Custom Figures in Dio-stories
Which came first - the dio-story or the custom figure? Well, it’s probably obvious that custom figures came first, since all that was needed was a couple of spare figures and some paint. I remember making my first custom back in 1984, a repainted Grunt figure. My first dio-story didn’t show up on the web until sixteen years later. In that time gap, someone had to come up with the idea of telling a GI Joe story with pictures, and using comic book style balloons & effects. Oh, and someone had to invent the internet.
From the start, custom figures have played a major role in dio-stories for two main reasons.
First, for storytelling purposes, it’s highly likely that a character will be in a situation where he or she will not be wearing the standard military outfit that most Joe & Cobra figures are wearing. Sometimes, this is just a head swap. For example, in his dios, General Hawk had Hit & Run captured by Cobra. It would have looked somewhat silly for him to be in jail with a helmet & face paint, so General Hawk swapped the head out to a more generic face for the duration of Hit & Run’s imprisonment. In my first dio, Iconoclasts, I had an undercover Chuckles, which was nothing more than a Viper’s body with Chuckles’ head on top. He even carried the Viper head (helmet) around with him. Other examples could be Joes on leave, Zartan in disguise, etc.
Those simple customs don’t require a lot of effort, in either customization or storytelling. But everyone wants to make their mark on the Joe mythos. Larry Hama did a wonderful job in the comic books with Snake-Eyes & his supporting cast, and the cartoon fleshed out a few more (esp. the 1984-85 gang), but there are many other GI Joe characters (and Cobras) who are little more than blank slates. For example, I recently obtained a Cloudburst figure. Who is he? What is his personality like? No one knows. Prime fodder for a dio-story right there. That’s why so many dios focus on lesser-known characters (Mercer in my stories, Hit & Run in General Hawk’s, etc.).
A step beyond developing underused characters is introducing whole new characters. That leads to the second & larger reason for using customs: character ownership. The temptation to focus entirely on characters of your own creation in a story is huge. If the character becomes well-liked or at least well-known enough, he/she will forever be associated with you, as its creator.
This temptation can bring fame, but can also bring confusion or even ridicule if you blow it. For example, in my very first dio (Iconoclasts again), I couldn’t resist including my favorite custom character, Blazer, in a couple of very brief scenes. After his first appearance, I got lots of email just asking things like "Who is that?" "Is he a Joe or Cobra?" "Why is he there?" I should have really introduced him better before he just showed up. (Note to all dio-authors: when you have ANY custom, always call him by name when he first turns up in a scene; in fact, call him by name every time he turns up until he’s become a well-established part of your canon.)
It’s also a great temptation to make your own custom character the absolute center of the storyline, crucial to the plans of both GI Joe and Cobra. Again, it’s all about ownership and identification. I introduced the Joe chaplain, Rev (a fairly simple custom), in my second dio, Resurrection, and while he was a prominent character, I managed not to make the whole story about him, and have relegated him to a sideline position in succeeding stories. Violentfix’s story Operation Rapier, with the character, Pit Fall, is a good example of a successful story revolving around a custom character. When the character is interesting enough, and doesn’t violate any existing GI Joe mythology, the story can still work. Even Larry Hama introduced non-Hasbro characters into his story to fit specific needs (Dr. Venom, Kwinn, Billy, the entire ninja clan, etc.).
In addition to these two main reasons, other reasons for using customs in a dio crop up from time to time. Spin Doctor, for example, has dios in which virtually every single character is a custom, because he’s re-imagining the Joe team’s origin, but with "new sculpt" figures. Wowboy is doing something very similar, but in his case, the customs come more from a desire to have the "ultimate" version of particular characters (as well as including his own creations). It would also be remiss not to at least mention the value of humor in using customs, such as in Moto-Viper’s hilarious JTV episodes. Then there’s the Custom Character Contest I had last year to solicit customs for a new dio (and yes, I do still plan to do it... honest!).
For any reason, finding a dio-story that does not use ANY customs is almost impossible. The two forms of creativity are apparently inexorably linked. Those whose creativity inspires them to write a story are usually those who have already long since experimented with the concept of custom figures. A dio could easily be created without using customs, but why would you want to?