Tuesday, March 26, 2013

GI Joe Week Day 2: Memories of Joe

Okay, so I need to write about GI Joe. And boy, do I. We finally recorded the GI Joe episode of Earth Station One last week and in my eternal enthusiasm for all things Joe I ended up with hosting duties. I hosted the 2012 Halloween episode and of course have now hosted two NeedlessThings podcasts. I’m not concerned about the hosting itself - I just want to make sure I do justice to the material. So I needed to do some thinkin’. And you get to watch. And listen because by the time I post this the podcast will be live:

Side Note: The third episode of the Needless Things podcast is coming together and I am so excited about it but don’t want to say anything yet. Episode 3 is the one that I had in mind before I recorded episode 1 and before I had really decided that I was definitely going to do my own podcast.

            This episode of ESO was originally supposed to be recorded last year right before GI Joe: Retaliation was released. I was working, so I wasn’t going to be able to participate, let alone host. Then the damndest thing happened and the movie got pushed back to March of 2013 about a week before it was supposed to come out. As far as I know this was unprecedented in the history of Hollywood. Not the fact that it got pushed back – that happens all the time. But for a movie this big that had already gone into full-on promotion mode with TV ads and a Super Bowl spot and everything else; well that was odd. The official word was that the movie was being delayed for a 3D conversion. Nobody believed that, so rumors began to fly about scenes being added with the newly successful (thanks to Magic Mike and 21 Jump Street) Channing Tatum. There were also the inevitable rumors about the movie just plain not being any good.
While we won’t know for sure until March 28th (which is a weird release date), I find it hard to believe that a movie containing all of this:

Could be anything less than awesomely entertaining. Will it be a classic? Of course not. Don’t be stupid. It’s a $185 Million Hollywood movie based on a line of toys from the 1980s. But I thoroughly enjoyed the first live action Joe movie and I think this one looks even better. 
Motorcycle that turns into rockets.

And now I have hosted an episode of the big show – Earth Station One – and was able to talk all about it. So the movie’s delay worked out for the best for me.

But I’m actually not here this week to talk about the new movie. At least, not specifically. I’m here to talk about what went before and what it all means to me.

I suppose the first toys I ever really collected were the World’s Greatest Superheroes from Mego. My first toy memories involve those awesome, cloth-clothed action figures and their little oven mitt gloves. But those were on the way out as I was approaching the age where the toy collecting bug sets in. And in the late 70s the franchise that had captured the imagination of the world was Star Wars. That line wasn’t going anywhere. At least, not until 1985 when the latest movie was two years old and the toy line was running out of marketable ideas.

Despite the fact that neither of my parents possessed anything remotely resembling my nerd gene, they were happy to keep me up-to-date with Star Wars toys during the line’s viable years. I had probably ninety percent of the 3 ¾” scale figures and vehicles that were released. 
(Image from YoJoe.com, which is possibly my favorite website ever. Go there and spend HOURS looking at GI Joe toys.) 
 In 1982 a new thing caught my eye. I’ll never forget the first time I saw GI Joe figures in a store. Me and my mom were in a Revco. There was this wire spinner rack with action figures on it, and the bottom two rows made me stop in my tracks. Hanging there were a colorful bunch of blister cards (not that I knew that term at the time) with soldiers in exciting poses with explosions behind them. The art on those cards was bright, exciting, and new. I had been looking at Star Wars cards for as long as I could remember and those were just photographs of characters from the movies. Something about those paintings of soldiers seemed much more exciting. Plus, my daddy was a soldier and that made the idea even cooler. 
At that point, at that first glance, the figures themselves were secondary. They were green guys stuck in a bubble. It was the dynamic art on the packaging that caught my eye. I don’t know what sort of six year old fast-talking I did to convince my mom to buy me my first GI Joe figures that day, but I went home with Zap, Grunt, and Short-Fuze.

Side Note: I am well aware of the distinction between “GI Joe” and “GI Joe: A Real American Hero”, but I was not when I was a kid. To me, “ARAH” was simply “GI Joe” in the same way that “Masters of the Universe” was simply “He-Man” and “A New Hope” was simply “Star Wars”. And not to get off on a whole different thing, but it bugs the shit out of me when people act pissy about Episode IV being referred to as A New Hope rather than Star Wars. That movie has been Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope since the day it was released in 1977. This isn’t some weird continuity thing that George Lucas did retroactively. It’s always been that way. Just because we called it Star Wars when we were kids and didn’t know any better doesn’t mean that the man that created the damned thing should be beholden to our colloquialism. So shut up about it. Out of all of the Star Wars things available to complain about, this is not one.

While the packaging is what sold me on GI Joe, the figures themselves are what hooked me. By that time I already had gripes with Star Wars figures. The five points of articulation had really been bothering me. I was always very big into posing my figures and playing with them in an active, dynamic way. And when their knees and elbows don’t bend there’s only so much you can do. Those first GI Joe figures changed all of that. Not only did their elbows and kneed bend, their whole lower abdominal area was a wonderland of movement. The waist could rotate and bend in any direction and the hips could do much the same. These new-fangled army guys could actually straddle things like tauntauns and dewbacks without requiring some sort of bizarre hatch. GI Joe was the first real toy revolution I experienced. True, the Megos from a few years before possessed even greater articulation, but Megos could never hold poses. They also didn’t have any meaningful selection of vehicles. But I’ll get to vehicles in a minute.

(Also from YoJoe.com. BEST SITE EVER.)

I fell in love with those GI Joe figures. Over the next few months I ended up with the rest of the original Joe team and for Christmas that year Santa brought me a couple of vehicles – the RAM and the VAMP. The vehicles were as much of an upgrade over Star Wars as the figures had been. Where the typical Star Wars vehicle was a singular color with some paper stickers to apply, these GI Joe vehicles tended to utilize at least two colors of plastic – olive drab and black – and included sturdier stickers printed on a clear background. They also seemed to have tighter details.

That same Christmas I also received what might be the true landmark (and key to success) of GI Joe: A Real American Hero – some COBRA agents.

(Guess where? YoJoe.com.)

Before I get into the genius of crating COBRA, I want to address my shift from Star Wars to GI Joe. My parents – mostly Dad – tried to maintain a “one toy line at a time” type of thing. There were exceptions – I had a few He-Man figures, some Transformers, and the odd Inhumanoid or Visionary here and there – but there was always one line that was the central portion of my collection and where the bulk of the toy budget went.

I very specifically remember having a conversation with Dad about switching from Star Wars to GI Joe. I was thinking it was in 1982, but it must have been later because I ended up with a good bit of Return of the Jedi stuff. Anyway, he asked me if I wanted to collect GI Joe instead of Star Wars and I said that I did. As much as Dad had been great about supporting my Star Wars collection, this GI Joe would earn a whole new level of devotion from him. He was in the military and for the first few years of the A Real American Hero line the toys were firmly rooted in real-world US military weapons and vehicles. Dad was as enthusiastic about buying these small replicas of equipment he actually worked with as I was about playing with them. His excitement over the motorized MOBAT tank and later the huge and incredibly detailed Sky Striker is still clear in my mind. Actually, Dad was very enthusiastic about the Rattler as well. He explained – as he did with all of the things based in reality – that it was actually a (plane). I couldn’t believe that VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) was a real thing. I thought he was messing with me.

We never got into a real conversation about it, but I knew his enthusiasm for GI Joe did not extend to COBRA. It seemed like a long time before I had any of the COBRA figures for my GI Joes to fight. I think I used some of the more militaristic Star Wars figures for a while in their absence. But eventually I got some COBRA troops. The first ones I got were Major Bludd (I never understood why his robot arm didn’t bend at the elbow – still don’t) and a couple of COBRA Infantry. I think I used the Rebel Transport from Star Wars to move them around. If I had to guess, I’d say that Hasbro’s description of COBRA as a terrorist organization probably put Dad off. I might ask him about it next time we talk.

This initial addiction to GI Joe happened without any media tie-in whatsoever. The cartoon had not aired yet and while the commercials for the toys were featuring issues of the Marvel comic book, I was not yet the comic book collector that I would become. They were an alien and unfamiliar thing to me. That toy line hooked me on its own purely by virtue of strong design and good play value. And flashy packaging.

When I was a kid me and my friends would build massive command bases in the backyard. I remember one that stretched from the sandbox underneath my fort all the way up to another sandbox closer to the house. We had dug trenches and erected walls and used sticks and twigs to create roofs and landing areas. We pulled the garden hose back there and dug a huge trench from one sandbox to the other and lined it with something – I don’t remember what – to hold the water so that we could have a river. This thing was big enough to hold the Killer WHALE and deep enough that it went up to mid-calf on us. We were determined to create a battle zone as good as the ones in the commercials:

Years later I found a Destro figure out there while I was mowing the back area. He was in shockingly good shape.

Oh, and if you liked that commercial, go to YoJoe and check out their amazing collection of old-school Joe commercials!

There was one year where we got an unusual amount of snow in Georgia. One of my buddies came over to the house – probably Peyton – and we brought all of the cold weather Joes outside. We were thrilled to discover that we could get Snow Job to ski all the way down one of the hills to the side of the house. My mom would only let us stay outside for a certain amount of time due to the cold, but we were in and out all day long. It was such a thrill to have more arctic terrain than just the white rug upstairs in my playroom!

Thirty-one years later I am still buying the line. As a matter of fact, just a couple of years ago I had another outdoor snow adventure thanks to some heavier-than-normal snowfall. You can check it out here.

Come back tomorrow for a review of the Big Bad Toy Store Exclusive Dreadnoks box set, then on Thursday the rest of my little story. On Friday I’ll take a look at Slaughter’s Marauders!


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