The original line of 12 inch G.I. Joe action figures was introduced in 1964 designed by Stan Weston but for the purpose of this article we are taking a look at the relaunch of the G.I. Joe brand by Hasbro in 1982 in the 3 3/4 inch scale and the accompanying media that surrounded it.
Branded as G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Hasbro released the original 16 action figures in their “straight arm” versions in 1982 with the line up consisting of the following characters (with biographical file cards written by Larry Hama): Breaker, Cobra Trooper, Cobra Officer, Flash, Grunt, Rock & Roll, Scarlett, Short Fuze, Snake Eyes, Stalker, Zap, Clutch, Grand Slam, Hawk, and Steeler. There was a later mail away Cobra Commander offer that year. In 1983, the original line up was re-released with new arms called “swivel arm battle grip” as well as new characters.
Accompanying the G.I. Joe action figures was a comic book line by Marvel Comics written by the same person who wrote the biographical file cards- Larry Hama. It was Hama who really brought life and character to G.I. Joe making them more than just generic soldiers. These real American heroes had names, specialties, personalities, and a purpose.
Hasbro also put a powerful marketing campaign behind the line. Not only did the action figures have a successful and critically acclaimed comic book behind them but also television commercials for both the comic book and the action figures. Then, in 1985, the G.I. Joe cartoon series by Sunbow joined the line up.
While the toys themselves were exceptional, it was the personalities and characters attached to them that gave the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero line up it’s true appeal and longevity. The “good guys” were the G.I. Joe team made up of military specialists from various branches of the Armed Forces and each had their own quirks and talents. Breaker was the communications officer but was often depicted chewing bubble gum. Clutch was a fast driving grease monkey mechanic from Asbury Park, NJ with a chovanistic streak. Snake Eyes was a silent ninja commando who hid his face due to a catastrophic facial injury which, in spite of, was a love interest to Scarlett (except in the Sunbow cartoon series). Snake Eyes, Stalker, and Storm Shadow were depicted as squad unit members in Vietnam and had an interconnected backstory, especially Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes.
Every protagonist needs a good antagonist and G.I. Joe had theirs in Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world (or so the Sunbow cartoon series told us in every opening). The Cobra organization was made up of a crew of social outcasts brought together under the leadership of the Cobra Commander. Originally, Cobra Commander was depicted as being a competent and fearsome military leader but later morphed into a more comedic and inept commander often at odds with his inner circle members like Destro, the Baroness, Major Bludd, Zartan, and later an amalgamated construct known as Serpentor.
The diversity of the G.I. Joe line was exceptional for it’s era with characters of many races, ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds. The G.I. Joe comic book skipped the tired trope that women were the lesser sex and instead, presented it’s female characters as strong and capable with Scarlett especially represented as equal or superior to most of the men in the outfit. Likewise, on the Cobra side, the Baroness was usually depicted as one of the most intelligent members of the organization.
Death is an unfortunate fact of war and the military and when you have toys based on this premise you’re going to find yourself walking a thin line. While the action figures could largely avoid this problem by the simple nature of what they are, the accompanying media had a harder time. The G.I. Joe comic book did feature multiple causalities over the years. General Flagg, Quinn, and the Soft Master were among the first to be killed off in the Marvel Comics series but as time went by many others died including one of the originals- Breaker and other favorites like Quick Kick, Doc, and virtually the entire Battleforce 2000 group. The cartoon series, however, to had avoid excessive violence and, certainly, killing making it more difficult to portray actual military scenarios which may be one reason why it often leaned more toward science fiction and fantasy concepts.
Around these great characters and well thought out stories sprang an exceptional fan community. Occasionally, great fan bases spring up around truly great intellectual properties. Masters of the Universe, Star Wars, and Star Trek, for example, all have tremendous and passionate fan communities. G.I. Joe does as well.
Likewise, there are a few really exceptional podcasts which deal either exclusively with G.I. Joe or dedicate a significant number of episodes to G.I. Joe including our own When It Was Cool Podcast, GI Joburg, Joe on Joe Podcast, Star Joes Podcast, G.I Joe A Real American Headcast, and newcomers Talking Joe.
There are many fan accounts on social media which are heavily into G.I. Joe collecting, G.I. Joe customizing, and even modern era G.I. Joe action figures. Though the G.I. Joe subscription service is wrapping up it’s run around the same time this article is being published, there are many places to see reviews and photos of those action figures as well.
Some of the more active accounts on Twitter that are worth following to see great classic and modern G.I. Joe action figures include: Classic G.I. Joe, Battle Armor Dad, Special Mission Force, Boil and Pop, Joe on Joe Podcast, Duke45Toys, Forgotten Figures, ActionFigure Junkie, File Card Podcast, Joes Reassembled, Hooded Cobra Commander 788, Viper Pit Podcast, GI Joburg, Cujo, G.I. Gary V, YoJoe1982, Talking Joe Comics, Merkesamlern, GIJoeFan82, and of course our own When It Was Cool.
Another facet of G.I. Joe action figures that make them so beloved and timeless has been that they are easily customizable. The older G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero line had a small Phillips head screw in the back of the torso allowing the action figure to be easily disassembled and the rubber O-ring to be repaired if broken. It also allowed for the action figures heads, arms, legs, torso, and hips to be interchanged. It wasn’t uncommon for kids who had multiple versions of a G.I. Joe action figure to take a couple apart and swap limbs and heads and create a totally different and new action figure. The process became known as Franken-Joeing and is still used by collectors today to make customs.
As the modern action figures became more complex, so did the customizations and the community. One such major G.I. Joe customs community is JoeCustoms.com with an active fan community and some amazing customized G.I. Joe action figures. Likewise, third party companies have sprang up in-scale with modern G.I. Joe action figures with literally hundreds of options for new weapons, configurations, and body parts. Marauder, Inc. is one such company offering a gigantic selection of incredible highly customizable action figures and accessories. Do you have an old G.I. Joe vehicle and need replacement stickers? Or perhaps you want to turn that VAMP into a Cobra vehicle? The amazing ToyHax.com has you covered. I have used ToyHax many times to replace lost or worn stickers and have had nothing but positive results from them. ToyHax is highly recommended and affordable.
No run down of G.I. Joe resources would be complete without mentioning three of the biggest and best guides to G.I. Joe action figures. I can’t heap enough praise on Mark Bellomo’s fantastic The Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe 1982-1994. This book is a beautiful and wonderfully informative guide to the Hasbro G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero line of action figures. This book really is a must have for any G.I. Joe fan or collector.
As for an on-line resource, anyone looking for information on G.I. Joe action figures on the internet has likely used YoJoe.com. This website really is the bible of G.I. Joe action figures and a priceless resource for any collector.
I must mention a relative newcomer to the scene who has put together an absolutely amazing online resource for G.I. Joe action figures. If you haven’t yet visited 3DJoes.com then you owe it to yourself to do so now. This amazing and user friendly website takes a look at G.I. Joe merchandise literally from every angle. It has become one of my favorite stops on the internet.
You may have noticed in some of the photos from the When It Was Cool collection that a few odd action figures have sneaked in. G.I. Joe has occasionally licensed celebrities or other entertainment properties to cross over into the G.I. Joe world. Marvel Comics once jumped the proverbial gun and featured the Sylvester Stallone character Rocky Balboa in one of it’s G.I. Joe handbooks before the license was complete and official. It ended up falling apart and Marvel had to print a retraction in the next issue. The basis of that Rocky Balboa action figure was allegedly retooled into the Cobra trainer Big Boa.
The Street Fighter video game series also had a sub-line during the 1990s in the G.I. Joe line-up and is usually considered an official part of the G.I. Joe team. Another video game property, Mortal Kombat, also used 3.75 inch G.I. Joe parts for a line of their figures but that series is considered a separate property. When It Was Cool has previously done a story on it in this article.
Every iteration of G.I. Joe has presented variations on the characters. I was a bigger fan of the Larry Hama written Marvel Comics series than of the Sunbow cartoons. There is a fairly new term that has entered the entertainment lexicon over the last few years called “Head Cannon”. Head Cannon basically means that in complex continuities like Star Wars, Marvel Universe, and DC Universes, and even G.I. Joe continuity can be whatever your mind wants it to be. So, while the comic books mostly shaped my G.I. Joe universe, I almost see the action figures as another separate continuity apart from the comic books and cartoons (and later the movies).
In the Marvel comics series there is a romantic connection between Snake Eyes and Scarlett. However, in the Sunbow series the romantic link seems to be between Scarlett and Duke though the main relationship focus is really on Lady Jaye and Flint with Snake Eyes playing only a minor role in the cartoon series. The G.I. Joe movies also did not play up the Snake Eyes and Scarlett relationship. So, the G.I. Joe continuity is pliable and can really be whatever your head wants it to be. For kids playing with military action figures I doubt much was made of romantic relationships anyway. For kids, the fact we had ninjas with machine guns and swords was far cooler.
The appeal of G.I. Joe means many things to different people. To me, I had learned to read on comic books in the mid-1970s and was already an avid comic book reader and collector by 1982. G.I. Joe went beyond just the olive drab military into a realm of iron masks, MASS Devices, robot armor, and ninjas.
I asked the amazing crew of G.I. Joburg, a podcast made up of G.I. Joe collectors and fans from Johannesburg, South Africa- half a world away from where I lived, what about G.I. Joe appealed to them.
“G.I. Joe didn’t need a gimmick, he just needed to be set free from his packaging and taken on adventures. Armed with a plastic rifle and your imagination G.I. Joe is there. You could be Joe one day and Cobra the next, being able to explore both sides of your moral compass. G.I. Joe taught us how to be people we may not have the power, but we have the perspective.” - Paul from G.I. Joburg
“The perfect action figure. Scale. Articulation. Detail. Interaction with a range of vehicles and accessories and even other toy lines. A single Joe or Cobra figure was your ticket to take your imagination on the ultimate flight of fancy. And for me, the greatest aspect was sharing the adventure with your trusted allies. That's probably why I still get together and talk Joe with my friends. The social dimension of playtime will be my happy place for as long as I live.” - Steve from G.I. Joburg
“G.I. Joe versus Cobra is such a fundamental battle of good versus evil, and the ideals of the G.I. Joe team are universal and applicable way beyond the battle field. Playing with those figures and vehicles have been and always will be my happiest memories.” - Rob from G.I. Joburg
In addition to their great podcast, be sure to subscribe to the G.I. Joburg YouTube channel as well - here.
For me personally, the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero comic book series was extremely important. As I previously stated, I was already a well established comic book reader and collector by 1982. The first issue of G.I. Joe I bought off the spinner rack was G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero issue 7 featuring the Oktober Guard. I never looked back. I bought every issue from that point forward. Larry Hama still writes the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero comic book though today it is published by IDW.
Issue 21 of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero is one of the most important and influential comic books of all time. In fact, it made our popular 100 Greatest Comics Books and Graphic Novels of All Time list. Officially subtitled “Silent Interlude”, the comic is more popularly simply referred to as “The Silent Issue” because it features no dialog nor thought balloons and the story is simply told in art form.
The story is a landmark one in the G.I. Joe mythos as it introduces the ninja Storm Shadow who has taken Scarlett captive and delivered her to Cobra Commander. As was usually the case in the G.I. Joe universe, Scarlett was no damsel in distress as she cleverly escapes her bonds and bests Storm Shadow long enough to escape on her own. However, Snake Eyes was secretly being air dropped to rescue her and the two leave together via a stolen piece of Cobra hardware. The final page is a bombshell revealing a link between the mysterious Storm Shadow and the equally mysterious Snake Eyes in the form of matching arm tattoos. The Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes relationship would be one of the most important components of G.I. Joe mythos.
Later on in the series, Cobra Commander loses some of his seriousness and begins being portrayed in a more bumbling and comedic fashion. In order to give Cobra a more serious and threatening leader, Serpentor was introduced into the story. Serpentor’s origins were more science fiction and fantasy in nature than Cobra Commander’s and fans were of mixed feelings about the character of Serpentor. Personally, I thought the action figure was outstanding but the comic book character stretched the bounds of suspension of disbelief a little too far.
As the 1980s came to an end and the early 1990s unfolded, sadly, G.I. Joe lost it’s way. The G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero comic had clearly peaked and both it and the toy line were dominated by brightly colored ninjas, Eco-Warriors, and space themed characters. The G.I. Joe animated movie spun a bizarre story which really drew little to nothing from the comic books and diverged in a weird direction from the animated series by introducing Cobra-La and other strange elements into the story.
G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero issue 155 published in 1994 saw the Marvel comic come to an end (though that continuity would be picked up years later by IDW) and the toy line would cease soon after.
The early 2000s would see the rebirth of G.I. Joe with Image Comics and the Devil’s Due Publishing line launching multiple series of G.I. Joe comic books. The comics would use essentially the same characters and introduce a few new ones. It would also apparently be set soon after the events of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero issue 155 though technically not exactly a continuation.
The G.I. Joe license would eventually switch from Devil’s Due to IDW and the IDW continuity would start off strong. The first IDW G.I. Joe series was a reboot, bringing the core G.I. Joe characters into the modern era. The critically acclaimed G.I. Joe Cobra series was the peak of the IDW era. Soon after, the IDW G.I. Joe universe descended into chaos with numerous relaunches, meandering continuity, and questionable storylines. Even the hardest of the hardcore G.I. Joe fan found the sagas hard to follow. As recently of 2018 IDW was presenting a virtually unrecognizable version of G.I. Joe with horrendous artwork and even worse storytelling by writers who seemed to revel in the destruction of the G.I. Joe property.
To IDW’s credit, Larry Hama was able to relaunch the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero comic book series with issue 155 1/2 and it has now continued on uninterrupted for years. The stories have been hit and miss but recently a storyline introduced a new female Snake Eyes and a story arch called “Dawn of the Arishikagi” which has garnered good critical reception.
Amid all the chaos and, at least, twenty years after the peak of the property’s popularity, G.I. Joe finally got a couple of movies. To say G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra and G.I. Joe: Retaliation have been divisive would be an understatement. I know of very few people who loved the movies. Many, myself included, enjoyed them… a little… but they are a far cry from what we had hoped the G.I. Joe movie universe would look like.
Personally, I enjoyed G.I. Joe: Retaliation starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Roadblock but I seem to be in the minority. After years of the live action property laying dormant it was recently announced that a Snake Eyes solo movie would take place in 2020, though Ray Park has been recast and a new actor will play the title character in what one might presume would be an origin story.
A third G.I. Joe movie had long been rumored and even reported on. There was some buzz that a Marvel/DC type combined universe for the various Hasbro properties like G.I. Joe, Transformers, MASK, and even Rom might take place. IDW comics even launched multiple series exploring that theme but that storyline ultimately ended up convoluted, hard to follow, and disappointing.
So, what is the future of the G.I. Joe property? It’s hard to say. It seems pretty likely now that the Snake Eyes solo movie will take place in 2020 (unless, like the shared Hasbro Universe concept, it ends up shelved). Hasbro has no plans for future G.I. Joe action figures until there is a movie, television show, or other major media project ushers in demand for one. The G.I. Joe figure subscription service has ended. G.I. Joe is defunct for the time being aside from what Larry Hama is doing in his series at IDW.
In the meantime, it’s up to G.I. Joe fans to keep the torch lit and the fire burning. If you are looking for G.I. Joe resources on the internet, then let When It Was Cool recommend the following:
YoJoe.com (Great G.I. Joe reference website)
Joepedia (G.I. Joe wiki reference database)
HissTank.com (G.I. Joe news)
3DJoes.com (Great G.I. Joe reference website)
JoeCustoms.com (Great G.I. Joe customizing website)
JoeBattleLines.com (Great G.I. Joe information website)
Joe A Day (A great reference website)
Toyhax (G.I. Joe reproduction stickers)
Marauderinc.com (G.I. Joe scale action figures & accessories)
G.I. Joburg (G.I. Joe fans talking G.I. Joe)
Joe on Joe Podcast (Tremendous G.I. Joe podcast)
G.I. Joe A Real American Headcast (Great G.I. Joe podcast)
G.I. Joe Review Podcast (Great G.I. Joe podcast)
Star Joes Podcast (Podcast about G.I. Joe, Star Wars, and more)
You might also enjoy these When It Was Cool Patreon Perks.
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