Wherein I offer my soul to Satan in exchange for G.I. Joe dolls
By Monte Williams
Originally Published by PopMatters; 18 December 2007
Wal-Mart destroys independent businesses, and I do not begrudge them in the least. Have you visited a mom n’ pop shop recently? Lousy hours, inflated prices… they’re a pain in the ass.
As an American, I deserve and am owed the opportunity to rise from my depressed stupor at 3:00am to shop for DVDs, ice cream, and sweatpants, and if some pissant market your family has owned for seven generations cannot accommodate my self-medicating midnight shopping sprees, then your crummy shop deserves to become a parking lot.
Make no mistake, though: I hate Wal-Mart.
And it’s all because of G.I. Joe.
By the time Rhode Island toymaker Hasbro unveiled their new Sigma 6 series of G.I. Joe figures in the fall of 2005, the long-running G.I. Joe property was in sad shape. Having changed the toy industry forever in the ‘60s with its line of 12-inch G.I. Joes (the first toys ever called “action figures”), Hasbro relaunched the property in the early ‘80s as A Real American Hero, following something of a creative and financial dry spell.
A Real American Hero saw the signature Joe doll reduced from his Barbie-like 12-inch scale to a Star Wars-esque three-and-three-fourths inches, the better to supplement Joe’s every action figure incarnation with endless vehicles and playsets, most of which would have proven too unwieldy and expensive to produce for the larger scale; even at the decreased scale, the Real American Hero playsets topped out at over a hundred bucks, and that was in mid-‘80s dollars (and unwieldy might fairly be considered an understatement: the U.S.S. Flagg aircraft carrier measured an absurd seven feet in length).
The new, smaller series was a triumph, not least because Hasbro had at last introduced a proper foil for Joe in the form of Cobra, a comically inept and eccentric (if also undeniably iconic and intriguing) terrorist organization. A comic book and cartoon series served to develop and promote the toyline’s sci-fi superpatriot mythos, which proved a rousing hit for kids raised on the “U-S-A-!” chants of pro wrasslin’ roidtards like Hulk Hogan and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan.
The G.I. Joe property was soon criticized by Jello Biafra in the Dead Kennedys anthem “Rambozo the Clown”, featuring such lyrics as “Don’t think about it, Kill it / That’s what we teach your child” and “Mass murder ain’t just painless/ Now, we’ve made it cute.” But while Biafra’s protests couldn’t halt Joe’s momentum, America’s Cold War antagonism with Russia soon came to an end, and with it, G.I. Joe’s relevance, along with its toy aisle dominance.
Or maybe the toys just started to suck. Either way, the glory days had passed.
Hasbro attempted a number of uninspired resurrections of the series starting in the late ‘90s, hoping to capitalize on the frankly desperate nostalgia aging Gen-Xers were feeling for their childhood toys and ‘toons. These series consisted of little more than re-releases of old figures utilizing cheap-looking plastic and crappy paint applications, and even later, when new themes like Spy Troops and Valor Vs. Venom offered fresh sculpts in the early 2000s, they were still widely regarded as pale imitations of their ‘80s successors. Indeed, demand for these final survivors of the three-and-three-fourths inches scale was so low that they were only available online.
But then Hasbro decided to try something different.
It would be difficult to find a toyline more divisive than 2005’s G.I. Joe Sigma 6 series. The first promotional images of the strange and unsettling new figures sparked bouts of autobotic asphyxiation on an epidemic scale, as Joe had been reinterpreted yet again, this time as a series of wildly dynamic figures clad in futuristic battle suits and sporting thin, wiry body sculpts with angular faces inspired by the overwhelmingly popular Anime aesthetic dominating not just the action figure marketplace, but also the comic book and animation industries.
G.I. Joe… as Anime? The “Real American Hero” looking like the star of a Japanese cartoon? Did the Commies win?!?
Also, just to be jerks, Hasbro made Sigma 6 figures eight inches tall.
Geeks, fanboys and other stunted man-children are notoriously opposed to change of most any kind, particularly where their beloved ‘80s cartoon icons are concerned. The collective toy aisle tantrum with which most G.I. Joe fans responded to Sigma 6 was therefore unsurprising to the creative team at Hasbro, who brushed aside all such criticism (usually appearing on internet message boards in the form of such reasoned and intelligent critiques as “Sigma Sux!”) with a totally unexpected disclaimer:
Sigma 6 is for kids.
Adult toy collectors, be they fans or scalpers, represent a sizable piece of the Toy Consumer pie, and companies like Mattel and Hasbro therefore try with most of their products to cater to two consumer bases at once: adult collectors and little kids. Not so with Sigma 6; while some later entries in the eight-inch series included cute nods to previous continuity (dating all the way back to the Adventure Team series of the 1970s), Sigma 6 was a toyline designed to be played with, versus merely hoarded.
The Sigma 6 figures featured extensive articulation, meaning they were among the most poseable toys one could buy. Additionally, each figure came equipped with a buttload of accessories, and mixing and matching clothing and weapons between figures was a major selling point for the wee lads and lasses Hasbro was aiming for. Before long, a small but passionate group of adult collectors came to embrace the risky new series, and little kids be damned. As glowing reviews poured in from publications like Toyfare magazine and Michael Crawford’s Review of the Week (it was founder Michael Crawford who first persuaded me to give the series a try; 80 figures and hundreds of dollars later, I don’t know whether to thank him or e-mail him a computer virus), more and more leery adults purchased a lone Sigma 6 figure out of a reluctant breed of curiosity, only to fall in love with the line’s mix of intuitive articulation and inventive design. Soon, message boards appeared, where like-minded fans could get together to trade, photograph or simply discuss their beloved Sigma 6 figures. Recipes for custom creations of unproduced and original characters were swapped and debated with great enthusiasm. It has been speculated that the adult collectors represented as little as one percent of the Sigma 6 market, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a happier batch of geeks. Hasbro’s potentially suicidal venture had paid off. Sigma 6 was a creative and financial success.
And now it’s dead.
Rumors had been brewing for weeks before Hasbro reps at September’s G.I. Joe convention in Atlanta confirmed that the Sigma 6 series, already rechristened with the familiar “G.I. Joe A Real American Hero” label in an ominous bit of foreshadowing (supposedly at the behest of Wal-Mart), would be placed on an indefinite hiatus in favor of still another retread: 25th Anniversary figures featuring updated sculpts of the beloved character designs from the heyday of the three-and-three-fourths inch scale.
To be fair, a staggering majority of adult collectors are thrilled at this development. Despite being billed as “the most articulated Joes ever”, most of the 25th Anniversary figures, who measure an awkward four inches or so, so that they don’t quite fit in with any previous assortments, cannot accommodate such standard poses as sitting down or holding a gun. But they look exactly how the characters looked in the ‘80s (even the packaging is nearly identical), and as has been noted, geeks like their hobbies safe and unchanging.
The small but loyal army of adult collectors of Sigma 6 pitched a collective internet fit when their little toyline that could was axed, but Hasbro will likely suffer no financial hardship in response. They’re in good shape owing to nothing more than their continued success in avoiding competitor Mattel’s lead paint PR nightmare. And at any rate, such is the power of today’s mammoth retail chains that the consensus online is that Wal-Mart killed Sigma 6, after having already demanded the name change from the bold, fresh Sigma 6 to the tired A Real American Hero. Where once toymakers called the shots, retailers now decide which toys they will stock, and under which conditions. The result: I have no new Sigma 6 toys to look forward to, and I really, really hate Wal-Mart. Destroy small businesses and unions all you like, but mess with my toys, and it’s on.
I have pleaded with the great Beelzebub to bestow upon me all unproduced Sigma 6 figures in exchange for my soul, but apparently he has met his quota this week. (Incidentally, a prototype of an unreleased Sigma 6 figure by the name of Short-Fuze sold for $600 on eBay a few weeks ago.)
The 25th Anniversary series was originally intended to include only 25 figures, but the slobbering, nostalgic lust of my geeky brethren has so delighted Hasbro that they’ve extended the line with further sculpts and repaints. However, the series is expected to subside soon to make way for new figures based on the upcoming G.I. Joe live action movie (tentative release date 7 August 2009.) After that, the G.I. Joe property could go in any number of directions.
Here’s hoping Hasbro chooses to go forward.