G.I. Joe, the World’s First Action Figure, Turns 50

GI Joe's original lineup

The four original G.I. Joe action figures from 1964.

On February 9th, 1964 toy manufacturer Hasbro debuted a new “doll” intended for boys at the American International Toy Fair in New York. “Hasbro was the laughingstock of the toy fair that year because no one assumed G.I. Joe would sell,” says Wayne Charness, Hasbro marketing director. “The buyers thought we had a terrible idea, and they only bought a small amount, but that first year we had a monster hit. We laughed all the way into 1989, and we`re still laughing.” The original line contained four 12-inch figures with 21 points of articulation, each based on one of the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. The original concept of a doll for boys came from a freelance inventor. Hasbro purchased his idea and then turned it over to an in-house design team. One of the designers had recently seen the 1945 movie The Story of G.I. Joe, a World War II film that starred Robert Mitchum and Burgess Meredith (ironically, Meredith would go on to voice the main villain of the animated G.I. Joe Movie in 1987). The designer suggested that “G.I. Joe” would be a good name for the line. 50 years later, G.I. Joe has gone through dozens of revamps and is still one of the strongest brands in toys. Let’s take a quick look at the history of the G.I. Joe toyline.

The original figures were sold from 1964 through 1969 and Hasbro called them “action figures” so as not to scare off boys afraid of playing with “dolls.” But by the late 60s, the U.S. was involved in the unpopular Vietnam War and Hasbro had to downplay the war theme. This led to the first of many rebrandings. In ’69 Hasbro began labeling the figures “The Adventures of G.I. Joe” and in 1970 they officially changed the line’s name to “Adventure Team.” The line featured several enhancements.

Adventure Team G.I. Joe

A G.I. Joe Adventure Team figure with flocked hair.

The first innovation came from England. Hasbro had licensed the toy to be created there through a toy company named Palitoy. They invented a “life-like” flocked hair and beard for their line which was dubbed “Action Man.” Hasbro rolled that into the Adventure Team line and each figure came in two versions – bearded and clean-shaven. They also added the first black figure. In their most popular and long-lasting innovation, they gave the figures “Kung-Fu Grip.” Martial arts were popular in the 70s and in 1974, Hasbro again co-opted an innovation from the Action Man line which had the hands molded out of a softer plastic that allowed the fingers to grip objects. Not every feature was a winner. In 1976, G.I. Joe figures were given eagle eye vision, which let the eyes move around from a lever on the back of the head.

In 1975, Hasbro had a failed bid to produce toys for the Six Million Dollar Man tv show. But in 1976, they simply co-opted the idea of super heroes. They added to the line Mike Power, Atomic Man who was bionic; Bullet Man, a super hero; and Intruders, enemies called Strongmen from Another World.

 

Mid-70s G.I. Joe figures

From left to right: Eagle Eye G.I. Joe, Bullet Man, Mike Power, an Intruder

The original line of figures ended in 1976, its popularity having waned while America was embroiled in an actual, unpopular war. Hasbro shifted to producing a toyline of cheap vaguely-G.I. Joe style dolls called “The Defenders” and continued their Action Man license in the UK through 1984. In the early 80s, Palitoy renamed the line slightly to “Action Force” and begin issuing smaller figures closer in size to the popular Star Wars toys from Kenner. Once again, Hasbro took its cues from Palitoy and G.I. Joe was formally relaunched in the States in 1982 as “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” in a smaller, 3.75″ size.

A large group of just some of the G.I. Joes of the 80s.

A large group of just some of the G.I. Joes of the 80s.

From 1982 through 1994, Hasbro released dozens of waves of the massively popular G.I. Joe figures, including their enemies, Cobra. The first line had just six head molds (only 3 were unique – Stalker, Snake Eyes, and Scarlett) for their 13 initial figures. But the line was a big success and the following year, 1983, they added “swivel-arm battle grip” articulation and other minor tweaks to make the figures more posable. In 1985, the heads were given a ball joint which allowed the figures’ heads to look up and down as well as side to side.

A print ad for the USS Flagg

A print ad for the USS Flagg.

G.I. Joe’s popularity peaked around 1985, featuring massive toysets such as the USS Flagg aircraft carrier that measured 7.5 feet long. G.I. Joe had a cartoon to support the line but by 1988, it had little multimedia support. The line sold well enough to continue but was past its prime. New enemies like Destro’s Iron Grenadiers were created and repaints of classic characters became more common in sub-groups like “Tiger Force.”

G.I. Joe Star Brigade enemies.

G.I. Joe Star Brigade enemies.

In 1989, sales were lackluster and Hasbro scaled back by reducing the number of vehicles created and focusing on the action figures. Hasbro increased the number of gimmicks, creating Ninja Force, Eco-Warriors and the Star Brigade, moving further and further away from the original military concept. In the final two years of this line, characters who weren’t in one of those sub groups were called part of the Battle Corps. The Star Brigade sub series added an extraterrestrial enemy, the Lunartix Empire. Characters from the Street Fighter II video game also became part of the G.I. Joe series and the line officially ended in 1994.

 

Sgt. Savage line with art by Joe Kubert.

Sgt. Savage line with art by Joe Kubert.

In 1994, Hasbro launched a different line of G.I. Joe figures not based on previous storylines. It was called Sgt. Savage and his Screaming Eagles. Two waves were released  but Hasbro did not invest much in marketing the toys and they suffered from low sales. One thing they did do for the line was hire Joe Kubert, the famous comic book artist, to illustrate some mini comics and action figure profiles for the line. Kubert is famous for illustrating the DC Comics book Sgt. Rock, a World War II book.  In 1995, Kenner had merged with Hasbro and was in charge of boys toys. They created G.I. Joe Extreme which was supported by a Dark Horse comic book and 2 seasons of an animated show, but it failed to catch the interest of fans and was cancelled in 1997.

 

The Stars & Stripes set for G.I. Joe.

The Stars & Stripes set for G.I. Joe.

Over the next few years, Hasbro would test the waters with their G.I. Joe brand, trying to figure out what their audience wanted. From 1997 to 1998, Toys R Us exclusively released an assortment of figures from the Real American hero line to celebrate the 15th anniversary of that sub brand. This was called “Stars & Stripes Forever.” From 2000 to 2002, Hasbro again re-released a selection of their 3.75″ figures in two-packs. They were all repainted versions of the original figures. Some were given new names. For instance, Baroness was repainted and called Chameleon and was actually described as the illegitimate half-sister of Baroness.

 

G.I. Joe Valor vs Venom line.

G.I. Joe Valor vs Venom line.

 

From 2002 through 2005, actual new figures were released. Each collection had a theme: “Spy Troops” and “Valor vs. Venom.” These were supported with direct to DVD animated features and a trading card game. G.I. Joe then underwent a brief hiatus and was relaunched in a Direct to Consumer line on Hasbro’s website. The figures sold well and were subsequently sold in retail stores.

 

The G.I. Joe: Sigma 6 line.

The G.I. Joe: Sigma 6 line.

In 2005, G.I. Joe was again relaunched in a new scale and with a new storyline. It was called G.I. Joe: Sigma 6 and initially consisted of 8 inch figures with extensive articulation. Sigma 6 had both new characters and some reimagined characters from the Real American Hero line. It was supported by a Devil’s Due comic book and a cartoon tv series. In 2007, the line dropped the “Sigma 6” but continued through the end of the year. It sold well, but a big anniversary caused Hasbro to change their strategy.

 

G.I. Joe 25th Anniversary line example.

G.I. Joe 25th Anniversary line example.

When 2007 rolled around, Hasbro recognized that the 3.75″ line had reached its 25th anniversary. To commemorate the event, Hasbro released new figures but this time they were a full 4 inches tall. The figures were based on the most popular classic characters from the Real American Heroes line, but featuring new sculpts. Some of them looked similar and others had their concept completely reimagined. The set was only planned to consist of two sets of five figures each (one for G.I. Joe and one for Cobra). However, it sold remarkably well both with retailers and collectors who had grown up with the figures. Hasbro continued the line through 2009, eventually dropping the “25th Anniversary” branding but with the same scale and featuring new sculpts. Rolled into the 2009 waves were G.I. Joes branded for the “Resolute” line, based on an animated feature that aired on Adult Swim in April of 2009.

 

Cobra Commander from the G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra toyline.

Cobra Commander from the G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra toyline.

Hasbro cancelled the successful “Anniversary” line in 2009 in favor of rolling out figures based on the live action feature film G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, which was released in July of that year. The line featured a mixture of movie characters and some new G.I. Joe vs Cobra designs as well as some Anniversary figure molds repainted. The following year changed the brand from “Rise of Cobra” to “The Pursuit of Cobra” and featured new figures set in one of four battlegrounds: desert, city, jungle or arctic. In 2011, it was the 30th anniversary and the figures were based on popular characters from both the Real American Hero line and the G.I. Joe: Renegades cartoon that aired for one season from 2010-2011 on Hasbro’s own cable channel, The Hub.

 

Figures from the G.I. Joe Retaliation toyline.

Figures from the G.I. Joe Retaliation toyline.

The most recent line was confirmed for a launch of May 2012. It was called Retaliation, based on the live action movie sequel of the same name. The film was originally scheduled to premier in June of 2012, but was moved at the last minute to March of 2013. The initial figures were shipped to retailers on time in May 2012 but there was no film to support it. Variety reported that Hasbro recalled the line, but Hasbro said they would sell through the existing product. Hasbro did not produce additional supplies of figures but they were available in stores like Wal-Mart or Target all the way through the end of 2012. The toyline was re-released in February 2013 ahead of the film.

 

Snake Eyes from Hot Toys.

Snake Eyes from Hot Toys.

Through the years, Hasbro has tried many variations of the branding but the most popular versions always seem to look back at the initial 80s Real American Hero lines. Hasbro did bring back the original 12 inch line from 1995 through 2004 and it sold well to collectors. These days, far more detailed versions are created and sold by Sideshow Collectibles each year. It’s a brand that seems here to stay, ingrained in American culture. It wanes when we are in actual wars leading to sometimes strange ideas like the Star Brigade. But it always bounces back. Here’s to 50 more years: YO JOE!