There are a few action figure lines which define the genre, and among them is G.I. Joe. As a brand, Hasbro's G.I. Joe has had its ups and downs, with bouts of popularity alongside forgotten eras. Because of its lasting impact on the industry from the very beginning, G.I. Joe is a classic in every sense of the word.
The impact of G.I. Joe is most obvious in that action figures derive their name from the humble American hero. Due to the popularity of Mattel's Barbie dolls, a number of creative minds at Hasbro decided to create an "action figure", an anti-doll which appealed to boys due to its military theme and accessories. With the release of "America's movable fighting man" in 1964 they altered the toy industry at its foundation and created a hobby for generations to come.
For the remainder of the 1960s, Hasbro produced military-themed G.I. Joe figures that eventually branched out into more diverse occupations, producing Joes that traveled in space and dived to the bottom of the ocean. G.I. Joe was becoming a line of action figures that could appeal to every boy, no matter his interests.
The New Adventure
The wide appeal of G.I. Joe had its limits, and in the 1970s Hasbro changed the direction of their hit line. Likely due a combination of anxiety over the Vietnam War amongst American consumers, and a general stagnation of the brand, Hasbro eventually launched the "Adventure Team" in the early '70s. This iteration of G.I. Joe had figures that moved away from their military background into more fantastic themes such as adventurers and superheroes.
This move also introduced a number of innovations in play, like the famed "Kung-Fu Grip". Although these changes were exciting and Hasbro was moving the brand forward, G.I. Joe was also moving too far away from its core. Hasbro issued Joe his first discharge shortly thereafter in the late 1970's.
A Returning American Hero
In 1982 G.I. Joe was re-launched with a plethora of changes that caught the attention of the toy industry and the kids which power it. Thanks to the popularity of Star Wars and the return of action figures as a viable product, Joe had found new feet to stand on, under the banner "A Real American Hero."
Now instead of 12-inch figures with real cloth clothes, the line focused on 3 & ¾- inch figures that had well-defined backstories and unique eye-catching designs. Gone were the generic doll-like figures, replaced by streamlined figures with actual character. G.I. Joe had new villains too, the evil terrorist organization and its many operatives, Cobra.
Big Steps for a Small Figure
Even though G.I. Joe as a line of toys had been fundamentally altered, Hasbro had a hit on their hands. The toys were joined by video games, comics, cartoons, and a movie. The wide array of media being served to kids made G.I. Joe must-have figures, and ensured playing with them was an unforgettable experience. Although Hasbro would release a variety of 12-inch G.I. Joe figures in the years to come, the rich characters of the 3 & ¾-inch line were the real American heroes and became the new focus of the brand.
G.I. Joe ran under the "A Real American Hero" banner until Hasbro's 30th anniversary in 1994, at which point Joe took different paths, being released under different banners and different styles to lukewarm responses for a number of years. Interest in the brand was once-again subsiding, with lines like G.I. Joe Extreme, G.I. Joe vs. Cobra, and Sigma 6, each being released with little excitement.
The Nostalgia and the Rise
But in 2007, with the 25th anniversary of G.I. Joe's once-beloved "A Real American Hero" line, Hasbro realized the potential of nostalgia. Taking the same characters that children of the '80s loved, but updating them with modern articulation and sculpts was a hit for the now-adult collectors seeking to relive their G.I. Joe filled youth. The 25th anniversary line brought G.I. Joe back to the forefront of the action figure collecting world and heralded the return of many other 1980's toy lines in the process.
Due to G.I. Joe's newfound popularity, and the general interest of modern media to utilize classic properties, Joe found an even wider audience in 2009 with the release of the Hollywood blockbuster, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. While the 25th anniversary line captured the hearts of collectors, the "Rise of Cobra" line of figures brought G.I. Joe back to where it belongs, in the toy aisles and imaginations of kids.
A Movable Hero
Hasbro initially marketed G.I. Joe as a "movable fighting man," and in the history of the brand, that is exactly what it has proven to be. G.I. Joe has adapted to and fought against the changing warfronts of an industry and a consumer, but never been forgotten. Time will tell where this fighting man moves next.