Book Review: How Much Do You Need To Know About G.I. Joe?

Book Review: How Much Do You Need To Know About G.I. Joe?

In Back to Our Future (2011), David Sirota argues that G.I. Joe is in significant part responsible for indoctrinating children to accept a state of permanent warfare against “a stateless and (literally) faceless terrorist group conducting attacks from caves, desert encampments and other secret hideouts.”

It’s certainly true that as we ’80s kids grew up and gained some perspective on the history we were living without knowing it, we’ve gained some new insights on why, exactly, Cobra was in the business of selling battle stations to warring factions in the developing world. It’s also true that, as Sirota notes, dozens of fallen soldiers from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan specifically cited G.I. Joe as inspiring their decisions to enlist.

All that said, it’s also true that a lot of us can still connect with the goofier side of the line, the side that wasn’t ahead of the military curve but racing to keep up with Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A new edition of Mark Bellomo’s Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe tracks Joe from his 1982 reboot as a relatively bare-bones line of 3.75″ commandos to the end of that line in 1994, by which point it included an alien bounty hunter, water-sensitive “Eco-Warriors,” and even a set of miniaturized remolds of the original Barbie-size Joe figures from the ’60s — the line that inspired the original coinage of the term “action figure.”

As you might expect, this is not the place to look for critical analysis of the Hasbro toys’ social effects. Bellomo, a comprehensive collector who populates the book with photos of figures and playsets he personally possesses, has an utter reverence for the likes of Kirk Bozigian (the former G.I. Joe product manager whose face you might recognize if you have a Law action figure, paired with his faithful hound Order) and Larry Hama, the comic writer who wrote most of the Joes’ backstories.

Bellomo had extensive access to Hama and his notes, making his Ultimate Guide a goldmine for Joe obsessives who want to know — for example — what Hawk’s classified “USA ENG COM EVR” training actually entailed. (“I just made that up.”) Hama is also a military historian, and Bellomo frequently cites the real-world inspirations behind the Joes’ many weapons and vehicles.

Did the designers visit an actual aircraft carrier to do research for the 7.5′ U.S.S. Flagg, “often referenced by toy magazines as the greatest action figure playset ever created”? You’re damn right. “Unfortunately today,” designer Ron Rudat tells Bellomo, “designers don’t do the research like we did. They mostly get what they know from books.”

If you’re hoping to complete your youthful Joe collection with a mint-in-sealed-box Flagg, start saving: it will set you back $4,200 to $5,000. (The original toy ran $109.99, a mere $254.03 in today’s dollars.) Much of Bellomo’s book is aimed at collectors working on expanding their armies; there’s extensive discussion of frequently lost parts you have to look for you if a seller promises a complete toy.

The book’s value to serious Joe collectors is obvious. For the rest of us, it’s a figure-by-figure walk down memory lane — or, for those who didn’t know Joe, a voyage into the undiscovered territory of Cobra-La (an evil lost civilization that was much maligned by Joe traditionalists, Bellomo notes), Cobra Island (a sovereign nation the enemy tricked the Joes into creating by bombing an impenetrable fortress, thus mounting a massive pile of rock around it), and beyond.

If you were even a causal fan of the figures and their associated T.V. show and comic book, you probably remember the popularity of a Joe warrior based on the WWF wrestler Sgt. Slaughter. Did you remember, though, that William “Refrigerator” Perry of the Chicago Bears had his own G.I. Joe avatar? (“The Fridge” will now run you $42-60, mint in sealed baggie.) Did you know that Bazooka wore the jersey of Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan because Hasbro was based in New England? Remember Tomax and Xamot, the evil twins? Did you covet the Defiant, the G.I. Joe space shuttle with a booster rocket that was somehow also a space station?

You’ll also be reminded that the G.I. Joes — except for several ninjas and the occasional oddball like a computer operator — all carried guns. Lots of guns. Guns, guns, guns. Some were highly realistic, some were science-fictional, and the Eco-Warriors shot water, because the 51st simple thing you can do to save the Earth is to firehose Cobra. Missiles are among the vehicles’ most frequently lost parts.

These are, fundamentally, war toys. And yet, in the cartoon and comic book, no one ever gets seriously hurt. Individual Joe characters survived for multiple re-assignments with new outfits, and new weapons. They all just happily, even joyfully, kept on fighting and fighting and fighting. Yo, Joe!

Jay Gabler