Reporting for Duty: Character Census in G.I.Joe A Real American Hero

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The Marvel-produced comic G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero(1982-1994) ran against the grain of its own publisher’s successful formula: “single marquee heroes with real life problems.” Unlike deeply flawed Marvel protagonists, whose conflicts intertwined with their personal growth, G.I. Joe was sustained with literally hundreds of characters, all of them capably fulfilling their roles.

Today, I will present a demographic break down of the variety of fictional characters used by comic writer Larry Hama during his 155-issue run on the series. His winning formula, perhaps misunderstood by the wider Marvel bullpin, utilized an entirely different set of storytelling tools. Plot, spygames, black ops, combat tactics, yankee ingenuity and war craft to take the place of in-depth character building.

How do you make a successful comic book with no central hero, in conjunction with toys that presupposed no existing plot?

This presentation will attempt to answer the question of how this series sustained itself without a central, troubled, main character, and while conjuring narratives based on seasonally released toys. Hasbro’s toy production was so robust that diversity naturally emerged out of the commercial appeals..

When I first began speaking about G.I.Joe at Center for Cartoon Studies in 2012, many of my peers, who in their 20-somethings or younger, had never heard of G.I.Joe. If they HAD any impressions of the property – they were inaccurate, including but not limited to the false notion that there is actually a single character named “G.I.Joe.” For my colleagues and other uninitiated, the fact that “Joe, the general infantryman” didn’t exist raised further speculation on the nature of the comic and other iterations of multi-media property.  Furthermore, many thought that an army comic in the Era of Ronald Reagan would be populated with jingoistic characters- fascist white males with only blood-lust to animate their actions.

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With this four panel sequence from Issue #49 – I tried to demonstrate that actually G.I.Joe was a superb melting pot. The series was composed of dozens of specialized men and women with true grit and smarts only matched by their sense of duty. I tried to explain to the group that while other Marvel comics heroes were navel-gazing at their own problems, G.I.Joe’s  writer, Larry Hama, had the blessing (or duty) of choosing between literally hundreds of characters, based on their personal skill sets, well-suited for their mission, and went to work.

One of my CCS collegues asked me flatly disbelieving, “How could this have happened?” It was a good question and there are many anamolies to the property which I find very exciting.

Since then, I’ve gone deeper in my research to examine G.I.Joe’s unique comic DNA and this presentation will feature some of my findings.

The data comes from Issues 1 – 68 (Jun 1982 – Feb 1988) Almost half the run. As well as Special Missions 1-9 and all the yearbooks. I analyzed the demographics of the named toy characters used by Larry Hama during that time frame bringing me up to Hasbro’s Sixth Wave of figures through to 1988.

I set out to see if it really was that diverse. And if G.I.Joe embodied its own subtitle A Real American Hero.

Were they based on any real-world actuality? Did they represent a broad cross-section of American society? Did they behave with honor and integrity or heroism.

In testing the series realness, I asked if the comic (or the toys) reflected the objective realities of the age. And also, in order to make sense of the subjective real, I turned to the creators from Marvel comics and Hasbro.  By knowing the designers, the writers and the artists, I can gather evidence to the work’s truthful intent. Although clearly a work of fiction, did G.I.Joe reflect any of their personal truths, about world-wide threats or the American military. Were there any actually living persons featured? In addition to addressing the who’s who, I’ll quickly contextualize the times and conditions placed upon the creators as they wrestled with industry demands.

I’ll present a brief summarizing history on the Hasbro 3 and ¾ inch figures and activated vehicles since they cannot be divorced from the comic or the animated series. They were sold together by the parent company Griffin/Bacal to Sears, Hasbro’s biggest buyer, as an all-or-nothing deal. It wasn’t enough that Hasbro had already lined up production partners with Marvel comics and Sunbow Entertainment – or that everyone was witness to the success of the Star Wars figures and vehicles from 1977-1980. Or that people were chanting “USA USA” around the country, while watching at The Miracle on Ice at the 1980 winter Olympics. It was when Joe Bacal pitched the idea of spending a million dollars on television commercials based around the comic book, NOT the toys, in order to get around strict advertising restrictions, that finally locked up the deal. But with all it had going for it – G.I.Joe had a major problem, there was NO STORY.

As I said earlier, the toys themselves didn’t carry any specific narrative  (unlike Star Wars) and had to be infused with character backstory and baked-in conflict. Who were they to battle? Certainly not Darth Vader. For story, Hasbro turned to Marvel Comics and specifically Larry Hama who found the answer to their problem in developing the Legendary G.I.Joe file cards. Larry Hama was (and continues to be) the single, dynamic authorial mainspring behind the comic itself, and the collectable file cards that he wrote to undergerd and infuse the toys with primary and secondary specialties, psychological profiles and personal background. The file cards provided a consistency throughout the comic series that continued through 1994. Worth mentioning: Larry Hama wrote all but four issues of the entire run. The cooperation between these creative corporate elements made GI Joe multi-dimensional. The toyline, from the very beginning, worked hand in hand with comics culture. Between Marvel and Hasbro, it was a two-way relationship.

Here’s how it would work.

Hasbro would come up with designs for figures coming out of the production process having been vetting by in-house sculptors, engineers and marketing departments, many of whom were Vietnam veterans and impregnated the  figures – at the basic design level-  with true military authenticity and patriotic flare. Ron Rudat, the chief designer was a marine and others in Habro’s design team had returned from Vietnam just years prior. If that wasn’t enough, G.I.Joe’s veracity improved when Habro broadened the creative circle to include Marvel Comics.

At that stage the design drafts would land on the desk of Larry Hama, who inherited the project after he, himself, had recently pitched a Nick Fury and Howling Commandos re-tool to Marvels editorial.

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Every year, Hasbro would deliver a set of character sketches and brief descriptions of each character’s military role, and Hama would create detailed dossiers, histories, personalities and deep background for each character. Hama also served (he was drafted into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the Vietnam war), and those experiences in the service informed his writing of G.I.Joeand also the editing of the 1986-1993 Marvel Comics seriesThe ‘Nam where he reunited there with long-time G.I.Joe artist, Michael Golden.

Hasbro loved the attention Larry Hama was bringing to the products and decided to reprint shortened versions of these dossiers as file cards on the packaging for the action figures. And this is how we’ve come to know of them as collectors and fans.

Many readers praised the series for its attention to detail and realism in the area of military tactics and procedures. The editorial sidebar captions  in G.I.Joe are so complete, the experience is like reading Denis Diderot’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry. Much of this was due to Hama’s military experience,  but he also did a large amount of research in order to be as up-to-date as possible. He read many U.S. Army field manuals and technical manuals. He was friends with a few a military historians, who helped him with research. In these ways, G.I.Joe was real because the top creators were drawing on real life experiences.  Also, in his writing, Hama pulled from real associations.  Hama based the personalities of the characters on people that he knew, and because of these characterizations, there is a rich realism of the heroes.

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There was also a realness to the products’ physical tangibility. Many of the head sculpts are based on principles like Kirk Bozigian, G.I.Joe Product Manager for Hasbro, who’s likeness is captured in the Law & Order figure, Ron Rudat as Leatherneck and Hama as Tunnel Rat. So in this way, we can say that G.I.Joe was realistic, and that at times, they were based on real people and experiences but stops short of being actual people. (And certainly the stories are high fiction)

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Now to the question of whether they were American. The short answer is absolutely. Each File Card gave certain personal information such as place of birth. Only 3 characters through 1988 were from outside the U.S. and they appeared at the end of my research window in the sixth toy wave. Taurus and Red Dog (Sgt. Slaughter’s Marauders three pack) were from Istanbul, Turkey and Pago Pago, Samoa respectively and Backstop was from Montreal, Quebec. Otherwise, their states of origin are so equally dispersed from around the country that I determined that a graph demonstrating such was wholly unnecessary. And to the characters ethnic and racial diversity, that seemed to pick up as more and more toys were produced.

Non-Descript-Joes

Courtesy of  James DeSimone’s Official GI Joe collecting catalogue, this picture represents the figures released in the first wave. Note their similar appearances in faces, hair color and olive drab uniforms. They are almost interchangeable. Without an existing track record, as is the case with many “firsts”, this first wave was a given a limited budget. The spray ops were expensive and the head sculpts were re-used. This may account for the limited look of the characters in the first wave. However, in the next two waves, as the toy line mounted successes, more money was given to the line and we can see an explosion of more diverse characters. However, expanding production budgets might not have been the only reason to dissipate the look of the figures.

In my research I found that these non-descript characters like Flash, Grand Slam and Short Fuse were rarely used in the comic, limited in their material usefulness to the books that corresponded to the first wave of toys. In fact, in the comics, when they DID use these non-discript characters, they were often mis-identified or would accidentally switch places with the other characters in middle of the adventure, which happens in Issue 7 and 8 with Flash and Grand Slam. Over time, these “Plain-Jane Joes” were abandoned altogether or were relegated to background extras as live scenery. But there was no mistaking Scarlett, Snake-Eyes or Stalker. The trend seems to be; the more distinct and individualized the figure, the greater the chance of standing out in the comic.

More-Distinct-JoesThese are some of the second and third waves and they include 2 Native Americans, a pacific islander, two asians, two women, a vegetarian (according to the file card), two African Americans and a whole lot more mustaches.

I analyzed the exposure of each character by counting the appearances and making categorical distinctions between cameos and minor mentions. A featured appearance meant anything more than a single panel where the character talks, an action completed, or point of narrative plot that was advanced by the character. A minor mention would be simply that, where the character was talked about in an insignificant way or a cameo was an image spotting exercise.

The most appearances overall is Hawk who has 37 with 8 minor mentions/ Cameos. Hawk also is prominently featured in the Special Missions preview and has 3 additional cameos in that series. Surprisingly, Snake-Eyes – widely considered the most popular character has 36 appearances but with fewer mentions/cameos. Cobra Commander has 35 appearances.

The most popular character of the next five waves are as follows;

Destro – 26

Baroness – 22

Buzzer – 17

Dr. Mindbender – 11

Jinx – 6

GIJOE_34As you can see, as the issues piled up, it became harder for the characters to get more face time. Only one issue (#34) featured four characters and one issue (#43) featured 3 characters while all the rest of the comics are blessed with full ensemble casts of usually a dozen to two dozen named characters. Hama tries to be equitably and where there wasn’t room in the regular series, Special Missions – indicated as the red marks on the chart – strongly compensated for some of the lesser used characters by featuring them in focused, smaller stories in kind of make-goods to use the parlance of broadcast advertising. Special Missions were smaller stories, absolutely fantastic one-shot narratives which were all drawn exquisitely by late Herb Trimpe – an unsung hero of the Marvel Bullpin who just passed away in April.

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This is an appearance chart and it seems like Lady Jaye, the Baroness and the Dreadnoks were used extensively premature to their wave release as figures. Larry Hama liked female characters and might have pushed early for them to become toys. The book’s popularity with girls has also been attributed to the many strong female characters featured in the comic. Characters such as Scarlett, Lady Jaye, Cover Girl, and the Baroness were very popular with female readers. Since less female G.I. Joe action figures were produced by Hasbro, Hama tended to use all of those female characters as recurring protagonists in the comics, giving them overweight exposure.

“…. the women characters are simply part of the team. … They don’t go around with their palms nailed to their foreheads. They’re competent, straightforward, and they go ahead and get the job done. They also participate emotionally. They have their likes and dislikes. They’re not ill-treated and they’re not running around being worrywarts.”[6] “Larry Hama Interview, Part One”], Comics Interview #37

The third and final part of my research was what I called Unique Heroic Acts. Did they act heroically? Again returning to the creative source, Larry Hama’s view on Heroics as they relate to the Joes. From “Making It Up As I Go Along” by The Splitting Image courtesy of 3DJoes.com, Larry Hama remarks,

“The comic I really liked as a kid was Uncle Scrooge by Carl Barks. It had a profound effect on me. In my head, G.I.Joe is basically the junior woodchucks with rifles…to me the core of the [G.I.Joe]  stories is how they relate to each other and work together. Ya know, those three nephews Huey, Duey and Louie, they could really count on each other. That was the core of that fantasy.”

The fantasy Hama is referring to is trust in one another and a brotherhood that could be counted on. This is a pervasive theme throughout the book that is rarely spoken of. There are no inner captions or internal dialogue. What you see is what happened and this fantasy plays out, month after month – the Joes constantly watching each other’s backs. I tracked the characters unique heroic acts. What were my notions of heroism and how would their magnanimous deeds be measured? The idea was to gauge the character’s nobility, skills, bravery or yankee ingenuity. A considered a unique heroic deed if the character took one step to solve a problem, if they sacrificed themselves for others safety or if they were the only ones in the position to do something and they stepped up to the plate. I also tabulated moments of good will, when taking the brief moments to resolve a situation among locals or partisans instead of engaging in a fire-fight. Forgiveness and/or clemency when granted were also noted as heroic. But often times the heroic deeds were personal craftiness or bravery in the heat of battle that turned the tides positively. Perhaps a high bar, but return fire on a hostile cobra, and killing said terrorist was not listed as necessarily “heroic” or unique. Even if the weapon in the shooting was with a harpoon gun. (Hama, #16, pg. 10) Also, I did not include things like target practice or being particularly astute during training exercises. I also did not make note of any Joes who saved their own life. If the G.I.Joes went on attack en masse, I did not consider individual acts to be unique. Nor did I consider these to be notable if it was ordered of them or part of the original battle plan. For example, running double time to a battle front for which they were duty-bound to obey was not noted as heroic.

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In my charting, it was found that most characters committed unique heroic deeds during their first comic appearance. The character with the most unique heroic deed was Snake-Eyes with 30.  Scarlett, in the hunt, had 20 heroic deeds overall. Meanwhile, Hawk, who had the most overall appearances only committed 9 heroic deeds. Some other fun facts:

Most cover appearances: Snake Eyes (16)

Runner up Scarlett (14)

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Most injured in the line of duty: Stalker with 4 injuries for every 28 appearances while the most unlucky Joe was Snow-Job who was injured 3 times for every 10 appearances. Although I should note that Snake-Eyes was also injured 3 times and was the subject of much torture and brain tinkering by Cobra’s Dr. Venom and Dr. Mindbender.

It’s interesting that in looking at Snake-Eyes, being statistically favored throughout the series, is “the face” and appeal of the property. And yet, he really is the unknown, faceless solider. He is also a mute, which is unique in the world of comics, especially for a romantic male protagonist. Snake-Eyes is The Everyman who allows his friends speak for him. This nameless, faceless, soundless leading man evolved into the comic’s most popular character. And how could that be in a medium that requires textual involvement? The answer is “deeds over words.” And as a credit to Hama’s storytelling prowess, the series unfolds with “showing,” not “telling.”

Thank you for reading and since this is ongoing research, I encourage you to check back as I delve into the second half of the comic series, issues #69 – #155.

 

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One comment to Reporting for Duty: Character Census in G.I.Joe A Real American Hero

  1. bethanne says:

    just reread the research on GI Joe. It is so interesting. Hope you can find another venue to present it again. Maybe every year to the new class at CCS

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