Sunday, November 16, 2008

Don Stivers: Action Artist

As anyone who has checked out the header to my blog can attest, I have fondness for the art on the old G.I. Joe Adventure Team packaging. I've used the stuff for headers, wallpaper, userpics/icons, but I've never known who did all of that magnificent work. Everyone who knows anything about action figures knows that Don Levine invented G.I. Joe, but it wasn't until this morning I found out who did most of the artwork on the old A.T. boxes. The man's name is Don Stivers.

Nowadays, Stivers sticks to mostly military art. I've admired his work I've seen in Civil War magazine over the years -- pieces such as "An Act of Compassion" and "Will You Give Us Our Whisky Now?", and never made the connection until now.

At Master Collector On-Line, Barry Kay wrote the story of the evolution of the Adventure Team 30th anniversary poster: "30 Years of Adventure".

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the GI Joe Adventure Team figures and accessories. When it came to my attention that there were not any plans to release any "AT" merchandise to commemorate this anniversary, I contacted the GI Joe Collector's Club. I thought that it would be a shame to let the anniversary pass without some acknowledgment and fanfare, so Brian Savage and I discussed what we could do to commemorate the anniversary.

One thing that has always set the Adventure Team apart from other GI Joe product lines is the artwork that was featured on the packages. Many people collect packaged "AT" sets today simply because of the artwork. The images on the packages bring back fond memories of birthdays and holidays gone by for children of the era. In most cases, the boxes were immediately ripped open and discarded so that the toys inside could be played with, which is why packaged items are so rare and why they are treasured collectibles today.

One of the ideas that we came up with was to create an Adventure Team poster using artwork from the original packages. With a little investigating, we found that most of the paintings used to create the original packages had been damaged or destroyed a long time ago, and the few that remain are in private collections around the world. That's when the idea changed from a poster using existing artwork to having an all new painting commissioned. Once that decision was made, our first step was to contact the original artist Don Stivers.

Stivers is a freelance artist, who did work for Hasbro in the 1970's. He was the artist responsible for most of the artwork used on the GI Joe Adventure Team packages, but he is best known for his paintings of military life from the Civil War era through the present day. For years, Don has been publishing limited edition prints of his work, with most of them selling out as fast as they are printed. I interviewed Stivers about his work with Hasbro and GI Joe for the April 1998 issue of the GI Joe Collectors' Club newsletter. He was also a featured guest at the 1999 GI Joe Convention, so we already had an established relationship with him; he knew about our club and what we do for collectors.

I contacted Stivers to see if he would be interested in painting GI Joe again. It had been twenty-five years since his last GI Joe painting, and he said it would be like working with an old friend, so he agreed. The next step was to come up with the concept. What should the painting depict? Should it be one figure, a group of figures or should we pick one of the most popular Adventure Team sets? How could anyone choose just one? That's when we decided that it should be a collage featuring the original team members and the most popular sets from the "AT" era.

Brian knows that I am an avid fan and collector of the "AT", so he gave me a lot of latitude in laying out the design for the painting. I felt that it would be best if we limited the items depicted to the ones that were released in the first few years of the "AT" line (1970 - 1973.) I drew a very rough sketch of what I thought the painting should look like and I faxed it over to Brian. I am not an artist (a fact that became very obvious when Brian and Don saw my sketch) but it was good enough to show them what my basic idea was and we all decided to go with it.

Next, I needed to provide Don with all of the necessary reference material he would need to do the painting. I sent him photos of packaged items, GI Joe figures posed in different positions, and GI Joe books to use as a reference for color and detail. Don assigned me the job of art director on the project and would periodically send me pictures of the painting in progress. He would ask me to point details that needed to be changed. I made suggestions and Don made changes based on them. I had a lot of great conversations with Don over the course of this project, but one of the funniest things that he said to me was right after he received all of the photos I sent to him. He told me that he was looking at artwork that he had done thirty years ago in the photos, and that I should be very happy with the finished painting because he is a much better artist now than he was back then!

Part of Don's process as an artist is to photograph himself in the same pose as the person (or action figure in this case) that he is painting to use as a model. Don used the same process back in the 70's, and as amazing as it may seem, he has saved all of the photos that he has ever taken. It took some time to find all of them, but he was able to dig up nearly all of the reference photos that he used for the original paintings. Now, not only did we have the original "AT" artist working on this project, but he was using the original reference material that was used thirty years ago as a guide. You can't get more authentic than that.

When the painting was about 80% finished, I went to Virginia to visit with Don and his family because he wanted me to see the painting in person. When I arrived at his studio, he sat me in a chair directly in front of the painting and told me not to get up until I had examined it thoroughly. He wanted me to write down anything that needed to be changed. No detail was too small he said, so I had to check the hair color of each figure, make sure that they all had the proper insignia on their uniforms, and that they all had the trademark scar on their cheek. We know that GI Joe collectors are sticklers for detail, so everything needed to be accurate. I wrote a few pages of notes and we agreed that some minor changes should be made.

We spent the rest of the day working out the final details of the project. Don does not release posters of paintings, instead he has his work printed on much heavier stock than a typical poster would be printed on. The end result is a high quality, fine art print rather than a poster. We decided to do the same for this project. Since GI Joe collectors are "collectors" at heart, we thought that they would appreciate the quality of the piece. The last detail that we needed to address was the caption. All of Don's prints have a caption that serves as the spirit of the painting as well as the anniversary that it was created to celebrate.

When the painting was finished, it was sent to the printer and 100 test prints were created. They were sent to Don so he could review the layout and make sure that the colors were correct. The prints were perfect, so rather than destroy them, we decided to use them as a special "Artists Proof" version of our print. To set them apart from the rest of the print run, Don Stivers has hand signed and numbered each of the Artist's Proofs.

The "30 Years of Adventure" Limited Edition prints are available at the 2000 GI Joe convention and through the GI Joe Collectors' Club. The hand signed and numbered Artist's Proof is available for $50 and the Limited Edition Print is available for $25. You can find more information on Don Stivers and his limited edition military prints at A lot of work went into this project, and I hope that fans of GI Joe and the Adventure Team get as much joy out of the print as we did from working on this project.

I also discovered that Don Levine himself was behind the Almighty Heroes Old Testament action figures line that hit the shelves a few years back. His website is now defunct, but it can be found at

My Top Ten Movie Spies
1. James Bond (Various, Dr. No, etc.)
2. Derek Flint (James Coburn, Our Man Flint, etc.)
3. Dr. Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood, The Eiger Sanction)
4. The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Serenity)
5. David Jones (Patrick McGoohan, Ice Station Zebra)
6. John Clark (Willem Dafoe, Clear and Present Danger)
7. Harry Palmer (Michael Caine, The Ipcress File, etc.)
8. Colonel Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine, The Eagle Has Landed)
9. Austin Powers (Mike Myers, Austin Powers, etc.)
10. Matt Helm (Dean Martin, The Silencers, etc.)

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