G.I. Joe Convention brings together aficionados of Hasbro’s ‘glorious obsession’

From the moment I stepped out of my car onto the curb that marked the front doors of the Westin Hotel to the second I drove away from the event via Rhode Island Route 146, the 2010 International G.I. Joe Convention in Providence, R.I., provided a unique opportunity to congregate with like-minded G.I. Joe aficionados who share my “glorious obsession.” Expertly organized by Brian Savage and his staff, who form the Official G.I. Joe Collector’s Club, the 2010 G.I. Joe Convention — the 17th in the series — proved to be everything fans were promised and more, as this event marked the return of the nearly 50-year-old G.I. Joe brand to Rhode Island, the home state of Hasbro Industries. With a list of “Joe-lebrity” guest-stars as long as your arm, fans were treated to a wondrous display of premiere talent.

All told, 12 special guests were in attendance at the convention (revised from the official convention program): Kirk Bozigian, the original product manager for Hasbro’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero line of 3 3/4-inch scale toys; Larry Hama, the writer/editor/artist for Marvel Comics who helmed the red-hot G.I. Joe comic of the 1980s and drafted the biographies (Combat Command File Cards) for each and every canonical character of the G.I. Joe team and Cobra Command; Bob Prupis, the man responsible for creating Hasbro’s successful “Boy’s Toy” division in 1980 — the department within Hasbro that was responsible for launching both the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and Transformers brands; Steve D’Aguanno, a Hasbro designer who provided the company more than 30 years of service and eventually graduated to the head of Hasbro Research and Development, where he became involved in myriad toy lines; Sam Speers, whose engineering talents were recognized early in his career at Hasbro, ultimately landing him the Sisyphean task of head of product development for the 12-inch vintage G.I. Joe line (and creating hundreds of other Hasbro toys and games); Janet Downing Taylor, who was a member of the original team that developed the very first 12-inch G.I. Joe soldier; Sam Petrucci, one of the original G.I. Joe artists whose brilliant, superbly detailed, action-oriented paintings set a new standard for toy packaging that would never be eclipsed; Larry Selman, who has produced packaging artwork for Hasbro for more than 10 years — recently branching out into the Western fine art market and historical prints; Virginia Perry Gardiner, a staff artist for Hasbro back in the ‘60s who helped to develop the ingenious 12-inch Foreign Soldiers of the World line, as well as the cancelled Action Girl series — which was scaled back to a single piece, the obscenely rare G.I. Joe Nurse figure; and the longest-tenured Hasbro employee of the group, Norman Jacques, who dedicated 46 years of his career to Hasbro Inc., initially as Structural Packaging Engineer, yet would eventually be promoted to Director of Packaging — a post he would hold for 40 years until his retirement.

Finally, the Guest of Honor at the 2010 International G.I. Joe Convention was a philanthropist and business leader who also functioned as the protagonist of one of the finest and meticulously-documented biographies of the business industry: “Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle Between G.I. Joe, Barbie, and the Companies Who Make Them” (by G. Wayne Miller); a tome which should be required reading for any G.I. Joe or Transformer fan. On the first day of the event, every conventioneer was treated to a rare presentation by Alan Hassenfeld (Has + Bro = Hassenfeld + Brothers), the former Chairman of the Board and current Chairman of the Executive Committee of Hasbro, Inc.

Chairman Hassenfeld’s presentation allowed the audience to reflect on the importance of Hasbro extending their brands beyond the limiting boundaries of a toy line. The most important tidbit of information that bears repeating from these hour-long question-and-answer sessions was that Hasbro Incorporated does not want to be known as a toy company. Hasbro is positioning itself as an entertainment company that utilizes branding in multiple arenas: cell phone ring tones, console video games, action figures, fitted sheets, board games, automobile floor mats, screen savers, baseball caps, tee shirts, stickers and labels, window dressings, etc. Hasbro’s branding techniques should be thought of as a totally immersing experience: a magnificent treat for their savvy stockholders. It seems that Hasbro has positioned their product quite smartly in terms of the total immersion of their brands into popular culture — particularly if all goes well with their Marvel/Disney connection (although Disney sometimes drives a hard bargain).

As a special guest of the convention, I was there to promote the 2nd edition of my “Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe: 1982-1994” along with a few other books; to gauge interest, I also brought photos for my upcoming “Totally Tubular Toys of the 1980s.” I’m telling you this not to brag, but to give you a sense of my perspective. I was/am in no way involved in the construction or endurance of the G.I. Joe brand — I’m simply a fan trying to document the 3 3/4-inch G.I. Joe line, while at the same time, I’m eager to add legitimacy to the hobby of action figure collecting. It’s an uphill battle to transform the popular opinion of toy and comic book collectors, since most outsiders equate the “collecting mentality” to either the negative reinforcement of the myth as perpetrated by the A&E program “Hoarders,” or to the contentious Comic Book Guy on “The Simpsons,” a stereotypical balding, overweight, supercilious middle-aged American collector. To wit: if the 11 creators who were the featured guests have added to the legend of an iconic G.I. Joe toy/artifact through the course of their careers, I suppose you could regard what I do with my books as profane, since I’m a mere historian; basically, I collect knowledge, images, and text, and reprint it cogently in book form.

 Regardless of my meager contribution to the hobby, upon my arrival at the hotel the evening before the festivities began, I ran into Hama and we grabbed dinner together — steeling ourselves for a weekend of extremely challenging work (if you think signing books and talking G.I. Joe minutiae with hundreds upon hundreds of people isn’t labor-intensive, then you’re delusional). Hama is — for all intents and purposes — the creator of the fiction behind each and every G.I. Joe character as well as the architect of the epic 30-year back story of the modern G.I. Joe universe. The characterization of Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, the pyramid scheme that formulates Cobra Command, the relationship of Tomax and Xamot, etc., are all his brainchildren. Hamma’s a man I’ve grown fond of during the past five years, since his mentorship, sage wisdom, accessibility, incredible memory, and intellectual prowess drew me to him immediately (for more on Hama, I’ve written a few choice pieces on his “Hemingway-esque” approach to the G.I. Joe canon on the Interwebs). His exceptional imagination and writing prowess have propelled him to the esteemed rank of “Godfather of G.I. Joe.”

There were many other highlights of the 2010 International G.I. Joe Convention. On the first day of the con, following Alan Hassenfeld’s presentation and throughout the day, each registered guest was bussed from Providence to Pawtucket (a mere 9 miles away) for a detailed and informative tour of Hasbro Headquarters. From the multiple display cases that featuring a bevy of boxed 12-inch and 3 3/4-inch G.I. Joe toys in the Hasbro showroom to six smaller glass displays featuring every single loose 3 3/4-inch G.I. Joe figure ever made (and even some foreign variations), the Hasbro headquarters tour was a high point for many attendees. Viewing the actual Hasbro sculpting stations for G.I. Joe product was icing on the cake for many convention-goers, as well as a mind-blowing additional showroom that featured dozens upon dozens of original paintings used as G.I. Joe packaging artwork from both major eras of G.I. Joe; most prominent were the paintings for the ‘80s Real American Hero era. It was stunning to view these prized paintings up close, as many of these pieces have been in the hands of private collectors for more than 25 years.

As for the convention itself, for two full days, the main room swelled with dozens of dealer tables that bustled with a steady, hive-like buzz, while there was ample room set aside for the special guests to provide autograph signings for the attendees.

Yet, in my opinion, the most important aspect of this convention was the attendees. I’ve been to many conferences all over the world — whether it’s literary symposium or a toy convention; from Italy to the South of France — and I must admit that G.I. Joe fans are my favorite compatriots. Ninety-five percent of these folks are hard-working, worldly intellectuals, whose strong sense of family and community only amplifies their generosity of spirit, a spirit that devoutly wishes their hobby to be more inclusive — encouraging new members in order to swell the ranks of their beloved pastime. As always, each G.I. Joe Convention is a unique experience. I encourage anyone who even has a casual affinity for G.I. Joe to consider attending the next annual event, for if the 2010 International G.I. Joe Convention was any reflection of the direction that the Official G.I. Joe Collector’s Club, Hasbro, and Hunter PR will be taking the G.I. Joe brand, the best is surely yet to come. ?

Mark Bellomo is an enthusiastic and passionate toy collector, and one of the leading toy authorities in the country. Bellomo has authored a number of books, including Transformers: Identification and Price Guide, two editions of  The Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe: 1982-1994, and Totally Tubular ‘80s Toys, due to be released by Krause Publications this fall.

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