There's a concept in the G.I. Joe fan community called the "Joeverse." On a recent night over coffee in Los Angeles, my friends Greg and Gavin Hignight explained this to me.
“Joeverse is basically the universe you create,” says Gavin. It’s also what makes G.I. Joe different from other toys that were big in the ’80s. “You could define your own universe with that property, you could kind of make it your own, more than other properties that existed,” Gavin continues. “That’s carried over from childhood to adults.”
Greg elaborates, “It’s gone from how you played with your toys to how you’re curating your collection.”
Greg and Gavin are brothers. Greg is a DJ and promoter for Tune in Tokyo in Los Angeles. Gavin is a writer. He just released the novel, The Freak Table. They’re also lifelong G.I. Joe collectors.
I’ve been friends with the Hignight brothers for a few years and knew that they were fans of the Hasbro toy franchise, but didn’t realize the extent of their interest until a few weeks ago. I asked them if they knew any G.I. Joe collectors whose brains I could pick for a story. Greg and Gavin then let me into their Joeverse.
When we met for coffee, Gavin showed up with two new figures for Greg. One was the Bruce Willis/Joe Colton piece that ties into the release of G.I. Joe: Retaliation. They both pointed out that this is the first time Willis has appeared as 3 3/4″ figure.
The other was a version of Storm Shadow that’s sold at discount stores like Marshall’s. Greg likes this line because it’s low-priced, but the quality is equivalent to what you would find at a regular toy store. He notes that, when the budget-conscious items were first released, they were only available at a chain store with no locations on the West Coast. “All the fans went nuts trying to help each other find them,” he says.
Greg recalls reading about the 1980s G.I. Joe relaunch in a copy of the old children’s newspaper Weekly Reader. On the day their family went shopping for a new bicycle for younger brother Gavin, he got his first 3 3/4″ G.I. Joe action figure. His purchase was guy named Breaker who came with a backpack and headphones. “I picked him out specifically because he had the most interesting accessories,” says Greg. He still has Breaker and still prefers figures that come with lots of cool accessories.
Gavin, who was credited as a consultant on the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero DVD collector’s set, can pinpoint the moment that he started collecting the toys. It was 1982, the year Hasbro began releasing 3 3/4″ figures. The brothers, who grew up in Denver, were in Texas visiting their grandparents. They went shopping at Target and Gavin picked up Stalker and Snake Eyes on sale. Like Greg, Gavin hasn’t parted with those figures.
Neither brother is sure how many pieces are in their individual collections. When I ask, Greg answers, “hundreds.” Gavin reiterates this, adding that he might be “pushing to 1000″ pieces. Gavin says that a better question is how many versions of the major characters they have. He estimates that they each own between 15 and 20 variations on the characters like Snake Eyes and Cobra Commander.
Back when they were kids, the two managed to acquire some primo pieces. Remember that massive aircraft carrier that came out in the mid-1980s? Greg had it. And the Space Shuttle Complex, complete with the shuttle, launchpad and space station? Gavin got it for Christmas one year. Though Greg and Gavin have hung onto most of their old collections, those are the two pieces they eventually had to purge. They were simply to large to make moves into grown-up apartments. “It’s a good reason to become very successful,” says Gavin, “so we can have big houses and buy all that stuff all over again.” Gavin did manage to re-purchase the space shuttle, which he is currently refurbishing.
G.I. Joe stuck with the brothers long after the ’80s, and their childhoods, ended. As we talk, the two drop toy collecting jargon. They talk about “peg warmer” toys, the ones that stores can’t seem to move from their shelves. The note the difference between “straight arm” figures and those with a “swivel arm battle grip.” They hunt toy aisles– Target is a favorite– for new figures. They scour eBay for rarities and parts needed for repairs and modifications. Both are members of the G.I. Joe Collector’s Club and subscribed to get two new, unusual figures in the mail every month. When Gavin heads to San Diego Comic-Con annually, he allots half a day to standing in line for the convention exclusives. They don’t go to the annual G.I. Joe conventions, but they’ve made it to L.A. fan events. They’ll mix high-priced collectibles, like the Oktober Guard set, an exclusive from the 2012 G.I. Joe convention, with discount store finds.
Sometimes, they’ll pick up international versions of the toys. Greg has “one or two” vintage pieces from Japan. Gavin bought some old school Action Force heroes when he was traveling in London. Then there are the figures that are neither early ’80s nor modern. Greg has “dabbled” in the pre-1982 12″ releases. Gavin has been picking up some of the late-’80s/ early-’90s toys, the ones with the bold colors. “I didn’t like them then, but, now, I kind of like how dorky they are,” he says. In between the high-end and low-end purchases, the international pieces and the oddities, there are the toys that they customized. This is the Hignight Joeverse.
Customizing is a big part of how the brothers collect. Gavin will do some refurbishing and modifying here and there. He’ll remix toys by swapping heads, things that don’t require much painting or sculpting. Greg handles the big customization projects. He studied how Hasbro reused Joe parts for different figures. “As soon as I understood how they do it, my customizations became a lot easier,” he explains. That’s where his bounty of Joe accessories comes in handy. “That’s fodder for good customization,” he says.
Greg and Gavin never abandoned their love of G.I. Joe, but their interest in the classic franchise has evolved over the years. They may still wander through the toy aisles, but what they do with the goods is altogether different now.
“When we were kids, we would have seen someone’s father or grandfather painting metal soldiers or diorama pieces,” says Gavin. “GI Joe pieces are that for our generation.”