something I just figured out about G.I. Joe…

March 13, 2013

So I just realized something.

I’ve been re-watching the G.I. Joe cartoon on Hub for the last year or so, and I suddenly noticed that there are no nuclear weapons in this show.  There are plenty of other mechanisms of mass destruction (Cold Slither FTW!), but most of them are completely outlandish, and they’re not total nuclear war.  Heck, they even have Russian good guys in the Oktober Guard.  The U.S.S.R. isn’t the bad guy — they’re as much Cobra’s victims as everyone else.

For a show that aired in the mid-1980’s, this is astonishing.

Some historical perspective:  this was the stretch of time when the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist’s Doomsday Clock was moved to three minute until midnight — the closest to midnight it’s ever been since the U.S. detonated its first hydrogen bomb in 1953.  The idea of all-out nuclear war was everywhere.  I think it’s easy for us, thirty years later, to forget just how pervasive it was.  It wasn’t just in movies like Red Dawn, War Games, Mad Max, The Day After, etc. etc.  It was on TV every single day.  It was in sitcoms.  I’ll never forget this episode of Silver Spoons where Ricky dreams that he’s president, and he’s talking on the “hot line” to Russia, and he says, “Walk to the edge of a cliff, Yuri — and drop off!”  (This was considered funny in 1983.  I can’t explain it.  But yes, he causes nuclear war in his dream and wakes up vowing to be a better person .  Or something.  I don’t know, that’s the only thing I remember from the entire show.)

This was the stretch of time when my dad was stationed at Grand Forks AFB, commanding a B-52 crew.  1982-1985, I was 10-13 years old — pretty formative years.  I joke now that Dad’s job was flying to Russia and dropping a bunch of nukes when Reagan pushed the button.

So this was the water I was swimming in when I was 10-13.  The threat of nuclear war was everywhere, and if it happened, my Dad was going to be part of it.  At the time, this was just life.  Lately, this idea has completely traumatized me and I’ve been trying to figure out.  (A couple years ago, a reader at a signing pointed out that I killed my main characters’ fathers in three books in a row.  “Yeah,” I said.  “I’m working out some suppressed childhood trauma.”  I pointed out that in all three cases the father was a public servant who sacrificed himself to save others.  Definitely something going on there, but I think I’ve got a handle on it now.  No more killing my main characters’ fathers.  And if you’ve ever sat in English class wondering if authors realize all the stuff they put in their books — well, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.)

Now, the comics have plenty of nuclear bombs and nuclear threats and lots of exciting last minute disarming scenes, just like you’d expect.  But that came later for me.  The cartoon?  Totally nuclear war free.  It exists in an alternate reality where the Cold War with Russia was never that important because they had Cobra instead.  For a kid whose dad had an role to play in any actual nuclear war that was going to happen, G.I. Joe felt very, very safe.

Since then, I’ve come to admire the franchise for its surprisingly effective characterization (Low Light in the cartoon?  That dude is creepy, but I’d totally trust him to watch my back in a firefight), and for the way it balances its earnestness with its total absurdity.  But I’m thinking there’s probably a part of me that will always treat G.I. Joe like a big fuzzy security blanket.

6 Responses to “something I just figured out about G.I. Joe…”

  1. ArcLight Says:

    Ah…memories. It may not have been on par with the Cuban Missile Crisis, but for us….

    During that time frame, my dad was stationed in Germany. And one of the first things we were told was that there were plans to evacuate us dependents if anything happened. Immediately followed by the fact that really, as close as we were, we’d likely be dead before anyone realized the nukes were in the air.

    Between that and Red Army Faction threatening to blow up any American they came across, it was an interesting time/place to be a kid.

  2. Carrie V. Says:

    Yeah, it’s a strange way to grow up, but I didn’t realize that until much later. I was about 26 and sitting around with a bunch of other twenty-somethings, and they were all reminiscing about their 1980’s nuclear war survival plans. And what was mine? “I always lived within the blast radius of a primary target. I didn’t have a plan.” And I went, yikes, that’s kind of messed up…

  3. Kathy Says:

    Along the lines of surprising messages in GI Joe, there’s the episode “Let’s Play Soldier” where the Joes are in Thailand and have to work with a group of kids who are the children of American GIs and local women who hooked up during the Vietnam War. At the end of the episode, the Joes have made arrangements for the kids, who are called ‘dust children’ by the locals and treated as ‘lower than dirt’, to come live in America. The kids, to a one, refuse, not wanting to leave their home country. While Gung Ho wants to try and talk the kids into coming, Leatherneck, one of the more hoo-rah Joes, says that what’s important is that they’ve found a home and have someone who cares about them and they don’t need to be in America to be happy. I remember seeing the episode as a kid and being like, well, yeah that makes sense but as an adult, it’s like, ‘whoa, what an awesome message!”

    There’s a fuller and better description here: http://joeguide.com/summaries/lets_play_soldier/

    Also, I second the opinion that Low Light is creepy as hell but awesome. “Nightmare Assault” will always be one of my favorite episodes because of how it focuses on Low Light’s background. http://joeguide.com/summaries/nightmare_assault/

  4. Carrie V. Says:

    I know that ep.! Larry Hama, who wrote the first run of comics and did a lot of conceptual work for the toys and cartoon, was a Vietnam vet and brought a lot of that experience to the franchise. I remember the whole topic being newsworthy at the time, 10-15 years after the war.

    The show had a lot of “Whoa, awesome” moments. One of my favorites — there’s a TV news guy who shows up a few times, “Hector Ramirez,” who is so obviously a spoof of Geraldo Rivera that I bust up every time he shows up.

  5. smsand Says:

    I might have to re-watch the old cartoons at some time. I was really young when they aired, so my memories of them are pretty fuzzy. But I do recall asking myself several times back then, “How can so many people shoot that many times at each other, and nobody gets shot?”

    When I learned why (from my parents, naturally, “It’s a cartoon, honey. They’re not allowed to show that stuff in a kids cartoon.”) that was when I first learned the concept of censorship. The first G.I. Joe comic I read had a panel showing a bullet going through someone’s head. I still watched the cartoons, but from that day forward I preferred the comics over the cartoons. Something about showing violence but not showing the consequences of it always rubbed me the wrong way.

  6. carriev Says:

    I hear you on that one. It’s the reason why “Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future,” which aired a couple of years after this, became my favorite show — it’s about a war, and people die every episode. It didn’t pull punches *at all*, and I loved that.


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