As should be obvious by my reflective bloggery and general childishness, I am of the Nostalgia Geek Generation, those early Gen Xers whose lives revolve around the pop culture they ingested as kids. I’m not proud of it. I’ve long been critical of those who overindulge in pop culture junk and fall victim to the nostalgia-based marketing of Hollywood, K-Tel, Cartoon Network and Pez. I stick my nose high in the air as they stuff their juvenile craniums with Scrappy Doo and Gilligan reruns, Transformers movies and the oxymoronic Essential Marvel Team-Up reprints. But sometimes I am weak. Sometimes those bastards hit me right where I live and recycle a favorite childhood token that I can’t resist. They did it with the Ultraman ’66 DVD set, they did it with the Captain Atom/Blue Beetle/Question Archives, and now they’ve really done it with Hasbro’s reissue of the 1974 Adventure Team GI Joes in all their kung-fu gripping glory.
Now, there's some debate about this story. Some say it’s proof that I was a spoiled, self-centered child who didn’t appreciate the toy’s value. I say that my willingness to discard Joe without a second thought shows that I have never subscribed to empty materialism. As further evidence, I offer the story of the Playdough Fun Factory I got around the same time, which sat, unopened and forgotten, while I played with mounds of red clay I had dug up in the backyard.
In any case, as I grew a little older and slightly less stupid, I learned to merge the two worlds of outdoor adventure and prepackaged playthings by keeping my second GI Joe in his natural habitat: huge mounds of dirt. The great thing about so many toy lines in that pre-Reagan era – GI Joe, Big Jim, Johnny West, Major Matt Mason – even Barbie – was their lack of conceptual baggage. Unlike the post 1980 toy lines, GI Joe had no tv cartoon or film franchise to explain the rules of play. At that time, Joe had no prewritten history spelled out by show bibles or comic book scripts, no predetermined villains, girlfriends or sidekicks. He came with only the vague suggestion of “adventure," sometimes packaged with a few props to push you in the right direction, but he was otherwise an empty cipher for a kid’s imagination. You didn’t need a Batmobile, you didn’t need the Green Goblin, just Joe and a mound of dirt would do.
By this time in his shelf life, the major bummer that was Vietnam had forced Joe out of his traditional role as a tool of the MIC and given him a richer post-war assignment on the Adventure Team. Here he engaged in all manner of he-man entanglements, hunting white tigers, wrestling squid, searching for Egyptian treasure and, when the mood struck him, poppin’ a wheelie. He managed to promote the release of surging testosterone without bringing to mind napalm raining on Charlie. Perhaps we were supposed to believe that Joe had retired from the military, or maybe serving in some top secret branch of the CIA. But I liked to think he became disillusioned by the Warren Report, went AWOL and was now a marked man who “knew too much." Either that or he was discharged after he came out of the closet. That was the beauty of it. You could give him whatever back story you wanted.
Things got a little goofy later on. The bionics craze added Atomic Man to the Adventure Team, a bit of a cyber-dweeb with robot limbs who wore a Hawaiian shirt and bathing trunks, and Bulletman, a generic superhero type who hit stuff with his head. Hasbro tossed in a couple of cro-mag dopes in bondage gear that the Joes could capture in nets and so on, much to my irritation. And this era of the Adventure Team gave us Eagle Eye GI Joe, a bug-eyed goon who looked from left to right with the aid of a lever in the back of his head. It was this Joe who suffered the second great toy tragedy of my youth.
My neighborhood pal, Jeff – the sort of “pal” who regularly put foreign substances in your Coke when you weren’t looking – took a trip with me to Folly Beach. We took our Joes. In the water, Jeff showed me a trick he had dreamed up. He could stretch Joe’s neck on its elastic band, allowing an air bubble into his head, drop the figure underwater and Joe would bob to the surface after a few seconds. Being that I was now an older, wiser toy owner, who deeply regretted having thrown away that Joe at age five, I admonished Jeff that it was crazy to risk one’s action figure to the savage sea. But, stupidly, I allowed him to demonstrate the stunt with my brand new Joe. He pulled the head up to form the air bubble and dropped the toy into the water. We waited. Joe didn’t bob back up. We both immediately realized the problem. Eagle Eye GI Joe had holes in his head.
I agonized all night, imagining poor Joe being swept away by the unforgiving Atlantic. My father promised to check the beach the next morning to see if the toy had washed ashore (I’m sure, in retrospect, my father only pretended to go), but one thing was for sure. After tossing one Joe in the trash and dumping another in the ocean, he sure as hell wasn’t going to buy me another goddamned GI Joe.
And so I had to wait 30 years for another shot. To make matters worse, the Adventure Team reissues are Wal-Mart exclusives, forcing me to make repeated trips to the most evil of all retail giants searching for this lost piece of my consumerist childhood. But damn it, there’s just no escaping the bonds we make with those colorful bits of happy plastic. Finally getting my mitts on the classic Joe again, complete with original box art, was an undeniable rush. It’s all there, the “life-like” head fuzz, the shoulder strap and pistol, the Frankenstein combat boots, the official Adventure Team necklace. They’ve recreated him down to the last detail. And while freeing Joe from his packaging, I noticed a disclaimer on the box I wish I had been able to read all those years ago.
“Some poses may require hand support”.
I pulled my new Joe out and set him up on the coffee table. He stood up perfectly, all by himself.