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Toy Showdown: Joe vs. Joe, Finale

By John Denning     September 02, 2006


G.I. Joe
© G.I. Joe
A big part of winning in a battle of toys, providing they survive being manhandled by children (the most chaotic and destructive force on Earth), is what context they give to the child's imagination. The reason the vintage series G.I. Joe's nurse figure never sold well was because most of the boys she was being marketed to had no idea what to do with her. Why have a nurse when your toy soldier can simply apply a bandage from his emergency medkit and leap back into the fray? Even better, most boys preferred a good, gruesome death scene to playing Florence Nightingale. The story behind the figures, then, is the most direct influence on a child's imaginary war. The coolest characters will always win over the rest, no matter how they compare in other qualities, because a child's war with toys is always a game of favorites.

What we have to look at then, is what the marketing and historical basis of the toys have to offer the child's imagination. With the original series of G.I. Joe, it was based on real military soldiers. Some written advertisements came with a description of different soldiers from different countries, describing the German soldiers as using Blitzkrieg tactics and so on. The simple historical summaries suggest sandbox battles where the Germans relentlessly charged the trenches over and over again, obliterated by fortified machine gun fire. In terms of television advertising, though, these were highly inspiring toys. There were the first commercials with kids shown playing with the figures, which is a very effective bandwagon tactic for young minds. Compare this with "Live the Adventure" images from the Real American Hero era, and the original commercials have an advantage. The "Live the Adventure" image shows several notable G.I. Joe heroes charging into battle while a plain-dressed boy with a walking stick brings up the rear with an excited look on his face.

This is a mistake. Kids don't want to be in the midst of the battle. They want to be G.I. Joe. Placing the child side-by-side with the toys in their own world separates them from the toys themselves, rather than allowing the toy to be their avatar. Showing other kids playing with the toys, on the other hand, lets you see the toys in action, and imagine your own ways to play with them. As so many other toy commercials have since followed this pattern, original G.I. Joe figures win the battle for some innovative advertising, but what about the war?

In the propaganda struggle, the Real American Heroes have as much advantage over vintage figures as a team of cutthroat city lawyers versus an overworked representative provided by the state. In a relative media storm, the G.I. Joes of the 80s had everything but their own ongoing radio drama. This wasn't the generic battles of historically accurate figures, but over-the-top melodramatic conflicts of absolute good and evil. You could re-enact scenes from your favorite episodes, or rewrite them the way you wanted. Characters appeared in comics on the same newsstands as Superman. Anyone who doubts that the uniquely individual characters of G.I. Joe didn't have a superhumanly capable bent never saw all those episodes where Sgt. Slaughter managed to survive despite his own thick-headedness.

So there's the real tide turner. The Real American Heroes had names, faces, and history. While the G.I. Joe Soldier figure from the 60's was cookie-cutter cannon-fodder, Snake-Eyes was, according to his file card "proficient in 12 different fighting styles," and "has received extensive training in mountaineering, underwater demolitions, jungle, desert and arctic survival, and some forms of holistic medicine." The quote said, "The man is a total mystery, but he's real good at his job, heck, he's the best." Like a baseball card, this guy had stats, and the "badass without a past" motif has been selling for generations. Who's going to win a fight: Private Joe or the ninja?

Amongst all this back history, there is a need for some miscellanea before declaring a winner. As I'm sure many of you have made fun of in the past, the G.I. Joe cartoon was notorious for its constraints on the violence depicted therein. Instead of bullets, there were lasers, and they always hit vehicles where the enemy would bail out just before a massive explosion. Those few who were injured were usually only stunned, and then usually due to direct physical violence instead of weapons. We might take this into account when measuring the Real American Hero team's effectiveness in battle, but as I prefer to consider a small child's point of view on this, I think censorship would be overruled by a young boy's imagination, and I'm certain there would be some death going on.

On the other hand, the individual names and personality of the RAH team do come into play. In the cartoons, almost no one ever died, and it's always been bad business in the comic book industry to kill off marketable characters (well, at least for any extended period of time). While there have been a few exceptions in the world of G.I. Joe, such as the near-death experience of Duke in G.I. Joe: The Movie, not only is it hard for writers to kill off their cast in comics and cartoons, but kids rarely want to see their favorite characters die either. It's highly unlikely that in the sandbox, given a choice, a generic toy would survive over a named and valued character. That said, the Real American Heroes are bound to have a few casualties if the child hated any of the characters from the show. I know Sgt. Slaughter died many deaths in my backyard.

With all these considerations, what's the final verdict? Who is the master of all things Joe?

The answer, in this column's humble opinion, are the greatest action figure heroes man can aspire to: The G.I Joe Adventure Team. As the 12-inch figures clash with the diminutive 80s TV stars, the ones crawling from the rubble would be the Man of Action. Coming later in the 12-inch series, the Adventure Team benefited from all the advances in the line, from Kung-Fu Grip to talking figures to beards. While relatively nameless, they had stories for their adventure packs. Anyone who can survive the Secret of the Mummy's Tomb with nothing but khakis and a shovel is a survivor. They even had a definite enemy to face: The Intruders, Strong Men from Another World. These caveman-like 8" figures set the stage for a two-sided ongoing conflict such as Joe vs. Cobra, and even gave the Adventure Team experience fighting a smaller but dangerous foe.

In the end, let's face it. The adventurer always beats the simple military man because the adventure is trained to adapt to any situation and survives by raw willpower and endurance. If Indiana Jones, the greatest adventure hero of all time, can beat dozens of Nazis at a time, the Adventure Team can take the Real American Heroes any day.

Now the only thing standing in the Adventure Teams way is Sigma 6. While the anime influence of the Sigma 6 cartoon suggests the possibility of truly exaggerated powers for the Sigma 6, they suffer from an overburdening of outlandish gadgets and weapons, a commonly failed selling point in action figures. The only sales innovation Sigma 6 introduced is a red blinking light on the packaging that mostly serves to annoy and distract toy store employees who are forced to be around them all day. While the latest line of G.I. Joes is still growing, its a long way from overtaking the classics.

That's it for this Toy Showdown. Next week we explore the twisted world of toy genealogies and find out just how thin the line is between man and machine. We'll see you there.

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