The 1986 figures were a high point for my childhood collection, as they carried the crescendo from 1985 just a little bit longer. Everything seemed consistent, and the GI Joe and Cobra sides were well matched. They were both grittier and more sophisticated. But by 1987, GI Joe and Cobra were moving in entirely different directions.
The 1987 Joe figures were more colourful, but still gritty, splitting along the lines of more realistic, traditional military (Lt. Falcon, Tunnel Rat, Gung-Ho and Law), practical, real world applications (Chuckles and Outback), advanced technologies (Psyche-Out and Fast Draw), and the miscellaneous, red brigade (Crazylegs, Sneak Peek and Jinx). Whereas the carded Cobras were either Sci-Fi/techies (Cobra Commander and Techno Viper) or carnies and circus freaks (Raptor, Crystal Ball, Big Boa and Croc Master).
In the promotional materials that were produced, including the “Live the Adventure” handouts, paperwork and other media, the contrast of the opposing forces was so obvious. All you had to do was see the Milton Bradley puzzles of Chuckles fighting Croc Master or Lt. Falcon swinging into action against Big Boa and Raptor to realize that things weren’t really jiving in concept and production at Hasbro.
Cobra had the better assortment of vehicles than Joe, including the Maggott, Mamba and Wolf, but the good guys had two large playsets, the Defiant and Mobile Command Centre, either of which required every loose figure to operate at full capacity, so there weren’t many figures left to man mid-size vehicles, had they produced more. So, of course, those puzzles featured 1986 vehicles (Tomahawk, Devilfish, Havoc) because the 1987 GI Joe vehicle lineup was so thin.
One might assume that Hasbro had lost sight of what they were trying to do at this point, i.e. presenting a cohesive, pseudo-military, pseudo-science fiction toyline to children who were simultaneously interested in watching Schwarzenegger in Terminator, Commando and Predator.
The quality of the Joe figures in 1987 was still on par with previous years, just consistently more colourful, with red an anchor colour for many of the figures. Apart from Gung-Ho, the accessory compliment was strong. And, apart from Gung-Ho and maybe Jinx, the figures could integrate together into logical play themes. You could mix-and-match figures on the battlefield, at home base, undercover, behind enemy lines and just stir shit up against Cobra anywhere.
At that point in my GI Joe journey, the comic book was still a source of inspiration, and the new Joes worked together in so many scenarios. Falcon, Law, Fast Draw and Chuckles uncovered the Dreadnok scheme in Jersey. Tunnel Rat and Outback fought off Cobra Commander in the Rockies. And some of the Joes who were less exciting (Chuckles) or out there (Psyche-Out) were really fleshed out in the stories Larry Hama was writing. He was still onboard with telling a good story, not always schilling toys, and we were still onboard with everything he was doing because it didn’t feel forced.
How many layers of complexity were built into the scene where Outback pulls a knife on Leatherneck?
Mr. Hama was given autonomy to pick and choose what toys he brought into his comic book, and that would have been important, so there weren’t forced stories about Crystal Ball and Big Boa. Could he have taken all the crazy concepts and integrated them into the comic while maintaining the interest of diehards who still remembered a team of greenshirts? Doubtful. But when he brought in Raptor, he made fun of him, and he let Cobra-La embarrass the brand on store shelves and in the movie, nowhere near his comic book.
Apart from toys, another love of mine is X-Men comics. And one of the most underrated X-series I can think of is Fabian Nicieza’s Gambit (1999). Mr. Nicieza took a C-rated villain, the X-Cutioner, and turned him into a fascinating character study. It seemed to be a dare that writers were being challenged to, to take the stupidest, most ill-thought-out characters and make them interesting to the most sceptical readers. And that is what Mr. Hama could have done with any of those 1987 Cobras, built them up and made them interesting, but the pace at which the toys and comics were being released did not allow him to give them all the X-Cutioner treatment. There were too many toys, and there just wasn’t enough room in the comics for everything. But it is fascinating now that they had so many Cobra figures that were reclamation projects on the day that they were released, that their initial state was underwhelming, that their toy versions were always destined to be peg-warmers.
Mr. Hama never had to strain to include Lt. Falcon in this way. He knew soldiers, and Falcon was just another person he had met along the way.
I loved the team Hama assembled to infiltrate Cobra Island: Falcon, Tunnel Rat, Dial-Tone, Sneak Peek, Gung-Ho and Spirit. It was the kind of team I would have put together as a kid, the most resourceful, sneakiest Joes. I remember being mildly disappointed that Airborne and Beach Head had been left out. And I loved that Cobra Island storyline so much, as I had been trying to write and illustrate my own comic showdown between the brunt of the Joe forces and the brunt of the Cobra forces throughout my childhood. But I had hoped that team would have been instrumental in ensuring that GI Joe won the battle. Instead, they risked their lives for the tower, to have a better view of the battle that ended abruptly, and were forgotten entirely in the end, walking back to the Joe side to little acclaim.
That never sat right with me, as a fan of GI Joe and a fan of Lt. Falcon and Tunnel Rat, because as much as I loved the team aspect of GI Joe, I also wanted my favourite characters to have pivotal roles. Flint and Lady Jaye’s lack of involvement in that war also bugged me. I had invested in this storyline for six issues, and in the comic for 70+ overall, with the battle of Cobra Island set up as the penultimate story. To have the carpet pulled out from underneath Joe on Cobra Island, and the final battle including a starring role for Grunt’s non-Joe, college girlfriend, with Destro playing the part of deus ex machina…?
That was not a rewarding payoff for a fan.
The GI Joe cartoon had ended in 1986 without any indication of whether it was coming back in 1987. That show had been my world when I was younger, catching episodes broadcasted on WGN from Chicago around 1 pm, with Adams Family and I Dream of Jeannie in the painful hour I had to wait to get to the show, when I was home on weekdays. When in school, my mom taped episodes for me on the VHS and I’d walk straight home from the bus to see what I’d missed.
Regardless, I don’t remember being particularly heartbroken when the cartoon was done.
Cartoons in the 1980s were unreliable, in my experience, with so many episodes produced each season and the networks rarely showing reruns. (Apart from old episodes of shows like Spider-Man, Rocket Robinhood, The Mighty Hercules and Astroboy, but those were all in syndication.) And cartoons would just start up with little notice and hopefully you lucked into seeing the first episode. Otherwise your friends would tell you about it and you’d just pick up from episode two.
All this to say that – somehow! – I didn’t even know about the GI Joe movie. Was it even advertised in the comic book? So my opinion of Lt. Falcon – and all the 87s, actually – was entirely driven by the comics and toys. And I’m lucky about that, because the movie version of Lt. Falcon is inconsistent with my version of him.
GI Joe ARAH figures were essentially the evolution of little green army men. And yet there were few figures in all-green camo, just Stalker, Ripcord, Footloose, Lt. Falcon and Hit ‘n Run. They would come along every year (or two), and since I had missed Stalker and Ripcord, Footloose and Lt. Falcon had taken on special status in my collection. I thought they were essentially invisible on the battlefield. And I even committed to camo for myself, both when my friends and I were out in the bush, playing guns, but also at school.
Lt. Falcon is a perfect figure. He dresses the part and is devoted to being a soldier in a way that few figures surpass. His moulding is flawless, with the tapered pants, various pockets and rolled sleeves. There are six paint apps and the blending is perfect.
His web gear is impeccable, and his backpack is manageable in a way that not all his contemporaries would understand. He has an antenna for his field communications pack, and that was the type of simple touch I loved as a kid. He also has a “Rambo knife”, super popular at the time, and a big shotgun, the weapon that transcended military and science fiction, making memorable appearances in Aliens and T2.
I’m not sure how effective the shotgun would be in a military setting since it is inaccurate, but my lot isn’t to question… Apart from questioning whether Lt. Falcon was too transparently marketable, cooked up by the team in market research?
Interestingly, some of the 1987 figures were outshone by their accessories: Chuckles’ holster, Psyche-Out’s pistol, Fast Draw’s missile system, Outback and Tunnel Rat’s big backpacks, Croc Master’s pet… But I know for a fact that Lifeline’s pistol had been the reason I had bought that figure early in 1986, so of course Hasbro had caught on to the importance of a figure’s accessory compliment. And with Lt. Falcon, there were two great accessories, the knife and the shotgun, that absolutely helped sell the figure.
For Lt. Falcon, much like Corporal Hicks in Aliens, the shotgun created a sense of individuality and old-world charm that anchors us in the drama.
Lt. Falcon’s weapon and the design for Battle Force 2000’s Dodger must have been inspired by Aliens, at least as much as the Rolling Thunder was, in 1988. And combining that shotgun with Dodger allowed us to create a relatively accurate version of Hicks.
I didn’t have many of the 1987 vehicles, at the time, so my GI Joe team was still reliant on the Havoc and Tomahawk to get around. And I saw the 1987 figures I owned – Lt. Falcon, Chuckles, Psyche-Out, Sneak Peek, Fast Draw, Crazylegs and Outback, and later Tunnel Rat – as a single unit that battled against Cobra.
Lt. Falcon was their field commander.
But I didn’t have as much time for Cobra. My interest had been pulled into Rambo and Visionaries at times, and, I had recognized the weak Cobra lineup in 1987. So instead a lot of my enemy force was completed by older figures.
I had the full compliment of Dreadnoks from 1985 and 1986, plus Zandar and Zarana. And I had Dr. Mindbender, Croc Master and battle armor Cobra Commander, plus the 1985 troops (Crimson Guard, Eels, Tele-Viper and Snow Serpent). And, later, I added Firefly, BATS and Viper in a trade with my friend, Donny. But there wasn’t a great deal of cohesiveness in those forces, and I played through a lot of the in-fighting within Cobra. I would usually have the Dreadnoks be one Cobra force, Cobra Commander and the others be another, with Firefly as a wildcard, and my Joe team would have to run a gauntlet through those forces separately.
I also didn’t have many Cobra vehicles, so they were often fighting on foot, setting up ambushes, or trying to take over a Joe vehicle to turn it against the good guys.
Sometimes, I would do wrestling battles with my figures, using VHS tapes to make a ring. My favourite wrestler at the time, Corporal Kirchner, was military themed, and that was the part Lt. Falcon would play, as a resourceful underdog against bigger opponents (the Dreadnoks, Dr. Mindbender and Croc Master). I didn’t have Slaughter or Fridge, and the winner was always Outback, though he would have to fight against his friend, Lt. Falcon, reluctantly.
Just before I left Joes behind, I bought the Mobile Command Centre at Consumers Distributing in Kelowna, BC, and that created some great stories revolving around Cobra taking control of Joe’s base and capturing everyone.
Usually, I would use the more unassuming Joes, Chuckles or Psyche-Out, as the lone hold-out from Cobra, the pivotal figure in freeing the other Joes. But Lt. Falcon, as the commanding officer, would suffer through painful interrogations with Cobra Commander and Dr. Mindbender, never revealing whether any Joes were still on the loose. And often he’d know that Psyche-Out was hiding in the slide, but he never cracked, even under torture. Ultimately it was releasing Lt. Falcon that was the major milestone, then the duo would work together to free the rest. And eventually GI Joe would retake the MCC and capture all the Cobras.
It’s hard to create an ordered list of my favourite Joes because there were just so many greats released by Hasbro. My favourite years are 1983 and 1986. But the 1987 Joe figures also have a special place because I was still excited to see the new figures at retail and the comic was better than ever.
It was a solid team of Joes Hasbro assembled that year, including the man who led the team on every mission, Lt. Falcon.
So obviously Falcon is one of my favourites. He was part of the big three in 1987, along with Tunnel Rat and Outback. They were the guys I wanted on every mission, replacing Beach Head, Leatherneck and Low-Light, who had replaced Flint, Lady Jaye and Alpine, and Roadblock, Recondo and Mutt before them.
And if I was building a dream team for a military operation, Lt. Falcon would be one of the first guys I picked.