Attention: The following report is done by memory of the events that happened over the last two days. Any and all information is not meant to represent official Hasbro statements and is meant to be a general interpretation of what I took their conversations to mean. That said, please read this document as entertainment purpose only, and not as documented fact. Enjoy.
I AM G.I. JOE
Let me start from the beginning. Last fall (sometime in 2004), either on QKTheatre.com or JoeBattleLines.com I saw a contest sponsored by FHM (For Him Magazine) and Hasbro Toys to become an actual G.I. Joe action figure. The contest was simple: dress up like a G.I. Joe and photograph yourself in a funny, every day situation. There wasn’t too much buzz on the message boards about it (the contest), but I sent in my entry anyways. I dressed up like the Sunbow version of Shipwreck and dressed my cousin’s toddler to look like a miniature version of Shippy. We posed by a docked freighter on the wharf and my cousin handed him to me as if he were my illegitimate child. The pictures turned out ok, but I had serious doubts mine would even make a placing. I was hoping at least to get in the magazine… little did I know I was about to get the most exciting news I as a fan would ever get. Late December, Adam (an editor from FHM) gives me a call and tells me I’m the big winner. I was gonna go to Hasbro toys, get scanned, and made into a 3 3/4” action figure. After several months of having to bite my tongue, the official announcement was made in the March issue of FHM. There was goofy ass Shipwreck impersonation and a big write-up of why I choose my character, etc, etc. Adam hooked me up with Billy Lagor’s number (Brand Manager of G.I. Joe) and we made arrangements to fly me out to Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Yup, not only was Hasbro gonna turn me into a toy, they were gonna fly myself and a friend out, put us in the nicest hotel in Rhode Island, feed us, and transport us around by their official carrier. If any of you think that Hasbro doesn’t care about Joe’s fan base, read on and learn how awesome of a company this family run business is.
I’m from this dinky Ohio town called Toledo. I guess we’re mostly famous for Jamie Farr (M.A.S.H.) and Katie Holmes (who’s currently dating Tom Cruise). And someday, maybe, another great Ohio-born G.I. Joe character. I brought along my drinking buddy Jeff (one of the runner’s up in the contest, he dressed up like Bazooka). We get to Providence, Rhode Island by about 5:30 PM and meet our driver in the baggage claim. He’s a nice guy with a moderately thick New England accent.
We get to our hotel, Hotel Westin, the finest hotel in Rhode Island, and the inside is like something from a movie. Tons of business people lounging around, escalators, and the works. There’s even a walkway that leads to the seven-story mall next door. We get our stuff upstairs and barely are we there when Billy (Lagor) calls saying he’s made reservations for dinner and he’ll be at the restaurant in 10 minutes… so we head down to the lobby and get directions. Luckily, the place we’re supposed to meet at is a block up. Wow. We meet at the Capitol Grille, a steak and wine place where everyone was dressed like they were ready to meet the President or the Queen of England. Jeff and I had hoodies and jeans on. Needless to say, we stuck out like sore thumbs. Anyhow, we meet Billy and Beth (Licensing Department) at the bar and head to our seats. Being a brand manager, I expected some elderly guy with a bald spot and glasses or something, but Billy’s this laid back, thirty-something guy who grew up on the 80’s G.I. Joe property just like me. After we order (a very-very-very expensive meal), I cut right to the chase. The last few months have given us hiatus’, cancellations, and new figure scales. I’m right across the table from the guy in charge of my favorite hobby and now’s my chance to find out what’s going on.
Billy is “the man” who pretty much decides what goes into each wave of vehicles, figures and exclusives. He took over the job not too long ago and he has a bigger love for Joe than most die-hard fans do. But first and foremost he works for a company that demands profit in order to keep the brand going. And fans just don’t carry the line. Only a fraction of our sales actually go into the big pie. A typical production run of a certain character or two-pack is in the hundred thousands of units. Collectors maybe account for 10-20 thousand units sold per item. That isn’t a lot. So, changes had to be made in order for just the G.I. Joe name to survive retail.
I got to play with these guys hands-on, but more on them later. Sigma Six is Hasbro’s way to incorporate modern day stealth tactics back into Joe. The 80’s Joe line was bustling during the Cold War. You saw our huge army, you saw the Soviet’s big army. And COBRA was meant to reflect those big armies we were threatened by. But those days are gone. Modern warfare consists mostly of Black Ops units seen in all the popular video games like Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid. And video games are where you’ll find the kid market more than anywhere. So, Sigma Six is the Joe version of stealthy small team units of soldiers, made in a larger, highly articulated, highly stylized format that has gone over extremely well with kids (in research and play testing). Like ‘em or hate ‘em, Sigma Six is aimed at kids, not us collectors. The size change is partly to help Joe separate itself from some of the “knock-off” brands that parents might confuse for Joe. Plus, the larger characters allow for more articulation, accessories, and packaging. Bigger packaging means bigger shelf space at Wal-Mart and Target. The packaging is designed to fit either on shelves (in stackable increments) or on hook pegs. So far, there is no plan for a Sigma Six comic, just the cartoon that is in development by Gonzo Studios overseas. Nothing official on whether Reel FX will have more Joe cartoons or not. The cartoon is Anime style, but more Americanized. It will be a combination of 2-D cels and 3-D vehicles. I guess the 3-D is top notch and the show could easily be 3-D only but the 2-D hand drawn stuff is gonna be added for extra value and a more unique look (I’m thinking Zoids, another Hasbro property). No voices are cast yet. No set date on the cartoons release. I’m guessing we’ll see clips around the Joe convention this summer. So, the kids department of Joe is looking great, but what about us collectors?
Again, Hasbro cares about us old school collectors. They know we like army builders and classic characters from the 80’s. Hasbro direct purchasing from their soon-to-be-live online store is there answer to us fans. The online store will be 90%+ collector aimed. Sure, they’d like kids to order online, but the vehicles and characters will be designed with us in mind. The initial wave will be orderable at the con this year for attendees. I believe the initial run of figures will be in the low thousands, but enough to justify production. If the sales of the online figures meet or surpass demands, I assume Hasbro will make more… more of the first run of figures if demand is needed and more waves to follow. (As a side note, the mail away Storm Shadow figure had double the amount ordered than actually produced, so a second run had to be made, hence the wait we’re all experiencing. Those who ordered sooner will be getting their figures soon. Those who waited will have to wait a little longer than the rest of us as their figures are still being made. Oh, and the Stormy is nice looking. Comes with weapons too.) I got to see the Zartan comic pack, Humvee repaint, and Scrap Iron single pack the next day. The Humvee is indeed a retool. The shovel and tools on the hood are removable. The back end is open. And Rollbar has a neat new vest with ammo clips. I got to play with Scrap Iron. He’s got a big gun. The new comic pack Zartan is amazing. Absolutely the best Zartan ever produced. Zarana is nicely done, and the Fred/CC figure is sharp. And yes, I saw the back of the packaging. Nicely done. Very nice indeed. That’s all I’m allowed to say (and I may have said too much). Now, back to dinner. The outcome of how long the 3 3/4” can be produced depends on how well the first wave (or two?) sells. Hasbro (mostly Billy and his team) do research the boards and talk to fans at conventions and all the positive feedback and suggestions they receiver really do go into the line. I’ll get more into the 3 3/4” stuff later on. There are no current plans for Battle Point usage in the online shop, but Hasbro is open to reasonable suggestions. I asked about scalpers and if the online shop planned to have a limit on figures you could buy at once. Billy understands that scalpers are a problem, but his team sees it in a couple different outlooks. Let’s say a scalper orders thousands of single packs and goes to sell them himself making a secondary market… well, those thousands that he orders helps the Joe team reach their sales requirements. And being the manufacturers themselves they’ll always meet the individual demand because they’re selling to us directly. So, the scalper either has to sit on inflated figures everyone else can get dirt-cheap online (official pricing wasn’t available yet) or they can sell them off cheap and become regular collectors like the rest of us. Overseas ordering is still being worked on, I believe. So, for those who complain about having to pay shipping as opposed to going down the street to find the latest Joe product, sorry. This is how is has to be. It’s a changing market.
Now, for all you 12” fans, I am very sorry to say the line is indeed cancelled. There are no plans for future exclusives through dealers or online. I am sorry. There’s a smaller collector base for the 12” stuff than there is for the 3 3/4” line.
I asked about the fate of the remaining Marvel run comics and if they’ll ever be collected in trade paperback form like the first 50 issues. Billy would definitely love to see it happen and Hasbro owns the rights to reproduce the comics, but the problem is there isn’t the funding to do so at the moment. A lot of time and preparation went into the first five trades, and as awesome as it would be to get the remaining issues 51-155, it’s not in the cards right now. As for the fate of the Devil’s Due fan choice comic set, it has been sculpted, and Hasbro knows they promised the fans its release. They are going to try to get the set to us soon. (As another side note, Beth is partly in charge for picking the next Transformer’s comic publisher, and they have picked one but unofficially cannot reveal whom yet.)
A lot of us have seen (some have purchased) prototype figures and/or what they call “test shot” figures off Ebay from sellers in China. I guess most of the ones sold are actually knock-offs. All photography is done in-house at Hasbro. No figures are ever been sent overseas for photographic purposes. The test figures are all sculpted, painted and photographed in house. A painted figure is sent overseas to the production facility along with Pantone color guides so the production facility can see what colors are to be used and where. There are never any figures that Hasbro just tosses away, so if you buy an unreleased figure from overseas, you are either purchasing a knock-off or a stolen production piece.
After an excellent dinner (paid for by Hasbro) we chatted some more and soon parted ways. Billy was supposed to be in Los Angelus getting ready for a meeting but he came back to Rhode Island just to meet for dinner. To me, that shows he cares about the fans, as a plane ride from one coast to another is no fun thing when you’re pressed for time. So, I thank you Billy and Beth for meeting us for dinner.
After we parted ways, we hit Dave and Buster’s Arcade at the mall and then a couple local pubs. Sadly, last call is at 1 AM. Yet somehow we found ourselves at a 7-11 convenience store around 3 in the morning. Anyways, we headed back to the hotel, for the following day had a lot in store for us.
We’re taken to Hasbro HQ in Pawtucket and you’d expect either this huge corporate building or some big looming factory… but no, its this quaint converted brick factory that covers a whole block, and is set in the middle of a neighborhood. A big Mr. Potato Head sits outside, and the parking lot spaces are adorned with Monopoly signs designating reserved spots.
We head inside and the front lobby is adorned with toys and odd sculptures. A couple friendly security guards help us locate our tour guide, Associate Brand Manager of G.I. Joe, Mike. He tells us the plan for the day and we walk around these huge, bustling offices cram-filled with product everywhere you look. I’ve seen some laid back comic publisher’s offices but those were nothing compared to this place. It was like a toy store had exploded inside cubicle maze but only the cool toys really survived. Mike’s a nice guy who seems a little nervous showing us around, but smart Hasbro had us sign a waiver saying if we shared any of the secrets/specifics of products to the public we’d get our legs broken by Mace Windu and Optimus Prime (heh, I kid… sorta). Down many a twisting hall, we meet up with John, in charge of the Rapid Prototype Department and my head scan begins. I get to see my head in all its 3-D glory on his computer monitor and then reality sets in: you see the back of your head and your hairline and as cool as it is you realize how much has changed since high school. Sigh. Anyways, that’s what the sculptors are for. They can trim a bit off here and there and fill in the spots that need filling.
Next, we head over to meet Dwight, lead designer for the 3 3/4” line. Damn, does his office have some cool stuff. Dwight essentially started helping with the line around wave 5 of Spy Troops. He’s also the likeness basis for Barrel Roll and his brother is indeed Black Out. And no, Bombstrike isn’t his daughter as he might say. His daughter is a wee tyke; he just likes to mess with fans online. Inside his office is a wall full of pinned zip-lock bags, each containing parts of or whole figures that never saw production runs. Saw a lot of cool figures that coulda been. I asked about proportions and supposedly a good lot of figures get messed up during production. He pulled out the original sculpt of Lady Jaye (from Spy Troops) and wow is/was she an awesome sculpt. Her neck and arms and face are perfect, no Twinkie head with gorilla shoulders like the final product. The guys (G.I. Joe team) understand the proportion problem, but once it leaves their building, there isn’t too much they can do to fix things since there’s constantly something else for them to work on locally. Figures are sculpted at about 104% their final size, and that’s to account for shrinkage going from wax to plastic. I got to look through a book of figures proposed and see a lot of variations of what existing figures coulda looked like. On the way out of Dwight’s office, I got to meet the guy in charge of vehicle design. I thanked him for making the Patriot Grizzly and Thunderwing, but out of politeness didn’t mention the Alpha vehicles. After all, I was a guest. I had to be nice. J
The 80’s geek in me was treated to hanging out with Todd Wise for half an hour. Todd is the VP of Design and is also the character likeness basis for the original Frostbite. He also designed a lot of classic vehicles like the HAVOC, SNOWCAT, and (the best selling Joe vehicle of all time) the DEVILFISH. I got to look through old production sketches from the 80’s line of vehicles and talked about the brainstorming he and other team members did back in the day. It was pretty surreal.
Mike informs us its time for lunch, and we head to this quaint pizza place down the road with Dwight and Andy (in charge of the 6-packs and other exclusives). At lunch, like at the previous dinner, I let loose with a million questions. Basically, from design to marketing, there are about 15+ people that work on G.I. Joe. It takes roughly a year for a figure to get made. So everyone (at Hasbro) pretty much works on a different schedule from the rest of the world. Figures that hit retail now is stuff they worked on a year or so ago… so their mindset places them in 2006-2007, sorta like a magazine publisher only longer in terms of time. The team brainstorms who or what the Joe team is lacking and starts sketching out ideas. Those sketches are refined by outside comic company artists who spruce up the character designs into dramatic presentation drawings. Those drawings have to be given the thumbs up by the executives before modeling begins. The coloring on certain waves was designed to grab kids attention. So are the action features. Since the 3 3/4” line is now going to be targeted at collectors, you will not have to fear this anymore. None of the figures are designed using a template. They use to be previously using a method called “the standard buck” but scale was important to Dwight so he began to design various heights and builds. For example, Roadblock should be massive where as Tunnel Rat a bit under standard height. And since Dwight took over in design around Valor vs. Venom, you can see these plans with figures like Venomous Maximus and Bombstrike. Injection molding was another new process implemented and will be seen on all newer stuff should the online store be successful. Straight repaints will also be a thing of the past if sales are good. We will probably see more “Frankensteined” figures like the con exclusives but also new-new stuff. Mike expressed definite interest in knowing what we (the fans) want and I told him that fans are clamoring for a new Major Bludd, Buzzer, Doc (or at least a true medic), more classic characters remade in new style but close in color and detail to their original 80’s versions. We (the fans) would also like more classic vehicle reissues in close to original colors. Mike smiled a lot during my suggestion list.
Here are a couple problems I found out though during our conversation at lunch. A good lot of original molds for vehicles and characters are missing in action, damaged, or still in India and China. Go get a tissue cause this fact is very sad. Only about 20% of the original 1983-94 molds are usable, as estimated by the team. If you look at the DeSimone Joe guide, maybe 1 or 2 to a page is still intact. Same with vehicles, a lot of molds were damaged overseas by failure to upkeep plus factor in wear and tear. And creating a new mold from an existing character is mighty expensive. Dwight loves how comic pack Horror Show turned out (all new vintage style) but says its way too expensive to do frequently. Old school playsets (like the mortar range and Check Point Alpha) also don’t fair well enough to justify production. Sure, a lot of fans would buy one or multiples, but often a run of ten thousand or more needs to be done in order to meet financial obligations. And that’s just for the smaller playsets. The TPBP and Terror Drome would cost a mighty fortune to produce with current plastic prices, and the U.S.S. FLAGG is just plain out of the question. I asked about the SkyStriker, and someone on the message boards suggesting the jet be released as a “model” to avoid safety issues. Hasbro denied any knowledge of it being released as a model, also stated the mold is either unaccounted for, overseas or damaged and that due to the size and fragileness of the vehicle it wouldn’t see re-release. Again, they’d love to make a lot of things, but budget restraints, time, and safety issues prevent Hasbro from doing a lot. Also, after the Moray, and last two 6-packs, there will be no more TRU exclusive 3 3/4” items. All 3 3/4” items will be sold solely through Hasbro online and select online sellers. However, Mike asked if fans would ever be interested in 6-pack new sculpts. I told him yes, especially if the characters were either ones which had only seen one release so far without repaints or if they were new sculpts of characters we have not gotten yet. I also suggested weapon packs and figure stands. This year at the convention, please be civil and let the Joe team know what you would like to see in possible future assortments. The next few years really could be the best time to be a Joe collector.
After lunch, we head back to Hasbro HQ, and I get a tour of the production areas, like the painting departments, photo studio, and packaging. Then I get to sit down with Rob (Graphics) and Joe (Packaging) who design everything from the blister card to the bubbles to the logo placement, respectively. This is similar to what I went to school for, so I had a few questions for them. Sadly, my brain was pretty fried from all the sensory overload of the tour and two meals full of Joe questions. I asked about the single pack and full box packaging. The guys told me not only is it cheaper to do single packs, they don’t have to meet any sort of store size requirements (since they’ll be sold online only) and it gives that nostalgic feel to it with the larger graphic next to the figure. The closed box vehicles also gives the package design team more space to fill with awesome diorama shots and illustrations (again, all the photography you see from the older 12” figures to the current Sigma Six line was done at Hasbro by their talented design team). I noted that it’s really annoying to open the newer stuff with all the twist ties and rubber bands. Safety regulations force Hasbro to put all them annoying bands around the figures and vehicles. Its either that or the toy won’t be allowed to hit stores. I also asked about the warpness received from figures packaged holding weapons. I guess it’s a design feature to entice the kids… a sort of mini action pose. I thanked everyone for the time they took to chat with some geek from Ohio (though a great majority of Hasbro is made up of Buckeyes, heh heh heh).
We went to a play testing area where I got a hands-on feel for the new Sigma Six line. From the production photos of Duke, I had a low opinion already established in my mind. But holding him in hand, that sorta changed. His chin isn’t nearly as huge as I thought. And the articulation on the figures is fantastic. Heavy Duty and Spirit are awesome toys. I probably won’t get most of Sigma Six when they hit stores, but HD and Spirit are friggin’ fun to play with. And they come with neat weapons. Jeff liked Snake Eyes, and I thought Snakes was ok. You could see his eyes with his visor removed which was weird to me, not my Snake Eyes… but then again, this isn’t suppose to be my Joe. But, I think kids will love them and I definitely can’t wait for a regular Joe cartoon to be on television again.
I wasn’t allowed to take a lot of pictures (well, pretty much only the ones you see here), and I didn’t get to see as much new stuff as I was hoping, but I did get to meet some amazing Joe fans. The status on whether or not a figure will be made in my likeness is still in the air, but Hasbro plans to send me updates. Still, I had a once in a lifetime opportunity to see and do things no other fan has done. After going back to get scanned a second time just in case the first scan had a glitch or two, Mike heads us out the main hall which is filled with classic Hasbro goodies from years and years ago. We hop in a cab and eventually find ourselves back in Toledo.
Having seen what I’ve seen and having talked with the guys behind the scenes of G.I. Joe, I gotta say I can’t wait to see what these guys have in store for us next. Now is definitely not the time to give up on the brand. Thanks again to Adam from FHM, Billy, Mike, Dwight, and everyone at Hasbro for the great time.
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