In high school, GI Joe and I renewed our relationship. I had quit playing with toys at 11 years old, in 1988, and sold off many of my GI Joe figures at a yard sale in 1991, raising money to buy hockey cards. But my love of Joe never went away, and by 1994 I was back buying again, my plastic habit too difficult to kick.
Two of my closest friends in high school had little brothers, and seeing their GI Joe collections stirred up feelings for me. I had been working at a grocery store starting in grade 10, including full-time hours during spring break and the summer. I had amassed some serious walking around money and indulged myself in the latest rap and alternative rock albums, plaid shirts and name brand jeans, gas money to drive around in my parents’ Tempo, and fast food lunches, every day. But I still had a little left over, since I wasn’t saving for university.
So another indulgence was GI Joe.
I had found two old tapes of GI Joe episodes in clearance bins at a video store in Yellowknife (“The Gamesmaster” and “Satellite Down”). I found GI Joe: The Movie and watched it for the first time. I bought half of the back issues of the comic series in Edmonton, with my dad, when we flew south for a few days to watch the Oilers play. I bought some loose figures at garage sales around Yellowknife – replenishing some of my former figures in the same way I had parted with them – and I bought two iconic MOCs from a short-lived collectible store in the 50-50 mini-mall. Another friend gave me a few kitbashed figures that survived his childhood, a random assortment of body parts from Recondo, Snow Serpent, Torch, Quick Kick, Zartan and Lift Ticket. I bought some 90s Joes at Wal-Mart, which had replaced Woolco on Old Airport Road. And, lastly, I leveraged enclosed offer booklets in those 90s figures to order vintage figures and vehicles from Hasbro Canada.
I had reaccumulated a large chunk of Joe collectibles in a short time, but it was just the tip of the iceberg for what was still out there, what I still wanted to collect. I revisited my childhood dream of owning every GI Joe toy, and planned to create a Cobra Island diorama with a USS Flagg and Terror Drome. I went so far as to draw the map on graph paper, with locations of vehicles and figures, and key topographic features, like mountains and bays. But was I being realistic in that dream…? I mean, I wasn’t planning on getting an education. So how was I going to buy a house with enough room to build that diorama?
As far as 90s toys, I didn’t buy every Joe and Cobra I came across. The latest vehicles seemed over-the-top and lacking the charm of the figures. Not that every 90s figure was a charmer, but some were… And I didn’t have room to store an endless supply of vehicles, whereas the figures and accessories were easier to deal with, because they could just go into shoeboxes that I would hide in my closet and under the bed whenever I had girls over.
The new figures I did buy shared the same traits: known characters from my childhood, in representations that honoured their 80s versions. So that meant skipping out on leopard print Leatherneck and Toga-Viper. But I lowered the bar, somewhat, for two Shadow Ninjas: Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow.
Two other figures vaulted over that bar: the 1994 Battle Corps version of Stalker, and the 1992 version of Wild Bill.
Interestingly, the latter had been warming pegs for more than a year, signalling the impending death of the toyline.
There were others that would have passed the test (1994 Shipwreck, for example), but Stalker and Wild Bill were the only ones I came across during my collecting window.
It was obvious what I saw in Stalker: the muted colours and realistic outfit, the black accessories, and him being a key character that I never owned during my childhood.
For Wild Bill, the colours and outfit weren’t perfect, and the accessories seemed a throwback to an earlier era, but they aligned so well with the big, southern personality that had carried him through dozens of episodes of the cartoon and issues of the comic book.
The 1983 series – my favourite – featured so many high quality figures, including Snow Job, Airborne, Doc, Tripwire and Torpedo. As for combining quality figures with big personalities, the standouts were: Destro, Gung-Ho and Major Bludd. But the drivers released that year were also well designed, and Wild Bill was as memorable as any carded figure, save Destro.
Wild Bill had made his debut in GI Joe #11 and stayed kicking around as a regular cast member for 60+ more issues. Like Stalker and Scarlett, a single, classic version of Wild Bill had lived on in the comic for years after he had left retail.
Wild Bill’s brand of southern charm is a stereotype, but in GI Joe, with its cast of 100+ figures in the first six series, it ensured that he stood out. He provided some comedy in the comic and cartoon, and had a relatability not enjoyed by every GI Joe. I didn’t know anyone from Texas, but I knew a few cowboys, and he was all of them.
As far as Wild Bill v2 – released 9-years after v1 – the colours were surprisingly reserved for being a 90s figure. The black pants, brown straps and blue shirt must have bored the kids of the day, who had grown accustomed to armies of neon troopers. But the yellow sleeves, bandana and stripes on his pants created great contrast. As did his red hair and moustache, and his gold glasses. I’m partial to any figure wearing blue, but when you put all of Wild Bill’s colours together, you have a striking figure.
The white gloves shouldn’t work, but they are surprisingly important to his look, since making the gloves one of the three obvious colours (black, brown and blue) might have created more coordination than was in character for him.
Apart from paint colours, certain aspects of the mould make huge impressions – like the straps on his shoulders, which provided an explanation for him wearing a backpack, the holster on the front of his leg, not getting jostled when he was acting as a pilot, and the long, angled belt to the holster, a nod to western gunslingers.
What pulls the whole mould together is the kerchief, but his glasses were also cool as shit.
Wild Bill’s footwear is elaborately moulded. I don’t know what “desert insurgent’s boots” are, but if I was guessing, I would think he was wearing a pair of moccasins, a nod to his classic peers, Airborne and Spirit.
As for accessories, when I look at 90s figures, I frequently ignore the missile launchers, since they aren’t really something a guy could walk into combat holding: a big, bulky launcher with a single missile. Hardly worth the effort.
Otherwise, Wild Bill’s accessories fit the cavalry outfit. The knife and pistol are dated, making it hard to put Wild Bill out onto the field as modern soldier, but another knife or pistol might be too progressive. The result is that using the figure in play scenarios – quality, that he was – would have been difficult.
If I was a kid, I think I would have placed him and his removable hat in the nearest helicopter, or even a large, fixed-engine plane. The Apache is the obvious choice. And if you ignore his vocation as a pilot, he seems ideal for deployment within Fort America.
Buying old favourites in newer versions, wasn’t as rewarding as I had hoped at the time. So, ultimately, Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, Stalker and Wild Bill were retired a short while later, when I concentrated on my schooling and a serious relationship in grade 12.
Although the 90s figures barely stoked nostalgia for me, I appreciate them a hell of a lot more, now. With some characters, I have a hard time reconciling between their early 80s versions, and their colourful, 90s versions. Not so with Wild Bill.
The 1992 version is buffer than the 1983 version, but I never once questioned who he was. It’s nice that the designers at Hasbro so effectively updated and honoured a classic character. If I didn’t read the name on his filecard, I would have still recognized this figure as Wild Bill. And I could be instantly transported back, hearing his voice from the cartoon, and knowing that this was the same guy who was there when Snake Eyes said goodbye to Kwinn, who fought his way out of the jungle alongside Crazylegs and some unlikely allies, Zarana and Thrasher.
I love that there are GI Joe characters who stand out so much in my memories, and that there can be more than one great version of them. Figures like the 1992 Wild Bill are a big reason I’m still collecting GI Joes today.