Mastering the Universe: He-Man and the Rise and Fall of a Billion-Dollar Idea (Order from Amazon)
by Roger Sweet and David Wecker
Emmis Books, 2005
I picked up a copy of Mastering the Universe when it was first published. Aside from flipping through a few bits here and there, I never sat down and read the whole thing through until a few weeks ago. The book is ostensibly an account of the creation, development, and ultimate fall of Mattel’s Masters of the Universe toyline through the eyes of toy designer Roger Sweet.
But if you take away anything from Mastering the Universe, Sweet would like it to be this: it was all his idea. And I mean all. As one reviewer of the book on Amazon put it, it reads like a court deposition in a case where the question is who created He-Man. Sweet backs up his claims by constantly citing specific patents, internal documents, and other paperwork that means little or nothing to the average reader (or indeed, anyone other than another Mattel employee).
For this reason, Mastering the Universe isn’t always an easy read. Sweet’s writing (aided by his nephew, David Wecker) is peppered with moments of bitterness, egotism, and defensiveness, not to mention a heavy helping of self-martyrdom. Oddly enough, in both its self-aggrandizing nature and its defensiveness regarding credit for MOTU, Sweet’s book shares certain similarities with Dream Doll, the autobiography of Mattel founder Ruth Handler, who claimed she was the sole inventor of Barbie.
If Sweet’s agenda were simply to ensure credit was given where it was due, Mastering the Universe would be an informative, if somewhat dull, account of the origins of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and the corporate shenanigans that went on behind the scenes. Unfortunately, Sweet is so self-aggrandizing I was more than a little annoyed by the end of it. He rarely acknowledges–or at least, rarely approves of–the contributions of others to the MOTU brand.
The book is at its best when Sweet lays off the agonizingly detailed accounts of corporate politics and describes the process of designing or engineering some new character or toy. I was particularly intrigued to read about the toys that didn’t make the line, such as the monstrous “Gygor” made by re-using the gorilla from the Big Jim Jungle Adventure set (just as Battle Cat and Zoar were made from Big Jim toys).
Part of the reason I was initially turned off by the book was that Sweet, who goes to extreme lengths to show how much of it was all his idea, nonetheless gets a number of facts about the line wrong, from calling Buzz-Off a villain to mixing up Kobra Khan and King Hiss (despite correctly describing Khan earlier in the book). Obviously, this is the sort of thing you really only expect us toy geeks to know and care about, and ordinarily I’d agree that being bothered by it is the height of nerdy nitpicking. However, if Sweet is trying to convince me he was the creator of MOTU, a little research and fact-checking would have gone a long way. As it stands, the lack of attention to detail makes the whole project a bit more suspect.
There’s a passage in the book that ironically makes the point:
Several months after He-Man’s introduction at the Toy Fair […] [Marketing Director] Mark Ellis issued a memo in which he gave the Marketing division credit for creating and masterminding [MOTU]. Denis Bosley, still VP of Preliminary Design, fired off a venomous reply memo clearly stating that his department–and he cited me specifically–had created the concept.
Unfortunately, he hadn’t checked the facts with me. His memo contained a few inaccuracies, which diverted attention in Marketing and upper management away from the point he was making. Instead of beating back the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, he was seen as misinformed.
Had Sweet made Mastering the Universe more of an account of how the line and its characters were created and less of a polemic about who deserves credit for what, I think it would be a much more enjoyable read for fans of MOTU. But really, it’s a memoir of Sweet’s experiences in the corporate culture of Mattel in the 1980s with MOTU as its focus. Had Sweet spent less space on (battle)axe-grinding and more on (accurately) describing the process of making MOTU, Mastering the Universe would be a must-have for every He-Fan’s bookshelf.
As for the book’s central theme: I believe Sweet’s claim that the initial concept for MOTU came from him. I no longer think MOTU was developed for the movie Conan the Barbarian and then changed when the film turned out to be too violent for toys. And I have no doubt Mattel was the nest of vipers Sweet makes it out to be. But I’m also sure there’s more credit to go around than Sweet lets on, and his constant defensiveness–and the inaccuracies regarding the toys themselves–only weaken his case.
One thing I really liked about Sweet's book was the discussion of the original He-Man pitch (though you'll note he neglected to mention the three prototypes that are getting an SDCC tribute) as well as pitches for other lines.
Imagine how much different our childhoods would have been if Kenny Dewitt won.
Omg – this guy invented He-man and you are all still sitting down?!? Roger Sweet – im your nr 1 fan!
Mattel's own book would come out with a lead cover, misprinted pages in Uzbek and almost as much self-serving myth-building as Sweet manages.
Strange that the Company seems to have actually gotten worse in it's whole business ethic since his time – with corporate survival being so Darwinian these days you wouldn't have thought such a thing possible.
An interesting read to be sure, but you really wouldn't wanna be on a long car-journey with the guy without a 12 Gauge way to shut him up.
Concept drawings and photos would have made this an amazing book. Mattel should have access to all of the old material and could create their own book.
Actually, there aren't any! I reckon he just didn't have access to any.
Is this book at least full of concept drawings and prototype images, or is there just a few here and there?
I bought the book when it was released, and had pretty much the same opinion of it. The most interesting part of the book was the section that described the history of the development of the toy industry in general, and the modern action figure in particular. There was a good bit of information there that I hadn't known before.
Does Sweet discuss any inspirations, like Captain Marvel, Superman, and Conan or does he claim he just made it up out of whole cloth?
@Monte: oh my point to that story…if mattel **cks with their customers as much as they do, I'm not surprise if there are a bunch of disgruntled employees currently working for them.
@ Newton Gimmick: Very Very True as always Mr. Newton Gimmick!
@ Monte: I read that guy who made up the 1st four mini comics wasn't too happy about Mattel either.
As for current employees…not sure but check facebook out. Some guy claims that after Mattel send his figure to the wrong address and after Mattel received the figure back, Mattel had said that they would not refund the guy OR send back the figure to him.
Don't know if it's true or not but Mattel seriously needs to fix their "REFUND/RETURN/REPLACEMENT" system. They're HORRIBLE.
Better Business Bureau actually has an "A" for them! How did that happen? lol
To be fair to Sweet, when compiling a book of that nature and no doubt dealing with so much stuff in a license, you tend to forget things. Granted those things probably should have been fact checked and fixed, but even I have occasionally wrote things down completely wrong just because I've had so much information running around in my brain at the same time.
Memory can be a funny thing. Read three autobiographies of three people who were at the same place at the same time and you'll probably have three different stories of the events.
I've always wanted to read this book though.
Big Jim sees so many of it's characters re-used as analogues in MOTU that I would imagine at least some credit should be given to them. Iron Jaw, Torpedo Fist, Double Trouble just to name a few.
Are more recent (or even present-day) Mattel employees disgruntled, too?
I don't think he says he worked on Big Jim, only that Big Jim molds were reused.
I've read the book and I see both sides. Critics and Sweet's.
I see Sweet's side because Sweet is only one of many pissed off Mattel employees. Many people who worked on MOTU weren't happy.
I think it is pretty laughable how he wants all the credit for motu but makes errors such as the buzz off error but whatever.
Who knows? Some of us would probably be as pissed off at Mattel like Sweet if Mattel screwed us over.
I'd have to look and see if he specifically mentions working on Big Jim itself, but he definitely discusses re-using Big Jim molds for MOTU. There's no credit given to the Big Jim designers as far as I remember, but he certainly acknowledges its usage in MOTU.
I've always wanted to read the book and never taken the time to, so I'd like to ask you a question about it. You mentioned Gygor in reference to Big Jim, but how much does the book give to the presence of Big Jim in the line? So many of the concepts/characters are carried over, I've always thought that whichever designers created 'Big Jim' should get some credit for MOTU. Did Roger Sweet mention working on Big Jim as well?
A note I made to myself that I forgot to delete. The article was running long enough as it was.
That gorilla is some corny-looking crap, but I'm sure we woulda loved it in the '80s.
"He rarely acknowledges the contributions of others to the MOTU brand, and when he does it’s usually in the form of a backhanded compliment (example?)."
Was that an editor's note or a note to yourself, or-?
I have this book and agree with your review. From the start this is a book that's all about how great Sweet is. The discussion of how he turned himself into a powerful, well-toned man was especially annoying. It's the side comments, many of them bitter, that turns this from an interesting read into a train wreck of someone's emotional journey through toyland.
I think Sweet certainly deserves a lot of credit, but he was so self-aggrandizing that I have to wonder just how much.