Ah G.I. Joe, a series for children that has somehow stayed afloat since 1965. This toyline for children was created during a tumultuous time in American history, and was adjusted to wherever the pop culture winds were blowing through the decades. The relatively realistic dolls of the sixties gave way to 3 ½" action figures and to-scale vehicles that still maintained a certain real-world accuracy. The jump to television in the eighties created a strange dichotomy. The show featured an American military unit operating internationally in a world that didn't seem to have a UN or any kind of unease on the part of the nations that were supposedly being 'liberated' from their Cobra overlords, and every episode ended with a safety tip for suburban American kids. Not once did the show recognize the irony.
Adjusting to the trends of the time, adding WWF wrestlers to its roster, skateboarding and hacking its way through the eXtreme era, even taking stabs at returning to a realistic style to coincide with the movies, before now settling into a balance between old fans and the kids of those fans, whose parents are shoving old nostalgia into tiny hands that don't understand why this man is a snake man.
Here are fifteen of the coolest, most iconic G.I. Joe toys as selected by me and me alone, in no order at all, based entirely on my shameless nostalgia and how neat I think they look. Also included are 15 toys that are so stupid I can't even, and yet I can, because toy companies often make huge swings at any pitch that comes their way. All this info comes from the collectors' site YoJoe which is a really fun way to waste an afternoon. Most of the fan art is by Christopher Hemsworth, a very talented artist from Halifax who runs a site called GIJoe365, which is definitely worth your time.
30 WORST - A Sad Six
Deep Six, while also being the name of an excellent bean dip at a bar I used to go to in college, is notable for having an unbelievably uninteresting backstory and appearing in an outfit that makes him look like a Sonic the Hedgehog boss.
Sonic passed Lame Zone, Act 1.
Deep Six's action card lists his tough-as-nails hobbies as collecting bottle caps and the New York Times crossword puzzle which, to be fair, is the G.I. Joe of crossword puzzles. He became a diver not to defend freedom and destroy Cobra, but so that people would leave him alone. The final accolade on his file? He was selected for the G.I. Joe team because, out of the 12 finalists, he could hold his breath the longest. An important skill for a diver, except when you're constantly in a suit whose whole purpose is so you don't have to do that.
29 COOLEST - LEGO Tank!
Of all the things from my childhood that I loved, none have withstood the test of time better than LEGO. I have always been a huge fan of the Swedish building block system and still buy their Creator sets today. I was always aware of the competing companies, like Mega Blocks, which has been good at securing video game licenses like Call of Duty and Halo, but I had no idea G.I. Joe had tread these waters as well.
Of all the Built to Rule series, Armadillo Assault is the coolest. It's modular, able to be built into either an APC or a dune buggy, and both look like real toys and not some weird, cobbled together compromise like a few of the other Built to Rule vehicles. Plus, both could pass for real vehicles, something G.I. Joe would concern itself less and less with as time went on.
28 WORST - Kids Ask Your Parents First
The Combat Heroes line was created to appeal to a younger audience than the mainline G.I. Joe figure, hence their exaggerated style that is very similar to the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure toys and TV show. I've got no problem with this on the surface- the boxes for all these lil' mini Joes include a "What Would You Do?" comic that teaches kids simple lessons like how to cross the street safely.
Here's my issue: G.I. Joe is already marketing toys focused on guns and combat to kids. By lowering the target audience, Hasbro might be expected to adjust some of its characters and props. But they didn't. Combat Heroes Duke comes equipped with a grenade and a stubby lil' M16 with an attached M203 grenade launcher.
27 COOLEST - More Like Sky ROCKER
This is just a cool design and, while I usually hate toys with giant cockpits to accommodate action figures, Hasbro did a good job incorporating that into the design of Sky Stalker. I love aircraft and spaceship designs that have drastically different shapes depending on the angle you view them from, like the Defiant from Star Trek, and Sky Stalker achieves that not once, but twice, in its extended cockpit mode.
The fighter also features two firing foam missiles, like little Nerf darts, and some very cool stick-on decals. The wings even fold down into landing gear, showing that a lot more thought went into this design than some of the other G.I. Joe vehicles. This is from the G.I. Joe Extreme line from 1995 and doesn't include a figure.
26 WORST - Nana Knit You A War Sweater
Okay, so I've already addressed my moral issues with selling a toy to preschoolers that come packaged with adorable versions of high-powered elimination machines, so let's get back to the snarky pop culture commentary. The Micro Force Steel Brigade figure looks like Master Chief in an aqua blue turtleneck sweater.
He's also got an olive green bandolier that matches his pants, which sort of make sense, except the thing clashes with his aquarium camouflage writer's tunic so badly. He's also got some chunky black combat boots because, fine, at this point, who's even looking at his shoes. What's worse: the Micro Force figures came in opaque "blind bags" so you didn't even know what you'd be getting! Imagine expecting Snake Eyes and getting Commando Smurf.
25 COOLEST - G.I. Meatloaf
I initially put this guy in 'Worst' category but then I got to thinking about it and moved him over here. G.I. Joe, for me, as well as a lot of people, represents little time capsules of their youth and Metalhead does such a fantastic job of encapsulating mid-90s rock music that I couldn't not include him.
This guy would not look out of place in a Guns N' Roses video.
It's all here: the flowing, golden locks, the giant metal peace symbol pendant, the torn denim, the fact that his arms are slightly more tan than his chest and knees, suggesting that he doesn't always wear this vest or those pants but he always wears a sleeveless shirt. His alternate figure even has his left hand in a permanent thumbs-up.
24 WORST - I Don't Have Time For SLEEVES
Whoever designed the eXtreme version of Lt. Stone must have gone to the Rob Liefeld School of Design which dictates that the more torn a character's clothes are, the more powerful he is. Also, everyone must have as many pockets and bags on them as possible, always.
I know my keys are in one of these.
Stone looks like he's fighting his way to the front of a Black Friday line at Winners because he can't go one more day before his clothes literally disintegrate. He seems to have sacrificed his sleeves to fashion make-shirt tassels ala The Ultimate Warrior. His collar has been made into a post-apocalypse-chic necktie, like he's going to a job interview with Lord Humongous. The only armor he's got are these hilarious platemail kneepads, like he's someone's Skyrim character who didn't have enough steel to make a full set armor.
23 COOLEST - Doesn't Sound Right
Sergeant Savage and the Screaming Eagles was a spin-off of the main G.I. Joe line in 1995, which created a whole load of WW2 characters with period-accurate weapons and equipment. The line wasn't a huge success, though Sgt. Savage himself was eventually added to the main G.I. Joe line through time travel, just like Captain America.
This version of Savage is included here because of all the cool period-appropriate weaponry he comes with. Instead of ridiculous spring-loaded future guns, Savage and his men carry scoped Springfield rifles, M1 Garands, and Thompson & Grease Gun submachine guns. Savage is basically carting the default loadout for a Medal of Honor level. In the nineties, when toys were so tricked out with colorful accessories that shot water or whatever, it's pretty cool to see an action figure with a well-researched kit.
22 WORST - Squid Pirate
Iron Klaw is the leader of SKAR, which my research tells me stands for Soldiers of Kaos, Anarchy, and Ruin, and replaced Cobra in the G.I. Joe eXtreme series. This version of Iron Klaw was packaged with old' Torn-Shirt Lieutenant Stone up there and both have their legs in this 'charge forward' pose so you know how eXtrEme they are.
Nothing says 'extreme' like looking away from where you're running.
So I guess this version of Iron Klaw is a pirate or something? Anyway, he's got a cutlass and a cape, and his face is like a bone white Cthulu or Davy Jones from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I don't know what Klaw did to anger Lt Stone, but boy are they ever running at each other.
21 COOLEST - Dude, Sweet Jacket
If you took one look at General Blitz and thought "This guy looks a lot like M. Bison." Congratulations- you figured out why I put him on the list.
You're no match for his Psycho Power!
Also from the Sgt. Savage line, Blitz was the Red Skull to Savage's Captain America, a Nazi-in-everything-but-name bad guy heavy. According to his included card, which is written as one of Savage's diary entries, Blitz is an American turned traitor and all Savage needs to defeat him are "bullets and guts! And I've got plenty of both!" You go, 1940's American masculinity stereotype! Blitz is always packaged with period-accurate weapons, including the rare STG-44, the world's first assault rifle and the model on which the AK-47 was based.
20 WORST - Frosted Tips Ninja
One more figure from the eXtremely nineties eXtreme series, Black Dragon is a ninja of the Mortal Kombat variety, meaning his face is covered by some kind of metal thing and he's got a colorful accent in his outfit to break up all that black.
It's like he's disguised as a can of Coke Zero.
Okay, relax, I won't put it off any longer. Yes, his hair is ridiculous. It's like someone at Hasbro took one look at Cruel Intentions-era Ryan Phillippe and was like "Yes to all this except cover his entire body." Did I miss the episode of G.I. Joe where Matthew Lillard played Black Dragon? And yes, I know I already used one of the images in the header for Iron Klaw, but there isn't a lot of fanart for these guys. Shocker.
19 COOLEST - I Went To San Diego And All I Got Was This Awesome Figure
Okay, now we're getting serious. Sideshow Collectibles, which has the market pretty much cornered on extremely expensive and well-made collectibles for giant nerds, made this extremely rare figure that was only sold at San Diego Comic Con in 2009 and had a limited run of 1000 figures.
Everything on the figure is really well made: the clothes are all real cloth, the included MP-7 has magazines and a silencer: even the scabbard for his dagger is attached by a metal chain. This ComicCon version is in a cool blood red as opposed to the traditional navy blue with red trim, though Sideshow also produced a figure in those colors, if you prefer. And have a couple hundred bucks lying around. Although it originally retailed for $99, its price has likely climbed way up.
18 WORST - Life Ring
Coming Christmas 1966, the most thrilling toy you've ever seen! Start bugging your parents now, kids. Wake them up first thing in the morning, call them at work, skip school, abandon your friends: the only thing that matters in your black & white life is this!
Glue yourself to your radiation-filled TV!
Released in 1966 as an accessory to the Action Soldier line, the life ring is just the thing for kids who have collected absolutely everything to transform Action Soldier into Action Sailor, which is exactly the same but somehow way less cool. I know that this makes sense in a collecting mindset, or as a way to complete some kind of WW2-era nautical diorama, but the least they could do is include like a lifejacket or a harpoon gun or something.
17 COOLEST - Who Wouldn't Get This If They Could Afford It
While I love the Sideshow Cobra Commander figure, they really nailed it with this awesome Snake Eyes figure. Actually the first sculpt of a G.I. Joe character made by Sideshow, Snake Eyes had a limited run of 3500 and comes with a truly ridiculous variety of accessories and details.
Timber is not included in this one, unfortunately.
Snake comes with his iconic face mask and all-black tactical webbing over black cargo pants and a tight shirt. He's packing a silenced Uzi with extra mags, his dual carbon-fiber katanas, and a bunch of grenades, including some tactical grenades like flashbangs, which is a nice touch. The best feature though: someone at Sideshow must be a Metal Gear Solid fan because Eyes is carrying a .45 USP SOCOM with a silencer, just like that other sneaky Snake.
16 WORST - Skinny Rock
After fifty years in the public consciousness and burning themselves into the brain of every kid born in the eighties, Hasbro finally led the insanely popular, worldwide phenomena that is G.I. Joe to the ultimate expression of pop culture dominance: two crappy Hollywood movies.
Finally: Tatum VS Gordon-Levitt.
Capitalising on the inexplicable success of Michael Bay's Transformers movies, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is about as good as any movie with the phrase "the rise of" is. It did well enough to earn a sequel that made the massively good decision to cast The Rock as Roadblock, and here's his action figure. I understand Hasbro wanting to make the physiques of their toys more realistic to tie into the movie, but The Rock's physique is about as close to an action figure as you can get!
15 WORST - Aw Jeeze Who Invited Him?
Look at this idiot. He looks like a late-era Power Rangers villain. Maybe I understand replacing one of your hands with a deadly clamp, but both of your hands? Forget how you're gonna shoot a gun, how are you going to eat or drink with deadly titanium claws on your mitts? Now, I know, he can shoot venom out of his tail or whatever but what's the range on that thing? He's fighting in the desert, we're dealing with some extremely long range combat here, does this moron just chill under the sand until someone comes by and then springs up and clamps at them?
For as dumb as this design is, he looks way worse without his armor on. He's just wearing a turtleneck and khaki briefs with the same desert balaclava and cyclops glasses.
14 COOLEST - Daddy's Never Coming Home, The Action Figure
The original, actual G.I. Joe from 1964 is still a really cool toy in its own right. With cloth clothes and a huge, metal dog tag. While he didn't initially come with any accessories, except that dog tag, the company would sell a ton of accessory packs over the years that allowed you to reconfigure the main figure into many branches of the Armed forces throughout the years, like the Marines or the Navy.
In 1965, the company even introduced an African-American version of the original figure, a surprisingly forward-thinking gesture for a toy company in the sixties. Although, looking back, introducing a Black soldier toy in the first year of the Vietnam War was questionable. Although Vietnam was the first conflict that African Americans were fully integrated into combat units, they were also given higher rates of punishment, menial labour jobs, and few were made officers.
13 WORST - The Voluntold Tank
The H.I.S.S. (High-Speed Sentry) Tank is the classic Cobra vehicle and represents a major departure from the relatively realistic G.I. Joe vehicles that had been released up till then. I know the HISS is pretty popular with fans but look at it: it's a deathtrap for everyone involved. The gunner is completely exposed on top and the poor sap that has to hang on to the back has possibly the worst combat position in human history.
You'll be fine as long as we only charge right at the enemy.
The pilot definitely has the worst deal. He's driving a tank that has a glass canopy. Forget the fact that tanks are usually 99% armor and have periscopes to avoid any kind of weakness, the canopy on the HISS is huge. It's a massive target that makes up like ¼ of the size of the entire vehicle.
12 COOLEST - Just A Literal Tank
Once G.I. Joe had fully evolved from the larger Action Soldier dolls and began putting out the lil' 3 ¼" guys we're so used to, they also began producing vehicles for their troops. G.I. Joe took a few years for their vehicles to evolve into the brightly colored, multi-wheeled, missile-bristling monsters we all remember. The 80s line of G.I. Joe vehicles did their best to stick to real-world military designs.
With bright red missiles.
Enter the MOBAT, or "Mobilized Battle Tank," which is a dead ringer for the M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank, albeit with a shorter barrel, likely so they could fit it in a smaller box. The MOBAT was battery powered and featured "super climbing ability" though I can't figure out exactly what that means.
11 WORST - The Flying FANG
Ah, the Cobra FANG (Fully Armed Negator Gyrocopter), the airborne edition of the HISS Tank but maybe even more dangerous. To be fair, the FANG isn't a tank so the requirement for the pilot to be protected by metal isn't as high here, but give the guy something. I bet Cobra isn't big on seat belts, either, meaning the poor stooge ordered to fly this thing is as likely to just straight-up fall out of it than actually take someone out.
Whatever you do, don't stand up.
This is like the G.I. Joe equivalent of the little copters you fly around in Far Cry 4, and the only thing those are good for is avoiding that game's terrible driving physics. This is also from the "put a missile launcher on everything" era of G.I. Joe vehicle design and, as light as the FANG is, launching one of those rockets would probably send the copter into a tailspin.
10 COOLEST - Danger Zone
Speaking of realistic military vehicles in G.I. Joe, the Skystriker is 100% literally just an F-14 Tomcat with a giant, action-figure sized cockpit. Even the in-universe designation for Skystriker is the XP-14F, the 'X' designation typically used by the US Military to classify aircraft in experimental stages or still in development.
You'd think that making the Skystriker an F-14 would be Hasbro's way of cashing in on the success of Top Gun, the Tom Cruise saga of men in love in the Air Force, but that film didn't come out until 1986. So maybe Director Tony Scott was trying to cash in on GI Joe's success. Military advertising by two different major companies in America at the height of Reagan's power? Perish the thought!
9 WORST - This Thing Doesn't Even Look Safe To Store
The fine people who run Yojoe.com, the website I've been using to source all this info for these toys, are generally pretty enthusiastic about this whole G.I. Joe thing, for reasons that are understandable. Even they can't muster any enthusiasm for the Chameleon, a sort of swamp-mobile that looks less like a chameleon and more like a giant joyriding grasshopper.
YoJoe's entry for the chameleon warns collectors that "The entire Chameleon is extremely fragile" which is not exactly what I'm looking for if I'm trying to outfit my multinational terrorist organization which is going to go toe-to-toe with a military force that has its own enormous aircraft carrier. The gimmick of the Chameleon toy is its skin, which changes from green to a darker shade of green in the sun but, if you leave it in the sun too long, it just turns brown forever.
8 COOLEST - USS Rich Parents
Okay, one more modern military vehicle from the 80s. The USS Flagg is a Chibi Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, used by the Joes as a mobile, floating base. The vehicle came packaged with Admiral Keel-Haul, because the only thing G.I. Joe loves more than battling tyranny, is characters with puns related to their specialization.
The Flagg comes with a dizzying array of tiny, chokable little doodads and mini-vehicles, including a refueling truck and a vehicle for towing fighters around the deck, though it doesn't come with any to-scale fighters. There is also an arrestor cable and a backblast shield for the launching system, details which may actually this time have been influenced by Top Gun. There is also a massive megaphone accessory for Admiral Haul. Good thing, too, the USS Flagg is over seven feet long!
7 WORST - Not The Thing You're Thinking
I'll be honest, I was expecting a lot more casual racism in the 80s G.I. Joe figures and I've been pleasantly surprised with the (relative) lack of Islamophobia and prejudices towards people of southeast-Asian decent, considering the time period when these toys were at the height of their popularity. Then I saw "Gung-Ho" and was like, "Oh, here we go." Like an internet troll who takes personal offense at an offhand comment in an article, I was ready to burn this strawman down!
Rey is a Mary Sue!
Unfortunately for my liberal rage, Gung-Ho is not a gaAsianan stereotype but, in fact, a cajun soldier from Louisiana, which I suppose does explain his ridiculous outfit and outrageous Freddie Mercury mustache. Gung-Ho also has a grenade in each front pocket of his sleeveless vest and a giant USMC tattoo on his chest.
6 COOLEST - Mostly Included So I Can Use This Sweet Poster
Okay here we go, the classic 'sniveling villain' archetype, Cobra Commander. The original Cobra Commander figure was so confident in his evil army's success that he couldn't even bend his arms, though that was later added into further releases of the figure. Cobra Commander doesn't come with many accessories, only a laser pistol, though he is sporting a smartly coordinated light blue suit with that iconic silver faceplate.
It must be so hard not to fix your hair when he's talking to you.
According to his info card, Cobra Commander's main tactic for overthrowing the world's governments is inciting chaos and revolution in 'trouble spots' like the Middle East and Southeast Asia, which is the most American view of world politics I've ever heard. His card even says that Commander is "probably the most dangerous man alive!" Probably? Who else would it be? Destro?
5 COOLEST - Destro
Maybe it's Destro! You know Destro is high up in the Cobra command structure because he has a shiny thing on his head, which seems to be their main requirement for leadership. Destro is an arms researcher and manufacturer who, according to his card, "respects the G.I. Joe team for their combat skills and expertise, but abhors them for wasting such skills to maintain peace." Which, fair enough! We're talking about a secret branch of the US military with practically unlimited resources that's still adhering to whatever agenda its government is pushing at the time.
I think, the show isn't super clear on who they answer to.
Anyway, Destro takes the classic bad guy commander approach to defending himself by carrying nothing more than a laser pistol. Destro does have one extra piece of equipment: a briefcase! That really opens! Cool!
4 WORST - Your Weekend Warrior Uncle
Outback is the kind of guy who brings his own tent to the cottage and insists on sleeping in it, even if it rains and your cottage is literally a full house that happens to be in the woods. He's the guy who can't figure out how to update his phone but spends the whole time you're on a hike pointing out which plants might be poison ivy.
"I wouldn't have touched any of these plants anyway, Outback."
His white t-shirt with the words 'SURVIVAL' written on it isn't just for show: each one of those letters is a coda that Outback lives off, once or twice a month from late April to mid-October if the weather holds out. Someone at Hasbro made an action figure of your uncle who comes up to the cottage, but won't help you put out the dock.
3 COOLEST - U! S! A!
Next to Snake Eyes and Cobra Commander, Sgt. Slaughter is the character I think of when I think of G.I. Joe. If you're ignorant of professional wrestling like I am, Sgt. Slaughter was a professional wrestler in the WWF played by Robert Remus, who was the first real person to have a Joe based on him. Remus voiced himself in the cartoon series and did some commercials for the toys in the late eighties.
And then faded into obscurity.
Sgt. Slaughter the character is a drill instructor for the team, hence the wide brim Marine Corps hat, whistle, and muscle top. His card describes him as a "special kind of heavy duty honcho" to be able to train the Joes, since they're all such mega tough guys that any one of them could be drill instructor if he really wanted to.
2 WORST - A Professional Large Man
If Sgt Slaughter is the Alpha of the tiny category of "real people who were turned into G.I. Joes" then The Fridge is the Omega. It's inaccurate to say The Fridge is 'based on' William "Refrigerator" Perry - in the G.I. Joe universe he literally is former Chicago Bears lineman William Perry, nicknamed Refrigerator due to his enormous size and how difficult it is to push him over, a major qualification for his job.
He also keeps veggies crisp and cool.
While I think The Fridge is a really great nickname for a large man who can't be knocked over even by knock-over professionals, his inclusion in G.I. Joe doesn't make a ton of sense if only because of how expensive he'd be to keep on retainer. The Joes are spending all that money just so their troops have a single obstacle to get past in training? Anyway, he comes packaged with a black metal football on a chain.
1 COOLEST - Awesome Personified
It was hard not to make all the entries in the list just different sculpts of Snake Eyes. For me, and I'm sure for many of you, too, Snake Eyes is G.I. As someone who had an unhealthy obsession with the Ninja Turtles, seeing an action figure that really was a black-clad ninja was too cool.
And who didn't skateboard.
This original design of Snake Eyes lays the groundwork for the character that would remain pretty much unchanged throughout the years, even in the G.I. Joe movies. (Where he's played by Darth Maul himself, Ray Park.) The original version of Snake Eyes had a sweet perk - he came packaged with his wolf buddy Timber, who he was living with in the mountains of the High Sierras when he was recruited by G.I. Joe.