G.I. Who

I did like my G.I. Joe. It was one of the 11-and-a-half inch versions slightly altered from the line launched in 1964, with the fuzzy hair and beard; some of my friends had the original model with molded hair, and some would soon get the newer versions, like “Talking Commander” or with Kung Fu Grip. I didn’t have a Barbie for his girlfriend, but a lot of us did, hence our little poem “Why does Barbie have hard tits? Because G.I. Joe has Kung-Fu Grip.” which I don’t recommend you highlight.

Perhaps it will jar you, depending on age, to learn that my generation had no TV show or cartoon or any content-base to work with. Joe was just a toy, a “doll” to our parents, mercifully dubbed “action figure” by marketers. Soon there would be a certain scuffle over the proper size of such things, with a rush toward eight-inch, but for the six-year-old in 1970, this was what you could get. Him or Ken, anyway.

At about this point, the “Adventure” line began to focus on exotic locales rather than war, but the imagery and gear were still pure military and Joe was emphatically still an enlisted man. The next, short-lived line went into a more action-SF phase with Bulletman and whoever, fighting apolitical generic caveman aliens called the Intruders. By then I was aging out of G.I. Joe and (sadly) also out of the 8-inch Mego figures with apes, Star Trek, and Marvel heroes, and it barely registered.

1982 brought “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero,” with the 3-3/4 inch figures, A-Team-like teammates, patriotism, super-techno powers, missions, you know, Snake Eyes!! Hasbro and Marvel pulled out all the stops in adapting Larry Hama’s techno version of Nick Fury into a new Joe-branded comic, including a dedicated enemy in COBRA, rogues-gallery villains, animated commercials for the comic (!), the non-stopping line of figures (thirteen distinct Joes, “G.I. Joe” now being an institutional rather than personal name), the cartoon series, an arcade game … compared to the more-or-less fannish and whatever-we-feel-like effort regarding Planet of the Apes a decade earlier, this was a whole new world of finely-honed cross-product promo. Many of you ten or fifteen years younger than me consider it practically Biblical. But 1982 was the year I turned 18 and this impacted me not at all; I actually didn’t even know it existed.

So for my topic here, try to forget all that. Dial it back: 1970. Just Joe, a bit vaguely defined as the few versions from different branches of the military and corresponding different hair colors (and one black guy), and a limited range of standard military vehicles to sit him in. It features a few mysteries:

  • That beard is totally non-regulation and we all knew it. It had been added pretty soon after the launch of the clean-shaven line in 1964, but … why?
  • What’s up with the scar on his cheek? No one knew.
  • What did he do? He was “in the army” (or Navy, or whichever one you got), but we were in the thick of the post-Tet Vietnam War and a bit puzzled about what army-guys actually did if they weren’t, you know, in Vietnam for their one-year draftee stint.
    • You might not believe this but in 1970, not very many people found “fight communists! when they invade!” especially compelling. My own family was military and we considered the gung-ho kids to be loons.
  • You do know what dog tags are for, right? Why there are two?
  • His face was carefully molded into an expression that none of us could fathom – it wasn’t blazing-eyed patriotism, it wasn’t a fierce hero grin. Insofar as it wasn’t purely impassive, it was oddly … thoughtful.

I am going to speculate really vulgar-like this time. First, a bit of context:

  • The term “G.I.” was not an official military designation but rather a cultural artifact that arose during the war, probably originating from galvanized iron and/or general issue, associated with enlisted status.
  • Bill Mauldin’s cartoon series Willy and Joe ran in the then-independent, four-page newspaper Stars & Stripes and was syndicated in U.S. newspapers before the war’s end.
  • Eisenhower referenced the new slang term “G.I. Joe” in a 1945 speech.
  • Mauldin didn’t like the term being confounded with one of his protagonists in subsequent media (see Patches of Pride).

I’ll tell you more about the cartoon. First, Stars & Stripes wasn’t owned by the Army and was published by and for enlisted men (its owner at that time was a colonel but had founded it as an infantryman during WWI); it frequently ran into trouble due to its candid content. Second, Mauldin represented his own whole subplot, running afoul of none other than yon egregious asshole Gen. George Patton to keep his cartoons in print. Take a look at him and you can see why – that is a classic cartoonist’s wicked grin, stickin’ it to the man, and no one regretted the freedoms the U.S. was allegedly fighting for more than the brass when they read the latest Willy & Joe, featuring two dogfaces emphatically at the bottom of the heap. Mauldin would finish the war with a Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds, a Pulitzer, and the Legion of Merit – I suspect because the cartoons had escaped into the wild and were too popular to smear and bury, so the War Department had to grin and say “that Bill, what a guy.”

I haven’t tried to picture this war in a big, broad-minded way. I’m not old enough to understand what it’s all about, and I’m not experienced enough to judge its failures and successes. My reactions are those of a young guy who has been exposed to some of it, and I try to put those reactions into my drawings. Since I’m a cartoonist, maybe I can be funny after the war, but nobody who has seen this war can be cute about it while it’s going on. The only way I can try to be a little funny is to make something out of the humorous situations which come up even when you don’t think life could be any more miserable. It’s pretty heavy humor, and it doesn’t seem funny at all sometimes when you stop and think it over. – Mauldin, Up Front, 1945

These aren’t jolly “in the Army now” hijinks. Willy and Joe hate being there. Willy is the older one, married, angry at missing his kid’s birth among other things, who often cynically explains life to the younger Joe, who’s so worn-down and beat he barely listens. Few of the scenes depict combat, and when they do, it’s miserable and scary. They despise the officers, constantly sassing them. Exhausted, they slouch around and take every opportunity to rest, squatting and lounging right in their tracks. They get by in pure survival mode, stealing chickens, shooting livestock, fully aware that their occupation is onerous on the locals. They get as drunk on whatever they can scrounge, brewing up moonshine when they can’t, and not in a very funny way. And that’s before you get to the really pointy pieces.

You can see it in all the pop culture produced by enlisted men rather than Hollywood. WWII wasn’t fun. There’s not a hint or shred of joyous “it made a man of me” pride; instead, the men have fifty-year-old faces on twenty-year-old bodies. They may value the comradeship but have no illusions about the hooliganism; they may love their country, but they’d rather be living in it. They regard cheerful civilian patriots with near horror.

No normal man who has smelled and associated with death ever wants to see any more of it. In fact, the only men who are even going to want to bloody a nose in a fist fight after this war will be those who want people to think they were tough combat men, when they weren’t. The surest way to become a pacifist is to join the infantry. – Mauldin, Up Front

It’s evident in postwar fiction like Max Shulman’s The Feather Merchants and a thousand others, like the actual novel M*A*S*H (re: the Korean War) which no one seems to have read. Check out the original Beetle Bailey some time and you’ll see a lot more than goofball funnies. By my time, most of this was watered down into the pablum you’d find in Reader’s Digest‘s “Humor in Uniform.”

This is first of some posts about war comics as I indirectly experienced them, and as I managed to discover about them later. I’ll be talking about the 1950s titles which ran until the late 70s or so, and the surprising anti-war versions of the 1960s and 1970s. I didn’t read war comics at the time or seek out their pasts, so it won’t be very archival or educated, but I know this: in the combined sixty fucking years of war comics by Joe Kubert and Jack Kirby, and heroically-oriented as some of those may be, I defy you to find one which glamorizes the experience of war relative to manhood, and especially war policy, like the 80s brought with Top Gun, Stripes, and the “real American hero” Joe.

So it’s maybe not so odd that the basically pro-military, clean-shaven toy line of 1964 shifted almost immediately such that my Joe was bearded, scarred, and a bit resigned-looking. Beware as I wade into speculation, supposition, and possibly projection.

2000 edition: Ambrose's intro begins with

2000 edition: Ambrose’s intro begins with “This is the authentic voice of G.I. Joe.”

Was my toy a callback to Willie & Joe? Maybe someone or someones in the Hasbro executive had been enlisted men and knew the original cartoons so well that they couldn’t bear deviating from their imagery, and tacitly, their content. The origin of the specific face is now pretty well established, but the question is why that kind of face with its weary dignity and the scar was chosen, things only such a person would value. Mauldin’s disapproval notwithstanding, the term “G.I. Joe” had been cinched for the dogfaces by none other than Eisenhower, and confounding it with his characters seems so natural as to be inevitable. It would certainly explain the otherwise-mysterious beard.

If so, it was curiously appropriate for my life in a reversed-image negative fashion. I was born into the generational shift between actual 1940s WWII enlisted-man experience, for which we have a brilliant cartoon series as primary artifact, and the 1980s retrofit of glorious American military action, with its comics and cartoons. But more than merely generational, it’s a deep family issue, given my father’s career, with my parents’ divorce embedded in civil rights and war policy, with the number of young Vietnam War veterans I encountered, and with two older brothers just moving into draft age at its close (see This one, with more TMI to come). And within even that, my position as the only kid who didn’t come to adolescence in military housing, raised half in communes and still in the commissary.

So we’ll see. Looking at the war comics through my weird eyes might be interesting.

Links: Albano Gallery’s Bill Mauldin page, A history of G.I. Joe: A real American hero, The Joe Report

Next comics: Sword of God, Friends, p. 10 (December 20); Ophite, p. 5 (December 24)

Next column: (December 25)

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on December 18, 2016, in The 70s me, Vulgar speculation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Addendum: there was a G.I. Joe comic during the early 1950s, published by Ziff-Davis among many other titles. Z-D canceled the line by 1953, and it probably wouldn’t merit the rare footnote it gets except that Jerry Siegel was the writer. I don’t know anything about the comic or what it did or didn’t contribute to the cultural landscape of G.I. Joe the later product, but it seems strange for it to have vanished so thoroughly from the easily-available history.


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