By Philip Schweier
Sep 5, 2013 - 12:22
GI Joe's Adventure Team coffee mug
Y’see, in the age before GI Joe became the arch-nemesis of COBRA, GI Joe was a much smaller franchise in the world of “action figures,” a term coined by toy maker Hasbro, GI Joe’s corporate parent. When the toy was being developed in the 1960s, it was believed that boys would not play with dolls, so the new phrase was created.
Supporting the use of the phrase was the fact that most girls’ dolls have limited points of articulation; usually just the hips, shoulders and neck. An action figure features several more – elbows, wrists, knees, ankles and waist – reflecting a wider range of motion (i.e., action).
One of the earliest was Captain Action, a super-hero unto himself, but you could also buy outfits to put on him and turn him into other heroes, such as Batman, Spider-Man or the Lone Ranger. There was also Action Boy, who could be converted into Robin or Tonto, and Dr. Evil, their nemesis.
Original GI Joes
However, as the 1960s wound down and the Vietnam era became more turbulent, the military theme of the toy line fell out of favor. In 1970, the line was rechristened “the Adventure Team.” Joe became an all-purpose adventurer, raiding mummy’s tombs and wrestling a giant (by Joe’s perspective, anyway) snake at his 3’ training tower.
Palitoy, which held the GI Joe license in England, developed “life-like hair,” a flocked hair and beard that was added to the overall line. An African American figure was also added.
Another innovation was “kung fu grip,” the result of the martial arts craze of the day. Hands and fingers were molded out of a softer plastic, enabling Joe to actually grip objects. Later, a lever in the back of Joe’s head manipulated the figure’s eyes, giving him “eagle eye vision.”
Meanwhile, competition began to intrude on the action figure market. Mego launched a similar line of all-purpose adventurers dubbed Action Jackson. Eight inches in height, AJ’s accessories included such manly activities as scuba diving, skiing and safari, complete with battery-operated vehicles. However, Joe dominated the market, and in 1972 Mego turned its attention to licensing super-hero characters.
He had less of an action/adventure motif than Joe, and initially seemed little more than a male Barbie. He had an extensive wardrobe, mostly sports oriented (baseball, hockey and martial arts), though some outfits included cowboy, police and motorcycle themes.
Later accessories were built around space exploration, camping and fishing, complete with a more masculine version of Barbie’s camper. A firefighter’s rescue van was added, perhaps due to the popularity of the TV show Emergency!
The line featured Jim as the leader of a counter intelligence strike team; Warpath, an American Indian based on an earlier figure from the Big Jim line; The Whip, weapons specialist armed with boomerangs, bola and whip, from which he takes the nickname; and Torpedo Fist, with his telescopic cybernetic arm.
Together, they would challenge the evil Zorak, a scientist who transforms into a monster. However, the retooling didn’t help the line and Big Jim followed the sales figures of GI Joe and Mego in a downward spiral.
Mego’s super-hero line dwindled as it introduced less popular comic book characters. It eventually introduced the Micronauts. Smaller in size and completely plastic, the line proved a more cost effective series of toys, but it eventually faded from the market as well.