UK London Editions Comics
Release Date: November 1986
A Thorny Problem
Catra's Sword of Honour
Cover by: Joan Boix
This issue’s cover has the distinction of being the first cover for the She-Ra comic that relates directly to one of the stories inside, depicting a scene from the story “Freedom Castle”. This is also the first - and only - time that a story was based around the comic's cover rather than vice versa; James Hill's story having been written around a cover idea by Brian Clarke.
This issue's intro page.
Story 1: “Freedom Castle”
Writer: James Hill
Art: Joan Boix
Synopsis: Princess Adora, Madame Razz and Broom are visiting Freedom Castle, an ancient, ruined and deserted fortress to the north of Adora’s kingdom. As they walk around the outside of the castle, a great sadness befalls Adora and Madame Razz starts to wish they had not come there. Adora explains she is feeling sad because she has been thinking about Freedom Castle’s history. Centuries ago, the castle was built by an elfin race called the Guardians of Etheria. It was built on a location thought to be magical, and after the Guardians mysteriously vanished, the castle passed from owner to owner – but none of them stayed long, as the spirits of the Guardians were said to haunt the castle’s corridors. Years later, when the Horde invaded Etheria, the castle was the site of a great battle, and was reduced to little more than a smouldering ruin when Hordak finally crushed Etheria’s valiant army as he succeeded in conquering the planet. As Adora is feeling sad about the tragic history of the place, Madame Razz and Broom decide to leave her alone for a while and wander the castle by themselves. But as soon as they enter the banqueting hall, they see what appear to be the spirits of the Guardians themselves. Madame Razz rushes outside to tell Adora that the stories are true, but instead of seeing Adora outside, she sees Hordak, about to blast The Sorceress with his cannon arm. Fearful that Hordak has harmed Adora, Madame Razz blasts him with a bolt of magic, but the bolt of magic hits Adora herself, whom Razz is unable to see – for Adora sees no sign of Hordak and realizes Razz is hallucinating. She transforms to She-Ra, but Razz continues to attack her, believing she is Hordak. She-Ra deflects the attack by using the gem stone in her sword to reflect sunlight into Razz’s eyes, dazzling her and causing her to fall over. When Razz gets back up, she no longer sees Hordak, only She-Ra, and tells She-Ra that Hordak was there and there were spirits inside Freedom Castle. She-Ra tells Razz she can explain what happened, and points out what look like more spirits – an army riding towards the castle, and soldiers atop the battlements. She-Ra explains that they are not spirits at all, but because Freedom Castle is built on a magical power site, it has become a sort of Image Recorder, that records events that happen in and around it. People of a mystical nature are able to see these images as they traverse the castle, so what Madame Razz really saw was a ‘taped’ image of Hordak from when he attacked the castle years ago. She-Ra explains that Freedom Castle has recorded everything that has happened in or around it since it was built – and as the three friends leave the site, she expresses hope that it will one day record Hordak’s downfall.
Review: After his impressive She-Ra comic debut with Issue #6’s “The Siren Fish of Etheria”, James Hill furthers his tenure on the She-Ra comic with this, his second story. And like “The Siren Fish”, it continues in a sombre and contemplative vain, focusing on the tragic side of the conflict on Etheria, this time drawing on a very popular trope in sci-fi and fantasy fiction at the time – the idea of a haunted building in which the ‘ghosts’ are temporal recordings rather than sentient beings.
In the interview he gave for this site, James Hill said: “Freedom Castle started life as an experiment. Brian was keen to use the old DC Comics trick of concocting a cover first and then writing a story around a striking image. So he gave me a short paragraph describing She-Ra and Madame Razz fighting outside a derelict castle. I went away and came up with a plot. We didn’t do another story like that and now I wonder why not? It was a fun way to approach things – and helped kick-start the old grey cells and saved plotting time.”
The story opens on a melancholy note, with Adora, Madame Razz and Broom wandering the grounds of the ruined castle. Adora is feeling sad and Madame Razz is wishing they had not come there. Ever the well-meaning type, Madame Razz tries to cheer Adora up by conjuring up some flowers. The spell goes wrong but she succeeds in making Adora smile, and Adora explains the reason why she is feeling so low.
She tells Madame Razz the history of Freedom Castle, and how it was built centuries ago by the Guardians of Etheria, an elfin race who protected the planet in ancient times. What is surprising here is that it is said that they protected the planet in the days before The Sorceress – and this reference to The Sorceress from the MOTU comics definitely comes as a surprise. Although readers of that comic will be familiar with her as the guardian of Castle Grayskull on Eternia, no historical connection between her and Etheria has ever been mentioned, and readers of the She-Ra comic would sooner have expected Light Hope to be referenced here, for we know he has protected Etheria for quite some time. The link between Castle Grayskull and the Crystal Castle, as mentioned in the Twins of Power Special, seems to suggest some link between Eternia and Etheria going a long way back, and the surprise revelation that The Sorceress protected Etheria in times past supports this.
Freedom Castle is described as “one of many fortresses built in locations thought to be highly magical.” After the Guardians mysteriously vanished, the castle was passed from owner to owner, but all occupants quickly vacated the building, apparently due to encounters with the spirits of the Guardians, said to haunt its stone corridors. It was centuries later, when the Horde invaded Etheria, that the castle was the site of a great battle and was reduced to its present ruined state. The castle occupants shown fighting the Horde are drawn looking very like the Guardians, as an elfin race, though they can not be the same race as the Guardians apparently vanished centuries before. It seems that the destruction on Freedom Castle occurred when the Horde conquered Etheria, as Adora says, “when Hordak finally crushed Etheria’s valiant army.”
Exploring the castle by themselves, Madame Razz and Broom encounter what appear to be the Spirits of the Guardians, as told in the legends. Running back outside to tell Adora that the stories are true, Madame Razz sees what looks like Hordak about to shoot The Sorceress with his cannon arm. The revelation that The Sorceress actually fought the Horde on Etheria in person raises a lot of questions as to just what the backstory is regarding her role on Etheria, and the wider connection between Eternia and Etheria. The exact continuity regarding Hordak’s history on Eternia is already uncertain and there appear to be contradictions between the story as given in the She-Ra comic and that given in the MOTU comic. These are not completely irreconcilable although they make the backstory rather convoluted (see our review of Issue #1 for an explanation of these), and this raises the question of what exactly The Sorceress’s role was in protecting Etheria, and if she knew that Hordak had conquered Etheria, why did she not work out earlier that he must have taken baby Adora there after abducting her? It was established in Issue #1 that Hordak had at some point invaded Eternia in the past – whether this was before or after he conquered Etheria is unclear; it was most likely before, but if The Sorceress was herself protecting Etheria and fought the Horde there when the planet fell, surely she would have worked out this was where he must have taken Adora? However, it is never stated outright that The Sorceress knew it was Hordak who abducted Adora, so in order for the continuity not to be violated, we have to assume the identity of Adora’s abductor was unknown, unlike in the Filmation cartoon series. The question still stands as to the exact nature of The Sorceress’s role on Etheria – we must assume that there is a long-standing link between Castle Grayskull and the Crystal Castle and perhaps between the Elders of Eternia and the First Ones, so that The Sorceress assisted Light Hope on Etheria and thus defended the planet against The Horde when they invaded, perhaps failing due to the fact her magic would not have been as strong on Etheria as on Eternia. It does seem as though the writers had no firm continuity timeline between the mythologies of the two comics to work from, hence seemingly suffering discrepancies in continuity (which as mentioned before, are not irreconcilable but do require awkward stretches to clear up). Either way, it’s plenty of backstory for die-hard readers of both comics to speculate over.
As it turns out, the images Madame Razz is seeing are some kind of hallucination, and thus we get the conflict depicted on the comic’s cover, the unlikely battle between She-Ra and Madame Razz. As Adora transforms to She-Ra, her “For the Honour of Grayskull” catchphrase is omitted here, simply raising her sword and transforming to She-Ra in a burst of light.
The conflict between She-Ra and Razz is over quick as a flash (sorry, bad pun) when She-Ra uses the gem stone in her sword to dazzle Razz and knock her off her feet. This brings Razz back to reality, and simultaneously She-Ra realizes what has happened, pointing out the images of apparent spirits nearby, which she explains are actually recordings of the castle’s past, resulting from the fact that Freedom Castle is built on a magical power site. The castle, therefore, serves as a kind of image recorder, storing and replaying images of the events that have occurred in the castle’s past. Madame Razz, therefore, has seen a recording of Hordak’s attack on the castle from decades ago.
As the trio leave the castle grounds, She-Ra expresses hope that Freedom Castle will one day record Hordak’s downfall, and the narration panel states that “despite its ruined and unseemly condition, the deserted fortress stands as a monument to the Great Rebellion”.
The story ends here, and the ending does feel rather abrupt; the story seems to finish before it really had the chance to get started. With the revelation of Freedom Castle’s mysterious power, and its already intriguing history, this might have seemed like a good opportunity to explore the fortress further and perhaps see more of its history and secrets. Instead, the story just… ends, and the strip we’re left with feels like more of an exploration of an idea than a story. Really it feels as though this kind of idea would have been better-suited to a two-parter than a single 5-page strip. We could have been shown more of Freedom Castle’s history via the medium of temporal recordings, or maybe been led on an adventure deeper into the castle. Another way the story could have gone would have been to have had the Horde attack the castle during She-Ra’s visit, and perhaps themselves be driven away by the recordings within… or maybe even tried to use them to their advantage, by confusing the heroes so they cannot distinguish present reality from the temporal recordings. As it is, we are left with the idea rather than really covering it in much depth, and while James Hill’s trademark emotional atmosphere and poignant approach to the She-Ra saga is as powerful as ever, the story itself feels rather unfinished.
It is unfortunate that the idea behind “Freedom Castle” could not have been explored in more depth, but on the positive side, this is a story that is hard to forget and explores mature themes for a children’s comic. Like in “The Siren Fish of Etheria”, James Hill focuses again on the tragedies of war, and the permanent shadow the ordinary Etherians live under with the dominance of the Horde on their world. The idea of ghosts as temporal recordings is also an idea many of the younger readers may have been unfamiliar with, with this idea rather than the more standard depiction of ghosts being a trope more common in fiction aimed at older audiences. It also sheds some interesting light on Etheria’s history, with the exploration of the planet’s historical protectors, and the revelation that The Sorceress has a deeper history with Etheria than we had realized. A particularly interesting idea that may strike us after having read “The Siren Fish of Etheria” in the previous issue is, could the Guardians of Etheria perhaps be the Siren Fish? It was said in the previous story that the Siren Fish were the former rulers of Etheria, who renounced their mortal forms for a life of tranquility as sea creatures. Since the Guardians of Etheria are said to have ‘mysteriously vanished’, without explanation… could this have been where they went? This would seem to fit perfectly and would make for a good link to James Hill’s previous story in Issue #6.
The story is also likely to strike a chord with fans of sci-fi and horror fiction, since the idea of a haunted building in which the ‘ghosts’ are recordings of incidents that have occurred in the building’s past was a particularly popular one in the sci-fi and horror genres at the time. The idea was most famously explored in the BBC television play The Stone Tape, scripted by Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale, who was himself inspired by theories popular among parapsychologists of the time, most notably those of T.C. Lethbridge, the archaeologist-turned-parapsychologist who believed that inanimate objects have a ‘memory field’ which records events that take place around them, and that what we experience as ‘ghosts’ are these recordings of the past played back by this field. His theory (although it was not entirely his own, since similar ideas date back to Charles Babbage and Eleonor Sidgwick in the 19th century), following his publications in the 60s and 70s, came to be known as the ‘Stone Tape Theory’ following the screening of The Stone Tape BBC drama. While it did not gain acceptance among the scientific or archaeological communities, it proved excellent inspiration for sci-fi and horror stories, and following The Stone Tape, became a popular trope in these genres – indeed, James Hill himself was unfamiliar with The Stone Tape, but thinks he picked the idea up from somewhere else, possibly from an episode of Sapphire and Steel (of which the episode ‘Assignment 2’ explores a similar idea). Likewise, another idea in "Freedom Castle" - the idea of an important building having built on a 'magical power site' - was also popular among paranormal and occult enthusiasts at the time, with the theory that sacred buildings and sites in ancient times were constructed along ley lines; likewise this became a popular idea in sci-fi and fantasy fiction.
Ultimately, as a story “Freedom Castle” seems to be over all too quickly and leaves the reader feeling its ideas could have been explored in much more detail. But while it can not be said to rank among the comic’s best moments, it is certainly a story that leaves its mark, by exploring striking and mature themes and, like much of James Hill’s other work, focusing on the tragic side of the conflict on Etheria, and the bravery of those who stand against tyranny and oppressive rule on a war-torn planet.
In the first letter on this issue’s letters page, the reader picks up on a discrepancy between the storybooks and the comics, the former of which often depicted the Crystal Castle as the actual home of She-Ra. This was an early idea of Mattel in the development of the Princess of Power toy line and consequently was used in several early minicomics and storybooks, before the Filmation cartoon series created the character of Light Hope as the sole inhabitant of the castle.
Story 2: “A Thorny Problem”
Writer: Pat Kelleher
Art: Francisco Javier González Vilanova
Synopsis: At the Rebel Camp in Whispering Woods, Perfuma and Flutterina are arguing. Flutterina complains that Perfuma hoards her plants so that no one else can enjoy their scent, and Perfuma accuses Flutterina of spending too much time admiring herself and perfecting her wings. Bow tries in desperation to stop the two girls from arguing. Nearby, in another part of the wood, a young boy called Erval is setting out to pick Roddenberries for his family’s dinner, promising his mother that he will be careful. And far away in Doom Tower, Shadow Weaver presents Hordak with the Book of Arcane Knowledge, which contains thousands of ancient spells. Each page is impregnated with the magic to make the spell work, so each spell can only be used once. Shadow Weaver reads out an incantation that causes the Whispering Woods to be choked by rapidly growing briars and thorns. Fearing that it is the work of the Horde, Adora transforms into She-Ra, and atop Swift Wind, sets out to seek Castaspella’s help. Back at the Rebel Camp, Erval’s mother calls upon the Rebels for help, telling them that her son has not returned since he went out to pick Roddenberries. Bow suggests Perfuma and Flutterina could help, since they have good knowledge of plants. Perfuma casts a spell to protect the areas of the wood that the briars and thorns have not yet reached, knowing that Erval will seek shelter in such places so he can be rescued. Flutterina flies overhead, and eventually spots Erval hiding in a safe spot. She rescues Erval and flies back to the Rebel Camp, where Erval is safely reunited with his mother. Perfuma and Flutterina hug to celebrate their victory, and Bow is glad they are friends again. Meanwhile, at Mystacor, She-Ra has told Castaspella what has happened, and Castaspella looks into her Pool of Vision, where they see Shadow Weaver holding the Book of Arcane Knowledge. Castaspella teleports the two of them to Doom Tower to retrieve the book, and once there, Castaspella uses her magic to imprison Shadow Weaver in Cloud Bonds, allowing She-Ra to retrieve the book. They teleport to Whispering Woods, where Castaspella uses the counter spell from the book to make the briars and thorns go away. The Rebels celebrate their victory, and Erval’s mother allows Perfuma and Flutterina to take Erval Roddenberry-picking. As the two princesses head off with Erval, they begin to argue with each other about the best place to pick Roddenberries, and Bow face palms, declaring “Here we go again!”
Review: By this stage in the She-Ra comic’s run, Pat Kelleher is proving to be one of its most prolific writers, and this story follows a similar format to his debut story, “The Book of Potions” back in Issue #2, with the theme of Shadow Weaver causing chaos using a book of ancient spells. Most notably this story places two of the newer toy releases – Perfuma and Flutterina – in the spotlight, while stirring up a heady mix of action featuring a combination of different characters.
The first panel is notable in how it depicts numerous ordinary Etherians as part of the Rebel camp, reminding us that the Rebellion consists of a lot more people than just the princesses we see regularly throughout the stories. One of this story’s main strengths is in the way it builds on the theme of the Rebels as a community, and reminds us that the ordinary people of Etheria are just as much part of the Rebellion as the princesses are.
We are treated to an amusing argument between Perfuma and Flutterina as they bicker over one another’s supposed selfishness. The idea of Flutterina – a character yet to feature prominently in any of the stories, until now – being slightly vain about her appearance and her butterfly wings is a nice touch, and Perfuma’s love of plants is brought into focus again with her love of flower scents, having previously been seen in Pat’s Issue #2 story “The Book of Potions”. Bow intervenes and tries to stop the two of them arguing, making a terrible pun – “Make up, you know it makes ‘scents’!” – which only drives them further apart!
We switch to a scene of an ordinary Etherian child, a young boy called Erval, setting out to pick Roddenberries for some jam his mother is making. The name ‘Roddenberries’ is of course a clever reference to Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek! We then shift to the Fright Zone, where Hordak seems to be aspiring to reach Bow’s level of dreadful puns, as he rants “These Rebels have been a thorn in my side long enough! I want them weeded out of the Whispering Wood!” Shadow Weaver has the spell to satisfy his needs, reading an incantation from the Book of Arcane Knowledge, causing the words on the page to disappear as the magic takes effect over in Whispering Woods.
As thorns and briars begin to grow rapidly throughout the wood, scattering the people, Adora transforms into She-Ra and sets out to seek Castaspella’s help while Erval’s mother comes to the Rebels for help, worried that Erval will be endangered by the plants. (The unusual sound effects of the magical briars growing are Pat Kelleher's nod to Alan Moore's seminal Swamp Thing run.) What follows is a rescue mission as Perfuma and Flutterina are forced to put their differences aside, Perfuma using her magic to hold the plants at bay while Flutterina flies overhead to scout for Erval. She finds the boy sheltered in a clearing protected by Perfuma’s magic, and flies him back to his mother at the Rebel camp, following which Perfuma and Flutterina hug, Bow relieved to see they are friends again.
She-Ra, meanwhile, is visiting Castaspella, another character whose role in the comic has been rather minimal so far, with only a brief role in helping save the day in Issue #6’s “Hordak’s Victory”. Spying on Shadow Weaver in Casta’s Pool of Vision, Casta recognizes the Book of Arcane Knowledge, thought to have been lost many years ago. Casta teleports the two of them to Doom Tower, where we get a brief magic duel between Casta and Shadow Weaver, whom we later learn have a history together in Issue #13’s “Tales From the Crystal Castle: A Shadow Over Etheria”, another of Pat Kelleher’s stories. It is particularly notable from the dialogue: “That’s not strong magic, Shadow Weaver. That’s just nasty!... I prefer nicer, gentler magic” that this story is very much aiming at the younger readers of the comic. But nonetheless, we get a strong speech from Castaspella on the final panel of page 5, as she denounces Shadow Weaver for her misuse of precious magic.
Upon teleporting to Whispering Woods, She-Ra is asked by Bow where Adora is, and a frequent trope from the cartoon series is used here, when She-Ra responds with the hopelessly vague “She’s safe.” The evil spell is cleared up pretty easily here as Castaspella simply reads the counter spell aloud from the book, causing the briars and thorns to vanish instantaneously. Bow celebrates that everything has returned to normal and “Even Flutterina and Perfuma have stopped arguing”, the two princesses now standing arm in arm like the best of friends.
We get an amusing ending and semi-coda to the story, when a short while later, Perfuma and Flutterina come to take Erval Roddenberry-picking, with his mother’s permission. As they head off into the woods with Erval, the two girls start bickering again over where is the best place in the wood to pick berries, causing Bow to face palm, declaring “Oh no! Here we go again!”
While undisputedly a likeable and fun story, there’s no question that “A Thorny Problem” is aiming at the younger demographic of the comic’s readers, and this could strike some readers as frustrating given the more mature tone of many of the comic’s stories. The huge contrast between this story and the preceding “Freedom Castle” is instantly noticeable, and “A Thorny Problem” may strike some older readers as juvenile and simplistic in light of “Freedom Castle”’s more serious and adult-friendly themes. But it would be a mistake to criticize the story because of this; rather it serves to consider the wider context and how these vast contradictions in the tone of She-Ra stories were present across all She-Ra media in the 80s, not just the London Editions comics. This stemmed largely from the fact that Mattel was uncertain about how to market the Princess of Power toy line, and whether to treat it as a line of action figures for girls or as a range of dolls, with the focus on beautifying features and fashion accessories. Mattel chose to focus very much on the latter, meaning it was very difficult to view the toy line as being in any way related to the Masters of the Universe one given how vastly different it felt, and consequently much She-Ra media was very light in theme, the focus on fairytale elements rather than action, with romantic and ‘girly’ plots much prevalent. Filmation, on the other hand, realized there was a strong desire for action and adventure stories among female viewers as well as males, and that the She-Ra: Princess of Power cartoon series would have to be more in-keeping with the tone of the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series to be a true companion show, hence focusing largely on action, albeit in a mostly brighter, more colourful world than Eternia in the He-Man series. Thankfully the London Editions comics mainly followed the Filmation series’ example, although editor Brian Clarke was under much pressure from staff at Mattel who did not believe girls were interested in action stories, and thus he faced pressure to focus on the fairytale elements and friendship dynamics between the characters as opposed to action and adventure. It was inevitable, therefore, that the comic would sometimes see a dramatic shift in tone; thus it would be a mistake to be overly critical of stories that went in a different direction from the comics’ more mature stories and strategy-based plotlines.
And what Pat Kelleher has done with “A Thorny Problem” is craft a fun, comedic and very likeable story which, despite the writing being skewed to a younger audience, has enough humour and character depth to endear itself to older readers as well. Pat’s versatility as a writer can very much be noted, given that he has previously given us stories with a deeper, emotional feel (Issue #4’s “The Null-Stone of Nabob”) as well as comedic teen drama (Issue #3’s “She-Ra the Bad”). It is notable also how he has a knack for bringing out a touch of strong personality in a lot of the franchise’s supporting cast members, with the teenage-like conflict between Perfuma and Flutterina in this story on top of his development of Frosta in Issue #5’s “The Wuglies” and Entrapta in Issue #4’s “The Null-Stone of Nabob”. He is skilled at writing with a prevalent sense of warmth and deadpan humour. Regarding his skill at writing for the supporting cast members, Pat says:
"I've always enjoyed playing around with lesser known characters and the relatively unexplored corners of an IP franchise. Having a character bible of all the characters, one of my interests in writing She-Ra was in pairing up various characters outside the main cast, and looking for possible areas of conflict or tension to explore, as with Perfuma and Flutterina here. It makes for slightly more nuanced and complex stories, rather than straightforward goodies versus baddies. She-Ra had such a large potential cast, not everyone had the chance to shine. It was always nice to give some of them a brief moment in the spotlight."
He definitely did a good job with that here, and while “A Thorny Problem” may not rank among the comic’s greatest moments, it definitely entertains and shows us another side to the deep and rich She-Ra mythology built by London Editions.
Story 3: “Catra’s Sword of Honour”
Writer: Brian Clarke
Art: Joan Boix
Synopsis: Catra and Clawdeen wander the Forest of Fear, thinking of how they can manage to defeat She-Ra. Catra suspects it must be She-Ra’s sword that gives her her powers, and if only she had a sword just like it, she would be just as powerful as She-Ra. She decides to ask Shadow Weaver for help obtaining such a sword. In the furthest clearing of the forest, Catra finds Shadow Weaver, and asks her how she would go about making a sword to match She-Ra’s. Shadow Weaver tells her she will need help from She-Ra’s friend Madame Razz, and that if Catra threatens Madame Razz’s friends and takes her to the Land of Ferros, she will have no choice but to help her. Shadow Weaver tells Catra to bring the sword to her once she has it, so she can work out how best to use the weapon. Catra and Clawdeen travel to Whispering Woods, where they capture the Twigget Spritina, and Catra tells Madame Razz she will not see Spritina again unless she follows her instructions. She takes Madame Razz, Broom and the other Twiggets to the Land of Ferros, where everything is made of metal – even the plants. Catra orders them to make a sword from the metal of Ferros. They have no choice but to carry out Catra’s orders, and they retrieve enough metal to make a sword. Back at Catra’s fortress, Madame Razz, Broom and the Twiggets work hard on forging the sword, and Razz uses her magic powers to imbue the sword with magic – but she tweaks the spell slightly so it will not work as Catra is hoping. Catra tests the sword, and uses it to hypnotize a fierce Saberion, then to smash apart a hard rock. Catra allows Madame Razz to leave with the Twiggets, including Spritina, and tells them to tell She-Ra there is a new evil power on Etheria to match her own. Although she pretends to leave, Madame Razz then secretly follows Catra to see if her own plan has worked. She sees Catra present the sword to Shadow Weaver, who asks her to test it for her. Catra attempts to use the sword to hypnotize a large bird, but the bird attacks her. She then attempts to use it to fell a tree, but upon impact with the trunk, the sword itself smashes apart. Shadow Weaver walks off, unimpressed, leaving Catra perplexed as to why the sword is no longer working. As Madame Razz and her friends return home, Razz explains that she cast the spell so that the sword would work twice only, meaning it was certain to be destroyed the more Catra tried to use it.
Review: “Catra’s Sword of Honor” is notable for being the first story in the She-Ra comic series that does not actually feature She-Ra herself. Rather, the antagonist Catra is the focus of this story, and as with previous stories in the comic, most particularly Issue #3’s “She-Ra the Bad”, it portrays Catra as not so much an evil character as someone who is jealous of She-Ra and gravitates towards working with the Horde purely out of the desire to personally one-up She-Ra, rather than out of any truly vindictive desires.
What will certainly strike readers about this story, particularly in its position following Pat Kelleher’s “A Thorny Problem” in this issue, is that it continues with the tone set by the previous story of writing for a younger demographic, the plot far friendlier to younger child readers than teenagers or adults. And its portrayal of Catra is rather in-keeping with the way Mattel marketed the character. Out of a conviction that girls were not interested in action stories, Mattel marketed Catra as the lead antagonist of the She-Ra toy line (Hordak and the Horde being part of the MOTU toy line rather than POP), and packaged her with the tag line ‘jealous beauty’, indicating that she was a person of a jealous nature rather than evil. While the London Editions comics generally followed the example of the Filmation cartoon series, with the Horde as the lead antagonists, their portrayal of Catra mostly matched that of Mattel; it was indeed explained back in Issue #1 that Catra was not officially allied with the Horde nor truly evil, just someone who was jealous and distrustful; her schemes more of a mischievous nature than an evil one. This story focuses on the theme of Catra wanting the one thing that will guarantee her equal footing with She-Ra – a sword just as powerful as that of She-Ra.
Paired with her sidekick Clawdeen, Catra muses on just what it is that gives She-Ra her powers, imagining having a sword just like She-Ra’s and her own castle, which she would call Castle Darkmoon. Riding atop Clawdeen, Catra seeks out the advice of Shadow Weaver.
Shadow Weaver suggests that Catra utilize Madame Razz in her scheme, forcing her to make a sword with powers equal to She-Ra’s. It seems rather strange that Shadow Weaver would suggest Madame Razz of all people – as we readers know, She-Ra’s sword is powered by Castle Grayskull on Eternia, channelled through the Crystal Castle on Etheria – and we know well that the power of Grayskull is essentially the power to become master of the universe. And as powerful as Madame Razz might be, to think that a clumsy witch whose powers are very basic compared to those of Grayskull would be able to create anything near as powerful as She-Ra’s Sword of Protection seems rather ludicrous to say the least – and you would think Shadow Weaver would realize that. It thus becomes quickly apparent that this story is not particularly concerned with common logic nor consistency with the wider mythos – rather, this seems to be a story written to appease Mattel in their pushing for stories focusing on fairytale elements rather than action, geared towards younger readers.
We get a brief scene of Madame Razz playing with Broom and the Twiggets in Whispering Woods. Indeed, She-Ra herself does not appear in this story; nor do any of the other princesses – the side of the Rebels is represented here by the cute comedy sidekicks, who are given their own moment in the spotlight.
Clawdeen is shown capturing Spritina the Twigget, although exactly how she manages to ensnare her is not clear; she is just shown running off with Spritina on her back, and there would seem to be no reason why Spritina cannot just jump down! Catra explains to Madame Razz what she wants her to do, and takes her to the land of Ferros, one of the strangest places on Etheria – for everything there is made of metal, even the plants! The place is given a comical fairytale background, the legend, as relayed by Madame Razz, telling that a robot was once marooned there, and took up gardening to pass the time! Catra makes Madame Razz and Broom pull enough metal from the ground to make a sword, then takes them back to her fortress (it is not quite clear where this is though it seems to be in the Forest of Fear, where the story began) to forge the sword from the metal.
Metalwork is not Madame Razz’s specialty (her thought bubble tells us “They never taught me to do metalwork at witches’ school” but somehow she and Broom manage to forge a sword, and Catra tells Razz to cast “a wicked spell to make it the hardest sword on Etheria, and one which can hypnotize whoever it’s pointed at.” Madame Razz casts a ‘spell for magical swords’ to give the sword its power, a loose invocation of He-Man’s catchphrase with the line “let the sword have the power!”
It is interesting how Catra calls the sword a ‘sword of honour’, for Catra is not exactly an honourable person nor is she likely to consider herself to be. Calling it the ‘Sword of Evil’ would of course have felt repetitious following the use of that name for an evil sword that genuinely matched the power of He-Man’s and She-Ra’s in the Twins of Power Special, but possibly the ‘sword of darkness’ or something may have worked better. She uses the sword on a fierce wild creature called a Saberion, which she succeeds in hypnotizing with the sword, then uses the sword to smash through a large rock, and satisfied that it is as powerful as she hoped, allows Madame Razz and her friends to leave with the captive Spritina. A cutesy illustration shows Spritina atop Clawdeen’s back, smiling and clearly enjoying riding atop this animal, and the doe-eyed expression on Clawdeen’s face likewise indicates that neither her nor Catra pose any real threat to the small heroes; they are innocent wannabe villains rather than the real thing. While this story is clearly targeting the younger demographic, the stark contrast can certainly be noted with the portrayal of Clawdeen in Issue #6’s “The Siren Fish of Etheria”, as an elegant yet ferocious and rather sinister creature.
Catra’s dialogue is amusing, as she proclaims herself “the princess of evil” with “the power of this evil sword in my hand”. Catra herself seems a little confused over whether she’s good or evil, since she uses the word ‘evil’ non-hesitantly here but earlier on called the sword a ‘sword of honour’! Clearly she is trying to envision herself as a dark equivalent of She-Ra, again much similar to her portrayal in the early Mattel merchandise.
Catra goes to demonstrate the sword to Shadow Weaver, overconfidently attempting to hypnotize a large bird and then fell a tree with the sword – both of which lead to comically humiliating results, the bird attacking her and knocking her over, then the sword itself smashing into fragments as soon as it impacts with the tree. Shadow Weaver leaves unimpressed, leaving Catra confused as to what has happened, and on the final panel, Madame Razz explains to her friends that she tweaked the spell so that the sword would only work twice, and would inevitably be destroyed the more Catra attempted to use it.
While an enjoyable story, its innocence lending it a certain charm, “Catra’s Sword of Honour” does feel a little too simplistic, with a tone very much skewed towards the youngest of the comic’s readers, Catra portrayed more like a jealous and mischievous teenager than a true villain, and a rather unlikely premise in the expectation that the small comedy sidekicks of the Rebellion would be capable of anything like producing a sword as powerful as She-Ra’s. The overall tone of this issue has shifted very much down a more juvenile path following its rather deep and emotional opening with “Freedom Castle”. Although as stated before, it would be unfair to be too harsh on the writers for taking the child-friendly approach given the pressure from Mattel and the need to appeal to all ages, this story does perhaps write down to the reader slightly, and disregards logic and clear continuity with most other stories, so the reader cannot be blamed for finding it a little disappointing in that regard, and perhaps finding this issue disappointing after a particularly strong and emotion-heavy Issue #6.
Indeed, writer and editor Brian Clarke says of this time in the comic's run: "I think it was around this time that we were hearing that the news trade were having problems with where to rack [the She-Ra comic] in stores. We ourselves couldn’t decide between young readers, or girls' comics. Most stores were putting us with young readers. I gambled that young readers would want the comic simply because of the logo and title character and that gave us the freedom for more diverse stories."
The more small child-friendly tone may be necessary at times, but “A Thorny Problem” did a better job overall of combining such a tone with an engaging story and well-rounded characters to retain the appeal for older readers.
That said, there can be one thing certain about the She-Ra comic – it continues to surprise us with its diversity of plots and unexpected approaches to the stories, and it surprises us in ways that even the MOTU comic does not, which perhaps gives it a certain edge over the latter comic with the greater diversity of story themes. Indeed, it could be considered a brave move to have included a story that does not even feature She-Ra herself and gives the smaller, magical characters the chance to shine in the spotlight instead, which is something even the MOTU comic has not attempted yet, all stories having focused firmly on He-Man throughout its 18 issues. When it comes to the She-Ra comic, we really never know what to expect, and even if some readers may have found this particular issue disappointing, there is plenty of scope for optimism with the writers’ general innovative approach to the stories, which should leave the reader excited as to what is to come in the next issue.
Competition page to win a copy of the Ladybird Books adaptation of the Secret of the Sword movie together with audio tape. A similar competition was featured in the MOTU comic around this time.
© Aidan Cross, 2021.