He never gives up, he’ll stay till the fight’s won…
Flash forward to 1982, as Hasbro revisited the G.I. Joe franchise in a 3.75″ scale, mimicking the popular Star Wars figures of the era. These new toys were backed by a Marvel comic book and a cartoon born from the FCC’s reversal of its legislation banning cartoons based on children’s toys. This was the birth of the Real American Hero!
Written by Larry Hama, formerly of the United States military, the advenutres of the G.I. Joe team within the Marvel Comics universe started off humbly with a team of twelve soldiers (Hawk, Stalker, Scarlett, Snake Eyes, Flash, Zap, Grunt, Short Fuse, Rock and Roll, Breaker, Clutch, and Steeler) who each had their own military specialty. Visually, the team was pretty bland, and for the most part dressed in olive drab. When you got to know them, however, each team member had their own distinct character. Over time, the book would expand to include more new faces, each with their own specialties and personalities.
To support a serial story, however, these new Joes needed an enemy. And so was born Cobra, the terrorist organization led by a disenfranchised former used car salesman. Cobra Commander was backed by an equally diverse group of mercenaries and thugs, including but not limited to Scotish arms dealer Destro, Russian hottie the Baroness, and chameleonic master of disguise Zartan.
The rivalry that blossomed between the two factions became rather epic. Over time, characters’ histories and fates became inexorably intertwined. Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow were old friends trained by Storm Shadow’s uncle who was killed by Zartan and Firefly, who had been hired by Cobra Commander, who was seeking revenge because Snake Eyes’ family had died in a car crash caused by his drunk brother. The Baroness was hunting Snake Eyes because he’d killed her brother years earlier, but Destro knew this wasn’t true because her brother was meeting with his father and he’d gone along to oversee the deal. Oh, and Jinx and the Ninja Force were all in some way, shape, or form trained by the same Arashikage Clan from which Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow hailed. It was all somewhat silly, and yet at the same time extremely riveting, but eventually, the comic lost steam and the Joes’ story came to a close. For a time…
Of course, the comic book was just a marketing gimmick for the real star, the action figure line. Now standing a mere 3.75″ tall, G.I. Joe was far more affordable to produce, and similarly far more affordable to buy. The new scale also made possible an expanded assortment of vehicles and playsets for the Joe and Cobra forces to interact with. Coupled with the highly poseable figures, each packaged with their own unique accessories, and Hasbro had a real recipe for success. The final stroke of genius was to include, as part of each package, a file card depicting the character. Building in the backstory to each figure made them more than toys, it made them real character for kids to embrace and relate to.
The Joes went strong for over a decade, and boasted some of the most memorable toys released throughout that time frame. What child of the ’80s doesn’t remember the behemoth USS Flagg playset? And how cool were BATS when they first hit shelves, with their interchangeable hands and lenticular holograms?
Over time, the Real American Hero toy line underwent some changes, however. An entire wave of figures and vehicles came out based solely on the comics, and after that, new assortments began to rely heavily on gimmicks. The Eco Warriors had water squirting backpacks while Sonic Fighters each came with a battery operated sound effect backpack. By the time the Star Brigade hit shelves and we got an entire wave of Joes in robotic space suits, sales were in the shitter and Hasbro shortly thereafter pulled the plug. But what went wrong?
When Hasbro relaunched G.I. Joe, it was only a matter of time before they brought their latest heroes to the TV sets across America. Debuting in the five part mini-series “The MASS Device,” the Joe team boasted some fairly high production quality (which would drop off slightly when the ongoing series was produced) and rather impressive voice talents. Frank Welker, Michael Bell, and of course Chris Latta, the man behind the hiss of Cobra Commander, were among the many voice actors who brought the Joes and Cobras to life.
The series had an indelible charm. Today, we look back and laugh at how ridiculous some of it was. Still, the show had a rotating cast and was filled with action, comedy, and at times, a good does of drama. Who didn’t feel the twinge of loss as Mara the synthoid melted away before Shipwreck’s eyes in “There’s No Place Like Springfield”? And then, of course, there were the PSAs. Man, they were some goofy shit, weren’t they? Why was Deep Six fully submerged in that diving suit of his in a local watering hole? What was Doc doing peering into suburban bathrooms? Who cared?! All that mattered was that now we knew, and knowing was half the battle!
In late ’86, however, with just two seasons and 95 episodes under its belt, Sunbow ended its G.I. Joe cartoon. With no cartoon to back it, the toy line began to falter, and so began a slippery slope for the Joes. Assortments of figures and vehicles based only on the comics were nowhere near as popular as those easily recognizable from television. In 1989, DiC bought the rights to G.I. Joe and began a second series. A new theme song and new characters found their way into the subconscious of the Joe fan, but with lower production values and already waning interest, the DiC series lasted a mere 44 episodes.
The End of an Era
The cartoon wrapped, and without it, the toy line began to falter. Reused molds and goofy gimmicks had become commonplace and soon failed to draw the revenues of their predecessors. With no cartoon and sales plummeting, the G.I. Joe comic book disappeared from shelves as well. The days of the real American hero were over, and for the Joes, the next few years would be difficult ones…