The Dreadnoks were originally meant to be a race of humanoid bears, to capitalize on the popularity of the Ewoks from the recently released Return of the Jedi. Larry Hama, writer of the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero comic book, was highly critical of the proposal, telling Hasbro "you can't have the good guys running around shooting at teddy bears." Hama suggested to Hasbro that "obnoxious bikers" would be a more realistic alternative.
The leader of the Dreadnoks is a man named Zartan. Believed to have had European military academy training, he was hired as an espionage agent for the evil terrorist group (and main antagonist of the saga's series) called Cobra. He is a master of disguise through masks, make-up, holograms and hypnosis, as well as ventriloquism and linguistics (20 languages and dialects). Another special trait only he is known to have is the ability to change the color of his skin to blend in with his background through genetic manipulation experiments. As a side effect to the gene splicing, he is allergic to sunlight, which throws off his camouflage ability. As well, he is a highly skilled martial artist, and is a master of the bow.
There were originally three Dreadnoks under Zartan's lead: Buzzer, Ripper, and Torch. These men were destructive bikers, who spent their days terrorizing people and destroying property, hired with the promise of easy money. Later, the ranks grew with the addition of Monkeywrench and Thrasher. Monkeywrench had spent his recent years building explosive devices for terrorist groups in Rhyl, North Wales, and Thrasher was a spoiled middle class kid with destructive tendencies, who built and piloted the Dreadnoks Thunder Machine. Zartan's sister Zarana and brother Zandar also joined. Like her brother, Zarana is a skilled impersonator, while Zandar is a master of stealth and camouflage. The pirate Zanzibar, the enforcer Road Pig, and a poacher known only as Gnawgahyde were also added. The Dreadnoks were equipped with many vehicles, most of which were built from scavenged parts. This included the Thunder Machine, the Swampfire, and the "Stun".
All Dreadnoks are uncouth and violent, and usually engage their enemies with unconventional and creative (many times crude) weaponry. Most, if not all, have shown a particular taste for chocolate-covered donuts and grape soda. The Dreadnoks also make a habit of torturing captured enemies, usually in bizarre ways such as exposure to pain-inducing laughing gas or tossing victims into pools of man-eating piranhas. Their headquarters is a compound hidden somewhere in the Florida Everglades. Zartan and the Dreadnoks have been known to use holographic technology and other means to disguise themselves.
The Zartan family
- Zartan: Master of Disguise and leader of the Dreadnoks until the events of World War III.
- Zarana: Zartan's sister and Zandar's twin. A disguise artist in her own right, she becomes her characters by thinking like them. She was expected to take over the Dreadnoks, but was replaced by Zanya and left to head the Chicago chapter of the Dreadnoks. Most recently in disguise as a member of the Phoenix Guard under the codename Friday.
- Zandar: Zartan's brother and Zarana's twin, he is highly skilled at not being seen and stealth. He fought against his brother in the Second Cobra Civil War as a member of The Coil.
- Zanya: The daughter of Zartan, and niece of Zandar and Zarana. Current heir apparent to Zartan.
The Dreadnok ranks are constantly in flux, their high rate of personnel turnover due to their hard-living, hard-fighting lifestyle. The following are only some of the Dreadnoks who have played a sizable part in the organization over the years:
- Burn Out: A Dreadnok mechanic recruited by Zartan. Burn Out is also skilled in disguise and impersonation.
- Buzzer: A founding member of the Dreadnoks. He is usually the leader by default when none of Zartan's family is around. Buzzer was originally a left wing British college professor who intended to study biker gangs only to wind up becoming a member when he helped to form the Dreadnoks. Arrogant and intelligent, he uses a chainsaw as a weapon, and is identifiable by his blonde ponytail.
- Chop Shop: A swamp guard. He bragged he would take the Joes only to be ambushed and knocked out by Snake-Eyes.
- Crusher: An ex-wrestler turned animal poacher. Upon meeting the Dreadnoks, He was able to easily outgrapple all of them except for Road Pig. It is suggested that he has either killed or driven off fellow Dreadnok poacher Gnawgahyde.
- Death Metal: A Dreadnok that is qualified on gun turrets. He wears a death's head mask.
- Demolishor: A Canadian aboriginal native with limited fighting skills, but an almost superhuman threshold of pain.
- The Dreadheads: Consisting of Billy-Bob, Cletus, Joe-Bob, Otis, Roscoe and Vance, the Dreadheads are six identical cousins (two sets of three brothers) from a wealthy arms-manufacturing family, who have a grudge against G.I. Joe member Beach Head. Led by Otis, they tend to clash with the Dreadnoks and are essentially only interested in using the Dreadnoks resources to get to Beach Head. The exception is the self-destructive Vance, the only Dreadhead the Dreadnoks have actually taken a liking to.
- Gnawgahyde: The Dreadnok poacher. He is known for bathing in animal fat and trying to think like his prey. He wields a long range hunting rifle. Has disappeared after an overnight hunting trip with Crusher.
- Heartwrencher: A female Dreadnok who carries a large wrench.
- Machete: A Dreadnok who first appears in the G.I. Joe: Sigma 6 series. He carries a shotgun, and drives the Dreadnok Cycle with Buzzer as his gunner.
- Monkeywrench: A Dreadnok who loves explosions, going so far as to include fireworks and Roman candles into his bombs for effect. He uses grenades and bombs, as well as a harpoon gun. In the G.I. Joe cartoon, he is shown to be highly arachnophobic. In G.I. Joe: America's Elite, Monkeywrench is noted as a prisoner at "The Coffin" penitentiary in Greenland and is terminated there during a Cobra raid.
- Ripper: A founding member of the Dreadnoks, he is known for carrying an assault rifle with a large blade serving as a bayonet. Ripper is angry, violent and anti-social. He is secretly a shrewd businessman and independently wealthy.
- Road Pig: Suffering from a split personality, Donald DeLuca is a well spoken and intelligent person, but as Road Pig, he is a violent and dangerous enforcer with an attraction to Zarana. His weapons of choice are a cinder block attached to a metal pipe, which he uses as an improvised hammer, and a wrist-mounted mini crossbow. He is identifiable by his massive size and white hair styled in a crew cut.
- Rugrat: A diminutive Dreadnok who wears a large hat and sunglasses.
- Storm Rider: A new Dreadnok introduced in the Pursuit of Cobra toyline. Rides a motorcycle called the Doom Cycle.
- Thrasher: A spoiled brat whose parents never disciplined him, he joined the Dreadnoks. He built and drives the Thunder Machine. A little unpredictable and hard to control, but he can always be trusted in a fight. He is identifiable by a green streak in his hair.
- Torch: A former Merchant Marine, Torch is one of the founders of the Dreadnoks. He is an expert in oxy-acetylene cutting torches and uses a modified one as a weapon.
- Zanzibar: The Dreadnok pirate, Zanzibar is low even by Dreadnok standards. He is a smuggler, thief, pickpocket and boat pilot. Even the other Dreadnoks dislike him. Nevertheless, he's incredibly talented in hand to hand combat. He pilots the Dreadnok Air Skiff which includes a spear, gun, and hammer as weapons.
- Air Skiff: Pilot by Zanzibar. This was released exclusively with Zanzibar in 1987.
- Battle Axe: A huge backpack that has an axe hooked up on the top. Released in 1988.
- Chameleon: A Swamp Skier. Zartan's go to vehicle. Released in 1984 with Zartan.
- Ground Assault Motorcycle: Sears exclusive, released in 1986 with the 4WD Vehicle.
- Doom Cycle: Driven by Strom rider. Released in the Pursuit of Cobra line in 2010.
- Dreadnok Cycle: Driven by Machete, and released in 1987 and later retooled and repainted in 2004 as a convention exclusive.
- Dreadnok Stun: A Cobra Stun found in a Cobra scrap yard that Thrasher fixed up for the Dreadnoks. Released in 2004 as a convention exclusive.
- Gyrocopter: Sears exclusive, released in 1986 with the VTOL copter.
- Swampfire: Dreadnoks vehicle that can fly and be used as a boat. Released in 1986.
- Thunder Machine: Driven and hand built by Thrasher. Released exclusively with Thrasher in 1986.
- VTOL Copter: Sears exclusive, released in 1986 with Gyrocopter.
- 4WD Vehicle: Sears exclusive, released in 1986 with the Ground Assault Motorcycle.
In the Marvel Comics G.I. Joe series, the Dreadnoks first appear in issue #25. Early on, the Dreadnoks operate out of a fully functional gas station, though it is not clear whether they actually serve the public. The gas they have is definitively stolen.
After Zartan is captured, the Dreadnoks work together to spring him out of Joe HQ. They are pursued by Joe forces but a combination of recklessness and disguise skills allow them to escape. The Dreadnoks are then used in an attempt to have Serpentor killed. Disguised as various Joe members, they make an attack but are foiled by other Cobra agents.
The Dreadnoks help destroy a missile that was aimed at Cobra Island. They battle Hawk, Fast Draw, Lt. Falcon, Chuckles and the human/canine team Law and Order. Zanzibar plays a prominent role in the fight.
Monkeywrench, Thrasher and Zarana later use the threat of violence against nearby civilians to escape with a G.I. Joe team. Eventually, the Dreadnoks, Joes and civilians all work together to escape to safety.
The Dreadnoks serve as personal escorts for Cobra Commander during the Cobra civil war that takes place on Cobra Island. Later, they are sent to guard the west side of the defenses, facing the seemingly impenetrable swamps. The Joes make it through and capture most of the Dreadnoks.
After Destro seizes power, they serve for a time as the enforcers of the Cobra-controlled town of Broca Beach, led by Zarana. They capture G.I. Joe operatives, Rock 'n Roll and Clutch for brainwashing.
The Dreadnoks are featured in the Action Force comic book line, starting with issue 5. There, Buzzer and Ripper pursue a wounded Snake-Eyes.
During the years after G.I. Joe disbanded and Cobra was defeated, Zartan expanded the Dreadnoks, spreading his gang to over fifty cities in the United States. The main body, under the command of Zartan, is the Florida chapter, nicknamed the Florida Noks. Around this time, Zartan's daughter Zanya found him. Zartan eventually was overcome by a problem with his genetic experimentation, which left him unable to go out into sunlight. This caused him to lead the Dreadnoks through Zanya, who became his new second-in-command, much to the annoyance of Zarana, who left to lead the Chicago chapter.
Early on, they come under attack by G.I. Joe, and several rookie Dreadnoks are killed. The Kansas City Dreadnok chapter is "given over" to G.I. Joe, as part of a distraction plan by Serpentor.
Later, the Dreadnoks, despite Zandar's traitorous actions, end up fighting on the Cobra side in the Cobra/Coil/G.I. Joe conflict. They were being sent in to assist in rescuing Cobra Commander. The Dreadnoks are called off, after Zartan finds an assailant he has stabbed is actually Zandar.
The Dreadnoks often served as comic relief in the Sunbow G.I. Joe animated series. The original trio (Torch, Ripper and Buzzer) made their official debut in the miniseries "The Revenge of Cobra." Along with Zartan, they also form a fake band whose music brainwashed their listeners in the episode "Cold Slither." In the 1986 second-season premiere, the five-parter "Arise, Serpentor, Arise!" Zartan's siblings Zarana and Zandar are introduced, and Monkeywrench and Thrasher are also initiated.
The Dreadnoks appeared in the 1989 G.I. Joe DiC cartoon series. Gnawgahyde makes his debut in the five-part episode "Operation Dragonfire." Zarana is shown as the Dreadnoks' new leader, with no mention of Zartan's whereabouts. In later episodes, Road Pig joins the Dreadnoks.
In G.I. Joe: Sigma 6, the Dreadnoks consist of only Zartan, Buzzer, Torch, and a new character called Machete.
Zartan, Buzzer, Road Pig, Monkeywrench, Ripper, and Torch appear in the G.I. Joe: Renegades episode "Dreadnoks Rising," as a small-scale but highly dangerous biker gang. They terrorize a local Kansas town and even get their local sheriff on the ropes. G.I. Joe arrives and helps the citizens stand up to the Dreadnoks before the Joes finally apprehend them.
Zartan appears in both G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Zandar also appears in Retaliation.