Wednesday, December 6, 2017

G. I. JOE - “The Most Dangerous Man in the World”

Many of you are likely aware of Amazon’s Kindle Worlds program, where the owners of certain properties enable fans to publish sanctioned fan fiction for sale to the general public.  Like most people, I first became aware of it when Brian Cronin mentioned Kindle Worlds when detailing a noticeably weird stipulation Hasbro has placed on G. I. Joe fanfic authors.

One writer who decided to give this official/unofficial licensed work a shot was pretty surprising.  Buzz Dixon, who was the main writer of the syndicated G. I. Joe animated series for most of its run, published his own Kindle Worlds story a while back, and the backstory behind it has more than a little significance for Joe fans.  (Buzz, by the way, should not to be confused with Chuck Dixon, even though both have worked on G. I. Joe in some capacity.)

Should I Explain Who Serpentor and Cobra-La Are?
Now, what makes “The Most Dangerous Man in the World” notable?  If you’re a fan of the G. I. Joe animated series, you might remember the title.  Dixon has always cited the episode as the story he wished he could’ve told, his intended origin story for Cobra, had Hasbro not dictated the direction that brought us both Serpentor and Cobra-La. 

Many fans cite the 1987 line of G. I. Joe to be the beginning of the end, with the hard turn into science fiction, neon outfits, and just general ridiculousness.  The most diehard of fans even decry the 1986 line, which had Cobra (rightly) demoting the incompetent Cobra Commander and replacing him with a test-tube, uh, man composed of the DNA of history’s greatest warriors.  And a 1980s professional wrestler. 

I wonder if much of the antipathy directed towards the new Cobra emperor, Serpentor, is retroactive.  Just speaking for myself, as a kid, I had no problem with the villain, and didn’t think his five-part introduction was any more ridiculous than anything featured on Sunbow's G. I. Joe cartoon in the preceding years.  (By the way, I always assumed Sunbow to be Hasbro’s production company, but apparently it was owned by the PR firm hired by Hasbro to package and G. I. Joe and Transformers back in the 1980s.)  In fact, “Arise, Serpentor, Arise!” stands out as one of the best animated epics from the show’s run.  And even if you did hate Serpentor during these days, it’s hard for Joe fans to deny how strong the rest of the 1986 designs are.  Sure, there’s a tiny amount of neon in there, but there’s also a lot of dark blues, grays, and more black than ever in the line.  Some of the best G. I. Joe designs are in the 1986 line.

We know now that when Dixon plotted out Serpentor’s introduction, plans were already in place to reveal the “true” origin of Cobra.  1987’s G. I. Joe the Movie establishes the terrorist organization as a front for a hidden society of prehistoric human/snake/crab people, who wish to destroy all humanity and return Earth to its primeval splendor.  Cobra Commander, once a scientist for this advanced civilization, was the only member who knew the truth, although the ruling figures of this Cobra-La telepathically influenced Dr. Mindbender’s creation of Serpentor months earlier -- the images of Serpentor in Mindbender’s dreams were actually foreshadowing for what Hasbro knew would be their next year’s line of toys.

This iteration of G. I. Joe didn’t die off until 1994, meaning the line’s “fallen” years actually outnumbered the years that fans consider the “real” Joe, so these decisions didn’t actually kill kids’ interest in the franchise.  However, if you were there at the beginning, or close enough to the beginning, you do know that there is a kind of “wrongness” to Joe following the introduction of Cobra-La, and possibly Serpentor.  The concept is no longer real-life military guys fighting masked comic book villains; it’s whatever wacky tomfoolery Hasbro thought could compete with the Ninja Turtles that season.

As Dixon explains in his afterword, “The Most Dangerous Man in the World” is his “lost” episode of G. I. Joe, a tale from the more grounded days of the series, presented now in a format that would’ve been unthinkable in 1985.

Let’s Get the Pedantry Out of the Way
And that’s where the first problem begins.  This story is explicitly not set in 1985…except when Dixon wants it to be.  Considering that most of the characters are using tablets and smartphones, we’re clearly speaking about the modern day, yet Dixon also wants us to believe that Cobra recruited the Dreadknoks back in the early 1980s, and Leatherneck is even shown reflecting on his experiences in Vietnam in one scene.  There’s no way to make this timeline work, and it reads as if Dixon started one draft with the intent of staying true to the original canon, then just changed his mind about the setting without going back and excising the 1980s-specific references.  (And, with the understanding that we’re all guilty of typos, it’s clear Dixon should’ve hired a proofreader before clicking “Publish” on this draft.)

One strange bit Dixon feels compelled to throw in is his revelation that G. I. Joe takes place in an alternate universe where Jimmy Carter won re-election against Ronald Reagan, instituting the Joe program shortly into his second term.  There’s no narrative justification for this at all; the story literally stops so that the Joes can comment on how lucky they are that this “failed B-movie actor” lost and the brave nuclear submarine commander was given four more years to create the Joe team.  Apparently, Dixon likes to argue politics on Facebook, and this dig was tossed in to aggravate conservative Joe fans.  A decent editor would’ve removed it.  (The compulsion to insert politics into Joe always irritates me; would anyone writing Transformers or M.A.S.K. feel compelled to stop the story and explain specifically who the President is?  Should we retroactively believe Reagan wasn’t the President in, I don’t know, Ghostbusters?)

Regarding the specific continuity, it seems “Most Dangerous Man” doesn’t just ignore “Arise, Serpentor, Arise” but virtually all cartoon continuity.  It’s impossible to view this as a Season Two episode of the show, since characters from the early 1980s are interacting with Joes who joined years later…in some cases, as late as 1993!  (I’m pretty well-versed in Joe lore, but had to Google who this “Colonel Courage” guy was.)  This could be forgivable, since it allows Dixon free access to any Joe and Cobra he feels like, increasing the odds that a reader’s favorite can appear.  The problem is, much of the book turns out to be an origin story for Shipwreck joining the team, which can’t be reconciled with anything we saw on the show.  Not only did Shipwreck join the team years before many of these guys, but the story of him signing on was one of the earliest Joe miniseries!

One final continuity note -- even though the animated series and comic book had almost nothing to do with one another (Dixon states in the afterword that they didn’t want to be influenced by the comics canon, and Hama has always been public about his indifference towards the cartoon), Dixon decides to acknowledge Hama’s Storm Shadow/Snake-Eyes rivalry early on in the novel.  Acknowledging what’s become the accepted lore, Storm Shadow and Snake-Eyes are “sword brothers” here, while the cartoon’s Spirit/Storm Shadow enmity is just ignored.  The fight is partially an early excuse to write Snake-Eyes out of the book and allow other characters to receive the spotlight, but it also grants you some insight into what a Sunbow Storm Shadow/Snake-Eyes fight might’ve been.

Cue the Standard Mid-Tempo First Act Score
So, what is “The Most Dangerous Man in the World” anyway?  The story has a fantastic hook -- a feeble, pudgy man has been kept prisoner by Cobra Commander for seeming decades, and when he finally manages to escape, the Commander is apoplectic.  All Cobra operations are halted and every resource is redirected towards capturing this mystery man, who doesn’t seem on the surface to be anything special.  G. I. Joe notices that something odd is going on with Cobra, so they join the hunt, eventually capturing the mystery figure and returning him to their base.  (Another nagging continuity gripe -- the Joes’ base seems to be the underground Pitt in Utah, the late 1980s base in the comics, and not the aboveground headquarters with the massive cannon from the cartoon.)

Taking the man in as an unofficial prisoner, and having no real clue what to do with him, the Joes soon find themselves under assault by the collective forces of Cobra, in a lengthy fight scene that feels like it would’ve been an awesome climax to an animated G. I. Joe movie.  Eventually, the secret of the old man is revealed…sort of.  I won’t spoil the revelation, but it ties into the original political motivations for Cobra, and while it makes a certain amount of sense, the narrative doesn’t provide a completely satisfying explanation for why Cobra Commander didn’t just cap this guy years ago.

Cue the Rousing Climactic Final Battle Score
The book is an action novel specifically aimed at hardcore Joe fans, to the point that physical descriptions of the characters rarely even appear.  When Low-Light or Lifeline or Zap enter, the reader is simply expected to know who they are and what they look like.  I’m not saying this as a criticism; it’s one way Dixon can avoid needless text and keep the story moving, and it works as a sort of “secret handshake” with the reader.  And, wow, do a ton of Joes appear in this book.  If you have a favorite from the pre-1987 era, he or she probably does at least make a cameo here.  Some of the Joes are even allowed to express more personality than we’d ever see in the cartoon, such as the urinal conversation Low-Light has with his fellow Joes, establishing the sniper as a guy who’s accepted his violent nature and doesn’t much care who’s paying his bills, so long as he’s able to take people out.  Even without network censors, this probably isn’t a scene that would’ve aired in-between ads for Fruity Peebles.

Cobra, conversely, isn’t represented so well when it comes to sheer numbers, but the internal politics of the organization are true to the classic series.  The Cobra Commander presented by Dixon in the novel is anything but a fool, even though his duplicitousness and condescending attitude seem reason enough for his rank and file to question his motivations.  If you’re a fan of the major villains from this era, most are represented.  If you want to see Scrap-Iron or Firefly get his due, you’ll be kept waiting.

The best moments of the book are the ones that do feel as if you’re reading an unproduced Joe script.  The lengthy sequence that has three Joes going undercover at a state university, awkwardly fitting into college life, and then facing the Dreadknoks in a battle that destroys the campus library has 1985 Sunbow written all over it.  Dixon even gives some acknowledgement to the laser rifles used on the show, although in this canon, they’re used interchangeably with real life (meticulously detailed) firearms.

The Coda (Everyone Stand in a Circle and Laugh at a Bad Joke)
“The Most Dangerous Man in the World” isn’t exactly the “lost” Joe episode we’re promised.  The use of mild profanity and real weapons wouldn’t have made their way into the cartoon, and there’s no way to fit the story into the existing continuity of the animated series.  The book deserves to be judged on its own merits, though, and in that regard, I think most classic Joe fans will find “Most Dangerous Man” to be worth their time.  Many of the characters are fleshed out in a way that the series couldn’t allow, yet still feel true to the figures we remember from the show.  And even if the book is representing pre-1987 Joe, it still features some of the more outlandish setups fans can remember from the early years of the property, yet still grounded in a plausible sense of reality.  It’s certainly not a perfect companion to the animated series, but if you were there for the Sunbow days and have fond memories, I say it’s worth a download.

And if you took any of this review to mean that I’m considering my own Kindle Worlds Joe story…well...


Brian Cronin said...

Oh man, oh man, you NEED to write not one, but, like, a SERIES of G.I. Joe stories on Kindle Words. I will tweet it out to everyone to buy!

G. Kendall said...

Cool! Thanks for the encouragement. I actually have one outline worked out, with a very specific hook attached to it.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...