Talking about Erich von Däniken’s line of crappy comic books yesterday sparked a little bit of nostalgia for some equally silly, but far more entertaining comics from my youth: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe franchise. When I was a kid I had probably all of the action figures and most of the mini-comics that came with them. I was born a bit late for the first wave of He-Man marketing, but that meant my parents could get me all of the figures at the tail end of the craze at garage sales and flea markets.
And, as luck would have it, they turn out to have a clear, if somewhat indirect, connection to ancient astronauts, too. Really, is there anything in popular sci-fi that ancient astronauts didn’t touch?
Our story begins with H. P. Lovecraft because, well, doesn’t everything? It’s fairly well-known that Lovecraft became friends with Robert E. Howard when the latter wrote in 1930 asking if the Cthulhu Mythos were real. Lovecraft disabused him of the notion, but Howard went on to incorporate elements of the ancient alien theme into his Conan the Cimmerian stories, launched in 1932 (succeeding his Kull of Atlantis stories), as part of the mythic background for Hyborea, his fictionalized Hyperborea of Classical myth.
In 1980, the Howard estate, through its Conan Properties, began negotiating with Mattel for a line of toys based on Conan in anticipation of the 1982 Conan the Barbarian movie. The licensing agreement was in effect until 1981, when Mattel canceled it. The prototypes for the toy line’s main character conformed to the descriptions of Conan from the stories, swarthy with dark hair, etc. However, upon its debut in 1982, the toy was renamed He-Man and was now a blonde Aryan. Conan Properties sued Mattel for copyright violations but lost. Later, those responsible for He-Man would claim that the toy line had nothing to do with Conan. The most notable change would be the inclusion of high technology in Mattel’s toy line, a feature of a barbarous age derived from the popular 1970s notion (itself drawn from Dweller in Two Worlds, Edgar Cayce, and films like Undersea Kingdom) that in the stone age Atlantis had technology superior to our own.
Anyway, it is probably therefore sheer coincidence that the toy line’s major villain, Skeletor, bears a close resemblance to Howard’s most famous villain, the evil Atlantean wizard-priest Kathulos, or “Skull-Face.” Both are powerful sorcerers from lost worlds, and both have—oh, yeah—skulls for faces.
(The name “Kathulos” is probably derived from “Cthulhu,” although Howard denied it. Howard had written to Weird Tales in 1928 to praise “The Call of Cthulhu” as high art just months before starting his story “Skull-Face.” A convincing case has been made that “Skull-Face” is a lightly rewritten and humanized version of “The Call of Cthulhu” by way of Sax Rohmer.)
Other Masters of the Universe villains have analogs with characters from classical mythology, but with a technological edge that seems drawn from Erich von Däniken and mythic aspects echoing Howard and Lovecraft. For example, Trap-Jaw is a cyborg, while Tri-Clops, modeled on the Classical Cyclops, sports a technological rotating eye that shoots lasers. Mer-Man is a version of Poseidon, but one equal parts Robert Temple’s space frogs from Sirius and Lovecraft’s Deep Ones.
The Masters of the Universe went through several iterations, the earliest of which seems to have drawn heavily on the 1970s ancient astronaut/Atlantis craze. He-Man was originally depicted as a Stone Age barbarian squatting amidst the ruins of powerful lost civilizations of the planet Eternia (obviously an analog for earth) whose random pieces of high technology were all that remained of their power after a great war destroyed them all. Skeletor was an extraterrestrial being who arrives from another dimension populated by others of “his kind.” Skeletor uses his superior extraterrestrial magic and technology to work toward opening a dimensional rift to allow his race to invade Eternia and conquer the planet. The parallels to Lovecraft’s Old Ones, whose evil agents constantly scheme to open just such rifts on earth, are obvious.
In the later cartoon series, Skeletor was retroactively demoted to a pupil of Hordak, and then in the late period comics to (by implication) He-Man’s half-uncle. In this continuity, Hordak is the ancient astronaut, complete with high technology from another world, but we don’t need to get into the very confusing multiple He-Man continuities, which I can’t imagine are of much interest to anyone reading this except perhaps me. (Also: I had no idea my Buzz Saw Hordak action figure was worth good money.)
The 1983-85s cartoon series, the 1987 movie, and the 2002 version of the story all had different takes on the characters, springing from artistic and commercial considerations, resulting in a playing down of the Atlantis-ancient astronaut themes and a greater emphasis on sword-and-sorcery fantasy. The 1990 series was a space opera set in outer space, with Skeletor literally becoming an “ancient astronaut,” and is best forgotten. The time in the DC Comics series when Skeletor teamed up with Superman (yes, that Superman) to break into Castle Grayskull was perhaps another low point.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I was a kid. I had played with the He-Man toys, read the comics, and watched the cartoon series. Years later, when I started reading Lovecraft, there was an uncomfortable echo to the stories from He-Man, one that was even stronger when reading Howard. That all of this supported to a greater or lesser extent what I was reading in Erich von Däniken (also indirectly inspired by Lovecraft) and Graham Hancock and seeing on television documentaries. It formed a mutually-supporting world-view of ancient astronauts, lost technologies, and vanished civilizations that bounced seamlessly from fact to fiction and from books to television to the (then-new) internet. Without knowing the hidden connections, these all seemed like independent versions of the same story, the same kind of phony confirmation that led readers of the Lovecraft circle’s many stories to think that the various authors were all referencing a real mythology.
So, apparently Skeletor was an ancient astronaut. At least he had the good sense to look cooler than that guy in a fish suit Philip Coppens keeps going on about.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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