FORTRESS OF MYSTERY AND POWER
Castle Grayskull has been part of Eternian mythology right from the start, and it is probably the one piece of the MOTU story which has retained its identity and purpose the most consistently. The fortress has always been the place where ancient secrets are kept hidden and protected. It was this way since the earliest minicomics, and its role remained the same through the Filmation era and the 2002 relaunch. The 2008 Classics line also made consistent reference to the fortress. Castle Grayskull is probably the most distinctive, easily identifiable and memorable fictitious citadel ever created.
The original toy Castle Grayskull was a playset which all MOTU fans longed to own as children. Its instantly recognisable skull frontage, with its distinctive 'jawbridge', hinted at its mysterious and sinister nature. It also looked like a real castle, with its towers and turrets. It had exciting extras, including a weapons rack and a laser cannon. It was even possible to attach another playset to it - Point Dread - which was how the castle was illustrated in several minicomics. It was actually fairly small for a toy castle - you could not line up rows of heroic warriors along the battlements - but in young MOTU fans' imaginations, it was enormous. It didn't even matter that it only had two walls.
I have written about imagination several times on Vaults. I think the MOTU line was so successful because it encouraged children to make up stories about their favourite characters. The special ingredient for many of us was the collection of minicomics which came with the figures. Castle Grayskull featured prominently in many of those tales, and it was also central to the success of the Filmation cartoon. The "by the power of Grayskull" quotation was simple, but incredibly effective. It could be said that everything revolved around the fortress rather than the characters themselves. It was a marketing masterpiece.
When I was considering what to focus on with this page, I kept thinking about how inspiring Castle Grayskull was - and still is - to our imaginations. So I thought I would take a look at a some of the ways Castle Grayskull has been illustrated over the years. This is not meant to be a detailed exploration of every representation of the fortress. I have picked some images from different sources which I enjoy looking at. I shall endeavour to explain why these images inspire me.
My Grayskull Saga places Castle Grayskull in
a great plain, which is surrounded entirely by the enormous Evergreen Forest.
This is a hybrid of different ideas. In truth, I cannot remember exactly where
and when each element originated from, and why I favour some themes more than
others. One of the joys of being a MOTU fan fiction writer is having the
opportunity to put one's own perspective on a fabulous collection of ideas and
inventing something both new and recognisable.
I love Mark Taylor's concept drawing of Castle Grayskull, not just because it is a fantastic piece of art, but also because it reveals something of the artist's imagination. This is more of an island citadel than a castle, but the skull still dominates the design, and this was the key feature used on the toy and drawn in every illustration since. I would love to own a castle like this one!
The fact that Taylor's Castle Grayskull is surrounded by water is a really interesting feature. I do not know of any illustration or description of Castle Grayskull that places the fortress on an island or encircled by a moat, which suggests that this idea was never adopted, but it works brilliantly here.
I also love the style of the building. The towers are not symmetrical or ordered. It looks like a collection of buildings, which is why the image makes me think of a citadel. For the most part, the structure looks inaccessible, which brings me on to another aspect of this illustration which I love - the battle between the inhabitants and the raiding party.
The drawing captures a pivotal moment in a dramatic battle. The soldier in the boat's crow's-nest, trying to prevent the defender in the tower from hurling a piece of masonry into the boat, is about to be taken out by the archer on the ground. Guards from inside the castle are responding to the sudden threat and are pouring outside, weapons at the ready. The attacking captain is gesticulating frantically as he tries to direct his man to attack the archer.
The idea that the castle serves as a garrison was another which was not
used in the various MOTU canons. This was, of course, one of the main
functions of the Middle Ages castle, and it actually seems odd that Castle
Grayskull does not hold soldiers of its own. It is an idea which seems
worthy of attention. By the time of the toy castle and the minicomics,
there was more emphasis on the castle's magical qualities than is
suggested by Taylor's illustration. The inhabitants were in spirit form.
The first series of minicomics, written by Donald Glut and illustrated by Alfredo Alcala, portrayed a very mysterious version of Castle Grayskull. We now had the familiar design, closely resembling the toy version. In the minicomics, the castle was always illustrated as being on a vast rocky plain. It was never shown in proximity to any other landmark, which emphasised its remoteness and enhanced its mysteriousness. It was treated with great respect by all, including Skeletor, who sought to invade it and steal its secrets.
There were some interesting story ideas in development at the time of this set of minicomics, such as the split Powersword. This concept was revisited during the 2002 MOTU relaunch and again in the 2008 Classics biographies. The strange thing is that there was not actually any substantial intention to create an official MOTU canon when the minicomics were written. Did you notice the winged figure standing with Skeletor and Mer-Man in this illustration from He-Man and the Power Sword? Perhaps Stratos's character had not been fully worked out at this stage.
One recurring theme from the first series of minicomics was the presence of a Spirit of Grayskull; a mythical entity who inhabited the fortress. This is another idea which the Classics line has made use of. In the latest canon, the spirit is the ghost of King Grayskull; a heroic fighter who built the castle and gave it his name. This actually contradicts the information in He-Man and the Power Sword which says Castle Grayskull was 'a fortress so ancient that no one knew its origin'.
The desolate landscape upon which Castle Grayskull stood in these earliest of minicomics was a very important aspect of the canon. The wildness of the scenery was hinted at in Alcala's illustrations. The land around the fortress was barren and bleak. Further afield there were grand mountains and seas. The land seemed very sparsely populated, and He-Man was revealed to be from a jungle tribe. There was mention of technology from a former age, but the present was largely devoid of advanced gadgetry. We certainly saw the presence of magic in the Eternia of these stories.
In the King of Castle Grayskull minicomic the Spirit of Grayskull hid the
two halves of the Powersword in another dimension to prevent anyone
from joining them again and using the complete weapon to enter the castle. In
these early stories, Skeletor was particularly successful at gaining access to
Castle Grayskull, even if he was swiftly removed by He-Man. This was a theme
which changed fairly quickly. The second series minicomics, written by Gary
Cohn and drawn by Mark Texeira, revealed that Skeletor had never entered Castle
It was the second series of minicomics which I enjoyed the most, and they were what shaped my vision of Eternia. My Grayskull Saga is probably closer in style to Cohn's stories than any others, and I actually refer to the story in The Magic Stealer! minicomic as a background element for an important theme in the saga. There are also some minor references to other Series Two themes.
One thing that is different, however, is the proximity of Castle Grayskull to the royal palace. In the Series Two minicomics, they are very close, as you can see from the image on the left. This was probably done for ease of illustration - it does not actually affect any of the stories - but it does form a link which was not there before. An important difference between the first and second series minicomics is what appears on the turret. Not present in the earliest tales, Point Dread, with its accompanying Talon Fighter aircraft, is now firmly attached (magically) to the castle.
The royal palace, illustrations of which are shown in The Magic Stealer! and The Power of... Point Dread! minicomics, is my favourite version of the palace. It is shown as a proper castle! From the Filmation era onwards, the palace became much too futuristic for my taste. I think an old-fashioned castle works much better in a rustic landscape. The palace provided an important starting point for He-Man's journey in The Magic Stealer!, and was the key location in The Power of... Point Dread! when Skeletor attacked it. These two minicomics are my favourite and you can read them here.
These tales introduced a theme which has been used consistently ever since. Now there dwelt a sorceress within Castle Grayskull. The Sorceress, who in these stories wears the snake costume, seems to have displaced the Spirit of Grayskull, although the fortress is shown to have a supernatural power when it tries to resist Skeletor in The Power of... Point Dread!. We find out that the castle is actually inhabited by many spirits, and it is for us to decide who or what they may be. In my own stories, I made them ghosts of warriors and rulers, referring to them collectively as the Elders of Grayskull. We did, of course, meet the Sorceress in He-Man and the Power Sword in her green-skinned incarnation. This did create a conflict between the two series, particularly because in The Magic Stealer! the Sorceress is referred to as the Goddess. The Classics line has actually dealt with this well by referring to the green-skinned character as the Goddess, leaving options open for one or more Grayskull sorceresses.
The Series Two minicomics inspired me enormously as a child playing with
my Masters Of The Universe toys, and they continue to be my
primary source of inspiration now when I write my own Masters stories.
Their depiction of Castle Grayskull is key to that image of Eternia which
exists in my imagination. In these tales, Castle Grayskull is at its most
mysterious and powerful. It is a dark and brooding place, which fits
perfectly into the swords and sorcery world which I imagine Eternia to be.
Although I enjoyed the Filmation cartoons, it was the Series Two minicomics
which kept me enthralled by the Masters, not the cartoon.
Times change, and new ideas are born. The 2002 relaunch of the MOTU was, for some fans, a fantastic new interpretation of the old characters. I was never a follower of this era though. I did not collect the figures because I did not like their styling. You can see some examples of the 2002 figures here. However, looking back, the 2002 line was good for the Masters. We may never have seen the Classics line without it. For all its failings, the 2002 MOTU era still kept one thing at its heart - the ever-present sanctuary of Eternian secrets and magic that is Castle Grayskull.
A beautifully-illustrated set of comics was produced by Image Comics to accompany the toyline. It was the end of these comics, rather than the end of the toys themselves, which I found disappointing. I felt Val Staples' storytelling and Emiliano Santalucia's drawings brought a maturity to the 2002 Masters which was not apparent in the figures themselves. The way Castle Grayskull was presented in the comics really impressed me.
I love the impossibility of this representation of the ancient fortress. Rising from a deep chasm, the gigantic plinth upon which Castle Grayskull stands is spectacular. This was the sort of scale we saw in Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings films. I have had to do some rather drastic cloning on this image to remove some speech bubbles, but hopefully my editing has not detracted from the drama of this illustration. This Castle Grayskull is even more inaccessible than Taylor's moated citadel.
The sense of size is represented very well too. He-Man and Man-E-Faces are approaching the castle, and they are barely visible. This is a vast castle! Other illustrations in the comics show how enormous the interior of this Castle Grayskull is. This interpretation shows the fortress at its most grand. This Castle Grayskull is simply more enormous and more otherworldy than any previous representation.
The Sorceress of Grayskull still resides in the castle, although her styling is very different to previous incarnations. This time the theme is very Pharaonic, and the Sorceress sits in a throne atop a grand floating pyramid in a giant, floorless throne room. The grandeur of this Castle Grayskull is what makes it so impressive - surrounded by huge cliffs, dense forest and beautiful mountain ranges - this is proof that the magical Castle Grayskull continues to inspire.
During the life of the Classics line, a licensed sculpture of Castle Grayskull
was produced by Icon Heroes. The design gave us a
complete castle in three dimensions for the first time with some brilliant
creative touches. We also saw a huge toy version
from Mattel. It was bigger and bolder than the original, in scale with the
updated figures, and was a perfect tribute to the version from the 1980s.
Perhaps even more importantly, Castle Grayskull continues to inspire. Illustrators
are still painting the fortress, continuing the tradition of Masters of the
Universe art. It seems Castle Grayskull
will be fuelling our imaginations for a long time to come.