It almost got to be too much, being a bride of GI Joe.

Here was Gladys Reed, collecting Joes -- at one point, she had about 200 of Hasbro's 12-inch fighting men with the scar. Here she was, repairing busted Joes. Customizing equipment and uniforms. Organizing meetings for South Carolina Joe fans. Scouting new Joes, new collectors, new Web sites.

Joe squeezed Reed's time, finances, living space. And she loved it.

"Anytime I was awake, I was thinking about GI Joe," says Reed, 44, of West Columbia. "It was a little scary at times . . . but eventually I got it under control."

Joe "just stirs up the imagination," says Reed, who served eight years in the Navy. "Just talking about him can choke me up sometimes. . . . He is an American hero."

This year, Joe turns 40 -- four decades of fighting, adventuring and superspying, 400 million action figures sold since the first Joes stormed shelves in 1964 and invented the term "action figure." And the passion for him still burns in collectors across the country.

Ask them why:

"There was nothing like getting all your buddies together with their GI Joes and all their equipment," Buddy Finethy, founder of the Atlanta GI Joe Collectors' Club, says wistfully.

Battles in the back yard! War under the clothesline! Nostalgia is Joe's emotional hook for collectors such as Finethy, 39, who is art director for the Atlanta-based Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant chain.

But there's more to Joe's appeal, Finethy says.

"He symbolizes the Everyman in the military. He stands for anybody in the military. You can project your own story" onto him.

Collectors aren't sure exactly how, and why, Joe has survived the long decades. But they have ideas.

"Good versus evil," says Columbia collector Thor Sadler, an Army officer stationed at nearby Fort Jackson. "He's still fighting for the right, championing the little guy. It's like having a hero in your hand."

Heidi Schreiber, who leads Minnesota's contingent of Joe fans, thinks it has to do with the American morality somehow built into the little warriors.

"People are looking for the good in things," she says. GI Joe "stands for all things good."

Joe's World

Two key questions in life, if you're a GI Joe collector, are what kind and how many.

The first refers to size: Older collectors typically love the 12-inch-tall original Joe, the anonymous lone grunt. Younger ones tend to seek out the 3 3/4-inch versions produced since 1982 -- characters with a back story, who work mainly in groups. (A generational commentary? Collectors just shrug.)

The second question refers to number: How many Joes in your house? Atlanta's Finethy owns about 450 of the old-style, 12-inch Joes, which makes him as much repairman as collector: Most surviving vintage Joes lived hard during their service in kids' armies.

Many original 12-inchers never made it to retirement on a collector's shelves. Probably half the early Joes that left store shelves died violently, Finethy estimates, shot by BB guns, stabbed by pocket knives, burned by matches, blown up by firecrackers. But no one ever promised Joe a rose garden.

Now it's the opposite. Many collectors never pop their Joes out of the box or plastic packaging. Chip Land isn't one of them.

"I want to play with them. I want to look at them," says Land, 49, deputy director of planning and zoning for the city of Columbia. "It's a way to relive your childhood."

At one point, Land had 40 or more vintage 1960s-era Joes and about 350 of the later, tiny versions. He sold most of them, and now, a more selective Land has only a few of each kind, but a "closetful" of accessories. (His wife, Nancey, collects Barbie and Ken dolls; together, they scour toy shows.)

'He's Many Things'

Joe-collecting can collide with other hobbies like a billiard ball, spinning them in new directions.

Sadler, an Army major who lives in northeast Columbia, has collected 12-inch Joes since his return from the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Sadler, 39, also likes photography. Presto: GI Joe dioramas, warscapes in miniature.

A full-size Joe -- a Green Beret -- was one of the first toys Sadler remembers getting as a child. He got other Joes, but one by one, they all were "sent to Valhalla," Sadler jokes. Now Sadler's Joe army is "in the hundreds," though only a few are original 1960s models.

"He's many things to many people," Sadler says. "For us older guys, it's nostalgic. GI Joe was so big back in the 1960s and '70s."

Joe fans in South Carolina are organized loosely; there's no formal club structure. Finethy's Atlanta Joe club has 60 to 80 members, he says. Most are male, between 35 and 45: "A lot of firefighters, a lot of military, a lot of police." And a lot of artists. Finethy wonders whether kids learning to draw used their old poseable Joes as models.

Female Joe collectors aren't as common, but they're just as dedicated. Schreiber, a 46-year-old life insurance underwriter for Prudential, is commander of the Minnesota GI Joe Collectors' Club.

"There's only a few female [collectors] I've met," says Schreiber, who lives in Minneapolis with a collection of about 80 old-style Joes. Her first was a Christmas gift from her grandmother in 1966.

"I had a Barbie and Ken, but the GI Joe was so much cooler."

'I Got Bit'

Reed might not have the biggest Joe battalion on the block, but collectors who know her -- and there are lots -- marvel at her passion for the hobby.

For Joe fans in South Carolina, "She's kind of our matriarch," Land says.

Reed, who works for a BellSouth DSL call center in Columbia, got her first Joes as a kid in Virginia: "I was kind of a tomboy. I liked playing Army." She joined the Navy at 18, in 1978, and left the service in 1986. She came to South Carolina in search of work. Then, about 1990, Reed was looking around a Wal-Mart when she noticed one of Hasbro's new, limited-edition, 12-inch GI Joes.

"There he was, that face," Reed says. "When I saw that box, it just brought a smile to my face."

One Joe led to another, then another, then another.

"I got bit," Reed says.

The Internet fueled her interest and put her in touch with other Joe fans in South Carolina. She organized get-togethers at her home that assembled as many as 15 or 20 Joe collectors at a time. She learned to customize new Joes and repair old ones. (Joe repair is a delicate business: a blend of surgery, auto maintenance and home cooking.)

"It all seemed to click," Reed says. For her, Joe was a window on history, a way to be creative, a way to make friends. But the hobby was expensive and time-consuming. There were so many new Joes coming out, so many old Joes floating around.

During the past few years, Reed has moderated her Joe hobby. "My finances shut me down!" she says with a laugh. She sold about half her collection of full-size Joes. That still leaves her an army of about 100, and a hobby she says she'll never completely abandon.

Because Joe, "to me, is America," Reed says. And he's "my buddy."

Gladys Reed once had about 200 GI Joes. Now she has only half that many.Introduced in 1964, the original Joe stood 12 inches tall.