Masters of the Universe started out with a fairly conventional set of characters in their first wave and then broke all the rules with their second, opening up the universe that these figures existed in and making the toy line all that much better for it.
That very first wave of figures featured some standard barbarian-esque mainstays. We had creatures and demons, warrior women, and heroes — very standard stuff for a fantasy toy line. At that time the only real gimmick was a spring-action waist. If we as kids were just beginning to get a sense of what a Masters of the Universe toy line was, it seemed that our magical benefactors at Mattel were also in an experimental stage. Our expectations would shift radically by the time we got to the second wave. In a way, this was mirrored in the G.I. Joe toy line, where the first wave’s aesthetic was very tame compared to what was coming up later.
The second wave of Masters of the Universe set a course that continued on through the life of the line: well integrated action gimmicks with a solid character built around them. I’m one of the harshest critics there is of action features in toys. However, with the MOTU brand, action feature and character is so well-integrated that they become practically inseparable. While Super Powers Superman’s Power Action Punch was redundant to the character of Superman — I didn’t really need a toy to do the punching for me when I have ten good fingers to do the heavy lifting on my own — a character like Ram Man was a man that rammed, and his function and form followed suit. Ram Man would not exist if there were no need for a toy that could ram things. Clawful would not exist if there wasn’t a need for a lobster monster with a spring-loaded claw. So in order to enjoy the good, you have to accept the bad.
Sometimes these gimmicks worked, and sometimes they didn’t. Ram Man worked as a gimmick, less so as an action figure. But Man-E-Faces was one who worked, and worked so well that to me he epitomizes the very best that can come from a perfect synthesis of form, function, gimmick, figure, character, and that all-important final aspect: fun.
Man-E-Faces was and is one of my favorite MOTU characters and figures, and I say that having a ton of favorites. It’s actually quite hard to narrow down “favorite” when dealing with such a colorful line of characters. When you have so many great choices, favorite tends to shift depending on which figure you’re holding at any given time. But through it all, Man-E-faces manages to get the edge over his competition. He is the definition of getting all the value you can out of your money. Here was not one, not two, but three toys. It’s easy to overlook how awesome that might be nowadays when we, as adult collectors, can buy entire waves at will and can make it rain little plastic figures all day long with just the touch of a few buttons and a PayPal account. But back in the ’80s when we walked to school uphill in the snow and wore clothes made out of pine cones, it was — for me at least — a hell of a treat to get one toy. Two was nirvana. Three or more was Christmas. Man-E-faces was sweet Christmas in a single MOTU bubble.
First, just from a basic standpoint, you’ve got a cool, techy-looking guy wearing what looks like a containment suit. This was nothing like what we’ve seen on the toy shelves before. We had already seen a perfect blend of fantasy and science fiction elements with Man-At-Arms, but Man-E-Faces took all of that and bumped it up a couple dozen notches. If the toy had stopped right there, he would have been enough to spark the imagination for dozens of battles.
But then with a twist of that dial, suddenly you didn’t buy just a teched-out human, you also bought a monster. Who cares if he’s still got the same body. That simple act of spinning that dial suddenly introduced an entirely new figure into playtime. Show me a kid that doesn’t like a decent monster mixed into his fantasy/science fiction line and I’ll show you a kid that has never lived.
But we weren’t done then. Another twist . . . and you’ve got the third toy. A robot. MOTU had not yet had the glory of Roboto shine down upon it. But here we are, only two waves in, and we’re already introducing a robot.
Human . . . robot . . . monster . . . and suddenly we’ve got a toy that refuses to sit still. There was an absolute genius behind the creation of this character. This was a person who remembered what it was like to be a kid and knew all the right buttons to push. I’ve always been a complete sucker for toys that are more than just one thing. Transformers, Go-Bots, M.A.S.K. and so forth all gave you multiple things for your money. You can draw a direct line from a concept like Man-E-Faces to things like Modulok and Multi-Bot. Suddenly a toy wasn’t constrained by being just one thing. It could be two, three — or infinite.
The first wave of Masters of the Universe delivered eternal icons that have stood the test of time in various media and set the tone for a world that continues to this day. But the second wave — and Man-E-Faces especially — showed how far reaching and awesome a toy line could be if you just sat back, took the shackles off, and really got nuts.
Now pardon me while I go spin my dial a couple more time.