thinking-based solution, with He-Man using his brain power rather than his muscles to come up with a strategy to defeat this latest threat. This allowed for incredibly complex plots for stories of a mere 5 or 6 pages long.
And many of these would end with a clever twist- for instance, in issue #3’s “Man-At-Arms: Traitor” in which Man-At-Arms is captured by the Evil Warriors, brainwashed and instructed to create a new super-weapon to aid Skeletor in defeating the Heroic Warriors, a surprise twist at the end reveals that he had in fact managed to shake off the brainwashing spell early on and was merely playing along so he could manipulate the scheme to backfire on Skeletor at the last minute. And in issue #2’s “Skeletor’s Champion”, Skeletor hosts a tournament of the most evil creatures in the universe to find an evil warrior powerful enough to beat He-Man, only to find at the end that the two aliens who won the tournament are in fact He-Man and Fisto in disguise, having captured the real aliens as they landed on Eternia.
Written to be enjoyed by all ages, these stories and the accompanying editorials never patronized or spoke down to the younger readers; rather they treated them respectfully and often invited the reader to participate in He-Man’s solutions, with panels such as “Can you guess what He-Man’s plan is?” (As a sidenote, early issues also featured a puzzle section called “Brains, Not Brawn” in which readers were invited to aid He-Man in solving a particular puzzle to meet a challenge.) Details were never spoon fed to the reader; these were complex stories that credited their young readers with intelligence, and portrayed He-Man as the thinking person’s superhero. Meanwhile, despite their fantasy setting, the stories would frequently take real-life science into account- unlike in Filmation’s cartoon, you’d never see silly feats of impossibility such as He-Man trapping a tornado underground. The stories frequently used real-life physics and scientific facts to flesh out their details; thus working in some educational entertainment for younger readers, while ensuring that older readers would never feel embarrassed at reading a kids’ comic. This was science fiction that was both fun and intelligent, and the perfect form of entertainment for all age groups.
He-Man and Prince Adam split into two separate beings in Issue #7's enthralling "Double Split"
As mentioned before, each story in every issue would feel highly original- no story ever repeated or recycled ideas from earlier issues. And in producing brand new and innovative challenges for He-Man to face, the comic frequently ventured out into experimental and often surreal territories that neither Filmation or any other MOTU story medium would ever have gone near. In Issue #7’s “Double Split”, Prince Adam finds himself and He-Man split into two separate beings after an element called Cosmium has a strange effect on him- and his He-Man side is psychotically aggressive, attacking Adam himself and the rest of the Heroic Warriors. Then issue #13 ventured into truly weird territory reminiscent of The Twilight Zone with the eerie, nightmare-like story “The Reality Shaper” in which, as morning arises on Eternia, we see that EVERYONE is evil- even He-Man himself! All the regular warriors, both Heroic and Evil, are wearing Horde bat symbols on their chests and loyally serving Hordak, who is ruling securely from Eternia’s throne. In a surreal, almost trippy sequence, The Sorceress manages to see past the nightmare reality being experienced on Eternia, and locates the source of the problem to the dimension of Nega-Space where a gruesome creature called the Reality Shaper is being used by Hordak to remould reality on Eternia to his own will.
An evil He-Man rises to serve the commands of Hordak in Issue #13's eerie "The Reality Shaper"
Pushing the boundaries further, Issue #19 gave us another dark experimental story in the form of “Ghost of He-Man”- in which He-Man actually fakes his own death in order to go undercover and expose a traitor in the ranks of the Royal Court. Due to restrictions on the comic’s writers similar to those imposed on cartoon scriptwriters of the time, the comics were forbidden from using words such as ‘death’, ‘die’ and ‘kill’- the concept of death could not be openly acknowledged, and softer terms such as ‘destroy’ had to be used instead. But while in accordance with the rules, this story never explicitly mentions death (He-Man is described as being ‘no more’ as opposed to ‘dead’), it goes as far as to include a memorial service to He-Man in the Royal Palace, as his friends and comrades grieve over his apparent passing. It is during this service that He-Man appears in ghost form, enshrouded in an eerie glow, and exposes the member of the King’s guard who has been secretly reporting to Skeletor. Once the traitor is arrested, He-Man explains how he had faked his demise in order to foil Skeletor’s scheme, with the eerie glow of his spectral form having been caused simply by luminous paint!
Eternia mourns an apparently deceased He-Man in Issue #19's "Ghost of He-Man"
With stories of this nature, and this kind of high calibre, it is no wonder the comics sold so well and achieved equal popularity among young children, teenagers and adults.
© Aidan Cross, 2017.