Any toy that survives 50 years has well proven its worth. Many toys come and go each year, few lasting beyond a single generation of kids. There are the rare few that survive and this year celebrates one of my all-time favorites, GI Joe.
GI Joe was introduced 50-years ago in 1964 with the full-sized, 12″ figures you’ve seen in collector books and markets. I’m not that familiar with this era of Joe. I consider them more “dolls” than “action figures”, but I agree that it’s a fine line. Those first generation GI Joes had more connections to Barbie than anything. That’s not bad, per se. It just means you could dress-up your GI Joe guy and had tons of accessories for him to play with. In most worlds, that’s pretty awesome. But as that was way before my time, I was given the next best thing, the 1980s GI Joe.
The Real American Hero
The 1980s saw a complete rebirth of GI Joe…in toys, comic books and television. It was an all-out blitz for the Real American Hero and boys like be were the benefactors.
I don’t remember whether I saw the cartoon or had action figures first. I’m going to guess that I had figures before I saw the cartoon, probably as a gift, but once the cartoon caught my attention there was nothing better than GI Joe.
You could never have enough GI Joe figures, just like you could never have enough Stormtroopers in your Star Wars collection. But unlike Star Wars before it, the “new” GI Joe universe had dozens upon dozens of main characters, each with their own style, voice, weapons and skills. There was something for everyone. As a kid, you just needed to find the Joe that you could relate to the most (or want to me). From there you could buy the toy, watch him on Saturday morning and even read about him in comic books. There are very few toys that allow such diversity and immersiveness.
For me, I actually like the Cobra figures better than most of the “good guy” GI Joe figures. I always thought Cobra had the cooler looking vehicles, outfits and weapons…and they did! But that was the point, right? No matter how much Cobra seemingly had the odds in their favor, GI Joe would always win with seemingly “lesser” technology. Classic storytelling that still holds up to this day.
The true origins
Over the past year I’ve even picked up the classic GI Joe comic book series, of which I never read as a kid. Going back and reading where the “new” GI Joe characters really came from is very interesting when comparing them to the cartoon, which was my source for all things GI Joe back then.
The comic book has been great because not only is it just fun to see the evolution of the franchise but you get the “true” story about the characters. There were many subtle differences between the cartoon and comic book. Some mattered, some didn’t. The story of Snakeeyes is one that I had seen presented in many different ways and the comic book finally tells you real deal. I still think Snakeeyes is quite possibly the most overrated GI Joe character but it’s that type of insight that makes those comics wonderful.
With the comic books, I feel like I’ve completed my own personal GI Joe database. I grew up on the cartoon and toys, then filled in the blanks with the comic books. For all things 1980s GI Joe, I feel I have a good collection of useless knowledge. But obviously GI Joe didn’t end when 1990 came around.
Running its course
GI Joe kept going pretty strong heading into the 90s but all good things must come to an end. The cartoon ran its course (even in reruns) and the toys started showing lack of creativity. I’m sure there have been papers written on the demise of play toys through the 80s and 90s thanks to the rise of video games and just childrens’ taste…but whatever the cause, GI Joe lost its luster by 1994.
Over the past 20 years since then we’ve seen GI Joe go through a lot. New cartoons, new toys and even a couple modern movies. I can’t speak too much on any of those with much credibility. I’m sure each did its job well but all I know is that when I go to the toy aisle today, the GI Joe offerings are somewhat sparse and lack the depth they once had.
Gone are the colorful characters and fantastic military style, replaced by modern one-size-fits-all mold and designs. I’m sure kids today have just as much fun as I did with the 80s Joes but I don’t think you can argue quality, creativity and longevity…older is just better.
In all fairness, GI Joe has a lot to compete with these days. Toys aren’t limited to physical toys made for the backyard. Toy makers have to decide which areas make sense and make money, and maybe cartoons and action figures just don’t cut it anymore. Who knows? You hear a lot about digital toys taking over the market but I believe that a kid is a kid is a kid. Kids love to play regardless, it’s all about what they’re given. Give them an action figure and they’ll make it real. Give them a video game and they’ll do the same.
I’m sure GI Joe will have another rebirth at some point, harking back to the glory days with cartoons, toys and whatever comes next. Everything comes and goes…Barbie, Hot Wheels, He-Man, Transformers…they’ve all had highs and lows over the past 30 years, or in the case of GI Joe, 50 years. Here’s to another 50 years…Yo Joe!