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.
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...
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
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.