Selling more than Yo-Yos or Radio Flyers is the iconic GI Joe, the insanely popular action figure line of the 80s, an estimated 375 million figures flew off the shelves, a number that is easy to remember because the height of GI Joes is 3.75 inches.
Obviously, a number that huge provides a good bit of cultural infusion as well as generates a healthy collector’s community. Yet there are many who didn’t or don’t collect GI Joes, so when they learn the rest of us nerds have boxes full of old GI Joes, they might scoff and ask us if we aren’t a bit old to own toys, as if only a child would care about such things.
We might laugh it off, because while some people look at Joe and see stupid little army men, when a GI Joe collector looks at them, we see our own histories.
So, what can we say to make non-collectors understand our love of GI Joe: A Real American Hero? Here are seven places to start:
7 Reasons GI Joe is so Great
Great Toys Mean Great Play Time
As a little child, you’re given toys. First it’s clunky wooden blocks, then Legos if you’re lucky. Along the way you get action figures. They help your mind grow, and best of all they’re fun.
Then you grow up and society says playing is lame. You’re supposed to knuckle-down, be productive, and filter any ingenuity into your job! You’re not supposed to build LEGO, or pose action figures, or paint miniatures anymore; you’re supposed to build a shed in the backyard to store the tools you need for completing never ending tasks around your home. If you enjoy handy work, fine. But it’s not why you’re doing it.
The closest thing to playing that’s permitted of an adult is restoration. You can fix up an old convertible or re-stain a table. Those things are fine, because the end product will be usable for something. Again, it all comes back to practicality.
The thing is, not everyone wants to gut and remodel an Airstream trailer. It’s much more fun to play with old GI Joes from your childhood!
So why then is collecting GI Joes looked down upon like they are some childish thing? Why is replacing an O-Ring in an old Joe rather than a faucet considered a “guilty pleasure” rather than just a “pleasure”? And why am I considered a reclusive nerd, other than the fact that it’s true?
Because you allow it, that’s why.
But you don’t have to! You can say, “Screw it. I’m collecting old Joes! I hold down a day job and it’s OK that I have a hobby I enjoy. So if you need me, I’ll be down in The PIT, posing tiny plastic action figures into a fighting force against Cobra. Because that’s what I want to do, and no, I won’t apologize.”
Besides, research has shown that play is vitally important, even in adults.
GI Joes weren’t just presented as faceless soldiers, they were presented as people with real names and personalities who interacted with one another.
From Ryan Costello of the Know Direction Podcast: “The characterization of GI Joe was amazing. In a few years on the air, GI Joe had a larger cast than any cartoon until The Simpsons. The Joes and Cobra had dynamic relationships, consistent personalities, and a lot of layers.”
Don’t take it from me, take it from Ryan, but he and I agree that GI Joe is great because the characters almost felt like friends to us. Better, they are characters we could look up to and emulate.
The Comic Book
Larry Hama is the man who wrote the book on GI Joe. A Vietnam veteran, Hama had just began to work at Marvel and was offered GI Joe as a consolation, a job that was considered the kiss of death, as no writer wanted to be associated with a toy line.
At the time of the cartoon, FCC rules prohibited children’s programs from advertising their own brand of toys, so instead Hasbro advertised the G.I. Joe comic — to fantastic results. Hama’s comic–GI Joe: A Real American Hero–was a wildly successful comic, appearing at the top of 80s comic sales charts alongside The Amazing Spider-Man and Claremont’s X-Men.
The comic was praised for its attention to detail and realism in the area of military tactics and procedures, this due to Hama’s military experience and the large amount of research he put into the book in order to be as up-to-date as possible. (He was drafted into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the Vietnam war, so the figure Tunnel Rat was fittingly modeled after him)
But it was the soap-opera(y) nature of the book and the fact that the Joes were written as a family that ultimately made the comic be such a beloved read. Hama didn’t write the Joes as soldiers, he wrote them as people.
The comic also had moments of incredible artistry, such as G.I. Joe #21, titled “Silent Interlude”, which was told entirely without words or sound effects. (Our full story on that issue is here.) There were also spin-off titles such as GI Joe: Special Missions and Larry Hama also wrote the majority of the file cards that appeared on the back of the action figure blister packs, which millions of kids cut out and kept along with their Joes.
In short, the comic is absolutely a reason to be a Joe fan and endures to this day. In fact, I recently re-read through every Hama GI Joe comic and wrote about the experience here.
GI Joe is Diverse
There were female Joes right from the beginning and those characters like Lady Jaye and Scarlett had breasts and hips that were of normal proportions, choosing instead to treasure female characters’ strength and intelligence over the male gaze.
Likewise, there were lots of people of color and those Native American, Asian, and African American Joes were of high of a rank and just as much in the thick of battle as any other Joes.
This is due largely to Larry Hama, the legend behind the GI Joe comic. As mentioned, Hama didn’t write the Joes as soldiers, he wrote them as people. And males and females of all colors and types were the people who surrounded him in his New York home. In fact, Hama admittedly as much, saying, “I based the characters on people I knew.”
More than Nostalgia
For many, GI Joe represents our greatest memories. I grew up in a small town and was very shy, not making friends easily. But GI Joe was always there for me, as cheesy as it sounds. I suspect many others feel the same way.
I don’t have a touchstone to my childhood home, as my parents moved away. I can’t visit the house I grew up in and look out in the backyard to remember the good ‘ole days. Instead, I carry my memories in plastic clamshell cases.
It’s important not to wallow in nostalgia, but it is important to remember the influences on your life. So, what a non-collector views as stupid pieces of plastic, I view as memories that have bared witness to my childhood. Some people look at old GI Joes and see stupid little army men, but when I look at them, I see my own history. I’m not alone in that.
They were legit
We’ve had had moments of looking back on something with nostalgia only to realize it doesn’t even remotely hold up when we revisit it. GI Joe holds up. They were really good toys.
From Strato-Viper on Twitter: “As a kid it was the toy as a whole. I loved the poseable figures, the art on the box, the catalogs in the vehicles. It seemed a step up from any toy. Then I started reading the comics and I was hook line and sinker.”
Strat has a point: GI Joes felt like a step up from every other toy at the time. Listen, I had tons of 80s Star Wars figures, but they had 5 points of articulation. GI Joes, on the other hand, could be bent and posed a million different ways, plus they came with great accessories that they could hold. GI Joe
was is legit.
A Legacy of Service
Ron Friedman and the writing team that created the Sunbow G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero cartoon series had complex feelings about a show that portrayed war, so they wanted it to leave a legacy of service and to provide positive messages of inclusion, self-sacrifice and heroism.
To this end, millions of kids watched GI Joe, each episode ending with a PSA aimed at teaching kids values and morals. These ultimately became a popular and enduring part of the GI Joe lexicon, spawning the catchphrase, “Now you know…and knowing if half the battle.”
As a result, the GI Joe cartoon helped inspire countless men and women to become first responders, members of the armed services, and others who put themselves on the line for the greater good. Now you know.