Jim Shooter, former editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, recently wrote about the origin of G.I. JOE on his blog. It's a great read and most of it was unknown to me, and might be to you. Here are the ten most surprising parts of the story.

1. G.I. JOE started in a men's room - According to Shooter, the collaboration between Marvel and G.I. Joe started in 1981 when Marvel President Jim Galton and Hasbro CEO Stephen Hassenfeld met in a men's room at a charity fundraiser. Their conversation went towards their respective companies, and they decided to collaborate, which led to another surprising fact...
2. Marvel Comics created G.I. JOE, not Hasbro - I always thought the G.I. JOE comics were inspired by the TV show, but according to Shooter, it was the other way around. In the aforementioned men's room, Hassenfeld mentioned how they wanted to revive their popular G.I. Joe action figure, but couldn't figure out how. Galton proposed that Marvel take a crack at it. Everything from the action figures to the vehicles to the animated TV show were based on the Marvel comic book series that followed. Which takes us to this next fact...
3. G.I. JOE was inspired by S.H.I.E.L.D. - At the time of the G.I. JOE pitch, Marvel writer Larry Hama had been working on reviving the WW II hero, Nick Fury and his secret agency S.H.I.E.L.D.* A lot of what he was working on for S.H.I.E.L.D. ended up in the concept for G.I. JOE. Since he had a military background, he was able to polish and develop the idea, along with equipment, vehicles, characters, etc.
4. All Hasbro had to start with was the logo - When Marvel came in to pitch their ideas for G.I. JOE, Hasbro showed them what they had come up with...a logo. It said "Real American Hero." That was it.Yeah, so much for the marketing geniuses at Hasbro.
5. G.I. JOE almost became G.I. Joe, G.I. George, G.I. Fred... - Just to show how far Hasbro was from a solid concept for G.I. Joe, they weren't even sure who or what G.I. Joe was. One executive pitched the idea of multiple G.I. figures, like G.I. Joe, and G.I. George, and G.I. Fred. Thankfully, that's not the idea they went with.
6. G.I. JOE almost had no villains or women - Shooter and Hama had some great concepts for female characters like Lady J and the Baroness, and great concepts for villains like Cobra Commander and Destro. There was only one problem; Hasbro didn't want them. They had market research that claimed female and villain action figures don't sell, so amazingly they only wanted action figures of G.I. JOE. Marvel managed to talk them into doing two villain action figures - Cobra Trooper and Cobra Officer. Well, technically "Cobra Trooper" didn't even have a name. The figure was just called "Cobra - The Enemy" on its filecard. As for the ladies, Shooter proposed including female action figures with the vehicles, and Hasbro agreed. Of course, Hasbro was wrong. Shooter says "villains became 40% percent of the volume." As for the female characters, they were so popular that many of them like Lady J and the Baroness ended up in the recent movie.
7. Writer Larry Hama created most of the vehicles and characters - A further point emphasizing the impact of Marvel on G.I. JOE is that the comic series' author created a lot of the vehicles and characters, not Hasbro. Here's how Shooter described the process. "Sometimes they’d show us naked gadgetry—the mechanical underpinnings of something that would hop, spin, flip, crawl or whatever—without a clear notion of what it might be used for.  Larry would create an appropriate vehicle or weapon to use the technology, usually on the spot.  Hasbro would explain some new marketing tack or characters it intended to introduce and Larry would find a way to make it work." That's amazing.
8. The commercials for the Marvel comics were really commercials for the toys - I always loved the old commercials for G.I. JOE comics. They were like an epic mini-series on their own, independent of the TV show. Sometimes they were actually better than the TV show. It turns out they were also mini-ads for the toys. There were a lot of restrictions on ads for toys, like having to show kids playing with the toys for a certain amount of the ad. But comic books? Fair game. So Hasbro produced a lot of ads for the "comic books," which were really about advertising the toys, instead. (BONUS: If you haven't seen them or want to see them again, here's an awesome video compilation of the commercials.)
9. Marvel comics' GI JOE was a huge success - Not that I didn't know G.I. JOE was a popular comic, but I didn't know it was Marvel's number one subscription title. In May 1985, it sold 15,000 copies more than Marvel's second most popular subscription series, The Amazing Spider-Man, and almost twice as many as the third most popular subscription title, X-Men.
10. The G.I. JOE animated series was a financial disaster - The G.I. JOE comic book and G.I. JOE action figures were a huge success, financially. The cartoon, however, was not. Marvel produced the show and spent too much, apparently, with had no share on the back end. Personally, I think it was worth it. That was a pretty good show.

* The way this was originally written implied that Fury's role in S.H.I.E.L.D. was created in the 1980's. As our commenter Drees pointed out, the original Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. comic was created in the 1960's. We apologize for the confusion.

Do you have any fond memories of the GI JOE comics, TV show, or action figures? Leave them in our comments.


Michael Offutt said...

It doesn't surprise me that G.I. Joe was mostly a sausage hang when it first started out.

Reid Kemper said...

I noticed that the commercials seemed to focus on the enemy more than G.I. JOE. I guess that's because those toys sold well. The songs would repeat "Cobra" probably as many times as "G.I. JOE."

Arlee Bird said...

G.I. Joe came after I was not so interested in toys anymore.  Never had one.  I don't know why they would have considered any other names since Joe was the traditional army name in WW2.   I wonder if they have G.I. Jose in Spanish speaking countries?

Tossing It Out

Rich Drees said...

Number three is totally wrong. Marvel was publishing a Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD comic in 1965, some 17 years before GI JOE premiered.

monkeymigraine said...

You know, you're right. We'll edit that to point out Shooter's mistake.

Liam said...

"Hasbro didn't want them. They had market research that claimed female and villain action figures don't sell, so amazingly they only wanted action figures of G.I. JOE. "

This is SO no longer valid. Women are almost always short boxed and everyone buys the bad guy. The peg warmers these days are the upstanding good guys. 

April Dunno said...

Didn't really have any GI Joes as a kid, but recall the show (and now the song is stuck in my head).  I didn't know any of that stuff, so...now I'm better informed.  Thanks for a great post!

Anonymous said...

Check out Larry Hama's interview for the background on the team that was the model for GI Joe http://www.brokenfrontier.com/lowdown/p/detail/larry-hama-and-the-not-so-average-joes
Nick Fury's son was the leader, not Nick Fury, and the team was a secret anti-terrorist group that was based in an underground secret based under Fort Wadsworth, NY. They fought Hydra, which is what led to the simple renaming to get Cobra.


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