Monday, February 20, 2012

Talkin Bout My Generation

Sitting in my 'draft' pile of posts right now are monster ideas, unfinished series, rules design, and a lot of other long essays of dubious value. There will be time enough for that in the future. Tonight, I want to really get to the heart of the matter, to cut the bullshit down to the quick.

Tonight, I want to get real. Get real about...

That's right, He-Man. The red-headed stepchild of sword & sorcery, the dirty secret of old-school D&D inspiration. We'll wax poetic about how awesome Thundarr the Barbarian and the D&D cartoon, but the big, looming S&S icon of the '80s is the Mattel toyset that dominated a decade.

When I say "us", I'm not talking about the Greybeards. I'm talking about those Johnny-come-latelies of the TSR era who never saw the White Box back in the day (woodgrain or otherwise) but instead played with Rules Cyclopedia or the much-maligned 2e. The age demographic is mid-20s to mid-30s, and we generally seem to have a taste for a more "wild and wooly" brand of S&S that is a dash more colorful and bizarre than bog-standard D&D. Science fantasy elements are almost a given within this group, as well as a love for the aesthetics of early Heavy Metal and Warhammer and a desire to escape Tolkien's dirty touch.

My 6-Year-Old Brain Just Exploded
Where did this damn-the-torpedoes, do-it-your-own-way lot come from? One could blame the wild, sometimes silly experimentation of 2e settings and products like Spelljammer, Dark Sun, and Planescape, but I think you need to dig a little deeper into the early development of our collective imaginations. Thanks to the excellent blog Monster Brains, I have unlocked the key to our wholehearted embrace of sword & sorcery, as well as our willingness to mix the chocolate and the peanut butter in a glorious mash that defies good taste and common sense. Go to this post and spend a few minutes studying those images. Take your time, I'll wait.

 Welcome back. Now, ponder the image on the right. We've got a good little Conanesque hero, battle-axe in hand, clearly inspired by Franzetta. No big whoop if he was fighting, say, a big snake. Instead, he is facing off against a skull-faced warlord riding a giant robot spider and wielding a Satanic rod that fires lightning bolts. If that doesn't sound like something straight outta Planet Algol, Dandy in the Underworld, In Places Deep, American Barbarica or Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa, you haven't been paying attention.

If you're a kid of the '80s or early '90s, you missed the boat on sword & sorcery. Unless you had a much older brother who passed down Conan, the pulp revival of the '70s had come and gone. For most of our generation, we're coming at the classics as adults, and find they have a strange resonance with us. Why is that? Certainly, the writing's a lot stronger than the fare we had set in front of us - Kevin J. Anderson and Margaret Weis cannot hold a candle to Howard or Vance, but I also suspect there's something more.

We're a generation that was born breathing in the last gasp of the sword & sorcery era, smothered by the rise of fantasy and the brandification of a market. We basked only in the after-effects, a Bronze Age that perpetuates the work of the masters through endless deconstruction and commentary. Yet, one of those after-effects loomed large in our formative years. That's right, He-Man.

Fuck yes, machine-gunning buzz-saw flying saucers!
It is difficult to play up the seismic shift that the Masters of the Universe had on popular culture during that time. Not only was it one of the first series to introduce Japanese animation techniques to American children, but the relentless marketing saturated playtime to an unheard-of degree as regulators softened on advertising in children's television. This created a bombshell where you ran home after school, watched He-Man (specifically developed for syndication to reach as wide an audience as possible), and then got together with you friends to re-enact the scenes you just saw on the screen. It was so big that unless you were a "square" like Jeremy Duncan (of the previously mentioned Dandy in the Underworld blog infamy), whose parents didn't allow him to watch it because of its "Satanic" content, then you watched it religiously.

Side Note: Jeremy, in an anecdote about He-Man, described it as a "forbidden pleasure".

Now, I won't say He-Man is great art. Frankly, looking back you can see it did more harm to our culture than good. However, I would also argue that we were injected with the DNA of sword & sorcery at an early age, now shrouded by the mists of time, and are harkening back not to the He-Man that was (which, when viewed through adult eyes, is frankly awful), but rather the He-Man that ought to be.

I'm not talking about making the "ideal" He-Man setting or anything of that sort. No, fan fic has got that arena locked down. I don't need Eternia, Prince Whitebread, or that annoying little dude with an "O" on his chest. Instead, I'm talking about intergalactic vampire warlords invading your sword & sorcery world and installing Satanic Lich-Kings in a bid for colonial rule. Pterodactyl riders with laser guns in a dogfight with UFOs piloted by serpent men. Cleaving through hordes of cyborg beast-men as we leap from asteroid to asteroid towards that leering organic castle in space.

This is the influence of Larry DiTillio (Masks of Nyarlathotep author) and DC Fontana (Star Trek: TOS writer), those giants who tried to distill the worlds they loved into something ready for Saturday morning. That anything-goes spirit of Masters of the Universe is our inheritance, and I think it's time that He-Man left the ghetto and is embraced as a foundational inspiration for our little corner of the OSR.


  1. The lesson of He-Man (about whose influence I have no illusions) is that, like we did as kids, when we ignored the corny plots and moral codas of the TV show, and went on to enact the crazed and violent behavior with our action figures that seemed implicit in the lurid package art, in the OSR we try to ignore the corny railroad plots and preassigned heroic roles in favor of giving the Power Sword to Beast Man and putting Trap Jaw on top of a Battle Cat and looting Castle Grayskull.

  2. For me, any embarassment is due entirely to the TV show. The toys kicked ass, as did the original back story depicted in the mini-comics. The original visionw as much more hardcore. Dig it:

  3. Yeah, the combination of overused stock imagery, recycled storylines, and that ridiculous chorus (He-Man!) really makes it unbearable to watch today.

    That said, when I was doing research on this post I found out that there were a lot of cool ideas lurking beneath the surface. Considering who the staff writers are, from Paul Dini (awesome '90s Batman cartoon) to J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, shitty comics), inevitably some good stuff would seep in there.

    Larry DiTillio really blew my mind, though.

  4. honestly, man, I enjoyed reading your post but this doesn't hold true for me at all. I didn't really watch He-Man as a kid (I think I might have been a little too young) and when it comes to ssturday-morning TV shows, Thundarr and Pirates of Dark Water loom much larger in my mind

  5. I don't expect this post to resonate with everyone - there was a relatively narrow cultural window that was affected, but if you were part of that generation, it really defined your early imagination, as TMNT would do again several years later. I was right on the edge, being born in '82, and so I saw several "cycles" of over-marketed cartoons. He-Man is of particular interest not only because it was the first, but also because of the gonzo sword & sorcery landscape it portrayed and what I suspect is the unrecognized influence it has had on the aesthetics amongst many in the OSR. I do remember Pirates of Dark Water, but obviously that was much later.

  6. This post just got you another reader for life. I had exactly the same experience (I was born in 81). For me, before any other fantasy literature there was He-Man (and of course the toys). I might have been exposed to Narnia and A Wrinkle in Time around the same years, but He-Man had a much larger impact. I've been meaning to write a post about it, but you pretty much said exactly what I wanted to (and more eloquently than I likely would have).

    My exposure to fantasy literature was also as you described. I only finally read Howard and Vance last year, and the first fantasy series to make an impact on me was probably the Dragonlance Legends (followed a few years later by The Wheel of Time). I did read Moorcock in high school because of an interest in dark fantasy, and Lovecraft (who I didn't understand at all the first time around).

    And thanks for the link to that Monster Brains post. I love how the illustrations look like the toys but are somehow still painterly.

  7. Interesting observation that you might already be aware of, courtesy of Wikipedia:

    Persistent but unverified claims suggest that the He-Man franchise was originally intended as a Conan toy line. If this is true, the equivalent to the Serpent Men in that franchise would be the Snake Men.

    As with Howard's work, the Snake Men come from the distant past and fought against the character He-Ro/Lord Grayskull (who would be equivalent to Howard's character Kull). As with the Conan the Adventurer animated series, the Snake Men were banished to another dimension in the past and were attempting to return to power in the present.

  8. Right on, Brendan. I also was exposed to Lovecraft at a fairly early age and absolutely loved his work.

    I don't know if you're still delving into the pulps, but one of the great joys of blogging, for me, is talking about these works as I read them, along with any lessons we can bring to the table. Ideally, I'd organize a pulp fiction reading circle, but I like being able to approach books at my own pace.

    Regarding the Snake Man/Serpent Man question, I never had any doubt that they were drawn from Howard. Even if He-Man wasn't originally a Conan line, it would be absurd to think DiTillio wasn't entirely familiar with REH's work.

  9. Oh yes, I'm definitely still reading and enjoying the pulps. I just finished a really strange one by Margaret St. Clair (The Shadow People) about which I have a blog post in the works.

  10. Awesome. I've definitely been meaning to pick up The Shadow People.

    I've been reading more Aldiss recently and finally acquired the first Night Shade collection of Clark Ashton Smith, which will fill in the gaps nicely.

  11. I finally got around to reading this, and now I'm pretty embarrassed about my recent post urging people to give MotU a look - you say it all much better here AND I wouldn't have thought about it without your prompting AND YET I still didn't come here and read your thoughts, which kinda envelope my own. ffs. My excuse is that, being 10 years older and growing up in Britain, He-Man was much less directly in my view - my first brush with Japanimation was Battle of the Planets and I never saw Thundarr or these other sources you mention.

    I guess I should just be glad that I'm finally up to speed with my players about the he-manity of Carcosa ;/)

  12. Thanks for the kind words, Richard.

    Inevitably, there is going to be some crossover when it comes to blog topics in the OSR. A deluge of material is produced daily, and no one can keep up with it. Glad you found the blog and have had a chance to peruse it.

  13. About a year ago, I rediscovered my love of MOTU when I stumbled across the Masters of the Universe Classics toy line. I've been wallowing in that reborn love ever since (and filling my office with more toys than is probably appropriate).

    The original cartoon hasn't aged very well, but the 200X reboot is both _excellent_ and ridiculously cheap on Amazon (<$8.50 for the whole series on Amazon).


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