Col. Cole is telling Pvt. Breger, 'Arrenge these documents alphabetically and then burn them!' Artist: Dave Breger.


Original medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: King Features Syndicate
First Appeared: 1942
Creator: Dave Breger
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G.I. Joe, as we all know, is a popular set of action figures, or as many have observed, dolls for boys, manufactured by Hasbro (Jem, My Little Pony). But he didn't start that way. Among other things, he was a very short-lived series …

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… from DC Comics in the 1960s, and a somewhat more durable Korean War hero from Ziff-Davis Comics (Lars of Mars, The Teenie Weenies) during the '50s. In fact, as a slang term denoting a member of the U.S. Army, the phrase goes back to the early days of World War II. Most people don't know it, but it had its origin in cartoons.

Dave Breger was a successful magazine cartoonist long before he joined the Army, just prior to U.S. involvement in World War II. About the same time he joined, he launched his first newspaper cartoon, and used his own situation as fodder for it — in fact, he gave its protagonist his own name, Private Breger. Following the same trajectory as Dick Wingert's Hubert, Breger got King Features Syndicate as a civilian outlet. King began distributing the daily panel on October 19, 1942.

Later, he began doing cartoons about the same private for Yank magazine, an Army publication, where Sad Sack was already a regular. But a decision was made that the series needed a different name in its new venue. Looking around, he saw how many things were stamped "G.I." (for "government issue"), observed that soldiers had been called "GIs" since the previous world war, and dubbed the feature G.I. Joe. Under that name, it first appeared in Yank on June 17, 1942. Before long the feature was world-famous — not as famous as Bill Mauldin's Willie & Joe, who emerged as the cartoon icons of the war. But its title was very famous indeed. G.I. Joe became the Army's everyman, so well known that by 1945, when United Artists released The Story of G.I. Joe, it had long since left Private Breger behind. The movie was about a completely different G.I. Joe

In both its civilian and military venues, Breger/Joe ran the duration of World War II. He remained a private while the real-life Breger rose through the ranks to corporal, sergeant, and eventually lieutenant. When the war was over, Breger the cartoonist came home and was no longer a contributor to Yank. But Breger the character continued at King Features — tho he got on with his life, left the service, and was now known as Mister Breger. He was still the same little guy, not entirely secure tho able to rise above most things, but now the pressures and absurdities he faced were those of civilian life.

As Mister Breger, the feature continued both daily and Sunday for the rest of the cartoonist's life. He died on Jan. 16, 1970. By that time, the "action figure" had become a fixture in toy stores, and very few people remembered that he'd been the one who gave it its name.


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Text ©2006-08 Donald D. Markstein. Art © King Features.