G.I. Joe: A Real American History

Disclaimer: The following article was originally published on a toy collecting blog that I wrote for. I have updated it slightly.


For many, the name G.I. Joe conjures up memories of Kung-Fu Grip, big bearded action figures, and even bigger adventures. For another generation, the name G.I. Joe brings up an entirely different set of memories involving much smaller scale G.I. Joes and their vile enemy, the terrorist organization known as Cobra. One might also fondly remember the cartoons, comic books, video games, or maybe even the G.I. Joe themed cereal. This second generation of G.I. Joe is commonly referred to as A Real American Hero and it’s marking its twenty-fifth anniversary. As Hasbro commemorates the Joes and their silver anniversary, let’s take a look back G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.

The Beginning – 1982

The 1960s saw the birth of the first G.I. Joe. Joe who was a twelve inch tough-as-nails action figure (not a doll) that was the first of its kind. When the line finally died out in 1978 after a highly successful run, Joe was missing in action from store shelves.

It wasn’t until the early 80s that G.I. Joe would be called back to action. Hasbro executives decided to scale down Joe to the same height as the mega-popular Star Wars toy line. 1982 saw the debut of eleven of these new smaller Joes, nine being part of the G.I. Joe team and two belonging to their new enemy, Cobra. One of the G.I. Joe figure, Scarlett, marked the first time a woman would join the ranks of G.I. Joe. These figures couldn’t be more different than the similarly scaled Star Wars figures from Kenner that were their competition. The Joes were more action ready with bendable knees and elbows, movable waists, back packs that would plug into a hole on their back, and removable helmets (at least on some) allowing them to be the action ready soldiers that they emulated.


To promote the toys, Hasbro worked with Marvel comics to produce a comic book tie-in. Hasbro picked Larry Hama to work on the book, and he laid the story foundation of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. Hama came up with all of the original file cards, the story line, and many other elements that became what was G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.

Hasbro executives then hit upon a tremendous idea. They didn’t have a movie like Star Wars to help push the toys, so in order to promote G.I. Joe they decided to advertise the comic book with a colorful and action packed animated commercial. Three million dollars later, the first television commercial in history for a comic book was aired and G.I. Joe was a household name again. Maybe more importantly, the infamous G.I. Joe theme song first began ringing in the ears of millions of kids.


In 1983 the line grew and an important feature of the figures was implemented. Hasbro’s obsession with gripping saw to it that the, “swivel arm battle grip” was incorporated into the Joe line, allowing the figures to be more poseable than ever.

1983 also saw the introduction of the popular Joe villain, and pimp master supreme, Destro, as well as one of the line’s early iconic vehicles, the Skystriker.

To further cement G.I. Joe in the minds of kids, the first G.I. Joe animated mini-series hit the airwaves. Created by Sunbow Animation, the mini-series was titled, “The M.A.S.S. Device,” and it fully brought about the world first envisioned in the Marvel comic book commercial.


The following year saw some important characters enter the line for the first time. Duke was born and G.I. Joe’s first true ninja, Storm Shadow, hit the scene. Another important figure to be introduced was the ever popular, color-changing Zartan.

With its growing success, G.I. Joe could be found in a number of other licenses from board games to cereal. The G.I. Joe cereal even had its own partially animated commercial. In case you’re wondering, a real American cereal tasted like Captain Crunch, but a lot better.


1985 was a watershed for G.I. Joe. After two mini-series, G.I. Joe’s animated series began regular syndication. The series is long remembered for featuring the Joes versus their arch-nemesis Cobra and its bizarre plans to dominate, or otherwise hold the world at ransom. No kid growing up at that time could forget the short public service messages followed each episode that ended with the catchphrase, “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.” G.I. Joe scholars aren’t sure yet what the other half of the battle is, but many believe it is stabbing your enemy in the groin.

Kids, and perhaps horrified parents, saw the biggest, most expensive, and perhaps the best G.I. Joe toy of all time on toy shelves. The U.S.S. Flagg was a gigantic aircraft carrier and was the wet dream for many kids in the 80s (and is for many current Joe collectors). Measuring seven and a half feet long, The Flagg is arguably the largest and most elaborate playset ever produced.


1985 also saw the introduction of the first of a few real life personalities introduced into the world of G.I. Joe. Sergeant Slaughter was a professional wrestler turned drill Sergeant who was needed to punch Cobra troops in their big fat jerk faces.



1986 brought yet another real person into the world of G.I. Joe with the addition of William “The Refrigerator” Perry, also known as “The Fridge”. That same year there was a new Cobra leader in the cartoon, comics, and in toy form. In the multi-part episodes, Cobra manages to create a leader named Serpentor out of the genes of many of history’s most powerful leaders.


1987 saw another landmark, because G.I. Joe got its own movie treatment with G.I. Joe: The Movie. It was released direct to video and could also be seen in a five part installment on television. G.I. Joe: The Movie featured the voice talent of Don Johnson and could be considered either the pinnacle or downfall of G.I. Joe as it changed a number of key elements of the series, including turning Cobra Commander into a snake and introducing even more wild sci-fi elements into the Joes’ world. While not as big of a jump away from the original status-quo of the cartoon’s story like the Transformers received after Transformers: The Movie, it was the biggest change the Joe series had up to that point. Whatever you may think of the film, it certainly had the most balls out, kickass intro ever. If it doesn’t give you chills, then you better move to Russia, Comrade!

Other notable events for G.I. Joe in 1987 included G.I. Joe’s second biggest playset, the Defiant Space Shuttle. Also new was the mail order Steel Brigade figure, which allowed kids to customize a biography certificate with their name and other preferences on it. In essence, they were the Steel Brigade trooper.

The ’90s

The beginning of the 1990s saw a decline for the Real American Hero line, as specialized units, like Steel Brigade, Tiger Force, Python Patrol, and the like became the norm. As time went on the Joes found themselves fighting space aliens and drug dealers rather than the forces of Cobra. At about the same time the classic G.I. Joe cartoon took a nosedive, because Sunbow was finished animating Joe adventures with G.I. Joe: The Movie. In 1989, DIC took the animation reigns for the following two years. When DIC’s lower quality Joe adventures were canceled, it marked the end of G.I. Joe in animated form for quite some time. Without a popular cartoon to support the line, the toys seemed to lose direction and became increasingly bizarre with such additions as day-glo paint schemes and characters from the Street Fighter series of video games.


Meanwhile the Marvel comic books, which had always featured a much more realistic look at war (characters could actually be killed off) as opposed to its more light-hearted animated counterpart, ended its highly successful run in 1993.

Now that G.I. Joe was without a cartoon, a comic, and faced with seemingly dwindling interest, Hasbro finally canceled the limping Real American Hero run in 1994. After some false starts to bring G.I. Joe back into toy aisles, A Real American Hero fans had to wait until 1997 to see a return of some classic Joe figures on store shelves again, this time in the form of Toys R Us exclusive theme packs. Then in 2000, two packs featuring many of the most popular figures and a number of vehicles were widely available in stores. The line then underwent a change to include new versions of characters and a few new vehicles. This run was produced until 2005. When the 3 3/4ths scale line was put to rest once again, this time it was to make room for the larger scaled, anime inspired, G.I. Joe Sigma Six. No sooner was the announcement of a 3 3/4ths scale line hiatus made before Hasbro decided to keep releasing new G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero figures. At first they were exclusively on-line, but later they were made available at Toys R Us stores.


When 2007 hit, it marked the 25th Anniversary of the smaller sized Joes. Hasbro marked the anniversary with the release of twenty-five completely new, but classically styled figures. This was a huge hit, but it’s a story for another time. The short version is that the Joe line was continued based on the popularity of the 25th Anniversary styled figures and in fact, some argue that the best Joes of all time have been released after the 25th Anniversary collection.

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero has had its bumps along the way from its incredible success in the mid-eighties to its decline in the 90s, but fans now can certainly enjoy the current crop of amazing Joes as well as scour places like the internet and fan conventions to complete the collections they wanted as kids.

  • YAY!! You’re my greatest American hero with this post! My burfday is in a month and I want some 80s G.I. Joe toys and this article just fueled the fire!

  • Oh, so full of nostalgia… :) Flagg is a brilliant thing. Now sells from $4,000 to $15,000 depending on condition. Amazing!

  • Excellent. It’s a shame that a lot of today’s fans really forget what an impact A Real American Hero had on the toy landscape in the 80’s. G.I. Joe will likely never again be able to capture that essence, but the designers are still doing a hell of a job making cool toys.

  • I made one of those Steel Brigade figures of myself. I think my codename was Whirlwind and I was a paratrooper.

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