Truth, Lies & Minicomics: A Conversation with Gary Cohn, Mineternian Creator
This month, He-Man Tales honors its new beginning!
Painfully aware of the fact that EM would not exist, if not for the enigmatic vision of 'Masters of the Universe' that Gary Cohn gave us all in 1982, we went looking for the truth concerning exactly what he brought to that commercial juggernaut of the early to mid-80s!
HMT: Often, when something looks as simplistic as mini-Eternia (or Mineternia, as I call it), it means there was a great deal of thought invested in making it seem that way.
GC: [Light chuckle.] Well, it wasn't that way with writing He-Man [comics].
HMT: Really? I've always assumed that you had some kind of working cosmology in mind, when you were writing these incredible comics.
GC: No. These were very simple characters -- He-Man, Skeletor. There was never a back story for the comics, because we didn't feel the need to create one. Do you know the history of He-Man [the toy] -- how it came about?
HMT: Most of it. It was originally conceived as a Conan: The Barbarian line, right?
GC: Mattel was looking at the movies. There was another [toy] company doing the Star Wars toys.
GC: Kenner. Well, they were making them a lot of money from them. Then, there was a little science fiction film that came out called Alien.
HMT: With Sigourney Weaver (in panties and tanktop). Sure, I remember that. [And how!]
The conversation gets a little difficult to follow here.
At this point, the journalist in me steps out for a smoke, and the doe-eyed fanboy is too awe-struck to take any notes and trying desperately not to blow this.
What Mr. Cohn laid on me about MOTU's beginnings he heard directly from Mattel's people and most of it is pretty well known already -- to hardcore fans, at least. Mattel got licensed to do the Alien toyline, and before you knew it, big, ugly hunks of plastic were being shipped off to toy retailers all over the States -- the Alien action figure. They were taller than nearly every other action figure you'd collected up to this point. In spite of high hopes that movie tie-in lightning would strike twice, Mattel's Alien line never took off the way Kenner's Star Wars toys did.
It tanked, and when the proposed Conan The Barbarian toyline promised a similar marketing disaster, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe were born.
GC: Have you ever seen Conan The Barbarian?
HMT: Oh yeah. There was quite a bit of nudity in Conan, wasn't it?
HMT: Like that scene, where Conan prostitutes himself to this sorceress in the desert. Remember -- there was this chick he meets before he hooks up with Sandahl Bergman?
GC: This was not a children's movie.
HMT: [Laughing.] What did Mattel's marketing team do, when they saw this?
GC: Mattel thought it had another Alien [toyline] on its hands. Well, they had to do something. They changed the names. The colors.
HMT: And the Masters of the Universe was born.
GC: [Chuckles.] He-Man. Beast Man. Skeletor ...
HMT: This was the biggest thing to happen to Mattel since G.I. Joe, right?
GC: They believed it might do well for a few years.
HMT: You're kidding! Only a few years? I guess Mattel figured it wasn't going to top STAR WARS.
GC: And Mattel missed out on the [licensing] to do the Star Wars toys.
HMT: I think Kenner did a pretty good job on those toys. I had most of the them. Clearly, Masters borrowed from that movie and a few others though, wouldn't you say?
HMT: There seem to be a lot of mythical and fantasy themes in the early MOTU minicomics. Where does all of that come from?
GC: I came at this from an American popular culture studies background -- it's what I majored in at Bolling Green (College), back in Ohio. Have you heard of popular culture studies?
HMT: I think I've heard of it, but college is a little blurry for me. What is it, exactly?
GC: In popular culture studies, you're dealing with symbolic ideas in popular culture -- how they are served to the public in a way that influences the public psyche.
[Mr. Cohn gives me a little history of American popular culture studies, as it is taught in universities. It's actually rather interesting, but I'm so damned starstruck and desperately trying not to sound nervous that I scribble it down in very poor detail. Sorry.]
HMT: So, it's like the study of what ideas we respond to .. and why? I would guess this is what the marketing folks are working with, when they're conceiving an ad campaign.
GC: That had an effect on how I wrote the [mini-] comics.
HMT: How did you get this gig?
GC: I got into the business in my early thirties. I think I was about thirty or thirty-one, when I started getting [comic book jobs] consistently. A lot of the guys I knew starting out were younger, some of them right of high school.
HMT: Was this like some kind of internship?
GC: We would drop by the offices and see if the editors had any work they wanted to use us on. Mark Texeira and I were in Dave Manak's office, when he introduced us. Anyway, we found out he needed a writer for these mini comic books that DC was producing for Mattel.
HMT: Did you know anything about He-Man then?
GC: I'm not sure. I might have heard of it by then, but I don't think so. We got this packet explaining who [the Masters of the Universe] were. When we read the names, He-Man, Ram-Man. Skeletor -- then, there was Man-E-uh .. ?
GC: Man-E-Faces. Man-At-Arms! [Chuckles.]
HMT: [Restrained laughter.]
GC: Well, it was hard not to laugh. We couldn't believe how little thought had been put into creating this stuff, but it was work. It didn't pay much, but it was work.
HMT: Did they pay by the page? I won't ask how much.
GC: Something like twenty to twenty-five bucks a page. It helped pay my rent.
HMT: And we're all still talking about it. [Chuckle-chuckle.]
GC: Now, explain this to me, .. about the [Internet] fans.
HMT: Well, there's like a mainstream of Masters fans -- then, you've got these little factions. There was a second He-Man toon called New Adventures of He-Man -- you've got fans of that.
GC: Never heard of it.
HMT: Then, you've got fans of the new cartoon and the new comic book. There are She-Ra fans. There're fans of the minicomics you did, .. but the fans of the Filmation cartoon are the largest group. They call themselves 'classic fans'.
GC: I don't think I ever caught one episode of the cartoon.
HMT: The big difference between the TV cartoon and the minicomic is that, in the toon, He-Man is a cocky teenager, who changes into a hero, .. kinda' like in Shazam! In the early minicomics, He-Man was a Conan-like warrior .. from a jungle tribe, and there was a really sorta' dark, brutal edge to those stories.
GC: And there are websites about the minicomics. [?]
HMT: It's a growing fandom online. Actually, we've been here all along. It's the oldest of all of them, .. but it's only recently finding a voice and a sense of community. The Mini-eternian period, which is the one you and Mark Texeira created, was really brief, like one year.
GC: 1982 ...
HMT: 81, .. 82 -- yeah. So, some minicomics fans celebrate that by writing short fiction based on the concepts the minis made so cool. It's how some of us are keeping it alive.
GC: The two swords concept was interesting.
HMT: I thought so. How did that idea come about?
Next month, Mr. Cohn reveals the answer to the mystery of the two swords, as well as a little known mystery involving a blonde with a big pony. He also gives us some insight into what his upcoming book will be about.
To Truth, Lies and Minicomics, Part 2
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*It should be noted that He-Man Tales was the FIRST website to exhibit the rare Tale of Teela and The Power of Point Dread! minicomics online, in their entirety. It should also be noted that EM invented the minicomic reader featured on this site; though, you will find similar readers in the minicomics sections of other MOTU fan sites.
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