4 Things The GI JOE Cartoon Did Right

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:

Action

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.

Diversity

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.

Characters

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?

Weirdness

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…

Get it at Amazon:
GI JOE: The Complete First Series[DVD] | [Collector’s Edition DVD]

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the author

Women want him. Men want to be him. Dogs want to be walked by him. Given his love for cartoons, it's not hard to see why he's so popular... Danny Friedman's creative works (including a GI Joe webcomic) can be found on www.flushfido.com

  • Jay

    Totally true. Now how about a little Transformers write up? And no not the god awful Shia movies, but the real deal from the 80’s. Especially the movie. When I was 6 and I watched Optimus die, I cried for a week.

    • D. Friedman

      The Transformers Movie (animated) is intense. It’s like a pack of wild dogs tearing apart your childhood idols… so many transformers died. Plus, as I like to say, it was the last and greatest role of Orson Welles…

    • Ian Cook

      To this day, Transformers:The Movie gives me chills. There was nothing quite like watching this in the theater as a little kid.

    • Pax Humana

      Your elitism is why your mother should have swallowed and your father should have pulled out sooner. Also, were you aware that the G1 Transformers series actually stayed around for another year or two in Japan and also about as long as G.I. Joe did at Marvel in its comic book form? Furthermore, if my memory serves correctly, there were also a few Japanese exclusive Transformer animated movies as well, but they are not as well known and not as good as the first movie.

  • Ed Travis

    Had a blast with this article because I really was a GI Joe kid. A couple of things:

    1) I never knew there were 2 different series, much less that one was better than another. Are the Sunbow episodes on DVD/Blu-ray? Or just the other series? In the early days of DVD I tried to watch season 1 volume 1 of one of these series and I realized you really can’t go back to your childhood…

    2) While I’m pretty much with you on the diversity thing… I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Roadblock was maybe more offensively stereotyped than even Spirit was. A black dude who rhymes everything he says? Does not really “jive” (forgive me) with my sensibilities today. But maybe that was only in the other series?

    3) That title sequence in the You Tube video gave me goosebumps. So much awesome.

    • Commander

      Roadblock was heavily inspired from Muhammad Ali and how he could rhyme much of what he said in public. It wasn’t meant to be racist at all. Watch the documentary ‘When We Were Kings’ and you will see what I mean.

      • Ed Travis

        I can see what you mean regarding the Ali inspiration. That said, a lot of things that aren’t “meant to be racist” still kinda are. Let’s just all agree that it was probably a good thing that Dwayne Johnson didn’t speak entirely in rhymes in GI JOE: RETALIATION. Hah.

        • Robert Hatch

          I think you also have to keep in mind his whole rhyming gimmick came about before rap was so mainstream. Back in those days the idea was actually revolutionary and different (Reference Ali of course). Also, him being a gourmet chief also rubbed against the stereotype. Let’s face it, French cuisine (Yes, he cooked French cuisine) isn’t exactly gansta.

        • JediJones

          It would have been cool if Johnson did speak in rhyme but that would’ve required a clever screenplay. A lot of things that aren’t meant to be racist are taken as racist by social justice witchhunters out for scalps.

    • D. Friedman

      Ed — Yeah, there was unfortunately two different series. One was the Sunbow series of the mid ’80s, and the other was the DIC series from the early ’90s (theme song: “Got to get tough — YO JOE!”). The Sunbow series was awesome for the reasons posted above. The DIC episodes were terrible for reasons I may get to later, if I can bring myself to rewatch the series. With that said, as I kid, I couldn’t really distinguish one from the other…

      As for Roadblock, I definitely see your point, but I never considered his rhyming to be part of any kind of racial stereotyping. I just figured he has some weird form of tourettes or OCD…

      As for the video, it is one of the awesomest things ever animated. It’s from the opening of the movie (which I will argue is way more enjoyable than the live action ones — despite the presence of Cobra La…)

      • Ed Travis

        I would welcome a full rebuttal of the DIC series, I am intrigued.

        And I always kind of loved the GI Joe animated movie.

        Although I count myself one of the world’s only fans of RISE OF THE COBRA, I couldn’t bring myself to get into GI JOE: RETALIATION at all, even though I love the Rock and Ray Park as Snake Eyes.

        • Ian Cook

          I think “Retaliation” was a better movie, and more like the Comic, while I don’t think “Rise” was anything like the comic or the cartoon.

        • Pax Humana

          The DIC series complimented the Sunbow one, it is also an important part of G.I. Joe history, and at least it does not suck like the live action movies. How is that for a rebuttal?

    • Eric Sansoni

      Rhyming makes you think of black people but you think it’s other people who are racist? Okay…

  • V.N. Pryor

    First of all, Wet Suit and Leatherneck suck. You know this. Don’t cloud your argument with half-truths and obfuscation.

    Second, if people don’t know about the DIC episodes, for the love of Pete, DON’T BRING UP THE DIC EPISODES! Ed has to live with that forever now…
    Finally, and least importantly, I am not a virgin, and I still have trouble unhooking bras. That metaphor is defective.
    In closing: nice work, nerd.

    • Pax Humana

      Hey, shut your damn mouth! Maybe people have a right to know about the DIC episodes? Just because you and a few elitist Pharisee jerks on here do not like the DIC series does not mean that everyone must be denied the right to see them again.

  • William George

    You missed out writers Buzz Dixon, Roger Slifer & Michael Charles Hill (The Legend who created Cold Slither). Great article though. Well done and so true.

    • buzzdixon

      Steve Gerber also contributed mightily to the series, as well as Doug Booth and a host of others who may have written only one or two episodes.

      • D. Friedman

        Absolutely. The writers and story editors/supervisors deserve a huge chunk of credit for making this series so much better than it had any right to be, and the talented Steve Gerber wrote my two favorite episodes.

        Thanks for your work on this, Buzz!

        • JediJones

          Steve Gerber was the story editor of season 1 so essentially had a hand in every script. I think he said there were but a handful of scripts that he accepted without asking for changes or making them himself. Buzz Dixon took over Gerber’s role in season 2 and on the 1987 movie. I believe that the first three mini-series, or 15 episodes when split up, were written by Ron Friedman, before Gerber and Dixon were on staff, but I’m not sure whether anyone exercised editorial control over Friedman. It’s amazing how much more cartoony and comical each mini-series got, until Gerber’s season 1 reoriented the show into more reality-based plots. Dixon has described the difference as akin to the difference between Roger Moore James Bonds and Sean Connery James Bonds.

          • D. Friedman

            That’s interesting stuff, JediJones. I think Friedman, Gerber, and Dixon all did an excellent job.

  • Robert Hatch

    Lover the article as it hit on the reasons I loved the show back in the day and still do. Some fans will give you a hard time for loving the toon for lame reasons like ejecting pilots and missing the troops when shot at (Of course they ignore the FCC rules of the time which prevented more realism) and point to the comic. The comic was alright but not the shining piece of perfection some people try to claim it is. I never will forget the Cobra Civil war in which CC and Serpantor kept calling themselves “Has been” and “Better a has been than a never was,” riveting dialogue for such a “more mature” look at the franchise. But to me the cartoon is like a good B movie, it understands what it is, doesn’t try to aim for more loftier heights and gives you what you ask for, 20+ minutes of entertainment. That brought me in as a Joe fan, the action, the weirdness, the characters (Which I still argue many were handled better in the toon).

  • Eric Sansoni

    That Reagan-era “military bloat” brought down the U.S.S.R. Bringing back great memories of Ronald Reagan and the ’80s when patriotism and pride in America were considered virtues by most is a big plus in my book. Nowadays Hollyweird won’t produce a show as pro-U.S. military as this because of their Obama-era belief that all countries are equally “exceptional.” So we might never again get a cartoon with such awesome dialogue as Lifeline asking Lowlight if he ever considered another way of solving disputes besides fighting to which Lowlight responds, “Yeah, Lifeline, it’s called a gun.”

    • Michael Lovaglio

      I had not realized that President Reagan has ownership over such American staples as patriotism and pride. Did President Carter, a career naval officer, not have pride in America as well? Was he not a patriot? Furthermore, if the Judeo-Christian American tradition that “all persons are created equal” stands, then would not all persons be “equally exceptional”? I am grateful for your response Mr. Sansoni because prior to reading it I had not known that there was a moment from the cartoon where one Joe questions violence when asking another if there were another means of solving “disputes besides fighting,” to which the other replied, “Yeah, It’s called a gun.” I am surprised that a “real American hero” would be so limited in their problem solving capabilities. Rather than share in the lustful enthusiasm of such violent rhetoric, I am disappointed by it. As Americans, as an exceptional people, we deserve more.

      • Michael Lovaglio

        On a completely different topic, Indiana Jones rules! “If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones!”

      • Pax Humana

        All of the Presidents are related by blood, they are all a part of various Illuminati organizations, and ditto for their cabinets and rivals. Furthermore, the left, right, middle, AND fringe are all EQUALLY corrupt.

  • CelticAnnie

    Well written! But please…leave DIC where it belongs…in the past. Although, to be honest, the animation was still better than Valor vs Venom….. Michael, Reagan may not have “owned” patriotism, but he sure lived it! Backing down was not something he did…and neither did the Joes. I also critiqued both series, the special runs, and the movies over on my own board

    • Pax Humana

      Piss off, Annie. The DIC episodes are a part of the legacy, like it or not.

  • Josh Shelton

    I’ll NEVER forget the No Place Like Springfield episode.

    Shipwreck spots Roadblock driving out of a car wash.

    Roadblock: “Sure was toasty!” Meeeellllltttttt bluh bluh bluh bluh

    Resulting in my 6 yr. old mind being scarred for life.

  • Pax Humana

    The DIC episodes did not suck and we deserve the right to see them again online.

  • haggus

    Great article. I have come to hate the word “jingoism”. Anything remotely pro-America or at least not sufficiently anti-American gets termed as “jingoistic”, generally by people who have benefited greatly from this country (upper middle class white liberals). It was a kid’s cartoon for crissakes and it was reasonably pro American, rather than the leftist drivel that usually ends up on tv.

  • Remember, the story of No Place Like Springfield was revisited in Transformers’ season 3 episode, Only Human, complete with a now-retired Cobra Commander.

  • John Rhea

    How sad is it that “Diversity” gets its own (excellent) paragraph but nothing is said about the remarkable and surprisingly consistent inclusion of great historical figures and their legacies. Militaries have always been on the forefront of diversity and that’s great but how is demonstrating political correctness more praise worthy than exposing kids to history?

    • D. Friedman

      John, as a former History teacher, I can totally appreciate your point. Please don’t think that I left out history and historical figures because I (or society) values it less than diversity or anything else. To me, history (and understanding history) is of utmost importance to any healthy society. And your point about GI Joe and history is a good one. Especially in the Serpentor 5-parter. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • John Rhea

        Your piece was excellent, sir. My comment was intended to highlight current cultural priorities that appear to me quite myopic and reactionary. I apologize if my words seemed to impugne your values and hope to see more posts here from you in the future. Best regards!