He-Man and the Masters of the Universe – Comics Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews all the 12 issues of the new DC Comics reboot for the classic Hasbro toy line: four issues of the ongoing series, a special one-shot origin tale for Skeletor, and seven one-shot issues covering the various heroes and villains of the setting.
“The entire reboot has been a mixed bag, but the strength of the entire line-up is in the reimagining of all the old classic characters.” ~The Founding Fields
I will be honest right from the start: I love He-Man. As much as I love G.I.Joe. Especially when I was growing up. Example: for one of my birthdays, I had my parents buy me a full and proper Castle Grayskull play-set, complete with a functional jaw-bridge and all. I used to own the classic He-Man, Teela, Skeletor, Battle Cat, Ram-Man, Prince Adam, and other toys. I was crazy about this stuff. The Filmation He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoons? Childhood staple. The Secret of the Sword movie and the Christmas Special? Best cartoon movies ever. My obsession with He-Man was only dented by one thing, ever: the horrible travesty that is/was the Dolph Lundgren/Frank Langella movie. God that was horrible. Worse than Stallone Judge Dread bad, much worse. Thankfully, it was the only such bad adaptation of the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe setting for me. Back in college, I read most of the early DC He-Man series and I remember that I liked most of them. There’s just been too much of a gap in between though, mostly due to the lack of a good television, movie, or comics adaptation. We had that series in 2002 that reimagined him as a teenaged figure, but that sadly didn’t last long either. The point I’m trying to make that He-Man has been a big part of my childhood, and my experience with the whole toy-line and the associated comics and cartoons was a very formative experience.
Now, enter DC Comics this year with a 6-issue limited series run, accompanied by various one-shots focusing on particular characters in the setting, both new and old, but mostly old. There are a lot of writers involved in the whole reboot, some of whom have done justice to the characters, others not so much, proving to be quite big disappointments. The most important thing for me however has been reconnecting with all these characters, finding out all these new takes on them, whether I disagree with their portrayals or not.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe #1-4
The series starts with an amnesiac Prince Adam who is living the life of a simple wood-cutter, his father an ailing old man by the name of Fedor. Unable to escape the troubling dreams he has been having of late, Adam decides to strike out in the world on his own, and leaves to find out the answers to questions about himself that he cannot answer. He gets a rude shock when he goes up against the infamous Beast Man. Written by James Robinson, of Earth 2 fame, the first issue was quite disappointing for me. We are thrust right into the middle of the story and we have no context for why things are as they are, what has happened to bring the characters to this point. All we know, from inference, is that Skeletor has somehow conquered Grayskull and that the kingdom of Eternia is no more a power, with its most powerful defenders all missing. Having really enjoyed Robinson’s Earth 2 ongoing run, this book was a rude shock to me. I had some very high expectations of it, and it failed to meet them at all. Some really dubious moments in the script even made me wonder if this really was that same Robinson writing the book.
The artwork was also very middling. Its very much the eyes that did it in for me: they are just too indistinct. The only time that Philip Tan gets Adam’s eyes right is when Adam is surprised. I did like his Beast Man however. He captured his brutal, muscled look really well, and that was a highlight of the book for me. The rest was just not good enough though.
Then Keith Giffen abruptly and inexplicably took over writing duties for the series, from #2. This time, we find Adam in the desert, where he is captured by tribal nomads who answer to Trapjaw, another classic He-Man character. Giffen’s writing improved immensely on the disappointment of the previous issue and it made me hopeful that the series just might be getting on the right track after all. The most striking thing about the second issue is Giffen’s portrayal of Trapjaw. In the cartoons and associated media of the era, Trapjaw was always much too comical a fellow, with this manic laugh that made him sound like a really bad c-movie villain. But Giffen gives Trapjaw a very different personality than before. He is now a sophisticated character with more to him than what you see, and certainly quite capable, unlike the bumbling fool of before.
Teela also makes an appearance, as one of Trapjaw’s slaves. We don’t see much of her unique personality in this book, but Giffen builds her up very nicely. As with Adam, she has also lost her memories, but also remembers that she was much more before than she is now. Another person, another life. Combined with Adam’s flashes of inspiration as to who he was, Giffen is setting a very good stage for what is to follow.
There is some improvement in Tan’s artwork this time around, but he still gets those eyes wrong. And getting those eyes wrong really ruins most of the panels for me. Trapjaw is slightly better in that regard, but Teela and Adam suffer from this. Even in general, his faces are often indistinct. It just doesn’t work. Howard Porter’s limited pencils for pages 1-4 and 19 are much better in that regard, the characters actually have genuine expressions. The inks and colours are the same as before, still as good, although nothing much to write home about. I only wish that both Adam and Teela did not have blonde hair and blue eyes.
Giffen retconned Robinson’s ending of the first issue a bit, giving us 4-pages of an extended chat between Beast Man and Skeletor, following the former’s failure to kill Adam. He also got Beast Man’s character right, building on what Robinson had done before. So that’s two points for Giffen with this issue.
In #3, Giffen really hits stride and delivers an absolute scorcher of a book. That this happens to be the book with Mer-Man is nothing short of ironic. In Mer-Man Giffen surpasses himself with what he did in the previous issue with Trapjaw/Kronis. The self-styled “Emperor” of the seas has gotten a similar makeover and he is no longer a laughing stock now, but a serious, and perhaps even dedicated, individual who cares about getting the job done. In the previous two books, the theme has been that Skeletor’s henchmen have failed to kill Adam because they’ve either been just plain incompetent or have indulged their fancies in drawing out Adam’s demise. Mer-Man puts paid to all that, and doesn’t waste time. Adam being Adam, and Teela being Teela, that’s easier said than done.
With Teela’s help, Adam is (painfully) slowly starting to piece together what has been done to him: forced amnesia, and they begin to look for a way to restore their memories and past identities. Teela is the more intellectual of the two and I like that Giffen has been playing up that side of her. Even in the source material, Teela has always been the smart one of the pair, since Adam always chose to put forward a caricature of himself so no one would ever realise that Prince Adam is the secret identity of He-Man. Its all very Superman-esque.
The major highpoint, other than Mer-Man’s excellent characterisation, of the issue is when we see Skeletor in Castle Grayskull, having a meal with the Sorceress, who appears to be under an enchantment as well. Those few panels are brutal panels, hinting at the tortures that he has made her suffer, and none of it is pretty. I loved that whole bit, and would certainly like more!
The art this time around is just slightly better. I still don’t like how Tan draws his characters’ facial expressions, but the rest is quite good. Seeing Adam and Teela out of their usual attire is quite the change, but its a change that I can get behind, that’s for sure. There’s no less than four inkers on this issue, plus a full-time colourist and that makes for a range of styles, to the point that its confusing since the book doesn’t exactly have a single cohesive art style. In the main though, I thought the art was alright. At this point, I’m reading the books mainly for the story rather than the art.
In the recently released fourth issue, the big bad villain is Evil-lyn this time. And she’s crazy, like really crazy, like she’s totally lost her marbles. If there’s one thing that this series has delivered beautifully on, its the portrayal of all the villains. Evil-lyn is no exception to that. Her craziness is almost as if that’s what the doctor ordered for the series, after the grim portrayals of the previous three villains. Giffen adds to that with Skeletor’s tacit admission that she is as powerful as him, and needs to be kept… amused. Makes for an interesting dichotomy in her character.
Of course, it was also time with this book to introduce another former ally of He-Man, and Giffen doesn’t disappoint by giving us Duncan, Teela’s father and Man-at-Arms, the only one other than the Sorceress to have ever known that Prince Adam and He-Man are the same person. Well, other than that goofball Orko that is. I loved Giffen’s take on Man-at-Arms, very sympathetic and compelling, much as how he has shown Teela and Adam so far, in their amnesiac state.
Unfortunately, this book continues the trend that the villains play with Adam, rather than kill him outright, as Skeletor wants them do. That begs the question: why didn’t Skeletor kill Adam in the first place, whenever it was that he defeated He-Man and conquered Grayskull. There appear to be some rather deeper plots at work here, especially given the introduction of yet another character to the series, the mysterious flaming skull that Skeletor talks to about the Sorceress, Adam, and the failures of his people. Said skull exposes what I had suspected so far: that the villains “failed” to kill Adam because they want a spectacle of humiliation in which Adam suffers what He-Man made them all suffer over the years. They are just instinctively/naturally averse to the quick death. A late in explanation, but welcome confirmation nonetheless.
In terms of the art, while both Adam and Teela have very young, teenaged faces, I didn’t find them too much of an issue. It jars yeah, but the rest of the comic more than makes up for that. This book marks Pop Mhan taking over the pencilling and inking duties, with Philip Tan And Ruy Jose only doing a couple guest pages each as penciller and inker. That (almost) consistent style was a big factor in my enjoyment of the book. It was what this series needed given the confusion and inconsistency in the earlier issues. Mhan has a much better handle on all the characters, and his Duncan/Man-at-Arms out of uniform is what I always imagined he’d be like in that situation. Mhan’s Evil-lyn is a bit weird looking but that’s alright, not that much of a big deal really since that weirdness does kind of fit the craziness that Giffen has given her.
I have to say that so far, Giffen has more than met my expectations with this series, after taking over from Robinson. Issue #4 ends on a maddening cliffhanger, but there is an interesting setup for the next issue, in which Adam apparently goes up against Battle Cat! Now that’s going to be explosive. If you’ve only read the first issue, then I would say stick with the series. Giffen really ups the game and the series keeps getting better with each issue. And the covers keep getting better too. Issue #4 has the best so far, in terms of what I expect them all to be like, and Issue #2 is great because of how it puts He-Man against Trapjaw. A decent series so far all around.
Masters of the Universe #1 – The Origin of Skeletor by Joshua Hale Fialkov
When DC announced this one-shot back in summer, I was quite excited about it. In this particular setting, origin stories are always quite fun to read about, and the story of how Keldor became Skeletor is one of the most fascinating. Joshua Hale Fialkov continues along that vein for this book, writing Keldor as the half-brother to King Randor, and therefore He-Man’s uncle. This has come up in the ongoing series a couple times, so its nice to see that there’s that continuity going on here, making the new reboot that much more cohesive.
But I’ll be brutally honest: Fialkov has written a really bad book. Not a terrible book, mind, but a really bad one. The story is, in itself, quite compelling: Keldor has betrayed the armies of Eternia and allied himself with Hordak. Somehow Keldor is injured in the fighting however, and his face isburnt away by acid, so he treks all the way back to Eternian Palace to meet with his younger half-brother, and on the way he passes several places which hold significance for their shared childhood. Fialkov uses those moments to give us the back-story on Keldor and to show why he turned to being the villain, rather than the hero he could have been. But that’s the inherent quality of the story, not the writing itself.
The writing just meanders along, with little direction. Keldor’s ruminations are not compelling in and of themselves. He is furious at not becoming King because he is the eldest son of Miro, and so he joins forces with Hordak to destroy Randor. I get that. But where are the betrayals he committed? What caused his face to be burnt by acid? Why is Randor in the Palace, and not out on the battlefield resisting Hordak? The 2002 reboot handled Keldor’s fall much better than this, and I can point to a big reason why: this is a regular 32 page comic and there just isn’t enough space for Fialkov to properly explore the whole concept. The writing is rushed, and sometimes incoherent as well. The dream-like sequences just don’t have any kind of punch.
Add to that, Frazer Irving’s internal art, whether pencils or colours or inks, is sub-par. Very, very sub-par. The pencils are always seriously indistinct, little more line-art at times. The colours and inks, there is no depth to them. Often Keldor’s burning face looks like just a mad jumble of greenish blues and reddish oranges, with no discernible features. The dream sequences are all black and white, the only colours being Skeletor’s greenish blue face, a legacy of his (barbaric?) Gar blood which marks him out an outsider and unworthy to sit on the throne of Eternia. Quite simply put, this is the worst-drawn comic I’ve ever read, a real shame considering the potential that it had, and that it is part of such a big IP. I would take Philip Tan over Frazer Irving any day of the week.
Masters of the Universe #1 – Sir Laser Lot by Geoff Johns
Written by Geoff Johns (Justice League, Green Lantern, Aquaman), this is the first of the weekly digital shorts that were released around the same time as the main on-going series. This book presents a new character, Sir Laser Lot, and is a prologue to the ongoing series, especially in relation to issue #4. Eternia is in turmoil following the death of King Grayskull and when the book starts, we meet two young kids who are on the run in the forest from a tribe of beastmen. Sir Laser Lot saves them and takes them to his home in the woods, where his identity is revealed and where this former Eternian knight encounters Skeletor and his forces for the first time.
This was a rather downbeat issue, I have to admit. Sir Laser Lot is a character that Geoff Johns created when he was a kid, given official sanction now with the DC reboot. And, I’m not really impressed with him at all. With this issue, we don’t really see much of Sir Laser Lot. All we really find out about him is that he was one of Grayskull’s best, that he wasn’t there when the King fell, and that he wields a power-mace of some kind. As a look into his character, the issue is very disappointing.
Howard Porter’s pencils are quite decent, but they don’t stand out much. The panels with the two kids running from the beastmen are the highlight really, as are some of the early scenes with Sir Laser Lot, but the second half of the book is so so. There’s one panel in particular where the characters are shown walking hunched down, without reason. And Porter’s pencils of Skeletor show an over-muscled burly brute, rather than a fit-and-fighting warrior.
Overall, not one of Geoff Johns’ better issues. There’s a lot of room for improvement here since this issue should have been about Sir Laser Lot’s past, rather than being a prologue to the on-going series. There needs to be a second issue continuing this story.
Masters of the Universe #2 – Man-At-Arms by Kyle Higgins
For my money, Kyle Higgins is one of the better creators working with DC right now, as his run on Nightwing shows, and he is one writer I will buy without reservations. His Nightwing has been just plain excellent, especially the recent #0 and #13 issues, and when I heard that he’ll be doing a few one-shots for this digital-only series, I was very, very excited. Higgins justifies my trust in his writing with this issue, which focuses on Man-at-Arms and shows him in a really good light.
The issues presents Man-at-Arms as a pseudo special agent under the auspices of the Sorceress. This time, he is tasked with infiltrating the stronghold of a tribe of warlocks who have stolen one of the two gems that once formed the Eyes of Grayskull. It may sound funny, but I read this comic, and I had James Bond music playing in my head. It is even more fitting since Duncan has always been a man of gadgets and Higgins shows that off to great effect here, in a very Bond way. I loved how he he tackled the story of Duncan infiltrating the warlock stronghold, and how he gets out.
The art for this issue is primarily handled by Pop Mhan, who is also the current artist in the on-going series starting with issue #4. Mhan’s pencils are heavier this time around, but he shows the same flair for drawing these characters as he did with those in the main series. His Duncan is very true to the old Filmation-era Man-at-Arms, but more muscular and well-built, which I certainly didn’t mind at all. With her colours, Carrie Strachan does a great job of complementing Mhan and I’ll say that they make a good creative team together.
Overall, another fantastic piece or work by Higgins, one of the highlights of the reboot.
Masters of the Universe #3 – Battle Cat by Mike Costa
Cringer is perhaps one of the best heroic fantasy sidekicks ever. This big old softy has it all: the good Palace life with all the food he could ever want, a master who loves him, and is just as lazy as him when it comes to doing any work. Of course, once he turns into the fearsome Battle Cat, the war mount and companion of He-Man, he undergoes a fearsome transformation. I’ve always liked Cringer/Battle Cat and I was really interested to see how Mike Costa would handle him. As it turns out, this issue is flat out the best issue in the digital series, easily beating Kyle Higgins’ Man-at-Arms book, which is no small feat.
The reason: the way Costa presents Cringer’s thoughts and animalistic his portrayal of the character is. The story is in first-person from Cringer’s own perspective, and much of it is a flashback to when he was a cub, part of the Green Tigor Clan, the most fearsome tigors in Eternia, and the natural enemies of the Panther Clan. Mike Costa shows the clan at its best, and at its worst, when it is ambushed by the Panthers. Cringer sees his friends and family, particularly his father, brutally murdered in cold blood, and he goes on the run. Costa’s script goes a long way in explaining just what it is that sets Cringer apart, why he is always so “cowardly” and afraid of danger all the time. The traumatic experiences of his childhood are presented in a very compelling way, and I fell in love with Cringer all over again.
There is little dialogue in the comic, only towards the end when we see Teela and Cringer together in the Palace. The rest of the time, it is Cringer’s thoughts that we “read”. These thoughts are of war and blood when he is Battle Cat, and quite the opposite when he is just Cringer. As a cub, we feel his pride in his clan, and his terror when the Panthers attack. Much as with how Giffen reimagines the villains for the ongoing series, Costa has completely reimagined Battle Cat for this one-shot.
The art for the book is provided by Jheremy Raapack, who did a great job of bringing Costa’s word to life with his pencils, and Allen Passalaqua’s colours complement them both in turn. The scenes with the Tigors and the Panthers are the highlights of the book, as are the scenes where Cringer becomes Battle Cat for the first time and gets his revenge on those who killed his clan.
At this point, I’m really hoping that there’s a sequel in the works or something that continues what Costa and Raapack have started in this book. And also that that Cringer/Battle Cat gets his own limited series too, three or four issues worth.
Masters of the Universe #4 – Randor by Mike Costa
King Randor was never much of a focal character in the old days, definitely not in the Filmation era cartoons. He was always either in the Palace living the good life of a married King with a son, or needing rescuing by He-Man whenever Skeletor or other Eternian villain went after him directly. With this book, the promise was that we would see a much different side of Randor, something akin to what we saw in the 2002 cartoon reboot. I read the comic again for this issue and I realised that I actually didn’t have a problem with the writing. Costa writes this issue different than he did the one with Battle Cat and the two are very distinct.
The story itself is about a very whimsical, thoughtful King Randor, a man who has had to make some bleak choices during his kingship. With Battle Cat/Cringer, Costa reimagined the character entirely. But with Randor, he’s presented a very different side to him, one that we almost never see since the focus is always on He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. This expose therefore works. It is unique, it is different, and it is appropriate.
No, my problem was with the internal art, done by Eric Nguyen and Tony Avina. The pencils have too much of the sketch-quality to them, they are not smooth, there’s no sharpness to them. In the panels where there is blood involved, it gets even worse because it appears that the art isn’t hand-drawn but is all photoshopped. That feeling is compounded by the dark colour palette that is used. The whole mood of the script is just plain ruined. And there’s this one panel with Teela and He-Man where she giggles and shies away from him, like a middle-school girl with a crush. Sweet mercy. Just another nail in that coffin.
If you want to get this comic, then get it for the story, not the art. The writing is excellent, the art is atrocious.
Masters of the Universe #5 – Evil-Lyn by Kyle Higgins
Kyle Higgins returns for his second outing with the digital series, writing about the seductress, the enchantress, and Skeletor’s right-hand in most things, Evil-Lyn. I’ve never been much of a fan of the character, although there was this limited series sometime ago in which her origins were explored. If I remember right, she was the daughter of one of the bigwig characters of the setting, or something. I really must track down that one, since those were some really good comics.
Anyways, this issue deals with Evil-Lyn going undercover to convert a former Eternian Guard, Nolar Blak, to her cause and use him to steal a particular gem. Their relationship is a blitz of emotions and when things finally go down at the end, I was left wondering if Evil-Lyn really had had any feelings for Nolar Blak. It was all a nice twist. Normally, as her name suggests, Evil-Lyn is a pretty evil character, right down there with Skeletor and Beastman or the old Trapjaw (more on that below). But Higgins presents a different side to her, one that you can almost imagine her to be like if she hadn’t fallen in with old Skullface. I liked the twists at the end of the story, since they reinforce that if you get involved with the villains of this setting, you are rarely ever going to come out of it well off.
The art is interesting too, very noir-ish. Can’t say I care much for this issue in that respect, but it presents a good complement to the script. Mike Henderson has a good hand with his pencils, and he uses the black and white palette to great effect, interspersed at a few key moments with Evil-Lyn’s defining purple.
A decent issue with some decent art, but I think I still like the one with Man-at-Arms far better. One of the highlights of this issue is how it ties into the rest of the series, and with the other digital one-shots. The only thing that would jar for someone reading this comic is that Higgins’ portrayal of Evil-Lyn is very different to Giffen’s in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe #4, but I should add that there is quite a bit of a time difference between the two, both in-universe, and publication release date-wise. Some sort of a bridging issue would be great I think.
Masters of the Universe #6 – Orko by Jeff Parker
Written by Jeff Parker, this one-shot has to be the most depressingly disappointing book in the digital series. Where all the other one-shots have given us new and improved characterisations, Parker chooses to go the “soft” route and gives us an Orko who is an even more of a goofball screwup than ever before, worse in fact. All the books so far have maintained a healthy adult tone, but Parker chooses to turn this one into a comic that’s more suitable for a middle-grade kid, rather than a much more mature reader. Its like he’s injected the Powerpuff Girls into Masters of the Universe. You just don’t do that.
And the art, even from the beginning it plays up to a ham-fisted kids mindset. And it gets worse. Pac-man style panels. Finding Nemo style panels. Doodles on lined schoolbook papers. Give me a break.
Why oh why, when there has been such great work in the characterisation of the villains and heroes so far, would the creative team go down this route and ruin everything that’s come before, and set a bad precedent for what’s to come?
Masters of the Universe #7 – Trapjaw by Kyle Higgins
And finally we get to the latest digital one-shot, written by Kyle Higgins, as he tackles Kronis/Trapjaw this time. Trapjaw for me was always one of those Eternian villains that I cared little about. Much as with most of Skeletor’s flunkies, he almost always goofed things up, and he was a joke, to be frank. With this issue, Kyle Higgins changes all of that to give a more nuanced version of him. Granted, the scope of the story limits how much Higgins can get into Kronis’ psyche, but I’ll say that this is a comic that is much more subtle than most people would give it credit for. When I first read it, I dismissed it too. But re-reading it for this review, I’ve realised that Higgins has a winner on his hands with this one, fitting right in between his Man-at-Arms and Evil-Lyn one-shots. It is also a prequel to both of those, and ideally, these should be read in reverse order.
In this comic, Higgins shows us how Trapjaw got his mechanical jaw, the circumstances that led to those events, and how he went around to get his revenge for his horrible disfigurement. It ties into Giffen’s ongoing series with the second issue, since Trapjaw remarks to Adam that he’s responsible for it, and that’s that. We don’t find out any more, until now. Kronis, as a vengeful man, is much more intellectual individual than he ever was as a direct Skeletor henchman. Combined with Giffen’s portrayal of the character, we have the makings of a character who could go on to become one of the successes of the entire reboot, right alongside Mer-Man and Man-at-Arms and Battle Cat.
Mike S. Miller’s art is also great. It took me three read-throughs of the comic to appreciate that, especially in the re-read context of the entire digital series so far. His Kronis/Trapjaw really is excellent, and he handles character expressions far better than most of the other artists in the entire reboot. In fact, I’d even say that he should have been the one to do the internal art on the first three issues of the ongoing series, rather than Philip Tan. And it should also be said that this is the first comic in the entire reboot that actually shows He-Man in a continuous action sequence. He-Man, not Adam. Miller automatically gets bonus points for that.
Overall, I would say that the digital series has been a great effort. All the different writers (except for the Orko issue) have contributed nicely to expanding on the events of the ongoing limited series, giving a lot more context to what is going on there, and explaining how Skeletor managed to conquer Grayskull. Writers like Higgins, who has done three issues in all so far, have maintained a good continuity with the ongoing series as well, and have tied things together to satisfaction.
Moving forward, I definitely want to see more one-shots with other characters, and some even that return to the ones we’ve seen. Stratos, Triklops, Panthor, Teela, the Sorceress and others are just some of the ones.
Till next time folks. By the Power of Grayskull!