Gene Kendall here, with the beginning of what might become a regular segment. Or just a one-off we’ll all forget. For the past few months, I’ve been revisiting the Marvel run of G. I. Joe on my Twitter feed. One aspect of those early issues that deserves attention is the animated commercials commissioned by Hasbro for the series.
Even today, television ads for comics are something of a novelty. As far as I can tell, before this commercial for G. I. Joe #1, they simply didn’t exist. It’s no secret these comic book ads were toy commercials in disguise. The FCC regulates how many seconds of animation can be used in a toy advertisement, demanding the toy companies actually show the physical product for most of the ad.
Someone at Hasbro had a stroke of genius -- no one’s ever advertised a comic book before. The FCC can’t really say anything about a category of advertising that’s totally new. No regulations, no worry. And, conveniently, the ads for the comic will feature whatever the latest figures and vehicles are on sale.
The person who had to study the storyboards and rough cuts of the commercials and then forge a story out of them was, as you’ve probably guessed, Larry Hama. Likely no one would want to script a comic this way, but Hama’s public attitude is to simply declare this a part of his job. (Taking the brief clips of action amongst random backgrounds and turning them into stories Hama seemed to view more as a challenge than anything.)
Hama did imply in one of the G. I. Joe letter columns that the comic ads were thankfully over, giving him more freedom with the stories. If he had his way, I’m sure he’d never want to deal with them. That said, these commercials helped the comic (and the overall comics industry) immensely in the early 1980s. G. I. Joe #1 sold out in a few days, it’s been reported.
Interestingly, Buzz Dixon of the G. I. Joe animated series has indicated that having a Marvel comic released before the cartoon was another ploy on Hasbro’s part. Advertising for toys based on cartoons was heavily restricted before President Reagan’s deregulation of the FCC. Dixon says Hasbro was free to run G. I. Joe toy commercials whenever, even before deregulation, due to the pretense the toys were based on a comic book and not an animated series.
Fans of the animated series will notice a strong similarity between the show and the style of the commercials. Most of the character models were unchanged once G. I. Joe became a regular series; although most of the episodes lacked the budget for this caliber animation. The most glaring deviation comes in the model for Hawk.
The character wasn’t considered a priority by the time the cartoon began, so he was replaced by Duke, quite literally. Hawk’s face was attached to Duke’s hair and uniform beginning with the first miniseries. Assuming no kids would remember the faraway days of 1982, Hawk reappeared in 1986 with a totally new design.
So, how much of the original ad actually influenced the comic? Well, Larry Hama’s a pro, so he works in a healthy amount. The basics are the same: Cobra has kidnapped a scientist from a moving train, the Joe team is assigned the mission, a battle ensues at an ancient fort, and a member of the Joe team pursues a departing sports car, flying through the sky in his JUMP jetpack.
It’s a showcase of the initial 1982 line of Joes, animated with a budget unimaginable to kids of the Hanna-Barbara and Ruby Spears generation. Actually, check out any Youtube archive of Saturday Morning commercials from this era. Toucan Sam, Geoffrey the Giraffe, Snap, Crackle, and Pop…they all look cheap. Hasbro knew the importance of quality animation for this experiment; cut-rate animation would make not just the comic but the entire line seem low rent. Hasbro was one of the first (if not the first) company to contract overseas animators for these ads. Within five years or so, contracting all of the animation in kids’ commercials to Asia was the standard.
The visuals of the comic, especially when viewed through the crude printing of the era, can’t really compete. The commercial is one stunning image flashing at you every few seconds; the comic is a coherent story, rendered in a traditional comics style, with the low production values readers of the period just accepted as an aspect of the hobby.
The story, however, foreshadows the directions Hama will take this series. The scientist we see brief glimpses of in the commercial becomes Dr. Burkhart, a fierce anti-war activist who’s aghast the government is using her research to develop new weapons systems. Her public protests draw the attention of Cobra, which kidnaps Burkhart to force her to reveal whatever-it-was the government already knows. (The gaudy description of Burkhart on the cover, “Lady Doomsday,” is dismissed within the story as a sensationalistic name attached to her by the press.)
The Joe team is assigned the job of rescuing her. And, given Dr. Burkhart’s public stance on the military, some of the team members resent the mission. Snake Eyes even suggests (back in the days when he used to write notes and use sign language) that a tactical nuke over Cobra’s island could solve all of their problems. In two separate scenes, both Hawk and Stalker lecture the Joes against this thinking. They’re not here to take the jobs they want, to protect the citizens they personally like…they’re soldiers. They’ve sworn an oath to protect every American’s rights.
The philosophical debate, and the adamancy of protecting the rights of those you disagree with, is a recurring theme in Hama’s stories. The Joes exist in an imperfect world, but this is never used as an excuse for moral relativism. And, as we discover by the end of the story, Dr. Burkhart is no monster. Her point of view isn’t supported by the story, but the more enlightened Joes are respectful of her beliefs. And she’s given a line that symbolizes another future theme of the series -- “No one has a monopoly on scruples.”
If you’re familiar with 1980s Marvel, you might be aware of editor-in-chief Jim Shooter’s fondness of the “I can’t…yet I must!” conflict. Shooter, at least according to John Byrne, felt this was the essential conflict in storytelling. It’s possible Hama conceived of the Joes taking a mission they don’t really want as a means of conforming to Shooter’s rule. (Byrne says Shooter became adamant that every comic must feature this conflict.) If so, it’s another example of Hama taking in outside mandates and incorporating them, with no obvious stitching, into his work.
The most notable addition from the commercial to the comic, however, comes in the introduction of the Baroness. Hasbro’s original line of villains all wore masks. Hama wanted a villain who could “act” -- as in, show facial expressions. (A necessity in comics storytelling the toy manufacturers would’ve never considered.)
With the thinking of “why not?” he made this new villain a leather-clad female with eyeglasses. I doubt he did this intentionally, but the Baroness’ visual sums up the reality of Hama’s G. I. Joe -- all elements of fantasy must have some form of reality attached. Baroness dresses like a fantasy comics female, but is also nearsighted and not overly considered with stylish eyewear.
It’s a shame these ads can only be found on VHS-transfer quality on Youtube. These are likely the best versions we’re ever going to get, because Hasbro didn’t preserve (some say didn’t save at all) the original masters. Hasbro was smart enough to preserve the actual episodes of the series, but the commercials were only meant to be viewed for a few weeks and that’s it. Even if they spent a pretty penny on that animation, who would want to view these things decades later? No one, surely. 3DJoes deserves a lot of credit for archiving the best quality versions imaginable, given the circumstances.
And, hey, while I’m going on about G. I. Joe, I should mention that my Kindle Worlds novel (which I’ve spoken about earlier) is now available for free on Smashwords. And the follow-up is almost here! I’m not attempting to court any lawsuits, so the rest of the series is also going to be available for free, with no mention of the Joes in the official title. Check out the continuing chapters at my Smashwords page. If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it.