This week GI Joe celebrates it’s 50th anniversary and I’d like to say a few words on the subject.
let’s take a minute to examine the significance of this accomplishment and it’s impact in the toy industry and the pop culture landscape. Lunchboxes, coloring books, underroos, breakfast cereal, hats, shirts, toys, shampoo, Shrinky-dinks, bed sheets, the list goes on and on. Since the early 1960’s GI Joe has captured the imagination of kids the world over and what started out as an American icon, quickly became a phenomenon the world over. 50 years and many generations later – GI Joe continues to be a household name. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of GI Joe. But just how did a toy soldier become the franchise he is today?
Lets start from the beginning shall we? In 1963 Stan Weston tells Hasbro creative director Don Levine about his thoughts for a boys action figure as a counter part to the massively popular Barbie doll marketed to girls. Don is instantly sold on the idea and returns to Hasbro and shares the idea with a small group consisting of Jerry Einhorn, Sam Speers, and Janet Downing Taylor who start work on GI Joe unbeknownst to Hasbro founder Merril Hassenfeld. After Merril was on board, work started full time on GI Joe to get him ready for Toyfair 1964. An American icon had just been created.
Toyfair 1964 – was the place and the year when the world was officially introduced to a new kind of toy. A toy that wasn’t a doll or a green army man. In fact, he was so different that an entirely new category had to be created for him and thus the term “Action Figure” was created. GI Joe was marketed as an Action Soldier with 21 movable parts, he had regulation gear and uniforms, all packaged in wonderful full color boxes adorned with art from Sam Petrucci and Harold Thresher. The Toyfair presentation and introduction went so well, that initial orders had to be allotted. GI Joe was and instant hit and he successfully captured the imagination of a whole generation of kids with many more to come.
Throughout the following years GI Joe would expand it’s line up of figures and soldiers from around the world into a literal army of toys. Whole aisles at retail stores were proof of the line’s success and popularity. Riding high on the lines success, He developed a “Kung Fu Grip”. He talked, , he had a jeep, he went up to outer space in a space capsule, he grew a beard and life like hair and joined an adventure team. Later still he fought off monsters with a beam of light in the Super Joe line and in 1977 he took a break from toy shelves for a little while only to come back smaller in stature but with the same tremendous impact that he enjoyed in the 1960’s
In 1982, Kirk Bozigian, Tom Griffin, and Joe Bacal, re-invented GI Joe into arguably the most successful toy line of the 1980’s that culminated with the USS Flagg, a mammoth aircraft carrier playset that measures an amazing 7 ft 6 inches. Riding on the success of Star Wars action figures, GI Joe was re-introduced as diminutive 3 3/4 inch action figures with an array of vehicles and playsets. GI Joe was now the code name for a team of specialist fighting off the evil forces of Cobra, A ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world! A Real American Hero was here to save the day.
A successful kids cartoon show produced by Sunbow and a Marvel comic book carried the brand throughout most of the 80’s and well into the 90’s. The 90’s were a peculiar time for GI Joe as he searched for relevance and identity. It also saw the welcome return of the 1/6th scale size action figures with the Hall of Fame collection. The 2000’s saw the introduction of Sgt. Savage and his screaming Eagles, Valor vs. Venom, Spy Troops, and Sigma 6 as the latest chapters in GI Joe’s fight against Cobra. In 2007, Hasbro celebrated 25 years of GI Joe by introducing the 25th Anniversary Collection to rousing success and praise from both fans and retailers alike. The collection consisted of classic A Real American Hero characters sporting new modern sculpts with added articulation complete with retro packaging mimicking the original explosion layout of the 80’s card art.
In 2009, GI Joe went “Hollywood” with the release GI Joe:The Rise of Cobra, a big budget Summer blockbuster and Hasbro quickly went to work on the accompanying toy line in support of the film. GI Joe’s 30th Anniversary quickly followed and Hasbro celebrated with an extension of the 25th Ann. collection simply called the “30th Ann. collection and continued with modern updates for characters from the original ARAH collection . The first GI Joe film was successful enough to spawn a sequel in 2013 titled GI Joe Retaliation and once again, Hasbro supported the film with another round of movie based characters.
Which brings us to 2014 and GI Joe’s 50th anniversary, an achievement only a handful of toy lines can claim. 50 years of backyard adventures and exploits. 50 years of “America’s movable fighting man”, “Knowing is half the battle” and “Yo Joe”. In 2014 GI Joe is once again struggling to find relevance and identity in a post 9/11 world where things are a little more “grey area” and not as black and white. Where GI Joe goes from here I’m not entirely sure, That’s something only the creative minds at Hasbro can answer- but I do know this: GI Joe has evolved and adapted over the decades, It’s changed the toy landscape not once, but twice and I honestly believe the brand can do it again- For as long as kids look for heroes to look up to, as long as they look for adventure and fun, and as long as there are passionate people at Hasbro who are willing to take GI Joe into new avenues of adventure and heroism through new mediums and territory, then GI Joe can and will survive. GI Joe has come a long way since it’s secretive beginning in Central Falls Rhode Island back in 1963 and with a little luck will be around for another 50 years to come.
So here’s to you GI Joe, I know you’ve positively impacted my life and hopefully will continue to do so for generations to come.