The many flavors of GI Joe cartoons

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From comic books to movie screens, GI Joe has survived, but it thrives in the cartoon world.

One true love

We all like to remember our childhood toys, movies and cartoons. We buy little trinkets and novelty t-shirts to show off that we remember these things, as though to let the world know what generation we’re from, but there are few things that we keep really near-and-dear. I played a lot of games and watched a lot of TV growing up, and I remember many of them, but most of them are just that…good memories…but a few of them I still loudly and proudly stay in touch with and will never let go. One of these is GI Joe.

Despite being the resident “old coot”, I’m not so old that I remember the full-sized GI Joe dolls. No, my fascination with GI Joe started with the 1980s cartoon and 3″ action figures. I watched the cartoon religiously and feel that it holds up pretty well when you go back and watch it today…as long as you can accept what it is, a cartoon for kids. It’s not the best written series but if you can get passed some of the really crazy stuff, you can find some good storylines and great characters. I knew the GI Joe stories and characters better than any of their cartoon contemporaries, such as Transformers and He-Man, but as I’ve returned to GI Joe in recent years, I’ve found a lot of things have changed…and not all for the better.

In watching and reading a lot of the new GI Joe incarnations has thrown my GI Joe reality completely out of whack. As it turns out, there are many GI Joe realities which doesn’t make my reality wrong, it just makes it out of date. I understand that franchises need freshened up to feed a new generation of kids and consumers, and I’m cool with that and because I love GI Joe I’ll do my best to embrace what’s out there…but there is a lot to choose from. I’ve found a few new GI Joe things that I get into only to find it had a short shelf life, which makes me move on to another version that has its own reality. I have fun with one storyline and character set only to find out they are treated entirely differently in the next rendition. Heaven help you if you switch back and forth between GI Joe universes at the same time because you’ll get all out of whack.

GI Joe A Real American Hero

The original GI Joe, some of the best friends you'll ever have

GI Joe: A Real American Hero, where it all began

The cartoon I grew up with, GI Joe: A Real American Hero, only lasted two years but that was a comprehensive 95 episodes of learning half the battle. This is where I first met the endless parade of memorable characters like Duke, Scarlett, Low Light, Snake Eyes, Shipwreck, Road Block, Flint, Destro, Cobra Commander, Zartan…the list can go on and on. But let’s face it, there was nothing too deep here. Cobra was the bad guy trying to take over the world and GI Joe was the good guy trying to stop them. Every now and then you’d get a little look into some backstory – and those were always the best episodes – but for the most part you just went along with it. You didn’t ask how Cobra had secret snake-shaped temples in the jungle, nor did you really notice that nobody got shot. Every now and then GI Joe would dive a bit into spiritual and telepathic things but for the most part it was planes, robots and tanks…and I couldn’t have been happier.

Stylistically I think GI Joe is wonderful. Every character had their own unique identity in appearance, which usually complemented their trade and sometimes even their personality. You never got the heavy gunner and airplane pilot confused, nor the helicopter pilot and deep sea diver. Not to mention GI Joe was a very vibrant cartoon. Color was almost a character in itself that was used to make brilliant backgrounds while also helping you instantly know what and how you should feel. However, the music was another story. While cheesy/awesome in that 1980s-drama-type style, the music sometimes conflicted with the action on screen. You don’t really notice (or care) about this when you’re a kid but it’s quite laughable when you go back now. All-in-all, A Real American Hero really was the total package (with or without the toys).

GI Joe Sigma 6

What the heck is this? It's GI Joe Sigma 6...meh.

The failures of GI Joe

After Real American Hero ended, the GI Joe cartoons kind of went down the tubes. Only in very recent years did the GI Joe animation projects seem to feel interesting to me. There was GI Joe Extreme which tried to bring in a whole new cast of characters, which I was not at all interested in learning about. After that the GI Joe: Sigma 6 series took GI Joe into the anime realm and added super suits into the mix (a trick we’d see later in the movies). Even though Sigma 6 brought back original characters, they changed them up in story, style and even age. For a fan like me this was a deal-breaker. I didn’t like the style of the cartoon and I couldn’t accept all the changes that were made otherwise…I guess that’s why the cartoon didn’t even finish its run.

GI Joe: Renegades, better but lacking

Now we’ll scoot ahead to just a couple years ago and GI Joe: Renegades completes its only season of 26 episodes. Renegades was another retooling of the classic characters but for some reason I was able to tolerate this incarnation a little better…maybe it’s because the premise of Renegades is pretty much the same as The A-Team but with GI Joe characters. A small group of characters including Duke and Scarlett are “wrongly accused of a crime they didn’t commit” and have to find the evidence they need to put away the real bad guys, which, of course, is Cobra. However, this time Cobra isn’t the Cobra I’d come to love to hate. In this reality, Cobra was a well-known and accepted mega corporation that had its hand in all sorts of consumer goods like food, medical supplies and manufacturing. The general public isn’t even aware of their tomfoolery until they are exposed in the last episode. This twist on Cobra is somewhat interesting and is far more believable as a story but it’s just kind of bland for me. Yet, I think the writing of Renegades if better than the original cartoon but after 25 years, I’d hope so.

GI Joe Renegades

GI Joe: Renegades, not bad but I need a little bit more

However, where Renegades really drove me nuts was in how the characters were presented. Not only was Renegades back in an anime style, they dropped the ages of them considerably. For example, in the original cartoon Dr. Mindbender was a bald German with a cape, boots and a bad attitude. In Renegades, Mindbender is a snotty kid in a lab coat. What sounds more menacing to you? I’m sure this change in age was so kids can “relate” to the characters more but one of the best things about the original cartoon was that the characters were adults and older than me, which made me want to be them. Before the characters seemed larger than life, but now they were reduced to somewhat everyday people. A little magic is lost. As a 10-year-old I can’t be Duke, and I knew that, but maybe when I grow up I can be. If you see Duke as an equal when you’re a kid, what’s left? (Plus it makes it a lot harder to be able to enjoy the cartoon as an adult.)

Sadly, Renegades also managed to suck the color right out of GI Joe. Gone are the vibrant colors and over-the-top character styles. I can accept Destro being Scottish and even giving Cobra Commander half a face, but what happened to the style? Every scene sits in the “dull grey” zone both in character and background. I thought anime was about details? Even though I watched the entire Renegades series and enjoyed most of the story, the shift in the reality was a little too much for me. What I really wanted was a continuation of the cartoon I love with a little more oomph.

GI Joe: Resolute, the best of both worlds

Even before Renegades aired, GI Joe: Resolute appeared on Adult Swim as a series of cartoon shorts. After watching and loving Resolute, I was hoping they’d produce it as a regular cartoon but instead we got Renegades. Too bad because Resolute is everything you ever wanted GI Joe to be.

For one, Resolute starts off with something rarely seen in GI Joe…blood. Things kick off with Major Bludd dead on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That scene alone sets the tone for the series and tells you this isn’t your mama’s GI Joe…or is it? Resolute might be a lot grittier than previous versions of the cartoon but they didn’t do much in messing with characters or established storylines. Your favorite trademark characters are still around, including Bazooka in his football jersey…of course, Bazooka ends up dead but that’s the other great thing about it, there are surprises. I won’t spoil them all if you haven’t watched Resolute but it’s safe to say they really shake things up. You can say that Resolute is messing with storylines by killing of characters and you’d be correct but they are far easier to digest as a fan because they play within the rules. As a fan of the original cartoon, at no point was I calling foul. GI Joe: Resolute is the ultimate nod to original fans because it feels like GI Joe has evolved rather than been simply re-imagined to reach a new generation of kids. That’s all we fans ever wanted…just more GI Joe but a little more grown up and Resolute gave us that, even if only for 45 minutes.

When you watch Resolute you’ll quickly notice that it too is in a more anime-like style than the original cartoon. I might prefer the non-anime treatment but I feel Resolute is a balance between the original and Renegades. Drawings are crisp shaded but environments are very detailed…think more along the lines of Ghost in the Shell rather than Pokemon. Perfect.

Yo Joe! For life.

It’s safe to say we’ll probably never see an end to GI Joe, whether it be in cartoons or on the movie screen. There’s also a well-established comic series (that actually gave birth to the modern GI Joe) but I’ve never really dug into them or the graphic novels. However, I have read a book of short stories, Tales from the Cobra Wars, that is a wonderful exploration of your favorite characters in even more real-world situations.

If you throw a GI Joe cartoon in front of me, I’ll watch it…but that doesn’t mean I’ll like it. I really don’t consider myself a hardline GI Joe’er when it comes to characters and storylines. I’m just looking for something that takes nostalgia into consideration without reinventing the wheel. The old GI Joe cartoon formula still works…then, now and forever. Yo Joe.

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About Author

Brian is a staff writer at TMA. He races Hot Wheels at RedlineDerby.com while watching cartoons with his kid. You can follow @morningtoast on Twitter.

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