Dec 4, 2013
Teenagers in Space
Posted on Aug 16, 2013
By Tom Engehardt, TomDispatch
About the time Ronald Reagan came into office, Hasbro began to consider resuscitating G.I. Joe, for the world of war play was still distinctly underpopulated on Earth, if not in space. As the toy company’s executives were aware, Joe retained remarkable name recognition, not only among young boys (who had inherited hand-me-downs from older siblings) but among their parents. The question was, what would Joe be? At first, Hasbro had only considered marketing “a force of good guys,” but according to H. Kirk Bozigian, Hasbro’s vice-president of boys toys, “the [toy] trade said, who do they fight?” Hasbro’s research with children confirmed that this was a crucial question.
In fact, blasting an action figure team into a world in which, as Bozigian put it, “there was a fine line between the good guys and the bad guys,” called for considerable grown-up thought. Although Joe was to gain the tag line, “a real American hero,” the G.I. Joe R&D and marketing group (“all closet quasi-military historians”) early on reached “a conscious decision that the Soviets would never be the enemy, because we felt there would never be a conflict between us.” Instead they chose a vaguer enemy—“terrorism”—and created COBRA, an organization of super-bad guys who lived not in Moscow but in Springfield, U.S.A. (Hasbro researchers had discovered that a Springfield existed in every state—except Rhode Island, where the company was located.)
But teams of good and bad guys weren’t enough. Children needed context. A “history” had to be written for these preplanned figures, what the toy industry would come to call a “backstory.” Then a way had to be found for each figure to bring his own backstory, his play instructions, into the home. First, “Joe” was shrunk to 3 3/4-inch size, so that his warrior team could fit into the Star Wars universe. Next, he was reconceived as a set of earthbound fantasy figures (rather than “real” soldiers) and armed with Star Wars-style weaponry.
A Marvel comic book series lent the toys an ongoing story form, while Hasbro pioneered using the space on the back of each figure’s package for a collector card/profile of the enclosed toy. Larry Hama, creator of the comics and of the earliest profiles, called them “intelligence dossiers.” Each Joe or COBRA was now to come with his own spacy code name (from Air Tight to Zartan) and his own “biography.” Each “individualized” team member would carry his story into the home on his back.
Take “enemy leader, COBRA Commander.” Poisonous snakes are bad news, but his no-goodness was almost laughably overdetermined. Faceless in the style of Darth Vader, his head was covered by a hood with eye slits, reminiscent of the KKK, his body encased in a torturer’s blue jumpsuit, leather gloves, and boots. Here is his “dossier”:
Other than the telltale reference to Southeast Asia, he was an enemy uncoupled from the war story. Only the profile that came with him separated him from Snake-Eyes, a good guy with Ninja training who also came encased in a blue jumpsuit with slits for eyeholes.
Launched in 1982, the new G.I. Joe was to prove the most successful boy’s toy of the period. By the mid-1980s, Joe had an every afternoon animated TV show that put special effects battles with COBRA constantly within the child’s field of vision. After Joe, war play on “Earth” would be in the reconstructionist mode. Carefully identified teams of good and bad figures, backed by collectors’ cards, TV cartoons, movies, video games, books, and comics, as well as a host of licensed products stamped with their images, would offer an overelaborate frame of instruction in new-style war play. All a child had to do was read the toy box, turn on the TV, go to the video store, put on the audio tape that accompanied the “book,” or pick up the character’s “magazine” to be surrounded by a backstory of war play. Yet the void where the national war story had been remained.
The New Business of War Play
By 1993, Hasbro had produced over 300 G.I. Joe figures with “close to 260 different personalities” and sold hundreds of millions of them. No longer a masked man and his lone sidekick, but color, price, and weapons coordinated masked teams, these “characters” on screen and on the child’s floor were byproducts of an extraordinary explosion of entrepreneurial life force, for the business impulse behind war play was childhood’s real story in the 1980s. The intrusive, unsettling world of commercial possibility that had first looked through the screen at the child three decades earlier represented the real victory culture of the postwar child’s world.
The new war story it produced had only a mocking relationship to a national story, for all “war” now inhabited the same unearthly, ahistorical commercial space. Even Rambo, transformed into an action-figure team for children, found himself locked in televised cartoon combat with General Terror and his S.A.V.A.G.E. terrorist group. While various Ninjas and Native Americans brought their spiritual skills to the good side, everywhere the “enemy” remained a vague and fragile construct, a metallic voice stripped of ethnic or racial character; and everywhere the boundary lines between us and the enemy, the good team and the bad team, threatened to collapse into a desperate sameness.
In its characters, names, and plots, the new war story relied on constant self-mockery. The enemy, once the most serious of subjects, was now a running joke. The evil COBRA organization, as described by Hasbro’s Bozigian, was made up of “accountants, tax attorneys, and all other kinds of low lifes that are out to conquer the world.” The mocking voice of deconstruction was alive and selling product in children’s culture—as with that mega-hit of the late 1980s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
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