“No other toy has saved the world, millions of times over, one backyard at a time.” That’s the go-to line that G.I. Joe Collector’s Club president and the driving force behind G.I. Joe Con, Brian Savage, likes to use to explain the 45 year old action figure’s popularity. And, judging by the crowds at this past weekend’s annual G.I. Joe Con in Kansas City, G.I. Joe is as popular today as he ‘s ever been.
The four-day convention began slowly with panels and exclusives for registered attendees, but roared into the public eye on Friday when convention organizers tossed 300 Cobra Commandos (and their parachutes) from the roof of the hotel where the convention was being held. (See video here.) It was frenzied as adults and children ran, jumped and grabbed in an attempt to win one of the invading figures. But the real meat of the convention was inside the hotel. So it was, among random calls of “Yo Joe!”, that I made my way into the 16th Annual G.I. Joe Con in Kansas City.
Organizers acknowledged that attendance had seen a favorable bump as interest in Joe surged, thanks to the recent release of the movie, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. And evidence of that film was everywhere – from the life-size cardboard cutouts of the film stars to the new Hasbro toy tie-ins. Walking among the vendor booths, I heard a familiar fanboy lament: “I wanted a better story, better characters … why didn’t they ask G.I. Joe fans to help make the G.I. Joe movie?”
EA was there, pushing their rushed-to-production game based on the movie. But the biggest movie tie-in was the featured guest, Adawale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who portrays the character Heavy Duty in the film. The star was engaging, charismatic and very funny as he held court before the G.I. Joe fans during his panel session.
“I’m 200 yards in the air, holding a 120 pound gun that fires 600 rounds per second. I’m being held to the helicopter by these wires and I’m starting to sweat, but the director says “action” and all the stress in the world just goes out the window,” said Adawale. “It’s just a rain of bullets – let me tell you, there’s not a high you can buy that’s like that – your adrenaline is pumping and it’s just ….” the Lost actor finishes with a growl that builds to a joyful scream.
Other convention guests included writer, Larry Hama, the first product manager for G.I. Joe figures, Sam Speers, influential product manager, Kirk Bozigian, original Joe artist, Sam Petrucci, artists Larry Selman and Greg Horn and Hasbro legend, Greg Berndtson.
The movie had much of the spotlight, but the convention was definitely about the action figures. Everywhere you looked were the fuzzy, bearded heads of the 12-inch Joes from the 70s, complete with kung-fu grip and all the accessories they’d need to win the war. Just as present were the 3 3/4″ action figures that have become more popular in recent years leaving no doubt that the figures were the reason that the crowds had come.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the Saturday afternoon sessions. A packed room hung on every word from the Hasbro team about upcoming exclusives and plans for the future was followed by IDW‘s panel, which only attracted a couple dozen people interested in upcoming comics. (One of the highlights was when IDW touched on Max Brooks‘ upcoming Joe series.)
At the end of my G.I. Joe Con day, I took one last look around the convention floor. G.I. Joe was one of my favorite comics growing up. And as I saw the long lines at the store, waiting for the chance to pick up a convention exclusive, the dozens of vendor booths and thousands of attendees – fathers & sons – it made me feel good. I knew that a new generation had found “a real American hero”.