Ask Chris #79: Snake-Eyes Kills Everybody
Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That's why every week, Senior Writer Chris Sims puts his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!
Q: I've been reading GI Joe: Cobra. What are some of the best GI Joe runs or stories? -- @drmagnificent
A: First of all, good choice in jumping on the story of America's daring, highly trained special missions force. It's a great time to do it, too: IDW's been really good about getting the reprints of the classic stuff together, and they're certainly putting out enough of the new stuff that there's something for everyone. I've fallen behind a little, but I loved that Watchmen-esque issue about Tomax and Xamot.
Yeah, that's right: I just said "that Watchmen-esque issue about Tomax and Xamot.As for good runs, there's a lot to choose from. I actually think the America's Elite series was highly underrated, especially the 12-part "World War III" story. Even I initially dismissed it, but it's epic that built to the kind of amazing, awesome climax that you could only get when a bunch of dudes who loved the franchise decided that if they were losing the license, they might as well go out with the biggest story they could possibly tell. Seriously, a dude jetpacks out of a wheelchair so that he can rocket-punch Cobra Commander in that last issue. It is fantastic.
There's a paperback of the whole saga that's currently out of print, but it's not too hard to track down. The problem is that there's no way something that bills itself as "the last GI Joe story" is going work as well for you if you're new to the characters than if you'd been reading them for a while.
So if you're looking for the best run of GI Joe comics, well, I don't think there are going to be a lot of people who argue with me when I say that you really need to head back to the original Marvel Comics run of GI Joe: A Real American Hero. With the exception of one issue -- a solid fill-in story about clutch by Steven Grant, who also wrote for the cartoon -- the entire run of over 150 comics was written by one man, Larry Hama, and he was awesome. Seriously, that guy is so good at writing GI Joe comics that he ended a 12-year run of comics with an issue that was basically a Pro and Con list of whether a kid should join the military, and it's still actually kind of good.
Also, those "Ninja Force" issues weren't his fault. But that's another column.
What matters is that that original run had a lot of really good, really fun stories, to the point where it's actually pretty tough to answer your question, because even I'm having trouble figuring out where you should start with it. The famous Silent Issue in #21? The invasion of Springfield? The SAW Viper killing Joes? The story where Destro proves his love for the Baroness by turning his castle into a Transformer? That short UK-only story by Grant Morrison where Quick Kick talks about how cool Shang Chi is?
They're all tempting recommendations, and they're all comics you should seek out if you like GI Joe, but they can wait. If you want to mainline some pure, uncut GI Joe, then son, you need some Snake-Eyes in your life.
As hard as it might be if you look back at it from today, there was a time in this country when ninjas were a fresh, new idea, and that time was called "The Eighties." As any walk down the action aisle of a video store at the time would've proved, the shadowy Japanese assassins dominated the media. And comics, which had already had a 50-year love affair with dudes who relied on the ancient techniques of the Orient and had only just gotten over their obsession with the kung fu masters of the '70s, embraced them more than anything else. Just grab an issue of Daredevil or Wolverine from the era, those dudes are everywhere. Even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which would become the most popular thing in the entire world by the end of the decade, was originally created to parody the fact that the only thing Eastman and Laird knew would be successful in comics were teenage mutants and ninjas.
And Snake-Eyes was the ninja.
Or at least, he's up there with Sho Kusugi. Point is, he's awesome, and while Hama's GI Joe had a surprisingly strong ensemble cast for a comic that basically existed to sell toys, his popularity eventually led to the comic revolving around him in the same way that the X-Men franchise would grow to revolve around Wolverine. And if you're coming at the comics as a fan of the TV cartoon, like I did, that's weird.
There's this weird dichotomy with the GI Joe franchise where the comics tend to be all Snake-Eyes and Scarlett, but in the cartoons, they're barely seen. I imagine it has something to do with the fact that the animation style they were using was way more suited for shots of generic dudes firing laser rifles at each other than it was to silent ninja battles. Those shows relied so much on voice acting for character work and exposition that a silent character just didn't work for them -- and also, his go-to strategy of "stabbing someone in the face" probably fell a little closer to the imitatable violence that network censors were always worried about than, say, Weather Domination. The current GI Joe: Renegades show does a great job with Snake-Eyes (and pretty much everything else that's in it), but in the '80s, that dude was just a background character on The Cobra Commander, Destro & Baroness Show.
In the comics, however, you could not stop that dude from being awesome. Check it:
That isn't even an unusual occurrence in the world of GI Joe. And that brings us back around to the problem of finding specific issues to go for.
Again, a lot of people would point you to #21 and Snake-Eyes' totally silent rescue of Scarlett from Destro's castle, and yes, that issue is great. But let's be real for a second: That thing has been reprinted so much that if you go out and buy an action figure, there's like a 40% chance that that comic's in the package. Nobody needs me to tell them to go read it.
What you do need me to tell you about, though, is the story where Snake-Eyes Kills Everybody.
It's really one long story broken up into two parts, and I actually hadn't read it until relatively recently. I was always a bigger fan of the cartoon than the toys or comics, so it wasn't until Chad Bowers -- my cowriter at Awesome Hospital -- told me about them that I got into it. The first part is a three-part story that ran in GI Joe #94 to 96 called, unsurprisingly "The Snake-Eyes Trilogy," with art by the great M.D. Bright.
Well, it really starts an issue earlier in #93 when Snake-Eyes and Scarlett go to Switzerland for an operation. See, for those of you who don't know, Snake-Eyes had worn a mask for the entire series up to that point in order to cover up the hideous scars from an accident that had (allegedly) also rendered him mute. Now, however, a revolutionary -- but "excruciating" -- reconstructive technique had been pioneered by one Dr. Hundtkinder. And with a little time off from battling Cobra, Snake-Eyes finally had his chance to get patched up.
Which was a good thing, because he looked like...
... well, he pretty much looked exactly like Jonah Hex. So, you know, there's that.
Now I know what you're thinking: I just blew a secret that Hama had been able to keep for 93 issues without even giving a Spoiler Warning. Why? A) It's been 22 years, you had your chance to get to this one, and B) while Hundtkinder does in fact fix him right up, he also ends up selling the Joes out to Cobra, and when he tries to escape, Snake-Eyes takes a brazier full of hot coals right in the face...
...giving him an entirely new set of facial scars to cover up with his mask. Total time with his face fixed: One issue, most of which he spends being tortured like a third-rate villain in the New 52. Hilarious.
That part of the story happens in the basement of the Cobra Consulate in New York, and once Snake-Eyes breaks free, he starts going up, floor by floor, just straight killing dudes and setting off explosions.
At the end of that story, the Cobra Consulate is demolished. Snake-Eyes murders a building. By himself.
But he's not just mad because his good looks are lost forever. See, back when the Baroness kidnapped him from Switzerland -- operating under the assumption that Snake-Eyes had murdered her borther -- she took her revenge by shooting Scarlett in the head:
Cold as ice, but ultimately not as effective than you might expect. As is so often the case in comics, Fallout games and Quentin Tarantino movies, a protagonist getting shot in the head is less fatal and more inconvenient. Scarlett survives, but she's left in a coma, and when Snake-Eyes gets finished with murdering an actual building, he's pretty bummed out about the whole situation.
For the next six issues, Hama focuses on lesser Joes and the return of Cobra Commander, and all the while Snake-Eyes hangs out in Scarlett's hospital room, getting mopier by the page. But his story picks back up in #103, also with art by Bright:
Friends, that is Storm Shadow -- Arashikage ninja, sword-brother to Snake-Eyes, former revenge-crazed Cobra assassin and current GI Joe ally -- busting through the roof of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That is how you open a comic book.
The reason he's adding an unauthorized skylight to the Pentagon is that quiet grieving is not something ninjas are really all that suited for. The longer Snake-Eyes keeps his silent vigil at Scarlett's bedside, the closer he gets to slipping into a depression that will consume him. He needs something to snap him out of it, something that will both take his mind off his troubles and allow him to vent his frustrations in a productive way
In other words, Snake-Eyes needs to kill everybody.
Storm Shadow suggests that the "everybody" in question should be the evil government of the formery Communist People's Republic of Borovia, rescuing a hostage and tying things back into a storyline from five years earlier. The military guys agree, because really, when a ninja jumps through your ceiling and tells you that there's some ninja work that needs doing far, far away from where you are, you tend to take his word for it.
So Snake-Eyes heads off to Borovia, but before he does, Storm Shadow gives him the most intense pep talk of all time:
Oh son, Storm Shadow throws up the Diamond Cutter and puts Snake-Eyes into the Arashikage Mindset, a a magic ninja death trance that turns him into an unstoppable killing machine. And then they throw him out of an airplane.
I don't want to get into the specifics because there's a lot going on in these issues that revolves around Eastern European prison camps, Scarlett's family arguing over who owns their parents' house and a the return of a clown that hadn't been seen for 70 issues, but trust me, most of the next two issues are devoted entirely to Snake-Eyes just flat out rampaging. Shooting dudes, throwing knives, decapitating people, blowing up cars.
It's like Larry Hama saw Commando and was like "pft, that all you got?"
There might be a better GI Joe story out there, but if you want everything great about GI Joe -- ninja death trances, Destro being awesome, the dubous international politics that would resut in a Cobra Consulate being built in New York City, and even a splash page of Cobra Commander kicking a puppy, all drawn by the artist of my favorite Batman comic -- that chunk from #93 to #106 is the stuff to get.
That's all we have for this week, but if you've got a question you'd like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!