Philip Tan Calls on Power of Grayskull for New HE-MAN Design

When artist Philip Tan began drawing comics exclusively for DC Comics, he expected to work on characters like Green Lantern, Batman and Hawkman.

But He-Man?

Exclusive design sketches

This July, DC Comics is launching a brand new, six-issue He-Man and the Masters of the Universe comic, basing the story on the Mattel property that was a toy phenomenon in the 1980's.

Written by James Robinson with Tan on art, the comic will try to introduce the characters to a new audience while still retaining the things adored by those fans who already love it.

Just like the cartoon, the He-Man comic takes place in the land of Eternia. But in the new comic, the evil Skeletor has already taken over the world, and Eternia's heroes have forgotten their "Master-ful" nature. The Sorceress awakens He-Man to his true purpose, and he embarks on a quest to restore the rest of the group.

For the He-Man comic, Robinson and Tan are working together for the first time, although they were rumored to have been working on the Hawkman relaunch last year. Instead, Tan launched Hawkman with Tony Daniel, but then left when a new creative team came on board that title.

Tan has been a DC-exclusive artist since 2008, after working at Marvel and Image on books like Uncanny X-Men and Spawn. Tan was first tapped by DC for a Final Crisis tie-in, then followed with stints on high profile books like Green Lantern and Batman and Robin.

Newsarama has an exclusive look a few of at Tan's sketches for the comic, including Skeletor, He-Man and Sorceress. Following up on our interview with the writer on the series, we talked to the artist to get his take on what we'll see in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

Newsarama: Phil, it's tough to imagine you doing He-Man, because it was so well known as a cartoon. Your art is not cartoony. I assume you're bringing a whole new look to this?

Philip Tan: Yeah, we're able to add way more detail than any of the cartoons had. And Mattel has been very supportive when we started to suggest that we make a few changes to make it more up-to-date. I'm bringing a little bit of my own style to it. And so far, so good.

I've been able to do certain things that I honestly didn't know if I would be able to do. And it's been exciting. I really like getting the chance to go into this optimistically.

Nrama: You've never worked with James before. Are you working closely with him as you plan the series?

Tan: Yeah, there was a period of time where we were communicating a lot and exchanging a lot of notes. We really tried to find each other's strengths. And now we're bringing all these ideas to He-Man.

Nrama: What kind of things are you hoping to bring to the comic?

Tan: One of the major things that immediately stood out for both of us is Skeletor. When everyone was watching the He-Man cartoon, it was fun and we were all kids. And we thought the whole idea and the whole franchise was entertaining. But no one really took Skeletor seriously. And even with all the revivals and reboots in the past couple decades, Skeletor was never someone that I would think was terrifying.

I want it to feel like, if he was in our world, you wouldn't be able to sleep because you're so scared of this guy.

Previously, Skeletor wasn't at that level. And we want to bring that to the character. 

He-Man #1

Nrama: That implies that this is going to be a darker comic than the He-Man story has previously been. Is this going to be more violent?

Tan: No, we're not going to do violence or gore just for the sake of making this "dark." What I'm talking about is just making him scary in the sense where you know he's a bad guy that plans and schemes and can be really dangerous to everyone. It's like imagining the most horrible men from history, and the feeling you get about the terrible thought of them coming back to this world. That's what Skeletor should represent to Eternia.

The art and the design will echo what James is doing with the character in the story, and it should work together to bring across this feeling. You'll have to see what we're doing with the character. James and I are on the same page on this one. This was a perfect platform for us to transform him into someone who's sinister and scary.

Nrama: Looking at the Skeletor sketch, what would you point out that you are incorporating to help support James' effort to make him more terrifying?

Tan: It came from James' description first. When it's all about how Skeletor should be scary and not the goofy villain we see in the cartoon. And after some notes from Mattel, then James, myself and the good editorial team at DC Entertainment came up with elements of what eventually became the design we have.

We really didn't change too much of his basic look, but just adjusted a lot of it. The dark flawing cloth that is mixed with the purple costume, the chainmail and the extra bulkiness — all a direction to start telling stories where Skeletor will be very scary!

Nrama: Are you getting to draw Castle Greyskull?

Tan: Castle Greyskull is an integral part of the plot, so I don't want to say too much about it. But it will be part of our approach to making Skeletor a more terrifying presence in the world of Eternia.

Nrama: Are you redesigning some of the costumes of the Masters of the Universe? We've seen He-Man, who still has a familiar look.

Tan: I think of all the characters in the Masters of the Universe line, He-Man's costumes is actually one of the ones that really has a classic, timeless feel to it. I know people might complain that he's still wearing fur instead of pants, but it fits him.

Yes, I've been tweaking the costumes for some of the other characters, and I hope people like some of the changes that we've made. But He-Man has such a classic look, and I think that character still comes across as bad-ass and cool even without changing him into too many modern sensibilities.

That being said, though, we actually brought a few elements to He-Man, not drastically changing his look. But bringing new textures and materials to his armor and costume, to make him feel a little more like the feel of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. We just tried to heighten the fantasy feel. We really wanted to pull influences from high fantasy like Lord of the Rings and Frank Frazetta paintings. So a lot of what we did on the final design in this sketch are adjustments based on those elements.

Nrama: What was your approach to The Sorceress? She looks like she's kept the same basic look?

Tan: The most challenging part with designing her is how to update her look. But she already's got one of the best and most timeless look in the series, so I really only want to adjust some of the minor elements and not really changing the look too much. Again, keeping high fantasy heavy in mind for design direction, making them fit into a sword-and-sorcery world with a twist for the modern audience, means that we have to take into consideration what part of the original costume should be kept and work the updates into them, not the other way around.

Nrama: You're getting to re-create the whole world of He-Man, but it doesn't look like there are huge changes to these three costumes. Are there any other big changes?

Tan: It's not so much that the world has changed drastically or anything, but the story we're telling shows it in a new way, kind of changing the perception of it as we shine a new light on it. It's true that we're carving this world anew, but we're doing it around what is there already, respecting what's been established about it.

But my approach to the art also comes from the story that James is telling. The whole He-Man story that James is planning out right now is going to really surprise some people, I think. I'm even getting surprised every script I get.

It's not the He-Man we know. I know every time someone talks about reviving a franchise like this, they say, "It's not what you think!" But this time, it really is different.

Readers have been told the first twist, that He-Man will go on this quest to regain his power and re-awaken the Masters of the Universe. It's a reinterpretation of the He-Man story. 

 

Nrama: James told us you're working in conjunction with Mattel. Are they approving character sketches?

Tan: Yes, and they should. We can't just go crazy on the designs for one of their toy properties. He-Man can't suddenly have purple hair and orange skin.

But we were very, very, very surprised at how much they're liking the changes we've made. Especially for me, visually, they are actually allowing me to get away with a few things I didn't expect.

When I did these character sketches, they were very open to the way I interpreted the characters using my style. They wanted to incorporate my ideas into the design for He-Man. They're very supportive. It's totally not what I expected when I started to re-design these characters for a big toy company.

Nrama: I know you tweak your style for different stories. How would you describe your approach to this property? And what have you changed about your usual approach to the art?

Tan: One difference is that I'm not doing my inking and watercoloring. I'll have an inker on this book, Ruy Jose. He's done a lot of mainstream work. He's just amazing. And to my surprise, it's drawn out a lot of elements that I didn't expect. He's totally surprising me in a good way. He's trying to make me channel a lot rougher imagery into the work. He's bringing out the look of some of the older Filipino artists — people like, you know, Alex Niño and Nestor Redondo and those great artists. And both of us really want to see if we can bring a lot of that out. I'm not saying that we're as good as those legends, but we're basically saying, wouldn't it be great if we could get that whole Frazetta painting feel in black and white.

So we're trying to bring a bit of that whole sword and sorcery genre feel to it from back in the '70s and '80s. Obviously, we're still using updated technology and colors and inking techniques, so it's a little different. But our goal is to bring it in that direction.

The inking has given my pencils a very unexpected result. I really like how it's turning out.

Nrama: I remember how excited you were when you got the chance to design the Orange Lanterns for Green Lantern, so are you enjoying the chance to get back to designing characters again?

Tan: You're very perceptive! I love this stuff. It's what I really enjoy. I've also been doing some design work for video games, and then doing these designs for He-Man — I love creating worlds, and this has allowed me to be creative in a way that I think is one of my strengths.

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