Wednesday, March 5, 2014

KK Book Reviews - GI Joe: The Story Behind The Legend

GI Joe is probably the most iconic toy of the last 50 years. And it has stood the test of time, morphing from a heroic grunt in the 60s to a brass adventurer in the 70s to a cartoon driven 4” action figure in the 80s.

To most of us, the original 12” figure is, well, just a legend – something we’ve seen in photos or maybe at a toy show, but don’t know too much about. And yet every great toy has a great story behind it – the why’s and how’s of its development, the people behind it, and the design and production process.

That’s where books like GI Joe: The Story Behind the Legend come in. This is not a new book – it was published by Chronicle Books back in 1996. But that doesn’t matter. The original events all took place in the early 1960s, so this account doesn’t feel dated, even nearly 20 years after publication. I have to say, the book is flat out fascinating. If you’re a GI Joe fan or are interested in toy history, action figures, toy development, or just plain amazing stories about a year-long team effort to make something great, then you might want to check it out.

More after the jump:
Early concept figure using a customized Ken doll.

One of the things that makes the title so compelling is its format. After a brief preface, it gets right into the story, which is told via first-hand accounts by the people at Hasbro who were involved in the project – most notably Don Levine. So you hear about the concept, the planning, the prototype development, the financing, the trips to Japan and Hong Kong, Toy Fair 1964…everything from the point of view of the artists, designers, and team leaders.

This “oral history” format makes the book a very personable read with some fantastic stories. Just one I remember off the top of my head was told by Stan Weston, the person who pitched the idea to Hasbro in ’63. Before his first meeting with Hasbro, Weston, who had a general idea for a line of soldiers, had a conversation with a buddy. His friend said wouldn’t it be cool for a toy to have massive articulation. Boom, just like that – a casual conversation led to one of the most important toy innovations of the last 50 years. (GI Joe eventually had 21 moving parts.) And the book is full of nuggets like that.
Hand-made boxes with place holder names like Rocky and Skip showing the idea to release a line covering all four branches of the armed services simultaneously.
There’s also plenty of inside baseball as Levine talks about convincing Merrill Hassenfield (the head of Hasbro) to sign off on the line, the secrecy (bordering on paranoia) involved in keeping arch-rival Mattel from finding out about the Joe plans, and the trips to a nearby armory to borrow grenades and bazookas to measure so Hasbro could make exact miniature replicas!

The book is divided into several sections, like “1. One Man’s Journey to Toyland” and “3. GI Joe is Born” but it doesn’t feel formal or rigid. In fact, the editor does a very good job assembling and organizing participants’ recollections, so you shift from, say, Levine saying something, to a box artist or a sculptor speaking for a while, then back to Levine…and it all feels seamless.
Drawings of joint construction
At a couple of points, when someone goes straight from a funny story to a detailed recounting of the mold making process, it does feel like the person went back and inserted that part, but by and large it’s a smooth narrative.

You also get some excellent photos of early sketches, prototypes, advertisements…and even the transcript of the first commercial video shown to buyers. That was really great, especially the fib about how Joe’s head design was an amalgamation of a bunch of medal of honor winners, when we read, just a few pages back, that the sculptor did the work with no reference material and without even knowing it was going to be used for a solider!
Model photos used by illustrators for the box art
 It’s a short, hardcover book – just 95 pages long – and that’s my major criticism. The narrative takes you to the 1964 Toy Fair and says a few words about early sales figures, but it leaves you wanting to read more about follow-up Joe lines, Mattel’s response, GI Joe bootlegs (there are a couple of photos, but that’s about it), etc.

I got the book in a collector’s set that included a 12" astronaut Joe figure. They made a number of different cover variations bundled with different Joes – one with a pilot Joe on the cover, another with a sailor, etc. I think it might be out of print, but you can get a copy of just the book on Amazon for a few dollars. 
Test shot

There are other books about GI Joe, including GI Joe: The Complete Story of America’s Favorite Man of Action. I haven’t read that one, but the reviews on Amazon look solid, and from what I’ve gathered, it’s much more comprehensive, covering the 1960s-1980s.

So that may be a good read too, but what sets GI Joe: The Story Behind the Legend apart is its “oral history” format. You get to read about Joe from the people who made the toy happen, and their enthusiasm jumps out from the pages, even after all these years.


Matt Hiebert said...

I'm looking for short Kaiju fiction. Anything with giant monsters. I found this which was pretty good. But I'm interested in Japanese based stuff too.

andy b said...

I don't know of any. Does anyone else have any ideas?

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