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March 27, 2017 10:12 pm by JVS3
How He-Man Mastered the Universe review by Skell-Skells

Jack P. Starro (Skell-Skells on the He-Man.Org forums) has reviewed How He-Man Mastered the Universe, a new MOTU book written by Brian C. Baer. Check out his review below,
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And click here to join the discussion on the He-Man.Org forums. 

How He-Man Mastered the Universe: Toy to Television to the Big Screen is quite obviously a labour of love by author Brian C. Baer, rich with behind-the-scenes detail about the length and breadth of the Masters of the Universe. Evidently committed to championing a positive, yet not blindly fannish view of the highs and lows of He-Man's epic journey as a franchise, it casts a critical eye towards the strengths and weaknesses of the brand over its many incarnations and relaunches, assessing its triumphs and missteps alike.

Staring with a heartwarming tale about being introduced to He-Man almost literally at birth by his enthusiastic older brother, it is a book with a lot to recommend. Baer is a good writer, having an easy style of prose that is at once conversational, narrative, and analytical, making for a reading experience that is entertaining, thought-provoking, and potentially quite informative, depending on how deeply versed the reader may be with some of the minutiae of the franchise. Unlike many of the recent and forthcoming sumptuously illustrated tomes published by Dark Horse, however, this is not the book to seek if you are looking for an encyclopedic breakdown of the characters and worlds portrayed in MOTU, a cavalcade of rare art or comic book reproductions, nor detailed canonical analysis of various different intersecting continuity phases.

While those Dark Horse volumes were produced in collaboration with Mattel, the book we have here is an example of what might be called "popular academia", somewhere between those titles like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy, or especially akin to Superman vs. Hollywood, which Baer actually cites once or twice. At 200-odd pages, this book has around a dozen black and white images scattered throughout, mostly design sketches from the 1987 movie and photographs of the vintage toys, presumably to avoid issues with fair use copyright over using any published comic book art or stills from the cartoons. In short, it is not aiming for casual readers or trying to compete with the lush coffee-table books replete with vintage official artwork, but instead targets those interested in a lightly-academic look at the changing tides of the Masters brand.

That being the case, this is a piece of work I was delighted to be asked to review. As a lifelong He-Man fan myself, and having just recently done my doctoral thesis on adaptation in multimedia franchises (in my case, focusing on Superman), Baer's book was up my alley to a ridiculous extent. In fact, it seemed almost tailor made to my particular obsessions, both as a fan and an academic. I personally found it a deeply engrossing read, and actually took me longer to get through than I'd have expected, as I was so fascinated to really pay attention to the many details he hit upon, constantly checking his pages of endnote citations in the appendices, to examine his sources and follow up on various pieces of information proffered.

That said, I hasten to add that this is not a heavy read. Anyone wanting to ignore his sourcing and bibliography and just take in the book as a relatively narrative account of the history of the Masters Universe should find this goes by at a fairly good clip, and never becomes bogged down in anything other than the very briefest passing explanations of applicable academic theories such as Campbell's "Hero's Journey" monomyth or just a couple of film and media studies terms by Lemke or Epstein. Predominantly, it is an entertaining and affectionate analysis of the Masters of the Universe brand in its various incarnations.

However, this lightly academic approach is both the book's strength and its weakness.

How He-Man Mastered the Universe is a book I liked a lot. In fact it is one I wanted to love, but unfortunately I am held back from giving it an overwhelmingly glowing review because of some notable shortcomings. These can be split between one broad, arguably subjective issue, and then several more specific problems.

To address the elephant in the room first, this book is not exactly what it purports to be. Although my digital review copy did not include scans of the final published back cover, nevertheless the title, preface and introduction present the book as being ostensibly how I have already described it -- an analytical overview of the whole history of MOTU across its different incarnations and media adaptations. To be fair, the book does cover all of this, and it is no mere lip-service, but what it is ultimately very clearly about is much more specific: the 1987 live-action movie.

Much to my surprise, this volume is predominantly a detailed description of the inception, creation, release and aftermath of the somewhat notorious film starring Dolph Lundgren as He-Man and Frank Langella as Skeletor, directed by Gary Goddard. As in, five of the nine chapters (and well over half of its pagecount) are almost entirely about the movie and its broader context in the story of Cannon Films and the infamous movie hucksters Golan and Globus.

You could say that this is much more a book about Hollywood than toy makers, although to be fair, it does frequently return to the issue of what Mattel sought to gain from the expected promotional power of having a motion picture based on its toy brand. There is analysis examining how the film's embattled production and bombing at the box office ended up being somewhat of a one-two punch that brought the independently dwindling vintage toyline to its knees, or at any rate did nothing to keep Masters off the ropes when it was already struggling.

Essentially, it is a question of emphasis and purpose. If you embrace the movie or are at any rate intrigued by behind-the-scenes information, close analysis of the film itself, and a focus on its place in the franchise, then all well and good. However, if you are from that segment of the fandom that hold little more than distain for the film, or are likely to be irked by an overview of the entire Masters franchise that focuses so intently on what is objectively one of its least successful (be that financially, critically, or in terms of fan consensus) and shortest-lived incarnations… then this probably isn't the book for you.

Whether one can claim that the book is misrepresenting itself is probably a matter of opinion, as it certainly does cover virtually the entire history of the brand, and not simply in passing, or as window-dressing. A whole meaty chapter apiece is spent on the early development of the brand and Filmation's indelible contributions to the mythos, and they are both great reads. However, when you realise that pages and pages are expended on Frank Langella's portrayal of Skeletor while the original iconic voice actor Alan Oppenheimer is only twice referenced, quite fleetingly, and neither time during the Filmation chapter, the question of emphasis is hard to ignore.

True to the book's quasi-academic roots, in reexamining the film on the cusp of its thirtieth anniversary, Baer is ultimately putting forward his central thesis. To really boil it down, he argues that, despite being a compromised film and a box-office flop, the 1987 movie is not only an underappreciated cult movie gem, but moreover doesn't get the credit it deserves in spearheading modern transmedia movie franchises. As the first major live-action film adapted from a toy-based property, Baer sees the Masters film as an under-acknowledged forerunner for not only the Michael Bay Transformers films, but even the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This is where I feel Baer's argument gets a bit ropey. To give him his due, he provides a lot of very solid context regarding earlier trendsetters of multimedia-disseminated intellectual property with the Superman and Star Wars franchises, and does a compelling job of supporting the contention that Mattel was the pioneer of creating a diverse and successful range of both ancillary merchandise and entertainment products across multiple media to support an original toyline concept. He even makes the compelling argument that using entertainment synergy via a toy-based cartoon was a winning formula very much copied by competitors like Hasbro's Transfomers and G.I. Joe, and later the comic-derived Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Where Baer does not convince, however, is in drawing a line between the failure of the Masters movie and the later success of Michael Bay's adaptation of the Transformers property into box office gold, let alone wider implications about current media trends.

While Baer is technically quite correct in stressing that Gary Goddard's 1987 film Masters of the Universe receives very little recognition for being the first film based on a toy franchise, I remain unconvinced by the line of argument that suggests that toy tie-in movies are in any way now the norm. Apart from Michael Bay's Transformers series, are there any other truly successful examples? While Goddard may have done it first, the two decade gap which elapsed before Bay later made toy-based films a viable prospect renders it unconvincing that there is any compelling connection between the two events, and nor does Baer provide much evidence to support the notion.

Moreover I seriously question the assertion that Masters, by the transitive property of Bay's success with Transformers, is in any way responsible for Marvel Studios' cross-media strategy with the MCU. Although this might be set to change in the future, thus far the Transformer movies, critically lambasted and financially successful though they may be, are just a series of linear sequels supported by ancillary products and canonically separate parallel entertainment, in way not significantly different to the DC comics films of the 1980s and ‘90s, or even the radio and television incarnations of Superman in the 1940s and ‘50s.

What was revolutionary about the MCU was its shared universe model, embracing true transmedia storytelling between films and multiple television formats, telling stories which are always not direct sequels to one another, yet share a unified continuity. This is not something that they took from Bay's Transformers, and it is certainly not something inspired by Goddard's Masters of the Universe. Now that other film studios are falling over themselves to emulate Marvel's successful model, it is highly spurious to suggest that toy-based filmmaking is in any way standard fare even today, let alone to assert that the current entertainment landscape "couldn't have happened without He-Man."

Aside from these larger considerations of whether Baer's underpinning argument is inherently flawed or whether his choice of emphasis or representation of that overwhelming focus is problematic, the book also has some other issues. Mostly these come down to what I can only suspect is a lack of qualified editorial oversight and fact-checking. Although mostly devoid of the kind of howlers that can crop up in some works of popular academia, there are a few mistakes that may jump out at you, from simple things like misspelling Jimmy Olsen as "Olson", odd little canonical semantics like referring to the Horde as "an evil alien race" or describing the phenomenon of short-packing as an "error" rather than merely toy industry practice. Personally the biggest eyebrow-raiser was the description at one point of the iconic ramskull-topped Havoc Staff as Skeletor's "tall snakehead staff". Baer clearly knows his MOTU lore, so I will give him the benefit of the doubt that this was just a rather bizarre "brain-fart" that wasn't caught by editors who didn't know any better, if indeed he had any.

In fact, a lack of editorial oversight could explain some of the books other technical flaws. Structurally, even aside from the question of over-emphasis on the movie, it has some strange choices, such as anachronistically discussing the finished film at length between the chapters on pre- and post-production. Baer also has some overly digressive sections where he gives blow-by-blows of the narratives of three vintage minicomics and six Filmation episodes, as well as a detailed summary of the three-episode pilot to the 2002 Mike Young Productions cartoon. Although quite entertaining to read and not without some analytical observations on the material, these feel somewhat like padding, perhaps to justify Baer's claim to focus on the franchise as a whole rather than the movie alone. Moreover, they feel faintly redundant, given the existence of Dark Horse's recently-published minicomic collection and exhaustive book on the Filmation series by James Eatock.

In all fairness, Baer could be seen as being in a bit of a catch-22 situation here, as discussing the cartoons and minicomics too much he would be overlapping excessively with other material that is out there, while doing too little would make his movie-centric appraisal of the franchise seem all the more unbalanced. However, in focusing so much on the '87 film he is at least achieving a form of market-differentiation from the official books on other topics from Dark Horse. What perhaps would have been a good idea to enhance the book's broad-ranging aspirations might have come in the form of more analysis of the less well-known media expressions of the franchise, such as Ladybird books, UK comics or German audioplays. The reach and diversity of MOTU's international appeal and the localised content generated for these markets would have been a good topic to properly delve into.

To an extent, my critique of the book in this regard leads to what I feel is probably its major shortcoming, which is the quality of its scholarship. As a piece of mass-market popular academia, this book does a good job of tying together various sources of information into a coherent and engaging narrative of events in telling the story of the franchise. However, it does not do so in a way which truly brings very much new to the table from a research standpoint.

With the exception of four personally-conducted interviews with '87 movie director Gary Goddard, designer William Stout, Toy Masters documentarian Corey Landis, and recent minicomic writer Tim Seeley (most of which just corroborates things already on the record), Baer isn't ultimately revealing much new content here, strictly speaking. This should not be taken as a damning indictment -- there is certainly a place for books which summarise a wealth of disparate information from many different sources and coalesce it into a digestible narrative. I merely mean to say that from an academic perspective, given his central argument is somewhat flimsy, Baer does not provide any great revelations or dish up any exciting new dirt in terms of investigative scholarship. If you want to watch documentaries like Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, read Roger Sweet's infamous tell-all book and peruse a lot of online interviews and archives (or, as a hardcore fan, you quite possibly already have), then this book isn't likely to teach you anything new, so much as conveniently give a lot of it to you all in one sitting.

There is one problem, though, which I must point out. In his seventh chapter, after discussing some of the fallout from the movie and its abandoned sequel, Baer spends some time outlining the collapse of the vintage toyline and the short-lived rebranding as simply He-Man, aka New Adventures. In relating the development of this relaunch, Baer covers not only the Jetlag New Adventures of He-Man cartoon which actually was produced, but also two pitches for proposed cartoons about He-Ro, the son of He-Man, which never came to fruition.

As I mentioned earlier, Baer uses a fair bit of academic citation in the book, unobtrusively tucked away as endnotes in the appendices for those interested enough to actually check his sources, without wanting to bore the casual reader. At times his sources aren't the best, and most of his account of the early days of the franchise come only from Roger Sweet's often factually dubious book, but to cut him some slack there admittedly aren't many verifiable resources out there for a lot of this material.

However, when it comes to the discussion of the actual and aborted relaunches of He-Man in the late 1980s-through-‘90s, Baer simply stops citing sources. For six pages he writes in great detail about New Adventures and the two separate "He-Ro" pitches, before rather weakly explaining in an endnote that "most of the information in this section" comes from the Lou Scheimer's series bible for the 1996 proposal, as reproduced in full at He-Man.Org. This is all perfectly acceptable for the information related to that pitch specifically, but this material does not in any way corroborate his descriptions of New Adventures nor, more crucially, the earlier and far more obscure 1988 pitch for a "He-Ro" series.

The reason for this seems relatively obvious upon reflection: Unlike the 1996 version, the series bible for the proposed 1988 cartoon has never been made publicly available, and the main source of information on it comes only from a detailed description, written from memory alone after a single reading, as posted in a forum thread on He-Man.Org by prominent member Penny Dreadful.

Even if there is no reasonable basis to doubt the information's authenticity, it would be understandable if Baer felt squirrelly about using as his only cited source a forum post which is technically hearsay, at least by academic standards, in the absence of any available scans of the pitch bible itself. However, to present the information completely without sourcing looks worse, especially since Baer appears to be disingenuously implying that any such preceding information call all be gleaned from the '96 pitch – his only adjacent citation – or at any rate allows readers to interpret it this way.

This is misrepresentation at worst and sloppy scholarship at best, and sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise fairly competently sourced piece of writing. I don't wish to assert that Baer is disseminating inaccurate information per se, so unless you're a conspiracy theorist regarding the '88 pitch and/or don't care much about academic citation practices anyway, I'd be fairly confident in saying that Baer's account is correct. But it is nevertheless a blunder that is not up to snuff from a scholarly standpoint.

For the most part though, this is a solid book, and one that is both well-written and very enjoyable to read for both Masters fans and those interested in a very thorough distillation of the fairly extraordinary story behind the making of a notorious cult movie. Although the underlying scholarship and overarching argument the book puts forward have their shortcomings, the book also has some academic value as an examination of transmedia trends, and is probably the first study of its kind to throw a serious light on Masters of the Universe as a trendsetting franchise. I can recommend the book, as long as you're aware of the its heavy focus on the 1987 film, and don't mind that the other sections deal with the broader franchise in far less exacting detail.
- Book Review by Jack P. Starro

NOTE:  The author of this article contributed in their individual capacity. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of He-Man.Org, MVCreations, or any other party.

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