Break out the hypercolor t-shirts and JNCO jeans ’cause we’re taking a trip back to the mid-1990s and looking at G.I. Joe Extreme!
[NOTE: This post is a follow-up to last week’s piece on Sgt. Savage and his Screaming Eagles. You might want to read that first before proceeding further.]
After the disappointing retail performance of 1994’s Sgt. Savage and his Screaming Eagles, Hasbro handed the G.I. Joe brand to designers from former rival Kenner, which it had acquired in 1991. The result was 1995’s G.I. Joe Extreme, a radical departure from the G.I. Joe toys of the past 13 years.The figures were much larger, for one thing, with greatly exaggerated, almost grotesque, proportions—the thinking here might have been that the change would put G.I. Joe Extreme in a better position to go up against Playmates’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the glut of derivative properties littering the retail space.
If Sgt. Savage and his Screaming Eagles was Hasbro doubling down on the traditional elements of toy soldier design, then 1995’s G.I. Joe Extreme was a double-barreled shotgun blast of “throw-shit-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks.” In a way, it was informed by the “anything goes” approach that characterized the final two years of the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero line that saw space aliens,mutant monsters, and characters from Capcom’s Street Fighter II all being incorporated into the toy soldier roster. The individual G.I. Joe Extreme character designs drew from disparate action figure trends and various pop entertainment stereotypes, perhaps betraying a lack of a unified creative direction (and maybe even a little desperation) in G.I. Joe Extreme’s development process.
The initial toy assortment consisted of your generic square-jawed leader-type, a ninja (de rigueurgiven the period), a grotesquely-muscled bruiser who looked like he could have been designed by Rob Liefeld, a diver (because every team needs its Aquaman), a glam rocker in a leather vest and ripped jeans, a Kentucky waterfall-sporting firearms expert, and a reworked Sgt. Savage (one supposes that Hasbro wanted to recoup the development cost of Sgt. Savage and his Screaming Eagles). There was a female on the team—Extreme’s equivalent to G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero’s Scarlett—as well as a dreadlocked, reformed villain whose toys never made it to production, although prototypes appeared in marketing materials.
As with G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and Sgt. Savage and his Screaming Eagles, the G.I. Joe Extreme product roll-out was accompanied by a tie-in cartoon and comic. Like G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero’s media spin-offs, there were really just token links between the G.I. Joe Extreme animated series and the G.I. Joe Extreme the comic. The characters and the basic “good guys vs. bad guys” conceit were similar in the broad strokes, but many details were unique to their respective media.
The animated series and the comic did share the fact that their fiction was clearly built on a clean slate. Just as the oversized G.I. Joe Extreme toyline represented a break from the G.I. Joe toys of the past, so did its associated media. G.I. Joe Extreme was a multimedia franchise “reboot” in the truest sense, wholly disconnected from previous incarnations, although an appearance by G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero character Hawk later in the animated series would walk back this idea to an extent.
The animated series, despite being somewhat ahead of its time in having an overarching plot tying together the episodes, only lasted two seasons (26 episodes in total)—a bit of a letdown, considering that G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero managed three five-part summer special miniseries (1983, 1984, and 1989), four full seasons (1985, 1986, 1990, 1991) adding up to 122 episodes, and a full-length animated feature film (1987) headlined by the participation of Don Johnson (Miami Vice) and Burgess Meredith (Rocky).
As far as I am aware, the G.I. Joe Extreme animated series has never been officially reissued in a home video format, although one can surmise that there probably isn’t much demand for it outside of, say, die-hard G.I. Joe collectors or animation historians.
Hasbro took the comic book license to independent publisher Dark Horse Comics, which had a reputation as a home for quality licensed comics with its Star Wars, Aliens, and Predator titles and its repackaging of European and Japanese works for the North American market.
In keeping with the notion that G.I. Joe Extreme should be a new start for the franchise, industry veteran Mike W. Barr was tabbed to write the comic instead of Larry Hama, the singular architect of the bestselling G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero comic of the 1980s. In Barr, G.I. Joe Extreme had a new voice who nonetheless had a proven track record in the superhero (Detective Comics, Batman and the Outsiders), science-fiction (Camelot 3000), crime (Maze Agency), and pulp action-adventure (Doc Savage) genres. Barr also brought with him experience writing war comics—he had written stories for both DC’s Weird War Tales and Eclipse Comics’ Real War Stories anthologies—and licensed comics (Star Trek, The Shadow Strikes!). If Dark Horse and Hasbro weren’t going to bring in (or couldn’t convince) Hama to write the G.I. Joe Extreme comics, then Barr, at least on paper, was as good a choice as any to be the one to restore G.I. Joe to its former place at the top of the comics sales charts.
It didn’t really work out that way.
Make no mistake: the first G.I. Joe Extreme miniseries, simply titled G.I. Joe (with a prominent subtitle exclaiming that “extreme times call for extreme heroes”) is a competently executed licensed comic. It’s reasonably entertaining fare for what it is—it was all pretty silly, of course, but Barr had to work with what he was given and to be perfectly honest, the result was pretty comparable to your typical mid-1980s G.I. Joe comic, dialogue-wise. The interior art from Tatsuya Ishida and Scott Reed, for better or worse, played to what the market wanted at the time.
The miniseries also featured iconic covers from Frank Miller, Norm Breyfogle, Walt Simonson, and Frank Teran.
Each issue had a back-up story, co-written by Dark Horse Comics founder Mike Richardson with art by Jerry Bingham, detailing the future history of the comic’s setting of 2009(!).
Direct market sales were respectable, even if they did not herald a return to the chart-topping heyday of Marvel’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero comic. The first issue debuted at #36 on Diamond Comics Distributors’ preorder sales chart for December 1995, and it was the sixth best-selling Dark Horse publication for the month (the only Dark Horse titles to outsell it were all Star Wars-branded comics).
Subsequent issues saw a steady decline in preorders, but this was not wholly unexpected for a new miniseries. The second issue was ranked at #67 for January 1996, the third issue entered the March 1996 charts at #80, and the fourth and final issue was just outside of the top 100 in April 1996, ranked at #102.
That was apparently enough for Hasbro to greenlight a new ongoing series. Also titled G.I. Joe (and again issued with the “extreme times call for extreme heroes” tagline), the second volume of Dark Horse’s iteration of the property was launched two months after the end of the initial miniseries.
If the publisher was expecting a major bump up in sales from collectors due to the launch of a new first issue, however, it was in for a major disappointment. The second series’ first issue landed at #97 on the Diamond Comics Distributors preorder chart for June 1996. Preorders for the fourth issue were down to almost a third of what they were for the first issue and the issue, which closed on a cliffhanger, ended up being the series’ last. It would be another six years before Hasbro would license out G.I. Joe for comics publication.
Keep in mind, this was all happening during one of the worst years for the modern comics business—industry leader Marvel Comics notoriously filed for bankruptcy protection at the end of 1996. The subsequent weeks and months would see numerous imprints and smaller publishers shut their doors. Dark Horse Comics’ G.I. Joe may not have been anything special but there were more factors involved in its retail failure than just the comic not being able to find traction among readers on its own merits or the tepid sales of the G.I. Joe Extreme toys (which had been canceled by the end of 1995) not doing the comic any favors.
Ultimately, G.I. Joe Extreme will probably be best remembered as the last time Hasbro got behind an all-new G.I. Joe cast in a big way. More recent revivals of the G.I. Joe brand—in comics, made-for-TV animation, and live-action film—have defaulted back to using the characters popularized in Hama’sG.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. Hama himself has returned to writing G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, which was resurrected by IDW Publishing in 2010. While G.I. Joe is no longer the pop culture touchstone it was 30 years ago—war doesn’t translate as easily to children’s toys and entertainment in the post-9/11, 24-hour news cycle world—it has managed to find a niche, although how much of its current audience is composed of younger, newer fans who can keep it viable for another 30 years is a matter of question. At some point in the future, Hasbro will probably have to refresh G.I. Joe for a new generation. It can only hope that whatever new form the brand takes moving forward will be better executed, better received, and better remembered than G.I. Joe Extreme.