I’m a big GI Joe fan. I grew up playing with the action figures and watching the cartoon- complete with the moral at the end of the story “now you know… and knowing is half the battle.” I wasn’t aware of the comics at the time or I would have immersed myself in them too. I’ve also spent a lot more time thinking about GI Joe than is probably healthy for a grown man.
In my view, the appeal of GI Joe is founded on two basic characteristics. When GI Joe strays too far from those basic characteristics- whether in movies, comics or toys- the concept loses its coherent identity and consequently its appeal.
The first characteristic is that GI Joe is a team comprised of distinct individuals. This is important. They are a team- they work together- but they are not a typical army unit in which everyone wears the same uniform. I have no military experience but I’ve heard that one goal of boot camp is to break down individuality in order to mold everyone into a single working unit. GI Joe does the opposite. They emphasize individuality. Each member of the team has a distinctive costume and specialty. They are not a unit as much as they are a team of distinct individuals working together.
This was not always the case, by the way. The original GI Joe dolls from the 1960s, the ones that were the same size as Barbie, leaned more towards uniformity as they wore regulation garb from the four branches of the military. And the 1982 revamp, in the now-famous action figure size, clothed most of the original characters in some form of fatigues. There wasn’t much to differentiate Clutch from Breaker from Flash from Grunt. However, that 1982 team did feature several highly distinctive characters: the bearded blond muscleman Rock ’n’ Roll, the red-headed woman Scarlett and the mysterious mute with a dark visor Snake Eyes. Those distinctive characters quickly became the most popular members of the team, and new recruits were soon added in a similar vein: Cover Girl, Gung-Ho, Wild Bill, Roadblock and more.
This characteristic is not unique to GI Joe, of course. It’s also one of the reasons behind the enduring popularity of the Knights of the Round Table and the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest. It’s not just King Arthur or Robin Hood, though it helps to have a hero to rally around. But it’s important that those heroes have more than a band of nameless minions standing behind them. Our interest is engaged and our imaginations sparked by Lancelot and Galahad and Will Scarlet and Little John as much as by their peerless leaders. In a way, GI Joe is even better than those classic adventure concepts because it eschews the first among equals status of a King Arthur or Robin Hood to truly become a team of distinct individuals.
It’s a problem whenever GI Joe strays too far from that key characteristic. At times, GI Joe has tried to deemphasize the individual distinctiveness of its characters to its detriment. In my opinion, the first GI Joe movie made this mistake. With the exception of Snake Eyes, everyone wore the exact same uniform. The intention may have been to emphasize the military aspect of the team but the characters lost their individual flavor and therefore much of their appeal. The second movie reemphasized the distinctiveness of the individual members (SPOILER ALERT) even going so far as to kill off the unit wearing fatigues before rebuilding a team in which everyone wore different garb.
Naturally, you can go too far in the other direction as well. The individual members should be distinctive, but they still need to be true to a common theme. Lancelot’s suit of armor would look out of place in Sherwood Forest and Will Scarlet’s roguish thievery wouldn’t be welcome at the Round Table. In the case of GI Joe, they should be visually grounded in the armed forces, whether it’s Gung Ho’s Marine tattoos or Shipwreck’s doughboy hat. I think this is one of the reasons why the 1990s toys declined in popularity. The Joes aren’t astronauts or ecowarriors, as interesting or important as those roles might be. They’re soldiers- highly distinctive soldiers- but soldiers nonetheless.
The second characteristic is that GI Joe has slightly advanced equipment. They have next step or next generation technology that is just out of our reach. They have planes with vertical take off before we do. They can shoot lasers instead of bullets. But they aren’t too far advanced. They don’t have lightsabers or teleporters. Everything they use should at least be plausible. Current scientists could be working on it, even if they haven’t quite figured it out yet. It can be a fine line to tread. The advanced technology is part of the imaginary fun of GI Joe but if it goes too far, it loses its grounding in reality.
Again, this was a characteristic that developed over time. The initial vehicles in 1982 were all standard military tanks and jeeps. Yet, within two years, the vehicles were equipped with fictional missile launchers or hovercraft capability. And again, this characteristic is not unique to GI Joe. It’s also part of the appeal of James Bond. He uses gadgets and equipment that we can imagine but not quite build ourselves. Yet a lot of the gadgets James Bond used in the ‘60s exist now and have even been improved upon. The same is true for GI Joe. Jeep missile launchers not only seem plausible, they’ve been used in recent military conflicts. GI Joe equipment should be one decade or generation ahead, but not much more than that.
As mentioned, this can be a fine line to walk. Once you start to devise advanced technology, it’s easy to give in to the temptation to continually outdo yourself. The problem is that before too long, you’ve left the realm of plausibility behind. I think this is one of the reasons so many GI Joe fans dislike Serpentor. Cloning the infamous dictators of history seemed too far beyond our science of the time. I’m in the minority in that I like Serpentor because of the added conflict and chaos he adds to the Cobra hierarchy. Moreover, cloning was next generation technology even if we didn’t know it at the time: Serpentor predated Dolly the sheep by exactly 10 years.
Yet, without the advanced tech, GI Joe loses some of its pizzazz. I think that IDW made this mistake when they obtained the comic book license in 2008. They went for a stripped down, bare bones approach to GI Joe- more Jason Bourne than James Bond. They also eschewed the colorful costumes and put everyone in regulation fatigues. It may have made for a more realistic comic book but GI Joe is best served with only a dash of realism. The initial IDW offering was kind of boring and IDW has evidently admitted it was a mistake as they put everyone back in costume for this year’s re-launch.
The new comic is hitting the mark just right. The characters are wearing their distinctive garb, even if a few of them are grumbling about it in a bit of a wink to the audience. Plus, they’ve modernized the equipment so that they’re next-gen technology for 2013, not for 1982. Best of all, the new comics are well written (Fred Van Lente has been doing stellar work on GI Joe) and well drawn (Paul Gulacy has been a delight on GI Joe: Special Missions). After their earlier misfire, it’s nice to see that IDW has finally figured out what makes GI Joe special. Now they know… and knowing is half the battle.