For the last 30 years, without interruption, the G.I. Joe franchise has provided young boys and girls with adventure and enjoyment. G.I. Joe first appeared as a cartoon in 1982 as a tie-in to the Hasbro toy line of the same name. What followed was a half hour animated adventure that showcased the heroic G.I. Joe team struggling to stop the villainous Cobra.
Beginning as A Real American Hero, the show ran from 1982 to 1989, punctuated by a feature length movie in 1987. This half hour cartoon was the first glimpse that many young boys and girls got of the new toy line. Each episode would showcase a different character in an environment that best suited his or her skill set. Often, they would use vehicles and weapon accessories that were also a part of the toy line. While the show was ultimately formulaic—a problem was presented, the Joes would rush out to solve it, fighting Cobra at the same time, and once a resolution was reached, Cobra would scurry away with their tails between their legs—the production company managed to deliver each episode with style, humour, and a charm that is lacking in cartoons today.
The part that truly stood out for me about this series is that the characters were more than just one-dimensional, stereotypical representations of soldiers. Each character had a backstory that was developed partly in the show and partly in the toy line. The characters were also designed to visually represent each branch and section of the American military. While the original Joes had simple designs, military greys and greens, the later additions got more elaborate uniforms and had greater flare. What resulted was a sort of circular reaction that had you watching the show and wanting the toys or, seeing the new figures and waiting excitedly for them to make an appearance on the show.
What really set this show apart from the others at the time was the addition of a series of Public Service Announcements at the end of each episode. Each PSA featured a specific character, often the one showcased in the episode, who would intervene as a group of children were about to commit an error in judgement. These scenarios ranged from common childhood activities—playing in the street, excluding someone just because they are different, etc.—to ethical dilemmas and safety tips. The Joe would arrive to show the children the correct way to deal with the situation and the children would respond with “And now we know.” This gave rise to perhaps one of the best sound bites from the ‘80s: “And knowing is half the battle!”
In 1987, Sunbow and Hasbro released a feature length film at the height of the cartoon’s popularity. By the time the movie was released, the show was so popular that the producers were able to attract big Hollywood names to lend their voices to some of the characters. Don Johnson, still riding high from his Miami Vice work, voiced Lt. Falcon, while Burgess Meredith of Batman fame voiced Golobulus, the ruler of Cobra-La. In addition to introducing us to a handful of new Joes—my personal favourite was Tunnel Rat—we were also given a strange backstory for Cobra by way of Cobra-La. Cobra, as it turned out, was a front for an ancient race of alien-like beings from the hidden country of Cobra-La. While this new backstory wasn’t to everyone’s liking, it did bring in cool new characters like Nemesis Enforcer.
After A Real American Hero ended in ’89, the franchise went on to do some direct-to-video movies. When it did resurface on television in 1995, it was in the form of G.I. Joe Extreme. This was a show that continued the trend of a military toy line transformed into a cartoon. Unfortunately, that is pretty much where the resemblance to previous incarnations of G.I. Joe ends. This was a darker and grittier show, as seemed to be the trend in the mid ‘90s. The characters were edgy, or as the show title would imply, extreme. The thing that bothered me the most was the decision to make the villain someone other than Cobra. How can you have a G.I. Joe cartoon without Cobra? The two are synonymous. I found the show to be disappointing as most shows from this time period were. The dialogue was politically correct while trying to be aggressive enough to draw in the targeted male audience. Little care seemed to be given to trying to attract any female viewers. G.I Joe Extreme only lasted two seasons and was, ultimately, a forgettable cartoon in a franchise rich with history.
The beginning of the 21st Century brought yet another incarnation of G.I. Joe to the small screen. Animated in the anime-style that was popularized in the early 2000s, G.I. Joe: Sigma 6 revolved around a smaller group of Joes and brought back Cobra as the main adversary. The tie-ins with the toy line were still there, as well as the focus on accessories. This time around the Joes wore Sigma suits—to better fit the new technological world of 2005—that had a variety of functions. They made the Joes faster, stronger and protected them from the laser fire of Cobra troops. To me, this seemed to be the network’s way of showing combat in a politically correct way (see, kids, you can shoot guns at people, but as long as you have this suit you can’t be hurt). Part of what made the old show so great was that they didn’t feel the need to soften the blow of a firefight. Sure it was a kid’s show and they didn’t show anyone dying, but they still depicted intense battles between Cobra and the Joes. This newer version seemed to lack any real punch. How are you supposed to worry about your characters when you know that they aren’t ever in any real danger? What resulted was a show that was more flash than substance and it showed in the ratings. Twenty-six episodes of Sigma 6 were made, but most did not air in the United States even though the entire season aired here in Canada on YTV.
G.I. Joe: Renegades is the most recent incarnation and shows yet another departure from the format that made the original so great. In this series, a group of young Joes—Duke, Snake Eyes, Scarlett, Roadblock, Tunnel Rat, Ripcord and Breaker—are accused of a crime that they didn’t commit and are forced to go underground in order to find the evidence that proves their innocence. For those of you who were born before 1990, this premise may sound familiar. The A-Team ran a successful show with the exact same premise for four years in the mid ‘80s. Just like the A-Team, this group of young renegades is pursued by friends, foes and the local authorities. The foe remains the same with Cobra providing the necessary levels of evil in the show. The friends are other Joes, dubbed Falcons, tasked with bringing the renegades in to answer for their crimes. In my opinion, this departure from the traditional format for the show brought about its early demise. Renegades only lasted one season with 26 episodes.
For almost thirty years G.I. Joe has been a treat for young boys and girls as a form of escape and excitement. Sadly, the animated franchise has suffered a declining popularity. This is too bad because the concept and the characters are special. They gave us heroes to root for and villains to defeat. Perhaps the concept of a military force fighting for rights and justice doesn’t fit so well in the 21st Century, where military forces are fighting overseas in all too real conflicts. With a new movie coming out, hopefully we will see a resurgence of its popularity. If even one or two new fans are created that go back and watch all the episodes, then that’s good to know. And knowing is half the battle.
This article was originally published in Comix Asylum: G.I. Joe Special (May 2013).