Toys R Us, Part 3: Yo Joe! -

Comic Book Retrospective

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Toys R Us, Part 3: Yo Joe!

CINESCAPE continues its look at some of the most successful comic tie-ins of the '80s with one of the two mack daddies of '80s pop culture

By Tony Whitt     May 06, 2002

The two powerhouses of the '80s toy market met at last in G.I. JOE AND THE TRANSFORMERS, a four issue mini-series.
© Marvel Characters Inc.
While Rom the Spaceknight achieved more success as a comic than a toy and the Micronauts enjoyed equal popularity with their toy counterparts, neither series would reach the level of success that two toy lines adapted by Marvel, G.I. JOE and THE TRANSFORMERS, would attain. Even though two separate companies have launched the revamped comics versions of these '80s pop culture legends, the two toy lines have been linked since day one. It's difficult to say which one was the more popular or the more successful financially - there was an immeasurable crossover of fans between the two series, even though many of us remember being cornered in school and asked if we were a Joe fan or a Transformers fan like it was the most important question in the world. Of the two, G.I. JOE has the longer history, though had there never been a G.I. JOE, there would never have been a TRANSFORMERS.

The Joes even invaded the UK in ACTION FORCE, a series later reprinted in the States as G.I. JOE EUROPEAN MISSIONS.

A comprehensive history of the Joe phenomenon would require far more than one installment of a four-part article, so here are the highlights: G.I. Joe's meteoric rise to toybox fame began in 1964, when Hasbro released its first 12 inch action figure, named after the movie THE STORY OF G.I. JOE. At the time there was nothing quite like these figures, which boasted twenty-one moving parts and several variations of hair and eye color. By the time 1969 rolled around, Hasbro had a large successful product line on their hands, and they named the entire line after their first figure. Until 1978, the line would enjoy incredible sales figures not only in the US but around the world, where Hasbro granted marketing licenses to British and Japanese companies (more about the Japanese market later). Domestic marketing ended temporarily in 1978 when the rising price of petroleum caused the cost of manufacturing plastic for action figures (and just about everything else) to skyrocket.

The Joe team expanded their zone of control in comics through spin-off series like G.I. JOE SPECIAL MISSIONS.

Skip forward to 1982, when Hasbro decided to introduce their G.I. JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO line of 3-3/4 inch figures. By then Kenner was making a killing on their popular line of figures tied in to STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Marvel had had enormous success with their STAR WARS comic series tie-in, so Hasbro approached them with the offer of three million dollars to advertise a new comic series tied in to the REAL AMERICAN HERO line. (This wouldn't be the first time that Hasbro's G.I. Joe had appeared in comics, however: the original action figure appeared in a 1967 one shot done by Custom Comics, and Power Records had released a series of book and records sets in the mid-'70s featuring the character.) Marvel couldn't turn down an offer like that, especially when Hasbro decided to hire Sunbow Productions to create animated commercials to promote the comic rather than the toy line. (Sunbow Productions was already working to bring Marvel characters exposure with the SPIDER-MAN AND HIS AMAZING FRIENDS animated series which ran from 1981-1983.) The toys and the comic debuted almost simultaneously after the first commercial aired in 1982, and both flew off the shelves. The inevitable cartoon series would premiere with a five-part miniseries in the autumn of 1983. This would begin a success story which continued for both the toy line and the comic series well into the '90s, even after the resulting animated series aired its last episode in 1987.

Snake Eyes was by far the breakout star of the G.I. JOE comic book series.

Because of the direct linkages between the toy line, the animated spots which would later become the animated series, and the comic book, the series did not initially deviate much from its television counterpart. Written by Larry Hama, who would be with the series throughout its entire run, the series ran from June 1982 to December 1994, with a grand total of 155 issues, four yearbooks, and a Special Treasury Edition printed in 1982. The Joes would also appear in a digest-sized series called G.I. JOE COMICS MAGAZINE from 1986 to 1988; G.I. JOE: THE ORDER OF BATTLE, which ran from 1986 to 1987; and a series called G.I. JOE SPECIAL MISSIONS, which ran from October 1986 to December 1989. If all this wasn't enough, Marvel reprinted the appearances of the Joes in the UK magazine ACTION FORCE WEEKLY in a title called G.I. JOE EUROPEAN MISSIONS from 1988 to 1989. Marvel even brought its two biggest marketing lines together in a four-part miniseries in 1987 called G.I. JOE AND THE TRANSFORMERS.

Before their series ended, the Joe team encountered those transforming robots a number of times.

The plot of the Marvel series focused on the U.S. anti-terrorist team Strike Force Alpha, codenamed (what else?) G.I. Joe, whose goal was to stop the worldwide threat of COBRA. COBRA, a terrorist organization led by Cobra Commander, had only one goal: to dominate the world. Despite the seemingly clear delineations of good guys versus bad guys, Hama brought a dimension to the characters that even the television series was hard-pressed to reproduce. A difference from the other tie-in series, however, was that the Joes had little interaction with the superpowered contingent in the Marvel Universe - no doubt because the inclusion of superheroes in these stories would have begged the question of why someone like Thor didn't just go take out Cobra Commander once and for all. As the series continued, so did the emerging toy lines, and Hama would dutifully include each new toy line in the comic's continuity up until the end. The Marvel series eventually wound down, but the Joes didn't - they would return exactly a year after their December 1994 demise in a new limited series produced by Dark Horse Comics and scripted by Mike W. Barr. A second miniseries produced by the same company and writer appeared in the summer of that year.

The Joe team blasted their way into comics in 1982 courtesy of Marvel.

Now Devil's Due has brought the Joes back once again, in a new series which picks up on the original Marvel continuity while updating both the Joes and COBRA in both surprising and believable ways. While it's not exactly the return of an '80s phenomenon - the series did last well into the '90s, after all - it's still obvious that old soldiers never die: they just come back in comic books again and again. Transforming robots, on the other hand...



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