GI Joe 50th: A Real American Hero
Welcome to part 2 of our look at the past 50 years of GI Joe. This time we’re looking at the ARAH line that started in 1982.
It had been four years since GI Joe was put out to rest, Star Wars was king but that reign was soon to end. In 1982 Hasbro launched the GI Joe: A Real American Hero line. The line consisted of sixteen 3 3/4″ figures sporting 12 points of articulation. While GI Joe had 7 more points of articulation than their main competition (Star Wars) it wasn’t the most articulated 3 3/4″ of the time. Many toy lines around that time like Mash, Micronauts and Buck Rogers had similar articulation.
Those initial 16 figures, also came with 7 vehicles/equipment sets, a large playset made of printed chipboard and by the end of 1982 GI Joe also had a carrying case that could double as a wall mounted display case.
Cobra Commander started out as the first mail away figure for this era of GI Joe. He cost a grand total of 50 cents and 5 “Flag Points” from the back of GI Joe toy packaging. Early samples of Cobra Commander had a crudely drawn Cobra Sigil on his chest. The over-sized eyes on the Cobra look similar to Mickey Mouse ears, hence why this figure is known as “Mickey Mouse Cobra Commander” Later releases of this Cobra Commander figure had the regular Cobra Sigil we’ve all come to know.
The 1982 line was priced to be affordable, the retail price for the whole line was less than $100. This is probably one of the many reasons why GI Joe sold 51 million dollars worth of product in 1982. GI Joe was back from the dead and was gunning for first place!
From 1983 – 1986 GI Joe underwent a few articulation changes, the first of which was the 1983 Swivel-Arm Battle Grip. This was the mid bicep swivel joint that had been on the Joes of the 60’s. All 16 of the 1982 figures were re-released with the new arm articulation in 1983. Due to the addition of Articulation, some of the arm sculpts of those 1982 figures were changed.
The next articulation change was the 1985 Ball Jointed Neck. This allowed figures to look up and down along with the usual side to side movement.
During this time frame, GI Joe made a change from team uniforms as seen in 1982 to more unique outfits for each character.
There were also a number of gimmicks in the figures and accessories. Some of these gimmicks would include soft rubber masks that could be removed, Cloth capes, Hand attachments and my two favorite gimmicks ever were bundled together into one figure, Zartan, Master of Disguise! Zartan came with a small mask that fit into his opening backpack and could be placed underneath his hood to change his appearance. His biggest feature though, is that his “skin” was made with plastic that would change color in direct sunlight (It apparently has to be direct as my Zartan wouldn’t change until I opened the window I had him sitting by)
This color change feature was duplicated in 1986 with Zartan’s Brother & Sister, Zandar & Zarana.
1985 had a neat packaging gimmick with the twin Crimson Guard Commanders Tomax & Xamot. The figures were made as mirror images of each other having the same outfit, but reversed from each other. Only Xamot had a defining mark with a scar down the left side of his face. The packaging was very unique in that it included mirrored sides angled inward to reflect the two figures inside.
In those first 4 years, GI Joe made some of the most iconic vehicles like the Skystriker, Cobra Fang, Mauler, Killer Whale, Cobra Hiss, etc….
Along with those iconic vehicles we got playsets that would be heavily featured in the comics and cartoons.
The 1983 GI Joe Headquarters Command Center is a large playset with a ton of play features like Jail Cell, Weapon Storage, File Card Compartment and Motor Pool with a vehicle lift.
The Motor Pool section of the playset is noteworthy for the fact that it has indentions and odd structures on it that make it able to accommodate almost every vehicle that had been made up to that point.
The 1985 USS Flagg is a 7 ½’ long aircraft carrier that could hold at least 4 of the large planes in the GI Joe line and like many vehicles and playsets in GI Joe, the Flagg was designed to interact with previous vehicles. The Flagg came with an arrestor hook that was designed to attach to the rear of the SkyStriker to simulate how jets landed on real aircraft carriers. The Flagg also came with a Fuel Trailer and Tow Vehicle, the Tow Vehicle could tow the fuel trailer, but could also hook into the screw hole on the nose of the SkyStriker to tow it around as well. The deck included an elevator and Captains Launch boat along with a working winch crane, ladders, walkways and cannons. The tower had multiple rooms, working doors, missile launcher and battery operated sound system (a simple microphone/speaker system you’d usually find sold for bicycles, this had alarm sounds and could work as a loud speaker for the children to give orders) The tower could also be separated from the deck so that the whole playset could be slid under the bed for storage.
1986 introduced the Cobra Terror Drome, a large circular Cobra Base that was featured in both the comics and cartoons. The playset featured 8 rooms around the base of the toy with an elevator/opening launch silo doors in the middle. As the elevator is raised, the silo doors slide open to reveal a Cobra Firebat vehicle inside.
GI Joe also had the first two real life characters added to the roster with the 1985 & 1986 mail away figures of Sgt. Slaughter and William “The Fridge” Perry. Sgt. Slaughter himself voiced his character in the cartoon and appeared in many commercials and cartoon intros.
By 1986, GI Joe was so big that the sales for that year alone were 1/3rd more than the best Star Wars had ever done. GI Joe had beat the toyline that buried it’s previous incarnation.
In 1987 GI Joe started it’s first steps in moving towards more sci-fi and fantasy themes. Over the next 3 years we’d get strange figures like Raptor, Budo, Hydro-Vipers & Targat.
There were also multiple Sub-Teams like the futuristic and strange Battle Force 2000, Python Patrol and Cobra-La.
Cobra-La included Golobulus who has the most unique figure construction in this era of GI Joe as he has a bendable snake tail instead of legs!
Two of the GI Joe Sub-Teams during this time seemed a little more grounded in the military than the previous teams. These two were Tiger Force (Where the figures and Vehicles had Tiger Stripe decos) and the Toys R Us exclusive Night Force. Night Force had all the figures and vehicles in a more stealth-like deco involving blacks, greys and dark greens. The vehicles were all black with neon orange highlights and glow in the dark stickers.
Destro also got his own Sub-Team with the Iron Grenadiers. This was his own private army. The figures and vehicles were very hi-tech looking.
One of the most fun mail away figures during this time was the Steel Brigade figure. This was your chance to be a real GI Joe! You had to fill out a multiple choice filecard on the order form, send in 2 Flag Points and $7.50 to get your figure, computer printed filecard sheet and a Steel Brigade Patch. The figure was very generic with a helmeted head so you didn’t see the face, but even though everyone got basically the same figure (This was a kit bashed figure with a new head, like Starduster, there were a few versions of different reused parts) you still remember what your character’s name was even if you lost the “filecard” years ago (Mine was named Zen)
During this time we also saw one of the most intricate playsets, The Defiant: Space Vehicle Launch Complex. It’s a giant mobile Shuttle Launch Gantry that can elevate into a launch position and has opening double doors to show off the Shuttle and Booster inside.
The Defiant Shuttle and Booster can separate from the Gantry (and each other) The shuttle has many play features like a grabber claw, bendable umbilical cord that can be plugged into a port on the shuttle and into the astronaut’s backpack and finally an airlock door in the bottom of the shuttle.
The shuttle’s air lock door is positioned perfectly to open into the Booster when it’s in space station mode. The Gantry, Booster and Shuttle make this one playset basically 4 different playsets/vehicles in one!
When collectors talk about the 1990’s in GI Joe’s history, they mainly think of the neon colors seen in the Eco-Warriors, Battle Corps, Mega Marines & Ninja Force Sub-Teams.
Not all of the 90’s figures were neon though, there were many realistically colored figures and even some with fairly militaristic sculpts. One such figure is Bullhorn. Bullhorn has one of the coolest weapon gimmicks. His backpack opens up to show a three piece sniper rifle that can be assembled.
We also saw the inclusion of electronic sounds backpacks. The Sub-Teams Sonic Fighters & Super Sonic Fighters included removable back packs with four button that when pressed produced a weapon’s battle sound.
1992’s Talking Battle Commanders were similar to the Sonic Fighters in that they had a backpack with electronic sounds, but now they were spoken phrases instead of battle sounds. This is much like the Talking GI Joes of 1967 25 years earlier. This time the backpacks were non removable as they were screwed into the backs of the figures.
Another play feature of the 90’s is the Spring Loaded Missile Launcher. For years GI Joe packaging had phrases like “Weapons do not shoot” on them, now they really could shoot! This feature started in some vehicles in 1990, then was adapted for the figures by 1992.
Nearing the mid 90’s GI Joe had started to fall out of popularity. It had started adapting whatever popular themes the culture of the times showcased whether it was eco awareness with the Eco-Warriors or the war on drugs with the Drug Elimination Force. There was also a Street Fighter II Sub Line with the GI Joe brand on the packaging (There was also a Mortal Kombat line made by Hasbro that used GI Joe body molds but they opted to not put the GI Joe brand on it’s packaging due to it’s violent nature and that GI Joe would be celebrating it’s 30th anniversary that year)
Mega-Marines included a play feature that incorporated Play Doh to be used as moldable “Bio-Armor” on the GI Joe sized figures, it also included two larger monster figures, Bio-Vipers and Monstro-Vipers. These figure were more than likely influenced by children liking mutants and the larger sized figures of the Batman and the X-Men toylines. The Monstro-Viper also used Play Doh to make throwable gut bombs.
1994 brought us the 30th Anniversary figures. These were basic 3 ¾” O-Ring figures based on the Joe of the 60’s. The first of which was a mail away of the original GI Joe finally named for the first time as Joseph Colton! You could mail away for one of two figures, a 3 ¾” Joe Colton, or a 12” Joe Colton.
In 1995, Hasbro changed the GI Joe scale to almost an inch taller with the Sgt. Savage and his Screaming Eagles line. The thought process was that GI Joe as of late had become confused as to what it was by trying to cover all aspects so they made sure Sgt. Savage went back to GI Joe’s military roots and increased the size to compete with the larger toys the kids were buying at that time. The construction was very similar to the 80’s GI Joe but gone was the o-ring that held the figure together and now it had a rotating waist. Sgt. Savage didn’t quite take off perhaps due in part to the old fashioned nature of the WWII themed Savage, or perhaps to store buyers negative reactions or even perhaps due to Hasbro’s restructuring and sending GI Joe off to their Cincinnati based Boys Toys division (formerly Kenner)
The same year as Sgt. Savage was born and killed, Hasbro came out with the brand new GI Joe for the children of today, GI Joe Extreme! The figures were even larger than the Sgt. Savage figures and had a more X-Men like style to their appearance. The articulation had been dropped to 6 points of articulation. Accessories included the gimmick called Ultra SLAM Firepower. This was a plunger that fired a Nerf dart.
Unfortunately both the figures and the TV show were not popular at all and Hasbro ceased production on the GI Joe Extreme line. After 13 years GI Joe was once again put to rest….but not entirely.
An odd occurrence happened while the 3 3/4″ GI Joe was on the decline. The 12″ GI Joe had come back and was enjoying a second wind as a collector’s line. From 1991-1995 the 12″ Hall of Fame line had characters from ARAH, Street Fighter and even a Sgt. Savage figure. From 1995 – 2003 the 12″ figures had 3 differently titled lines called Classic Collection, Masterpiece & Timeless Collection. These three lines included reproductions of the 60’s GI Joe and historical military figures from the past like General George Patton & General Dwight Eisenhower.
Check out the other looks at GI Joe’s 50th here: