It was the worst business decision I ever made. I regretted it almost immediately; and I have thought back upon its folly ever since. I was probably 12 years old. I fancied myself too big for children’s toys. When mother held a yard sale I offered up a small wooden chest (something my father had made —- actually the more stupid thing to let go) full of G. I. Joe action figures. A ready buyer came along with three dollars. My Joes and the box went to a new home.
To whomever bought a plain wooden box full of G. I. Joes from a 1970s West Street rummage sale in White Hall, Arkansas, I hope you’re happy. If you’ve still got the box let me know. I’ll bring more than three dollars.
All of this came to mind recently when I learned that Don Levine, G. I. Joe’s creator, had died. Levine, himself a veteran of the Korean War, said that the idea came about in part as a way to honor veterans. As an informal recruitment tool Joe must have been invaluable.
For those too young or unfortunate enough to have missed the early era of G. I. Joe, “America’s Movable Fighting Man” was originally released as an 11 ½ inch tall articulated figure with 21 moving parts.
Because Hasbro (Joe’s manufacturer) had employees from all branches of the armed services , it was decided to outfit the toy in uniforms and equipment of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force.
G. I. Joe invaded store shelves in time for the 1964 Christmas shopping season. At four dollars apiece, it was an immediate smash.
Perhaps the greatest genius stroke for G. I. Joe’s corporate progenitors was not the plastic figure itself, but the marketing thereof. This can best be summed by the title of a chapter in John Michlig’s excellent history titled, G. I. Joe, the Complete Story of America’s Favorite Man of Action —- Don’t Call Him a Doll.
The team behind Joe instinctively knew that a “boy’s doll” would be a non-starter. Thus, the world’s first “Action Figure” was born. As Michlig writes, “Once the new term was coined, anyone using the word ‘doll’ in reference to the movable soldier was subject to Levine’s wrath.”
This strongly gendered marketing was clearly right for the mid-1960s. The folks at Hasbro also had another notable moment of savvy salesmanship with the early introduction of a black figure. As Levine told Michlig, the black Joe was not merely a friend or a sidekick, but a partner on equal footing, “Bravery and heroism are not limited to persons of any particular color or creed.”
It bears noting that the first black Barbie wasn’t produced until 1980.
By the early 1970s (when Joe and I first became acquainted) anti-Vietnam War sentiment necessitated a change in overall focus. Instead of Joe as a strictly military man, Joe took on new roles as the leader of the “Adventure Team.” Sporting a new flocked coiffure and rugged beard reminiscent of the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World,” Joe took on amazing challenges. He searched for the Yeti in the Himalayans. He battled a large cobra as he recovered a stolen sacred idol. He fought a giant octopus in “Eight Ropes of Danger.” He developed “Kung Fu Grip” as a martial arts expert. He even went to outer space.
Then there’s the adventure that plagued the Pate household: the Adventure of the Stubborn Wetsuit. More formally known as the “Official Sea Sled and Frogman” Joe sported a bright orange scuba diver’s suit. My small hands lacked the nimbleness to get Joe into the tight, sticky suit. So, I did what any boy would do —- I took it to my mother. Mother’s solution involved copious amounts of baby powder and ten minutes of strategic pulling and sighing. I gleefully took Joe out for what mother recalls as “Two minutes of playing with it before yanking the suit off.” Guilty. Sorry, Mom.