Our American readers may know him as GI Joe, but it’s very likely that they, like every young British owner of an Action Man, simulated copulation twixt the eagle-eyed boy-doll and their sisters’ Barbies. And in an eerie parallel of Britain’s own Armed Forces, with no girls around those boys without access to Barbies would inevitably engage two or more Action Men in mutual matters of the bottom. Except, amusingly, Action Man didn’t have a bottom – or any discernable genitals for that matter.

Early versions of the doll – launched as GI Joe in America in 1964, and bought into the UK by Hasbro subsidiary Palitoy – were simple eunuchs, smooth flesh replacing any defining orifices or protrusions. Later models featured moulded blue underpants, but it was patently evident that they too were afflicted with the same lack of genitalia. For many, Action Man offered an opportunity for their first practical sexual experimentation (though God knows whatever happened to those kids who got Star Wars figures involved in their sex games… probably ended up with some sort of dwarf fetish). But, perhaps, the doll’s makers had not intended this.

The original design of Joe/Action Man was inspired by an artists’ wooden mannequin figure, with similar points of articulation. It was a new concept for the toy market; prior to its release in the early 60s, all boys had to play with were things they found in the garden, such as bits of gravel and dead birds and that. When Hasbro brought GI Joe to the UK, a 12 man team spent months redesigning the 12” figure. The redesign project cost one million pounds, which in those days was enough to buy you anything you could dream of, including a sort of “space car” thing, which we imagine could have a really fancy horn, and eight wheels, or anything, really...

When GI Joe was considered “too American a name” for the British version, inspiration was taken from the Patrick McGoohan TV series Danger Man, and the design of his face was an amalgamation of some 20 real-life World War II heroes (though it’s unrecorded from whom his characteristic scar was taken). Action Man was born initially as just three pre-dressed figures, designed to test the market; a soldier, a sailor and a candlestick maker (a pilot), coming with a choice of moulded blond, brown, or auburn hair, and blue or brown eyes, depending on the preference of the young purchaser’s homo-erotic fantasies. Some 18 years later 18 million Action Men had been sold around the world, along with countless vehicles and accessories. Fiddly accessories that would become easily lost, and your Action Men would end up combating evil with matchsticks and felt tip pens. Years after our Action Man toys had been cruelly taken away to the son of some woman our mother knew, and sold to him for the princely sum of £20, we were still finding orange Action Man dynamite sticks under our bed.

Over time, the basic figure was improved upon. 1970 saw the introduction of “realistic” hair, and it proved a revelation. True fact: the genius behind the process which gave Action Man his flocked hair sold the idea to Hasbro by turning up for a business meeting in a hairy car. The high-tech process required the figure’s head to be smeared in glue, and then inserted inside a custom electrostatic chamber. Nylon filaments were then blown into the chamber, and attached themselves on their end to the glue. Of course, over time the hair would fall out, giving Action Man the impression that he was slowly dying of radiation sickness, which is perhaps why the new Action Man figure – reintroduced in 1993 after a decade’s absence – showcased a return to the moulded coiffure.

In 1973 Hasbro introduced “gripping hands”, which gave the figure that “ready for wanking” look, and in 1976 possibly the most useless action feature of all time was incorporated; Eagle Eyes. By way of a small lever on Action Man’s neck, he could magically use his eyes to look from left to right, and back - thereby negating the need to waste precious energy turning his head to coast the joint for clean-looking sailors. Rubbish and pointless as it was, the Eagle Eyes feature was heavily promoted, and saw sales reach new heights.

Of course, there were inevitable pretenders to Action Man’s crown, such as Tommy Gunn, and the superbly-named Little Big Man, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s, and the popularity of The Six Million Dollar Man TV series, and its spin-off merchandising, that Action Man faced real competition. The killer blow came with Star Wars, and the move away from larger figures, to cheaper four inch toys.

Attempts to make Action Man more relevant to Darth Vader-obsessed youths by introducing the Space Ranger line weren’t considered a success, and in 1983 Hasbro closed Palitoy down. Of course, classic Action Man remains an institution. Great as they are, the new toys fail to capture the real-life grittyness of the original run, being all ninja-skate-eco-warrior crap. However, for all the extravagant tanks and boats, by far our favourite Action Man toy was a helicopter backpack. Pressing a button on the pack caused the blades to spin around incredibly fast. Oh, the hours we spent asking people to “smell the blades”, before hitting the button fast and catching their nose and lips in the deadly revolutions. Sex and violence…. Yes indeed: Action Man was the best thing ever.  

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1.   On what cheek is Action Man’s famous scar?

2.  How many moving parts was the original Action Man doll made up from?

3.  How does Hasbro describe Action Man in current marketing?

4.  When Action Man got moulded underpants in 1979, what did he have printed on his belt buckle?

5.  In the early 80s a Star Wars figure-sized Action Man spin-off range was launched. What was its name?


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