The Many Reinventions of a Real American Hero

In the midst of economic, political, and social change, G.I. Joe has reinvented itself many times over to remain one of the best-selling toys of all time
October 1, 2016Words by Joseph Meehan

At its core, the story of G.I. Joe is a narrative of reinvention in the face of adversity. The initial concept of “America’s movable fighting man” was a reimagining of the doll, a wildly popular toy for girls at the time, to appeal to boys. This breakthrough thinking led to G.I. Joe being marketed as the very first action figure, an entirely new and influential genre of toy that lives on today, an impressive feat for toy brand. Derryl Depriest, long-time G.I. Joe collector and Vice President, Global Brand Management at Hasbro, noted that "In the landscape of kid-targeted brands, few have had sustained success beyond five years, much less fifty." When asked about the lasting success of G.I. Joe in particular, Depriest explained that "The key for those brands that have endured is constant change to remain relevant, if not in the core story then certainly in the way that the story connects with kids." Throughout decades of social, political and economic change Hasbro has consistently retooled the G.I. Joe brand to adapt to the times. From military soldiers to an adventure team, from adventurers to a cohesive unit of real American heroes united in the fight against evil, G.I. Joe has taken many forms. 

The precise origin of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe figures remains unclear. What is known for certain is that the original idea for Hasbro to sell military action figures was proposed by a licensing executive who had been working with a 3rd party toy inventor. The idea was then developed by Hasbro’s head of marketing and several others at Hasbro into the product that was first introduced in 1964. However, there are several different tales as to who actually came up with the idea of articulating the figures in the way that was ultimately chosen by Hasbro.

According to one story, it all started with a humble wooden figurine: Walking down the street in New York City, Hasbro’s marketing executive passed an art supply store and an artist’s articulated wooden model caught his eye. He had a stroke of inspiration: an articulated doll that could be dressed up in military fatigues and given an infinite number of military-themed playsets and accessories. He instantly bought 12 of the wooden models and took them home to aid conception of the first G.I. Joe prototypes. This innovative solution to the question of how to sell dolls to boys is indicative of the spirit of reinvention that would permeate the G.I. Joe DNA and keep the brand relevant for the next 50 plus years to the present day. The original G.I. Joe line, 12” action figures that corresponded to the four branches of the American military, was a massive success: it would account for fully two-thirds of Hasbro’s revenues the year it was released. But it wouldn’t be long before public opinion shifted and the G.I. Joe line had to evolve to stay on the shelf. 

The late 1960s was a turbulent time in America. There were many cultural forces at work in this era, but America’s prolonged involvement in the Vietnam War, without an apparent end in sight, spelled near-disaster for the Joes. Sales of military-themed consumer goods dropped sharply as American anti-war sentiment reached its peak, and G.I. Joe was no exception. Sales of G.I. Joe action figures dipped drastically toward the end of the decade, and Hasbro introduced the G.I. Joe Adventure Team in another stroke of reinventive genius. The military themes of the original line were realigned along themes of adventure and rescue operations instead. Hasbro didn’t just give them new packaging and a new name: the figures were enhanced with additional articulation, and lifelike fuzzy hair and beards and a new Kung-Fu Grip. The new and improved flexible rubber gripping hand was a great improvement in the realism of the action figures: they could grip rifles, steering wheels and other accessories much more effectively, and Kung-Fu Grip has been an iconic phrase ever since.  

The Adventure Team, eight strong at the start with one more figure added later on, were ready to tackle any global emergency as soon as trouble reared its head. In this second phase of G.I. Joe’s lifespan he found himself on arctic expeditions on the snowy tundra, hunting white tigers in the jungle and going on missions to the moon. Perhaps one of the most remarkable sets was the Secret Agent, outfitted with a silenced pistol, listening device and a plastic mask of another man’s human face a la Mission Impossible. Despite the success of the Adventure Team, Hasbro would retire the Joes from service in 1978 due to the rising price of raw materials and the lackluster reception of a line of smaller 8” action figures. But Joe’s retirement was short-lived, and his next incarnation was his most successful.  

In the beginning of the 1980s, Hasbro wanted to bring G.I. Joe back to the shelves of toy stores and the hands of young boys, but they would have to look outside the company to find the right formula. Inspired by the action figure line that accompanied Star Wars: A New Hope, Hasbro developed a line of 3-3/4” action figures whose backstories would be fleshed out by a comic book series.

Smaller action figures also meant smaller vehicles, both of which cut down on production costs at a time when oil prices continued to rise. Also, the wealth of new vehicles introduced a play pattern that transcended just figural play. The new line was introduced as G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and was a success from the start. The comic book series shattered expectations by running for over a decade in a time when two to three years was the outside lifespan for comic book tie-ins. Marvel Comics writer and Vietnam veteran Larry Hama helped create the initial characters and went on to write almost all of the 155 issues of Marvel’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.

One of the key successes of the comic books was the introduction of Cobra, an enemy that the Joes could unite against, which also provided a deep trove of new characters to model the action figures after. Not only did the new opposing force enrich the story behind the toys, kids could now pit the Joes against Cobra forces in their own bedrooms. 

In 1985 an animated series was introduced and was equally successful as the comic book series. The deep backstory behind the Joes provided by the comic book, animated series and an ever-widening cast of characters that made the toys irresistible to kids and collectors alike. Once again, Hasbro hit upon a winning formula by patiently reinventing the Joe formula and adapting to market conditions. G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, both the action figures and the accompanying tie-ins, would continue production throughout the 80s and well into the 90s. 

While the second animated series would be canceled in 1991, with the original 3-3/4” action figures ceasing production not long after in 1994, the 12” G.I. Joe series began a revival based in part on finding a new audience of boys and in part on nostalgia among adults, many of whom were now fathers, who grew up with the original and wanted to share their memories with their kids. This 12” revival lasted 13 years, which then gave way to a revival of the G.I. Joe vs. Cobra story supported by additional animated series, mini-series and one-off television specials, comic book series, and 3 3/4 action figures would continue until 2005, as G.I. Joe transitioned into yet another phase of the brand’s lifespan. 

Today G.I. Joe is a team of action heroes in higher stakes scenarios than ever before in a universe that promises endless adventures. Derryl Depriest, long-time G.I. Joe collector and Vice President, Global Brand Management at Hasbro, hints at the future: "The goal of this universe is to unlock storytelling potential by bringing these fan-favorite brands together and G.I. Joe is a key anchor brand for this universe...In five years, we anticipate that G.I. Joe will be at the center of a rich, interconnected world." Stay tuned to see who G.I. Joe works with next, and how they'll to continue to embody the values that Duke and the rest of the G.I. Joes have represented to American youth for decades: integrity, honesty and the heroism of everyday, real Americans.

Joseph spent many a childhood afternoon setting up elaborate battlefield scenes with G.I. Joe and Cobra on opposing sides. Follow him on Instagram for bad puns and good eats.

G.I. JOE and all related characters are trademarks of Hasbro and are used with permission. © 2016 Hasbro.  All Rights Reserved.  Licensed by Hasbro.


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