To many who were not kids during the era (and for some who were), the 1980s cartoon landscape is looked at as an era of cheap, action-driven drivel. An example often cited as exhibit A of this argument is Sunbow’s syndicated GI Joe cartoon. People say that each episode was a half hour commercial for the toys. They say that the show was reflective of Reagan-era patriotic exceptionalism and military bloat. They say that the animation was often clunky, off-model and full of errors. To the people who say this, I say that you are absolutely right. However, you people forget one important thing – the GI Joe cartoon was awesome. One of the awesomest cartoons ever made, in fact. For all the reasons to hate on GI Joe, there are far more reasons to love it. Here are 4 things the GI Joe cartoon did right:
GI Joe was an action show, pure and simple. The average episode had at least 3 separate battles. With 95 episodes, this adds up to a lot of fighting, and when you keep in mind that they couldn’t show actual bullets (they used red and blue lasers, as I’m sure most of you recall) and couldn’t kill anyone (every exploding plane had a parachute-strapped guy harmlessly pop out; every laser blast would miss their target), the amount of cartoon violence could have easily become repetitive and dumb. Amazingly, the GI Joe writers and directors would not let this happen. The amount of variation that they got out of these battles was amazing. GI Joe fought Cobra in the sky, on the ground and on/under the sea (oh yeah, and in outer space!) They fought on mountains, deserts, tundra, jungle, ancient ruins, office buildings, and in the deepest trenches of the ocean. They fought in jets, tanks, hang gliders, jeeps, boats, aircraft carriers, submarines, hovercraft, helicopters, on motorcycles, horses, trains, and, if memory serves correct, even those little, seesaw-like railroad handcarts. They used laser rifles, bazookas, grenades, bombs, swords, knives, and their bare knuckles. And, even though Cobra played the bad guys in every single episode, the Joes also found themselves fighting the elements (such as sandstorms), intricate deathtraps, robots, monsters, ghosts, Ancient Egyptian Gods and pretty much every animal alive (plus dinosaurs…). I defy you to find a single cartoon with more varied battles and pure destruction per episode. Yes, GI Joe was representative of Reagan-era military bloat – but in the best possible way. A tank gets blown up? No problem. There are a ZILLION more. An entire squadron of jet fighters spontaneously exploded due to one of Destro’s giant rayguns? Ehh. There’s more where they came from. Realistically, with the amount of weapons and vehicles GI Joe had, I’d be surprised the US government had a budget for anything else… and considering how often their equipment exploded or melted to slag, I’m surprised the US didn’t go bankrupt. Honestly, every episode had hundreds of millions or BILLIONS of dollars in damages… Sure, in real life, this is terrible, but in a cartoon… it’s kind of cool.
The 1980s was really the beginning of widespread racial integration in cartoons. While just about everyone would agree that diversity in entertainment is nothing but a good thing, there are definitely good ways and bad ways of dealing with this diversity, and in the 1980s, it was mostly bad. Really bad. Most of the time, it was a rainbow coalition of token characters. There was one black guy. One Latino. One Asian. Maybe a Native American… It always seemed stiff and forced. This was not so with GI Joe. GI Joe was integrated in a way that was at least 20 years ahead of its time. There were multiple African Americans (Stalker, Roadblock, Doc, Iceberg, Alpine(?)), Native Americans (Spirit, Airborne), Asian Americans (Quick Kick, Jinx), Latin Americans (Law, Zap, Shipwreck(?), Alpine(?)) and Mustachioed Americans (pretty much everyone). The placement of these characters did not seem forced, and with the exception of Spirit, they did not fit into easy stereotypes. These characters were on the GI Joe team because they were the best that the military had to offer. The way the GI Joe creatives treated a diverse cast was as well as you’d see in a children’s cartoon, even today.
On to women, if ‘80s cartoons treated minority integration with the clumsiness of a virgin lad trying to take off a bra, they dealt with women even worse. Find me a cartoon from the ’80s (and ’90s even), and I will find you a special episode where a male character tells a female character that she can’t do something because she’s “just a girl,” only to have her save his life at the end of the episode, rubbing his face in GIRL POWER! GI Joe never did this (at least the Sunbow series didn’t. If memory serves, the (awful) DIC episodes did). There were four female members of GI Joe (Scarlett, Lady Jaye, Cover Girl and Jinx), and like the other minorities, they were treated with respect (and, by not hammering this home with special episodes or feminist dialogue, they treated the audience with respect as well). They were members of the team based on their abilities, and that was the end of it. In fact, GI Joe was so ahead of its time that there are four more women in combat roles in GI Joe than there are in all of the US military today.
There were a LOT of characters in the GI Joe cartoon. By my count, there were 60 members of GI Joe and 20 in Cobra’s high command. There was not a core team of characters, and every episode dealt with a different group of Joes and Cobras. They didn’t spend a lot of time on character development and growth, but that really wasn’t the point of the show. Realistically, the point of the show was to get kids to buy the action figures, vehicles and playsets. Now, the easy way to deal with this many characters is to make them a menagerie of different one-dimensional personalities. You know – this one is a by-the-book soldier; this one is a Zen master type who speaks only in platitudes; this one is a slob that loves to fart! GI Joe never did this with any of their characters (except for Bazooka, who may have been functionally retarded, which once again proves how integrated their unit was…). They seemed more like actual people – people who spent the majority of their time shooting lasers at oncoming jet fighters, but people nonetheless. They weren’t nuanced, but they weren’t one-dimensional either. The show didn’t have many instances of dealing with a character’s back-story, but I felt like the writers had a pretty good handle on who the characters were. Some characters were more sarcastic than others. Some were more serious. Some pairs of characters played off each other in fun ways (like Alpine and Bazooka, Leatherneck and Wetsuit, and Flint and Lady Jaye). In a way, keeping the characters kind of broad made them more realistic. Yes, it became somewhat difficult to differentiate between, say, Ripcord and Snow Job based solely on their personalities (luckily there were also bright, individualized costumes), but think of it this way — the members of GI Joe are basically co-workers. Can you define your co-workers in a few character traits?
If there is one true reason to watch GI Joe, it’s this: The show was freaking weird, man. It was just all over the place. The way I heard it, Hasbro (the makers of the toys) would give a list to the Sunbow writers of which characters and vehicles to use in each episode. “We need Deep Six, Recondo, Snow Job, Barbeque and the Bridge Layer in this one, chop chop.” With that, they would have to construct an episode with a desert specialist, an arctic specialist, a jungle specialist, and a firefighter, not to mention put in an excuse to involve a tank that can lay bridges (which, apparently, is a real thing…). While these kind of notes from management could be seen as creatively stifling and (lets face it) kind of crazy, it instead gave the show a feel that anything could happen, anywhere, anytime.
The plots would take the team all over the world, to outer space, back through time, and to alternate dimensions. But that’s not the half of it. The writers (who included Flint Dille, Paul Dini, Christy Marx, Marv Wolfman, Ron Friedman – no slouches) came up with storylines that were just plain bizarre, embracing the five-minutes-into-the-future, sci-fi aspect of the show. There was the episode where Iceberg turned into a whale. There was the one where Cobra Commander wanted to draw his face on the moon (my favorite part of this episode is how other members of in the Cobra organization kept telling Cobra Commander how stupid the plan was, and how much money it would cost). There was the one where Cobra had a telethon to raise money to build a computer virus that would literally blow up the computers of intelligence agencies (which is not how computer viruses work, but it was the ‘80s, so let’s forgive them…). In one two-part episode, the Joes enter an alternate dimension where Cobra has taken over the world and the members of GI Joe are all dead (some Joes find their own skeletal corpses, which is an image that will tattoo itself in a 5 year old’s mind, I can tell you). At the end of the story, some of the Joes elect to stay and take part in an underground movement to take Cobra down. We never see these characters again. How cool is that?
The best example of weirdness in GI Joe is pretty much any episode that features Shipwreck. In one WTF episode, he falls in love with, essentially, a genetically modified, Cobra-created mermaid. In another, thanks to a malfunctioning “MacGuffin Device,” the freaky characters Shipwreck invents to entertain a bunch of orphans come to life. The best example of awesome, mind-blowing weirdness was the two-parter, “No Place Like Springfield.” In this episode, it’s many years after GI Joe has defeated Cobra, and Shipwreck has amnesia. While Shipwreck is trying to piece together his life, weird things keep happening to him, such as witnessing retired Joes MELT IN FRONT OF HIS FACE! It turns out that it’s all an elaborate ruse from Cobra, to learn a secret formula to a chemical that will turn regular water into a highly explosive super-bomb, which was implanted into Shipwreck’s subconscious by a mad scientist. If it seems weird, all I can say is that it’s probably even crazier than it sounds, and that kids who watched GI Joe did not see anything else like it on TV. The mental image of GI Joes melting into puddles of purple goo is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life… I can seriously see myself as a 90 year old with dementia, not recognizing my own family, and still have a perfect recollection of this moment.
So, while GI Joe sometimes gets pooh-poohed for the era in which it was made (the Reagan-crazy ‘80s), the purpose (to sell toys) and the animation quality (they made 85 episodes in the span of two years, with semi-realistic, line-heavy designs, and tons of characters and action – give them a break), this cartoon remains an action-packed, ahead-of-its-time, gonzo thrill ride that’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
And now you know…