He-Man was one of the coolest cartoon/action figure combos of my 1980s boyhood. In time there would be others, but this regular prince who turned into the “strongest man in the universe” made perfect sense to my pre-kindergarten mind, including his gigantic feline friend, Battle Cat.
In a post Avengers and Game of Thrones world, we seem to expect everything to come with its own mythology. He-Man and Battle Cat were no different, but their true origination is more interesting than their proposed backstories, at least to someone a little older than 5. After passing on making Star Wars toys because of an upfront licensing fee of $750,000 (“oops”), the people at Mattel created He-Man as a straight merchandising play. The toys came first, the story would come later.
Because all great heroes have an iconic vehicle (Han Solo with the Millennium Falcon, Batman with the Bat-mobile, Barbie with her pink convertible), He-Man’s creators knew he needed something slick to get around in. The problem was that they were already over budget and couldn’t afford to manufacture anything else. They turned their attention to toys they already owned the tools to assemble but weren’t currently making.
A certain tiger from the Big Jim franchise had looked promising as another character, but as a toy it was too big relative to the figurines. He-Man couldn’t have a random large cat for a friend. However, maybe he could have a giant cat for a vehicle – kind of like a horse. They redid the tiger’s colors and “put a saddle on it,” solving both the vehicle and the budget problem in one fell swoop. And that’s how Battle Cat was born.*
Every job has its own unique problems. Every client situation has its own troublesome details. Sometimes it really is better to enjoy the sausage without worrying about what goes on in the sausage factory. In the confines of our offices, there are plenty of times we inevitably just “put a saddle on it” and make it work. However, when we ultimately present our output to others, we have to give it purpose and make it meaningful for the person experiencing it.
He-Man May have been a thinly veiled commercial ruse, but to a kid of the 1980s, those toys were awesome. Equally, we have to engage our audience. Some stuff is just plain boring, but if it’s important or will make a difference in someone’s life, it’s up to us – as professionals – to make it resonate.
*This video of the He-Man creators remembering how they came up with the Battle Cat idea is amazing. And, the language is a lot more colorful (h/t Benedict Evans).