We realize that it’s a little out of scope for this webzine to be reviewing a trading card set that is in no way, shape or form owned by DC comics (or even Warner Communications), but the 1991 Impel G.I. Joe trading card set has been my “white whale” for the past 2 decades. Besides, this is an 80s site, and you can’t get any more 80s than spotlighting the action figure toy line that romanticized the Cold War. If you really want to push it, M.D. Bright (penciller/inker who did a bit of work for DC comics in the 80s and early 90s) illustrated one-third of the cards in this set - which would make sense, since he pencilled quite a few issues of Marvel’s G.I. Joe ongoing comic book series from 1985 to 1991. [That was our obligatory six degrees of DC comics mention for this post.]
G.I. Joe was best known during the 80s as a military toy line that appeared to have a never-ending selection of new action figures, vehicles, playsets and accessories that seemed to be rolling into stores as quickly as we could buy them. While it didn’t have the same "gotta catch ‘em all” vibe as another, more modern merchandising juggernaut - there was a diverse enough selection of cool action figures to leave a kid browsing through Christmas SEARS catalogs for hours on end. If I received a G.I. Joe vehicle or playset for a gift, that was a very good gift. As Chris Sheehan and I were recently discussing; back in the 80s, the toy hierarchy [in order of most desirable to least desirable] went something like: Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Transformers, He-Man, everything else, and Go-Bots at the tail end. While I did collect and play with G.I. Joe action figures, I did not watch the cartoon - I lived in Canadia and our coat-hanger TV antenna didn’t pick up American channels. More importantly, we did get the Saturday morning G.I. Joe toy commercials, which told us everything we needed to know (and more) within 30 seconds. Enough to at least have a working knowledge of the characters/storylines and determine which G.I. Joe toy you “needed” next.
As mentioned, while I didn’t watch the cartoon, I did sporadically collect/read the ongoing series published by Marvel comics from 1982 to 1994. My knowledge of G.I. Joe was pretty well-rounded, as I studied those several dozen or so issues I owned until they were in tatters. I’m pretty sure I dropped the series sometime in 1991 so I could focus more money/attention on whatever pre-Image hype Marvel comics was pumping out. I was flipping through a Marvel comic one day (most likely New Warriors), and then this ad caught my eye:
I made a mental note to pick up a pack if I ever saw any, but alas - it was not to be. I lived in a small town, was unable to drive (since I was only 10) and e-bay didn’t exist yet. It’s important to note that these cards would’ve been released one year after the Impel Marvel Universe Series 1 trading cards - and I remember buying a few packs of those as soon as they hit the shelves. Thus, I was obviously aware of the sheer grandiose of these G.I. Joe trading cards. That was twenty-something years ago.
If you’ve learned anything about me by now, it’s my love-affair with early Impel trading card sets. I recently had a chance to pick up a set of these at the 2016 Ottawa Comiccon, but narrowly missed out. Today, I am proud to tell you that [hackneyed] dreams can come true and that I managed to snag the entire set for less than $15 CAD, and, if you set your expectations low enough, someday you might, too.
In the meantime, I’m going to review this card set. I found out that fellow contributor and all around stand-up guy, Chris Sheehan (blogs at Chris Is on Infinite Earths - seriously, check it out), is also an avid G.I. Joe fan and would love to wax nostalgic with me about the card set of the toy line that molded us into the rad young men we are today, so he’ll be joining me on this one. We’ve also got our buddy Aaron “Head” Moss (host of the GI Joe: A Real American Headcast) on standby for any pressing urgent G.I. Joe questions we don’t know the answer to. He's our seasoned G.I. Joe expert (at least morseo than both Chris and I are). Enough yakking, on with the show:
Justin: The 1991 G.I. Joe Impel trading card set boasts a collection of 200 trading cards (this includes 2 checklist cards). That is not a light set.
Chris: No, this was a big one... which was kind of the order of the day. The Marvel and DC sets of the time were also rather dense... the thing about the Joe’s though, I actually bought a sealed box back in the day, and didn’t even get a full set out of it! That’s gotta be the only time something like that has happened to me!
Aaron: I had a couple of packs of these, but by this time, I was watching my money, trying to afford my monthly comics (this was during the time when I bought almost every Marvel and DC comic being published). So I didn't have the money to buy boxes of these (though I considered it). But like Justin said, this was a HUGE set of trading cards.
Justin: So, just to reiterate, that’s 200 cards with no chases, inserts, holograms, sketch cards, foil cards, mail-away cards or autographed cards?.... ah, the good ol’ days. I believe there was a mail-away binder and possibly a factory set/footlocker? At least, that’s what yojoe.com told me.
Chris: It was only when I got into collecting trading cards that I came to learn just how darned expensive binders were! I couldn’t believe these things I would draw all over and tear the corners off of while sitting bored in class were so outrageously priced! That was one of the considerations we had to make back then... not only can we afford the cards, but where were we gonna keep 'em once we had 'em?
Justin: Such as is the hallmark of all of the early Impel trading card sets - they kept the card designs very clean and simple... and it works. I would like to point out, however, that the allure of this set is very much a ‘quantity over quality’ thing. You’re overwhelmed by the sheer number of cards. By no means are any of these cards unattractive, but they all start to look the same after a while. Needless to say, in a set of 200, I’m sure there’s bound to be quite a few that will stand out among the rest - whether it's your favorite version of a character or whatever.
Apparently, Hasbro liked these cards so much, that they re-issued 20 of them (with new gold borders) and repackaged them with the 1992 G.I. Joe figs sold in stores. I don’t remember ever seeing any of these included in any figures I’ve ever purchased, but maybe because the 1992 figures were a bit ‘after my time’ and I was heavily into collecting comics by this point...
I don’t think we’re going to review this card set card-by-card, we’ll just skim through and stop at whatever catches our eye.
Justin: Alright, I had to stop at card #1 here. [That didn't take long.] It wasn’t so much the character (who the hell is ‘Cesspool’, anyways?), but the big “Eco Warriors” logo stamped on the back of the card. This reminds me of how tightly knit the G.I. Joe comic book and the G.I. Joe toy line were. I don’t recall seeing much about the Eco Warriors in the comic book, but I do remember the Eco Warriors being a subset of action figures being rolled out when the toy line was near the beginning of the end. This is when action figures now had little plastic spring-loaded missiles you could fire, or little squirt-gun backpacks.
Chris: The Eco Warriors are a great way to get into the gestalt of the early-90’s (G.I. Joe and otherwise). Not only through their almost Planeteer-y message (“forget Cobra who's trying to take over the world... watch out for these geeks filling up the ozone with CFC’s!”), but I remember seeing these (action figures) on the shelf, and thinking they were such a departure from what I would normally picture when I thought about G.I. Joe. I mean, this entire line was full of bright neon outfits... military grade hyper-color, perhaps? I still bought them, because I’m obsessive... or an idiot, but they just never really fit next to my “normal” Joes.
Justin: What was interesting about the G.I. Joe franchise was that they always adapted to whatever ‘enemy’ America had at the moment in the real world. In the early 80s, they were frequently trying to thwart the Soviets, and then when relations between the US and Russia started to warm up in the real world the G.I. Joe team had a lot of adventures in Columbia and the Middle East trying to either quell or aid a revolution (depending on which way the wind was blowing, I guess). As Chris just pointed out, in 1991 pollution was becoming a growing concern, so they introduced the Eco-Warriors. In 1992, they rolled out a Drug Elimination Force - because America was at war with drugs, and even had drug-dealer themed villains... and 1993 saw the introduction of G.I. Joe's Star Brigade, because, holy crap you’ve got to watch the skies.
Aaron: Cesspool seems vaguely familiar, but he came about around the time I stopped picking up the G.I. Joe comic. It was hard stopping the comic, as I hold it responsible for my comic addiction (and trust me, it was an addiction), but as you guys said, this was the time when G.I. Joe was getting more... different. The art on the comic was getting more "cartoony" (if I remember correctly) and I just wasn't as in to the comic as I once was. It didn't hold the same... not sure of the word, I'm looking for.... the same pizzazz (for lack of a better word). But with the Eco Warriors and some of the later more sci-fi elements that Larry [Hama] was "forced" to shoe horn in, it was just lackluster..... As me and the guys talk about on my G.I. Joe podcast, normally Larry did a pretty damn good job working these new characters in, but there is only so much even the great Larry Hama could accomplish....
As far as action figures I stopped collecting around 89, cuz the figures were getting too "colorful" and too "sci-fi" for me (that and I was "too old" to play with action figures, had moved out of my mom's house in with some buddies, and was more limited on money). So I believe I missed his action figure also.
Justin: Another cool thing about this massive card set is that they didn’t just limit the cards to G.I. Joe/Cobra characters, they also had cards dedicated to the vehicles, too (which were arguably just as important as the characters themselves). I don’t know how I feel about ‘horizontal’ cards, though. For some reason, every time you view them in a card binder, they never seem to be facing the correct direction.
Chris: I’m mixed on horizontal cards... so long as they were formatted for binder-collectors, like, having a full page, nine-card set of horizontal cards is cool with me. Don’t mix them portraits and landscapes on a single page, tho! That’s a cardinal sin in card-production.
Justin: This card reminds me why I always liked Cobra better. They always had the cooler-looking vehicles/accessories. In one of the early issues of the Marvel G.I. Joe ongoing comic book series, they offhandedly mention that the H.I.S.S. tanks were either built in Russia or bought from the Soviets. Hence, this always solidified the G.I. Joe/Cold War connection in my mind.
Chris: I was never really about the vehicles. I was just as content using a shoebox for a tank... and I think I’m far too obsessive to ever place the stickers on the vehicles anyway... too much pressure! I mean, that stuff’s permanent! Imagine G.I. Joe rolling into town with an askew logo or computer panel... I mean, what kinda sham-show are they running here?
Aaron: I really liked the vehicles. Much like Justin, I thought a lot of the vehicles had character. Like the aforementioned H.I.S.S. tank - a great vehicle that was around for awhile and revamped several times with the toy line. Just looking at the picture above makes me smile. And yes, I placed the stickers on mine... I took my time, cuz like Chris said, it had to be perfect... every once in awhile I'd get a sticker not quite right and it would be bug me... like Chris said, "things off a little bit? What happened with their budget?"
And as far as Justin was saying, there were mentions of things being bought from soviets and extra, a great touch by Larry. As I've said, a master craftsman.
Justin: Cobra Commander was probably one of the most interesting characters in the whole G.I. Joe franchise. If you read his secret origin, they really fleshed-out this character to be the most realistic down-on-his-luck S.O.B. you could plausibly imagine. He was a used-car salesman who felt that the govt was cheating him out of his rightful due in life, so he started a pyramid scheme to sell vitamins and cosmetics and ended up recruiting an entire town of Springfield to do his bidding. This town then became the foundation of Cobra - and the pyramid scheme just financed the army/equipment. I can’t think of anything more American than used-car salesmen, being angry at "the man", pyramid schemes (ex: AmWay) and little towns named Springfield. To make matters more interesting, he had a personal vendetta with Snake-Eyes on account of something totally unrelated to the whole ‘G.I. Joe trying to shut down Cobra’ business. Of course he’d get 2 cards in the set. I can’t understand why they wouldn’t dedicate an entire card set to Cobra? I’d buy that.
Chris: I always liked picturing Cobra Commander in full regalia as a door-to-door vacuum salesman. Just picture him dumping a little pouch of soil onto an unsuspecting suburbanites carpet to show how powerful his vacuum is... only to have the unit explode or something. Growing up in the 80’s - 90’s, that was the “pyramid scheme” of our neighborhood. Oh, we had AmWay... but everybody knew that was crooked. Water-powered vacuum cleaners is where it’s at! I can’t say with any certainty that my family wasn’t sucked into that wacky world for a hot minute or two. I am doubtful, however, that my parents were able to convince two friends... to convince two of their friends... and so on and so on.
Aaron: I love Cobra Commander. And I think what Larry did in the comic was miles above what the cartoon tried with Cobra-La (COBRAAA-LLALALLALALALALLALAA) or what The Rise of Cobra did with The Commander (shudders thinking of Bubble Head Cobra). I think that an ex-used car salesman, disgruntled with "The American Dream", starting a terrorist organization was a great idea. And the personal vendetta with Snake was a masterful touch. The way they tied Zartan, Storm Shadow, Snake-Eyes and Cobra Commander together was great.
And if I'm not mistaken, my parents were involved with AmWay back in the 70's for a short time... Never meet the Commander though...
Of course my mom was involved with a lot of stuff over the years... Tupperware, Party Pops, I think she sold Stanley for awhile.... If there was a Cobra scheme in our area, I'm sure my parents would have joined up.
Justin: More fascinating Cobra characters: Baroness and Dr Mindbender. Baroness single-handedly put leather-clad European glasses-wearing brunettes on the ‘hot’ radar again, and Dr Mindbender brought the ‘sexy’ back to mind control and diabolical scheming. You kind of had to wonder what Hasbro was thinking when introducing a shirtless bald mustachioed monocle'd man who’s going to rush into battle wearing nothing but a cape and a pair of pants. Maybe the outfit was a throwback to when Dr Mindbender needed to put himself through his doctorate degree by dancing at Chippendale’s on the weekends?
Chris: Baroness became that character that everybody thought they were alone in thinking she was attractive. In G.I. Joe circles, some of the more annoying “Am I the only one...” or “Is it just me...” questions were all Baroness-hotness related. No, snowflake… you’re not the only one, and it’s not just you. My first Baroness action figure wasn’t even a “Baroness” action figure. It was a G.I. Joe member named Chameleon, who was an undercover Joe... and the half-sister of the Baroness! I didn’t care, I used her as Baroness nonetheless.
My first Dr. Mindbender was from the Battle Corps line in which he wore an even more ridiculous get-up. Bright yellow and purple, with cybernetics all strewn throughout! Ay yai yai… Not his best look. I’d almost forgotten that he was actually a dentist/orthodontist before frying his brain! Imagine going under the laughing gas with this fella standing before you!
Aaron: The Baroness... Making evil look hot since 1982. I didn't have any G.I Joe circles, so I missed out on the whole "Is she hot?" thing. As far as I was concerned, she just was.
My first Mindbender was the original (pictured in the trading card above). And I don't know why, but I think for him that look worked. I actually thought that looked a lot better than the Battle Corps version Chris mentioned... yes, ay yai yai...
And yeah, I think I'd probably change dentists if mine came out shirtless sporting that pornstache, wearing a monocle...
That wraps it up for the segment. Check in for part 2 when we examine more cards/characters and try to guess who drew the card art for this set. As always, I want to extend a big thanks to Chris Sheehan and Aaron "Head" Moss for assisting on this one. I really enjoy hearing other people's anecdotes about this influential toy set, so please feel free to comment below.
All images in this article were either "borrowed" from yojoe.com or The Trading Card Database. Both are fantastic sites and I can easily spend hours browsing through them.