My latest trip to China developing more toys, reminded me of a few interesting stories. When collectors eagerly pick up their new figures, they seldom know of the struggle it often takes to get the figure correct and shipped on time. Hasbro did not make the majority of the convention figures – only a few. The Flying Tigers – Dogfight for Freedom set was one of they made. Brian and his team worked with the factories producing special Joes and had access to any tooling to create the bulk of the figures. Whichever group was doing the work, production is never without its issues.
One such struggle was with the Flying Tiger set – the first Convention figure set I helped with. This set commemorated some amazing heroes. For any of us who grew up watching the fictitious version of Flying Tiger Ace Pappy Boyington in Black Sheep Squadron – it was fun. The real story of the Flying Tigers was as volunteers who chose to fight for China against the very modern Japanese Military. What they did was truly heroic – being the air force for China – which had none. Later after war with Japan was official, the Flying Tigers became part of the US Army Air Corp.
I also enjoyed that it included not only Joe as the hero but the adversary flying the Japanese planes. For the Japanese pilot, we made several new parts, some of which only appeared on that figure: the flying cap, the pistol, the parachute clip and the sword. The pistol, clip and sword were made using a new process at the time – Computer Aided Design. It seems very commonplace today but until then, most toy parts were still sculpted by hand. These parts were created by model makers who were just starting to understand CAD. We did our best to find very clear reference and get the scale as close as we could. The figure came from the GI Joe 442nd Infantry Nisei Soldier using the same head sculpting and odd yellowish skin tone.
The sword became part of the 12” Valor VS Venom Snake Eyes with Ninja Lightning Cycle where he had three different swords on his back. Since that one was so unique, it was a perfect variation from other existing Action Man swords. The parachute clip became the backpack clip on the Double Duty Operation Tiger Hawk set. To the best of my memory, the flying hat and pistol were not reused.
Joe’s soft goods were standard to other uniforms issues before with the exception of his silk flying scarf – printed with chop from the emperor (…at least I think that was still in the final figure). The flying jacket had a very specific label on the back that we copied from a real one. It roughly said, in Mandarin, “This is an American who is very important. If you find him, protect him and bring him back to the authorities, you will be rewarded with gold.”
That label had the flag of China on it circa 1939. Unfortunately, that regime was deposed and only survives on Taiwan. Therefore, the 1939 Chinese flag is now the modern flag of Taiwan. China still believes Taiwan is Chinese territory and that they all Taiwanese are rebels. With that in mind, some very state-minded employee reported that the factory was making subversive toys. As the government was all-powerful, the factory management quickly destroyed the entire production run – with about two weeks before the convention.
When the dust settled, they made a new run of the figures, plastic parts and soft goods but they would not risk putting any labels on the uniforms. So all the product was sent to the US and at Hasbro/Kenner in Cincinnati, where we had to find a local vendor who could print and apply all the labels. Unfortunately, their technology was not as good so all those labels had a funny orange line around them. There are only a handful of the original samples made that have perfect labels. However, that set is still a very fun set.
Occasionally, the Hasbro team also had to dress or assemble the figures. I think we did on these, not totally sure, but I do specifically remember when we assembled the first convention sand rail to add extra wheels and straps. It was fun seeing the designers, engineers, marketing and anyone else we could grab assembling the toys.
It is not unusual for a GI Joe designer to create a figure to honor a relative. Brian created a convention set honoring his father’s role in WWII with the medic set. One designer created a figure of the assignment he served in Vietnam. I had actually been looking for a good excuse to bring back “Eagle Eye GI Joe” and used the excuse of a Coast Watcher. Eventually it morphed into the Civil Defense Coast Watcher to honor the role that many men, like my father who were “4F”, chose to support their country on the home front as best they could. The figure was designed for the main Joe line but was dropped then later revived by Brian as a convention special figure. The photo below shows the original presentation model. Note that is had a toy siren sized to match Joe which the child (or Joe) could crank to make a real siren sound. Unfortunately, it was too hard to source so was dropped.
Research is never simple. On this assignment, I was at the Main Cincinnati library researching and found a very old reference manual in the catalog that I requested from the help desk. It was in the “stacks” where obscure books seldom checked out went to collect dust. Then I waited and waited and waited. Normally the books are pulled in about twenty minutes; in this case, an hour had gone by before I marched back up to the desk to ask about the delay. When I talked to the brain donor whose job it was to pull the book, he told me, “I looked at it and knew you would not want it since it was so old.” Of course, he did not bother to tell me that or ask as I just sat, sat, sat. Trying to keep my self-composure, I “requested” as nicely as I could manage, for him to go back to the stacks and pull it for me, as I wanted it precisely because it was that old.
So, as you enjoy your Joes, keep in mind not only the heroes they represent, but also the toy professionals who struggled to get that fun toy into your hands.
What was your favorite GI Joe Collector Club figure?