Ask Chris #203: The Complicated Continuity Of G.I. Joe
Q: G.I. Joe: Where do I even begin with their myriad continuities? -- @Eric_R_Wilson
A: I've spent the past few weeks catching up on recent G.I. Joe comics with a stack of paperbacks that I picked up at HeroesCon, and while I've been really interested in seeing all the changes and new characters that set the IDW books apart from the original Marvel series, I'm still pretty surprised by this question. I mean, yes, there's a lot of G.I. Joe out there and a lot of different takes on that core idea, but when you get right down to it, it's no more complicated than your average superhero comic.
Which is to say that it's actually very complicated. Especially when the ninjas start getting involved.
Generally speaking, all the stuff that holds true about comics continuity still holds true for a book like G.I. Joe. There's multiple animated series that each exist in their own continuity, but that's no different from Batman: The Animated Series and Batman: The Brave and the Bold being ther own thing -- although Brave and the Bold is, of course, entirely in continuity with Batman '66, which is a whole other discussion. If you've got that straight, then you've got a basic handle on how G.I. Joe as a whole works. The comics are separate from the cartoons are separate from the movies are separate from my fan-fiction about Destro's best friend Christro, and so on.
That said, there are a couple of problems that complicate things just a little bit, and they're pretty unique to G.I. Joe, and the first comes from trying to figure out what the primary source material is.
With most superhero comics, this is relatively easy because, well, it's the comics. The stories in the medium where those characters originated are always going to be what "counts" the most, and even when there's a shift in continuity, like DC has been doing with universe-shattering regularity over the past 30 years, there's still going to be someone telling you what does and doesn't matter, and for what era -- usually because they love giving you that new origin story that sets everything up right after they change things.
To use Batman as an example, because why wouldn't I, we've got Zero Year now giving us Batman's "official" origin, replacing Year One, which itself replaced all the stuff that was in Untold Legend of the Batman, which cleaned up and smoothed things out from the previous 30 years of Batman continuity, all the way back to Detective Comics #33 and the original origin of Batman. All of those stories "count" at various times, and they've all provided imagery that's going to stick with the character forever, and even though they're from different continuities, they're all considered to be primary source material. Batman's origin in Batman Begins wasn't really compared to the origin that was seen in Batman '89 -- although to be honest, I did see one poor misguided soul who was positively irate that Batman's parents were murdered by some insignificant thug rather than by the Joker -- it was compared to the comics. How faithful was it? How much imagery did it use from Year One? How well did it get across that information compared to what you get from the comics? All that comes from the idea that those comics are the primary source material.
G.I. Joe, on the other hand, has a lot of stuff that could be considered source material -- and a lot of it has its origins in completely different media.
It's a pretty well-known piece of trivia that the original concept for G.I. Joe was a pitch that Larry Hama came up with while working as an editor at Marvel, built around the idea of reintroducing the Howling Commandos as S.H.I.E.L.D.'s daring, highly-trained Special Missions Force, battling the forces of HYDRA. When Hasbro was looking to revive G.I. Joe with a new series of figures, Hama's original idea was used as the template. The Commandos became the Joes, HYDRA became COBRA, and Marvel and Hasbro entered into a happy partnership that would last for the next 13 years.
Given all of that, it'd be easy to pin down Hama's run on the comics -- of the original 155-issue run, Hama wrote 154, with the odd man out being a solo adventure for Clutch penned by Steven Grant -- as the definitive source material, and you'd be right to do so. Unfortunately, there's a problem with that.
See, as much as G.I. Joe was a success in the world of comics -- and it was a massive success, to the point where a recent document was posted on Twitter indicating that it had more subscriptions than Amazing Spider-Man by about two hundred thousand -- and as much as Hama has a pretty unassailable position as the definitive voice of the franchise, you can't really call the comics the primary driving force. For all the comics, cartoons and movies, G.I. Joe will always be first and foremost a toy property, which means that you kind of have to look to those for the direction of the franchise. And in G.I. Joe's case, actually makes things pretty interesting, since each figure came with a file card that provided details for each character, most of which were written by, you guessed it, Larry Hama.
And that complicates things. Not only does it add another layer of potentially separate continuity (Filecard Continuity?), it also forms a complicated relationship between how the different parts of the franchise affected each other. If the sales of the toys were driven by the cartoon, but the information that came with the toys was provided by the person behind the comics, then which takes precedent? And what happens when you get toys with filecards that weren't written by Larry Hama, based on characters that come from comics that aren't in continuity with the Marvel run, like the Wraith? Is his filecard, which assures you that he only cares for two things -- chaos and destruction! -- as valid as the others? And, while we're on the subject of stuff that comes with the toys, what about those "Comic Pack" issues that were written by Hama and set between issues of the Marvel run, but came out 20 years later? Are those in continuity? And if so, which continuity?
Even that's just a small piece of how the toys can affect the comics. A few months back on an episode of Here's The Thing, Chad Bowers and I talked about one of the stranger artifacts of the franchise, a figure named Chameleon that was included in a two-pack with Cobra Commander and was really just a repaint of the Baroness with a filecard that assured you she was actually the Baroness's identical half-sister. For years, that was the only form in which that character, if you can even call her a "character" with that little information to go on, existed, until she was brought into the comics in the pages of Mike Costa and Antonio Fuso's Cobra Files as a pretty major part of the book.
That conflict of what constitutes the core source material is a bit of a headache if you really start digging into it, but as far as the comics go, that's only one of the things that's causing complications. The other is that G.I. Joe is a licensed comic. That might seem like a pretty obvious statement, but it means that the license can be taken away from one publisher and given to another, meaning that you're not just dealing with different creative teams, but with entirely different companies, potentially adding an entirely different level of conflicting ideas about what these comics should be. Which, as it turns out, is exactly what happened with G.I. Joe. And, to be fair, also with Transformers, and to a lesser but stranger extent, also with ROM: Spaceknight, a series where everything about the book except for the main character was all created at Marvel, where it stays to this day, occasionally getting used as best it can without its star.
What I'm getting at with all of this is that when you realy start looking at it, the continuity of G.I. Joe actually is a pretty complicated web. But if you're just going to look at the comics, it's not as bad as it sounds.
So let's start at the beginning -- or at least the beginning of the comics everybody cares about. At the start of things, you've got G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, the Larry Hama run, and with the exception of Chris Latta's amazing shrieking as Cobra Commander, pretty much everything you already love about G.I. Joe comes from here. The Silent Issue where Snake-Eyes infiltrates Destro's castle to rescue Scarlett and reveals his connection with Storm Shadow, the return of General Joe Colton as the inspiration for the team, the Dreadnoks as a vicious gang of chainsaw-wielding bikers whose only vices are grape soda and chocolate donuts, Cobra Commander kicking puppies, Snake-Eyes killing basically everyone, all that originates here.
Now, that run lasts for 155 issues -- plus the G.I. Joe Yearbooks, Special Missions and a couple of other specials -- running from 1982 to 1995, and even during that time, things get a little complicated. See, in Europe, G.I. Joe wasn't G.I. Joe at all, it was Action Force. They even had a weird version of the theme song that replaced "a real Am-er-ican he-ro!" with "In-ter-na-tional he-ro!" and I assure you that it pains me to think that there is some Englishman out there who thinks Roadblock was from, I don't know, Leeds or something. Point being, there were Action Force comics that, while they included reprints of the American stuff, also dealt with other characters, including a new set of villains that wasn't Cobra. These stories, while they do feature the same characters and were eventually printed in America as G.I. Joe: European Missions, are not in continuity with ARAH.
Also, there's one two-pager where Quick Kick talks about how awesome Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu is that was written by Grant Morrison. Seriously.
So ARAH ends in 1995, but don't worry, we're not done with it just yet. In the meantime, since it was 1995, the Joes got a couple of grim and gritty reboots, including one at Dark Horse with Frank Miller covers and the truly amazing tagline "Extreme times call for extreme heroes." There is no better summary of an entire decade of comics publishing in six words than that one sentence, but to be honest, the less said about those comics, the better.
Then, in 2001, the G.I. Joe comics license was acquired by an upstart company called Devil's Due, who ended up hanging onto it for a pretty long time. Under Josh Blaylock and Tim Seeley, they relaunch A Real American Hero, picking up where the original series left off and basically continuing the Marvel continuity. They also dabble in a couple of different continuities, including a short-lived offshoot called G.I. Joe Reloaded (remember those heady days when everyone still liked The Matrix and we were all trying to reload as many things as possible?) that functioned as a sort of "Ultimate" version of G.I. Joe. I actually liked some of the ideas in that series a lot -- particularly the idea that everyone was freaking right the hell out because Cobra Commander had a portable laser weapon, a great tribute to the cartoon -- but the main focus was always on the series that continued the original. This, incidentally, is where Wraith and his love of chaos and destruction come from.
Eventually, ARAH v.2 turned into America's Elite, and when Devil's Due lost the license, they capped it off with a giant war where Hawk, whose legs had been paralyzed, blasted out of his wheelchair with a jetpack and tackled Cobra Commander while every G.I. Joe and Cobra vehicle slugged it out in the background. It's about as awesome as it sounds, which is "very."
Now here's where it gets tricky. In 2008, the license was acquired by IDW, and they kicked things off by launching two separate continuities. One was a continuation of the original Hama run, actually written by Larry Hama, that picked up the numbering of the original with #156. The thing is, while that creates a single unified continuity based around Hama, it also overwrites the previous attempt at continuing that original run, firmly booting the Devil's Due stuff right out of any continuity. The other IDW book was a relaunch designed as an update, kicking off what's commonly referred to as "The IDW Continuity."
In addition to the core series, that continuity also included books like Mike Costa and Antonio Fuso's Cobra and Cobra Files, which are genuinely fantastic and culminated in a storyline where one of the Joes literally went to Reddit, became a Men's Rights Activist who wondered why Chameleon didn't immediately fall in love with him when he was nice to her, and then compromised the team and got a ton of people killed.
It is amazing.
But what's interesting is that in the IDW Continuity, G.I. Joe was relaunched again under Fred Van Lente and Steve Kurth, focused on Duke leading a team of well-known Joes on very public missions against Cobra, something that broke away from the IDW Continuity's original focus on the Joes as a top-secret counterterrorist organization. What makes it so fascinating to a fan of the franchise, though, is that Van Lente and Kurth made their run a synthesis of every single piece of G.I. Joe that had come before. There's the obvious connection to the comics, but they also bring back the G.I. Joe Adventure Team, the line of 12" action figures from the '70s that gave the world the famous Kung Fu Grip, into continuity as an early forerunner of the modern G.I. Joe team. That's something Hama had played with when he introduced General Joseph "G.I. Joe" Colton during his run, but Van Lente expanded it to include the entire line, including an actual superhero called Bulletman.
They didn't stop there, either. Sgt. Savage -- the star of one of those grimmed up '90s books -- was brought back as the star of a military-themed reality show, the Sigma-6 cartoon and line of armored action figures were brought in as a video game developed by the military as a training exercise, and there's even a joke about how Duke's strike team in the first arc is picked to be as telegenically diverse as possible. While the Devil's Due run kicked off by mocking the "Ninja Force" and "Star Brigade" eras as reasons that the G.I. Joe program was canceled (which, let's be honest here, is kind of accurate), Van Lente celebrated all that weird stuff over the course of his issues.]
Also, it's worth noting that if any of this has been at all interesting, Van Lente and frequent collaborator Ryan Dunlavey (the team that brought you Action Philosophers and Comic Book Comics) did a short series of strips called "The Real History Of G.I. Joe" that were collected as a backup story in G.I. Joe: Homefront, which also happens to contain one of the best Joe stories of all time.
And that brings you up to the present. So really, there's only a few separate continuities that you need to worry about: The Larry Hama continuity, which covers Marvel's G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #1 - 155, and IDW's ARAH #156 on up, and the IDW Continuity, which covers almost everything else that IDW's published. If you really want to worry about it, you can throw the Devil's Due stuff in there too as an offshoot after ARAH #155. Just imagine that diagram from Back to the Future when Marty left his sports book back in 1955, except that instead of Evil Biff running Hill Valley, you've got a bunch of Serpentors and jetpacks.\
Oh, and also the new G.I. Joe vs. Transformers ongoing by Tom Scioli and John Barber, which, while informed by both the classic run of Joe and Transformers, is entirely self-contained and separate from anything else. You're probably going to want to be aware of that one too, because it's going to be on everyone's Best of the Year list come December.
All things considered, three and a half continuities actually isn't that much to keep straight, and the tradeoff is that you get to read a lot about ninjas being awesome.
Then again, you could probably avoid all that by just watching the cartoon. There aren't as many ninjas, but you definitely find out all about that Cthulhu monster that Destro keeps in his basement, and really, that gives it the edge over every single other version.