Advent Review #20: He-Man and The Masters of The Universe Vol.3 (Graphic Novel Review)

Last year, DC relaunched their He-Man and The Masters of The Universe line with a six-issue mini-series and a few digital issues that tied into that story. Originally written by James Robinson, Keith Giffen was brought on from just the second issue because of the lukewarm response that the former’s first issue had received. And DC did seem committed to the project, so thankfully the mini-series was put out on time, for the most part, and the digital tie-ins followed suit as well. Soon as the mini-series finished, DC then announced that Giffen and artist Pop Mhan would be staying on to helm a new ongoing that would use the mini-series as a launching point.

I was reading the issues as they were released, but lost track of things in the middle. It mostly had to do with how slow the story was moving and so I resolved to get back to it once all the issues of the first arc had been released, and I could read them back to back. Now that that’s happened, and the series has seen a major creative change with writer Dan Abnett and artist Rafael Kayanan being brought in, I finally read the first six issues back to back last night, and they do make for a better experience when read as such. While the story isn’t all that exciting, is kind of a redo of the 1985 animated movie He-Man and She-Ra: The Secret of The Sword, and some of the character designs are a bit weak, its kind of fun still. I’m a sucker for anything He-Man, so I’m sure I’m more forgiving than most.

Note: The actual graphic novel has not been released and I’m assuming that when it is, the first six issues are going to be in it, and not anything else.

New 52 He-Man 0001The new series picks off where the mini-series left off. With Skeletor and his forces defeated, the memories of the Masters all returned to them, it is a new phase for Eternia as it celerbates its freedom from its worst villain. The first issue involves a lot of dialogue as Duncan (Man-at-Arms) and Prince Adam talk about the dead Sorceress, her relation to Teela as her mother, King Randor giving a grand speech to his people, and so on and on. In the midst of all this, Hordak sends in his trusted lieutenant Despara and a huge army to invade Eternia and bring it under his rule.

The interactions between Teela and Adam are the best part of the first issue. In the mini-series, Giffen and Robinson brought them together as traveling companions almost right from the start and we got to see the two of them pretty much rediscover their friendship in those issues. Now, we see them back to their previous status quo, always making fun of each other and just generally joking around. Its a great dynamic that references all the shenanigans that the two have gone through in the Filmation animated series, and the remakes over the years. Their friendship is one of the bedrocks of the setting, as is their snark toward each other, and Giffen brings that out almost perfectly.

What got to me in this issue however, negatively, was the entire scene in which, when walking back from Randor’s speech, Teela proceeds to take off her uniform in front of her father, Adam, and one of the Masters, and walks into her room in her underclothes. And then she is caught in an explosion and a heavy almirah falls on her. There could not have been a worse case of both sexualisation and damsel in distress for Teela. She is a warrior first and foremost, one of the most strongest female characters in the He-Man mythology, and her treatment in those two pages is deplorable.

Other than that though, the issue is a good read, and Pop Mhan’s pencils are fairly good as well. He took over from Philip Tan from the fourth issue of the mini-series and he delivered some great artwork there, which he repeats here. Given the relentless grim setting that this has become, Despara’s armour makes sense and it fits really nicely with Hordak’s own design from the Filmation series. Hordak himself is portrayed quite differently, and I didn’t really like it, but Despara was good. I would have preferred to have Force Captain Adora from The Secret of The Sword, but I’ll settle for this new version as well. If there is one character redesign that just does not work for me, its Teela’s. Her ridiculous armour makes me cringe whenever I look at it, because it is inherently sexualised to eleven and its just… not good.

The second issue continues the non-stop action, especially since Adam is now in He-Man mode and Cringer in Battle Cat mode. There are lots of set-piece action sequences, and nearly all of them are rather good. This is something that holds true for the entire six issues, that the large battles definitely feel like such, what with the Eternian forces hopelessly outnumbered by Hordak’s Horde, and all that stands between the latter’s domination over the world are the Masters of the Universe, led by He-Man and King Randor.

Where the first issue celebrated freedom from Skeletor and then welcomed the darkness of the Horde’s invasion, the second issue takes it all a bit further as the Eternians get locked in a siege mentality, becoming a reactionary force, forever on the defensive and giving ground at every turn. And yet, like bright points of light in that darkness, Giffen infuses some decent humour when he makes fun of some of the weird aspects of the setting. The most stark example of this is when Teela makes fun of Mekaneck. It breaks up the tension and at a moment when everyone is trying to get their wits about them, it provides some welcome relief.

Some of Despera’s dialogue in this issue felt forced, given that she is completely brainwashed by Hordak and the Spell Weaver into being their dark champion, and so she needs to say a lot of typical villainous, murderous things. Given that the reveal, for old readers that is, has already been made that she is Adam’s twin sister Adora, it just doesn’t feel quite as natural. Its certainly a much more intense portrayal than we had in The Secret of The Sword.

New 52 He-Man 0002The third and fourth issues deal a lot with the backstory of Teela and Adora having known each other as kids. Its kind of an open subplot and is played off by both as being hallucinations or just the imaginations of kids, and it doesn’t work so well. Perhaps it could have worked had this been an all ages book, but this series is rather adult-oriented given the violence in here, and the somewhat complex stories as well. The flashback scenes are drawn well, and scripted well too, but they don’t have as much of a resonance if we look at the entire six-issue arc. Some of it slows down the story, necessarily so given the almost non-stop action and pitched battles, but largely I liked them other than that one continuity-relevant flaw.

There’s a switch in the colours around halfway through the third issue and it jars because its the different between night and day. Sort of. The first half uses primarily dark palettes, while the second half uses primarily light palettes. Its as if the tone just shifts, without there being any kind of a script shift. Which is very odd.

And as much as these two issues are about the relationship between Adora (Despara) and Teela, they are also about He-Man upgrading himself, so to speak. His powers, such as they are, are not enough to stop the Horde from destroying Eternia, and so he needs new tools, and a new mindset. This is where an old friend, the former resident of Castle Grayskull comes in. The inclusion of this character seems a bit of a cop-out given what happened in the mini-series, and it comes across as a little clumsy too. Still, it deepens all the mystery surrounding Castle Grayskull, especially all the power that is Grayskull’s legacy, and this is indeed a central theme of the series in the next two issues once Adora confronts Shadow Weaver and even Hordark himself with the truth.

One great thing about the fourth issue is that we finally see Mekaneck and Man-at-Arms confronts him about how much grief Teela gives him. Mekaneck’s response is very endearing and it too shows off a lighter side to the setting, and to Teela herself, the latter of which has indeed been one of my favourite things about this series.

Despite all the good things about these two issues, what bugged me was the temporary “end” to the character drama between Despara and Teela. It is extremely sudden and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it, other than just petulance on Despara’s part. And it kind of doesn’t make sense either given what’s been established of Despara’s character, especially not when the ongoing theme is that she has to confront and fight against the brainwashing she has been subject to all her life. That was the only real sore issue for me in these two issues.

The fourth issue ends with a predictable but no less thrilling cliffhanger. Like I said, the entire story is basically a modern retelling and remake of The Secret of The Sword, and I was kind of waiting for this to happen. Seeing it happen, and ending the issue with it makes for a great story beat, and its nice to see.

With respect to the artwork, no real issues other than when He-Man is busy “upgrading” himself in the depths of Castle Grayskull. The particular “dual” nature of those panels just feels really odd, and it could have been handled much better I think. The repetition doesn’t help in any way other than just being overkill. There are some inconsistencies in how Despara and Teela are drawn throughout these two issues and this was a bit grating too. Mateo Guererro and Alex Gimenez join Pop Mhan on the pencils for the third and fourth issues respectively and some of that inconsistency can probably be put down to that. Not to mention that there seems to be somewhat of a rotating team of inkers and colourists. All of it means that the art isn’t as strong as it could be, and it is disappointing to see.

New 52 He-Man 0003The fifth and sixth issues complete out the first arc on the series, and the ending is fairly intense, as everything else has been thus far. The fifth issue finally reveals what exactly happened when Adora was taken from her family. The sixth issue, in its turn, lays bare the scope and true purpose of Hordak’s invasion of Eternia. There is a lot of material to digest here, and though the pacing of the scripts in both issues is on and off, Giffen’s writing plus the art by by Mhan and Gimenez make it all digestible and easy to follow along.

Given that the arc is coming to a close, there are lots of momentous things happening as well and the action kicks up several notches too. One thing that stands out though is that following his “upgrade” He-Man becomes a bit too muscular, with exaggerated proportions and even his sword is similar. Its not quite to the same exaggerated levels as an anime can get, but still, its just… not how I’d imagine He-Man to be. Still, the relationship that is shown between Shadow Weaver and Despara more than makes up for these small-scale deficiencies in these two issues. Shadow Weaver in The Secret of The Sword was a very mysterious and manipulative character who had but one thought: to serve Hordak. Giffen’s Shadow Weaver is a bit different and has more of an emotional bond to Despara/Adora, and that’s nice to see. Given that we don’t see any of Hordak’s other lieutenants in anything other than single-panel cameos in the final issue, getting to see more of Shadow Weaver was a decent bonus.

One other thing that bothers me though is how many of the origin stories for the characters under the entire rebooted continuities involve being abducted. Adam and Adora with Skeletor. Randor with Hordak. Despara abducting Teela to unlock her memories and learning who she is. It seems to be a… curse with these high-profile characters, and as a theme, I don’t like it. It is being overdone, simply put.

Still, I’ll give points to Giffen and his collaborators for handling them fairly decently, in a way that does not make me cringe. And Adora having been abducted is old lore, so no complaints there. More and more, I wanted to see the animated Adora here, but we don’t get that, for obvious reasons. That version of the character does not fit in with things here, and that’s kind of ok, despite all my nostalgia. Giffen’s Adora/Despara is still a fairly conflicted character, more so than her animated version, and for an adult audience Giffen hits the right beats.

If there’s one character who has grown through this entire arc, other than Teela and Despara, it is Adam/He-Man. With command of his powers and his memories, he really comes into his own in this arc, and we see how Randor plans to groom him to be a king one day. Now that Randor knows that his wayward and irreverent and irresponsible son is the champion of Eternia, that he is the hero Randor has always wished for, there are hopes and dreams that are still alive, and the King just wants to see them fulfilled. And he knows that to get there Adam has to make some tough choices. But Adam is not one to leave his friends and allies in desperate straits and he is a hero in this arc as well. He shares the limelight with others, but that’s just as well too. The series is titled He-Man and The Masters of The Universe, not He-Man.

Hordak’s pontificating in the sixth issue gets a bit cumbersome and wordy at times, but the twist that it involves is a suitable place to end the story. Plus it sets up some more character drama for Adora, something that I’m hoping is explored in future issues. With Dan Abnett taking over from issue #7, I don’t know how things will be, but I’m hoping that we do get to see that. She is an integral part of the He-Man mythology and if she is ignored, then that will certainly not be to my liking.

Some things are not executed properly, or rather, as well as I had expected, and since Giffen is leaving the title, its not quite the bang I wanted to see. There are some nice slow-downs at the end of the sixth issue, but they don’t jive so well, particularly Despara’s interactions with Cringer. In his one-shot by Mike Costa last year, Cringer got an absolutely awesome story, but he has largely been ignored for this arc, and that made me really sad since Cringer is the one character that I loved more than Adam/He-Man. Perhaps the interaction between them is supposed to reflect on the interactions between Teela and Cringer in the one-shot, or at least, I am assuming it is Teela but could very well be Adora. I’m not sure. Its just remarkable that we can have a couple of panels with Cringer and not see any dialogue from him.

And other than all the usual, small stuff, there are no real issues with the art. Just a comment that the sixth issue looks really clean and that visually it just might be my favourite of these six issues. Which is good.

All things considered, the first arc ends things rather nicely, despite my expectations. I think that Giffen and all the artists have done a fairly good job with the characters, and while they will be missed to a degree, I am also excited to see what the Abnett/Kayanan team will do with all of it.

Rating: 8/10

More He-Man: (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe mini-series) #1-4, The Origin of Skeletor, (Masters of the Universe one-shots) #1-7.

Posted on December 21, 2013, in Comics Reviews, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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