G.I. Joe has been fighting the evil forces of COBRA for 30 years now. It's a multi-front war, waged on TV sets in classic cartoons, on bedroom floors with action figures, on paper in comic books, and on the big screen in live action movies. In the new G.I. Joe Retaliation, Bruce Willis plays the titular hero, and you can buy an action figure version of him to round out the classic collection. As Smithsonian's Design Decoded blog writes, though, the G.I. Joe legacy actually stretches back further than the 1980s--the character is only about a decade younger than 58-year-old Bruce Willis.
Hasbro introduced the original G.I. Joe action figure in 1964. And by original, we mean original--the first Joe introduced the idea of a plastic, articulated figure with a range of motion unlike other dolls.
"When the figure hit the market in 1964 it was a runaway success. Within two years, G.I. Joe accounted for almost 66 percent of Hasbro’s profits," writes Design Decoded. "The key characteristic driving its popularity was the 19 points of articulation and high-quality assembly. According to the Hassenfeld Brothers’ patent, it was their aim to create a “toy figure or doll having movable joints that closely simulate the movable portions of the human anatomy.” That was probably the first and last time the figure was ever referred to as a doll. The company strictly prohibited the term and refused to sell their action figure to any retailer that used it."
The first run of action figures were a full 12 inches tall and modeled after real military roles: Rocky was an Army man, Skip was a sailor, and Ace was an Air Force fighter pilot. It wasn't until the 1980s, when Joe was reborn as a COBRA-battling Real American Hero, that the figures moved to a 3 3/4" inch scale. While Joe had started the action figure craze 20 years before, it was the popularity of recent Star Wars figures that helped bring him back.
Design Decoded's full story fills in the gaps of where Joe went during the 1970s, but it also points out that FCC deregulation played a big role in G.I. Joe's 1980s success. Rules instituted during the Reagan administration allowed militaristic and licensed children's cartoons to populate the airwaves, paving the way for G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe, Transforms, and all sorts of other animated series. It's an interesting period of television history--read more about it here.