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Consumer Reports

G.I. Joe at 40: An action figure on the move | (KRT) It has been an eventful four decades for the scar-faced little big man of the toy box.

The father of action figures pioneered a new play pattern for boys. He grew into a multigenerational icon that rivals Barbie. He has been a reflection of America's shifting feelings surrounding military conflict, the role of the armed services and the meaning of manly heroism.

"You really can see it as an almost concentrated, isolated indicator of what we can perceive as the American dream as perceived by an 8-year-old boy," said Robert Thompson, a popular-culture scholar at Syracuse University.

In other words, a whole lot of cultural baggage for a 12-inch piece of plastic.

But it's not every day that a toy survives long enough to be described as middle-aged. Barbie, Slinky, Etch A Sketch and Hot Wheels are about the same age, but not many other playthings, according to toy consultant Chris Byrne.

"Forty is very old for a toy, especially in contemporary culture," he said.

G.I. Joe was a hit from the start.

After being well received in previews at the annual toy fair in February 1964, G.I. Joe sold out on the first day he reached retailer shelves in New York that June, said Heidi Schreiber, commanding officer of the Minnesota G.I. Joe Collectors Club.

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Inspired by the success of Mattel's Barbie, Hasbro thought it could do the same thing for boys: a 1/6-scale figure with an endless line of accessories, weapons, vehicles and outfits, according to "The Collectible G.I. Joe" by Derryl DePriest (Courage Books, 1999).

"With G.I. Joe, it's all about the costume," said Steve Kiwus, a Minneapolis-based action-figure sculptor. "For the older collector, it's all about the detail and accuracy of the costume. Let's call it the uniform."

But essentially it was a dress-up doll for boys, according to Schreiber, although "at Hasbro, they really didn't want to say the d-word."

Instead, the first G.I. Joes - a solider, sailor, marine and pilot - were called "America's moveable fighting man."

A host of articulated joints meant "he could move in ways Ken never could," Shreiber said.

His trademark scar on the right cheek was supposed to be a defense against knock-offs. He was christened by a Hasbro exec who got the idea from a World War II movie "The Story of G.I. Joe," starring Robert Mitchum.

And at first, G.I. Joe unabashedly celebrated martial virtues.

"G.I. Joe's success in the 1960s was based on the parent-pleasing re-enactment of the adult male world of heroic action aided by realistic military equipment and gadgetry," according to "The Cute and the Cool" by Penn State history professor Gary Cross (Oxford University Press, March 2004), an upcoming book about the role of toys in culture. "Costumed in the uniforms of the four American military services, G.I. Joe taught boys to identify with the experiences of fathers (mostly World War II veterans) and their older brothers or uncles (regularly drafted or enlisted into the U.S. armed services)."


That's the sort of the experience Schreiber had. The 45-year-old woman came from a family that didn't believe in gender specific toys and had a military background - her father was a World War II and Korean War veteran and her older brother was being sent to Vietnam.

The Minneapolis resident got her first G.I. Joe in 1966. She promptly deployed him in play battle.

"I just loved that toy," she said. "I played with them until they fell apart."

According to Cross, G.I. Joe created a new play pattern for boys. Instead of being armchair generals of toy soldiers - anonymous miniature cannon fodder - G.I. Joe was a sort of alter ego and a role model.

"For me, it was kind of like a best friend," Schreiber said. "My G.I. Joe was kind of like my little brother. That was the thing I played with most."

During G.I. Joe's early years, opposition to the Vietnam War hadn't yet caused parents to be ambivalent about war toys. Besides, the first G.I. Joes were more identified with the good war. They were armed with M-1 Garands, World War II era rifles, not M-16s.

Like cowboy toys, G.I. Joe was a nostalgic tribute to the American manly values. G.I. Joe was the everyman. Your dad or Uncle Phil or your older brother might have been G.I. Joe, the average grunt, at one time in their lives.

In comparison, Barbie was kind of threatening to parents. How many moms were glamorous fashion models like Barbie? Tooling around in her pink convertible, Barbie is "almost an anti-mom," Cross said.

But by the end of the decade, G.I. Joe's fortunes would shift. Growing opposition to the Vietnam War hurt sales of war toys.

As Cross puts it, "G.I. Joe's popularity suffered as intergenerational bonding around male military heroism broke down."

In response, Hasbro morphed G.I. Joe from a military man into an adventurer who battles sharks, hunts white tigers, captures pygmy gorillas, goes deep-sea diving and digs for Egyptian artifacts. He was Indiana Jones before there was an Indiana Jones.

This new generation of Action Team G.I. Joes of the 1970s had fuzzy flocked hair and beards and borrowed a few ideas from television: Kung fu grip and "atomic" limbs a la the "Six Million Dollar Man."

Over time, G.I. Joe departed even further from reality. One version of him was a sort of superhero called Bulletman. Other G.I. Joes were given alien cavemen as adversaries.

"It just got kind of bizarre," Schreiber said.


The Action Team revitalized sales, but another geopolitical development rocked G.I. Joe by the end of the 1970s. Oil embargoes lead to an increase in plastic prices. Hasbro first shrank G.I. Joe to 8 inches, then took him out of domestic production entirely in 1978.

In 1982, he was resurrected in a 3 ¾-inch format, a similar size to the hit Star Wars action figures. The smaller G.I. Joes - with new missions like battling drug dealers and environmental threats_were a smash.

But G.I. Joe started to come back to his roots in the era of two Gulf Wars and Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Hasbro started to release 12-inch G.I. Joes again and re-embraced a military theme with figures that depicted real-life characters, such as D-Day troops, Tuskegee airmen, Medal of Honor winners, Navajo code talkers, Colin Powell, a PT 109 John F. Kennedy and even a U.S.O. version of Bob Hope.

As patriotic feelings surged and soldiers and firefighters were celebrated as heroes, these new versions of G.I. Joe were less like an Arnold Schwarzenegger superhero and more like the actual guys in the trenches.

"Any time that our country is at war and we know people in active combat, G.I. Joe takes a different meaning," said Kate Roberts, developer of an action figure exhibit now on display at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, Minn.

The collectors market makes up to 40 to 60 percent of action figure sales, according to Byrne, the toy consultant. Hasbro has tapped into that with commemorative reissues of the original 1960s era versions of G.I. Joe, flocked hair 1970s era G.I. Joe and even 1980s era 3 ¾-inch G.I. Joe.


Instead of appealing to adult nostalgia over the greatest generation, G.I. Joe now commemorates his own role in history: He was the plaything of the biggest generation.

"It's definitely a baby boomer phenomena," said Byrne, the toy consultant.

"I don't know how many 7-year-olds who are saying, `Let's play Colin Powell,'" he said. "My parents' generation would've turned up their nose at collecting toys."

But thanks to eBay, there are thousands of baby boomers who have lovingly assembled their own private armies of vintage G.I. Joes.

Instead of tossing them off the garage as they did when they were kids, they display them in special rooms. They set them up in elaborate dioramas. They even fabricate their own custom G.I. Joes, including a display box.

"It seems to be guys between 40 and 55. They tend to have kids. They tend to live in the suburbs. They tend to be computer guys. Lots of cops and former military," said Minneapolis collector Ace Allgood of the serious G.I. Joe collector.

Thanks to them there's an annual collector's convention. Hasbro issues special theme figures just for them. There are companies that specialize in repairing wounded G.I. Joes.

Schreiber gave away her original G.I. Joes when she was a teenager, but she started collecting them again about six or seven years ago, when she saw Hasbro had reissued 12-inch models.

She has about 40 figures now, some dating back to the 1960s. But she specializes in the G.I. Joes from the 1970s.

"I like the Adventure Team," said Schreiber, a life insurance underwriter. "I like that idea better than the whole war thing."

She estimates she's spent about $15,000 on her collection.

"I think it's probably pretty moderate for your serious G.I. Joe collector," she said. "I could've bought a sports car. A fast one," Allgood, 36, said of the money he has spent on his collection. It amounts to more than 400 figures and fills much of his basement.

Allgood, a TV commercial editor, has prototype G.I. Joes, G.I. Joes that came with cereal mail orders, G.I. Joes marketed in Europe, a G.I. Joe in a wedding dress to commemorate his marriage and a G.I. Joe in hospital scrubs that was present at the birth of his daughter.

Some of his most valuable pieces are the most ordinary. A little blue helmet marked "A.S." for Air Security is worth hundreds.

The most valuable pieces weren't manufactured in large numbers, or they tended to go missing in action because they got vacuumed up by Mom, or they are just weird manufacturing variations.

That's why a little plastic ammo box with orange-stenciled letters is worth $40, but one with yellow letters will fetch only $5, Allgood said.

It's also why an item that bombed when it was originally issued - the legendary G.I. Action Girl Nurse of 1967 - is the holy grail of G.I. Joe collecting now.

"The boys didn't want it. The girls didn't want it," said Schreiber of the dismal sales of the figure. But collectors like Allgood want it. If only they can justify the price.

"You could probably piece one together for under $1,000," he said. "But that's crazy."


For more information about G.I. Joe, go to, the Hasbro Web site, or, the site for the G.I. Joe collector's club.

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© 2004, Saint Paul Pioneer Press Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services