It’s the story, stupid – how I learned to love the new sculpt era again

It started with an interesting website article that was posted by a friend of mine a short while ago.  An opinion piece from Toy News Online which mentioned the need for narrative stories in children’s toys today.  I know us collectors don’t like to think of what we buy as “children’s toys” but at the core of our consciousness, I think we all understand that’s where this journey began.

Over the past few years, Hasbro has been producing some of the best toys they have made in a very, very long time…if not ever.  Using amazing inspiration from past G.I. Joe toys, other 80′s influences, and lots of great modern military equipment, the G.I. Joe team of 2010 – 2013 is an amazing collection of fantastically articulated, amazingly produced toys.

There’s only one problem…  who are these guys?  Who are they fighting?  Why are they fighting?  Why is Destro, who typically is a behind-the-scenes guy, strapping on a thick armored body suit and jumping into the action with a chain gun?  Why is Cobra Commander now wearing a skull mask and metal chest plate?  Does this story take place after the Rise of Cobra, or have we spun out into yet another universe.  I’ve been somewhat surprised to see that other collectors don’t seem to be curious about these things.  Sure, I might get flak for not having enough “imagination” but at some point I think a narrative voice is necessary to breath life into these characters.  If not necessary, it sure as hell helps.

Click the Read the Rest of the Story link below for the full article.

Without a narrative, how do you appreciate and enjoy new characters?  Simply based on how they look?  What is Shadow Tracker’s deal?  Where did Skydive get his crazy ass jetpack?  For crying out loud where did the Zombie-Vipers come from?!?

Yes, I get too wrapped up in this sometimes.

I mentioned that the online article was the initial nexus for writing this article, but I didn’t mention the second…  it was my toy room.  Folks who have been visiting the site have likely read my Evolution of a Toy Room feature (which should be getting another update very shortly), so you know that I’m setting up a toy room in my new house, and part of that involves unpacking toys I haven’t really seen in a while.  And yes, that includes the infamous “new sculpt era” stuff.  Fraught with sculpting weirdness, proportions that were all over the place, a bizarre smashing together of 80′s military homages and almost comic book super hero craziness.  Looking at them purely from a toy perspective, it’s hard to even put them in the same category as the toys we’ve gotten over the past couple of years.  Strange construction and articulation inconsistencies plagued the line, but to this day the “new sculpt era” had something that G.I. Joe has been lacking over the past years since (perhaps with the exception of Sigma 6).

A fantastic, outrageous, toy-based story.

Sure, we had G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, we had G.I. Joe: Resolute, and we had G.I. Joe: Renegades, but those all leaned heavily on pre-established media events…with the new sculpt toys, the toys drove the story, not the other way around.  Whether by filecards, the Devils’ Due comic books, or direct to DVD animated features the toys built a G.I. Joe universe simply by virtue of being fun toys, not because they had to capitalize off of a mass media event.  Where we get a strange looking Cobra hunter in the form of Shadow Tracker, with no idea who he is, in 2004, we got Venomous Maximus, who we learned very quickly was captured G.I. Joe General Hawk, “venomized” and converted to a Cobra super soldier.  Call me crazy, and even considering how silly that story might seem, it added some depth to the character that he became all the more cooler to me, just knowing his back story.  Potentially crappy toys like the Tigerhawk Jet and the Night Adder fighter were made cool, and a totally random new character like Dr. Link Talbot, instantly became a credible piece of the G.I. Joe roster.  Even going back to Spy Troops, we got introduced to Agent Faces…having a story to tell immediately gives Hasbro a reason to bring us new characters.

Don’t even get me started on guys like Barrel Roll and Blackout, with some Bombstrike thrown in…and hey, how about Ghost Bear?  Kwinn’s son?  How rich is that story?

The truth of the matter is, as much as I’ve loved the toys over the past few years, part of me continues to itch for some better story telling that isn’t fully dependent on something filters through the masses.  Maybe it’ll happen after G.I. Joe: Retaliation, who knows.  All I know is that for everyone that condemns the new sculpt era, I tell them there is good and bad to every story, and considering the absolute roller coaster of movie delays, animated series cancellation, credit card complaints, rage about the Figure Subscription Service over the past few months, I gotta be honest, 2003 – 2005 is sounding really damn good right about now.  For folks who were drawn in during the 25th Anniversary onslaught, look into some of those other figures a little bit.  The toys themselves don’t hold up real well, but there’s a lot of spirit there and a lot of G.I. Joe story to love.  Don’t just push it aside.

  • GigaMach

    I totally agree, but it’s funny…I was drawn back into collecting by the tail-end of the 25th. In fact, it was the Resolute 5-pack that clinched it for me, and made me go back to the 25th archives and get everything I could, and continue from there. But it was the DD comics that kept me solidly interested, and those are a brilliant hybrid of the old-school Hama-verse and what the new-sculpt era was churning out. I still love those books and revisit them often, and suggest folks go back and give the “disavowed” universe a second chance.

    I have tremendous appreciation for the new-sculpt figures, primarily because of this site. And while I’ve only gone back to purchase a few (said Venemous Maximus being one) because I skipped the retail deluge, I look at them all with tremendous fondness, and look forward to seeing updates of some of the series unique characters. Blackout and Ghost Bear (Yep, you named ‘em, and what can I say…I agree!) being towards the top of my list. I’m sad that Barrel Roll is a club exclusive, frankly, because of my fondness for the Stall family story. I’m just glad I finally got to meet a real-life Stall at Comic Con this year.

    Good call back, Justin!

  • Monte

    As an adult who collects these things to kitbash them and photograph them, I say keep your (admittedly charming-in-a-campy way) straight-to-DVD narrative supplements and give me the superior toys of present day.

    However, as someone whose affection for the brand leaves him feeling concerned for its viability at times, I do worry about what the missing story component signifies. Worse still, when there IS a story to fuel toy sales, the two do not properly support one another (with the obvious exception of Rise of Cobra); I needn’t recap the Renegades mess.

    Incidentally, I’d like more pieces like this, Justin; I love your reviews and photos, and I get that the news component is important, but I could read analytical commentaries like this one all day. Keep ‘em coming!

  • http://twitter.com/GeneralsJoes GeneralsJoes.com

    Thanks, Monte! To a degree I enjoy letting my own imagination take me where I want to go with these toys, and don’t get me wrong…if given a choice, I’d much rather the toy itself be as fantastic as they’ve been recently rather than sacrifice that for a story. I just wish Hasbro would let the toys tell their own story as well as be as cool as they are.

    They almost started to do it with the Pursuit of Cobra, but never quite capitalized…and I’m excited that the Collectors’ Club is filling in some blanks with Shadow Tracker, etc… but I’d like a little background filled in for me.

    I’d love to do more pieces like this as well…just gotta find the time and inspiration. :)

  • http://twitter.com/GeneralsJoes GeneralsJoes.com

    Thanks!

    Yeah, part of what drove this entire article was Ghost Bear. I realized that I never took a picture of Kwinn and Ghost Bear together as part of the Kwinn review, which spiraled into thinking about the new sculpts, and then I started unpacking bins, and it was all down hill from there…

  • Joe A Day

    Amen, Justin. The stuff we all love that served as the basis for all the wonderful new figures we have, were first and foremost TOYS.

  • Patrick Stewart

    I think at its best, G.I.Joe does well when there is a solid foundation of fiction combined with several unexplained toy releases. That way, there is a common ground as a driving force as well as food for imagination. I know there were a few toys that spoke to me in the new sculpt era for some inexplicable reason. Switch Gears comes to mind, personally. I know people loved Sgt. Hacker and Scalpel despite their absence from fiction. And for today’s toys, I still want Raven’s Wing. No need for fiction; that design sells itself. But it still is true that it would be great to have something like Raven’s Wing to imagine into a larger storyline.

  • Scott

    Good points.

    The 2005 ninja battles set stands out to me as a good fun thing that was out. This was one of those impulse buys at the time, but with the DVD and comic AND display base, this was a ready-to-battle-in-a-box set.

    Tiger Claw and Shadow Strike really stood out to me, almost like Star Wars Jedi apprentice in a way. And then having all the characters at the end of the DVD show up in the battle, and having the “new sculpt” Slice and Slash, and Kamakura, etc., etc.,

    …Well, before I knew it, I had a sizable “new-sculpt” ninja display.

    Not my thing these days, but, yeah, that was kind of fun!

  • Matt Cargile

    Good article. I definitely think that narratives can enhance and help market the toy lines, especially in regards to new characters. I’d even argue that Hasbro would have been more successful with the new sculpt era if they had spread the accompanying animated features out into smaller, serialized segments released with each wave so that the ongoing story was fresh in the minds of kids and collectorss. The old marvel comics ads did a lot more to establish the ongoing story and characters for me than the cartoon did because they seemed to introduce the concepts and characters first for me.

  • Guest

    Excellent article. I totally agree. I remember back in the day, I lived outside of Massachusetts with my family. We had a small getaway house deep in the Warren valley of Vermont. Every time we could, we would head up there for a little R&R of the city. When we got into Warren, my mom would always stop at Grand Union for groceries. At the checkout line, I would always get her to buy me one of the old/small GI Joe Magazine books that reprinted a few stories. I always got it and read them basically till they fell apart.

    When I went out to play with my Joes, while I made up allot of the stories that were played out in our backyard and woods, those comic story lines helped me get a feel for the characters, and know their backgrounds so I could ensure those stories transferred when I was setting up elaborate missions among the trees, grass, streams and forests.

    With the back stories from the comics and cartoon, I was able to extend the GI Joe universe by working off of what was already created. Not only that, when I read more comics and saw more background stories on the cartoon, i was able to expand and recreate new adventures. As an adult now, when I collect I don’t feel that the back stories are as important to me – but when I think about what needs to happen for the line to survive for another 30 years is those stories for kids like myself to have endless fun in their backyards…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-McGregor/1116626365 John McGregor

    Excellent
    article. I totally agree. I remember back in the day, I lived outside
    of Boston, Massachusetts with my family. We had a small getaway house deep in
    the Warren valley of Vermont. Every time we could, we would head up
    there for a little R&R from the city. When we got into Warren, my mom
    would always stop at Grand Union for groceries. At the checkout line, I
    would always get her to buy me one of the old/small GI Joe Magazine
    books that reprinted a few stories. She always got me one, and I would read them
    basically till they fell apart.

    When I went out to play with my Joes, while I my immagination was teh main driving force when playing in the backyard and woods, those comic
    story lines helped me get a feel for the character’s
    backgrounds. With those backgrounds, I could set the stage for the elaborate missions that would play out among the trees, grass, streams and
    forests.

    With the back stories from the comics and cartoon, I was able to
    extend my GI Joe universe by working off of what was already created.
    Not only that, when I read more comics and got more background stories, I was able to expand and create new adventures. As an
    adult now, when I collect, I don’t feel that the back stories are as
    important to me. But when I think about what needs to happen for the
    line to survive for another 30 years – kids who are playing with Joes now also need those backgrounds like
    myself to develop a deeper meaning and love for when having endless fun in their backyards…

  • Luke

    I think the importance of story to sell a toyline can be summed up in one word: Kwinn. Fans have been begging for a figure of him for years, and we keep getting excited and full of angst over whether the modern figure we’ve seen will even make it out. The adult fans of today are still clamoring for a fiction-only character who died in 1985 because of the sheer impact that story had on them. The story that grabbed them and never let go, and a playtime (however we indulge it now) that is incomplete without this “cast member”.

    Right now the next generation of fans is almost completely dependent on accidental discovery of the stories that came before them, not new fiction. We’re getting our kids into the brand by our sheer enthusiasm and sharing these tales. The toylines of today really could learn a lesson here. To paraphrase a saying: sell kids a toy and they’ll play for a while, but sell kids a story and you’ll captivate them forever.

  • Dusty Ayers

    I think the story is less important for me now but I will always love the old ARAH days with the figs and Marvel comics. These figs are the best we’ve seen and I love to pose and mess around with them. For me I just like a fun figure and that means I like a fig with great articulation as much as a fig with restricted articulation like Skydive. He just looks so cool and is just a fun figure. I really enjoy any figure that just captures the spirit of wacky fun regardless of how much articulation it has or how many accessories it can carry. The Retaliation Joe trooper captures all of that for me.

  • revsears

    I totally agree with Justin. Others have mentioned liking characters that are more blank slate, but even in those situations it seems what’s really enjoyable is finding a way to work them into the story or universe, if all the characters are so unfleshed out, they don’t stick out as unique, and there is nothing to use your imagination to connect them to. Articulation got me to pick up G.I.Joe as a kid, but story made me stay and reignited my passion as an adult. I think one of the major reasons I can not get into IDW is how divorced it seems from the toys. DDP and the stall story that was brewing was amazing. When Joe Casey cut that off I nearly put the book down for good, but Mike O’Sullivan brought in the plague from the 6 pack and caught my attention again. I still long for a good and complete Stall Story, we never got to see much of Bombshell/Bombstrike.

    As much as factor as this for some of us, I really think for the kids it’s huge. They have shorter memories and other stories they can see and connect with figures on the pegs. Although the figures were odd, the one cgi movie a year showing of most of the characters released in that year seemed to be an excellent strategy to me.

  • alvarobm

    Good article. I have to add that my love for “New Sculpt” era is not only about background stories. Most figures are really nice, IMHO.

    Starting with Joe vs. Cobra T-Crotch toys, NE era took a dubious path. On one side, the articulation and body proportions were horrible, much inferior to ARAH toys. But on the other (the one that captured my attention), faces sculpts were very realistic, and uniforms concepts (yes, they reminded super-heroes) were great.

    As the lines succeded (JvC wave 2, Spy Troops and Valor vs. Venom) faces sculpts improved more and more, and odd proportions were adjusted (not to perfection, of course), and figures released became to be better, wave after wave. VvV Gung Ho, DTC Mutt, Cover Girl and Barrage are good examples.

    The most important thing, nevertheless, was the flood of new characters. The Joe ranks incesead on a proportion we haven’t seem since Battle Corps days, and the execution of the new guys to figures form produced very nice toys, like VvV Kamakura, Hard Drive and Wide Scope.

    Talking about faces sculpted on this era (including those from VvV Comic Packs), I have to say they are better than most of those produced on 25th era. Compare NE era faces of Tunnel Rat, Spirit, Duke, Shipwreck, Gun Ho and Major Bludd to their 25th counterparts: they’re much more realistic!

    Yes, NE era brought a lot of toys to love!

  • revsears

    I thought i’d watch spytroops again just because of this article… then I heard beachhead’s voice, oh the horror!

  • morebread
  • Weerd1

    Excellent article, and I echo the sentiment that you have a few more like this (but boy do I understand the time concern). I actually won a copy of Valor Vs. Venom from Maxim Magazine for sending in a picture of me doing my regular job dressed as a GI Joe. I was in Baghdad with the Army at the time, so maybe I cheated a little, but it was an interesting source for such a contest considering how much VvV was meant for kids. You can’t tell me the scene where Snake Eyes jumps off the motorcycle to slice off an airplane wing with his sword doesn’t give you some fan-happy though.

    As much as I would love to see some kind of narrative, I do think a lot of that could be solved with better file cards. I am just old enough to have had the original 12″ Joes, who were all “Joe.” Getting my first RAH (Zap) with a particular personality description was really an eye opener. I was in an area where I didn’t really get exposure to the cartoon or Marvel Comics until probably 86 or so, so my Joes had all the stories I developed based on the file cards, and it was if I may say, pretty rich. It’s where I learned to write fiction really. Imagine my surprise when I found out my “man of few words” commando was actually mute…

    What I do like about modern era, and I hope we see this continue, is the idea we still see figures from various incarnations of Joe. Sure, the Adventure Team and Dr. Venom were club exclusives (anyone willing to part with one for a reasonable price?) but given them, and Kamakura coming along in a movie pack, and Zanya appearing in the Dreadknock pack I get my Devil’s Due itch scratched. I certainly wouldn’t mind a new sculpt Venomous Maximus with a filecard wrapping him with the same nano tech that makes the Zombie Vipers. Or a Renegades Zartan and Agent Faces two pack hinting at the lost second season.

  • Zycrow

    Actually, one of my favorite parts of the PoC/30th series was coming up with a backstory for all those guys. I’m sort of a compulsive worldbuilder, though.

  • chuckdawg1999

    Great article Justin. Thanks for posting those vids too.

  • gqshire

    Loved the card art for that era, but short torsos and odd hand positions ruined a lot of promising toys. I’d love to see a concept case where the current sculptors took a shot at bringing that artwork to life.