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.   


GI Joe 25th by Lunchbox Photography  Attribution Some rights reserved http://www.flickr.com/photos/jcorduroy/

GI Joe's byAttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Worksmisslizzy63 AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative WorksAttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved

GI Joe byAttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by hexma (Hector Pierna Sanchez)

GI Joe - Shipwreck by Fanboy30 AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved 

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Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on June 2, 2013 at 6:27pm

...I like the Baroness , of the GI Joe characters , whom , I just saw at Wikipedia , was the first character introduced in the comics to make her way to the " real" GIJ-verse of the animated shows and the toys...

  Of course , she is not a soldier , and indeed a villian(ess) !!!!!!!!! (if a " good " one , Dragon Lady/old school Catwoman/et al)

Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on June 2, 2013 at 6:41pm

A bit ago I acquired a bargain-bin GIJ comic book that I guess was from this unsuccessful IDW relaunch ?????

It was a spotlight on the Baroness , and it was more " adult " (parallelling the way DC and Marvel turned away slowly from " No one REALLY gets hurt " Silver-into-Bronze Age innocence around the mid-70s) , making it clear that the Baroness had killed people and done general " bad things " at least during her more truly " villianous " period(s) - which , IIRC , the traditional Hama-era GIJs stayed away from spelling out/making really apparent , and that she was an upper-class European whi had been radicalized during something like (taking funny-book sliding-scale aging into account) the radical movements of 60s-70s Europe (I'm mentally blocked on the names of the best known/most notorious - Like , the German and Italian ones - now .) .

  The first GIJ LA feature , which I saw on a hospital TV set about 2 years ago , rather messed things up by making her an American full-scale , IIRC - I could accept that as nessecary Hollywood-ism if they would say she held dual citizenship , say (Um , maybe I should check Wiki about the differences in ther various versions before I expound any further !!!!!!!)...Was she in the recent 2nd GIJ feature ?

Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on June 2, 2013 at 6:46pm

...At least as far as citing the company , IDW seems to not be cited in Wiki's Baroness-piece .

  It appears that some of the European-only " Action Force " stuff had her explicitly a member of the 60s/70s violent radical movement - I suppose that too furrin a concept for Americans ? Even in a funnybook ?

Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on June 2, 2013 at 6:47pm

...Huh , huh , huh...and she has that HOT! Lisa Loeb/" BAADD Bryn Mawr/Vassar gel " appearance...huh , huh . huh...

Comment by Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) on June 3, 2013 at 8:21pm

Chris, G.I. Joe was a favorite of mine growing up as well, but it was also the first line I felt I outgrew. They were the first comics I got rid of. Trading them to a friend around my early high school years I think. I spent way to much of my paper route money on the toys, but I parted with them easily. So, I didn't really follow them that much when they came back to comics. i read the Reloaded series, from Devil's Due I think. I liked it, but I never got full bore back into it.

Fun to reminisce though. Good article.

One thing that that occurred to me, what made the character Flash so unnecessary was that he was the laser rifle trooper, but in the cartoon everyone was firing lasers. Always sadden me, was the very first action figure I bought. Him, Snake Eyes, and Rock and Roll were my first three. Buying them from Woolco.

Comment by Chris Fluit on June 3, 2013 at 9:55pm

Thanks for the comments, Emerkeith.

If you read an "adult" version of GI Joe, that was probably the initial IDW series.  I didn't delve much into that aspect in the column, but one of the things that goes along with the colorful individual costumes (and the fact that the series is based on a toy line) is a sense of playfulness.  You lose that if you go too "gritty" or "adult"- which is one of the things that, IMO, was wrong with the first IDW series.  You don't have to write a kiddie comic but it should at least be "all ages."  If we want realistic war action, then we're turning to Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan, not GI Joe. 

I also think you're spot on about some of the unnecessary changes in the first GI Joe movie.  It's one of the common complaints about Hollywood.  Now, I'm one of the first to recognize that a film adaptation must actually adapt the source material- you're working in a different medium and often speaking to a different audience.  But it's still important to understand what made the source material successful in the first place- especially when it's something like GI Joe that has been successful in multiple formats over many years.  It seemed like the first movie changed a lot of things for no reason- such as the Baroness (who doesn't show up in the second movie, by the way). 

Comment by Chris Fluit on June 3, 2013 at 9:57pm

Thanks for sharing, Travis. 

I can certainly sympathize with the feeling of "growing out" of GI Joe.  I left the toys and the cartoons behind at a certain point as well.  But the Devil's Due series drew me back.  It came out at just the right time and it had the right combination of fun nostalgia and freshness.  I hope that this new (third) IDW series can recapture that.  So far, it's off to a good start if you feel like checking it out.

Comment by Figserello on June 3, 2013 at 10:10pm

That's the Baeder-Meinhoff gang you are thinking of, Emer, aka the Red Army Faction.  The Baeder-Meinhoff Complex was a great movie, if you get the chance to see it. (Subtitled, unfortunately!)

Comment by Philip Portelli on June 4, 2013 at 12:13am

The G.I.Joes I grew up with were from the Adventure Team period. I loved the mission packs and the gadgets. I thought Mike Power-Atomic Man was neat though clearly not original. I bailed out with Bullet-Man and the Intruder From Space.

I really liked the smaller 80s Joes too. They were a bit bland at first but the first couple of new lines made them more interesting and diverse. The cartoon I found uneven but enjoyable, much like the Marvel comic which was SHIELD Versus HYDRA basically.

Serpentor, Doctor Mindbender and the cut-ups from Cobra-la not only jumped the shark but the tank as well!

Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on June 6, 2013 at 12:22pm

...Thank you , Chris .

  Likewise , Figs.........


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