G.I. Joe (part three)

My previous two posts dealt with the early days of G.I. Joe and the steady evolution into a major franchise for Hasbro. Though it had a false start in 1978’s Superjoes, the blend of the fantastic and realistic military toy finally came together with 1982’s toy line known as ‘A Real American Hero.’

G.I. Joe - circa 1982

G.I. Joe - circa 1982

War is good again

Even though the public conception of warfare had become more realistic in the 60’s and 70’s, violence had pervaded all aspects of entertainment in the 1980’s to the extent that a cartoon could be developed featuring a worldwide terrorist organization as the main villain. This was the era of absurd action films with exploding helicopters and multi-car pile ups… wait… that sounds like the new G.I. Joe movie (I’ll get to that).

The acceptance of violence in the media and in toys allowed Hasbro to go all out again and with the reduced size of their products, they could explore new ideas including a motorized tank, scale fighter jet and even an aircraft carrier. The romantic idea of a band of brave adventurers was replaced with a gung ho attitude of ‘us against them’ which fit the Regan era American public perfectly.

Say goodbye to the action doll and hello to the miniature action figure

The initial range of 3 3/4 inch action figures were somewhat limited in their movement, and maintained a reliance on realistic military weaponry. Each figure’s cardback contained detailed information on that particular Joe including his or her weapon proficiencies and military affiliations. The only two exception to this idea of regular military action figures were the mute weapons expert/ninja Snake Eyes and the crossbow enthusiast Scarlet. As such they became fan favorites to this day.

This sensible start was soon blown way out of proportion as oddball soldiers such as a laser specialist and even dog handler were added to the mix. However, the game was up when both the wrestler Sgt. Slaughter and football star the Fridge were introduced as Joes. The Fridge’s signature weapon was a football on an extended cable that he hurled like a bola. What started as a military toy had devolved into a circus. However, it was a visually fun line of toys and the kids of the era loved it.

It’s a toy, it’s a cartoon, it’s a comic book

marvel_comic_gi_joeMarvel Comics published a comic book series that was a near instant hit. Written by Larry Hama, the series had the feel of fantastic adventure mixed with Hama’s real life military experience. A veteran of the Vietname War, Hama also worked on another successful cult comic book series for Marvel, The Nam. Larry Hama’s background and experience in martial arts lent to the development of the character Snake Eyes, a Joe that would become easily the most popular of characters. Full of warfare just like the cartoon that operated as a kind of sister product, the comic differed in that it’s characters were prone to dying, an aspect of the title that readers appreciated. Both active servicemen and war veterans were avid readers of the series and wrote many letters of appreciation and attention to detail. This gave young boys reading the comic an extra thrill as the poured over the letter from real soldiers.

The G.I. Joe comic book ran for a record 155 issues, the longest run of any tie-in comic book series. Still regarded as a major success in its genre, the G.I. Joe comic was recently revived by Devil’s Due Press who published a new series building on Hama’s legacy. Devil’s Due lost their hold on the license to IDW in 2008. The IDW comic is said to be a complete restart and avoids any acknowledgent of previous stories.
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In 1985 Sunbow Productions released a major assault on the boys of America with their G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero cartoon series. The cartoon was an entirely different creature from the comic book and embraced the absurdity of the characters as well as the high adventure ideas of the Superjoes era. In the cartoon, Cobra was pooling resources to build outlandish devices that would cause untold of destruction on a global scale. The potential severity of the situation is undercut by the sheer goofiness of the villains who wear silver masks and medallions. The sultry Baroness is made almost immediately comedic due to her forced accent making her sound like a reject from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon.

Despite all of these factors, the cartoon was a massive hit with kids. Personally I recommend the first eight episodes and then it gets really really silly… but not in a bad way. The genius of the animated series comes from the fact that it was advertising action figures and included a bumper ad for the Marvel Comics as well. This type of three-way marketing will most likely never be seen again.

Because of the insistence from parent’s groups that cartoons must have some educational content so that they did not end up serving as one long advertisement, each episode ended with a decidedly awkward public service announcement where Joes entered a house and warned children of the danger of house fires or advised them to not talk to strangers. The PSA’s were later redubbed with ironic dialog but honestly they are just as absurd and hilarious as is.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)

The super sexy cast of G.I. Joe and rubber fetishist Ray Park

The super sexy cast of G.I. Joe and rubber fetishist Ray Park

Due to the popularity of the cartoon and the current obsession with developing full feature films based on nostalgic cartoons and toys from the 80’s, G.I. Joe has been developed as a major summer movie. It’s very difficult to know where to draw the line on a movie based on an absolutely absurd cartoon and an equally goofy toy line. As such… I think the movie over-did some parts and under-did others.

The plot revolved around Scottish arms merchant Destro fulfilling his ancestor’s dream of world conquest through a unique strain of nanites that eat metal. As plots go, it sounds like something straight out of the cartoon. Nearly all of the acting was so poor that it’s hard to guess if it was intentional or not. Honestly, who does Dennis Quaid think he is fooling with that macho routine? The action sequences were serviceable but undone by a lack of emotional connection to anything happening on screen. It was also confusing how G.I. Joe was presented as a massive operation in some scenes and as a team of five guys in others.

A movie that glorified combat and even viewed it as fun (witness Duke’s declaration that he wants to be on the ground where the action is), it does attempt to show the consequences of warfare as it destroys personal lives and twists people into monsters… or makes them into heroes, I suppose. It also feature arguably the most bizarre fight sequence I have ever witnessed as two children beat the living Hell out of each other.

All in all, it was okay.

But it did strike me as hauntingly familiar to another movie… Megaforce.

megaforce

From a statement of respect for the armed forces to a celebration of war in general

While G.I. Joe was initially created as an honorarium to the armed forces and a statement on  America’s sense of national pride in its armed forces, it’s interesting to see how the franchise evolved to meet the cultural mindset. Whereas the reality of war became evident during the news coverage of the Vietnam War, we as a people are now so desensitized to warfare and inundated with news coverage of all conflict worldwide 24/7. G.I. Joe has become a reflection of that disassociation with the horrors of war and the need to see it as a video game with no consequences.

The more things change, the more they stay the same I guess.

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G.I. Joe (part two)

In my previous post I wrote about the connection between G.I. Joe and it’s association with warfare and national pride. As the G.I. Joe toy line moved away from what had become an unpopular subject for toys (war), another opportunity presented itself, one that would carry what was once a rather simple war toy into the realm of an all out franchise.

The G.I. Joe Action Team logo

The G.I. Joe Adventure Team logo

(for an in-depth look at the marketing of the G.I. Joe Adventure Team, click on the image above and visit Plaid Stallions, one of my favorite websites)

The G.I. Joe Adventure Team

This is how I remember G.I. Joe from my childhood, a bunch of tough guys with realistic hair fighting the Yeti and going on wild safaris into uncharted lands. Presenting G.I. Joe as brave adventurers risking their lives against nature and in some cases the supernatural was a rather brilliant one.

The Secret of the Mummy’s Tomb- with an all kung-fu grip cast

visit Fuzzheadfilms for more G.I. Joe movies!

The fact that there were no cursed mummy action figures or abominable snowmen only added to the enjoyment that boys had with these toys. A heightened reliance on imagination is something that sadly toy makers of today are less likely to indulge in. If G.I. Joe of today is meant to fight a yeti, Hasbro would have to make that yeti into a rival toy.

Superheroes and the Super Joes

As the popularity of superheroes and science fiction became evident, G.I. Joe made the move toward a more fantastic and exciting line of characters with Eagle Eye Joe (who had real moving eyes), Bulletman and Mike Power, Atomic Man with real bionic limbs. There were even adversaries introduced called the Intruders who looked so different in design that they seemed to be invading from another toy line entirely.

superjoemag
After dipping their toes into the realm of fantastic action heroes, Hasbro made the leap into that deadly pool and nearly drowned. Producing a line of action dolls much smaller in scale to the traditional Joes, these Super Joes were battery powered and shot light from their chest-mounted weapons at strange alien invaders. Either the merchandising or the arrival of Star Wars action in 1978 put an end to G.I. Joe for a number of years.

Bronze Age G.I. Joe

Looking at G.I. Joe from a comic book frame of mind it is incredibly bizarre. A character that started as a war hero ended up fighting goofy aliens in space with a battery-powered harness. Because the various figures were so different, there wasn’t even a unified idea behind this invasion that could give it any credibility or concept to hang onto. It seems that G.I. Joe was just bored with life on Earth and traveled to distant world to duke out out with aliens that could barely move.

What this says about American culture I’m not entirely sure. The 1970’s were a rather schizophrenic time for the US and it shows in nearly every pop culture aspect from the films to music and of course toys. It was a messed up era.

When G.I. Joe finally returned, he looked very different indeed.

More to come…

G.I. Joe (part one)

When Hasbro decided to embark on their ‘action doll’ line named G.I. Joe, I wonder if they realized how long the toy line would last and what it would say about American culture and our relationship to warfare? A simple quartet of dolls reflecting the infantry, naval and air forces as well as the Marines, these dolls were durable hunks of plastic wrapped in real clothing complete with snap buttons.

The real GI Joe

The real GI Joe

In doing the research for this article I was surprised to find that the initial idea was to base the line of dolls on a TV program. Inspired by the Robert Mitchum film ‘The Story of GI Joe,’ Hasbro’s planning took a major turn. The movie was based on the correspondence of a real-life war correspondent from the front line of World War II and focused on the bravery of the infantrymen fighting in Italy and Tunisia. The whole idea sounds similar in tone to the DC war comic Sgt. Rock which also focused on the ‘boots on the ground.’

In many ways, this connection to the US military has made G.I. Joe a part of Americana. There are some similarities between the G.I. Joe toys and the selling of American culture through the war effort of WWII. I’m talking about the iconographic posters depicting soldiers are idealized stoic men and women facing off into the sunset and the Frank Sinatra lyric ‘we’ll turn their seig heil into a how d’ya do, Joe.’   As a kind of pop culture archaeologist, World War II has also struck me as a time when national pride and merchandising were first tied together. There’s nothing like a time of crisis to show a people how they can rise above adversity and any trinket that can serve as a reminder of those moments connects back to a time when we as a collective identity were at our best. This may be why so many war movies are still made today and why G.I. Joe has lasted as long as it has.

Just a simple Joe

The toy line became an honorarium to the US military rather than a tie-in to a TV program and took off like hot cakes. This approach appealed not just to boys destined to muddy the Joe’s uniforms in the backyard or light the plastic men on fire as they developed in young men more interested in souping up hot rods… they appealed to the average citizen and their sense of national pride. This connection to a country’s emotional tone would become the greatest asset and risk as the product developed.

The toys themselves started out relatively simple but became terribly articulate and sophisticated as time wore on and Hasbro learned how to develop their military toy line into a mammoth success. Everything from knives to parachutes to rifles and even vehicles assisted the little Joe dolls in their plastic war. The toy line actually grew with American culture. As women obtained more recognition in the war effort, a female nurse doll was created. As man set foot on the moon, so did Joe as an astronaut.

War is not safe for children and other living things

During the Vietnam War, Americans across the country were exposed to the real horrors of warfare thanks to the miracle of televised correspondence. We take this kind of thing for granted today but at the time it was almost entirely uncensored and shown at a time when the whole family was sitting around the tube. As the nation’s innocence was lost, the romantic ideal of warfare was lost also. This was all bad news for Hasbro who had built a toy empire on the back’s of a sense of pride in the US armed forces.

Enter the G.I. Joe Action Team

The move to an ‘action and adventure’ toy was a quick save but in truth it was just too little too late. I’m not saying that Adventure Team was a flop, far from it, but the toy had come to mean so much that it was associated with the horrific memories of the Vietnam War, something that would take decades of change and a drastic shift in the GI Joe product itself to recover from.

More to come…

GI Joe the movie- Snake Eyes

Originally a patriotic soldier from a simpler time, GI Joe was re-introduced to a gung-ho attitude-obsessed market on the 1980’s by Hasbro. A brilliant co-production with Marvel Comics and Sunbow, GI Joe attacked little boys at the toy store, comic shop (or drug store more likely) and at home on the TV every afternoon. The seemingly endless war on blue-suited terrorists lead by the raspy-voiced Cobra Commander was met with an equally endless array of action figures.

The toys were a vital part of the comic book (which existed almost solely to sell action figures), but writer Larry Hama invented such rich characters and situations for each of his assigned characters that it each toy was an easy sell. The best example of this is Snake Eyes. The mysterious and always hooded master of combat was such a fan favorite that almost any man who even vaguely recalls the 1980’s will be able to point him out.

Ray Park as Snake Eyes A brave deadly yet silent hero, Snake Eyes was wounded in a helicopter accident, rendering the character mute (a rather novel idea for a comic book hero). A master of hand to hand combat and traditional small arm weaponry, Snake Eyes is perhaps the perfect weapon without equal… except for his nemesis Storm Shadow (expect to see the pair face off in the film).

Blame it on the Transformers movie, I do.

The upcoming summer blockbuster feature film of GI Joe is yet another attempt by Hollywood to draw in the crowds based on their desperate need fore reminiscence. I think most of us wish for simpler times and despite how bad things actually were, my generation yearns for the simplicity and optimism of the 1980’s. Therefore we will continue to see films based on cartoons from that decade… at least until the present becomes preferable.

The film has been a rumor for ages and frankly I’m rather shocked to see the first glimpse of Ray Park (Darth Maul of The Phantom Menace) in costume as Snake Eyes. Directed by Stephan Sommers (The Mummy), the film stars Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who) as Destro, Denis Quaid as Hawk, Sienna Miller as the Baroness… and many more.

I don’t know what to make of this movie.

The cast sounds decent an the script features contributions from Larry Hama. Supposedly the cast is signed for two sequels which is common for this kind of thing. The movie will take place ten years in the future which is a comforting thought that we will be using ninjas to fight silver masked terrorists in exotic locations.

I guess I’m jaded but GI Joe has always jarred more than a bit with my sensitive pacifist persona. The thought of the franchise making such a big comeback at a time when the world is entrenched in global warfare doesn’t strike me as much ‘fun.’

But… damn doesn’t Snake Eyes look cool?

Recommended:

Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe 1982-1994
GI Joe: The Complete Story of America’s Favorite Man of Action

G.I. Joe: America’s Elite: America’s Newest War, Vol. I
G.I. Joe: The Movie
G.I. Joe Season 1, Part 1