Happy Independence Day! We’re celebrating with a retrospective on the most American toy around: G.I. Joe! But who IS G.I. Joe? Other than one of the most well known toys in the history of playthings. Well, the answer varies. Quite a bit, actually.
Before we give you the details, you should know that we basically always have something G.I. Joe related available in our eBay store AND we’ve got some vintage G.I. Joe toys coming to auction this weekend.
The 60s: America’s Movable Fighting Man
As long as toy companies have marketed dolls, boys have shied away from them. When the plastic bodied, 12″ tall Barbie doll invented an entirely new type of toy in 1959, somebody needed to figure out how to market it to boys. In 1963, Stan Weston became that somebody.
Coining the term “action figure”, Weston pitched Hasbro (rival to Barbie’s maker, Mattel) on what was basically a more butch version of the Ken doll. Featuring several additional points of articulation, his creation would wear realistic cloth military uniforms and carry realistic weapons. Hasbro correctly guessed that the idea would be a runaway success.
In 1964, the company went big on the launch: one figure for each branch of the American military. Action Soldier, Action Sailor, Action Pilot and Action Marine were meant to cut off competition from rushing out their own knock-offs unchallenged – Mattel couldn’t simply rush out a “Sailor Sid” for kids who preferred the Navy. Accessory packs, uniform variations, and even vehicles quickly followed. G.I. Joe was a hit. The action figure was born.
The 70s: The Adventure Team
As the sixties turned into the 70s, the horrors and controversies of the Vietnam War changed American opinions on the military. If one of your biggest brands is a military toy geared at little boys, that is a problem. The solution? Rebrand! Thus, the G.I. Joe line became focused on the non-military “Adventure Team”. Their challenges were now mostly from nature, the elements and dangerous animals, rather than other soldiers.
To coincide with this new branding, the 1970 edition of G.I. Joe made a couple of major changes to the character’s design. First up, Hasbro have him “realistic” flocked hair – both on his head and his chin. This helped to give him a decidedly less military issue look. The other change was the addition of a slightly retooled black version of the toy. Besides serving a different market, this allowed Hasbro to make money off of what was essentially the same toy in the absence of the different service branch variants.
Hasbro continued to implement new features throughout the decade. In 1974, they introduced the legendary “Kung Fu Grip”. Cashing in on the martial arts craze, it amounted to revised hands molded from soft plastic that allowed more naturalistic carrying of accessories. 1976 saw Hasbro add the “Eagle Eye” feature, literally movable eyes controlled by a lever on the back of the head.
Things Get Wacky
With sales dwindling once more, the Adventure Team became the Super Adventure Team. Hasbro created cyborg adventurer “Mike Power, Atomic Man” to compete with The Six Million Dollar Man action figure. 1976 saw Hasbro dust off Golden Age Fawcett Comics hero Bulletman for the line, adding a full-on costumed superhero to the team.
These two were accompanied by “The Intruders”, a race of caveman-like alien figures. Their ranks consisted of Intruder Commander and Intruder Warrior. Sadly, none of that would prove enough to save the line and it would end in 1976 after over a decade of continuous production.
The 80s: A Real American Hero
The story goes like this: it’s the early 80s and Hasbro’s ready to bring back the G.I. Joe brand. The 3.75″ scale action figure, popularized by Kenner’s Star Wars, is all the rage. But they need an angle. Enter the president of Marvel Comics. Literally, he walks into the bathroom and bumps into the president of Hasbro at a charity function. They get to talking, and the subject of G.I. Joe comes up. Now, Marvel has had some great successes doing comic book tie-ins to toys by this point: both Rom: Spaceknight and Micronauts were more successful as Marvel titles than as toys. Hasbro commended the “setting” portion of G.I. Joe development into Marvel’s hands.
Which proved a very, very wise move. See, up-and-coming writer/Vietnam War veteran Larry Hama had been pitching an idea that just wasn’t quite what Marvel wanted. The idea was Fury Force and it would have seen Nick Fury’s heretofore unseen son leading a crack special forces squad against the forces of Hydra, united the auspices of a new leader. Stripped of Marvel trademarks, it became the G.I. Joe team doing battle with the terrorist army known as Cobra. The first wave of toys and comics arrived in stores in 1982. Each figure included a “file card” of biographical information written by Hama, ensuring that every toy in the line felt unique.
A Certain Parallelism
The line, including the comics and unique file cards from Hama, would continue into 1994. In that time, Hasbro produced some 500 different action figures and 250 vehicles. In 1982, the whole team (save for commando Snake-Eyes and token female Scarlett) wore grounded green military uniforms. By 1994, the line boasted neon-colored Ninjas and cyborgs battling against aliens and monsters, oddly mirroring the transition from the Mobile Fighting Man to the Adventure Team.
The 90s: Extreme Times Call for Extreme Heroes
With the failure of the A Real American hero branding in 1994, it was time for a new direction. The first attempt was a continuation of the 3.75″ scale called Sgt. Savage and his Screaming Eagles. It lasted two waves and one animated pilot, barely meriting a footnote in franchise history. In 1995, Hasbro transferred the line to its competitor turned subsidiary Kenner. Inspired by Marvel’s 5″ X-Men figures, the G.I. Joes traded their copious points of articulation for bigger figures with more heroic builds. The result was named G.I. Joe Extreme.
The Extreme Joes landed themselves a syndicated TV cartoon, which ran for two thirteen episode seasons. A tie-in comic, written by Mike W. Barr, lasted eight issues across two volumes at Dark Horse Comics. And the toys? Seventeen action figures and six vehicles were produced. The line was flop and actually cancelled before all the characters from the show could be produced. After this embarrassment, Hasbro would put the brand to bed until 2003.
2003 to Present: Cobra Rises, G.I. Joe Retaliates
2003 marked the launch of G.I. Joe Vs. Cobra, a return to the characters and scale that brought G.I. Joe its biggest success. The “A Real American Hero” setting remains the best known, inspiring cartoons, toys, comic books, and big budget movies to this day. The “original” – dubbed “G.I.” Joe Colton by the final wave of ARAH Toys – has been fully integrated into the ARAH canon. In fact, Bruce Willis played the character and helped fight Cobra in 2013’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation. The Adventure Team has gained some respect in recent years, factoring heavily into IDW’s short-lived Hasbro Heroes Universe and getting some new collector’s exclusive toys. That said, it’s the 80s incarnation that continues to dominate the hearts and minds of the American Public.
If you’ve got a collection of G.I. Joe toys, from any of these four eras, we can help you bring them to market! As our recent auctions demonstrate, we’ve got the audience for making our toy consignors very happy. Just wait until tomorrow to call us, since we’re out of office for the holiday – Happy Fourth of July!
And if you want a comment or quote on something we’ve written about, we’re always available! We can be found dang near everywhere as @b2pcollect.