Lil Bro and I were fairly industrious kids when the mood struck us, and one of the manifestations of it was the “piece-together” phase we went through with our G.I. Joe figures. With the help of an eyeglass repair kit purloined from the family medicine chest, we set about “improving” our favorite figures by swapping in neat bits from less favored ones.
The results were well worth the effort, though the process did leave us with a pool of disassembled cast-off parts. There was always room for cannon fodder, though, so we used these leftovers of cobble together an assortment of gaudy plastic abominations like a pair of toy aisle Dr. Frankensteins. Some of these afterthoughts ended up assuming a narrative backstory of their own, and one inexplicably became a particular favorite of Lil Bro.
His name was “Safari Joe,” and was pieced together from Dr. Mindbender’s head and Dusty’s body. I’m not sure what the rationale was there, apart from the combination evoking some cartoon-seeded echo of big game hunters of Ye Olden Days.
He operated in his own corner of our shared toyetic universe, serving as a touch of comic relief alongside his nephews Bazooka and Leatherneck who’d been reimagined as a Franken/Davis pair of lovable fuck-ups. Joe also accreted his own convoluted backstory, inspired by and extrapolated from The Surfaris’ 1963 hit “Surfer Joe”…
…which got ample plays on our bedroom stereo at the time thanks to JCI’s budget Surfin’ Sixties compilation.
The gist of it was Safari Joe was the middle aged Surfer Joe, who’d completed his tour in the Marines and moved onto the lucrative field of mercenary work. This eventually led to him being placed on open retainer by Cobra, who funded his freewheeling lifestyle and kept his extended family supplied with mustache wax. For the most part, the trio stuck to the type of insular absurdity a geeky nine year old would generate for his own amusement.
The Safari Joe thing had all but slipped from my memories until pal Keith Pille brought up the weirdness of Dr. Mindbender the other day. The heavy duty memory dump Keith triggered — along with the whole “Surfer Joe” connection — got me to ruminating over other aspects of the action figure universe my sibling and I crafted during our youth. We had always colored outside the franchise lines when it came to playing with “our guys,” but things kicked into high gear in the fall of 1984 after we moved from North Woburn to the other side of my grandparents’ duplex outside the city’s center.
The separation from our old neighborhood peer groups and the guardedness caused my our family’s dysfunctions meant Lil Bro and I spent a lot of time as best friends as well as siblings. It’s one of the reasons — alongside the fact that Lil Bro was four years younger than me — that I continued to buy figures and stage these plastic pageants up through my early teens. It was a improvised alternative to role-playing games, which explains why my interest on that front faded fast after I obtained a copy of the D&D “Red Box” Basic Set a couple of years later.
The new house also afforded more opportunities for vicarious adventure, with a basement play area, our own room (with bunkbeds and a door!), and a large yard full of spaces to explore. The specifics events of our ongoing saga are interesting on a nostalgic level, but I’m more fascinated by what they reveal about those days through context and a good deal of hindsight. Even the hazy assortment of fragments I can recall weave a negative space tapestry of Crap The Young Weiss Boys Were Really Into At The Time.
For all the idealized talk about children’s “powers of imagination,” the process is less about spontaneous generation and more about soaking up a host of external stimuli and spitting out an interpretation which combines, emphasizes, and spins the source material in personal (and often) weird ways. We were no different, and that’s a good thing because it allows me go back and check out the “spaces between the notes.”
To keep things reasonably simple, I’m just going to do a quick summary with the suspected source material in parentheses. Buckle in, kids. It’s about to get really goofy.
The start of the Hammond Square action figure era was an inexact follow-up of the North Woburn era. The cast of characters was still pretty diverse and ranged across multiple lines and scales. The core players were drawn from the Super Powers and Secret Wars lines, with some Master of The Universe figures serving as monstrous cosmic beings of varying intent (the cosmology as described in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe). My favorite figure was Storm Shadow, who went by some other name as a magical ninja (it was the mid-Eighties so take your pick) and could teleport by popping in and out of Hell (the Belasco/Illyana story in X-Men) ruled by Crystar’s Moltar filling in for Satan (a nightmare Lil Bro once had).
That world ended when Shield from the Mighty Crusaders line of crappy figures tried to populate his “Shield Dimension” by capturing other characters with a Secret Wars shield accessory (the Phantom Zone). In his arrogance, he angered Darkseid who set off an anti-matter bomb repurposed from some gardening thing and wiped out the Shield Dimension and altered the rest of the multiverse (Crisis on Infinite Earths).
By then, Lil Bro and I leaned almost exclusively into G.I. Joe. Because our favorites didn’t line up with the canonical factions, we decided that the Cobra and Joe Team high commands united to conquer the entire world. The only holdouts were a loose roster of rebels and defectors fighting against the totalitarian conquerors (Red Dawn, Dreadstar, Squadron Supreme, Eighties Cold War apocalypticism and the early wave of mass market grimdark funnybooks in general).
The rebels mostly hid out in a cave im Mom’s rock garden or an aircraft carrier assembled from a plastic sled and the Fisher-Price Sesame Street playset. The group included Tomax, who’d undergone a process to break his psychic link from his still evil brother (Byrne’s Alpha Flight run), a reprogrammed B.A.T. android (some sci-fi bullshit), and Quick Kick as Bruce Lee’s forgotten apprentice (Kung Fu Theater by way of Police Academy 2). There was also a “good” clone of Zartan’s brother (Deathlok) who had been given a corpse-paint makeover with a bottle of Testors (Hit Parader magazine), and a power armor dude (Iron Man) who was forced to kill his mentor/best friend after he threatened to destroy the world (the Dark Phoenix Saga).
While all that depressing stuff was going on, Safari Joe (a 60s surf rock song and Thundercats apparently) and his two sidekicks (the Three Stooges) fumbled their way from one comedic mishap to another (Lil Bro’s relationship with our two younger cousins).