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Tracing the History of the Original Small Soldier

GI Joe: The Complete History of America's Favorite Man of Action

Author:John Michlig
Publisher:Chronicle Books

By Gina Coffman | Posted 9/9/1998

It all started with a letter. Or rather, a conversation and then a letter. But what it spawned is the subject of this compelling history of a small toy company that revolutionized the ways boys play.

In this beautifully designed book by John Michlig, we learn the history of GI Joe, 12-inch man of action. From the initial inspiration for Joe through his years of constant evolution to his disappearance to his amazing comeback, we learn all of his secrets. Old military Joe would have been horrified to have his cover blown, but the time-hardened toy stands up well under the scrutiny.

Don Levine was creative director of Hassenfeld Bros., more familiar to us now as Hasbro, in April 1963 when toy merchandiser Stan Weston presented him with the idea to create a "rugged-looking scale doll for boys," with military gear. Weston proposed using the "razor and razor-blade" theory that had proved so successful with Mattel's Barbie (sell one razor--the toy--and then sell lots of razor blades--the accessories). Although he wasn't enthusiastic, Levine invited Weston to send him a formal proposal. That started a chain of events that culminated in the birth of GI Joe, military hero and adventurer.

Once Levine fully realized the financial potential of a toy for boys with limitless accessories, he sprang into action. His first order of business? Figure out how to get boys to play with dolls. In 1963 this was an earthshaking idea. Levine's answer was simple: GI Joe was not a doll, he was an action figure.

Michlig's book follows the entire development process and offers plenty of fabulous illustrations and photos. It's fascinating to learn about the amount of research involved in creating new toys. GI Joe's original weapon, gear packs, uniforms, and vehicles were scale-modeled from real military blueprints. In its initial stages the development of GI Joe was a covert operation, to keep the project a secret from competitors, and sometimes GI Joe reads like a dossier from a combat mission. "You can't play around in the toy business," Michlig writes, a truism that was borne out when Jerry Einhorn, who did much of the toy's predevelopment research, was stopped by police for a traffic violation with a trunkful of combat gear surreptitiously obtained from a military-surplus store. Einhorn's only thought was what Levine had warned him: "Don't tell a soul. If the cops pick you up, we don't know you."

Levine provides the book's preface, and as the "father" of GI Joe, he is able to reveal many of the behind-the-scenes decisions, such as the true reason for the doll's scar (it is a copyrightable feature). There are numerous anecdotes from the key people who helped create the GI Joe phenomenon, and their infectious enthusiasm comes through in the interviews. Everyone from Einhorn to Sam Speers (who perfected the moveable multijointed body) to Bill Pugh (inventor of the famous "Kung-Fu Grip") is represented.

GI Joe was a smash hit and carried Hasbro from financial instability to four-star success. In the more pacifist times during and after Vietnam, Joe doffed his fatigues and became a civilian adventurer. In 1978, due to competition, high production costs, and the fickleness of kids, he vanished. Three years later Hasbro introduced a new line of 3-and-3/4-inch GI Joes, and it took more than a decade for the company to release another full-size Joe. But thanks to the success of these limited-edition toys, a new generation of fans was born.

Michlig's complete history of the ultimate action figure is being marketed for true enthusiasts, but GI Joe is absorbing and entertaining enough for the action-packed kid in all of us.

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