GI Joe was the epitome of the action cartoon of the 80s. In the show, masked terrorists of the group Cobra constantly try to take over the world. Whenever they do, though, the amazing team of soldiers known as GI Joe rally to save the day. The plot gets a little repetitive over time, but the characters and the increasing numbers of other factions in later episodes kept the show fresh.
One could argue that this is the series that got the 80’s action cartoon genre rolling. While the actual series didn’t start until 1985, Marvel, the makers of the comic book which began in 1982, aired 30-second TV commercials to help promote the GI Joe toys. Those commercials became popular enough to green light a 5-episode mini-series in 1983 which, in turn, became popular enough to warrant the actual series. So, even though the likes of He-Man and Transformers started in 1983 and 1984, respectively, GI Joe technically got started on TV first. So, based on that sequence of events leading to the entire decade of 80s cartoons being so action-focused, GI Joe was as important a fundamental change in cartoons for the 80s that Batman: The Animated Series was for the 90s and beyond.
The Joes, led by General Hawk and field commander Duke, are all elite soldiers. Many of the Joes have unique and distinct specialties. While some of those special operatives come in for particular missions that fit their skills, the main members of the team appear in most episodes. These include fan favorites like the mute ninja, Snake Eyes, Scarlett, the red-haired fierce soldier, and Gung-Ho, the Cajun tough man. Roadblock, Flint, and Lady Jaye come in fairly quickly and become mainstays as well.
As with many 80s action cartoons, the show doubled as an advertisement for the Hasbro toy line of action figures of the same name. Whereas GI Joe had been a toy line for quite some time prior to the 80s, this relaunch completely revamped the figures. They changed from the large, almost barbie-style figures of the past, complete with kung-fu grip, to the 3.75-inch action figures we all grew to love. They had play sets with secret bases, vehicles that ranged from tanks to fighter jets, and countless characters.
The cool thing about having a vast array of action figures turned characters is you get to watch in excitement as your new favorite toy blasts onto the TV screen in all their glory. The only issue is if the voice you’d given them in your head was vastly different than the voice actor chosen for the part. Also, though, the show focused on an entire elite team, so an ensemble cast makes perfect sense.
With new toys coming out all the time, sometimes new versions of existing characters also came out. For example, the Gung Ho that everyone is familiar with had him bare-chested, wearing a vest with his camo pants. The next version had him in Marine dress blues. So, at least he got some wardrobe changes in the show at some point. After all, the bare-chested guy shouldn’t be parading around in snow-covered battlefields. Granted, dress blues doesn’t sound right for the battlefield either, but the cartoon didn’t care. A guy in a parka named Snow Job ran around in hot climates wearing the same thing he always wore. Quick Kick, a bare-footed karate expert would walk around, still no shoes, in the snow. Not everybody could get new outfits like Gung Ho, so I guess they just had to work with what they had.
On to the villains. Cobra Commander, a disenchanted and disenfranchised car salesman, quickly amassed power and began an organization known as Cobra which is bent on taking over the world and destroying other governments. Cobra, and most of their allies, kept their faces covered with masks. This plot device kept the evil faceless so that the concept of evil wasn’t too scary or personal for the kids watching.
The upper echelons of Cobra, however, were individualized and almost caricatures of evil instead of masked, faceless villains. The Baroness, for example, had a thick German accent which, according to 80s villain rules, required she be a villain. Major Blood was the Cobra field commander with a whiny voice and an eye patch. Dr. Mindbender brainwashed people while being bald, mustachioed, and wearing a monocle!
Cobra operated with the help, at least at first, of a Scottish weapons manufacturer named Destro. For the majority of the show, the steel-faced baddie is essentially the second in command of Cobra. However, he also has his own army, the Iron Grenadiers. As disagreements grow between him and Cobra Commander, he often separates from Cobra entirely, becoming a third faction in the ongoing battles.
Another group that worked with Cobra but sometimes found itself on the outs and becoming another faction, is the Dreadnoks. These guys were a brutal bike gang led by a master of disguise named Zartan. They were fun and wild. They also broke the Cobra rule of masked villains because none of these guys wore them. Actually, they had no uniforms at all. I know this show came decades before Sons of Anarchy, but to use that show about bikers as a comparison, that’s kind of what these guys looked like. That or my uncle, who always resembled a member of ZZ Top turned biker.
Over time, Zartan’s past became deeply entwined with Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. Snake Eyes was the ninja of the Joes who used to train with Storm Shadow, the mostly villain but sometimes good guy ninja of Cobra. I honestly don’t remember if the show delved into Zartan’s connection to the ninjas or if it was just the comic book series by Marvel. Likely, it was just the comics.
The comic book series by Larry Hama truly explored all the characters and the intricacies of their relationships as well as the tenuous relationships of the different villainous factions. While the comic book series was well written, and the characters were developed in interesting ways, the cartoon wasn’t as deep. The battles were often one-note and repetitive, and everything was kept light. For a show about everyone shooting at each other, no one died or even really got hurt. Also, 80s action cartoons seemed to require a silly character to offset the quasi-seriousness of the violence. That need often came across as simply goofy. Unfortunately, tough guys Gung Ho and Bazooka fell prey to this obligatory silliness and weren’t as cool as they should have been as a result.
The show also included PSA announcements brought to kids by their hero Joes. At the end of each PSA, after the Joe had stopped some kid from messing with a dangling powerline or whatever, the Joe would always say, “And now you know. And Knowing is half the battle.” These PSA’s became so well-known and popular that the catch phrase grew into the popular vernacular.
The show ran for two seasons with a total of 85 episodes. Much like The Transformers, GI Joe pushed an animated movie in the middle of its run that resulted in a massive character and story change for the series after the release of the movie. Unlike Transformers, though, this movie went straight-to-video. Why? Because it wasn’t as good.
The fall out of that, I believe, is why GI Joe’s run wasn’t as long as the Transformers’. In the movie, Destro and Dr. Mindbender resurrect a being made from the DNA of Attila the Hun, Julius Caesar, Hannibal, and Napoleon. The character, Serpentor, usurps Cobra Commander in the movie and becomes the main antagonist in season 2 of the show, creating yet another faction of villains. While the power struggles were exciting to watch, the movie turned Cobra Commander, however briefly, into a giant snake. Pure goofy storytelling.
GI Joe was one of the biggest action hits of the 80s cartoons and a colossal success in the toy industry. It’s gone on to have multiple remake series as well as two live-action movies. Soon, there’ll be a new live-action movie, simply titled Snake Eyes, that will launch a new connected universe of movies for Hasbro properties. Didn’t know that? Well, now you do. And knowing is half the battle!
GI Joe: The True Start of the 80s Action Cartoon Genre
- Writing - 8/108/10
- Storyline - 8/108/10
- Acting - 8/108/10
- Music - 9/109/10
- Production - 8.5/108.5/10
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