The Connection between SF Author Joanna Russ and Mattel’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

In the mid-nineties, I borrowed a book of essays edited by Damon Knight titled Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction from the library at Kankakee Community College where I attended as a student and later worked as a tutor.

While reading an essay by Joanna Russ, a single line leapt from the page straight into my brain because I grew up on after-school cartoons in the eighties: “The only real He-Man is the Master of the Universe.” The capitalization was hers. The words were hers. But the product that sprang to my mind was entirely muscular and plastic and proclaimed, “By the power of Grayskull… I have the POWER!”

At the time I made a note of the quotation and wondered whether I had observed a strange coincidence or whether I had stumbled onto the kernel of an idea that later became an influential toy of the eighties.

Last month I bought a copy of Turning Points looking for a different essay, and I was reminded once again about Russ’s strangely coincidental line. With the expanding corpus of the internet over the last twenty years, I figured that the truth about the connection between Russ and the He-Man toys would be explained somewhere, whether a fan site or a wiki or an obsessive chronicler of toy minutiae. But what I discovered is that nowhere is there a connection between Joanna Russ and Mattel’s He-Man products. So, I bring it to you, readers, to refute if you can, or accept if you can’t, that someone in the 1970s took a line from an essay and used it consciously or unconsciously in the creation of a line of toy action figures with the exact same name.

According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, Russ’s essay was “Originally delivered as a speech at the Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference, November 9, 1968.” In 1972, the speech was collected in the anthology Clarion II (edited by Robin Scott Wilson) and titled “The He-Man Ethos in Science Fiction.” In 1976 it was titled “Alien Monsters” and collected in Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction. This information matches the copyright page of Turning Points with the exception of the original speech location and date.

Thus, the essay and this sentence were clearly available before the late 1970s when Mattel began looking for a product to compete with the popular Star Wars toys created by Kenner.

The essay itself focused on masculinity in science fiction and its association with power. Russ’s focus on power itself adds another connection to the development of the action figure line because He-Man’s catch-phrase was (as I mention above): “By the power of Grayskull… I have the POWER!” And Russ’s point was that a hyper-masculine male, the Tarzan-type-of-hero who is indomitable in will and overwhelming in puissance is not human at all, but really an “alien monster.”

Any articles or documentaries that I consulted skip over the actual process of deciding the name for the product. The typical format is to focus on Mattel’s quest to create a toy line to get market-share from the then-behemoth Star Wars toys produced by Kenner, describe the original barbarian-like toy modeled by Roger Sweet, and then move straight into product design of the action figures and development of Funimation’s animated series.

The closest I can find is in the documentary The Toys that Made Us, Season 1, Episode 3.

At the 8:39 mark, Roger Sweet, who prototyped the original models for a product meeting, explains that he started with three mock-ups: a science fiction model named “Bullet Head”; another robot-styled model called “Tank Head”; the third, his barbarian action figure, he named “He-Man.” Around the 10:30 mark, Mark Ellis, a former Vice President of Boys Toys, says, “But when I was asked who was most responsible for the success of the product line, I said it was Roger Sweet because he did the preliminary design and came up with the word He-man.” But then the narrator asks Mark Taylor, the artist who brought the look of He-man to life, “That name was coined by Roger Sweet, correct?” Taylor ponders for a moment, his eyes looking up and to the left before answering, “I don’t know.”

If the term “He-Man” or “He-man” by itself was the only one used in the essay, there wouldn’t be any reason to imagine that the essay influenced the toy. After all, it had been in use to describe a “virile man” or “manly man” long before the 1970s. In fact, the use of “he” in front of a noun goes back at least to 1300 according to my copy of the OED. Instead, it’s the rest of the quote that makes the circumstances so coincidental: “the Master of the Universe.” Because after all, the product wasn’t just He-Man; it was He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

It is clear to me that the product line for He-Man grew from someone somewhere at the Mattel headquarters who knew of Joanna Russ’s essay, either as an attendee at the Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference of 1968, or in the book Clarion II (1972) or most likely, in Turning Points (1976), since this last was published so close in chronology to the creation of the toy line. This person appropriated the sentence – whether unconsciously or on purpose – “The real He-Man is the Master of the Universe.” And from that sentence, ironically, in an essay that specifically focused on hyper-masculinity in science fiction, sprang the single-most hyper-masculine action figure ever, an alien monster named He-man who holds a magical sword and declares, “I have the POWER!”

Sources

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