About Me

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembrance Day and....GI Joe?

Stick with me here on this one folks.

While putting Remembrance Day and a toy in the same sentence may seem frivolous and inappropriate to some, there is a very strong personal connection between the two for me. It is a connection that has created a love-hate relationship with extremely popular and fondly remembered line of action figures known as GI Joe.

Those of you who may have read my Remembrance Day blog last year, know about my grandfather who fought with the Canadian Expeditionary force at Vimy Ridge in World War I. I had a Great Uncle, Pvt. James Bowman (my father was named after him), who was gassed in the trenches of World War I. Having survived the war, he later died of complications from the gas, but not before a long and drawn out illness. I had another uncle who was killed in World War II during the Italian campaign of 1943. Yet another uncle of mine survived both Dieppe and D-Day but, I'm told, he was never really the same person after that.  My own father served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. The veterans were many in my family. So the  Remembrance Day tradition was a strong one. 11 AM every November 11 was a solemn and emotional moment in my house.

In 1971, at all of seven years old, I found myself very interested in a toy many of my friends at school had. That toy was called GI Joe. I was particularly interested in the talking astronaut figure. It was just about the coolest thing I'd ever seen in my life. There was just one problem. The overall military nature of GI Joe did not sit well with my WWII vet dad. My older brothers had already been denied playing with the toy a few years earlier for the same reasons.

I knew some other kids that were not allowed to play with GI Joe but for completely different reasons. In the early days, GI Joe's were thought of as "dolls". Back then, the whole concept of an  "action figure" (the coining of that term has got to be one of the greatest marketing triumphs of all time) had only been around for about 6 years. It still being a new and socially revolutionary concept at the time, many dads back in the day, to put it mildly, were uncomfortable with the idea of their boys playing with "dolls".  Though, as far as I know, my father was the sole  conscientious objector to GI Joe.

As luck would have it for my seven year old self, the GI Joe line had recently seen an interesting shift.

My dad circa 1940.
In the early 60's, Korean War veteran Ted Levine, who is largely credited with creating GI Joe, came up with the idea of a poseable figure that would be aimed at an entirely new market for such things, boys.  There was a great deal of skepticism at Hasbro, the company he was working for, that a "doll" for boys would never sell. In fact, some thought the idea could potentially be the biggest disaster in toy business history. So Levine then coined the term "action figure" and suggested that they use it exclusively in marketing GI Joe. They went pretty hard core on that idea too. Any retailer that used the word "doll" in reference to the figure was cut off from the line completely.

Even that was not enough. Hasbro felt that the toy needed to be masculine in the extreme in order to overcome the whole "doll" PR problem. Cowboys, athletes, knights, pirates and policemen were considered but finally everyone agreed that you just can't get more masculine than the military .

They borrowed the name GI Joe from a 1948 Robert Mitchum movie titled The Story of GI Joe (with no official permission, BTW, a copyright infringement that no one could get away with today). The term GI Joe itself was coined during WWII by legendary American war correspondent, Ernie Pyle.

The 1964 GI Joe "doll'.

Originally consisting of just four figures all named Joe (one each for the Army, the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines), the 12 inch "action figure" was a massive hit. It was the first toy in history to run TV ads outside of the Christmas season. The whole "action figure" vs "doll" thing (despite the objections of a few socially reactionary dads out there) did not hurt sales a bit. As was the case with a lot of pop culture aimed at kids from the 60's, the original Joe's seemed innocent enough but had some disturbing undertones. The talking GI Joe Marine, for instance, had the cold blooded line, "Enemy patrol sighted. Fix bayonets!".

By the late 60's those undertones became uncomfortable overtones. The war in Vietnam had escalated and thus had become incredibly controversial. The sales of GI Joe were greatly impacted. It's hard to believe today but all things military were very unpopular at the time, most especially when it came to toys for young kids. My dad was definitely an early adapter on that front.

Rather than cancel the line, Levine and the guys at Hasbro came up with a new concept for GI Joe: The Adventure Team. They dropped the military angle completely. Instead of army, air force and navy, there was now Land Adventurer, Air Adventurer and Sea Adventurer. It was, in fact, a very clever way of redressing the already existing army, air force, marines and navy uniforms and accessories. The new line of GI Joe's also came with groovy, fuzzy 70's "like like hair and beard".

My dad still took quite some convincing. These adventure guys seemed to have a pretty major military vibe going on and, worse still, they were still armed. Sure, their rifles were now supposedly loaded with tranquilizer darts but every member of the Adventure Team did still carry a side arm (for self defense purposes only, my dad and I finally agreed). Much to the chagrin of my older brothers, my dad finally relented.

With the Adventure Team, GI Joe was now a bunch of bearded guys who devoted their machismo energies to saving endangered species (though, usually dangerous ones like tigers and giant apes), recovering lost treasures and artifacts (usually from dangerous locales like shark infested waters or ancient Egyptian tombs during an earthquake) and launching daring rescue missions. GI Joe in the 70's never had a single human enemy.

The shift was just what GI Joe needed. The Adventure Team became the hottest selling toy of  the early to mid-70's, surpassing even the original 60's line. The new breed of bearded 12 inch men of adventure were, and still are, some of the most cherished toys of my childhood. I will still will grab the odd vintage Land Adventurer when a good price comes up on eBay.  Some members of the Adventure Team share my office even as I write this.

By the late 70's, and by the time I had grown out of them, the Adventure Team sales began to falter. They were being beat out by action figures based on the enormously popular TV series The Six Million Dollar Man and by a line of figures based on superheroes from both Marvel and DC Comics (made and marketed by the same company -egads!).

Before the 80's, there were no TV shows or comic books based on toys. Both Canadian and American broadcast regulations back then put limitations on the amount of advertising children could be exposed to. So what basically amounted to a weekly 30 minute ad for a toy was not allowed. Nor was it seen as an appropriate way to advertise to impressionable children. TV toy promotion was limited to 30 second appearances during breaks from other children's shows.

The only GI Joe comics at the time came with the toys themselves.

The toy industry, including Hasbro, was lobbying to change the regulations on advertising to children. Hasbro, in particular, argued that they were being clobbered by the competition. The competition being mainly companies that were producing licensed toys  based on TV shows and comics. They felt it was unfair that they were not allowed to produce TV shows based on their toys in order compete in that arena. Still, the rules held firm.

After several unsuccessful attempts to retool GI Joe, the line finally died out in 1978.

Action figures, though, were still going strong. Particularly well selling were a line of action figures made by Kenner based on the ground breaking hit movie Star Wars (which, then, BTW, was still just one movie). In order to save money on plastic prices (late 70's -oil crisis, kind of an issue), they reduced the standard action figure size from usual 12 or 8 inches to a relatively tiny 3 3/4 inches.

When the Reagan Administration came into power in the US in the early 80's, there was a great amount of deregulation in many different industries, not the least of which was the media. Many broadcast regulations in the US were discarded or changed. One of those regulations was the one that concerned the limit of promotional material that was allowed to appear in children's television programs. In other words, TV shows based on toys were now A-OK.

This worked out nicely for Hasbro, who had been looking for a viable way to relaunch one of their most successful products. They took advantage of the situation to introduce a whole new GI Joe line.

The GI Joe "Real American Hero" line launched in 1982. The line blazed the trail for a new era of toy marketing. The figures were launched in conjunction with a TV series (originally just a mini-series)  and a monthly comic book published by Marvel Comics. They also took their cue from the successful Star Wars series of figures and took advantage of the much-cheaper-to-mass-produce 3 3/4 inch format. By 1985, GI Joe was the top selling toy in the US, surpassing even sales records made by GI Joe in both the 60's and 70's.

The nature of GI Joe had shifted significantly by the 80's. Gone were the bearded adventurers of the 70's. Gone also was any sense, either amongst the general public or the toy companies, that military-themed toys were in any way inappropriate for young children. GI Joe was now unapologetically military in nature.

We were definitely living in a changed world.

In the 80's, the cold war started to heat up again. There was also a major swing back  to American jingoism at a level that had not been seen since the early 60's .

It was now also legal to cross-promote toys advertising with TV series and comic books in a manner unheard of in my childhood years. Along with GI Joe there were toy-based TV shows  for The Transformers, The Care Bears, He-Man and My Little Pony, to name a few.

I remember coming back home to my first apartment when I was a student at Concordia and turning on my little 15 inch CRT TV (with rabbit ears, natch). In a fuzzy, staticy picture off of one of the US border stations suddenly came this assault of action music, constant movement, explosions, uber-macho guys running around with guns, followed by a stars and stripes themed logo and the prominent words, "Real American Hero", next to the title "GI Joe".

I was so shocked and stunned, I spilled Kraft Dinner all over my crappy second hand couch.

I know that many of my younger friends don't get my animosity toward one of their most cherished and beloved childhood icons. To be clear, my reaction to the 80's GI Joe incarnation was not just about disliking the significant changes they made to my cherished and beloved childhood icons. No, my problems with the new Joe's consisted of much broader personal, social and political issues than just a plain old bit of geekery.

For adults at that time, the idea of TV shows that were basically 30 minute toy ads was something of repellent concept. The ethics of the new marketing concept were questionable. Parents and educators were up in arms over this new brazen approach to advertising to children. I remember 60 minutes doing a major segment on how and why the advertising for children regulations were changed. While I often feel that the media and such parental lobby groups are just a tad alarmist, I could see their point. The line between entertainment and advertising had become blurred. Younger children generally don't understand the persuasive nature of ads, least of all when they are disguised as a TV show.

Even as an young adult, the whole concept was a shock to my system. The 80's saw a new era of even more coordinated advertising and market strategies, not just to kids but to everyone. It was the first time the word "demographics" entered the lexicon. The baby boomers had stowed their idealism of the 60's. One of the catchphrases of the 80's was, as Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone's Wall Street said, "Greed is good.".

To be fair, I understand that a kid growing up at the time, though, would most likely have had no sense of any of these issues. They would not even know that things had ever been any different.

It's interesting to note that the Canadian regulations regarding such children's advertising activities as TV shows based on toys never changed. GI Joe, Transformers, My Little Pony et al ran only on American border stations. However, they were still on the toy store shelves here so the Canadian broadcast rules made little difference in the overall scheme of things. I guess the concession that the Canadian editions of the many of the "Real American Hero"  action figures had maple leafs on their uniforms where their US counterparts had the stars and stripes was supposed to make it all okay.

Then, of course, there was the overt militarism of the 80's Joe's. Again, I came from a family background of veterans who had either been killed, wounded or psychologically damaged in two world wars. The Vietnam War and the protests against it were on TV just about every day when I was kid. War was serious shit, even when I was a kid.

It wasn't the militarism in and of itself that was so much the issue for me, it was the age at which the militarism was aimed. And it wasn't even solely about the militarism, either. The 80's GI Joe seemed incredibly jingoistic to me. I mean, c'mon, they had a character named Sergeant Slaughter (albeit borrowed from the WWF). We were living in the time of Reagan, Mulroney and Thatcher. I saw stuff like the 80's GI Joe's,  The A-Team, Rambo and Top Gun as disturbing pop culture indicators of a sweeping ideological shift.

For me, the sum total of the new GI Joe's was just a little too disturbing.

I was a student in Communication Studies at Concordia University in Montreal in the early to mid-80's. One subject I studied was propaganda. So when the assignment came up to write a paper on some current propaganda, you'll never guess what I chose.

I watched about a month's worth of the daily installments of GI Joe series, frantically taking notes on the whole thing. I took this approach because something that really bugs me, both then and now, are critics, academics, pundits and so on criticizing or commenting on a TV show or movie that they have never even seen.

While I remember appreciating the writing  by some of my favourite Marvel comics writers like Gery Conway, Steve Gerber and Marv Wolfman, the show did not do much to dissuade my initial negative impressions (to be fair, I did not nor have I ever read all that much of the GI Joe comics). I found that the GI Joe TV series held much in common with the tenants of most war propaganda movies.

The good guys a classic war propaganda movie, for instance, are always extremely individualistic, often from multi-ethnic backgrounds. The bad guys, on the other hand, are usually a mass of faceless inhuman automatons with absolutely no individuality. The GI Joe team sure lived up to that point. They didn't even seem to have consistent uniforms. Even when they did, the uniforms were filled with individualistic variations like football jerseys, sunglasses, and cowboy hats. There were also Native Americans and Latino's on their team. The Cobra soldiers, on the other hand, all had exactly the same uniforms and all wore the exact same inhuman faceless masks.

In most war propaganda, the enemy was often shown as disjointed, bickering and generally not unified in their efforts. This was never more true than with bad guy characters of Cobra Commander, The Baroness and Destro. They were consistently arguing with each other within their obvious Axis Powers paradigm.

Each episode would end with one of the Joe characters appearing in front of some random kid about to climb an electrical fence, swallow household cleaners, swim in dangerous waters or do some other dumb risky thing. The Joe character would explain why the given activity is a bad idea (there were also the occasional social lessons), concluding that "Now you know and knowing is half the battle". It's like the whole segment was there to say "So there, upset parents and educators. Now will you get off our backs?".

As the professor who graded my paper asked, were the toys, the TV show and the comic books really propaganda? Were they pushing a particular political or ideological agenda? The answer is no. First and foremost, they were trying to make money. And, in the process, they invoked much of the popular zeitgeist of the time in which they were created.

Was the whole approach somewhat ethically reckless? In my opinion, yes.


The post -1982 GI Joes now almost totally dominate the brand. The new movies and the TV series revivals are all based those incarnations. Nobody but guys over 40 even know what the Adventure Team is. Google GI Joe and it's 9, count 'em 9, pages before you see any reference to anything pre-82. Walk into a comic book store and there are like 11 different GI Joe titles, all of them based on 80's and beyond incarnations. I mean, would it kill you to put out just one comic book or even a movie based on the GI Joe Adventure Team?

Now, GI Joe may seems like an odd and even inappropriate topic to discuss on Remembrance Day. I bring it all up to point out what the values that were to handed down to me by family background and the historical context of the time in which I grew up. The idea is of Remembrance Day is to remember the wars and those who fought them and those who have fallen. Most importantly, though, the underlying message of the Remembrance Day poppy is, to me, "never again".

I do believe that, sometimes, military force is necessary. Those times, in my opinion, should be exceedingly rare. Due to the flaws of our political systems and in our very nature, military force is a power that is all too often abused.

Now I know a bunch of people who grew up with those toys and they have not (to the best of my understanding) gone on to become war mongering fascists. And, if there's one thing I've learned from expressing my issues with the 80's GI Joe's to people who grew up them is that you never fuck with a geek's beloved childhood icons.

But war is always looming, especially in a post-911 world: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, the list goes on. We need to be cautious when it comes to culture of war (pop or otherwise). These days there is often a tacit agenda attached that culture.

As DC comics (and I think The Bible) used to say, "Study war no more".


  1. What an excellent essay.

    I was raised on the Real American Hero series, and between it and the even more jingoistic World Wrestling Federation shows of the time, I was about as pro-war and unthinkingly patriotic as it was possible for a ten-year-old to be.

    I retain much affection for the G.I. Joe of my youth, but its xenophobic tone bugs me now, too, and yet most fans of that era bristle at any suggestion of minimizing the military angle; it has been said that G.I. Joe fans are Transformers fans, but Republican.

  2. Thanks for your comment.
    You are one of the rare members of the Real American Hero generation that I've heard express any kind of critical opinion of the 80's Joes.
    I have a lot of younger liberal friends who still staunchly stand by the 3 3/4 inch GI Joes of their youth. And they're also into the Transformers as well:)

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