Want to be popular? Tell people you're on a first name basis with Joe.
Everybody has a GI Joe story. As his de facto "official biographer," I've heard more than most. A lot of them are gripping enough that they can easily be imagined as movie titles on marquees---From the Roof to the Pool: Mercury Capsule Re-entry! Death by Firecracker. The Parachute in the Power Line Peril. We Thought He Would Float. And let's not forget the terrifying and tragic Mom's Big Garage Sale.
Part of the experience of writing a book is the inevitable promotional tour. To coincide with the publication of GI Joe: The Complete Story of America's Favorite Man of Action, I'm shepherded through chats on local morning shows, "phoners" with radio jocks, and a few weeks of being treated like Alan Thicke at a charity golf tournament. It was the same drill when we released the GI Joe Masterpiece Edition. Along the way, I talk incessantly about my book to an awfully lot of people - so, to an awfully lot of people I become The GI Joe Guy.
GI Joe joins the family, 1971
This is not at all a bad thing. Through my association with GI Joe, men I've never met consider me a "friend of a friend." On airplanes my seatmate may see a picture of GI Joe or an actual figure poking out of my briefcase, invariably moving him to rhapsodize on the wonders of his old Combat Jeep or Deep Sea Diver; by the time the plane lands we're old pals. Traveling up elevators to photo studios with a GI Joe astronaut and Mercury Capsule in plain view - an activity which, in terms of getting the undivided attention of every male on board, is akin to escorting a topless bathing suit model - means I have to let at least a few of them touch and hold the Joe. (A man I met during one of those elevator rides-a lawyer-blew off his afternoon so he could come with me to the studio and "help me set up," since he was certain he could dismantle and reassemble an Adventure Team Mobile Support Vehicle better than anyone else in the world.)
Former Hasbro exec Kirk Bozigian (instrumental in the relaunch of GI Joe in the 80s) and I signing copies of the GI Joe Masterpiece Edition
It's a unique vantage point from which to observe the GI Joe phenomena, to say the least. After spending my tender years sharing daily adventures with the best boy's toy ever made, I now find myself regularly re-introducing an old friend to people who haven't thought about GI Joe since they were ten.
What I've discovered is that GI Joe represents rare common ground for my generation of males. Let's face it, the content of banter between two men of different background rarely leaves the realm of sports, weather and the comfort index of the room they occupy together ("Is it hot/cold in here?"). However, mention the Adventure Team Headquarters you had in second grade and suddenly an enthusiastic conversation and debate over the merits of Kung-fu grip blossoms.
You'll understand if I admit to having spent a significant amount of time pondering the secret to GI Joe's appeal and longevity. (First question at any cocktail party or group social situation: "What do you do, John?" Second question: "So what have you written recently?" After that it becomes a GI Joe seminar and my wife begins rolling her eyes.)
The fact is: GI Joe is ingrained in American pop culture. The question is: What makes an icon?
I've heard people posit the theory that GI Joe is the ultimate "army man;" that kids are basically drawn to the martial hardware and "shoot-em-up" play scenarios he makes possible. I've come across many, many enthusiasts who collect GI Joe as part of their overall interest in military history and lore, and I've been asked by former Marines (is there such a thing as a "former" Marine?) to sign "Semper fi" in more than a few books. The head of Hasbro's product development when GI Joe was introduced in 1964, Don Levine, has told me on numerous occasions that in his mind GI Joe is a military man and that's what makes him great. And I regularly encounter hard core collectors who wouldn't bother to bend over and pick up a fuzzy-headed Adventure Team GI Joe.
But I have to disagree with the idea that GI Joe found such resonance simply because he was enlisted. After all, wasn't the recent ill-fated Sgt. Savage full-on military? And why isn't Stony Smith, Marx Toys' 12" articulated solder, a household name?
Consider my own GI Joe story: In early 1971 I lay on the living room couch with the flu. At five years-old I'd already learned my dad's trick of keeping my eyes closed for a while after waking up from a nap. "You'll be surprised the things you'll learn," he explained.
What I learned that afternoon-through slitted eyelids-was my that my mom had procured for me the item at the very top of my birthday present list; I spied her dragging the GI Joe Secret of The Mummy's Tomb Adventure box across the kitchen linoleum and into her bedroom. The Holy Grail of toys-my first GI Joe! After gritting my teeth to maintain the illusion of sleep for a few minutes more, I ran to check the calendar: February 5th. She'd characteristically finished shopping for my birthday a full month before the actual event.
No one reading this needs me to explain the sweet agony I endured for a long 28 days (thankfully it wasn't a leap year). The best toy in the world was in my parents bedroom closet under a blanket and I could not play with it for a month! On the intervening four Wednesday bowling nights, when my mom and dad vacated the premises and left us in the care of an easily distracted babysitter, I'd crawl into that closet with my pen light to stare at the package-rugged GI Joe in full desert gear, struggling mightily with his winch and all-terrain vehicle to retrieve an Egyptian sarcophagus. So close and yet so far.
When the big day finally arrived I dismantled the box with all due speed and ferver. That my mom was able to keep me still long enough to take the snapshot you see on page 11 of the Masterpiece Edition book (and at right) is a wonder.
I now had a GI Joe. I had a ticket to adventure. I could be brave. I could explore. All of the choices were mine to make. Later, with snow-shoveling and lawn-mowing money, I was able to get uniforms and accessories that made GI Joe a spy, a demolitions expert, a helicopter rescue pilot, and leader of a crack team of globe-trotting do-gooders. He was my ally and alter ego. He was my friend and I would never be alone again.
And that's the overwhelming theme I hear in my conversations with members of the GI Joe generation. More than a toy, GI Joe's fully articulated body and many accessories represented a miniature template for our own developing personalities. GI Joe was a blank slate that needed us to make all of his decisions, from how he dressed on any particular day to what sort of mission he'd embark on. We shaped his personality in the way we expected to turn out as grown-ups: we made our friend courageous, trustworthy, loyal, strong. Certainly the traits of a good soldier, but also the qualities of an Adventurer - or parent, or neighbor, or any of a dozen roles we fill every day. When adults encounter GI Joe again, they are reminded of that simple vision of their own potential. No little cartoon-based plastic action figure with molded-on clothes can compare to that sort of relationship.
The 12" fully articulated GI Joe has a future, and I see it over and over again in toy aisles across the country. It's a mom or dad picking up a Classic Collection soldier or Masterpiece Edition package showing 'lil junior how he/she used to play: "We had uniforms and equipment and vehicles, and I had a huge yellow truck called the Big Trapper, and we'd dig forts in the dirt for GI Joe to camp in, and your uncle Jim once tried launch his Joe into orbit strapped onto his model rocket..." And mom or dad cannot resist buying the GI Joe to take home "for further study"---and 'lil junior wants one, too. Before you know it they're on the carpet together sharing adventures with their "guys."
And new stories are born.