1984 Duke

I bought Duke in Banff, Alberta, in the summer of 1984. He was only the second Joe figure that I acquired from the remarkable third series.

A few weeks earlier, my grandmother had bought me Blowtorch at the Bay in Fort Smith. She had come to visit our family in the Northwest Territories, accompanied by one of my older cousins, and at the end of her visit we all piled into my parents’ Buick LeSabre wagon and drove south through the Rockies. We had been in the car for a few days, and yet our stop in Banff was just overnight, minimizing the window for me to pester my parents about buying toys. But I had a feeling about this little pharmacy downtown, and had weaselled my way inside and to the back of the store, to the tiniest toy section imaginable. There I had found a few Joes – of course I had! – and pressured my parents until they let me use some of my saved allowances to buy Duke.

Now, it seems counterintuitive that I would purchase Blowtorch and Duke ahead of Storm Shadow and Firefly, but those two masked Cobras would have always been snapped up first when any new case of Joes was opened, long before I got to them. And Duke was a logical choice for me, since it wasn’t clear who was the boots-on-the-ground, field leader among my existing Joes (Breaker, Grunt, Short-Fuze, Airborne, Doc, Gung-Ho, Torpedo and Tripwire), most of whom were outranked by drivers (Wild Bill, Steeler and Ace).

The next day, my family drove to BC, to meet my uncle and his family in the Shuswaps.

Back in the 80s, people were less concerned about what would happen in a crash. So this 7-year old had his own nook in the boot, with no seatbelt, wedged between the cooler and the back door. I played with my Joes as we headed west, Duke garnering my attention for a while, Blowtorch now the forgotten man.

Eventually, I hid Duke in the floor, in the handle to the hatch where the spare tire was located, while Destro and the Cobra Officer beared down on him. He was trapped, so I thought to have Blowtorch join the action and spring him. Only Blowtorch was missing, not in my Collector Display Case with the rest of my Joes.

We were a distance outside Banff now, and I couldn’t remember seeing Blowtorch at all since we got in the car. So I started panicking, thinking I had left him at the hotel. I knew there was no way we were going back to search for one of my guys, and I contemplated how to tell my parents I had lost him. They would be annoyed since they were always on me about being careful with my figures. I held up Duke and looked back at the road behind us, silently cursing him because Blowtorch was my favourite, and it was his fault I had ignored him.

A short time later, I found Blowtorch wedged between two pieces of luggage. But I’m not sure I ever truly forgave Duke for his part in the ordeal.

Me and my Joe collection and my little cousin in the Shuswaps, summer of 1984. Blowtorch and Duke came first, then Zartan and Deep Six.

Duke was originally available as a mail-away figure advertised in an insert included with the 1983 vehicles. His exclusivity, as a mail-away, was short-lived. Like the first version of Cobra Commander and Major Bludd, Duke was available on retail pegs with the following series of carded figures. That practice was discontinued the following year with Hooded Cobra Commander never being available at retail. (Nor was the first version of Sgt. Slaughter, The Fridge, Steel Brigade, Super Trooper, etc.)

Whether Duke shipped in 1983, before any of the 1984 figures were at retail, is almost irrelevant. The Dreadnoks were out before the end of 1984, and yet they are universally included in the class of 1985. So although some collectors might keep Duke on the shelf or in the drawer reserved for 1983s, I always keep him with the 1984s.

US mailer card.

There are a few key differences between that mailaway version of Duke and the carded figure that was released a short time later. For one, the framing of his picture on the filecard is different. The mailaway is more of a close-up shot, whereas the frame on the carded figure is further out, revealing more of his lapel and chest.

The mailaway version also included a US flag sticker for application on his shoulder which wasn’t included at retail. Although Hasbro generally tried to replace US flags with Canadian flags on retail products north of the border, the Canadian mailaway version included the same US sticker. Similarly, the Canadian mailaway of Sgt. Slaughter had “USA” both across the figure’s chest and visible on his shirt in the framed picture on his filecard.

There’s also discussion of whether Duke’s backpack featured a variation with a cross in the hollowed-out part that sat against his back. My initial thought is that the perceived variation was caused by kids mixing up Airborne’s backpack with Duke’s, since that pack is a lighter shade of beige and initially featured a cross inside. The lighter backpack matches Airborne’s sleeves, whereas the darker shade matches Duke’s. However, it is conceivable that the earliest versions of Duke shipped with an identical backpack to Airborne, since the drawing of Duke in the mailer card shows the top of a backpack, whereas the writing only confirms him coming with binoculars, gun and helmet. It’s possible that Airborne’s backpack was included at the last minute, when Hasbro realized the incongruity between write-up and image.

Duke also featured variations in his helmet: no holes vs. with holes.

Notably, Duke features three pieces of equipment that used pre-existing molds, as he shares a helmet mold with the core 1982 and 1983 Joes, a rifle mold with Stalker, and a backpack mold with Airborne. Only the binoculars were custom crafted for his figure. It’s a nice assortment of pieces, though, and anything more than a backpack, helmet and/or rifle was a homerun in those early days. That rifle and that backpack were also among the best accessories yet produced, so were understandable choices to re-use, given Hasbro might have been looking to cut a few corners.

Why the rifle is green might be the only question, but green was de rigueur in 1984. Duke, Roadblock, Ripcord, Firefly, Blowtorch, Recondo and Spirit all carried green weapons that year.

Simply put, Duke is a variant collector’s nightmare. He was molded with multiple versions of his head, waist piece and cuffs, in addition to the filecard, sticker, helmet and (possible) backpack variants. It’s a rat-hole, and if you’re a collector who has been avoiding variants so far, I would recommend continuing to steer clear.

Canadian filecards: retail (left) and mailaway (right).
Who wore it better, Airborne or Duke?

As a figure, Duke is exceptional.

His face is confident and expressive, though he might be smiling too much, given he was touted as being no-nonsense when first introduced. His boots show an extreme attention to detail in his design, as does the boot knife, holster and sidearm, textured belt with pouches, back pockets, front zipper, belt across his chest, grenade, shirt with ribbed pockets and collar, plus creases and waves on his back, and gold eagle on his chest.

The colour applications could use a little touch-up – namely the colours of his knife, belt and grenade – but overall the brown boots, green pants and tan shirt, with accents of dark green and gold, is extremely effective. It’s a little bland by later standards, but still…

He’s an icon, partly from being the leader when GI Joe went mainstream on the cartoon, and partly because his look is so solid.

First Sergeant Smiley Face.

In the cartoon, Duke was introduced during the first mini-series, The MASS Device, that aired in September 1983. He was immediately portrayed as the leader of the team, with Hawk seemingly removed from cannon. His contemporaries in the cartoon universe are the first and second series GI Joes, with Duke being one of two characters normally associated with the third series of figures, included in that original TV mini-series. The other is Baroness, however her costume is a significant departure from her action figure, meaning that she wasn’t being showcased to the toy consuming masses the way Duke was.

The Joe characters were often portrayed similarly: heroic and determined. And the writers lightened the mood with one-liners, using whichever Joe was in the scene, Scarlett, Breaker, Ace… (Everyone but Snake Eyes, I guess.) Duke was often the Joe who delivered the key punchlines, and the voice actor, Michael Bell, created a believable Duke who was both serious and an occasional wise-cracker.

It is also notable that Duke and Scarlett have a flirtatious relationship in the cartoon, whereas Scarlett’s relationship with Snake Eyes is a consistent storyline in the comic book.

Despite being the leader, Duke frequently showed poor judgement, and was captured by Cobra during each of the first two mini-series. He also owns the distinction of being the only Joe whose life was saved by a Transformer, as he was originally intended to die in GI Joe: The Movie (1987), but was saved before release by the reverberations of traumatized children after the death of Optimus Prime in Transformers: The Movie (1986).

Um, okay.

In the comic book, Duke was introduced in dramatic fashion, along with Roadblock, using their guns to fend off a Rattler attack at General Flagg’s funeral (GI Joe #22). It was an unrealistic moment, but thank goodness he was there to save the franchise, since the whole Joe team would have been killed in that moment. He was immediately positioned as heir to Hawk as field commander, and was supposed to be the meanest SOB in the whole unit. Considering Hawk had been known to give away the Joes’ position to Cobra on purpose, that is saying something.

As with many media depictions of serious characters, Duke didn’t last long as an overbearing hard-ass. The only explanation is that the GI Joe unit tightened up significantly under his command, and hence he didn’t have to constantly ride them. Regardless, he was fair and didn’t ever pull the same shady shit Hawk got away with in the early issues.

He paired particularly well with Roadblock in the comic – e.g. GI Joe #29 – and that duo has carried on together for 35+ years across all media, including in the second live action movie, GI Joe: Retaliation, and when they were released together in the same series of Classified figures, in 2020.

Destro, always up to no good. But Roadblock and Duke are there together.

Duke suffers a form of Boy Scout Syndrome, much like Cyclops in Uncanny X-Men. Having few flaws in the gallant, good-guy characters makes them harder to empathize with, and it means that readers lose interest eventually since they can’t relate. In a cartoon series or comic book or action figure, the quality of the voice actor, the circumstances of the conflicts or even the appearance of the character or figure, may allow us to overlook their unrelatable personality, at least temporarily.

Duke is the generic Joe personality in the cartoon and the generic good guy in the comic book, and that personality impacted how I played with his figure. In contrast, when Flint was released the following year as Duke’s second in command, his personality was well-rounded. Although there are Duke fans, I’d hazard that Flint’s fans are more numerous.

Flint after the boss tells a joke.

Duke was the leader of my Joes for two years, commanding the veteran, thumbless straight-arms of the first series, and the swivel-arm second, third and fourth series. But he made a quick exit when Hawk was promoted to General and returned, early in 1986 – a bolder, higher-ranking figure that made Duke’s outfit and personality less interesting. From that point on, Hawk led most missions himself, and when I needed to split the team I would defer to Flint or Beach Head as the leader of the other squad.

From 1984 to 1986, Duke got hours and hours of play time in my collection, but when I think about his unceremonious departure – not broken, just unused, a bottom-dweller in my toy box – it makes me a little sad.

I always say that the 1983 and 1986 series were my favourites, and that was true because I fell in love with certain figures in those series. With the 1984s and 1985s, the figures were so uniformly strong that it was hard to pick favourites. But those years were important to me, too, and I couldn’t have gotten from Airborne and Snow Job to Beach Head and Hawk without spending hours with Duke and Roadblock, and Lady Jaye and Alpine, along the way.

In some ways, Duke’s position in my childhood is somewhat undervalued because of the way I perceive him now, lacking personality. But that is almost unfair to him, given that the boy scout archetype was so fundamental to storytelling in clear-cut battles between right and wrong.

Duke is the epitome of GI Joe, and that is something my revisionist memories cannot take away from him.

4 replies on “1984 Duke”

I don’t have a lot of memories of playing with Duke. I got him via the mail away in early January of 1984, right when my Skystriker was still brand new. So, he got some time in the second seat as a replacement for Airborne. For some reason, though, the figure never resonated. The tan was kind of bland when compared to other 1984 figures.

I know your panic on Blowtorch all too well. I left my brand new Boba Fett figure in a hotel room in a state park in the winter of 1980. I even remember the park. Maybe he’s still in a lost and found box, waiting to be discovered. 🙂

Personally, I do not believe Duke ever include a Cross backpack. The Cross was matched with the Airborne torso and appears both with the Airborne torso Steel Brigade as well as foreign Airborne figures. The Airborne pack, though, discolors in a way that makes it closer to Duke’s pack color. Which, I suspect, is why some think cross packs could belong to Duke. But, I’ve seen no evidence and think this is largely an artifact of 25 year old descriptions from YoJoe that were written before collectors really documented variations.

I’ve tried to photograph Duke a few times over the years. But, I’ve found it hard to capture him on film. Usually, he looks better in person as his details stand out more in real life. I do wish, though, we’d gotten a repaint of the 1992 or 1993 Duke in this V1 color scheme. It would have been a fun update and something to give the character more distinction.

Interesting that you don’t have many memories of Duke. To me he stands out more in the cartoon than the comic or for playing with. 1984 was just such a great series of figures and it’s hard to put Duke above Mutt, Roadblock, Spirit, Recondo… Despite being an icon he’s probably my least favourite of any of the 1984 carded figures.

Thanks for the background on the backpack. I know so many people talk about the limitations of YoJoe and that’s a concrete example. It’s unfortunate that so much knowledge and trust is tied into an outdated site. For me, it’s still the most important reference when I’m trying to match figures and accessories. I did see the backpack variation talk on 3d Joes which is clearly a more contemporary reference site. Carson has done some incredible research and unearthed some important info, but it takes a while to put together all the pieces. And I’d be remiss not to mention Forgotten Figures as a reference site, since it’s where I turn when I see a figure I’m not as familiar with, when I need to get some background or figure out whether it’s worth buying or not. Thanks for that!

Those later versions of Duke were solid, weren’t they? Even a few years ago, Hasbro might have been able to reinvigorate the line with more whimsy.

The weird part of the non-death in GI JOE The Movie was Duke’s death was planned before Prime’s end, apparently. But Transformers Movie was released first and the negative reaction made them redub GI JOE the movie. (Fun fact: Serpentor’s death was in the original Movie script as well, after Falcon gets Serpy’s cape caught in the air chariot’s turbine, it explodes and Serpentor falls to the ground dead with Golobulus saying he can reclone him.)

I received the mail-in Duke in 1983, but I never recalled the flag decal at all. He was one of like only 3 or 4 swivel arm joes I had at the time, so he was pretty special. After 1983 I’d break from GI JOE until 1985. My brother kept the flame going, though. I also lacked Hawk V1, so Duke was the man, leading all my 14 Joes (the other original 12, Gung-Ho and Doc). (Not sure when I got Airborne, but I think it was much later)

I guess Duke was the all-American, blond jock, natural-born leader type (of which I have never been any of). But it didn’t bother me much as GI JOE had a vast character selection. It wasn’t like Masters of the Universe where He-Man was the star and his friends and allies were mostly chumps or annoying twits (I blame Filmation).

According to former Hasbro exec Kirk Bozigian, the whole reason behind the Major Bludd mail-in was to try to clear out 1982 Joe stock from retail. The offer require head shots cut from cardbacks (JOES only, not the two cobras!) and receipts dated from a certain time frame. It was jerk move. Hasbro promotes Flag points then does an offer that requires 2 entirely different things. That why my brother and I never sent off for mail-in Bludd. But Bludd was released carded soon after and so who cares now?

I never knew that about Serpentor’s storyline, but honestly I didn’t see the movie until the 90s and never had any interest in digging deeper into it. The intro is probably the best part of the show, so that’s sad. Now, how it ties to the toys is pretty fascinating. I think about the scene in The Boy Who Could Fly where Fred Savage’s character says Duke was killed and wonder if that moment was also somehow tied to the original movie plans.

True, true that Duke was all those things, and it’s a good point that GI Joe had such a vast character selection, allowing us to find versions we might aspire to (e.g. Outback) and versions we might more closely resemble (e.g. Sneak Peek). The good guys were a team who got things done, and it made it easier to have characters who were united more by shared motivation to defeat Cobra than by shared backgrounds.

Sometimes I hate how manipulated I was by Hasbro in that almost 40 years later I’m still obsessing over GI Joe figures. And in those moments I try to find moral victories in decisions I made as a kid, like how you said I’m not falling for this “offer”. For me, it might be not buying the 83 gliders or the motorized action packs.

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