Even though Conan first appeared in the 1930s, his popularity honestly blossomed during the 1960s and 1970s, when two publication houses took over the character. First, Lancer Books revived Conan’s adventures, gathering Robert E. Howard’s tales, and finishing his unpublished words. Then, Marvel Comics took the gamble on the character, creating a hit series that spanned decades.
At the height of Conan’s popularity, another contender entered the ring. While multiple Sword and Sorcery epics filled the eighties, most barely made waves. However, one property stood strong and became a cultural phenomenon of its own, He-Man. While Conan had entrenched himself in the hearts of his adult audiences, He-Man reached out to the youth.
Where Conan depicted gory battles and sexual scenes, He-Man kept his violence tame, especially on his cartoon show. His hijinks also occurred in a distant world that had access to advanced technology. This was a far cry from the Hyborian Age’s bronze-age technology. Still, the two had multiple similarities that made many fans raise an eyebrow and wonder if Mattel had ripped off Conan to create He-Man.
Despite the firm denial from Mattel’s executives, rumors about the connection between these two properties still swirl. So, how did these rumors linger? Is it just the similarities of their appearances, or is there more to the story? Worse, is there any truth behind these rumors?
Why does anyone believe that He-Man originally was a Conan toy line?
Similarities between the characters.
He-Man and Conan
Even though Conan traditionally had black hair, there was a very prominent depiction of a blonde Conan the Barbarian. Since Arnold Schwarzenegger was a natural blond, the on-screen depiction of Conan in the 1982 film also became blonde. So, to the movie-going public, Conan was a blonde warrior who fought against snake-gods. Even those who never read the comics nor the books would first think of Schwarzenegger’s depiction of the character.
That same year, a blonde barbarian-inspired hero, He-Man, made his debut in cartoons, comics, and the toy aisle. This man had muscles that rivaled the bulk of Mr. Universe, also linking the two images. Furthermore, he swung around a gigantic sword, like the sword that many saw Schwarzenegger hold in the promotional pictures for the film.
With these elements in play, many easily connected the dots and assumed that Mattel directly ripped Schwarzenegger’s appearance to create He-Man. There were also multiple visual similarities, including the boots and fur line-cloth. So, it seemed like a clean and cut argument to make, or was it?
Where Conan the Barbarian began his life as a fierce warrior from Cimmeria or a slave in the case of the film, He-Man was really Prince Adam from Eternia’s royal family… in the cartoon. However, the comics told a different story. There, the man was simply a Barbarian from the Eternian tribe. Perhaps another character will help prove that He-Man did not take heavy inspiration from Conan.
Skeletor and Thulsa Doom
Certainly, if Mattel took notes from Conan, the only trail would appear in the title character. There should be no means that their skeletal-headed mage villain would resemble an evil mage with a skeleton. Unfortunately, He-Man’s main adversary, Skeletor, felt remarkably similar to the original appearance of Conan’s main villain from the film, Thulsa Doom.
However, the main public had no idea that Thulsa Doom was originally a magically empowered man with a face “like a bare white skull”. Even in his debut appearance in Howard’s “The Cat and the Skull”, the skeletal head of Thulsa Doom defined him. However, he was the main antagonist for another character, Kull. Still, the connected universe leads Thulsa Doom to cross paths with Conan. Especially in the Marvel Comics series.
Meanwhile, the 1982 movie decided to use Thulsa Doom as an important villain. Even though his on-screen appearance lacked the skull-head, pre-production sketches showed that the production considered staying close to his original depiction.
Then, Mattel came out with the main antagonist for He-Man, a man with a skeletal face who used dark magic and necromancy. Once again, fans of both properties noticed the distinct similarity between the two lines. So, there was even more reason for the rumors to swirl between the two properties.
Mattel had a contract with Conan Properties, Inc. when the movie was in production
Despite the similarities in the appearance between these characters, there certainly were no more connections between Mattel and Conan during the production of He-Man. At least, that is what one would hope to discover. Unfortunately, the reality is there was a timely contract between the toy company and Conan Properties, Inc. during the most critical time.
While He-Man was in production, Mattel came up with the idea to test out the feel of a Conan-like toy. So, they contracted Anthony Guerrero to sculpt a fantasy-styled barbarian character. This commission led to a contract between Conan Properties, Inc., and Mattel, which they formally began on July 31, 1981.
As part of the contract, Guerrero continued to work on a prototype of a Conan action figure from July 23 to September 21, 1981. During this time, production on the He-Man line continued at full force. By the end of 1981, He-Man was ready to make his full debut at Toy Fairs. By 1982, He-Man entered the market.
While the contract between Conan Properties, Inc. and Mattel, Inc. ended on April 14, 1982, the companies had many exchanges during this time. While the contract was in effect, Mattel honestly worked on a Conan toy line. They even made requests to tone down the violence and sex in the 1982 Conan film. However, the axe fell on the contract when Conan’s representatives, A. Sidney Alpert and Mimi Shapiro spotted a He-Man toy at a 1982 Toy Fair. Since Mattel had not warned them about the existence of He-Man, they became enraged.
Mattel firmly states that He-Man was never a Conan Toy Line
Despite the similarities and untimely contract between the two companies, Mattel has remained strong on their statement that He-Man is an original IP of theirs. The story of He-Man’s production began as far back as 1976 when Mattel turned down the opportunity to create Star Wars action figures. Soon after, they learned the error of their ways as Kenner rose to prominence thanks to their popular Star Wars toy line.
Unwilling to let their position on the market slide, Mattel became determined to create a hit franchise that would put them back on top. However, they had no idea what form that toy line should take. In the end, they turned to their marketing wizards to poll children and determine what genre would grab their attention. As stated by Mark Ellis, the Former VP of Boys Toys at Mattel, in the Netflix series, The Toys That Made Us, they eventually determined that “the Frank Frazetta style would be the best potential for sales”. This artist just happened to create artwork of Conan the Barbarian during the sixties and seventies.
As marketing determined what the theme of this new toy line should be, one of their designers, Roger Sweet, saw an opportunity to present toys with a muscular tone similar to bodybuilders. He held a particular fascination with bulging muscles, even though he stated that he always had a slim build. Thus, he modified several Big Jim action figures with clay to give them massive muscles. Notably, one of these action figures had a barbarian appearance that harkened back to Frazetta’s art.
How does Mattel explain Skeletor?
Even knowing how Mattel produced He-man, what is their explanation for Skeletor? After determining the general theme for the toy line, Mattel turned to Mark Taylor to sketch up concepts for the rest of the toy lines’ cast. During this time, he claims that he thought back to a terrifying experience with a skeletal figure at The Pike, an amusement park in Long Beach, California.
One of the attractions at The Pike was a dark ride, the “Laff in the Dark”, that featured a supposed hung mannequin. When Mark Taylor went through that ride, he claimed that he felt like he saw a real person behind the skeletal appearance of that figure. Later, in 1976, the discovery of the Elmer McCurdy’s rotting corpse in the funhouse shocked renovation crews.
So, Mark Taylor claims that he drew direct inspiration from the terror he felt when he laid eyes on that disguised corpse. He has never made any claim that he looked in Thulsa Doom’s direction while pulling for ideas on Skeletor.
The Lawsuit: Conan Properties, Inc. vs Mattel, Inc.
The similarities between the two properties did not only raise the eyebrows of fans. Conan Properties, Inc. also firmly believed that Mattel had crossed the line when they created the He-Man toy line. Eventually, the argument found its way to court, though not to a jury trial. Instead, Mattel submitted their case to a summary judgment, where a Judge decided whether or not to judge in their favor.
On April 19, 1989, the US District Court for the Southern District of New York heard the arguments between the two companies. Thus, Robert P. Patterson sat down to witness Conan the Barbarian and He-Man of Eternia take their fight to the courtroom, instead of the battlefield. He noted that the argument between these properties had swirled for five years before it made it before his desk.
Patterson heard on several topics, mainly concerning the copyright and trademark infringement that Conan Properties, Inc. claimed that Mattel perpetrated. He also heard the arguments concerning the breach of contract on both sides. So, this case legally settled the matter of whether He-Man infringed on Conan’s intellectual property.
Conan Properties, Inc. lost the arguments for copyright and trademark infringement
Despite Conan Properties, Inc.’s stringent claims that He-Man was just “Conan disguised with a blonde wig”, they did not win their case for either copyright or trademark infringement. First, the court cited many square-jawed, muscle-bound “hunks” that ran around in scraps of cloth that accentuated their muscles. For instance, Tarzan of the Jungle and Tor, the Caveman, also had physiques like both He-Man and Conan. Thus, the very fact that both characters wore little more than boots and loincloths did not legally merit copyright infringement. The court also determined that his muscular build was not a basis for infringement.
The court also felt that the average person would not reasonably confuse He-Man with Conan the Barbarian. Notably, the failure of Mattel’s lawsuits against other companies that created action figures with musculatures like He-Man helped them win against Conan. Since other companies, like Remco, could create muscle-bound figures in squatted wrestling poses without causing harm to Mattel’s IP, their toy line caused no harm to Conan’s.
With the copyright dispute decided, the Trademark dispute fell at the same time. Since the Trademark infringement depended on the general public confusing the two properties, it quickly lost any footing as the copyright matter fell. Worse, CPI offered no evidence concerning a secondary meaning of its Conan property.
Thus, legally, He-Man does not infringe on the copyright or trademark of Conan the Barbarian. The two exist as separate but similar products.
Conan Properties, Inc. won the argument for breach of contract
Even though Mattel won the case on copyright grounds, there still was the matter concerning the contract between the two parties. After all, the reason the contract between Conan Properties, Inc. and Mattel, Inc. dissolved was the surprise discovery of He-Man.
Neither company denied that Mattel sought out the license for Conan in 1981. During that time, the president of Conan Licensing, A. Sidney Alpert, sent a draft of the agreement to Mattel’s Jack Fox, director of licensing. This contract required that Mattel did its utmost to elevate and promote the Conan property. However, CPI became irritated when Mattel presented them with Schwarzenegger’s head on a Big Jim toy while they hid the existence of the He-Man toy line.
Meanwhile, Mattel admitted that He-Man was a related property that was in production before they signed the contract with CPI. At no point during this contract did they have any intentions of giving up He-Man.
Worse, even though the contract held clauses that detailed what would happen upon the contract’s termination, Mattel did not fully follow through. While Mattel paid the additional $25,000 to CPI upon the termination of their contract, they held onto the molds, sketches, and other artwork that they developed under the contract. This was in direct opposition to the clause that stated that Mattel must return such materials within ten days.
With Mattel admitting that they broke the contract, the court ruled on CPI’s side. Thus, Mattel did indeed breach the contract between the two companies.
The Saga Continues: Remco made Conan toys that “ripped-off” He-Man toys
So, that is the end of the story. There are no other interesting connections between the world of He-Man and the world of Conan. Except, there was that one time that Remco created a Conan toy line using the molds that Mattel claimed infringed on their He-Man copyright.
After He-Man became a smash hit at the toy aisle, other companies believed that the design of the toys was the reason for the success. Thus, companies like Arzak-Hamway’s Remco created toys with nearly identical squatted poses of muscle-bound “hunks”. Their first toy line to feature this style was Remco’s Lost World of the Warlord in 1982.
Notably, Mattel sued Remco over the design of their toys, but as cited in the suit between CPI and Mattel, Mattel lost. The courts decided that the musculature and basic “wrestling pose” of the figures did not constitute IP theft. Thus, Remco continued to create toys that emulated He-Man’s style.
By 1984, Conan was ready to appear in another film and a new toy line. However, CPI decided not to do business again with Mattel. Thus, they turned to Remco, who produced the Conan toy line that felt like the comics version of Conan in He-Man form.
Which side do you believe, Conan or He-Man?
Despite the lawsuits, interviews, and testimonies, people still honestly believe that He-Man ripped off Conan the Barbarian. So, we would love to hear from you. Which side do you believe? Let us know in the comments below.
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Bio: I am the founder and owner of Wheeljack’s Lab pop Culture and Toy Shop. My vision has always been to reunite customers with their favorite childhood toys and pop culture, triggering fond memories, and reigniting their imaginations. Every day, I work in the “lab” where it’s Christmas 365 days a year. I scour the internet, like when we had the Sears Catalog of yesteryear, for the next great treasure. Then, I await the arrival of the postman as if he were Santa Claus himself and helping collectors worldwide with their own versions of Christmas. Every day as a vintage toy buyer is an absolute joy!