5. The Birth of a Storyteller
RV: You incorporate a lot of narrative ideas into your art and design work. Who are some of your biggest storytelling influences?
MT: I’m a Joseph Campbell fan. As dated as his stuff has become, there’s still so much that he’s right about.
RV: Did you read a lot of fantasy material before you became an artist?
MT: My mother taught me to read before I went to school. I read everything, not just fantasy stuff. But I liked fantasy! It always struck me how a story has to have a person in it that you identify with. Whether it’s John Steinbeck’s work, or Hemingway’s, or whoever. There has to be someone in the story that you identify with, and they need some type of conflict. I mean, what kind of love story would it be if they got together, got married, had a bunch of kids and died? Spielberg and all the other great storytellers of our time seem to know this implicitly. And they can do it without hitting it on the nose, which is a challenge for many writers.
6. A Memorable Villain
RV: After watching the documentary Toy Masters, I feel like it’s safe to say that you and Roger Sweet don’t like each other very much. Can you describe Sweet for me?
MT: He’s nuts! But that’s okay, he’s my Skeletor. I mean, he’s kind of like a dumb Skeletor. (laughs) The way I see it, if you’re gonna have an enemy, you want one who’s clever, sharp and devious. If Darth Vader had been stupid and losing his helmet all the time, Star Wars wouldn’t have been any fun! What makes Darth Vader so great is that he really does believe in what he’s doing. He believes that the Empire should win, despite all its cruelty. I mean, Adolf Hitler believed in what he was doing too, right? The most terrible human being who ever existed, but he really did believe in what he was doing. He was probably surprised when people didn’t agree with him. I learned that when I was a kid. I had the advantage of going through World War Two, and I used to ask my mother all the time why these guys were fighting so hard. Why didn’t they just say “You’re right, we’re wrong.” And my mother said to me “They think they’re right!”
7. Rowing the Boat
RV: Can you sum up the controversy over who created He-Man?
MT: Sure. The guys from Preliminary Design tried to steal the credit from me! You see, I was a Development guy. Back then, we didn’t have any non-disclosure forms or anything like that, because we weren’t supposed to come up with new ideas. The company wasn’t set up legally like that. And the truth is, Mattel liked to steal ideas! They were notorious for it, and they still are. I’ll swear to this in open court. With He-Man, they wanted to show my work to Mattel’s President Ray Wagner, who passed on making Star Wars toys, and steal credit for it. They’re just that kind of company! Remember, Roger Sweet was a Preliminary guy, but I was in Development. Development guys are on the lowest tier of the triremes. They’re the ones rowing the boat! They do the most work, but they’re kept isolated and below deck. And at Mattel, it’s a very compartmentalized company.
8. A Legacy to Be Proud of
RV: What’s your opinion of Mattel today?
MT: Right now, Mattel is in the financial toilet. If they don’t do something fast, they’re gonna go bankrupt. I’m sorry, but I’m not crying for them. Yet in a way, I don’t feel like they did anything to me that I didn’t allow them to do. Because without Mattel, there would be no He-Man. And without me, there would be no He-Man. I was ready. I wanted to do something wonderful. I dreamed about it all my life. Mattel slipped up and gave me the opportunity and I did it! And it was one of the best things I ever did. People still come up to me all over the world and say “I just want to thank you for He-Man!” Well, it was my privilege. A legacy is an important thing to an artist. We hope that someone will remember our work when we die. Maybe in a thousand years someone will dig up an old He-Man or Skeletor figure and say “I wonder what kind of culture this was?” And I hope they do, because I’ll be laughing like hell!
RV: At times in the Toy Masters documentary, it seems as though the Mattel execs don’t understand why you and Roger are fighting for the credit you deserve.
MT: Sure, some of them make fun of me and Roger. They say “How come these two old guys keep fighting over this?” Well, if this isn’t worth fighting for, what is? What would they consider more important? I think the reason they resent it is because they know the part they played. They were the Empire! And they know it, and they sense it, and their excuse is that all they were trying to do was make money for the company. And that’s true. But that’s not what I was trying to do. I was trying to have a genuine effect on my fellow human beings.
9. Edge City
RV: I’m curious about your creative process. When you’re designing something, do you typically work in silence, or do you listen to music?
MT: When I was working on Masters of the Universe, it was always intense. I had so many things to do. I’d work all night and the sun would come up and I’d think “Oh, shit! I was supposed to be home hours ago!” That’s how much I was locked into it. When I’m that focused, I can’t listen to any music. If I occasionally put something on it would be classical guitar, or something like that, which wouldn’t invade where I was going in my head. Because it really is a place you have to go. I think writers do the same thing. I love good writing, and sometimes you can just tell when the writer is tuned in to what the old hippies used to call “Edge City.” Athletes have a similar focus. Ken Kesey, the author, was a wrestler in school, and he used to say “One thing about wrestling, you’ve got to be able to get to Edge City fast, because if you don’t, the other guy will!”
RV: Were there any Masters of the Universe characters you designed that the Mattel executives rejected?
MT: Well, they almost rejected Mer-Man. They didn’t understand him, and wanted to take him out of the line. I had a hard time convincing them to keep him. I said “Don’t you understand? There has to be someone who lives in the water!” I was envisioning a magnificent line of toys that could be played with in the water. Decades later, George Lucas did a similar thing in The Phantom Menace. I worked for the US Navy for almost ten years in the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, so I really wanted to do undersea stuff. I was a diver, and I felt the mysticism of being under water. That’s such an amazing area to get into.
RV: I’m surprised that so few toys are designed for use in water, other than the classic Rubber Ducky toys for really young children.
MT: Later in my career, I worked for a company doing a whole line of tub toys. And I had a really good time! But they didn’t sell for shit! (laughs) That happens sometimes. That’s life, you know?
10. Strong Female Characters
RV: Despite all the difficulties with Mattel, if the opportunity arose to get back into the world of designing He-Man toys, would you be interested?
MT: If I was going to do that, it would have to be something entirely new. It’s not that I have a problem with Masters of the Universe. Not at all! I mean, if He-Man comes back, wouldn’t that be wonderful? It would be amazing! I certainly wouldn’t get in its way, and I’d do everything I could to help it. But if someone came to me and said “Hey Mark, we’ve got tons of money and we want to create a new toy line,” I wouldn’t go back and remake He-Man. It’s time for something else!
RV: What would you do instead?
MT: When I think about the heroes of today, I think about women. The classic warrior women, the Amazons of our time. That’s what I’d concentrate on. I mean, just think for a minute about these forty women who are speaking out against Bill Cosby. Their courage is beyond belief. I don’t know that I’d have the nerve to do that. So if I was going to create a new line of toys, I’d take the classic story of the Amazons, and fold that into what these women are doing today. They’ve finally decided that it’s time to claim their rights. I believe women need to do that. And I wouldn’t just do it with toys. I’d build a complete story around them where women are important. And with Hillary Clinton running for President, we’ll see what happens. Although she’s not exactly the kind of hero I’m picturing.
RV: Were you thinking along these lines when you designed Teela for the Masters of the Universe toy line?
MT: When I was designing Teela, the sophistication level of the people I was working with was so disgusting. Everyone laughing at stupid innuendos. It was those corporate mogul types, and surprisingly the women too! They’d laugh and say “How are you gonna put a breast plate on that!” They couldn’t see that Teela was fearless. She could stand up for herself! The way I pictured her, Teela was never supposed to belong to either He-Man or Skeletor. She was meant to be independent, and to work with both for her own people’s best interest. But they didn’t get it. And when they handed the character to Filmation, another bunch of chauvinists, it just got worse. I couldn’t even look at it. But things are changing. When you see something like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or so many other stories, there are a lot of strong female characters right now who aren’t willing to accept the roles that our society and culture want to assign them. That’s the type of new toy I’d create if I had my way.
Previously by Matthew Chernov
10 Secrets From the Directors of the He-Man Documentary Toy Masters
12 Revelations From the Makers of Starchaser: The Legend of Orin in 3D
10 Secrets From the Cast and Crew of the ’80s Rambo Cartoon
10 Revelations From the New ‘He-Man’ Soundtrack Producers
10 Things We Learned From the 1986 Transformers Movie’s Original Cast and Crew