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Comics by Chance: Not So Random Edition – ‘G.I. Joe’

GI Joe A Real American Hero #16
G.I. Joe A Real American Hero #16

It was announced recently, on this very site, that I’ll be co-writing, with John Barber, and drawing Transformers vs. G.I. Joe series for IDW. While my car was being inspected, I stopped at a nearby comics shop and bought $70 worth of dollar back issues of Larry Hama‘s Marvel G.I. Joe comic. It’s since become one of my all-time favorite comics. I wish I would’ve read these sooner, but I’m kind of glad I didn’t because now I can enjoy them for the first time.

Everybody knows about issue 21 of G.I. Joe. If you’ve only read one issue of Larry Hama’s definitive ’80s run this is it. For a long while it was the only one I’d read. It’s been discussed and dissected before so I won’t spend too much time with it except for one page.

 

 

Destro’s role in the story is vital. Without him, the rescue would be over before it began. Destro’s the one manning the Fort Cobra radar. He detects an anomaly, but pursues it no further. He does not sound the alarm. Why? Cobra Commander ordered the assassination of the love of Destro’s life, the Baroness, in issue #16. Destro thinks she’s dead and seems to suspect Cobra Commander’s involvement. She’s among the chess pieces that have been removed from the board, casualties like Kwinn, Dr. Venom and Scarface. Due to the magic of comics, it’s up to the reader’s interpretation to say whether Destro is looking at the Baroness’s chess piece or kissing it.

G.I. Joe has a massive ensemble. They’re not selling one toy, they’re selling an entire line of toys. Each one needs its moment to shine, and each one is somebody’s favorite. If you view the series in story terms, the true protagonists are Destro and the Baroness. If G.I. Joe is Titanic, they are Jack and Rose. She is Guenevere to his Ill-Made Knight Lancelot. They have to sneak around to rendezvous in secluded corners of Cobra bases. Although she is promised to no one, they both know that Cobra Commander would not be pleased if he knew she and Destro were a couple.

I can’t tell if it’s a necessity of the form or merely a trope in heroic fiction to make the heroes less interesting than the villains. It tends to make them more relateable. If a character is too interesting, i.e. behaves too much like  a human being, with all the attendant flaws, jealousies, pettiness, lusts and vendetta, you run the risk of alienating the reader. They want to enjoy the melodrama, cheer the hero, boo the villain. The Joes, though they have their moments, are dull in comparison to the villains. I plan to make the Joes every bit as compelling as the Cobras, but for now, that’s just a lot of talk that needs to be proven. Snake-Eyes had an interesting story, but he’s what Kierkegaard called a knight of infinite resignation, so his story is not as dramatically satisfying as an all-out love story.

 

 

For the preceding four issues, Destro was seen only from the neck down or in hand-model close-ups, like Inspector Gadget’s Dr. Claw, or his earlier model, James Bond’s Blofeld. When Destro makes his first full facial appearance, other than on the cover (commerce trumps all), it is in the eyes of the woman who loves him.

 

 

Destro and the Baroness’s love story reaches its tragic crescendo in issue #16 which is one of my very favorite of this run.

 

 

G.I. Joe #16 Script: Larry Hama Pencils: Mike Vosburg Inks: Jon D’Agostino Letters: Joe Rosen Colors: Andy Yanchus Editor: Denny O’Neil Editor-in-Chief: Jim Shooter

Here’s a great Kirbyesque cover by Herb Trimpe, with a great fighting pose. I liked it so much I paid homage to it in my initial version of the Transformers vs. G.I. Joe promotional image.

 

 

It starts with the Joes on combat simulation maneuvers.

 

 

The art is typical of Shooter-era Marvel comics, lots of medium shots and panoramic views of the characters. Everyone visible from head-to-toe.

 

 

This sequence seems a lot like the then-current game, Atari’s Combat. One of the things I like about this series is its clear vehicular combat sequences.

 

 

The reveal of the crack shot tank driver is an introduction to a very Ditkoesque “Cover Girl.” I’m trying to think back to the ’80s. Who could be the model for this character? Marcy Darcy from Married With Children? This is at least three years early for that show.

The vast and growing ensemble means that in order to make an impression, characters need a distinct and memorable trait. Trip-Wire is an accident-prone bomb specialist. Imagine that!

 

 

Page 5 is where the real drama starts. At a garish Donald Trump-worthy dinner table, the Cobra elite gathers. Nice candelabra. I like the way the Cobras are depicted as having opulent bad taste, down to Sebastian Bludd’s pretentious doggerel.

 

 

There’s a nice triangulation of vendetta and hostility. Everybody has it in for somebody and surprisingly, for serial comics, each one pays off, most of them in this very issue.

As with Destro and the Baroness, all the villains in G.I. Joe have their moment of redemption, except for Dr. Venom. He is pure evil.

Dr. Venom is the most unequivocally vile character I’ve encountered in the series, there seems to be an unspoken implication that he’s a Nazi war criminal, who is motivated only by the pleasure that death, mayhem and cruelty brings him.

 

 

The Baroness sums up the page in the final panel. Although I think there is a production error here and the Baroness’s and Dr. Venom’s word balloons should be switched.

 

 

“A toast! To victory through…unity!”

Cobra is hatching a very Joker-esque scheme, poisoning money “at the source–The Bureau of Printing and Engraving!”

 

 

Getting around political situations created by the powers-that-be is an ongoing theme of the series.

 

 

Dr. Venom: “Those germs are like…my children.” More palace intrigue and courtly love.

 

 

This panel scares me.

 

 

I like that Dr. Venom has no special bit of operatic costuming. No eyepatch, no scar. Just a middle-aged man. It makes him scarier, the banality of evil.

 

 

Torpedo is fighting in flippers, possibly a tribute to Jack Kirby’s Flipper-Dipper. And he’s deadly, shooting a Cobra Viper in the heart with a harpoon gun. I love it!

 

 

Dr. Venom’s love of mayhem goes beyond his loyalty to his allies. When the Joker does this stuff, I roll my eyes. Seen-it-all-before-ho-hum. For some reason the same stuff works when Venom does it. I think it’s because Dr. Venom is new to me, so he’s able to get under my defenses and truly disturb.

 

 

Duped, they were toys. It’s a tradition from Micronauts to G.I. Joe to Transformers. Toy-based comics make toys a plot point.

 

 

I’ve always loved this ad, inviting you to choose sides. I understand the appeal of joining Cobra. They’re more interesting. I’d always assumed this was Duke, but now that I’ve read a bunch of these comics I’ve realized that Duke is a johnny-come-lately to the comic, not showing up until issue #22.

The spiky-haired blonde team leader for most of the comic is Colonel Hawk. Duke’s television dominance eventually gets Hawk a promotion/demotion to a General’s desk job, allowing Duke a more central role in the comics action for a time.

As a writer it presents me with a problem. Duke or Hawk? To my inner child, Duke is the main Joe. He’s the leader, one of the first Joe toys I ever bought. But reading these comics, Hawk is the go-to guy. Duke makes a strong first impression (upstaged by Road Block’s even better simultaneous introduction).

 

 

They are played by The Rock and Channing Tatum in the movies. They are global icons, but it’s still a tough call to make. I like Hawk a lot in these comics. I don’t want to sweep him aside. Since it’s an ensemble, there are enough things to do to keep everybody busy, but Duke and Hawk’s visual similarity further complicates things.

 

 

Here begins the clearly-choreographed vehicular combat scene that takes up the rest of the issue and is where all of the various plot threads pay off.

 

 

Cobra Commander gives the order to Major Bludd to take out Destro. The Baroness, Bludd’s driver, notices.

 

 

She turns the wheel of the tank, hitting a van.

 

 

Major Bludd leaves the Baroness to die. It took a couple of readings for me to notice the glasses (in the “B” for Baroness).

 

 

Destro is distraught, in a world of his own.

 

 

I love Dr. Venom’s cynical appraisal of the situation, consolidating his place as the real villain of the series.

 

 

Hawk hitches a ride. Doesn’t he look just like Duke? And they’re not even related.

 

 

Hawk gets unprecedented access to Cobra Commander as Destro processes his grief.

 

 

As it turns out, Destro (referred to as a “specialist”) is too much of a professional to abandon duty altogether. I like their verbal exchange.

 

 

And I like Dr. Venom’s characteristic critique of it. Larry Hama, more often than not, drew layouts for the series as part of his writing process. In this panel, we’re seeing evidence of Hama’s time spent as Wally Wood’s assistant. You could almost swear this sweaty Doctor Venom closeup was a panel from Cannon.

 

 

From Destro’s very first appearance in issue #11, Cobra Commander describes him as Hawk’s equal. This panel is where we see that equality in action. Flesh vs. polished berylium steel.

 

 

Which one do you kill?

 

 

A great moment. Larry Hama has cited Steranko’s Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD run as an influence on G.I. Joe.

 

 

“It don’t look good, Scarlett.”

 

 

Issue #8 Script and Art: Herb Trimpe Letters: Rick Parker Colorist: Christie Scheele Editor: Denny O’Neil Commander: Jim Shooter

At this time toy-based comics like G.I. Joe paid a better rate, so you tend to get an artist’s best work, but I can’t help thinking that the creative latitude you have on a freshly-minted universe was a contributing factor propelling Trimpe to the great heights this issue reaches, my favorite of his work.

The first two pages are a beautifully Kirby-esque opening.

 

 

Subtle panel-to-panel transitions are a hallmark of Trimpe’s Joe issues. This one is a little more frenetic and off-kilter than most, befitting a high-speed boat ride in the driving rain.

 

 

The ’80s’s symbol of the promise of casual interstellar travel, the space shuttle.

 

 

Snowball fight!

 

 

 

I’m still having a bit of cognitive dissonance. That’s not Duke? No, that’s Hawk. Hawk. HAWK.

 

 

This is a great Kirbyesque underwater lair. I like how much sci-fi is in G.I. Joe. I see it melding really nicely with the Transformers universe.

 

 

This page is just a beauty. A Kirbyesque rocket, a Kirbyesque close-up. A Steranko-esque final panel.

 

 

 

Another hallmark of the series as a whole is how clearly-defined the parameters of each mission is. Then you get to see it all play out.

 

 

This is a quote from Hill Street Blues, a popular TV police drama at the time.

 

 

Cobra launches their AT-ST chicken walker attack on the space shuttle launch two years after Empire Strikes Back.

 

 

I love this sequence of jet pack combat.

 

 

Rock-and-Roll on the Jotorcycle. I’m tempted to kill off Rock-and-Roll in Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, just so somebody can say, “Rock-and-Roll is dead.”

 

 

Land torpedo.

 

 

“Hold my purse.” Snake-Eyes gets his moment, too. This is just before he becomes a Joe superstar.

 

 

This is my favorite sequence of the issue. “30 years in uniform… and it’s down to one bullet.”

 

 

Sea ‘copter.

 

 

The Joes offer the Cobras a chance to save themselves, but the zealots refuse.

 

 

Presumably they die. In Marvel comics moral mathematics, you can’t blame the heroes. On the TV cartoon, every exploded jet ejected a parachuting pilot. Every fallen foe would moan to show he isn’t dead. The rules of the Comics Code were more relaxed than the rules of ’80s children’s television.

 

 

The set-up of a submersible boat with a plane pays off on the final page. It’s very difficult to tell a complete, memorable, readable, action-packed story in 21 pages. Trimpe does it here with aplomb. It’s very inspirational for how I’d like to approach my series. I want each unit to be a satisfying mini-movie in its own right, but I also want the soap opera, the continuing mega movie these mini-movies add up to.

The continuing soap opera eventually takes over Hama’s G.I. Joe, requiring it to spin off into a separate series, G.I. Joe Special Missions, so that the main series can split its focus between a Ninja epic that was unfolding and the aforementioned Destro/Baroness romance.

 

 

The Baroness later appears after her apparent death, with her face in bandages. A few issues later when the bandages come off, she looks the same as before. She doesn’t need a matching berylium steel mask. It’s anti-climactic, a missed opportunity for a “Bride of Destro” masked Baroness. I thought there’d be more of a payoff.

In issue #33 Destro and Baroness hit an Act II rough patch.

 

 

Just as Destro Mourned the Baroness’s apparent death, she eventually mourns his.

 

 

Destro and Baroness’s story, the real story of G.I. Joe, even has a happy ending.

 

 

In issue #77 the epic, multi-issue siege of Cobra Island ends with Destro winning his Guenevere after being separated for several issues. Destro’s motivations are not unalloyed. Cynicism wins out. These are, after all, the bad guys.

It figures that the most memorable, most emotionally resonant episodes of the G.I. Joe cartoon was the parallel-world story where Cobra runs America, Joes are the terrorists, and Destro and the Baroness are the secret leaders of the Joe’s underground resistance (G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero “Worlds Without End, Part 1 and 2).

Since Destro and the Baroness are sympathetic villains in the original series, my contrarian instinct tells me to make them vile and hateful in the new series, but that remains to be seen.

 

G.I. JOE COMICS: THE AMAZING WORLD AND LIFE OF LARRY HAMA

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