Thursday, August 6, 2009


After enjoying about 90% Transformers 2, I decided not to allow myself to get pulled into the fanboy ruckus regarding G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. I saw the first handful of teaser shots of the actors in costume at Comic Con International last year in San Diego. Honestly, I was very skeptical about where they might be taking the film. I saw the film on a Friday morning at Hilltop Mall in Richmond. The crowd was mixed and a little low-energy, which was the complete opposite from the Transformers 2 audience I sat with weeks before. The following is an edited version of a post from my DA journal on the topic of the G.I. Joe I knew and loved back in the 80s:

G.I. Joe was always weird. But it was also original and forward thinking in the design of its characters and vehicles. I'm still not sure if it was a team at Hasbro or writer Larry Hama ( at Marvel Comics who had the biggest influence on the toys, but the comic book earned a huge and well-deserved following. The G.I. Joe I knew was born during the post-Vietnam/Ronald Reagan era, so it was a bold move to promote a "real American hero" through a toy line comic book to the children of parents who came of age during the 60s. Films like "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" tended to emphasize the horrors of the war in Vietnam. And no one dared wear an American flag at the Berkeley public schools I attended. Expressions of patriotism were a big no-no. The 80s were also a time of new technology, particularly in the area of military hardware. A fierce arms race with the U.S.S.R. produced an number of mechanical superstars, including the F-14 Tomcat, the Harrier, M1 Abrams, A-10 Warthog, AH-1 Super Cobra, Apache Longbow, and several others. Hasbro always seemed to have one foot in the present, and one firmly planted in the future. When they reintroduced G.I.Joe, they started with the basics: artillery, ground vehicles, jets, and helicopters. But it wasn't long before wild mix of machines hit the shelves. We were treated to a hovercraft, hydrofoils, space shuttle, leaping mechs, flying bubbles, cyborgs and ATVs. The Battle Force 2000 line even featured eight vehicles that combined into a single base. It would seem that Cobra and the Joes were locked in an arms race of their own.

My first Joe toys were a Cobra H.I.S.S tank and Snake Eyes. The attention to detail was what really got me hooked. Prior to that, I had come across issue 17 of the comic book which opens with Hawk with an oozing gunshot wound to the chest and Cobra Commander speeding off in a H.I.S.S. tank. That Christmas my collection grew to include the MOBAT, MMS, a F.A.N.G. gyrocopter, and several figures. A few of the figures didn't have the swivel-arm battle grip yet, a feature that added a swivel joint to the upper arm and allowed the figures to hold rifles and other weapons with two hands. I would sometimes resort to gently biting down on the hands to improve the grip on certain weapons. But as with all plastic toys, there was limit to the amount of abuse their little bodies and the black rubber band that held them together could handle. The same went with everything else. In fact, a lot of really important parts would snap off, like the rotor on the Dragonfly helicopter, or gear-toothed fin on the H.A.L. that held the laser in position. (By the way, has by far the best online archive of Joe toys from the 80s, a well as documentation of parts that were easily broken or lost.) Another thing that really gave the toys a sense of realism was the set of blueprints and character file cards that came with every toy. It was always cool to know what something was, even if it was just molded into the body of the vehicle. I had been into building military models since the 3rd grade, so my fascination with seeing big machines in miniature developed at an early age. Around the same time, I discovered robot models from Japan, which also included stats and detailed isometrics, cutaways, and perspective drawings of the mechs and other vehicles. The illustrations on both the model kits and the Joe toys were another feature that gave the products an unforgettable "gotta have it" vibe.

G.I. Joe was also a deeply character driven story told through the file cards printed on the figure and vehicle packages, and the comic book. Everyone had a story. I think this is one of the under-appreciated aspects of the G.I. Joe story. They made a genuine effort to depict the Joes as a diverse team that included men and women from many different walks of life. They ranged from graduates from West Point to quirky misfits, but the common thread was expertise. They were each the best at what they did, and often excelled in areas that would seem ironic or out of character. My favorite example was Tripwire, the nervous, clumsy mine detector who only calms down when dealing with explosives. My guess is that the creators wanted to depict soldiers as human, but also awesome. Many were arms and martial arts experts. (My own martial arts studies started the same year I became a fan of G.I. Joe.)

Cobra, on the other hand, being a homegrown terrorist organization, relied on a few tired villain archetypes of the "Boris and Natasha" variety. But interestingly enough, Cobra's secret base of operations at one time was a quiet town called Springfield. Looking back, I wonder if Hama's message may have been that these model, suburban communities were being too good to be true, and that seclusion and homogeneity was on some level "un-American"?

One of the earliest forays into weirdness in the comic book involved Dr. Venom and his mind-altering S.N.A.K.E armor. Both Snake Eyes and the Inuit mercenary Kwinn were used in the armored suits against the Joes in a major battle. Zartan was another strange, shape-shifting character who might have been more at home in an X-Men comic. Tomax and Xamot had a psychic link that enabled one to feel the other's pain (like Cheech and Chong's Corsican Brothers). Characters like the genetically engineered Serpentor, and Globulus from the Cobra-La story from the G.I. Joe movie, really took things into the realm of science-fiction and fantasy. Similarly, Destro's origin story described in the television show features a monstrous creature living at the bottom of an ominous well.

Many of the original action figures, including Snake Eyes, Hawk, Stalker, Grunt, Short Fuse and Breaker shared a basic uniform with subtle variations, different weapons and equipment. Zap and Grand Slam also shared similar padded uniform designs. The uniforms clearly were not from a specific branch of service, but still had an authentic battle fatigue look and feel. Greens, tans, browns, blacks, and jungle camo were the norm. Scarlet was a noteworthy exception. She wore a grey body suit with tan boots, gloves and something that resembled a custom one-piece tan swimsuit. Girl Joes held their own in terms of design and popularity. Cover Girl operated the Wolverine missle tank. The Baroness sported an all black, gorgeously reptilian uniform and a really big rifle. Lady Jay sported an open collar jumpsuit, sporty cloth cap, and a wicked-looking javelin contraption. Future Joes would also deviate considerably from the basic grunt design in favor of expressing the individuality and expertise of character. Similarly, the movie designs have a uniformity, but it will be interesting to see how the Joe designs evolve in future films. The new look blends a slick, high tech armored look with a general purpose MARPAT fatique. The team looks like it belongs in this era, or at least the near future. The Delta-6 accelerator suit is the sort of thing that has been mentioned in technology news as the future of infantry warfare. So featuring it something like that is consistent with the tradition of the G.I. Joe being a few steps ahead.

Cobra was little more than a mindless, faceless horde led by a few key, twisted characters at the helm. They were also the embodiment of evil: totalitarianism, militarism, war profiteering, world domination, biological and chemical warfare, and anything a mad scientist could imagine. Recently, Dreamwave's Transformers/G.I.Joe depicted Cobra as something comparable to the 3rd Reich. And it's an easy comparison to make. The helmet on the basic Cobra trooper looked a lot like that of a WWII German soldier. They also carried Warsaw Pact weapons, such as the Dragunov sniper rifle and the AK-47. Cobra's minions mostly wore masks, which might have been a way to tap into our cultural aversion to losing our individuality, or possibly even our fears of masked terrorists from in news reports from the Middle East at the time.

The cartoon on the other hand was never great, but being a true fan, I tolerated hokey dialog and choppy animation. The thrill of seeing the characters and toys on television was enough to keep me watching. The recent anime-styled G.I. Joe: Resolute raised the bar a bit and showed how good an animated Joe story could be, at least for fans. It will be interesting to see how fans respond to the film and the new toys.

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