50 years ago, this month, the world was introduced to the very first action figure, Hasbro’s G.I. Joe. Initially something of a boy-oriented Barbie doll, the company came up with the term “action figure” so as not to repulse boys. The toy still shared many traits with the fashionista. The original action figures were 11.5″ tall and featured 21 moving parts. G.I. Joe came in various hair colors and could be purchased wearing the uniform of either the US Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. (Sorry, Coast Guard!) The initial action figures sold for $4 a piece, but like Barbie, kids weren’t supposed to simply stop there. A variety of alternate uniforms, vehicles, play sets and other accessories were offered and kids simply HAD to have these attachments!
In 1964, most young boys had fathers who had served in the military, either in World War II or the Korean War, so the toys were instantly relate-able. The initial creation of the toy is often credited to Don Levine who is referred to as “The Father of G.I. Joe” and who, himself served in the Army during the Korean War and designed the toy as a tribute to his brethren.
The toys were a smash hit right from the start, but as opposition to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, in the late 60s, America became increasingly anti-military and sales dipped. In response, the toys became more neutral ditching the military accoutrements and becoming “Action Force,” generic adventurers eventually taking on science fiction elements, like cybernetic parts and gaining allies like Atomic Man and Bullet Man, a full-blown super hero. In addition, Joe gained a recurring group of villains called The Intruders, who were alien invaders.
Sales eventually dipped to the point that Hasbro ceased production on the toys, but in the early 80s, the company revisited the concept with a twist. In 1977, ‘Star Wars’ not only changed everything about making movies, but also about toys. Toys had stuck to the G.I. Joe concept with larger toys which required huge vehicles and playsets. There was no way to properly capture ‘Star Wars’ in this scale, financially. I can’t imagine how expensive a Millennium Falcon in that scale would have been, even in 1977! So toy manufacturer Kenner created 3 3/4″ molded plastic action figures and corresponding accessories, revolutionizing boys’ playthings.
In 1982, Hasbro decided to revive G.I. Joe in this scale. Dubbed “A Real American Hero” this G.I. Joe was actually a team of specialist and blended military themes with science fiction and even Eastern mysticism and martial arts. As was the norm at the time, ‘G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero’ was a multimedia project. The toys inspired a hit Marvel Comics series (which was the first comic book to be advertised on TV) and a hit cartoon series, which established the mythology of the toys. The G.I. Joe team was pitted against a terrorist organization called Cobra.
While the toys were created by Hasbro, the characters were fleshed out by comic book writer Larry Hama, who created their quirky backstories and personalities which were presented on dossiers on the back of the toys’ packaging which kids were encouraged to clip out and save. (One figure, Crystal Ball, actually had his card written by Stephen King.)
On the science fiction front, the characters wielded laser guns and the show dabbled in bizarre genetics, when the villains created Serpentor a mega villain created from the DNA of Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Attila the Hun, Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Vlad the Impaler, Hannibal, Genghis Khan, Grigori Rasputin, Montezuma, Geronimo and Egyptian general Xanuth Amon-Tot. It was later revealed that Cobra leader, Cobra Commander was actually a snake-man from a hidden society of animal creatures called Cobra-La. (This was NOT a popular reveal among fans.)
Despite that hiccup, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero emerged as possibly the most fondly remembered toy line of the eighties among boys. (If not #1, definitely #2 behind the Transformers.) They were revived in the early ’00s with new, modernized sculpts and new comics which picked up on the previous continuity.
Then, of course, the property was adapted to the big screen, first in 2009 with ‘G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra’, followed by ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’ in 2013, with Bruce Willis playing the original Joe. Unfortunately, while both did okay at the box office, they didn’t match the success of the ‘Transformers’ movies and were also not embraced by viewers. Even so, there has been talk of a third film. The toy line continues, with toys based on the movies as well as an online subscription service which delivers toys based more on the classic designs.
G.I. Joe was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2004 and every year there is a convention called the GIJoeCon celebrating this iconic hero, this year to be held in Dallas in April.
So Happy Birthday, G.I. Joe, the beloved toy of several generations and the very first action figure!
Are you a fan? Leave a birthday tribute in the comments section below!
Source: CBS News