By the mid-1970s, Hasbro’s 12-inch G.I Joe toy line had fallen out of favor with the public opinion regarding the Vietnam War and it was canceled in 1976. Subsequently, however, when the Star Wars toys by Kenner became a smash hit not soon after, Hasbro decided to reevaluate the G.I. Joe line of toys.
Hasbro reconceived the toy line in many new and exciting ways. First, they updated the toys to be smaller, 3¾-inch figures, which were similar in size to the Kenner Star Wars line. In addition, they were also given a storyline, which pitted the “the Joes” against the evil forces of “Cobra”.
“When G.I. Joe was reborn, it was reborn with a storyline. That storyline was what we call the G.I. Joe vs. Cobra storyline, which has been such a powerful story, the ultimate yin and yang between G.I. Joe, a group of heroic defenders, opposing Cobra.”
– Derryl DePriest, Hasbro VP of Global Brand Management
In 1982 to coincide with the launch of the toys, Hasbro worked with Marvel Comics to create a comic book series to accompany the toyline. Also, Marvel Productions was to produce animation for ads in order to promote the products.
The 1983 Mini-Series (The M.A.S.S. Device)
Because of the popularity of the ads, Hasbro brought in TV writer Ron Friedman to create a five-part mini-series.
“Hasbro sent me the shrink-packed action figures, but there was no story yet. I decided to create these groups of families. I created the bad family, who was Cobra, to whom I gave the battle cry, “Co-bra!” and the good family, to whom I gave the battle cry, “Yo Joe!”…I also wanted more female characters, so I created Lady Jaye. I felt they needed more women because I knew girls who loved animation and loved superheroes.”
– Ron Friedman
Eventually, parent groups got wind of the cartoon and made their opinions known that they did not want to kill those depicted on the show. Friedman agreed.
“I felt once you kill somebody, it’s not suitable. We are in a universe where the bad guys get their comeuppance, but we are not standing at graveside. A little leavening humor about the violence takes the curse off of some of it. If it’s done with a knowing sense of humor, with the idea to lighten the mood, it shows they are not blank-eyed snipers working out of some attic in Fallujah.”
– Ron Friedman
The plot of the 5 episode mini-series pertained to the M.A.S.S. Device, a powerful matter-transporter, with the forces of G.I. Joe and Cobra racing around the globe in order to acquire the three catalytic elements which power the machine.
“In the audition, I screamed, “Co-bra!!!” at the top of my lungs. And I think they went, “Her. She looks like she’s willing to go to the wall.” When you walk into the audition, they usually have a picture of what the character is going to look like. And a script. There must have been something on that page that said the Baroness has a European accent, because no country ever existed that sounds like the Baroness. She’s not Russian. She’s from somewhere in middle Europe that cannot be named or found. I just dreamed it up, and I don’t know how.”
– Morgan Lofting, The Baroness
The 1984 Mini-Series (The Revenge of Cobra)
When the ratings came in and the first mini-series was a success production began on a sequel, 1984s “The Revenge of Cobra”. The plotline to this was very similar to what was done previously, with the 2 enemy teams racing around the world trying to locate the pieces of a weapon that could control the weather, known as The Weather Dominator.
“I felt that the Joes would be liberal and the Cobra people should not be. The Cobra people are always carping about each other and their differences, and the differences create gulfs between them. In the Joe group, the differences don’t matter. There is never a negative comment, one about the other. The only time there was was when somebody failed to perform his duty adequately. Other than that, the Joes accepted their differences, never made a problem. The differences were celebrated, where the Cobras were always weaseling behind each other, badmouthing each other and were not there when needed.”
– Ron Friedman
The Animated Series (1985-1986)
Eventually, G.I. Joe was promoted to a full series in 1985, with an initial order for the first season of 55 more episodes. This gave them 65 episodes including the 2 mini-series, which was the minimum required for syndication. Further, this season also had the distinction of having Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck, and the Man-Thing over at Marvel Comics, serving as the story editor.
“When people were signed to write an episode they were handed what we called a briefing book, essentially all of these characters and the vehicles – the airplanes and the tanks and the ships and so on. They were given a looseleaf notebook with all of this material – it looked like the Manhattan phonebook. It was enormous… In the beginning, what everyone wanted to do, the natural thing…my own first script for G.I.Joe was a Cobra-tries-to-conquer-the-world-and-the-Joes-stop-them script. We real quickly got away from that kind of story. It was only about, I would say, like four or five or maybe even six scripts that into the series we began to realize how weird we could actually get with that show.”
– Steve Gerber
Some of these episodes featured everything from King Arthur’s sword Excalibur (in an episode called “Excalibur”) to Cobra creating its own television network called “The Wrong Stuff”.
“Well, the biggest success was an episode written by Stanley Ralph Ross which is an absolutely merciless satire on Saturday morning television. It’s an episode called “The Wrong Stuff” in which Cobra manages to disable all of Earth’s communication satellites and then puts up its own satellite up there and in effect takes over television, and you see Cobra’s version of pro-social programming. This is by far the funniest and strangest episode of the season. Cobra Commander has redone old movies, for example. He’s changed the ending of KING KONG so that the last airplane comes up and King Kong swats it down. All of the people flying the planes are dead and he’s still up on top of the Empire State Building, pounding his chest and roaring, and Carl Denham and the cop or whoever are down at the foot of the Empire State Building, looking up, and the cop says to Denham, ‘Well, he got the airplanes.’ – and Denham says, ‘Yes. You can never win if your enemy is stronger than you are.'”
– Steve Gerber
Buzz Dixon replaced Gerber in the second and final season. This 30-episode season kicked off with the introduction of the character Serpentor, who was created using the DNA of many historical figures such as Julius Caeser, Napolean, and Attila the Hun in order to create the ultimate Cobra Leader.
A third season was planned but not produced because Marvel lost the license to the competing animation company DiC during pre-production.
G.I. Joe: The Movie
G.I. Joe: The Movie (1987), was supposed to be released theatrically, followed by the release of The Transformers: The Movie (1986). However, the movie encountered several production delays. As a result, the Transformers movie was released first. Due to the poor box office performances of Transformers: The Movie, G.I. Joe: The Movie was released on direct-to-video on VHS. Subsequently, it was later split into a 5-part mini-series for television syndication.
G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero is fondly and nostalgically remembered by the kids that were fans of the series during its initial run in the mid-1980s. Additionally, in January 2009, IGN ranked G.I. Joe as number 19 on its list of the Top 100 Animated Series.
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