Friday, March 9, 2018

Micro-Reviews: G. I. JOE, Vol. 1, Part One

Original Marvel trade of the G. I. JOE series. Only took 20 years to get a reprint collection.

When Joe Quesada took over Marvel, a fan asked if he’d pursue the rights of G. I. JOE. His response, I interpreted at the time, was arrogantly dismissive.

When a fan obtained the rights, wrote it himself and published it through Image -- Massive hit. Marvel’s response?

To reprint the original issues, which apparently it had the rights to do. I’ll be referring to those 2002 era trades. There were some gripes about the TPBs. Issue #1 is missing the “Hot Potato” back-up, for instance.

To this day, I’ve never read “Hot Potato.”  I have a #1 reprint that was bundled with a 3-pack of toys, but never opened it. Don’t know how complete the facsimile edition is.

Aside from getting reprints of the classics, the Marvel trades also provided those amazing J. Scott Campbell covers. Maybe the final cultural contribution of WIZARD was hiring Campbell and a few other hot artists to do renditions of ‘80s properties like JOE.

Campbell’s G. I. JOE didn’t look anything like the original comics -- but it’s perfect for the book. In a way, his designs are just as iconic as Russ Heath’s models for the cartoon. The enthusiasm for those WIZARD commissions helped to revive interest in JOE. I think his fans were old enough to once be JOE fans, and this was a case of a creator giving the audience exactly what they wanted.

IDW still draws on that heat, with their John Royle JOE covers. Royle handles this style amazingly; I hope he draws a hundred more of these covers.

G. I. JOE #1 (June 1982). The special missions force for the '80s!

The issue of Marvel publishing a “war” comic, after the industry had already experienced a leftward tilt in the ‘70s and Vietnam still a fresh memory is addressed right away. The scientist the Joes have to rescue is a pacifist whose research has been co-opted for military purposes. She’s incensed, holds a press conference to complain, and is kidnapped by Cobra.

None of the Joes have any use for her, but when they gripe, Hawk is quick to remind them of their role. They defend the Constitution, everyone’s right to speak, including this woman’s. (Snake Eyes suggests a bomb strike of her location as a reasonable solution! The Joes’ bosses also spend two pages lamenting they can’t just let the irritating woman die.)

There’s been some effort recently to paint Hama as a “subversive,” but really the politics in the book aren’t deeper than “The Constitution = Good.” Defending everyone’s freedom of speech has alternated with both parties on the wrong side, but Hama seems consistently libertarian on this. Opinions of the Joes don’t matter; what kind of American *you* might be doesn’t matter. They have their job to do.

So, we’re told right away this isn’t a book glorifying war. It’s a series about people doing a job, protecting liberties in the abstract, watching each other’s backs in practice. It’s as much of an “apology” as the book presents for its contents.

Because all the initial Cobra toys wore masks, Hama creates the Baroness. Apparently, Hasbro didn’t care for her face, redesigning her later when she became a toy.

Another element dropped is Snake Eyes “speaking” through sign language. He does work best totally mute.

And there’s the cameo by “Shooter.” The in-joke that became a great story decades later in the DECLASSIFIED mini.

Early example of Hama working in realistic details. Also, plot firmly in motion by pg. 4!

Hawk’s line about a soldier’s job is to make the impossible look easy was an edit from (likely) Tom DeFalco. The original line was apparently too bleak: “A soldier’s job is to do what no one else wants to do and then be forgotten about.” (Me quoting from memory.)

Over the years, people have criticized the scene that has Stalker refusing to allow the Joes to bury Cobra’s victims on this island. There’s some college thesis or the like online, the writer citing it as an example of the cruelty of the concept, the tastelessness of ever selling this to kids.

Hama presents this matter-of-factly. (Only a two-panel scene.) They have a specific job to do, one that can’t allow even this act, regardless of its civility. Making Cobra *so* bloodthirsty, though, is dropped soon enough.

The battle ends with their target injured, their gear destroyed, and the villains escaping. Along the way, Joes and Cobra constantly outwit and out-plot one another. Some clunky dialogue used to justify the toy premise, but overall, it’s competitive with Marvel’s product of the era.

Dr. Burkhart tells us no one has “a monopoly on scruples,” a recurring theme of the book. And the Joes depart with the joke about “never forgetting” how to ride a bike. Hama’s recycled that one a half-dozen times over the years.

G. I. JOE #2 (August 1982). Bimonthly series, already with a guest artist on issue #2. Go ahead and cancel this toy book, Marvel!

Three significant events this issue. The first use of Russian ultra-low frequency beams in the book. Inspired by real Soviet schemes, Hama returns to the idea of these beams influencing behavior a few times. Don’t know if there was ever any evidence the Soviets were on to something, though.

It’s the first JOE story not to feature Cobra -- it’s only issue #2. Many classic issues don’t feature Cobra at all.

Finally, the debut of fan favorite Kwinn the Eskimo. Only appearing in a handful of comics, fans went nuts for the clever/honorable/lethal mercenary. I’ve always been confused by his official bio this issue -- Kwinn is 6’10 and 260 lbs. He’s practically a giant, but rarely drawn noticeably taller than other characters. (And given the size of Marvel’s EiC, I wonder if this was another nod towards Big Jim Shooter?)

Much of the story is Kwinn continually outwitting the Joes, as they attempt to survive in the arctic. The meticulous detail of the Joes’ actions was a revelation to kids at the time.

Nothing this issue reads as a toy commercial. It’s grounded military adventure, with a frank view of death and sacrifice. Already more adult than most comics on the stands in 1982.

G. I. JOE #3 (September 1982). First monthly issue. Marvel realized fast this was a hit.

Page One: A joke about the Geneva Convention.

More of Hama working his internal logic into story points. JOE likely had more of these diagram scenes than any other comic.

The story hinges on the Joes maintaining their cover, posing as normal officers at a Chaplains Assistant School. One of the few conventional Marvel elements of the book.

The entire issue has a Kirby or Steranko feel to it. Joes versus a sleeper robot that’s invaded their HQ, killing it off part by part while Hawk and Scarlet maintain appearances upstairs. It’s also one of the few issues that could’ve served as the basis for a Sunbow episode.

First use of a thought balloon, when Flash muses on how his oxygen is getting low.

Not nearly as somber as the previous issue, but that’s one of the advantages of the series. As long as you don’t bend the reality too far, JOE feels sturdy. A giant robot with detachable limbs and metal spiders inside is *just* within the bounds of the world.

I had the TALES OF reprint of this as a kid. Even reprints of early issues were hard to find, so I treasured having such an “old” issue of JOE.

G. I. JOE #4 (October 1982). Hawk is rather off-model on this cover.

It’s the first issue plotted by Herb Trimpe. He ended up plotting, sometimes scripting, a decent number of fill-ins, all the way to the end. Trimpe penned the only Marvel appearance from Crystal Ball. (In a story drawn by Dave Cockrum!)

Trimpe was the perfect JOE artist. His action and figures are Kirby-esque, and he draws vehicles incredibly well. He was passionate about aviation, and it showed in every dogfight story Hama gave him.

Hama scripts over the plot, which pits the Joes against rural Montana survivalists. Militias became popular villains after the OKC bombing. Not sure if they were up to anything in the early ‘80s.

Rare example of Snake Eyes expressing thoughts in writing. Also, notice Hama again taking minutia of military tactics and making it interesting.

If you’re a true ‘80s Marvel aficionado, you can spot where Jim Novak steps in for Albers for a tacked-on, last minute caption.

G. I. JOE #5 (November 1982). Slight exaggeration of Central Park violence, circa 1982.

Did Dan DeCarlo sneak into Marvel’s offices and redraw that Scarlett?

Perlin’s art lacks the power of Trimpe’s, but there is a kind of gracefulness to it. He renders the vehicles well, also, which apparently Hama was a stickler for.

This is a very Steranko page. The idea of this elaborate network of spies fascinated me as a kid.

After a few pages establishing how cool the MOBAT tank is (and references to Pac-Man and the death of disco), Hama introduces the concept of Springfield. Beating THE SIMPSONS by several years, there’s a gag about how every state has at least one Springfield. For now, it’s just the name of the incognito Cobra marching band, but it stays in Hama’s mind.

It’s another setup that could’ve worked in the cartoon. Cobra’s infiltrated a parade, literally hiding right underneath General Flagg’s review stand. The Commander and Baroness escape by literally holding Girl Scouts hostage.

Second use of a thought balloon in the series. Notice Perlin is far more interested in drawing tanks than crowds.

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