Sunday, January 17, 2010
Words: Christopher Irving
G.I. Joe recruited more children into the ranks of comic book readership than any other comic of the latter 20th century. While Star Wars ushered the comeback of the action figure (albeit, in a shrunken format of 3 3/4”) and pioneered a multi-media approach to merchandising in the late '70s, G.I. Joe went one step further and created a model for non-film properties to survive in other mediums.
Toy company Hasbro jumped on the bandwagon in the early ‘80s by bringing G.I. Joe back to toy shelves. The Vietnam War was over, and Star Wars brought the toy soldier back in the guise of Luke Skywalker and company. G.I. Joe had started as a 12” doll in 1964 and was shrunk down to the 8” Action Joe line by 1978, trying to shake off the stink of the Vietnam war and all its connotations. Pretty soon, he was made a lot smaller and micro-managed into even more characters. Hasbro’s marketing plan for the new G.I. Joe was revolutionary, and set the standard for action figures.
The G.I. Joe comic book came about as an excuse to have animated commercials.
“[Hasbro] wanted an angle on being able to advertise it, which is how the Marvel connection came in,” Joe writer and creator Larry Hama reveals. “There were only a few seconds of animation you could have in a toy commercial, and you had to show the toy, so people wouldn’t get totally deluded. Somebody at Hasbro (who was actually sort of a genius) named Bob Pruprish, realized that a comic book was protected under the first amendment, and there couldn't restrictions based on how you advertised for a publication.”
According to Marvel’s then Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter, the genesis of G.I. Joe started in a men’s room:
“The President or CEO of Hasbro was at a charity event that Marvel’s President was also at,” Shooter tells. “They ended up in the men’s room, standing to each other peeing, and I think that’s how they met. They were talking about each other’s respective businesses, and it came up that Hasbro wanted to reactivate the trademark on G.I. Joe, but they were trying to come up with a new approach. [Marvel’s guy] was like ‘We have the best creative people in the world! Let me bring in this Editor-in-Chief of mine and we’ll fix it for you!’
“I had a meeting downtown, and I was there representing Marvel, they had a couple of advertising people there, as well as some Hasbro people. They had this G.I. Joe logo, and I think the slogan ‘A Real American Hero.’ They didn’t know what to do: ‘We were going to do the big dolls, but we’re inclined to make the action figures, but we don’t just want to have one of them, we want –-‘
“I said ‘No, G.I. Joe is a codename of the unit, all in G.I. Joe.’
“‘Hey, that’s good.’
“‘They can’t be soldiers. It has to be anti-terrorist, because war won’t go. Maybe it’s like a secret squad of the best soldiers and sailors and airmen. They’re all this secret group and they fight terrorists and have special technology.’”
Hasbro’s plan for G.I. Joe: by having Marvel produce a comic book based on the toy line, they could have fully animated commercials for the comic book, which would then advertise the toy. Not only would Marvel produce the comic book, but also create the characters’ personalities.
“Larry did all the heavy lifting, and did everything,” Shooter says. “My small contribution was to preside. I did put together a little team: myself, Larry, Archie Goodwin, and Tom DeFalco. We flew up to Hasbro and had the first meeting; we had worked on stories, and they’d worked on technology. They explained to us what the line was going to be, and I think Larry had come up with the names. They showed us the technology and went ‘It works like this!’ and Larry would call it ‘The CRAWL thing’.
“Their deal with Marvel was ‘Can you do the comic, and we’ll produce and pay for animated commercials for a year?’” Hama says. “They had these ten figures and said ‘We need to come up with what they are, and who they are, and have a comic.’
“They showed us the drawings, and that’s all they had! We looked at these, and said ‘We’ll come up with the characters and personalities,’ and I suggested we do dossiers, like in the military, and make them look authentic with specifications. They thought it was a cool idea. I ended up on the project because no one else wanted to do it. I was the last guy on the row of editors that they asked, and nobody wanted to touch it with a ten-foot pole.”
While Hasbro had designed the initial wave of G.I. Joe figures, they apparently hadn’t given thought to an important narrative part of the G.I. Joe comic book, as Hama illustrates:
“At the meeting, one of the things that we brought up was ‘Who are the badguys?’
"Hasbro said ‘What do you mean, badguys?’
“We said ‘What are these guys gonna do, just march around and go on bivouac? They have to have somebody to fight.’
“‘We don’t have anybody for them to fight.’
“We said ‘We’ll have somebody for them to fight in the comic, and you can run with it if you want.’
“I think it was Archie Goodwin who said ‘We’ll have some sort of semi-fascistic, para-military organization, and we’ll call them COBRA or something.’ We just threw it all together.”
“They made one badguy figure, and they sold a ton of them,” Shooter added. “After that, they made lots of badguys. Like I said, each year after that, I didn’t do much but give applause, because Larry did almost everything. Each year, they’d come, and Larry and me and Archie would sit at the table, and they’d have a new toy that would wiggle or crawl across. Larry would call it the ‘Hawk tank’ and come up with all of that.”
Interestingly enough, the G.I. Joe comic book was offered to two pencilers who turned it down: Marvel legend Joe Sinnott and artist Don Perlin. Three times is the charm, as Marvel found out, when staffer Herb Trimpe accepted the assignment to draw the new G.I. Joe comic book. In retrospect, Trimpe, a military and history buff, seems a natural choice.
“The first job I had ever done for Marvel was drawing Phantom Eagle, with [writer] Gary Friedrich,” Trimpe recalls. “That concentrated on airplanes ... one of my chief interests. I think the G.I. Joe thing came about the same way. I wouldn’t say that I had a reputation for being interested in military things, but I think it was a known fact at that point. Larry was an expert in the field, and really knew his stuff. Considering people that were working for Marvel at the time, and the resources that they had, I was probably the most likely candidate to draw G.I. Joe.”
G.I. Joe #1 hit the stands with a June, 1982 cover date, a printing on high-grade Baxter paper, two stories, and a whopping $1.50 price tag (when comics only cost 65 cents). The Joes' first adventure, "Operation: Lady Doomsday" was by Hama, Trimpe, and inker Bob McLeod, and opens with the abduction of scientist Dr. Adele Burkhart by COBRA agent Baroness and her troopers. There's a quick introduction of General Flagg and his outfit G.I. Joe, a crack military team who operate in the subterreanean base The Pit, located under the cover of the Fort Wadsworth motor pool. Led by General Hawk, the team includes the Ranger Stalker, Emma Peel-ish Scarlett, the mute and black-clad commando Snake-Eyes, laser soldier Flash, communications officer Breaker, infantryman Grunt, bazooka soldier Zap, mortar soldier Short-Fuse, tank driver Steeler, machine-gunner Rock ’N’ Roll, and LASER soldier Grand Slam.
As fate had it, Hama had actually been developing a concept for Marvel since around 1979 called Fury Force...one which would find be transformed into the new G.I. Joe. Fury Force was, according to Hama, "an elite counter-terrorist unit, like Delta, and it was led by Nick Fury's son ... Fury Force [also] had an underground secret base under a motor pool. The basic concept was very similar."
Eerily similar, actually: early versions of Hawk, Stalker, and Scarlett are pretty dead-on to their future versions. The prototype for Snake-Eyes, dubbed Spook, wore a hooded cloak with eyes peering out from the shadows beneath. With less than a year's difference between Hama's development of Fury Force, and the start of G.I. Joe, it’s obvious where Hama transferred one to the other.
Back in the first issue, the Joes infiltrate a Caribbean island inhabited by COBRA to save Dr. Burkhart. The COBRA forces are led by the blue-clad, hooded Cobra Commander, and his right-hand woman, The Baroness. At this point, the Commander and Baroness were the only two distinctive COBRA agents, leading an army of fanatic storm troopers.
"Lady Doomsday" does an admirable job of introducing all of the team members, with the characters often referring to one another by code name and lettered in bold, sparing the headache of excessive captions. Hama also balanced the "screen time" for each of the characters judiciously, as they split in smaller groups to take a portion of the island. Given that the comic was essentially a toy commercial printed in four colors, "Lady Doomsday" combines military fare with classic Marvel style super-spy technology. Hama would be presented with only the image and specialty of each character by Hasbro, and it was then up to him to give the code names and to also supply background material in the form of a small "military dossier" file card that came with each action figure. Basically, Hama devised everything from a character's birthplace to military specialties. Early dossiers even had psychological evaluations.
"At first, [Hasbro] didn’t think that writing the dossiers was anything special," Hama observes. "In fact, in the second year, they decided to can me on them and get somebody in-house to write them. In two weeks, they called me back. It wasn’t as easy as they thought. You had to boil stuff down into two paragraphs, and it was hard to get it succinct and still have it be a real definitive character. It has to be in the right voice, and the military stuff has to be right."
Hama also wanted to make the file cards more than just an extra piece of cardboard:
"It has to read on two levels: a ten year-old kid has to be able to read it and think it’s absolutely straight, and an adult reads it and should chuckle. There should be a joke in there for the adult. One of the factors that helped sell G.I. Joe [figures] was that the salesmen who sold it to retailers used the dossiers as a selling point. They could read the dossiers to an adult buyer in a polyester suit, and they’d get a rise and understand what it was all about.”
Not all of the characters in G.I. Joe #1 were based off of figures, particularly Cobra Commander's right-hand:
"I created The Baroness out of the whole cloth," Hama says of the Patty Hearst-ish villainess. "She was a comic book character before she was a toy. There were always objections to female characters, because they never sold, but I figured ‘Hey, black leather, there’s got to be some appeal.’"
In the meantime, the animated TV commercial's promotional value was redeemed as G.I. Joe became a sales success, along with the sparse new action figure line that only consisted of five figures.
With his main cast in place, Hama wasted no time in introducing new story elements with G.I. Joe #2 (July 1982). "Panic at the North Pole", drawn by Don Perlin and inked by Jack Abel, introduced Eskimo mercenary Kwinn. "North Pole" also fleshes out the mute Snake-Eyes (establishing the facial deformity that causes him to wear a full face-mask), and creates a bond between he and the honorable Kwinn.
G.I. Joe #2 quickly rose over #1 in value. The reason behind the so-called "G.I. Joe Syndrome" of sales was that Marvel's demand for #2 far exceeded the supply. In short, there were more people wanting to buy G.I. Joe when #2 was released, than there had been with #1.
According to Shooter, one of the reasons behind Joe #1’s low orders involved Marvel’s internal politics:
“At that time, we had started graphic novels and hired Mike Friedrich to be the direct sales guy. I was the one who dragged us to the direct market, and had my hands full. I needed an assistant, and they hired Friedrich. He had been a publisher and he had a graphic novel he’d been working on for his own publishing, called Elric. We were just starting, and the first graphic novel was published by Marvel, and I think his was the second or third.
“We announced, maybe at one of our distributor conferences in Florida, that we were doing G.I. Joe. We were shouted down; they didn’t want it because soldiers, war, and that shit didn’t sell. Friedrich hated the idea, because he was a sort-of San Franscisco pacifist guy. We offered the first G.I. Joe returnable to the direct market, and we still only sold 100,000, which sold out in the first ten minutes and we then had to go back to press.
“The response to G.I. Joe surprised everyone but me, Mike Hobson, and Larry Hama. What came out of there is the reason that a lot of orders were so low, is that Friedrich was talking to distributors and telling them to buy Elric and not to buy G.I. Joe. So, we just fired him.
“Once G.I. Joe was going, it invented its own little industry and did very well. We were so successful with that, we were doing backflips.”
Four issues later, G.I. Joe betrayed its Cold War roots with the introduction of the Joes' Russian counterpart, The Oktober Guard and, by the time the cliffhanger ending resumes with G.I. Joe #7, Denny O'Neil became the new editor of the book.
"It was a job where I knew I would be working with a good writer, and good artists," O'Neil recounts. "An editor’s job becomes very easy if you have good people working with you. It’s nightmarish if you don’t. I knew, in this case, that I would be working with real professionals. Aside from that, it was just an assignment, and I was a professional editor working for Marvel Comics."
While the Cold War and other political realities were reflected in G.I. Joe (which, ironically, came of during the Reagan Administration's massive spending on military projects like "Star Wars"), the entirely Herb Trimpe-produced #8 (Feb. 1983) showed just how crazy and Nazi-esque COBRA really could be. The Joes, after offering to evacuate a group of COBRA troopers from a COBRA base left to self-destruct by Cobra Commander, are faced with a legion of fanatics giving "Heil Hitler"-esque salutes and refusing to leave.
"We serve Cobra Commander to the END! We have failed and will stay to meet our fate!" a head trooper declares. A chant of "Long Live COBRA!" resounds right before the base detonates.
While the cartoon COBRA was the type of terrorist group just focused on weather-control rays and stealing world landmarks, the comic book counterpart was far scarier in their fanaticism. Trimpe definitely went out with a bang on G.I. Joe #8, as it would be his final issue, but only for a short while.
"When I started doing G.I.Joe, I had a loose leaf notebook of characters that was about three inches thick," Trimpe says. "I had a closet filled with toys, since they sent me almost every single toy, including all the figures to use a reference. At any given issue, you never knew who was going to be featured in it. It could be a whole different set of characters. The reason I left the book was that it was too hard, and a pain in the ass to do. Even with Shogun Warriors, which were highly detailed robots that were very difficult to draw, at least it was a set bunch and, after a while, it started to seep in. You didn’t need to thumb through volumes of reference, since it was easier to commit to memory. Not so with the G.I. Joe characters: there were hundreds of them.
"Every book would feature a new bunch, and out would come the reference again. Every book was almost like doing it for the first time. I think that, from the viewpoint of not just somebody who draws comics, but also a commercial artist (I was doing other freelance at the time), anything that would impede your progress or block the artist from getting into the rhythm of the job made it difficult. It was very hard to get into a routine. The fact is that you’re dealing with deadlines, and people who want a certain level of quality in a certain amount of time, and that made it very difficult with the amount of material we had to deal with. It was hard, from my point of view, to produce the book on a monthly basis."
G.I. Joe #10, "A Nice Little Town Like Ours", was drawn by new penciler Mike Vosburg, and introduces a few vital elements that would recur throughout the series' long run. Scarlett, Zap, and Snake-Eyes are abducted by the Baroness to the generic town of Springfield. While Snake-Eyes is strapped to new baddie Dr. Venom's mind-reading Brain-Wave Scanner, Scarlett and Zap meet a young boy named Billy, who reveals that Springfield is really a town infested with nothing but COBRA agents.
COBRA had taken over Springfield through a supposedly innocent pyramid scheme to sell soaps and other household cleaning products. The weekly pyramid meetings soon escalated into a cult of COBRA agents. COBRA, in essence, used '80s yuppie tactics to seduce people into their fold. Meanwhile, hints of an earlier helicopter accident in Snake-Eyes' life flashes upon Dr. Venom's machine.
G.I. Joe #11 introduces the mysterious Destro. Clad in a silver face-mask, and armed with a disco-centric black jumpsuit (is his shirt open-chested, or is he wearing a tan t-shirt underneath?) and wrist rocket launchers, Destro quickly became one of the most memorable characters in G.I. Joe.
With a solid character base established the first year, Hama began the first true story arc in G.I. Joe, from issues #12-19 (May-July 1984). Reintroducing Kwinn and reuniting him with Snake-Eyes, Hama also introduces the mercenary Major Sebastian Bludd. The eight issues flesh out character relationships even further, when Cobra Commander hires Bludd to kill Destro, and Baroness and Destro's prior relationship is established. During a mission to infect U.S. currency with a deadly toxin, Cobra Commander gives Bludd the kill order on Destro, which Baroness foils by crashing the H.I.S.S. tank both she and Bludd are in. Bludd and a horribly burned Baroness are taken to The Pit as prisoners, which COBRA exploits to track the location of the Joes' base. Kwinn and Snake-Eyes, meanwhile, are captured by COBRA. Through the Pit attack, not only does Major Bludd kill General Flagg while escaping, but most of the Pit is destroyed, and Kwinn is shot in the back by Dr. Venom (who is subsequently killed by a live grenade in the dead man's hand).
An awful lot of action packed into a mere eight issues? Definitely, but action was the primary mission of the G.I. Joe comic. Hama kept the momentum while still building character relationships, even during the constant infusion of new characters by Hasbro, and arranging for animated commercials for the comics.
"In some ways, it was one of the more interesting projects I had, because of the involvement with Hasbro," O'Neil says. "They paid for three TV commercials about the comic books. They had this idea that the toy, comic book, and TV show would feed off of each other, which pretty much proved to be the case. There were some technical things like having to figure out storylines way, way, way ahead, for them to figure out the commercial and schedule the animation.
"Their attitude was ‘You guys know how to make comic books, we know how to make toys. You don’t tell us how to make toys, we won’t tell you how to make comic books.’ We would get a letter, message, or note from them every month that almost always said ‘Another great issue, guys, and a great job.’ We’d meet with them once a year, mostly so that they could tell us what additions to the line they were making, so that we could incorporate those into our stories. We accommodated them in that respect, but they absolutely did no editorializing."
G.I. Joe #21 (March 1983), "Silent Interlude", defined the "silent issue", a story utilizing nothing more than visual storytelling and sound effects. "Silent Interlude" pits Snake-Eyes and Scarlett against Destro in the weapons supplier's impregnable fortress. Drawn by Larry Hama and Steve Leialoha, the issue also introduces the COBRA ninja Storm Shadow, yet another major player to-be. The revolutionary concept of a silent comic book actually came about when Hama and O'Neil came up against every writer's worst nightmare:
"It was [silent] because of deadline problems," Hama admits years later. "I think I did the entire issue in a week, and it saved another week from getting it lettered. I wrote and drew it in about a week, and Steve Leiloha did the finishes in about a week. We got it, from start to finish, out the door in two weeks. It’s not the fastest I’ve ever done a comic."
Ironically, the "silent issue" concept was so successful that G.I. Joe would periodically feature a silent story, and always exclusively with ninja action.
G.I. Joe #23-25 (May-July 1984) has a small team of new Joe recruits capture Cobra Commander (and they even got to do it in an issue beautifully delineated by legendary Russ Heath), only to have Storm Shadow rescue the enemy leader and take his place as hostage. Baroness even returns, dressed in a sexy black leather bodysuit after her plastic surgery and Australian master of disguise and mercenary Zartan appears with his diminutively-minded motorcycle gang the Dreadnoks.
The file card for the Zartan figure caused a controversy upon its release. Due to Zartan's excessive adoption of differing personalities/ disguises, he apparently developed paranoid schitzophrenia. The card was soon changed to exclude any mention of mental instability.
"A friend of mine, who was a shrink, said ‘You should have known that would happen. Of course paranoids are going to get bothered: they’re paranoids!’" Hama laughs.
G.I. Joe #26 (August 1984) begins a classic storyline that not only cements Snake-Eyes as a major player, but adds to the already growing appeal of the mysteryman. "Snake-Eyes:The Origin" reunited Hama and Leialoha on the art chores, and stands out in the series 100+ run. The second part, #27, would start Frank Springer's run as penciler.
In Snake-Eyes origin, readers learn that not only did Snakes and Stalker serve together in ‘Nam, but so did Storm Shadow! Following the loss of his family, Snake-Eyes joined up with Storm’s ninja clan (the Arishikage), parting ways when his adopted brother is accused of killing a ninja master. Those two issues shifted the focus away from the military aspects of Joe by infusing Eastern philosophy and ninja action, creating a flavor more akin to James Bond than Sgt. Rock.
By the title's third year, Larry Hama had woven G.I. Joe into a Dickensian tapestry rife with character relationships and ironies. The threads continued to weave as Hama introduced even more characters, including the elite Crimson Guardsmen (or Siegies) are introduced. Cobra Commander's undercover agents underwent plastic surgery to look identical, and were named Fred with successive Roman numerals after their name. The "Siegies" would infiltrate America as bankers, lawyers, and salesmen, legally taking the country over. Taking a note from "Greed is Good", COBRA is a terrorist organization run by the most cutthroat of all men: lawyers and yuppies, in biting social satire orchestrated by Hama.
"He brought a different something to it," Hama says of Whigham. "He was a detail freak, and his work had a real intensity to it. Right now, the average person who goes to a comic book store is 26 years-old. Back then, I could go to a signing for five or six hours, and everybody in line would be a ten year-old boy. I remember when we did the Yearbook that Michael Golden drew, everybody thought that the drawings were fantastic. He’s an artist’s artist; everybody thinks Golden is great. The Yearbook went out, and all these kids wrote in saying ‘This guy is too cartoony, and it looks like kids’ stuff.’ They weren’t sophisticated enough to realize how sophisticated this guy’s stuff was!
"When Rod took over the book, they went ‘This guy draws realistically, not like that cartoony guy Michael Golden.’ It really is a matter of perception. He was one of the first of the guys who were coming back into that tight, clean line in their pencils. I guess the same school that George Perez comes out of. It’s more intense, clean line, and less sketchy Gene Colan-esque stuff."
G.I. Joe #49-50 (July-Aug. 1986) were, perhaps, the most anticipated of the book's run. #49 was advertised in an animated commercial for introducing Serpentor, the COBRA Emperor. Collecting the remnants of history's most powerful warriors: Genghis Khan, nine other unnamed warriors (although Leonidas and Napeleon are mentioned), and the recently deceased Storm Shadow, Dr. Mindbender creates a genetic simalucrum from the dead tissue and DNA. A simalucrum that just happens to be charismatic and fully functioning upon birth, ready to lead COBRA forces against the invading Joe team.
The second half of #50 (Jan. 1987) featured a "sneak preview" of the second G.I. Joe title: Special Missions. Written by Hama, the story of a plane hijacking foiled by a special group of Joes was drawn by the returning Herb Trimpe. The new Special Missions book featured select Joes on the missions that were "...so secret, so sensitive that even the Joes who go on them are told only the bare minimum, on a strict need-to-know basis." Special Missions featured Trimpe at his best, and gave G.I. Joe more of a Mission: Impossible feel. Not weighed down with the soap opera quality of character storylines like the main book, Special Missions (in this writer's mind) returned G.I. Joe to the real world - without robot troopers and genetic simalucrums.
"I think that was, undoubtedly, one of those periods where I was on quota from the company, still not getting any work," Trimpe says of his return to Joe. "I was scrounging around and then they did the G.I.Joe offshoot and asked if I wanted to do it. I said yes, because there probably wasn’t anything else going on at the time. I actually liked doing the Special Missions better than the regular one."
After a few new art teams, a COBRA Civil War, and other action-packed storylines G.I. Joe #84 (Mar. 1989) was the big reveal of mysteries planted by Hama as far back as the silent issues.
It turns out that not only are Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow tied together by the strings of fate, but also COBRA Commander, whose brother died in a drunk driving accident with Snake-Eyes family (guess who the drunk party was). As a result, Commander became the Commander and hired Zartan to kill Snake-Eyes. The dope killed the Hard Master instead, setting Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow on their respective quests.
According to Hama, this final reveal that tied up numerous loose threads had not been planned from the outset:
"I never knew how one issue was going to end when I started to write it," Hama reveals. "I never had any idea how any of these storylines ended, it was that Charles Dickens school of ‘We’ll figure it out when we get to that page.’ I figured that, if I could surprise myself, I could surprise the readers. The problem I find with most comic book writing is that A+B=C almost all the time. It’s so formulaic that you can spot it coming. I like to have that surprise. In fact, I plotted the stories page by page, which meant that I wanted to control what was in the first and last panel of each page, and I tried to work whatever comic I did with a little cliffhanger at the end of every page.
"People assumed that I have some long-range thing, and it was all schemed, but I had no idea that certain characters would stick around for a long time. You send them up like balloons and see how people would react, and how much life they have once you start writing them. Certain characters just wrote themselves."
The threads continue when Snake-Eyes finally decides to pursue plastic surgery in G.I. Joe #93 (Mid-Nov. 1989), the prelude to the "Snake-Eyes Trilogy". Readers finally see Snake-Eyes' deformed appearance which, truth be told, wasn't as "inhuman" as we'd been led to believe for the past six years. The next three issues were a solid treat for long-time readers, as even more connections were established in Hama's Dickensian web of continuity. Baroness realizes Snake-Eyes is the man she'd always blamed for the death of her philanthropic brother, the Baron DeCobray, in Vietnam years ago. Baroness interrupts the plastic surgery, shoots Scarlett in the head and transports Snake-Eyes to be tortured in the dungeon of the COBRA Consulate Building in New York. Within the next two issues, Snake-Eyes single-handedly takes the COBRA Consulate Building down, and Destro clears Baroness up on her brother's death: It wasn't really Snake-Eyes who killed him, but the Vietcong. Destro, it turns out, was there and saw it all himself.
The real Cobra Commander makes a comeback from hiding in issue #100 (May 1990), in time to trap a freighter full of characters that include Zartan, Raptor, Firefly, Dr. Mindbender and Billy underneath rubble. Mutt and Spirit find out the town of Millville is COBRA's next Springfield, while Scarlett lays comatose from the Baroness' bullet. G.I. Joe became progressively darker over the next few issues, with Snake-Eyes going on a ninja-induced killing trance to save his late sister's fiance, and the Joes becoming embroiled in a Middle Eastern war in the country of Abysmia. Over the next eight issues, upwards of a dozen Joes are killed in battle...from early members like Breaker and Doc to newer characters like Battle Force 2000.
With the toy line becoming more space-age than militaristic, one could guess the Abysmian war was one way for Hama to balance the unrealistic costume and vehicle designs laid out by Hasbro with a more realistic portrayal of war.
Andrew Wildman came in as the new penciler with the next issue. The series turned its focus to Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow's Ninja Force, a trio of brightly-garbed Arashikage ninjas, as they storm Destro's hidden fortress. Having come off of writer Simon Furman's recently cancelled Transformers, Wildman was no stranger to licensed books.
"Larry’s scripts are far more, um, ‘entertaining’ in that they use a lot of jargon," Wildman observes of Hama's writing. "They also seem less predictable. He takes you into areas you would not see coming. Quite surreal sometimes [and] great fun. Some of the jargon was challenging. Larry has a huge amount of experience and knowledge of army and martial arts. He put them together well which created a nice marriage between full on hardcore military no nonsense action and a more subtle creative spiritual sense of deadly beauty. A Yin and Yang thing, maybe."
Between Wildman's trendy and dated artwork (as opposed to the more classic styles of Trimpe, Whigham, or Wagner) and the infusion of characters like the Eco-Warriors with their helicopter packs, G.I. Joe became less grounded than it had ever been before. When debuting in the early '80s, the fantastic elements of G.I. Joe worked because the characters and vehicles seemed more loosely based in reality. By the early '90s, things had become so unrealistic that it turned off many old-time Joe fans who were discovering things like girls who weren’t Scarlett or Baroness.
From the revelation of mercenary saboteur Firefly as a "ninja master" (dressed like a Mighty Morphin' Power Ranger, nonetheless) to another crossover with the Transformers to COBRA's attacking The Pit yet again...the book just seemed tired. G.I. Joe started to read more like an X-Men book than a paramilitary super-spy team. Editors changed on a regular basis during a rather tumultuous period for Marvel, and it's amazing that the title managed to hold on until G.I. Joe #155 (Dec. 1994).
G.I. Joe's final issue featured Snake-Eyes' letter to the son of an old 'Nam buddy, Wade Collins (who was revealed over 100 issues back as a Fred agent), who was thinking of enlisting. It was a clever way for Hama to wrap up the series and of finally letting the readers in on Snake-Eyes' thoughts after over a decade of silence. As the Joes folded the American flag up and closed the Pit for the final time, it marked the end of a cultural revolution that started with the bang of a modern military figure, and ended with the whimper of science fiction elements.
As G.I. Joe the comic was wrapping up, Hasbro had plans to return the toy line to its military roots with World War II themed Sgt. Savage and the Screaming Eagles. Hasbro approached a comics legend to develop this new line and produce all of the box art.
“Hasbro had come to me with the idea that they’d wanted to replace G.I. Joe,” Joe Kubert recalled. “That was the original concept. I went ahead and created an entire set-up for this Sgt. Savage. I guess they had seen my work on Sgt. Rock, which is why I was contacted for that. They had a whole series of characters. Matter of fact, they had done a twenty-minute animated piece. They had taken it to the degree where they had a big showing on The Enterprise, the ship moored on the Hudson, and had a big to-do. I was there as a guest, and they were going to kick off the whole idea at that time which, as far as I knew, they did. Within a matter of weeks after that, I think one of the owners of Hasbro had decided that it would be rather foolish to kill G.I. Joe, which I agree with completely. He said ‘To hell with that,’ and that was the end of the Sgt. Savage project.
The Sgt. Savage figures were released in 1995 as an offshoot of the practically extinct G.I. Joe line, and the more muscular figures came packaged with the twenty-minute cartoon, which told Savage’s origin on the battlefields of World War II, as well as his betrayal. Cast in suspended animation, Savage was awoken in modern times by the G.I. Joe team, and placed in charge of whipping a bunch of disorderly recruits into order.
“I had in the back of my mind that they were making figures of what I was doing,” Kubert added. “My working arrangement and my relationship with the people at Hasbro was excellent. They were a good bunch of people to work with, and the project was of deep interest to me, because I thought it might have potential.
“Like so many things that get started, this one just didn’t pan out.”
Hasbro had planned a more science-fiction approach to Joe towards the end, even considering teaming the Joes and COBRAs up with symbiotic aliens for a new line of figures. Fortunately, they put G.I. Joe on mothballs, bringing them out only a few years later for a series of relaunches that are geared towards the kids of that first generation of bright-eyed and snotty-nosed kids who got their Joe fix in the tail end of the Cold War and off of extinct spinner racks.
The classic Marvel G.I. Joe comics have most recently been collected in trade paperback form by IDW Publishing.
Posted by Christopher Irving at 8:16 PM