Sad news from the world of G.I. Joe.
Hector Garrido, the fine artist whose painted works adorned the packaging of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero action figures and vehicles for more than ten years, has died. I’m told by his friend and art dealer that Garrido passed away peacefully in his sleep on April 19, 2020. He was 92 years old.
G.I. Joe fans have long known that one of the factors that made Real American Hero such a success was its brilliant packaging. Some of that was type, copy writing, and graphic design, but most of it was those bold illustrations of men and women in action poses, bursting forth from explosions of deep red, orange, and yellow, in some nebulous anywhere of forever nighttime black. The vehicles themselves ranged from real world to impossibly fantastic, but in Garrido’s skilled hands they were solid and sturdy constructs rumbling across dirt terrain and firing heavy missiles, driven and piloted by brave heroes and dastardly villains focused on their all-important missions.
Illustration doesn’t always get the same respect that other Art-with-a-captial-“A” does. It tends to be mass produced, and disposable, and we often conflate it with the product or service to which it is most associated. In the case of G.I. Joe, that’s fine. While the monthly comic book and the animated series gave us stories and character, and they were foundational to the ongoing fantasy of G.I. Joe, it is Garrido’s paintings that are the prime specimens of how fans encountered these characters in real life. These were toys with eye-popping paintings, that burst with personality, specialty, and function. Garrido’s paintings made them real. Yes, you controlled the toy and manipulated it on your carpet and outside in the mulch, but what Garrido’s stunning artwork did was ground Joe and Cobra alike in reality (a real man wearing real cloth and brandishing real tools), and yet at the same time expand the potential of the Joes’ and Cobras’ world. Yet there’s something nebulous about the convergence of “real” person and “real” explosion happening at the same time and in the same place. Or are they? Breaker isn’t in front of a real explosion up there, and neither is Zap. But that explosion is real. Look at the red reflected light on the bottom of Breaker’s leg and his backpack. Examine the yellow reflections on Zap’s helmet. That moment, that man, that action is all real.
According to his own biography taken from Garrido’s Flickr page, he was born in Argentinia and studied art in Buenos Aires. He came to the States and started working professionally here in the 1950s.
Garrido painted so much else in his life — religious collectibles for the Bradford Exchange, paperback and magazine covers, that it’s worth spending a moment on his non-toy work.
The words “icon” and “iconic” are thrown around a lot these days. Part of that is our worship of nostalgia and the familiar. Things we love are reinvented through business decisions, and we embrace those things reborn. But it’s important to mentally return to the genesis of these powerful and forever brands, concepts, and images. We can re-appreciate them in the context of their original power — THESE G.I. JOE PAINTINGS ARE AMAZING AND MAKE ME WANT TO BUY THIS TOY — and so we’re reminded that someone created that illustration, and that this man, this artist, was a real talent. And then we can mentally return to the present, seeing the echoes of Garrido’s images, remade (sometimes fully and literally) and recontextualized onto G.I. Joe Monopoly, giant banners at HASCON, t-shirts, and more. They don’t just sell specific toys at toy shops, but they are visual ambassadors of the brand, reinforcing its power and its reach.
But it all starts with paint and a canvas, and an eye for proportion, light, texture, and color. And what an eye!
I never met nor interviewed Hector Garrido. I sure wish I had. Fellow G.I. Joe collector Joao Argento did some years ago, and generously has granted me permission to run the photo of that meeting. (Please note the gloves are to protect the artwork.) Argento told me how excited he was to track down this artistic hero, to make contact, to gain approval for a meeting, to ask him a few questions, and to tell Garrido how much he was appreciated. This small story that Joao told me perhaps six years ago filled a tiny void for me. I hadn’t met Garrido, but maybe someday I might, but here my friend had.
Hector Garrido has died. That he lived to the age of 92 takes away much of the sting. By my (very!) rough count, he painted about half of all the G.I. Joe package paintings between 1982 and 1994. That his work is so beloved and celebrated, and that it has so penetrated culture, means he’ll be around forever.
Please go get lost in the beauty and technique on display in two great galleries at Garrido’s Flickr page — many of these book cover originals are for sale with the proceeds to benefit Garrido’s family.