1987 Steel Brigade

The Steel Brigade promotion was a stroke of genius for Hasbro. In recent years, they had been pushing harder to make kids feel like they were part of the GI Joe team in commercials where kids shrink down to the size of the deck crew on the USS Flagg, in the 1986 catalog that featured a young boy with a walking stick following the Joes as they headed off to fight Cobra, and in the 1987 “Live the Adventure” contest. The ultimate extension of this approach was Steel Brigade, a figure that was essentially you. And the promotion was successful enough that it lived on from its birth in 1987 to the end of GI Joe in 1994, and also inspired the “Create a Cobra” promotion along the way.

Almost every special angle Hasbro introduced into the GI Joe line was about fighting for market share against existing and potential competitors. They went to space with the Defiant and introduced Star Brigade to stem off any revival of Star Wars. They made some chunky figures with big muscles who looked like wrestlers (Road Pig and Sgt. Slaughter, obviously, but even Outback or Steam Roller) to fight off the WWF. Battle Force 2000 seemed to be either a pitch for producing the Aliens toy line, or deterrence against other toy designers attempting market entry. Later, they made monster figures to combat the TMNT. And Steel Brigade might have even offset some of the impact of role-playing games influence on children who were on the cusp of aging out of toys.

GI Joe had been my primary obsession for five years. But in my life, GI Joe was competing for time with a bastardized version of AD&D called Mercenaries and Monsters (“M&M”), watching WWF and NWA wrestling, playing games on the Commodore 64, renting movies and Nintendo games, reading X-Men and Wolverine, collecting sports cards and stickers, playing hockey and baseball, riding my bike, and spending time outside. I loved the 1987 lineup of Joes but hated most of the 1987 Cobras, and some of the storylines in the comic book hadn’t landed with me, so my connection to GI Joe was waning.

I spent so much time creating new characters for that derivative, role-playing game, and the Steel Brigade promotion was an extension of a similar interest to put versions of myself into new worlds. The first time I came across the “Now, You Can be the Next Joe!” brochure with a Canadian mailing address, I immediately started checking boxes.

  • Characterization: a Loner
  • At Best: in High-Stress Situations
  • Considered: a Man That Inspires Respect
  • Service Branch: Army
  • Primary Specialty: Special Forces
  • Secondary Specialty: Electronics
  • Weapons Expert: M-32 Pulverizer, all NATO and Warsaw Pact Small Arms
  • Martial Arts Expert: Tai Kwan Do, Jujitsu
  • Schooling: Special Forces School

I remember being disappointed that I couldn’t choose another Primary Military Specialty, since I wanted my Secondary Military Specialty to be Airborne, Intelligence or Jungle Warfare.

The name I gave my Steel Brigade figure? I’m 95% sure it was “Inferno”, since that would have been the perfect triangulation of my favourite storyline in the X-Men comics, one of my favourite Transformer characters, and the name of my favourite character in M&M.

Involuntarily, “Inferno” would have also followed the Hasbro tradition of sharing names across the GI Joe and Transformers lineups. (Shockwave, Blaster, Outback, Grand Slam, Crankcase, Scoop, Countdown, Roadblock, etc.)

Steel Brigade V1D

Early in my time as a GI Joe collector, I had mailed away to become part of the GI Joe club and received the promotional kit and newsletters. I later mailed away for the headband and wristbands, Hooded Cobra Commander, the MANTA, the Parachute Pack, and the Flash/Rock ‘n Roll 2-pack from the Original Joes offer. But the anticipation – which was always high – reached a new level of fervor during the 6-8 weeks I was waiting for that Steel Brigade figure. After all, he represented me in GI Joe form, the take-charge, kick-ass me that I always imagined, the me that didn’t really ever materialize in real-life.

The Steel Brigade me could be tougher than BATS, Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes combined.

Steel Brigade V1B
More V1B

As a figure, Steel Brigade is an amalgamation of pre-existing body parts, apart from a newly molded head. Regardless, he feels fresh and new.

His core colours, and those of his accents – black and silver – are aesthetically pleasing. The colours work well with his initial draft class (1987). The Joes that year were a balance of colourful elements – bright reds (Crazylegs’ jumpsuit, Fast Draw’s helmet and gloves, Jinx’s gi, Law’s shirt and Sneak Peek’s armor), bright blues (Chuckles’ shirt, Fast Draw’s harness, Gung-Ho’s dress blues and Law’s vest) and earth tones (Falcon and Outback’s camo, Crazylegs and Fast Draw’s sleeves, Chuckles, Law and Psyche-Out’s pants, Tunnel Rat’s shirt). So Steel Brigade’s beige pants and blue and green upper body were consistent with that year’s colour palette.

He also has a neat little emblem painted in white on his left shoulder.

From left: V1A, V1B, V1D.

There are four different variations of the version 1 Steel Brigade, so not a particularly fun exercise to pick apart the minutiae of issues in his paint applications and detailing. But I will say that the pieces they used – from Airborne, Flash, Scrap Iron, Gung-Ho, Duke and Cobra Soldier, namely – were well-designed and chosen for their high quality. The legs all have realistic looking boots, knee pads, and molded pistols. The chests are also extremely strong, with grenades and/or knives. The arms – from Flash in all versions – are an interesting choice. Although there are no pouches or other accoutrements on his upper arms, Flash’s gloves are among the more noticeable in the history of the line.

Steel Brigade waist pieces have nicely textured belts and back pockets. Regardless, Hasbro made a mistake in selecting Gung-Ho’s 1983 waist for V1A-V1C. Both Gung-Ho and the Steel Brigade figure, with its recoloured Gung-Ho waist, suffer from regularly broken crotches, so I would assume there is a design flaw in that body part.

Many of Steel Brigade’s molded design elements have been accentuated by colour applications, including the green knee pads, the silver knife blade and brown handle on V1A, the silver grenade on V1B-V1D, the black holster on V1A and V1B, the silver belt on all versions, and the black pouches on V1D. There are missed paint applications, though, as Duke’s eagle is visible on the chest of V1B-V1D, and yet no addition paint application was used to highlight it. The same is true for the legs on V1C and V1D, as the holsters and side pockets remained unpainted. So although the paint apps are generally strong, there were a few missed opportunities.

In that way, I would say that V1A is probably the best, given there is an additional paint colour used exclusively on the knife handle, and the holster has also been painted. V1B is also a strong version, although the eagle has been left unpainted.

V1A
V1D

The piece that deserves the most attention is the helmet because it distances this figure from its recoloured components.

The helmet has always been the weakest part of the Steel Brigade figure. Although it was important that it could be anybody in that figure – the “You Can Be the Next Joe” angle – and the helmet eliminated the need to commit to a skin tone for the figure, it is weirdly shaped. It is bulbous in both the front and back, making the head feel egg-shaped horizontally. It resembles a dirt-bike helmet from certain angles, except for the bulging at the back. There are also some strange details, such as the molding under the black visor, possibly an underdeveloped hose. And the interlocking black and silver at the front, bottom is reminiscent of crocodile teeth.

Honestly, I think the Viper helmet was the best Hasbro ever made, and something similar would have been preferable.

Looking down at the helmet from 15 degrees above the horizon, it is surprisingly attractive. Looking up from below, or looking at it from the side? It just looks weird. However, the rest of the components and colours make this an appealing figure.

When I look at Steel Brigade – any of the variations, really – I can’t help but associate the figure with Airborne. V1A had Airborne’s chest, and V1C and V1D had Airborne’s legs. Early versions had Airborne’s rifle, and every version had Airborne’s backpack. That is fine by me since Airborne is my all-time favourite figure. And I wonder if the designers chose to use so many elements from that figure because they saw it as under-the-radar and underappreciated.

The backpack was a good choice – not too bulky but with detailing enough to make him seem prepared (shovel and sleeping bag, namely) – and all three of the rifle variations included a bayonet.

When I was a kid, playing with my figures, bayonets were an additional method of attack and defense, and I wondered why more rifles didn’t have them, since the designers could give figures two weapons for the price of one. The third rifle variation, Recoil’s, is even better because it features a grenade launcher and a scope. Plus it corrected an obvious error in the original colour used for Recoil’s weapons (baby blue). Without re-releasing that rifle in black or dark grey, Hasbro would have wasted a quality rifle mold needlessly.

From top: Airborne, Crimson Guard and Recoil rifles.

Regardless of the rifle, Steel Brigade has one of the best two-piece accessory assortments in the whole GI Joe line. But this was a premium-priced, mailaway figure. There’s no reason for not including a third accessory. Instead, they threw in a Steel Brigade patch for us.

At this point, I don’t remember what piece of clothing my original Steel Brigade patch went on. The obvious choice would have been a baseball cap or jean jacket, given this was the ’80s. But I think I would have much rathered have another accessory than a patch.

As someone who worked in marketing for 12 years, it also surprises me to include a piece of swag that wasn’t obviously connected to the toyline. The patch says, “STEEL BRIGADE”, but isn’t branded with, “G.I. Joe”.

Hello? We’re trying to sell toys here!

My last point on the design is that the choice to use parts from 1983 and 1984 Joes meant that Steel Brigade is similarly slim and has a head that only moves side-to-side, like those early Joes. However, the custom helmet, the fine detailing on the reused molds, the core colour choices, the beautiful accent colours, and solid choices in accessories help us overlook that detail.

Try to put any 1983 figure on display, side-by-side with a 1987 figure. Given the increase in colourfulness and the increased bulk of the newer figures, they are quite different. But Hasbro used all the right visual elements to distract us, and ensure that Steel Brigade could stand tall next to more recent Joes.

Lt. Falcon, Steel Brigade V1B and Law.

When I got him, Steel Brigade was immediately integrated into my GI Joe team, and became my favourite figure at the time, inheriting that title from Tunnel Rat, who had inherited it from Beach Head. He was part of my top crew of GI Joe operatives, with Lt. Falcon, Outback, Tunnel Rat and Psyche-Out, and was among the Joes who had to fend off constant attacks from Cobra trying to take over the Mobile Command Centre.

When he was used on solo missions, he would be armed with his own backpack, Lt. Falcon’s shotgun, and Chuckles’ holster holding either Psyche-Out’s pistol or Falcon’s knife. The trade I made with my friend, Donny, in which I acquired all his GI Joes was still fresh, including older Joes and vehicles, like the Vamp.

I hadn’t owned the Vamp when it first came out – although both of my best friends, Donny and Corey, had – but I finally had unfettered access to it, and it was still quality, so it went into common use in my collection, all those after it was first released. The Vamp became Inferno’s personal ride. With its cannons missing, I used string to strap down extra gear for him to take on those solo missions.

V1A

My figure was V1A, the rarest of the version 1 Steel Brigades. I had mailed away for him as soon as the pamphlet came out, and I stopped playing with GI Joes shortly after his arrival, with Shockwave being the last figure I acquired.

Years later, starting in 2014, I took special interest in tracking down another V1A, and that desire was not satisfied until October 2020. I had been ready to pounce on a V1A at full market rate whenever he appeared during a six-year period, and I had never had any luck. Hence, it took an epic trade to finally land him in my collection.

Despite V1A being my white whale, I did secure two V1B Steel Brigade figures and a handful of V1D figures while on the hunt. I have amassed a small troop of Steel Brigade soldiers, even though I saw the Steel Brigade figure I played with as a child as an individual to me. I can reconcile this incongruity by considering each version to be representative of ranks: V1A being a specialist, V1B being officers, and V1D being grunts.

In general, I don’t seek out variants to add to my collection, and simply hold onto them when I find them in lots I buy. Zarana’s earing variant might be the exception, which I bought at BTNT Toyz in Salt Lake City, a few years ago, despite already having the version of Zarana without earrings. But once I finally attained Steel Brigade V1A, and knew I had three of the four versions, V1C started looking like a version I might also try to track down.

(Technically, I could combine figures to create a V1C, using the waist of a V1B and the legs of a V1D, thus having all four variations of Steel Brigade version 1. However, my extra V1B has a broken crotch so combining parts would not create a complete figure.)

My original Steel Brigade figure was sold off in junior high, and it’s his sale that is the biggest sore spot associated with my childhood GI Joes. Never mind that I used the money to buy hockey cards that are now worthless, or that Steel Brigade was the most valuable figure I owned, I simply regret losing the action figure version of the person I thought I’d grow into.

For the longest time, I was so desperate to find any version of Steel Brigade that I overpaid for a lot of figures from eBay that included a V1D with a broken crotch, while staying at a B&B in Portland in 2015, sneaking into the bathroom to make the winning bid because my wife and I were minimizing use of our devices on that getaway trip.

I lucked into a better-conditioned, complete V1D figure at a toy show in Victoria, BC, a year and a half later. I then acquired the V1B figure in 2017, from a collector in Halifax, NS, and bought three V1Ds from a collector who may, or may not, have been the designer of some famous third-party customs in 2018. My earliest Steel Brigade figures included the Airborne and Crimson Guard rifles, so I also ordered a V1D Steel Brigade figure from Europe in 2019, just to secure Recoil’s recoloured rifle. And this was followed by trading for the V1A version in October 2020.

Almost as important as finally finding the V1A figure that had been at the top of my want-list for years, I found a Canadian Steel Brigade filecard in a store up-island.

It was August 2019 and I had driven up from Victoria on a day off from work. The owner had loose Joe figures with full, perfect cards and boxed vehicles on display, and it was another complete Steel Brigade figure that I became interested in. I had spotted him months before, on an earlier trip to the store, and at the time I had already spent so much money on other figures and vehicles that another Steel Brigade figure became a pass for me. But when I returned in August, he was on the shortlist of what I was determined to buy.

After some discussion with the owner, I discovered he had the filecard. So I flipped through a stack of paperwork, and somehow found two distinct Canadian filecards. The paper stock was different – one being glossier, the other apparently torn away from a dot matrix printer. My original intention was to buy whichever was older, but I couldn’t tell which one, initially. So I made an offer and secured both versions, then drove home, feeling no discomfort from the horseshoe lodged in my backside.

After examination, I came to believe the glossier version was older, due to the lower number at the bottom of the page, below the mailing address (490 vs. 22260). The file names were both great, and I marveled when I read them.

The gold sticky notes are so I don’t accidentally dox anyone.

As a kid, around the same time I got my Steel Brigade figure, I was producing characters for that knock-off role-paying game so quickly that I resorted to using key strokes on my Commodore 64 as names for my characters. Inferno – the RPG character who lent his name to my Steel Brigade figure – had not been named in that manner, and was only my favourite M&M character at the time because my favourite, who was named after a key stroke on the Commodore 64, had been killed in action a few weeks earlier.

At least that’s how I remember it now, that my figure was named “Inferno”. But it’s entirely possible that a GI Joe collector in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where I sold off my childhood collection, still has the original filecard and has spent the past 30 years wondering why his kick-ass Steel Brigade figure was named, “Run Stop”.

V1A

4 replies on “1987 Steel Brigade”

As a kid, I filled out the form several times. Secretly, I hoped that whatever weapons I chose as my specialty would be those included with the figure. But, before I sent the form away, reality would always set in that I could buy 2 or 3 figures at retail for the same price as the Steel Brigade. So, I never sent away for it. I do wonder if the figure would have ended up being my Joe army builder/cannon fodder or a badass character who defined my childhood days. I’ll never know.

Sadly, the shenanigans of those affiliated with the Steel Brigade name has since sullied the character for me. I can’t disassociate it those who so actively sought to destroy collectordom and ignored the will of the majority to create niche items that catered only to themselves. That’s why you usually see the Tin Platoons in various states of distress in my photos.

The other reason, though, is that I don’t really like the idea of Joe army builders in general. The whole point of Joe is that they are the best. Having a generic support crew destroys that notion. But, the Steel Brigade are useful in that they can be a foil to Cobra that makes Cobra a threat. If Cobra easily beats the best non-Joes in the military, then the Joes’ constant success against Cobra doesn’t render them moot. Cobra can not be badass, but also doesn’t decimate the Joe team as they’re not quite at that level.

That’s interesting that you could buy 2-3 figures for the price of one Steel Brigade since I don’t remember him being that much pricier than carded figures. One of the few advantages of being a collector in Canada is that we benefitted from the exchange rate on this offer. I’m comparing a US and Canadian pamphlet and the US price was $7.50 plus $1.50 shipping and handling, whereas the Canadian price was $7.50 Cdn with no shipping and handling cost, and the Canadian dollar was usually lower than the US dollar. Our carded figures in 1987 were usually $5.00-5.50, maybe $4.50 at K-Mart, so the disparity of Steel Brigade’s price vs. the carded figures wasn’t as pronounced in Canada.

It sounds like you had a pretty good childhood and had most of the figures you wanted, so maybe Steel Brigade wouldn’t have made that much of a difference.

I wasn’t part of the collecting community at that time so I don’t know what happened. Sounds shitty, regardless. And although collecting is by it’s nature competitive and has the potential to be exploited, I’ve felt fairly lucky that it’s seemed more collegial during the time that I’ve been active. So either I’ve been lucky and steered clear from most of the bullshit, or the majority of collectors are good people.

Hi Colin! I’ve been reading your blog backwards, oldest entry to the newest. And in this one, I learned that you visited my hometown – Portland – in 2015. 🙂 Hope you came when the weather was nice. Next time you visit, check out BillyGalaxy in downtown. Excellent vintage Joe store. And you can sneak back to your hotel before the wife knows what’s up 😉 I’m not affiliated with the store; I just like it a lot.

Cheers

Hey Sam. Glad you’re enjoying the blog entries.

Great tip about Billy Galaxy! When I visited Portland I found time to hit the giant bookstore downtown, Powell’s, which was conveniently located near Billy Galaxy. I think I only bought one Star Wars figure there (Prune Face) but was tempted by a carded Flash and some foreign MOCs. Pound-for-pound, probably the best vintage toy store I’ve been in.

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