If you’re under 30, your most prominent associations with might be . Joe, though, has been around since 1964.
At the time of his debut, Joe mirrored the culture of the nation—just like Barbie did in 1959. Joe was a role model to generations of children and a boon to Hasbro, the toy company who produced him. But he was also in a constant struggle.
Here’s how G.I. Joe got started, and how the action figure (a term coined for Joe to avoid the word “doll”) maintained its relevance for half a century.
1964 to 1969: Making a Legend
In the early 1960s, there were no male toy figures popular with boys. Barbie’s plus-one, Ken, was popular mostly with girls, and Ken was really all hair gel and no muscle. When inventor Stan Weston approached Hasbro in 1962 with an idea for a 12-inch military figure for boys, the company turned him down.
Hasbro CEO Merrill Hassenfeld just wasn’t interested, and told his employees they were not in the doll business. (At the time, Hasbro made color-by-number sets and Mr. Potato Head.) But Don Levine, the head of research and development, saw the toy’s potential. When Hassenfeld went on vacation, Levine spent two weeks creating detailed models of Weston’s characters, each wearing replicas of actual military equipment.
He showed the models to Hassenfeld when he got back, and Hassenfeld loved them. Hasbro offered Weston either $50,000 and a 1 percent royalty or a flat buyout of $100,000. He took the buyout (he didn’t know!) and Don Levine took ownership of the toy as the “Father of G.I. Joe.”
G.I. Joe was officially a go. But first, the toys needed a name, and a fitting marketing campaign. No boy would want to play with a doll, they figured. He needed an "action figure."
Hasbro introduced Government Issue Joe in 1964. The name was inspired by the 1945 film , starring Robert Mitchum. Following Barbie’s example, Hasbro created multiple characters—a different figure for the four branches of the military, with different outfits and plenty of equipment sold separately. The toy was a hit, accounting for two thirds of Hasbro’s sales in its first two years.
But America’s continued escalation in the Vietnam War soon brought all-too-real war images to people's living rooms. Suddenly, war-centric toys were less appealing, at least to the parents holding the purse strings. In order to keep Joe on shelves and at the forefront of the market, he was rebranded as an adventurer, and the toy series was fittingly renamed The Adventures of G.I. Joe.
His bio was changed to reflect his new ambitions: After an honorable discharge, Joe committed himself to more peaceful action, shifting his attitude radically from warrior to peacenik to mirror the new political climate. Rather than fighting in wars, he joined the counterculture movement and fought ecological disasters and wild animals.
1970 to 1978: A Veteran Gets a New Look
In 1970, G.I. Joe was restyled once again and the line was renamed G.I. Joe Adventure Team. Joe was still a tree-hugging world traveler, but now he had lifelike hair, eyes that could shift from side to side, and Kung-Fu Grip, which allowed him to actually hold his weapons and grip ropes to climb a mountain or swing from a tree. Pictured on the packaging, illustrations inspired rescue raft or flying missions, firefighting, and even encouraged kids to seek out the abominable snowman.
The 1973 oil crisis raised the price of an oil barrel 70 percent, forcing Hasbro to change the way Joe—a petroleum product—was molded. He went from the . Although Joe now had a six-pack, it was a lot more common for his arm to fall off.
As sales plateaued in the middle of the decade, Hasbro tried to add life to the franchise by giving Joe an adversary. Three years after the oil dilemma, the company unveiled Joe’s new foe: The Intruders: Strong Men from Another World. Although they resembled cavemen, they were highly intelligent (and strong); the new toys featured a button on their backs that when pressed activated Crusher-Grip arms, a new innovation that squeezed their arms together.
The Intruders helped sales, but it was not enough to save Joe. He was officially retired from 14 years of service in 1978 with no plans for reenlistment.
1979 to 1981: Downsizing Toward a Second Life
Not everyone gave up on Joe, though. Hasbro’s senior vice president of international marketing Bob Prupis thought the series still had potential. He started planning a franchise reboot that took cues from the late ’60s/early ’70s TV series Mission Impossible. Echoing the space toy craze of the late ’70s, his futuristic spin on military technology featured science-fiction-inspired weaponry such as lasers and jet packs alongside realistic tanks, rocket launchers, and submachine guns.
Feedback from the company was less than positive. So Prupis started over. He knew Joe belonged on store shelves. First he just had to find the right format. He pulled back on the sci-fi elements and asked for the help of colleagues Kirk Bozigian, Ron Rudat, Greg Bernstein, and Steve D’Aguanno. They decided to start kitbashing—modifying an existing figure to create a new toy. (Famous sci-fi icons were created via kitbashing.)
They chose a line based on the highway patrolmen in the show CHiPs from rival company Mego. Being 3¾ inches tall and not the usual 12 inches like the original Joes, the figures were cheaper to produce and provided Hasbro with a direct competitor to a new line of wildly successful Star Wars figures. Those toys were also 3¾ inches tall, and they had five points of articulation, but the new Joes, Prupis and his crew decided, would have ten.
But if the new Joes were to succeed, they needed more than just extra joints. Like the Star Wars figurines, they needed a movie or TV show to draw kids in.
The easiest way to do this would have been through commercials—to run little 30-second cartoons that would introduce kids to the reimagined Joe and create storylines to follow. At the time, the FCC had strict limits on the amount of animation or special effects that could be used in a toy commercial: seven seconds. But there was no such limit placed on book commercials. The solution, Hasbro realized, was to give G.I. Joe its own comic book.
The company approached Marvel Comics, whose editor-in-chief loved the idea and handed it off to a low-level editor, Larry Hama. Hama wasn’t flattered by the assignment—“Nobody works on toy books unless you’re a total loser,” he said on Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us—but he didn’t have a choice, so he fleshed out an idea he’d already had called Fury Force, about the son of Nick Fury, to work for G.I. Joe. Hasbro invested $3 million to create a series of 30-second animated commercials for the new Marvel comic book G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.
If Joe was going to have new cartoons, he needed a new enemy to match. In a meeting with Hasbro, Marvel editor Archie Goodwin came up with the idea for Cobra, a terrorist organization determined to rule the world and obliterate its main enemy, G.I. Joe. (was later created by Hasbro designer Ron Rudat.)
Along with adding bad guys, Marvel also suggested that G.I. Joe become the name of the unit, and that the unit comprise specialists, each with their own names and characteristics, which Hama provided. This decision opened up more play opportunities for kids and the potential to make a heck of a lot more money. During the two years of preproduction, he created detailed dossiers for each character, including biographical notes, military specialties, and psychological profiles.
The new G.I. Joe was ready.
1982 to Today: Boom, Bust, and Rebirth
But the toy would have to wait.
A combination of factors led to the relaunch being postponed for more than a year. Just as in 1973, an oil crisis hit, which nearly tripled the cost of making figures. Also, The Empire Strikes Back premiered, and Hasbro didn’t want to go up against Kenner’s Star Wars franchise again. (It didn’t help that Hasbro had turned down that deal with Lucasfilm before Lucasfilm went to Kenner.) To allow Joe to make the biggest impact, he would have to wait.
This downtime gave Hasbro time to design a leader for Cobra. Although the leader wasn’t available at the line’s launch, the company came up with an ingenious scheme to get him into kids’ hands. You couldn’t just buy Cobra Commander in stores, you had to send in Flag Points, which were proofs of purchase from other G.I. Joe figures, along with a check for 50 cents to cover the shipping.
Hasbro anticipated 5,000 orders—They got more than 125,000.
After a successful year with the figures, a second, upgraded series was introduced in 1983. The Joes now had a mid-bicep 360-degree-swivel, allowing their arms to turn in toward their bodies for more realistic gunplay and positioning. Like the Kung-Fu Grip of the ’70s, the Swivel-Arm Battle Grip innovated the toy—and gave Hasbro a reason to rerelease each original figure with the new feature. Years later, this became a clear delineation for collectors, between the straight-arm figures and battle grip.
The line made $51 million the first year, and well over $100 million in its second. So many figures were produced over the coming 12 years that the Hasbro team started modeling characters after themselves. Rudat became Leatherneck, who was released in 1986, and Bozigian showed up as Law in 1987. Larry Hama was even immortalized as Tunnel Rat, an explosive-ordnance-disposal specialist.
Consumer interest for the line seemed to have no limits. In 1985, Hasbro released the , a seven-feet-six-inch vehicle accessory that retailed for $110, more than $250 today. The line would end up producing more than 500 figures and 250 vehicles and playsets.
The design of the new vehicles and accessories was an unintended result of President Ronald Reagan’s deregulation of American industries, including the toy industry. Reagan appointed Mark Fowler as FCC chairman in 1981, and Fowler would wind up massively altering the world of toy advertising. Regulations that had been in place to protect children’s interests—such as that seven-second limit—were no longer deemed necessary.
In 1984, the FCC decided that program-length commercials, like those that would soon come in the forms of Strawberry Shortcake and , were inventive and okay. Joe was no longer limited to 30-second animated commercials—the franchise could have its own cartoon.
While the show would be a huge windfall for sales, this presented a new challenge: Any toy vehicles had to be designed so that they could also be easily animated. But they also had to still be cool enough to appeal to kids.
The Joe cartoon was first tested out in September 1983, when Sunbow Productions and Marvel Productions produced an animated five-part miniseries entitled . It aired on 122 stations throughout the country, where it beat out the Saturday morning cartoons on all three major networks.
Another five-part miniseries ran in 1984, which led to the regular series, also called G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, beginning on September 16, 1985. The show ran 95 episodes over two seasons, and was as formative to children of the ’80s as He-Man and My Little Pony. In 1987, the animated series spawned a movie, but it was released straight to video after the poor box-office performances of The Transformers and My Little Pony movies.
Joe’s popularity peaked in 1986, but then met unexpected competition in the form of four anthropomorphic turtles with a taste for martial arts. Sales soon started sliding, but the real blow came in 1989, when CEO and G.I. Joe champion Stephen Hassenfeld died unexpectedly. Two years later, Hasbro acquired Kenner, producers of the Star Wars line of action figures, and Joe was overshadowed and outsold, In 1994, the line was discontinued for good.
But just because the original design ended doesn’t mean that Joe disappeared altogether. He’s been on store shelves in some form or another since ’94, including new figures along with reproductions.
Like Michael Bay did for the Transformers, Stephen Sommers and Jon M. Chu brought G.I. Joe figures to life in The Rise of Cobra and Retaliation. The films’ poor performance at the box office were not enough to put Joe to rest—you can order figures through the and statues from .
This soldier/adventurer/Cobra enemy won’t be wiped out—it’s just not in his nature.