Most Masters of the Universe fans are familiar with the Filmation cartoon series, the mini-comics, the MYP cartoon, audio stories, and assorted comic book adaptations featuring the Most Powerful Man in the Universe. He-Fans and She-Ravers continue to revisit the assorted iterations of the mythos and have familiarized themselves with the distinctive ins and outs of their favorite versions of the story. However, there’s one particular body of tales and artwork which has only barely been glimpsed by fans.
From 1986 to 1991, the daily He-Man and the Masters of the Universe comic strip was syndicated to newspapers all over the world. As is generally the case with newspaper comic strips, the weekday strips were printed in black & white and the Sunday strips were presented in glorious color. These daily comic strips featured a cohesive continuity and often explored characters and concepts which had little exposure in either the cartoons or comic books.
The comic strip’s writer, and Filmation alumnus,Chris Weber was kind enough to shed some light on this elusive treasure trove of He-Man’s tales.
Interview with Chris Weber
by Danielle “Penny Dreadful” Gelehrter
April 26, 2013
You wrote 13 out of the 14 story arcs for the He-Man comic strip, and your wife Karen Willson was the editor on these stories. Can you tell me about your backgrounds - a brief history of your careers if you will?
Karen started her writing career ghost writing YA novels. She later became the West coast editor of Starlog magazine. Karen also worked as a production manager for a small special effects company, The Magic Lantern.
After a few years of teaching high school, I got a Masters’ degree in Communication Arts, Television from Loyola Marymount. My first published writing was a poem in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. I started my “Hollywood” career as a Production Assistant at Filmation Studios.Together, Karen and I took an animation writing course offered by Hanna-Barbera. As production on He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was winding down, we got the chance to submit a writing sample to Filmation. Passing that audition, we pitched some ideas and eventually wrote the MOTU episode, The Toymaker and two episodes of She-Ra, Princess of Power.
Karen and I went on to write over 50 half-hours of TV animation for Filmation, Disney, DIC, Hanna-Barbera, and numerous other companies. We also did series development work for TMS Entertainment, CBS, and Ruby-Spears. We developed the series Dink, the Dinosaur which ran on Saturday mornings for two years.
Meanwhile, when I was offered the opportunity to write the MOTU syndicated comic strip, I drafted Karen as editor. We spent over 4 years working on the daily strip.
Karen and I also co-wrote comic-book stories for Disney Adventures magazine.
Before you worked on the comic strip, you were freelance writers for Filmation. Can you talk about that experience?
As freelancers at Filmation, we would pitch story ideas to Arthur Nadel, who was the Executive Vice President: Creative Affairs. He could be a tough audience, but was also a good mentor to a pair of fledgling writers like Karen and myself. Our first sale to him was MOTU episode, The Toymaker. The story featured Orko, who is taken in by an evil toy maker. (We liked the irony of this villain on a toy-based, toy-sponsored animated series.)
For those not familiar with the writing process for an animated series, the first step is becoming familiar with the show. You watch as many episodes as you can or give a thorough reading to the “bible” for the show – a compilation of series concept, character and locale descriptions, and thumbnails of any existing stories. Next you pitch your stories.
In live action television, the pitch is verbal in a meeting with the story editor and other show leads. Animated series in the 80s, however, used written pitches… usually a brief paragraph summarizing the main idea for a proposed story. Most writers would pitch a number of stories in a single submission. If an idea clicked, you would expand this premise, fleshing out the story with a beginning, middle, and end. Based on this, the studio would decide whether to hire you to write the story outline. This is essentially a short story, including all the characters, incidents, and structure of your story. After any needed revisions, the outline becomes the basis of the episode’s script. An animation script, unlike live action, gives a detailed, shot-by-shot breakdown. In the script you write out descriptions of the settings and action as well as the characters’ dialog.
The next year, we were among the first writers to pitch to She-Ra, Princess of Power. Over the two-year run of the show, we sold two scripts, The Crown of Knowledge and One to Count On. Writing for She-Ra was a little simpler than writing for He-Man. There’s a big advantage to not having over 120 stories already told, as was the case for MOTU. New ideas were a lot easier to come by.
How did the comic strip come about, how did you get the jobs on the strip, and what were your roles in it?
The He-Man and the Masters of the Universe comic strip was a joint project of Filmation and Mattel. Although the initial big-boom of the TV series’ popularity was easing off as production of new episodes ended, Mattel still wanted a platform to introduce new characters for their toy lines. Filmation was interested and found three of their employees to handle the creative duties. Gerald Forton, a development artist at the studio, served as the artist for the entire run of the strip. Connie Schurr, another member of Filmation’s development team, acted as the colorist for the Sunday strip. The initial story arc was written by a Filmation storyboard artist, Jim Shull. As the first story arc was coming to end, I was approached to pick-up the story writing duties. My co-writer (and spouse) Karen served as the editor. The story ideas and scripts would be approved by Mattel and then passed along to Gerald for the artwork.
The art in the strips was fantastic and the characters greatly resembled their Filmation counterparts. Can you tell us a little bit about the comic strip’s artist Gerald Forton and colorist Connie Schurr?
Gerald Forton was an experienced hand in both the comics field and animation design. His upbringing and training in France brought a level of sophistication to the strip’s artwork, while he maintained the flavor of the character models established in the Filmation series.
The strip seemed quite popular at the time from what I understand, particularly in international markets. For how many years did the strip run and where did it appear (both in the US and other countries)?
The strip ran for over four and a half years. At its peak, it was in over 80 papers world-wide. In the US, the popularity of continuing adventure strips had been waning for a number of years. MOTU had finished its two years of first-run episodes and was past its peak of popularity. (At one point, the TV series averaged over 6 million viewers per episode.) Only about ten papers in the US chose to run the strip. In other parts of the world, the second season of MOTU was still running new episodes. In South America and Asia the strip became quite popular. I know it was translated into Spanish and assume it was also run in other languages.
How many individual story arcs were there in the series?
I believe there were fourteen total story arcs during the run of the strip. Each would run between 13 and 16 weeks. The script pages for each arc totaled about the same number as a typical feature film. (*note – see below for a list of the 14 story arc titles*)
What were some of your favorite storylines for the comic strip?
One of my favorite story-arcs included an actual “love interest” for He-Man (as opposed to his comrade/friendship with Teela). I also enjoyed the arc that landed He-Man in Alice’s Wonderland. Skeletor trapped him among the familiar, yet somehow menacing characters from the classic children’s book.
Who were your favorite characters?
He-Man was a great character to write. He has a “straight-arrow” good-guy personality, a little like Superman, but without the over-abundance of powers that can make it tough to write for the Man of Steel. We also had the chance to introduce a few ongoing secondary characters like Duke Tiberon and Miranda, members of King Randor’s council. (Miranda and Man-at-Arms were also an “item” together in some of the story arcs.)
Did you ever have plans to bring She-Ra into the comic?
We never got the chance to bring She-Ra into the strip as her character and universe were under a separate license.
Were there any storylines or ideas you wanted to try that never made it into the strips?
For every story arc that was approved by Mattel, there were another half-dozen or so story ideas that never made it to the drawing board. I’m in the midst of moving. Perhaps when I get my files out of storage I can find specifics on a few of these other ideas.
Was there any direction from Mattel - i.e. which toys should be used, etc.?
Yes. As new action figures came out, we were tasked with featuring the characters, vehicles, etc. in the strip. Ninjor, Clamp Champ, and King Hiss were just a few of the toys that were worked into the comic strip story lines.
Were you asked to follow the ideas established by the cartoon?
The comic strip was to follow the continuity established by the TV series and toy line. With 130 episodes of MOTU completed, the characters and situations were well established and there was no thought of any drastic changes.
The comic strip continued on past the end of the Masters of the Universe cartoon and toyline and continued on into The New Adventures of He-Man era. Do you recall how this transition was handled in the comic strip?
When The New Adventures of He-Man series came out, Gerald altered some of the character designs to more closely resemble the new series. (He-Man’s breastplate, for instance, was reworked.) We also used some of the new characters, though it was more that both the new series and the strip were drawing from the same toy line resources. We also used some of the material from the MOTU film, featuring the inventor, Gwildor, in one of the story arcs.
Why did the strip come to an end?
The strip eventually came to end as the popularity of the He-Man toy line weakened. Eventually it became a cost issue when the number of papers running the strip could not support the expenses in producing it.
MOTU collector and customizer Joe Amato brought an earlier He-Man comic strip to my attention. It's VERY different in style and tone compared to your strip, and is more game-based. These were produced by DC Comics, are dated 1982, and ran in Joe's local newspaper every Sunday. The dialogue is very much in the “faux olde English” style of the ’82 DC Comics and DC mini-comics. Are you familiar with these at all, or did you have any connection with them? I have attached a couple of them for your perusal.
No. That’s a new one on me. I knew DC ran a He-Man comic for a while, but I never heard about this strip. Good find.
Do you still hear from fans? What was it like chatting with MOTU fans at Power-Con?
I hear from fans from time to time, though we’ve kept a pretty low profile since moving on from writing animation. It was really interesting to see there’s still a group of hard-core fans out there. The kids of the 80s have grown up, but some of them remain avid fans of their childhood hero. It was nice to get to meet some of them in person at Power-Con last year and to see the ongoing impact of work we did years ago.
Fans would love to see this important but rarely seen part of Masters of the Universe history. Only a couple of stories are available for viewing online. Do you have any plans to release a book of these strips? Failing that, I recall mentions of archiving them online. Is that still a possibility?
We’ve talked a few times with Mattel about the concept of doing a collection of the comic-strips in a “graphic novel” format. The publishing rights have bounced around and the project has never really caught fire. I know the first story arc, by Jim Shull, can be found in Xeroxed copies that you can sometimes find at conventions. We have scrapbooks of most of the run of the strip and have scanned one story arc.It would be nice to see the strip reach a wider audience of MOTU fans. Who knows what the future will bring?
What, to you, IS "the Power of Grayskull" exactly?
The “Power of Grayskull” is a little like the medieval concept of chivalry. Instead of “might makes right” He-Man represents might in defense of right. The ideals of helping the helpless and protecting civilization from the encroachment of evil are part of the traditional hero from the earliest bardic tales to the latest Hollywood blockbuster. The power of Grayskull is both mystical and practical… the basis is magic, but the day-to-day use of that power is the practicality of He-Man and his allies putting themselves on the line for the sake of the kingdom and its people.
It’s great reminiscing about the beginnings of our writing careers and we appreciate the fans that are still out there, keeping the spirit of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe alive.
~ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ABOUT THE NEWSPAPER COMIC STRIPS~
In world-wide syndication from 1986-1991 - Syndicated by McNaught Syndicate, Editor’s Press, and Mattel, Inc.
** 1986-1991 MOTU COMIC STRIP – THE 14 STORY ARCS - TITLES**
• Day of the Comet (written by Jim Shull)
• Vengeance of the Viper King
• Ninjor Stalks by Night
• Terror Takes Time
• Evil Under the Stars
• Attack on Snake Mountain
• Revolution in Rondale
• Half Time on Eternia
• It'll Be a Cold Day
• A World in the Balance
• At the Edge of Darkest Night
• He-Man in Wonderland
• Shaken to the Core
• The Last Survivors
**WRITING THE STRIP**
COMIC STRIP IS VERY DIFFERENT FROM A TV SHOW
• Scene setting and direction
• Need for daily and weekly hooks
• Some readers may be Sunday only, some every day
• Heavily dependent on narration and dialogue
• Can spend more time delving into character
• Strong similarity to a soap opera
• Essentially writing a movie script, played out over 13 to 16 weeks.
** THE ART OF THE STRIP **
• Script goes to artist for “first draft” of strip
• Drawn about 4x the size of printed strip
• Writer gets a chance to make sure there were no misinterpretations of content
• Many kudos to Gerald Forton, artist
• Daily strip in B & W, Sunday in color
• Colorist, Connie Schurr, indicates standard color palette almost like a color by number
I would like to thank Chris Weber for taking the time to discuss the comic strips with He-Man.Org, and for providing these fantastic images from the comics. Also, thanks to Karen Willson for additional information!