03 March 2020

Goodbye, Joe

Introduced by Hasbro in February 1964, when I was 6 years old, G.I. Joes were 12-inch action figures—not dolls—created for boys, but I was a few years older when I began playing with them.

Original G.I. Joe lineup.
Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G.I._Joe
Though my own Joes may have suffered their share of pre-adolescent-induced combat trauma, they remained physically intact because I did not have pets to chew on them or siblings to tear them apart. My friends’ Joes were not so lucky and, because my interest outlasted theirs, I soon had a collection of damaged Joes—action figures that had seen too much action and were missing hands, feet, and other body parts.

The many Joes I collected allowed me to create a variety of scenarios, such as battle scenes and MASH units, where the crippled Joes were the star attractions. They had nicknames based on their afflictions—Lefty, Peg-Leg, Spike, Napoleon Blownapart*—and they accepted their roles with nary a complaint.

I didn’t limit my action-packed scenarios to my Joes. I recruited Barbies belonging to my friends’ sisters to serve as nurses and girlfriends, and the Barbies would kick poor Ken—4F and unable to articulate any of his critical body parts—to the curb whenever the Joes were on leave.


I had been exposed to storytelling from birth. My mother read to me and, because we did not own a television until I was in third grade, we listened to radio dramas rebroadcast from earlier decades.

But playing with G.I. Joes may be where I first developed my storytelling chops. I created characters with backstories and had them interact with other characters who had their own backstories. I developed inciting incidents or had them forced upon me—the Germans have broken through the line! Lefty’s been captured! The poodle of doom has run off with Peg-Leg!—and my characters and I faced hard choices: whether to stand our ground or retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, rescue Lefty or let him fend for himself, chase the neighbor’s poodle or risk the loss of Peg-Leg’s remaining leg.

During inclement weather, my Joes and I could spend an entire day indoors, fighting battles that raged from my bedroom across the hall into my mother’s or down the hall to the living room and kitchen. An early morning inciting incident would lead to rising action, setbacks, false climaxes, more rising action, a climax, falling action, and resolution. And all before bedtime.

In those heady times, before the reality of adulthood taught me that some fairy tales end with unhappily ever after and I learned to appreciate noir, all of my G.I. Joe stories ended with the heroes vanquishing the villains.


I don’t remember when my Joes and I fought our last battle, but they were no longer part of my life by fifth grade. Having grown too old to play with dolls (no matter how they were labeled), I had moved on to other things. Even so, the storytelling skills I first toyed with back then became the foundation of my writing career.

And if I ever get stuck writing a story and need an unexpected twist, the poodle of doom is always lurking in the shadows.

*You really thought I was this clever in third grade?

Mid-Century Murder (Darkhouse Books, edited by Andrew MacRae) contains “Where’s Sara Jane?” a story I co-authored with Sandra Murphy.

“See Humble and Die” by Richard Helms, published in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods, which I edited and Down & Out Books published, has been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2020.


  1. Great post, Michael.

    I didn't have GI Joes (I'm a few years older than you), but I had dozens of small plastic or rubber cowboy action figures that came with a Roy Rogers town you assembled with a saloon, hitching posts, and furniture. It was basically a doll house with miniatures. My friends and I used those figures and had scenarios a lot like you did, and nobody had a problem with it.

    By the end, we were using the figures as targets for our water pistols, and that was when we were about 11 or 12.

    Now that I think of it, I gave many of those figures a persona and backstory, too.

    Do you think we could get federal funding and conduct a study?

  2. No GI Joes (what a surprise), but I did have some Barbies, which I got tired of early. For one thing, they just weren't designed for the worlds I liked to live in. So, I spent as much of my time outdoors doing cosplay with imaginary friends. Stories abounded!

  3. I had G.I. Joes as a kid in the late seventies. By then they were less combat orientated and more an adventure team. One of my favorite Joe-related things were the Peter Pan record and book adventures of Joe, which were pretty well done by children's entertainment standards. Here's one


    Like Alistair Maclean for 9 year olds.

    Ah, the memories.

  4. This is a great piece, Michael! And it explains a lot....

    I had a Rory Calhoun hand puppets and a collection of hard-plastic Rat Finks as a kid, and they had no discernible impact on my development as a writer. If only I'd had me some G.I. Joes and Barbies, I coulda been a contender!

  5. Steve, I'm with you on conducting the study. We'd likely earn more from federal funding studying writers than we earn as writers.

    Eve, I did a little cosplay, too. I tended toward discount-store superheroes, using a towel for a cape because we couldn't afford fancy costumes.

    William, not only did G.I. Joes become adventurers, but at some point they shrank. Now they're barely half the men they used to be.

    Oh, Josh, you missed out on so much.

  6. Barely half the men… (laughing)

    Yeah, I totally bought Napoleon in the 3rd grade. I'd heard adults talk of Truman Capote and Al Capone, and somehow conflated that into Truman Capone. Napoleon Blownapart? That's much funnier.

    My parents didn't buy a television until my junior high. The highlight was when Dad would read to us.

    I didn't have GI Joes, but did swap kids for a handful of those Toy Story soldiers. I also had a box of brightly painted British Grenadier / Coldstream Guards, missing bayonets, feet, and other parts, but still retaining their bearskin hats. Kids and lead toys… Somehow we survived.

    You weren't the only kid to toss aside Ken. I watched a could of young girls playing with Barbies under a table, fitting together the pink dream house. When a part didn't fit, one girl picked up Ken by the ankles and used him as a hammer. Pray for the men in their lives.

  7. I had a lot of those little green Army men, Leigh, but they just didn't lend themselves to creative playtime the way G.I. Joe did. Somewhere along the line, I picked up some plastic cowboys similar to the little green Army men, and they're currently staging a gunfight on the toy shelf next to my writing desk.


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