A Brief History of G.I. Joe Toys

Yo Joe! While many toys come and go, G.I. Joe has remained a part of popular culture for over 50 years. The assorted heroes of the G.I. Joe team, along with their evil nemesis COBRA, have been featured in toys, comic books, cartoons, movies and more. They’ve been able to remain relevant and popular decade after decade, successfully changing with the times.

What makes G.I. Joe so durable? How has this one toy been able to stay successful across such a wide range of media? Here’s a fun and complete look at the history of G.I. Joe toys:

G.I. Joe Appears on Toy Shelves

G.I. Joe made his first appearance on toy shelves in the early 1960’s. He was definitely a product of his times. Still reflecting on the country’s triumph in WWII, the popularity of U.S. troops was sky-high among Americans – and boys in particular. In fact, most TV shows for boys were centered around either cowboys or WWII heroes.

On the other side of the playground, young girls had fallen in love with Barbie, which had been one of the country’s top-selling toys since 1959. Creator Mattel could barely keep up with the demand, and the company was on the top of the toy world. Competitor Hasbro realized they could never take on Barbie directly, but perhaps they could find elements of Barbie which could be used to target a different market.

Original 1964 GI Joe toy

Photo by Mike Mozart licensed under CC BY 2.0

A Barbie for Boys?

In 1963, the first G.I. Joe toys were roughly the same size as a Barbie doll. Also, like Barbie, different clothing and accessories could be equipped. The dolls were fully poseable. Plus, the weapons used were realistically detailed.

But the idea was risky. While boys generally liked the military, they were also decidedly not interested in playing with dolls (this was the 1960s). The toy was only going to be successful if young boys considered Joe an “Action Figure” and not a doll.

Hasbro coined the phrase “action figure” to describe G.I. Joe. In fact, they took the idea of not calling the toy a doll very seriously. Employees caught using the word “doll” at work could actually be fined by the company.

Also, Hasbro needed to make sure a larger toy company wasn’t going to swoop in and steal their customers. So they couldn’t just make an Army figure; they also had to make Navy, Air Force and Marine versions, too. Otherwise a competitor could simply make those figures themselves.

Forced to make four times as many toys as planned, Hasbro’s entire financial future ended up riding on this unproven action figure. One which, at the time, didn’t even have a name.

A Soldier Finds His Identity

Naming the toy was actually a fairly last-minute decision. The term “G.I. Joe” dates back to WWII. It was a shorthand word to describe an average American service member. G.I. Joe stands for “Government-Issue Joe.”

The Story of G.I. Joe was also the title of a 1945 black-and-white WWII movie, which a Hasbro executive happened to catch on TV one night. The characters in the film were heroic, capable and quite similar to the yet-unnamed action figures. The name “G.I. Joe” was born.

The First Version of G.I. Joe is Launched

G.I. Joe stormed off the toy shelves almost immediately. The concept of an action figure wasn’t just accepted by boys, it was incredibly popular. Hasbro’s gamble paid off.

G.I. Joe took a page out of Barbie’s playbook. Boys bought an action figure which then had a seemingly endless variety of accessories. Only instead of Barbie’s fashion and cooking accessories (it was the 60s), G.I. Joe had accessories boys liked, like military weapons and outfits.

For quite a few years, G.I. Joe was on top of the toy world. But just as his sudden popularity was a product of his time, so was his downfall. The Vietnam War began to change the public’s ideas about war and warfare. Suddenly, for many people, G.I. Joe represented pretty serious issues.

Hasbro shifted G.I. Joe’s focus away from military missions and more towards general adventure. Different outfits were created so Joe could become an astronaut, Green Beret, deep-sea diver and more.

Introducing the Adventure Team (with Kung Fu Grip)

G.I. Joe continued to undergo changes. Different characters were introduced, all part of the Adventure Team. This was the beginning of the toy’s shift towards a team-based organization instead of just one individual named “G.I. Joe.”

These new action figures had a few improvements. The hair became more lifelike. The eyes were now moveable. Plus, perhaps most importantly, the Kung-Fu grip was introduced. This was an action-packed term to describe a relatively simple idea. G.I. Joe could now hold onto objects, something even Barbie couldn’t do.

Unfortunately, Joe couldn’t keep a grip on the market. Sales of G.I. Joe began to drastically decline. Some weird ideas were introduced, such as a G.I. Joe with a bullet-shaped helmet and another who looked like a caveman. But nothing connected with the public and the toy was eventually retired from service in 1978.

G.I. Joe Returns?

Hasbro began toying (pun intended) with the idea of re-introducing G.I. Joe to the world. The new CEO, the son of Hasbro’s founder, was at first skeptical. But, after a few failed attempts, his passionate team developed a compelling and unique marketing strategy.

To set in the scene: In 1982, Star Wars toys were all the rage. Star Wars action figures were being made based on practically every character in the films. This connection between toy and screen was proving to be a winning combination.

 

Unfortunately, G.I. Joe didn’t have an established story nearly on par with Star Wars. Hasbro also didn’t have the budget to create their own movies or a TV show. But they could potentially tell the G.I. Joe story in another way.

Image courtesy of Hasbro.

G.I. Joe, Marvel and an Advertising Loophole

Hasbro approached Marvel Comics with the idea of creating a G.I. Joe comic book series. Not only would this introduce all the new G.I. Joe characters to kids, but there was an interesting loophole about how these toys could be advertised.

Ads for toys had restrictions at the time. Toy ads could only show seven seconds of animation. The rest of the ad had to actually show the toy. The idea behind these rules was to prevent a company from simply showing a cartoon which promised a bunch of features the actual toy couldn’t deliver on.

Here’s where they got creative. While there were rules about advertising toys on TV, there were no such rules advertising books. So Hasbro realized they could advertise Marvel comic books on TV as much as they wanted.

Keep in mind that while Marvel Comics in the 1980s was a successful business, they were far from the entertainment powerhouse they are today. While the creative team wasn’t particularly excited about the rather generic G.I. Joe concept, the idea of having their comics advertised on TV (and at Hasbro’s expense) was simply too great of an opportunity to pass up.

Here Come the Bad Guys: The Introduction of Cobra

Hasbro and Marvel had developed a partnership. Now they needed to create the actual toys. Up until this point, G.I. Joe has basically just been a single guy. But that wasn’t going to be enough to create the type of toy line Hasbro wanted or the type of stories Marvel wanted.

One of the very first ideas from Marvel was to make G.I. Joe the name of the group instead of the name of the guy. The G.I. Joe team consisted of the best soldiers, the best sailors, the best specialists of all kinds.

Hasbro – specifically, one guy at Hasbro who did all of the designs – set out to create a cast of characters. He drew the visual concepts while Marvel gave the characters names and backstories.

But soon an issue developed. Who did G.I. Joe fight? Hasbro had pictured kids playing with G.I. Joes and other toys at the same time. For instance, the G.I. Joe squad would fight characters from Star Wars. Marvel quickly pointed out that this would be a problem from a storytelling perspective. After all, they couldn’t put licensed characters like Darth Vader into a G.I. Joe comic book.

A long-time Marvel editor named Archie Goodwin suggested COBRA as the story’s villains. Like G.I. Joe, COBRA was the name of an organization, not a person. Unlike G.I. Joe, COBRA was a ruthless terrorist organization determined to take over the world.

G.I. Joe versus Star Wars

With the invention of COBRA, G.I. Joe was no longer going to fight characters from other fictional worlds. But the Joes ended up battling Star Wars in a different way. When initial talk of re-launching G.I. Joe was just beginning, Star Wars toys had only recently appeared on store shelves. Nobody anticipated just how popular the Star Wars saga would become. Both the G.I. Joe comic and toy line were about to be launched right when The Empire Strikes Back was ready to hit theaters and its related toys were ready to hit stores.

Hasbro decided to delay the launch of G.I. Joe by a year. During that year, Larry Hama, the writer of the G.I. Joe comic book, decided to create backstories and profiles for all of the characters. The backstories were then printed as info cards on the back of each character box, which introduced these characters to kids.

Photo by Dennis Amith licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Second Launch of G.I. Joe

G.I. Joe comics and toys launched in 1982. Just like the first time, success happened quickly. G.I. Joe made $51 million its first year and $100 million in the second.

The first year of the toys was so successful that Hasbro decided to significantly ramp up the second series. New vehicles and characters were added. But the biggest change from the first and second series was the addition of increased pose-ability.

G.I. Joe action figures were always more articulated than the Star Wars figures. Joes had poseable arms, legs, elbows, knees, torso and head. The second series added two swivel joints which let them turn their arms, creating the ability to realistically hold a rifle.

Called the Swivel-Arm Battle Grip, this feature helped the figures stand out even more from the Star Wars characters. (Today, the original line of series one figures without the Battle Grip are quite the collector’s item, as most of those figures were remade with the additional movement capabilities).

G.I. Joe the TV Show

But the success of the toys was outpacing the success of the comics. Even though the comics were popular, the medium itself was never going to reach as many kids as a TV show. So, Hasbro decided to create one.

The G.I. Joe animated series debuted on September 12, 1983. Unlike the comics, the TV show toned down the violence significantly. However, the daily show quickly raised the G.I. Joe’s profile among kids.

The first foray into TV was a five-part mini-series, followed by another mini-series a year later. In 1985, the show was picked up for a full season of 55 episodes. Together with the two earlier mini-series, enough episodes were created for the show to become syndicated. Finally, G.I. Joe was able to compete with Star Wars.

While the Marvel Comics basically created the characters, the TV show was instrumental in selling the toys. Characters, vehicles and locations featured in every episode were also available to buy. The show eventually even spawned a few animated movies.

Final Thoughts

Eventually, G.I. Joe had over 250 characters as well as a wide selection of vehicles, including a seven-foot-long aircraft carrier. Toys, comics and TV made over $600 million during the 80s alone. Unfortunately, a merger between Hasbro and Kenner in the 90s lead to the dismissal of many key G.I. Joe creative leads. By 1994, both the toys and comics were canceled.

But nothing can truly stop G.I. Joe. Even today, it’s still considered the most collected toy of all time. The comics, TV shows and characters are still widely known by millions of people around the world… and knowing is half the battle!

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