When I was a kid, I’m afraid I have to admit that I just was not the biggest fan of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. That’s not to say I didn’t like it or watch it; I was simply more preoccupied with other cartoons of the early 80’s, such as Transformers. Of course, having the two air back-to-back no doubt helped steer some of my attention toward the highly-trained special mission force.

I did like it, though. In fact, I had a fair few toys, and would play with my cousin’s as well (who had more than I did; he was older, and preferred Real American Heroes to Robots in Disguise. He did have the original Optimus Prime, which I lacked, but was always losing the fists and rifle). Most of mine probably came through my parents buying them for me than from me asking for them, but that could have something to do with my father being a Vietnam vet and military man of the time.

In any case, I enjoyed them just the same.

Thinking back, one character I liked, at least in the first season, was Duke. Duke was the hero, Duke was the leader, Duke was like the military man among these military elite. Duke was awesome.

It’s no small secret that G.I. Joe targeted a slightly-older audience than did Transformers, so it makes sense that as I grew older, I would develop a greater appreciation for it. It was never quite enough to make me actively seek out back-issues of the comic or buy up all the figures, but whenever something new happened with the franchise, I would pay more and more attention.

I was on board with the Devil’s Due comic book when it debuted, for the first few issues, at least (and then I got married and had to reevaluate finances, but that’s another story for another day). I checked out the Valor vs. Venom movie from Blockbuster when I worked there, I watched Sigma Six when it came to 4Kids.TV, watched Resolute when it aired on Teletoon, and I even took the wife with me to see Rise of Cobra the weekend it came out.

Plus, when ever someone posts a few pages from the old Marvel comic book, I usually give that attention above the likes of Batman or Spider-man.

Most recently, in lieu of having the complete series DVD set, I began watching reruns of the show on Teletoon Retro, and even managed to drag my wife along to the point that I don’t even have to ask her to watch with me. And as we both watched, a startling revelation came to both of us:

Duke is practically useless.

At least, in the cartoon. For the sake of full disclosure, we’re currently watching season 2, where General Hawk and Serpentor took control of their respective forces, and Duke has barely shown up at all.

Prior to that, we watched through most of Season 1, though we didn’t get to see some larger arcs, such as “The M.A.S.S. Device” or “Revenge of Cobra.” Teletoon Retro seems to have this thing about not running episodes in order, so that doesn’t help matters.

Anyway, my memory is usually pretty good about how things are, and always have been, rather than how they used to be. Re-watching Transformers, ThunderCats, or replaying Sonic Adventure has brought me less surprise than a lot of people who have watched or played things again “for the first time,” as it were.

And yet, I couldn’t believe how little of worth it seemed like Duke did. Of the episodes we saw, it was usually Flint calling the shots. When Duke was around, it seemed like he spent more time getting captured.

I guess this revelation, on my part, was because G.I. Joe was more my “B-show” growing up. I was probably more likely to rewatch a Transformers rerun than a G.I. Joe one, perhaps contributing to my greater familiarity.

Even so, this would explain why Duke seemed to fall out of my favor when Season 2 rolled around. There, my favorite characters were General Hawk and Sgt. Slaughter (who, ironically, I didn’t even know was a wrestler). Of course, from the eps seen so far, Hawk hasn’t done too much; perhaps as much as one might expect from a general, but he seems to be a little more of a “man of action,” too, going into the field to lead his men as often as not.

The most ironic thing of all to me was the infamous scene in G.I. Joe: The Movie (the old animated one, not the new live-action one) in which Serpentor takes one of his snakes from his shoulder, straightens it like a spear, and chucks that thing right through Duke’s heart.

The scene was meant to be a parallel of sorts to the death of Optimus Prime in Transformers: The Movie, wherein the brash young new guy who will aspire to greatness tries to topple the leader of the enemy army. In Transformers, the new guy was Hot Rod, who Megatron used as a shield; in G.I. Joe, the snake-spear was actually meant for Lieutenant Falcon, Duke’s younger brother who he sacrifices himself to protect.

As fans of the franchises well know by now, it was the backlash resulting from Prime’s death which led to Duke’s being spared.

This is ironic to me in two ways. First, the simple fact that Duke’s most notable act is the one which gets him killed put into a coma. The second is that this role essentially puts Duke on a similar pedestal as Optimus Prime, but from what I’ve seen of the animated series in recent, Duke was no Optimus Prime.

Then again, Falcon was no Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime, either. Say what you will about the self-doubting Autobot leader, but he stood in one hell of a shadow, unlike Falcon, who turned to drugs soon enough after.

Something I did notice was that Duke seemed a little more prominent in the early “The M.A.S.S. Device” opening for the toon than he was in Season 1’s regular opening, where Flint seemed more front-and-center. For season 2, as the Joes are running toward the camera at the end, Sgt. Slaughter is up front, so maybe those are indicative of who the focus is on during their respective seasons?

On that note, the opening for G.I. Joe: The Movie seems to give Duke a bit of spotlight, with him retrieving the bomb planted on the Statue of Liberty and giving it a more fitting home on Cobra’s heli-carrier. Certainly, he’s had worse moments.

Still, this cartoon’s portrayal of Duke seems to stand in contrast to what has come since. While I’m not clear of how much he did or did not accomplish in the Marvel comic (he was something of a latecomer to the original cast, debuting almost two years into the series’ run), it seems that the A Real American Hero cartoon was more the exception than the rule for not only Duke, but perhaps Hawk as well.

Future versions of the franchise have clearly positioned Duke as the go-to leading man of G.I. Joe, even if he’s not necessarily the leader. Other iterations of the franchise seem to put Hawk behind a desk, in a wheelchair, or in other positions which ultimately mean he’s not out there in front, leading his men. And, one way or another, this has left the door open for Duke to be all he can be and step up in a way the old cartoon seemed unwilling to allow.

In Transformers, it’s become no secret that Hasbro has absolutely no interest in taking the spotlight off of Optimus Prime ever again, almost to the point that they’re pretty much willing to bury Rodimus at any given opportunity to ensure it. Meanwhile, it looks like Duke is being positioned as the same sort of thing for G.I. Joe.

Who knows? Maybe in time, Duke will be found worthy of a momentous death as Optimus Prime was (the first time, I mean).