Directing He-Man’s Fate

A few months ago, Mish’al Samman had the chance to speak with Dean Stefan about writing the new adventures of He-Man. Of course, no show stands on writing alone, right? And so he also spoke to the director of the bulk of the series, Gary Hartle, an animator who has also dabbled a bit in comics, most notably the late West Coast Avengers for Marvel.

They conducted this interview in September, and it’s completely Derek’s fault that it’s showing up now as a Christmas present for fans of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Mish’al had it done in plenty of time; he failed to take into account the swamp that is his editor’s desktop.

Mish’al Samman: What did you work on before Masters?

Gary Hartle: Lets see. I worked on Animaniacs for Warner Brothers. Tazmania, way back…Mighty Max for Film Roman, The Mask, and Jackie Chan Adventures

MS: So you’ve worked with Dean Stefan (writer on Masters of the Universe) before?

GH: Yes I have.

MS: Have you watched any of the old episodes?

GH: Yes I have.

MS: And how has this new version drawn from them?

GH: We took a lot from the old one. We try to keep a certain integrity from the old show, but then one thing from the old show is that it was unimaginably, whether anyone realizes that, it was a cartoon for a toy. What we were trying to do is pull together some of the things, like an episode from the old one when Skeletor waves his hand and magically takes people to all these different planets. I think because the constraints of the times they didn’t have a chance to see how exactly these things would work out.

It’s so funny because like in Star Wars you see them go to an ice planet, or a jungle planet, or a swamp planet. You have all these things on Earth, all these terrains. So we decided that on Eternia is like this huge planet that is much larger than ours. The scale is like the Texas of all the planets out there.(laughs)

So everything is massive and we decided that all these characters are races like cat people, bat people, and lizard people and whatever. We tried to change the dynamic to something a lot more interesting, because we have wars between different factions, and King Randor isn’t just sitting on his throne like in the old one. He’s out there trying to get the people to stop fighting and killing each other.

MS: King Randor is actually actively fighting in episode 1, which I don’t recall him ever doing in the old one.

GH: Basically, there is a lineage story that’s being told during this series. We will explore why they say Adam IS the one. We hate it when they say “He’s the chosen one” and we never know why. We will take you deep into the past, and how Castle Grayskull came to be. Where did Snake mountain come from, who owned it, and how did that whole thing work? Who the love interests are, and who the different interests are.

MS: There are going to be love interests?

GH: There are, and it will be surprising to you where some of the love interests come from.

MS: Aaaaahaa.

GH: And we may show characters from the Blue Race, which Keldor comes from. So you can understand what motivations he has, not just, “oh, he wants to take over Eternia.” We don’t want to make the show a “Lets see how many times we can bash Castle Grayskull,” because that gets redundant after a while. There has to be an actual goal why he wants what’s in there. The kids are gonna get what they want like the old cartoon, and the old people are going to start to like it because it will have sort of a soap opera thing going for it, something at the scale of King Arthur.

If you remember from the old television show, Randor was a captain, and he followed a long line of captains, and there were no kings because the elders ran the planet. At least the good side.

MS: Don’t really recall that…

GH: The good side was brought all together from way back, under a liege, and the sword can only be inherited by someone who is not a bloody king.

MS: I didn’t see that in episode 1.

GH: No, we put out what we call a stringer. We try to end a show so you see a complete show, but something that has happened in this episode will, for instance, be a prelude to something in show 5, or saying things now you won’t see until show 30.

MS: So how many have you finished doing already?

GH: 26 Episodes this season, and we started write more because Mattel saw the big results and gave the go ahead for 8 more.

MS: Hard to believe that you can make so many of these. You must be a He-Man fan.

GH: I love He-Man, What we tried to do too was take characters like Orko and give him more of a play in here than people think. We make him look like a light jester, but we will find out that he actually had power at one point in time, and had a lot of influence. We try to put an emotional angle on all the characters. Adam gets the power. Imagine you get the Power of He- Man.

MS: I wouldn’t want to imagine that. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.

GH: Well, imagine with Adam he doesn’t look anything like He-Man, and when a battle starts, imagine you have to run away from battle to become He-Man. What does that make you look like? So Adam doesn’t like this. And he’s dying to tell his parents, his friends, but can’t tell them.

MS: He can’t?

GH: Well, it’s for their own safety, the whole thing that happens between Keldor/Skeletor, and Randor, we will be having a lot of flash backs. You know, with the acid thrown on his face.

MS: Will we ever see that whole transformation thing, and how he became Skeletor?

GH: As a matter of fact, yeah, we are going to have episodes where we see Keldor in a mirror, and it crosses over and it’s Skeletor’s face, and you feel the anguish in him. Skeletor is just not a very good person, and he was a handsome man at one time, and that was taken away from him by his own selfish ambitions. Randor is right in telling him he could have talked about what he wanted, but instead he had to kick the door down to get what he wanted by force.

We really try to make a morality play on this. So Skeletor became Skeletor because he already was Skeletor in his heart.

And He-Man is in training right now. He is getting to know what his powers are, and how to use them, and seeing what works and what doesn’t, and as he grows to learn how to use the power correctly Man-At-Arms tries to teach him, and is his mentor at that stuff.

MS: So basically He-Man is the same person or someone else? Like SHAZAM? Is he with Adam’s mentality, or another persona?

GH: Now the Sorceress told you that when they put up the wall to begin with the whole place was in turmoil until that point. He doesn’t know anything about before that, so he is living in the Garden of Eden, basically, with the exception of some fighting here and there. So to wield the sword you must not have killed anyone. And He-Man has to learn how to use the sword in a righteous manner. His heart is in the right place but he is still learning.

MS: So he is basically a 16 year old trapped in a He-Man body.

GH: (laughs) Yeah, as you see in Show 3, which is part of the movie, he first becomes He-Man, and he rides in with Battlecat in this great intro, and everyone is going to be smashed by Evil Lynn’s meteorite, and this shadowy figure jumps in front of them and the meteorite explodes. You see He-Man with his fist out there in a dramatic pose and he says “Whoa;” he just doesn’t get it.

MS: The classic fairy tale of every young kid who wants to have all these powers.

GH: He’s a prince, and had it easy. He’s going to go through many lessons in the series. Like there is one episode where he doesn’t want to go to these negotiations and sit proper. He is just a kid, and wants to enjoy things. Then he goes on a trip with Randor and sees how important what his father does is to everyone.

If you start off a series with him being perfect, then there is no growth. And we took a lot of flack because everyone says, he’s a spoiled little brat. But we tell them wait and see, he will learn. We all are spoiled little brats in some way, we grow up and our parents take care of us, etc, and what is the first thing two little kids do when you put them together and one picks up a toy? He says “Mine Mine Mine” So we all learn, and we start to help our fellow man, and say the words Give, and help. He will find out that there are a lot of scary things that are coming out.

MS: I don’t remember any of the old shows being as complex and thought out like what you’re describing to me. Then again I probably wasn’t old enough to get it.

GH: It wasn’t as complex. Like Queen Marlena came from Earth and I don’t think we want to go that route, we don’t want a He-Man in Space. You know what “Jumping the Shark” means? When they didn’t know what to do with Fonzie, they had him jump so many cars with a motorcycle or this shark, because they just ran out of ideas on what to do.

And what we want to do is create a show that we can create stories forever and we want to see what’s happening to my favorite character today type of thing. The writers came up to us and showed us the character arcs of each character, and it’s amazing. Some will change, get new powers, not be around.

MS: Turn to the dark side?

GH: All kinds of things. Stories of banishment. Adam will not be able to shift back from He-Man and be banished. All kinds of stuff.

MS: So how long have you been working on this project?

GH: I worked all through summer. Not exactly sure, I think a year this December.

MS: Just looking at your art in this series you seem to be really into the Kung Fu style art. Do you like this style?

GH: When I worked on Jackie Chan, which this show takes a lot from, we had a lot of stuff in books, about movements all around us. So when we do the scenes we try to use leverage, like when you…oh, you didn’t see Show 2 …

MS: Don’t remind me, I feel bad already.

GH: (laughs) Well, the pilot was supposed to be a two parter, and they overwrote it a little. So we expanded it to a three parter, and that made show 2 a little short, so we ended up adding a little more to fill it out, and we used it all. But there is a scene where Teela jumps up, runs the staff down Adam’s back, and down to the knees and then flips him, and it’s all an actual move.

Jackie Chan says it’s all about the beginning pose, and the ending pose makes it believable. Everything in the middle doesn’t matter. So everyone has a fighting style. Teela depends on intuition and leverage, so she tends to move before it happens. Man-At-Arms, he used to use a lot of martial arts, but now he uses smaller things to get the job done. He’s our tech man. And He-Man uses all that stuff but relies a lot on brute strength. We even get to see who trains Man-At-Arms, and I can’t tell you much about that one, but we see the person who trained him.

MS: So we will get a back story origin for every character?

GH: For every character. Even Queen Marlena has a lot of things on her mind and we will see what they are.

After the first pilot, we had a lot of people write in and tell us how they noticed Trapjaw didn’t have the jaw yet, or the mechanical arm. It’s a challenging project because there are more than 200 characters in this universe, and we will be seeing some new ones also.

Everything is big: the explosions the ships, the weapons, so everything is in epic proportion, and it’s sometimes killing us and the people overseas. It’s like making a mini Star Wars. Its very hard to keep track of who does what and what goes where.

MS: You guys must have a wall with a huuuge chart on it.

GH: Yes we do… Sometimes the writers will forget that they have done something, but that chart keeps us all on track and true to what we’ve done in the past. Unless they are evolving. Like Teela, as you know, is The Sorceress’ daughter.

MS: No I didn’t really know that. I just remember The Sorceress has an orange eagle, and Evil-Lynn has a purple one, and all the bad guys have cooler stuff.

GH: (laughs) That’s always the case with bad guys. The old show portrays The Sorceress as a mother figure, but in ours she is distant and doesn’t speak much. And Teela keeps asking Man-At-Arms about her, who is she, where does she come from, and there is a scene where he then goes to Grayskull and storms in telling her “you have to tell her now” type of things, so it will be interesting.

MS: Where’d the inspiration for Grayskull’s design come from?

GH: Mattel did, and we will have an episode showing how Grayskull used to be gleaming like Eternia, and how the pit used to have towns surrounding it, but it all fell during a horrible disaster. We will have shows that will have you hopefully asking, so what happened here? Who is that? Where did he go?

MS: And you will say “Tune in next week for an exciting episode of…”

GH: (laughs) I want this to be interesting, and season 1 will show you the characters. Season 2 or 3 will be set up by season 1 and we will tear it apart.

MS: You really feel excited about this project.

GH: Yeah. I like working with the people at Mattel. They’re interesting, and supportive, and everyone seems to be online with where we’re going , and where they are going. It’s a good partnership, which is not easy to do.

MS: Any foreseen movies?

GH: They had talked about it, because when we first were building it and scenes were coming together we were getting nervous that we had a hit on our hands, and when it got out there the rating just scooped everybody.

MS: At Comic-Con you guys put together a trailer with some music and various scenes…

GH: How’d you like it?

MS: I thought it was awesome.

GH: Most people after watching the preview pilot said they noticed how Skeletor used to always run away from battles, but now he doesn’t do that. I personally think he’s like our Darth Vader.

We had these two heroes running at Evil-Lynn, and you see her use this big force field and destroy the forest, and those heroes fly away at the explosion. Shas this lazy look in her eyes, and they fall behind Man-At-Arms, and she just says “Don’t crowd me boys.”

MS: How’s Cringer not going to talk? Just meow?

GH: We try to just get Cringer to act out what he is saying, and hopefully you’ll be able to understand everything he is trying to say like that. Think of him as Chewbacca. He doesn’t say a word in English, but you know what he wants to convey, through body language etc. That’s our Cringer.

MS: So no, “What did we learn today, Kids?”

GH: Not for the American audience, although that is in for I believe the other markets, and the DVD set.

MS: DVD set? When?

GH: They didn’t tell me when they plan to have it, but it will have a bunch of special features. They made all the artists here collect artwork of everyone here with big heads and little bodies. Don’t know if the fans would like that though, they want to see the heroes, not us.

MS: So do you think people are harsher when rating TV shows, as opposed to movies?

GH: No, it’s just the same. The problem with TV, and it will always be this way, is that we have a harsher deadline. We have to do things quickly, and overseas work is really hard with all the things they do. Disney animators would have something to compete against if overseas animators were left to really animate. We give them deadlines, and they do miracles by cranking them out.

And I don’t think feature films would stand up to the pressures that TV has for its creators. And the great thing is that you have room for improvement next week, if you have the drive to do so. Look at The Simpsons. Look at the early years and how it progressed, because there was a will to do better.

He-Man was getting so much hubbub on the internet, and it just made the writers and myself work harder on making this series.

MS: Were you surprised at the fandom?

GH: Yeah. Before I started working on this I thought, oh, it’s just another cartoon, but one of the guys at Mattel took me to the internet and showed me this site that was getting thousands of hits, and it made me nervous for a while. It was amazing, how the fans kept it alive for so many years. And we hope everyone comes and joins us in Eternia every week.