False Memories Of G.I. JOE
As fate, and time, would have it, G.I. Joe didn’t enter my world until around 1971 when I was five years old. At this point the Adventure Team was just hitting its stride and the military sets were on the way out. One of the first toys I remember going out with my mother and buying was a G.I. Joe Land Adventurer, quickly followed by The Secret of the Mummy’s Tomb. G.I. Joe was one of the very first products I learned to identify with strictly by brand. Nothing else could touch the unique quality and style of the G.I. figure but that didn’t stop them from trying.
Almost as soon as G.I. Joe had hit the ground running in 1964, knock-off figures were hot on his heels. Not only did these cheap imitations plague Joe throughout his tenure in the military and Adventure Team, but I remember knock-off bags of accessories still sitting on toy store shelves for years after even the Super Joe line was just a (bad) memory. These wanna-be figures were no replacement for the original Joe, even to young kids. While some of the equipment sets came close to matching Hasbro’s quality and other items provided unique play opportunities, the figures themselves were closer in style to the mannequins included with the deluxe Adventure Team sets than the action figures they tried to copy. Kids seldom held these cheap imitators in the same esteem as the genuine Joe and they were usually segregated from the true Adventure Team. In my neighborhood, knock-off Joes were usually the villain or the expendable guys who stepped on a mine or got killed by the monster in the first few minutes of play!
The imposter lines may not have replaced G.I. Joe in the hearts of young boys in the 70’s but they did provide two very important functions. While the brand name Joe figures retailed for around $4-$5.00, the knock-offs were only in the $1-$2.00 range. Equipment sets, uniforms, and vehicles were similarly discounted over their Hasbro counterparts. This meant that I had a far greater chance of convincing a parent to purchase one (or two) of these less expensive items or I could expand my growing army faster by stretching my limited allowance further on these budget brands. Second, and more important to me personally at the time, were the weapons. While the Adventure Team inspired countless hours of exploration and espionage related play, Hasbro had specifically sent Joe down this path to avoid unfavorable comparison with the Vietnam War. To this end Joe was demilitarized as much as possible and, especially towards the end of the original run, weapons were in short supply. For somewhere in the vicinity of $1.00, I could buy a bag of knock-off accessories chocked full of rifles, pistols, knives, and grenades! If I wanted to save up for a couple of weeks, I could get a knock-off jeep for a few dollars more that came with similar accessories and a 50 caliber machine gun mounted in the back. Like a convict in the prison armory during a riot, these weapons were quickly dispersed to my waiting crew so that they could protect themselves from whatever adventures lay ahead in the sandbox. Cheap and inspiring too, what more could you ask for in a knock-off toy?
One of the earliest and most notorious imposters was Fighting Yank from Mego. The Yank gained his notoriety in 1966 when Hasbro filed suit against Mego for copyright infringement on their G.I. Joe body style. Apparently when Mego had contacted their Hong Kong manufacturers about producing a competitor for the boy’s doll market, the plant took an existing G.I. Joe body and reproduced it in cheaper plastic with a new head. Hasbro was prepared for this and had created Joe with an intentional flaw, an inverted thumbnail. When Fighting Yank hit the market with the same “birth defect”, the war moved from the battlefield to the courtroom. Mego lost the suit but was allowed to sell off its remaining inventory of the infringing product. Mego also began an immediate retooling of the Fighting Yank and less than a year later a new version of the figure was on the market outselling the old one. This new version of the figure was made of hollow blow molded plastic with wire reinforced rubber arms similar to Barbie. To young boys, the practical application of this new style was that the figure could be “customized” to have knives or swords stuck into his hollow body and he filled up with water quickly and sank in the pool!
Even though Mego will always be remembered for their 8-inch action figure lines, including the similarly themed Action Jackson, they continued to produce Fighting Yank until the mid to late 70’s. To keep the line fresh, and competitive, they added several variations including a flocked hair Ken imposter called Richie. One of Mego’s most innovative variations on the line appeared only in the 1972 Montgomery Wards Christmas catalog. The name Fighting Yank isn’t even mentioned but three very similar Ward’s exclusive figures, Yankee Bravo – Secret Mission Man, Hombre, and The Baron – Tank Commander, were shown fighting along side the Adventure Team Talking Commander and Sea Adventurer. Also “Only At Wards!” was the cool Systems Control Headquarters, a cardboard and vinyl covered control center decked out with colorful graphics. Featured in the same catalog were a dozen Fighting Yank outfits, sold in packs of four, and another playset, the Today’s Man Carrying Case Tent! Knock-off G.I. Joe products had become so prevalent by 1972 that in the Wards two-page spread for 12-inch action figures, only three items were actually manufactured by Hasbro!
As versatile as Mego tried to be, the award for the most unique line of knock-off Joe’s has to go to LJN. During it’s run, the Mister Action line produced over a dozen playsets and vehicles along with an impressive run of uniforms and figure variations and all on budget. The basic Mister Action figure was another blow-molded body type, very similar to Fighting Yank, but with simple plastic arms that were less articulated. He came in two styles, either bearded or clean-shaven and was originally packaged on a pretty plain red blister card with camouflage shorts. Over the run of the series LJN tried a variety of changes to liven up the figure including a variation with scuba accessories and some great Jaws-inspired artwork on the package. In an extremely bold move towards the end of the line, LJN introduced the “Fully Jointed Double Action Mister Action Figure”. This figure, while still made of cheaper plastic, featured a unique design that made him almost as poseable as G.I. Joe.
LJN produced a number of economical playsets for scenarios Hasbro had never attempted. These playsets were packaged in large attractive window boxes that displayed the generous amount of accessories included. The playset itself would be a cheap cardboard punch out that usually didn’t stand up to vigorous play. Nevertheless though, LJN gave us a Cowboy Bunkhouse, Artic Outpost, and Deep Sea Station Hasbro had overlooked. The more traditional sets included a fire truck, helicopter, and Jungle Station all rendered in “pop-out” cardboard! Some of these sets even went as far as to feature comic book panels on the front to fire kid’s imaginations just like the Adventure Team comics!
By far the most fondly remembered items from the Mister Action line were the four vehicles produced. Unlike the cardboard playsets, LJN’s vehicles were produced in three-dimensional molded plastic that, while still remaining true to their economical roots, managed to be creative and fun to play with. The one major drawback to the vehicles was that LJN apparently made the decision to try and market them across a variety of other companies figure lines and not limit them to the 12-inch scale. The end result of this was vehicles that were a little too small for G.I. Joe, a little too big for Action Jackson, and just about right for Big Jim! Even though the scale was off, the designs for the vehicles were still cool. The signal ATV was an economy version of the Adventure Team Vehicle including the winch. The Sea / Land Sled and Heli-COPTER were both based on similar G.I. Joe items but with updated features to set them apart. The most unique item in this series was the Mobile Training Base which stood over three feet high when assembled. At a time when the Adventure Team Training Center was selling for $15.00+ in stores, more budget minded parents could purchase this wheel based knock-off for around $4.00! Catalog retailers even got into the act by offering all four sets in one mailer box as the “Mister Action Action Compact Set”!
By the end of the original G. I. Joe line, phony Joes were such big business that Hasbro even went so far as to knock itself off in 1975 when they introduced The Defenders. This line of figures, while designed primarily to give kids a figure to use with the remaining stocks of 12-inch G.I. Joe sets that were still gathering dust on store shelves, may hold the record for the least articulation of any Joe copy. The Defenders would barely merit more than a sad footnote in G.I. Joe history were it not for the fact that this line gave us the Iron Knight Tank, the one vehicle kids had screamed for since G.I. Joe had first entered the market but no other company had tried to touch. Almost equally impressive were the molded rock machine gun nest and the solid Sea Recovery raft that even the Adventure Team was missing. Today, even the purist of Joe collectors will display some of these pieces proudly in their collection, feeling they are merely correcting an oversight on the part of Hasbro in not releasing these items in the correct product line.
Mego and LJN may have held the lion’s share of the knock-off G.I. Joe market but they were by no means alone. Hong Kong factories went into overdrive churning out imposter lines like The Adventurer and American Sportsman for K-Mart/Kresge stores and Dynaman an impressive line that included many interesting military uniforms like a German Commander and French Foreign Legion but seems to have been sold mainly in Europe. Irwin continued to produce their vehicle line well into the 70’s and changed the color scheme every few years to keep them fresh. Irwin had originally been licensed by Hasbro to produce vehicles for the G.I. Joe line, but as time marched on the status of their “official sanction” became increasingly grayer and some items were even marketed for competing lines like Action Jackson. Empire Toys also produced a line of knock-off vehicles, mainly jeeps, that even featured an Adventure Team Man of Action figure on the package! Having entered into the knock-off Joe game rather late, Empire tried to quickly retool their vehicles for use with the Johnny West, Big Jim, and finally even Mego’s World’s Greatest Superhero figure lines.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then boys ages six to twelve were not the only ones enamored with G.I. Joe. While these knock-off lines will never hold the same place in collector’s hearts as America’s one true “Moveable Fighting Man”, they served their purpose by adding value to playtimes everywhere while going easy on parents’ pocket books.