Comic Book Curious

The History of GI-Joe, Part One: Before They Were Joes, The Real World

February 14, 2022

Note: This series covers GI-Joe from 1982 forward, not the original line of dolls from the 1960’s.

It all started in Vietnam.

The Real World

Larry Hama served in Vietnam as a firearms and explosives expert in the US Army from 1969 to 1971. After which, he began working as a commercial and comics artist. He did some light acting work in the mid-70’s, but his primary career was always as an artist, and in 1980 he started working as an editor for Marvel Comics.

By 1981, Star Wars was dominating popular culture with movies, comics, and a toy line that was making Kenner a fortune. Hasbro needed something of their own to save the company, and turned to their in-house advertising agency, Griffin-Bacal, for ideas. At the time, FCC regulations stated that toy advertisements could only have seven seconds worth of animation, and the other 23 seconds had to be live-action and feature the toys themselves. Joe Bacal came up with the idea that since there were no regulations on commercials for books, they could create television commercials for GI-Joe comic books, not toys. The fact that the comics would feature the same characters and vehicles and accessories…well, that couldn’t be helped.

It was Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter who made the suggestion that, rather than have GI-Joe be the name of one of the soldiers, it would be the name of the team. However, when it comes to the individual team members, it is interesting to note that there are conflicting stories on who designed the now iconic characters…

According to one story, Ron Rudat was a toy designer for Hasbro, and once the new line of action figures was approved for production he set to work designing the look of the ‘Joes, but not the names. Ron stated that he came up with up to ten different sketches for each character, and then he and the rest of the Hasbro toy team would mix and match features from each to create each individual character.

However, according to other sources, Larry Hama had already pitched another comic to Marvel - a spinoff of the popular Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. comics featuring a small team of military specialists who were known as Fury Force. Larry’s original design sketches for the members of Fury Force are entirely analogous to the original team of GI-Joes, and it is quite easy to see how they evolved from his original idea into the GI-Joe team.

A sketch of the GI-Joe fury force

Credit: Larry Hama

There is also some dispute around the ‘Joes legendary enemy, Cobra. The popular myth is that since GI-Joe was derived from Fury Force, then Cobra was derived from Hydra. However, the initial toy line for GI-Joe didn’t include anyone for them to fight - Hasbro didn’t design any bad guys because “villain figures don’t sell.” It was Archie Goodwin, a writer for Marvel at the time, who insisted that the GI-Joe team needed someone to fight - especially if there was going to be an ongoing comic series - and he pulled the name Cobra seemingly out of thin air. With the whole team at Marvel insisting on creating an enemy for GI-Joe to fight, Hasbro gave in and agreed to produce two figures simply known as Cobra and Cobra Officer. The two figures were almost entirely identical - the only difference being that the Cobra soldier had a red logo on his chest, and the Cobra Officer had a silver logo on his chest (the two were also packaged with different weapons).

Marvel’s instincts proved radically correct, as Cobra figures, vehicles, and accessories would come to represent 40% of overall sales of GI-Joe toys.

The cobra sigil.

Credit: Larry Hama

So now that the stage was set and the cast of characters ready to roll, Larry Hama set to writing the comic that told the story of who these “real American heroes” were, and where they came from. Larry personally wrote every figure’s file card - a mini-dossier printed on the packaging for the figures, featuring personal statistics and a bit of backstory, and then used that inspiration to fuel the stories in the comics.

What he ultimately created, however, was far deeper and greater than anybody had ever imagined when this all started back in 1981…

To be continued.

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