G.I. Joe – Still Fighting the Toy Wars at Age 50
For nearly 50 years the action figure has been the first line of defense for many a young boy. While boys (and not-so-young men) have enjoyed toy soldiers for centuries, the introduction of plastics changed the imaginary battlefields of play forever.
In 1962 an American icon was born. Conceived originally as a tie-in for the TV show The Lieutenant, a “doll” for boys was the brainchild of Stanley Weston, who went on to sell the idea to Hasbro for a lump sum of $100,000—big money in 1962, but if Weston had received royalties they likely would have gone into the millions of dollars.
Don Levine, then head of Hasbro’s research and development, had had a similar idea for a toy soldier after serving in the U.S. Army as an infantry sergeant during the Korean War. (Click on Levine’s name to see an interview on YouTube.)
From this, the concept was born. It was based on an artist’s multi-jointed mannequin, but the idea of a boy’s “doll” had to be addressed, and so it became a “movable soldier” or “action figure.” It isn’t possible to trademark the human body, so the figure was given that infamous scar down the right cheek in order to give Hasbro a unique product to trademark (and you thought he got it in combat or maybe a sword duel). The figure’s height of 11 ½ inches (1/6th scale), was due at least in part to the fact Mattel’s Barbie was that tall, and it just seemed right. (Speaking through her publicist, Barbie denies any rumors you may have heard; she says her heart belongs to Ken.)
G.I. Joe debuted on the toy market two years later. It turned out that the actual name “G.I. Joe” was unclaimed as a toy trademark but was already a common name for American soldiers; thus, a brand was born. Joe made his official debut at the North American International Toy Fair in New York City early in 1964 and hit shelves in time for Christmas. The foot-high solider stormed the American toy market and captured hearts and minds.
“A whole generation of kids played with G.I. Joe for their military and backyard adventures,” said Tom Bartsch, former editor of the now-defunct Toy Shop magazine, who added that Joe led the way when it came to military toys and remains a favorite among collectors. “I liken it to an old blanket. Many of us like to hang onto old, familiar things.”
Hasbro consulted military manuals of the era and reproduced almost every uniform for the four branches of service when Joe made his debut, according to The 30th Anniversary Salute to GI Joe: 1964-1994, by Vincent Santelmo. The figure signed up for the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, each branch represented by an Action Soldier, Action Sailor, Action Marine or Action Pilot. Joe came with uniform, hat, dog tag, patches and even a field training manual, as well as other accessories.
Equipping G.I. Joe
Originally selling for $4, today an original G.I. Joe complete with the packaging could be worth 100 times as much. Numerous accessories, including everything from uniforms and equipment to a cot so Joe could get some sack time, sold from $1 to $5 and today remain highly sought after by collectors.
G.I. Joe stood about a foot tall, but he didn’t stand still, as the line continually evolved. The first African-American G.I. Joe was introduced in 1965, along with the popular G.I. Joe Footlocker, an item as prized today as the actual figures. And in 1966 the fun really began as G.I. Joe went international. First, a Green Beret Action Soldier was introduced allowing Joe to go elite; more importantly, this was the year of the Action Soldiers of the World.
Throughout most of the 1960s G.I. Joe was a Real American Hero, but he didn’t have much of an enemy to confront. This changed when Hasbro introduced the G.I. Joe Combat Series, with figures sporting World War II uniforms. There were six figures in total, representing the military of Germany, Japan, Russia, France, England and Australia. None of these uniforms were as accurate as the American garb of the era, but for the world of toy manufacturing at the time, the gear was detailed and fairly authentic. Today these are among the most desirable figures from the G.I. Joe line and among the most difficult to obtain.
Ironically, while G.I. Joe would continue to remain popular his days as a “soldier” were limited. The series saw a number of updates, including the release of numerous accessories including a jeep, helicopter and even a space capsule during the late 1960s. The one flop however, was the G.I. Nurse. Popular with neither boys nor girls the figure originally sold for $8 and has since gone on to be worth more than $3000 in the original packaging!
Joe Leaves the Military
By the 1970s, G.I. Joe was no longer a member of the US military. He still sported military-style uniforms, carried a rifle and seemed like a soldier, but with the unpopular Vietnam War still being fought, it didn’t make good marketing sense to keep Joe in the army. The G.I. Joe Adventure Team, or A-Team, was born.
This is also when Joe went from having hair painted on his plastic head to fuzzy “lifelike” hair. These figures are less desired by some collectors but have still jumped way up in price when in original, unopened packaging. This was also when the large-scale accessories and some of the biggest vehicles arrived.
“G.I. Joe came with some great play sets and accessories for the time,” Bartsch said. “Having a vehicle element is very powerful with action figures. A lot of the figures today are extremely detailed, articulated and hold enough accessories to field their own army. But can they ride in anything? Do they battle sharks? That’s why G.I. Joe still endures.”
And of course, anyone growing up in the 1970s will likely remember the “Kung Fu Grip” that was also added to Joe. This flexible rubber fingers on his hands allowed for more realistic gripping of weapons and objects—at least until the fingers eventually snapped off. A number of accessories were introduced throughout the early ’70s, including vehicles and playsets. Joe even got a rival “invader from space”–type nemesis known as the Intruders. These caveman-like figures were a little hokey, but it was just one attempt to offer challenges to Joe when there were no wars to fight. Hasbro also tried to keep pace with other action figure brands, including strange superhero-based figures like Bulletman, the human bullet, and Atomic Man—figures no doubt intended to cash in on the popularity of TV’s Six-Million Dollar Man series.
But even these superheroes couldn’t counter the biggest threat to the 12-inch action figure—the 1970s energy crisis. Petroleum was the main raw material for plastics, and the sudden increase in prices made it almost impossible for Hasbro to continue to produce large-scale figures and still make a profit. The result in 1977 was a new line of smaller figures, called the Super Joe Adventure Team, which stood 8 ½ inches tall. The line only lasted two years, as fans weren’t too excited about these replacements. It was also the year that a little film called Star Wars hit the box office and changed action figures forever … almost.
G.I. Joe returns and takes on the competition
The success of Star Wars as a movie was only surpassed by Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon, which included action figures. And while there was an attempt to launch a 12-inch line of figures, the real popularity was the 3 ¾ inch figures, which set a new standard size for small action figures. It allowed kids to have more figures, more vehicles and, of course, more playsets. It wasn’t long before Joe joined up again.
In 1981, after a four-year hiatus G.I. Joe was back, this time with the support of a comic book and eventually with a 30-minute animated series that was essentially a long commercial for new toys. A feature-length film in the late 1980s reaffirmed that G.I. Joe was not only an American hero but also an American icon. As with other, smaller-scale figures Joe had an enemy to fight; his nemesis now was a terrorist organization named COBRA, and it had plenty of vehicles and playsets. But most of these figures and accessories were true kid’s stuff that failed to capture much interest among collectors. While there is a collectibles market for them today, the hardcore collectors like the larger Joes.
In 1991 G.I. Joe was up-sized again and ready for action once more in the 12-inch or 1/6 scale category. Today, Hasbro continues to produce both large and small-scale figures. Throughout the 1990s these included special editions of World War II figures such as the Tuskegee Airmen and a D-Day Ranger. But G.I. Joe was facing a new enemy, and after this Hasbro’s line would truly be deemed kid’s stuff.
G.I. Joe had long faced competition from rival action figures, but by 1998 this included several new players, including 21st Century Toys and Dragon Models of Hong Kong. And while Joe’s enemy remained the fictional “COBRA,” Hasbro actually shied away from introducing any German or Japanese figures until recently with the introduction of a few “classic” figures including a Luftwaffe pilot. It is hard to have a “Hero” in the former enemies of the Greatest Generation. But even if Joe wasn’t quite as “international” several new figures were there to fill the void.
Other figures arrived and throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a wave of 1/6-scale figures. These were far more realistic looking, and from the beginning it was clear that these weren’t “your father’s G.I. Joes.”
“The quality is so much better,” said Rick Berry of the Michigan Toy Soldier Company, whose store has carried the 12-inch figures for years. He says that many boomers had the old G.I. Joe figures as kids, and with the renewed interest in WWII over the last decade this has fueled the interest in the figures. “I deal with collectors of one kind or another almost exclusively and it seems to always hold true. We collect what we had when we were kids!”
The 1/6-scale figure business has slowed in recent years, but G.I. Joe keeps going strong. The figure was inducted in the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2004, and each year the official G.I. Joe Collector’s Club holds “GIJoeCon.” This year’s event scheduled for April in Dallas, Texas.
And at 50 years old, Joe still looks ready for action.
About the Author
Peter Suciu has been collecting militaria and playing military simulations since he was a child. He’s been reviewing computer games for nearly 20 years, and when he’s not waging battle from his desktop he is a business reporter for several magazines and websites. His work has appeared on CNBC.com, Fortune.com and Forbes. He also collects military helmets and runs the MilitarySunHelmets.com website.
All photos below are from a private collection.