G.I. Joe

G.I. Joe

He is the foremost hero of the toy world, an iconic figure to boys and girls everywhere, and the world’s first action figure. His name is G.I. Joe and he has helped to keep the globe safe from evildoers for over half a century and counting, selling millions of toys along the way.

The toy makers at Hasbro concocted the original G.I. Joe in 1963, as a boy-friendly “action figure” answer to Mattel’s Barbie. The soldier was 12″ tall with 21 moveable parts that allowed him to strike a number of lifelike poses. Upon its release, stores could barely keep the shelves stocked with the toy due to the enormous demand.

In the beginning, there were actually four different Joes – a soldier (Joe), a marine (Rocky), a sailor (Skip) and a pilot (Ace, of course). They were introduced alongside an array of 75 different accessories to make sure Joe was equipped with any gear he might need. Green Beret Joe and Deep Sea Diver soon followed and were quite popular in their own right. A Five-Star Jeep was available to transport Joe on Earth, and a Mercury Space Capsule for when he was headed into space. In 1968, the soldier even received a voice box, thanks to the Talking G.I. Joe.

With the conflict in Vietnam growing increasingly unpopular into the 70s, war-related toys lost their appeal with the public. Joe was quickly re-imagined as the leader of an “Adventure Team” in 1970 and given the memorable Kung-Fu grip four years later to emphasize his martial arts prowess, but he now had the Six Million Dollar Man to compete with and sales started to falter. Much to the dismay of fans, G.I. Joe was discontinued in 1978. But, as we all know, it’s hard to keep a good man down.

G.I. Joe made his grand comeback in 1982. No longer a 12′ doll, the new figures were slightly less than 4″ tall, the same size as the popular Star Wars toys of the era but far more articulate than their intergalactic counterparts. To make sure sales remained steady, a new comic book was launched, as well as a series of animated TV commercials. The commercials led to a pair of successful five-part cartoon miniseries in 1983 and 1984, which in turn led to the debut of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero in 1985.

For a half-hour of pure star-spangled butt-whoop, there was no place better to turn. You got the military might of “America’s top-secret special mission force,” evil plots to destroy the entire planet, and an impressive mute ninja who never revealed his face or real name (and he was a good guy). Truly, it was a golden era of in-your-face cartoon patriotism.

Aside from the military action (always bloodless – every aerial dogfight ended with a parachute dropping safely toward the ground), perhaps the most memorable part of the show was the public service message that came at the end.

Some kid would be swimming in a thunderstorm, painting his bike in a closed garage, or doing homemade dentistry with an ice pick and bolt cutters (note: we may have just imagined that last one), and a member of the Joe team would show up to tell him how dangerous that activity was. The grateful kid thanked his rescuer (“Now I know!”), allowing our hero to deliver his or her wise tag line: “And knowing is half the battle.”

The cartoon revamp never caught on like the original, but Joe toys hit another wave of popularity in the late 90s with a return to the classic 60s models. Since the Cold War had thawed considerably, Hasbro found itself looking elsewhere for villains. G.I. Joes were sold in series such as Drug Elimination Force, Eco-Warriors, Sonic Fighters, and Star Brigade. G.I. Joes did it all until 1994 when they were summarily discontinued.

But that can’t be the end of G.I. Joe, can it? No, of course not. A new collection was released in 2002 called G.I. Joe vs Cobra, along with direct-to-DVD cartoons to help boost sales. When 2007 arrived, Hasbro released the a special line of 4′ figures to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of the “Real American Hero” incarnation.

A pair of live-action movies, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) and its sequel, G.I Joe: Retaliation (2013) kept the franchise alive well into the new millennium, along with special toy lines to accompany the films, of course, and a new video game.

To say we’ve seen the last of G.I. Joe would likely be premature. After 50 years of service, millions upon millions of toys sold, and a plethora of cartoons and assorted merchandise, it’s safe to say that the old soldier may rear his head again should the world need his services. What else would you expect from a true American hero?

If you were a fan of G.I. Joe back in the day (and maybe you still are), we’d love to hear any memories you have of these iconic toys in our comments section below, as we salute his service, here at Retroland.

One Response to “G.I. Joe”

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  1. Gina says:

    I love the 80’s cartoon series. Lady Jaye is my heroine! She didn’t need to spout a lot of flak at the men and put them down–she proved herself by doing her job, and she was good at it! I love the romance between her and Flint.
    I also love Shipwreck. He could play it funny or he could play it tragic, making him perhaps the only multi-dimensional character in GI Joe. Not that I’m complaining about the lack of depth in the rest of the cast. Not every show needs fleshed out characters–some are fine just being about action and adventure.

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