Recently, Netflix made available a multipart documentary series The Toys That Made Us, in which one episode covered the rise and fall of the Masters of the Universe toy line of the 1980s. The He-Man toys were an important part of my childhood, so I watched the episode with amusement. But the documentary also confirmed something that the creators of the toy line had danced around for decades, namely the debt that He-Man owed to Conan the Barbarian. It also led me to think a bit about the role of secondary sources in transmitting cultural ideas.
There is no mistaking the family resemblance between the characters of Masters of the Universe line and heir counterparts in the fiction of Conan creator Robert E. Howard. He-Man is a musclebound barbarian in a semi-savage world fallen from great ancient heights. He battles a villain with a skull for a face and also snake men in a world of swords and sorcery. Conan is a musclebound barbarian in a semi-savage world recovering from the fall of Atlantis. Howard, in his other stories, had an Atlantean villain named Skull-Face and made villains of a race of serpent people. So close were the similarities that the owner of the Conan copyrights, Conan Properties Inc., sued for infringement, but the court ruled that (a) Conan was in the public domain for all aspects of the character developed before 1977 and (b) there was no way to separate borrowing from the public domain version of Conan from borrowing the copyrightable expressions of the idea in CPI’s version post-1977 version. For decades afterward, Mattel, the creator of He-Man, portrayed this as evidence that the company did not base He-Man on Conan.
Except that they did. Just not exactly firsthand.
The recent book How He-Man Mastered the Universe by Brian C. Baer and the documentary both make plain that He-Man owes a debt to Conan. The basic character design, the semi-savage sword-and-sorcery setting, and the Cthulhu Mythos-inflected backstory would not exist without Conan. Similarly, Mattel’s failed efforts to develop a Conan toy line for the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie were the impetus that sparked the creation of the Masters of the Universe line.
But the details were not drawn directly from Howard. Instead, the look and feel of He-Man came from the comic book and pulp illustration art of Frank Frazetta. Frazetta had illustrated a series of covers for Conan books, and the barbarian hero depicted on them is a dead ringer for He-Man, who, as CPI once sneered, was “Conan disguised with a blond wig.” One painting, of “Conan the Conqueror,” even depicts the hero with sword raised battling a skull-faced undead warrior, and several others depict Conan in the shadow of a menacing skull. (The creator of Skeletor attributes the character to a childhood encounter with a corpse at an amusement park.) Another painting depicts Conan raising his sword as lightning strikes it, just as He-Man receives the Power of Greyskull through his sword. The early He-Man figure carried an axe and shield indistinguishable from those of Frazetta’s Conan. Other elements of the Masters toy line took inspiration from Frazetta paintings outside the Conan universe.
Basically, Mattel lifted the aesthetics of He-Man from Frazetta’s interpretation of Conan and other pulp properties and then filled out the story with generic fantasy narratives drawn from a range of pulp fiction influences, half-remembered at a remove, which included Howard’s stories, B-movies, weird fiction, and other cartoons of the era. The similarities between He-Man and Conan, therefore, were only partially intentional, involving reinterpreting a visual interpretation of an unread original and adding to it elements in the Zeitgeist that had themselves passed once or twice through the Conan canon. Atop this mountain of happenstance, the exact forms were tempered by the demands of marketing and the influence of the animators of the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon series.
In seeing my long-held suspicion that He-Man and Conan were close cousins confirmed, just not exactly as I had expected, it made me think about how cultural ideas travel across time and space and about the difference between direct and indirect influence.
One of the most frequent criticisms I’ve received about my analysis of the ancient astronaut theory in The Cult of Alien Gods and its sequels is that my argument that the modern ancient astronaut theory takes its shape from H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos is that Eric von Däniken didn’t know anything about Lovecraft. Indeed, when I was writing the book, Giorgio Tsoukalos, von Däniken’s protégé, argued that that my thesis was wrong because von Däniken had never read a word of Lovecraft. But the authors that von Däniken used as sources had read Lovecraft, or read authors who had. Chariots of the Gods made use of Jacques Bergier’s and Louis Pauwels’s Morning of the Magicians, which refers directly to Lovecraft. Bergier all but admitted that his interest in ancient astronauts came from trying to find a factual basis for the Cthulhu Mythos. Chariots also built on the books of Robert Charroux, who had borrowed heavily from Morning of the Magicians. In time, von Däniken would also make use of ideas from other writers like Peter Kolosimo, who explicitly cited Lovecraft as an authority on ancient astronauts. So, while it is literally true that Chariots of the Gods is not directly influenced by Lovecraft, it is nevertheless true that Lovecraftian ideas filtered down to it indirectly through its sources.
Similarly, think of all the modern writers who use some version of the medieval Islamic myth that an antediluvian king built the pyramids. At least half of them have never read an original version. We saw Tsoukalos offer a bizarrely mangled version that he derived from von Däniken’s badly summarized version of a translation of the original.
This kind of decades-long game of telephone animates so many bad ideas, which build on half-remembered impressions of earlier bad ideas, sometimes based on nothing more than a word or a phrase, a picture, or someone’s badly mangled description of someone else’s work.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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