I have been a G.I. Joe fanatic since I was a very, very little kid. (I even blogged about my history with the toy, once before, and the Blood for the Baron repository of its Action Force comics origins.) G.I. Joes were my escape from the world as an only child with a lot of free time. I would often hole up in my room for hours at times, arranging scenes and battles placing the figures in full armament compliment on the pegs of their vehicles. At night, the best of “my guys” defended me against the shadows in the darkened room and long hallway between my room and my parents’. “Joe” would also end up in my father’s flight-suit pockets during what I felt were particularly bleaker foreign policy times, as a kid. My own countermeasures system. (If Hit & Run was in Pop’s pocket, they both had to come back home.)
The 3 3/4 series of “Joe” were talismans and personal effects for me, accompanying me to all family road trips, class (Mrs. Gray gave me a lot of latitude) and social functions. I used to even read and commit to memory, before going to bed, the data on the file cards that were attached to their classic bubble packaging, telling the expertise of the particular character and their biography, which fully immersed me into the world and the significant mythology surrounding the franchise that spans from movies to lunch boxes.
So it was a logical progression for me to tap the personal, for a printed piece I wrote recently. The piece looks at the cultural legacy of G.I. Joe and its spanning multiple generations of boys’ toy experience. “Yo Joe!” was a piece that was begging to be written, because of its significance to my story. I learned to read four levels above my grade level in some small part because of those file cards and the fertility of my imagination grew out of playing with the toy. You are continually told to “write what you know” in university composition courses. This was the ultimate “writing what I know” and eventually what I didn’t know. The second part of the piece is a companion Q&A with avid collector Michael Domaguing, a friend of the magazine’s editor.
Yo Joe!: A Look at the Cultural Footprint of GI Joe
WHEN Hasbro re-released the G.I. Joe action figure in1982 (in 3 ¾ inch form) under the “A Real American Hero” line, after the original had been off of the shelves for years; no one, not even Hasbro, could have expected it to have become as big as it did. Piggy-backing off of G.I. Joe’s parallel universes in the U.K. Battle Action Force comics and its stateside comic book counterpart (that shared the same “A Real American Hero” name as the toy line), as well as the success of the forerunning 12-inch G.I. Joe doll known as “America’s Moveable Fighting Man,” the 3 ¾ inch action-figure raised a generation of young boys on the battle between Good versus Evil.
Originally released in 1964 and developed by Stan Weston (the original 12-inch doll was his idea) and Don Levine, then the creative director at Hasbro, the G.I. Joe doll was the very first indication that a “boys’ doll” market even existed. Between 1964 and 1978, the original, mostly 12-inch G.I. Joe line, went through two re-interpretations from its military form. Hasbro responded to sensitivities to the Vietnam War and charted a more adventure-based path for “Joe,” and later, it moved the toy into outer space as a smaller 8 ½ inch doll called “Super Joe.” Over that time, G.I. Joe was a latent force for multiculturalism; introducing minority figures, first in selected cities, particularly an African-American version, and then nationally with its Super Joe and Super Joe commander lines. (Later, the line would feature prominent Native-American and Asian- American characters.) In the 1980s, the toyline displayed gender equality in its 3 ¾ series lineup by producing many strong female characters from Lady Jay to Scarlett, to Baroness and Covergirl.
By the time 1982 hit and the “A Real American Hero” 3 ¾ toy released, G.I. Joe’s 12-inch cousin that was based on “general issue” historic military archetypes such as the Marine, the pilot and sailor was fully adopted into the mainstream, and the market for poseable figures for boys was no longer an unknown quantity in the toy business. Also by 1982, a more appealing and masculine gender term had surfaced to replace the old moniker of “doll.” The term was “action figure,” and it had hit the parlance. 1982 also brought the release of the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero cartoon that coincided with the comic book series and toy. The animated series was the beginning of the purely product tie-in children’s program that developed and flourished in the 1980s. It was a system where children’s morning television became the breeding ground for acculturation into consumerism, and where a toy generally begat licensed apparel, licensed apparel begat accessories and school supplies, and all begat a movie and video game, if lucky.
Not that there’s anything wrong with such unabashed youth consumerism since it is, partially, the lifeblood of an economy. And Hasbro took that consumerism seriously and if you were a “Joe fan” coming up, you were well aware of this. Between the two toy bases that were produced, an aircraft carrier, and an arrayed offering of vehicles and characters (that like the car industry was updated yearly), the G.I. Joe 3 ¾ toy was an economic monster that was able to print its own money. Within five years, the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero franchise had burrowed itself into the consciousness of boys and it became the laser-blasting toy du jour, along with Star Wars and Transformers. The success of the toy was, in part, the result of the mythology that the cartoon and comic were able to create; getting young boys to both follow and desire to recreate the toy’s television and comic book storylines.
This interest in the G.I. Joe mythology was enough to lead to G.I. Joe: The Movie, which was a straight-to-video release that to this day, holds a soft-spot in most ’80s boys’ hearts. The movie, much like the animated series, brought the introduction of several new characters that were not seen in the original 1982-1986 cartoon episodic, then already in its fourth season. Introducing the characters of Jinx, Tunnel Rat, Lieutenant Falcon, Law, Sergeant Slaughter’s Renegades and others, G.I. Joe: The Movie was the peak of G.I. Joe’s ascendance. While characters: Snake Eyes, Duke, Storm Shadow, Cobra Commander and Destro represented the original generation of G.I. Joe in the 3 ¾ form and in the cartoon and comic, the new characters of the 1987 team marked the dividing line in the G.I. Joe 3 ¾ inch series, between its old school and new school, with updates to the appearances of many of its original 1982 characters soon after.
The success of the G.I. Joe toy line and cartoon cannot be spoken of without the mentioning of the cartoon and toys’ parallel to real military forces and technology. From characters like Lifeline (a medic), to Mainframe (a computer specialist), to Beachhead (an Army Ranger), to the vehicles that were featured in dramatic motion in the cartoon, the “Joe” universe replicated or implied existing military technology and roles, or a very plausible military future. It is even believed within some of the G.I. Joe collecting community that the migration of the toys from the more realistic military interpretations seen in its earlier series, to the more exotic and futuristic elements that were seen in the latter part of the line, hurt the sales of the G.I. Joe toy in the 1990s, and eventually it saw its discontinuation in 1994.
Since the ‘90s, the G.I. Joe toy and cartoon has seen its ups and downs, and several attempts at giving the franchise a much-needed shot in the arm such as G.I. Joe: Sigma 6, which began airing in 2005 and used the same cartoon and toy product tie-in as the original A Real American Hero series. For a small period of time in the ‘90s, before the toy’s end, the incorporation of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter characters into the toyline was another ploy used to trump up flagging sales. Though Hasbro and G.I. Joe were no stranger to such a situation, during the late ‘80s the franchise faced a similar fate as the cartoon was off the air for some time. Eventually, the animated series’ rights were purchased by Dic from Sunbow, the company that originally produced the G.I. Joe: Real American Hero series, and the franchise was re-aired and invigorated.
In 2007, the 3 ¾ toy celebrated its 25th Anniversary and reminiscent collectors’ packs sold well to the generation who grew up watching the series and purchasing the figures and vehicles. And of course, G.I. Joe’s presence in the comic book and toy-collecting scene has seen little tapering. The fond memories of the anti-terrorist force filled with characters of unmatched specialties still reigns in the imaginations of twenty-something to thirty-something adult men. Everything from the classic “file cards” (attached to the packaging of G.I. Joe figures) that many a “Joe” fan grew up reading and collecting, to the original bases and vehicles, have myriad Internet forums and eBay listings, proving G.I. Joe’s pulse is stronger than indexes can measure. In the summer of 2009, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, a feature-length film capitalizing on the ever-lasting mythology of a toyline, comic book and cartoon symbiosis will hit the screens. Undoubtedly, the movie will be the first introduction to the story for many, but it will also be the chance for those who grew up with the sounds and visuals of the cartoon’s often inaccurate laser bursts, to no longer have to imagine the scenes in live-action. And surely, through the flick, the toyline will again benefit from its mythology.
Conversation With a Collector: Michael Domaguing
What are your memories of your first G.I. Joe figure?
My first memory was my best friend Bob’s first G.I. Joe–Snow Job. I thought they were cool with the accessories and the amount of detail. Much better than Star Wars figures.
What was the best 3 3/4 inch series collection overall?
I would say the second series with the revised Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. I mean secret operatives and ninjas, what more could you want in the late ’80s?
How did you feel about the Hasbro marketing of special edition teams like “Night Force” and other such sub-collections that re-imagined some famed “Joe” characters in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s?
I thought it was Hasbro’s version of “Jumping the Shark.” I mean, creating a tie-in with Street Fighter and the environment. I thought that was the end of the product.
Most personally significant piece?
1985 Snake Eyes. It is my coolest piece.
Why do you think G.I. Joe has had such a pull over these years and generations of kids?
I think that G.I. Joe is a timeless brand with everyone. Since W.W.II, kids have had an infatuation with the military. G.I. Joe has enabled [them] to tap into the infatuation as well as modernize them with the backstory and accessories.
Any thoughts on the 25th anniversary collection?
I think any time when you can bring back a childhood memory with more details…the better.
Flint and Lady Jay or Scarlett and Duke? Which was a couple and which were just flirting?
According to the Marvel Comics, Scarlett is dating Snake Eyes, not Duke. Flint and Lady Jaye were dating.
The cost of properly maintaining your collection?
Approximately a couple thousand dollars and hours of love.
Are there any pieces that took a long time to obtain?
Argentinian Snake Eyes. I had [to] visit a recent divorced guy in South Orange County. I brought my overly protective roommate for backup, and an excuse to escape his over-talkativeness.
Is there a G.I. Joe “Holy Grail” item?
1984 Carded Snake Eyes.
Any personal significance in the G.I. Joe universe being a multicultural and gender equal environment?
I think that is always important since this is “reality.” I think it allowed many people to relate to the G.I. Joe line.
Hands down, most awesome vehicle?
Either the Skyhawk or the Sky Striker (F-14 Tomcat).
When you were young, did you also notice that no one ever died or hit their non-machine targets in the cartoon “Joe” universe?
I did notice, but there were some deaths in the G.I. Joe movie. I think someone died. I do know in the comic book Doc and Quick-Kick died.
Why is Destro’s face made of metal but I still see his facial expressions?
Because he is a baller and can afford the most expensive facial surgery…