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.’
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 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.
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)
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.
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.