G.I. Joe! G.I. Joe!
The fighting man from head to toe!
On the land, in the sea, in the air!
--G.I. Joe commercial, 1960s.
Before he was "a Real American Hero" taking down the Evil Threat of COBRA and delivering Public Service Announcements, before television cartoons and live-action movies and comic books and instant collectibles, he was a simple soldier, reenacting warfare in your basement and back yard, launching the term "Action Figure" along the way.
G.I. Joe entered the language during World War II. Soldiers used to seeing "G.I." stamped on everything saw themselves as another Government Issue. The name caught on, and in 1945, Robert Mitchum and Burgess Meredith starred in Hollywood's tribute to the average guy in uniform, The Story of G.I. Joe.
The war ended. Johnny and Joe came marching home. North Americans had lots of kids and lived often affluent lives.
Noting the tremendous success of Mattel's Barbie, toy developer Stan Weston pitched the idea of an articulated toy soldier to Hasbro, a company that had regularly issued rigid little green army men, sandal epic warriors, Cowboys and Indians, and other figurines. Hasbro coined the term "Action Figure" because little boys didn't want to play with dolls. They ensured that a macho culture would warm to their little toy soldier by making him tough-- evidenced by the trademark scar across his face and the Hasbro trademark carved into his butt. After rejecting such butch names as "Rocky the Marine," "Ace the Pilot," and, uh, "Skip the Sailor," they settled on G.I. Joe-- except in Britain, where Palitoy, which obtained the license, called him Action Man.1
All twelve inches of Joe, packaged in footlocker-style boxes and wearing outsize dog tags, stormed the stores in 1964. He belonged to all four branches of the U.S. Military. Most of the outfits and accessories hearkened back to World War II, though a few reflected America's involvement in Korea. Only with time would up-to-date accessories become available.
The original Joes shared the same face, though they came with four different hair colors.2 In some areas, Hasbro also marketed an "ethnic" Joe, with darker skin. In 1965, they sold their first Black figure, which used a different facial mold. Boys took to G.I. Joe and, in 1966, Action Soldiers of the World became available. Kids could recreate the old man's war with German, Imperial Japanese, Russian, British, Australian, and French Resistance fighters. A short time later, Hasbro added to the collection a contemporary Green Beret.
By then, some people were expressing doubts about kids playing war.
"I have a tough assignment for you!"
--G.I. Joe talking commander, early 1970s.
Hasbro increasingly offered other possibilities. Joe could be (among other things) an astronaut, a deep-sea diver, or a frogman. The company also offered male and female army nurses.3 Neither sold well, but both have since become quite collectible. As the American involvement in southeast Asia drew fire, Hasbro gradually switched Joe from a military man to a proto-Indiana Jones-style adventurer. This Joe belonged to an "Adventure Team." He had "life-like hair" and, in keeping with the 70s culture, could be purchased in a popular bearded version. Later, he would be sold with a firm "Kung-fu grip" and later still, shifty "Eagle Eyes." Although some military items were still available, Hasbro preferred to send Joe into shark and octopus-infested waters or after Egyptian artifacts. He also tracked down wild animals, including a rather scrawny abominable snowman. The Team commander could talk when you pulled his dog-tag. He said manly things like, "This is going to be rough! Can you handle it?"
As the decade wore on, the Adventure Team acquired some unusual new members. Mike Power, the Atomic Man, hit the stores before licensed figures from tv's Six Million Dollar Man, which obviously had inspired the character. In addition to an eye that blinked with light, he had one arm and one leg replaced with "atomic" limbs. Made from transparent plastic and filled with mechanical workings, they apparently gave him super-strength and speed. I'm not certain how that worked with only one super-leg; perhaps he hopped rapidly. Mike could also rotate a personal propeller-blade with his atomic hand and fly. Bulletman the Human Bullet joined shortly thereafter. The redundantly-named superhero had silver metallic arms, a comic-book outfit, and a bullet-shaped bullet helmet that looked like a bullet.
Such a team naturally needed enemies. The Intruders, extra-terrestrial in origin, looked like Neanderthals and wore fetish gear fashioned from some form of metal. Their commander, a big bear of a man, wore gold; the clean-shaven subordinate Invader wore silver. When you pressed the button on an Intruder's back, he bear-hugged Joe. Strangely 70s, but sales continued to drop, and the original action figure disappeared in 1976.
From 1977 to 1978, Hasbro marketed a version of the character called "Super Joe." He was more cheaply produced and stood a shorter eight and one-half inches-- the same size as Mego's popular superhero and tv-show figures. Super Joe looked like the bearded Adventure Team Joe. Clean-shaven team members accompanied him; they wore period jogging suits. Rounding out the squad were the alien-looking Shield and the transparent Luminos.
The Super Joes had enemies, too: Gor, King of the Terrons, who looked vaguely like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Darkon, who looked considerably like an evil green Super Joe. The Terrons, unlike their king, were strange, six-legged dinosaurs. This take on the character did not sell especially well, and few people remember Super Joe now. By the end of the Polyester Age, the plastic soldier seemed destined to disappear from the toyboxes of the world.
He'll fight for freedom
Wherever there's trouble
G.I. Joe is there!
--G.I. Joe Theme, 1980s.
Two things happened that would change the future of G.I. Joe: Star Wars became a major hit, and America elected Ronald Reagan.
Kenner had purchased the right to market Star Wars toys. Company president Bernie Loomis spread his thumb and index finger and said that "Luke Skywalker should be this big," thus inaugurating the era of the three and one-half inch action figure. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan's government removed the restrictions on children's television that prevented presenting blatant commercials as entertainment. The 1980s would become a decade of kid's shows based on toys. In 1982, a new G.I. Joe appeared, available in numerous variations, a world of tiny heroes and villains.
Others have already discussed the 1980s incarnation of G.I. Joe, toy and television show and comic book hero. They had individual, if simplified, personalities, access to the kind of military hardware Alexander Haig dreamed about, and a mission to fight against an evil agency called Cobra. This version of Joe won over legions of late Cold War kiddies who were often unaware of the action figure's lengthier history. The popularity of the show led to multiple comic book spin-offs, and Hasbro continues to market this incarnation into the twenty-first century.
"Now you know. And knowing is half the battle!"
--G.I. Joe Public Service Announcements.
In the 1990s, Hasbro began turning out large-size figures aimed mainly at the collectible market. These included original-style G.I. Joes, more realistic variations, G.I. Joe Team characters, and real people: presidents, soldiers, tv wrestlers, and a few hardcore fans. The mid-1990s also saw the relatively unsuccessful five inch line, starring Sgt. Slaughter and his Screaming Eagles. The franchise continues, thanks to movie adaptations of the 1980s cartoon. As with Barbie, the G.I. Joe line includes both figures aimed at collectors and cheaper toys aimed at actual children. From Average Joe soldier to macho explorer to superhero, G.I. Joe has proven a survivor, and may be with us for some time to come.
1. The Brits apparently love historical recreation, because from the beginning Action Man received a wider range of historical uniforms and occupations. Other companies licensed variations of G.I. Joe in other countries.
2. In the Adventure Team era, the Joes were color-coded by hair. The "Land Adventurer" had dark hair, the "Air Adventurer" was a blonde, while redheads ruled the seas.
3. Strictly speaking, the male was a "medic." The female looked like Barbie's homelier older sister.
Gil Asakawa and Leland Rucker. The Toy Book. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Darryl DePriest. "America's Movable Fighting Man." The Big Red Toybox: The Vintage Toy Encyclopedia. http://www.bigredtoybox.com/articles/joeindex.shtml
"G.I. Joe." Wikipedia. Retrieved December 30, 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G.I._Joe.
Chris Suellentrop. "How an Obscure Collection of Japanese Action Figures Changed the Way We Play." Wired. June 26, 2007.