JOE fans are loyal, it’s in our make-up; most of us are children of a decade that admired that trait above all else and G.I. Joe is perhaps the quintessential entertainment line – cartoons toys, comics, movies – in terms of reflecting the national status quo, pride, and nationalism of its fan base. G.I. Joe was subtitled A Real American Hero when it probably didn’t come off as much a tagline as much as fiction mirroring a child’s reality. With that loyalty is pride – supporting G.I. Joe was acknowledging the idea of American Heroes fighting to save the day. It was cool to be an American and comics book are Americana, and G.I. Joe comics were at the forefront of multimedia interest – the very first television commercial ever dedicated to a comic book issue showcased Marvel’s G.I. Joe#1 in 1982.
I dare say there were thousands of people like me who had stacks of G.I. Joe comics who wouldn’t call themselves comic book collectors, our boxes were full, but with books called G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe Special Missions, G.I. Joe: European Missions, G.I. Joe: Order of Battle and if you peered at our book shelf we were flexing G.I. Joe Choose Your Own Adventures and the Christmas Sears catalog was an institution.
While an existing fan base is the point of acquiring the license to anything, it does cut both ways especially when the comic book line was so popular and orchestrated chiefly by one hand – Larry Hama. That Larry Hama also wrote the file cards that came with the mega-popular toy line and you have a creator that is essentially the recognized, living, breathing canon of G.I. JOE. To step away from that, to modernize, a story; to get the interest of top current creators by giving them some flexibility is a balancing act and one that I think the previous license holder – Devil’s Due – did at least reasonably well with its America’s Elite line. As a fan, I can’t say my initial reaction to hearing the license was getting moved was very positive. I kind of felt like they (DD) were doing good work and with a looming film that looks (at least everything they’ve showed us thus far) rather awful, my fear was that we were going to get a relaunch closely tied to mirroring the film. That and there was the simple feeling of “if it ain’t broke. . . “ and I felt passion in the Devil’s Due work that I didn’t think was going to be easy to replicate as so much of the JOE line post-MARVEL were forgettable (and a lot of the late MARVEL stuff showed that even Hama was having a hard time juggling what must have been some spontaneous and at times off-putting creative mandates).
Enter IDW. . .
This October IDW is releasing its #0 issue that offer three short stories that each act as teasers for the trio of titles they will be releasing in 2009 under the G.I. Joe banner all – with their own creative teams with a staggered release schedule for the titles January, February, and March. . It should be noted that IDW’s stance is that their incarnation of G.I. Joe will be a brand new, original launch – their own Joeverse, that would be a fresh start for new readers. This is a departure from the previous Devil’s Due series that was essentially a continuation of the MARVEL run that did a fairly good job juggling and inserting other lines into its story. Such an announcement immediately tends to either promote uproar or optimism depending on the personality of the fan and how one received previous work and for the purposes of clarification I enter this evaluation of our introduction into IDW’s initial G.I. Joe offering as a fan of the previous run and with some initial trepidation.
What seems to fill the role as the central title, simply titled G.I. JOE, will be helmed by veteran writer Chuck Dixon and penciled by Robert Atkins and the preview is straight up Special Missions style that sets tone and establishes some initial precedents. One of the more long-lived points of debate with JOE fans is chain of command and the roles of those higher-ups, be it in the field or more administrative as through different incarnations across several media we have been offered many different possibilities. Most of these discussions revolve around Hawk, Duke, Flint and to a lesser extent, Beachhead, who is actually pointed specifically as fourth in command in an episode of the cartoon. On the first page we get answers and have Duke in the field running point and clearly in command with a squad that consists of Torpedo, Flint and Beachead. This is classic get-in, get-out, night mission on the seas and what I immediately liked were the very choices of the people on mission as this was another element that was often bewildering of previous work. Of course you’d have Torpedo – who is a SEAL – with you a mission like this, and I love seeing Beachhead, usually wasted as an instructor, in the field! In a half dozens pages you get that this is a team of specialists who are called on mission at a moments notice and operate at a level “strictly off-the books”.
The second sample reinforces the first. This story is by the aforementioned architect of G.I. Joe in print form, Larry Hama, and is penciled by Tom Feister and is a preview of the title coming out in February G.I. Joe Origins. It’s clear that this story takes prior and it shows us – as the title would lead one to believe – the formation of the team and seems to be a perfect spot to put Hama working on back-story as the Dixon titles hits the ground running. It is here that may be most interesting to long-time JOE fans as we will see Hama with all the toys at his disposable but none to have to debut and it may be the closest thing we’ll see to what Hama may have wanted to do with a team and title that god willing will maintain a La-less future. I say it reinforces as again we in a few pages we see command structure and we see what it means to be G.I. JOE and it never leaves a single room. If I have any misgivings in the entire issue, it’s the art effect in this particular story that may very well be able to be explained away by being a dark room with one single bright light. Regardless, I wouldn’t want to see an entire issue or series that presents like this though as a story it’s tight, it informs, and we want to see who’s next. The possibilities of such a series and playing it off with the previously mentioned title could be a terrific tension builder that can be applied both way with planning and if done with care not create a circumstance that the titles cannot maintain autonomy.
A couple of weeks ago I was listening to an interview with the editor of this line, Andy Schmidt, via a podcast not yet sold on IDW’s stewardship of the line, but when he mentioned the third title would focus on Chuckles, I was sold. Chuckles has the beauty of not really being really developed in the era that the comics were probably most popular not debuting until issue#60 of the MARVEL line and only appearing sparingly beyond, though having a decent stint in G.I. Joe Special Missions. It may be safe to say that most people would recognize him from the 1987 G.I. Joe Movie (animated) where he was a significant part of one of the only three cool aspects of the show. The first was the introduction – which is up there with the Robotech/Macross intro as best ever – the third is we get to see the true extent of the size of a Terror Drome in all its glory, the other and applicable to this review is that in this movie Chuckles picks up a missile off of the HAVOC, puts it on his back, and throws the thing at a tank at literally point-blank-range! Now that’s obviously senseless, but when reading this third story written by Chris Gage and Mike Costa and drawn by Antonio Fusio that previews the March title, G.I. Joe: Cobra we see a story that actually follows the very first line in Chuckles’ file card from 1987:
“Chuckles has been undercover for so long that nobody is really sure about who he actually works for.”
They take it to the next level in this preview showing a man who is in role so much he forgets his own identity that sets themselves up for a title that gives us that insider opportunity, and the art really as a style that we’d see in one of the many crime books we see – the pacing is different, it’s darker, it’s quiet as can be displayed by the toned down, seemingly whispered use of the classic battle cry.
There are some extras as well, with Robert Atkins offering short comments on character designs. Heavy duty is an odd feature which mirrors the decision (and explanation of ) to use the character in the upcoming live-action film, though I’m pleased to see we will see more of a commando focus on Snake Eyes as honestly the whole ninja-outbreak has gotten out of control in G.I.JOE before. After that is a brief interview with Chuck Dixon, Larry Hama, Christos Gage and Mike Costa (the latter of which knows about Chuckles’ film exploits!) and a lot of other talk that by now we’ve heard before regarding the relaunch but all of it – the handling of Cobra, the role of JOE prior to Cobra, new characters – sounds and looks good and fit for our world and reader sensibilities.
I probably read/have to read more short fiction in a given year than the vast majority of people will read their entire lives and the zero issue has the burden of not only containing three separate stories to compel interest in three different products, it also has to function as a broader statement of how this line will be handled as a whole. They all work rather well and while it feels jumpy at times they seem to be understandable allowances given the format – including some instances of very ‘televisiony’ dialogue – but if the idea is to establish what they did establish; that we traverse a Joeverse that has corners and different textures that may indeed overlap at points, but at others are different worlds – then they have succeeded. What we also see is what seems to be a commitment to methodical storytelling, what would that just as much likely to surprise you with a shiv as much as throw a missile at you, and having three titles would allow for that while having ample progress and forward movement in the building of a new mythos. When we are confronted with what are essentially short stories in sequential art form, often times what we are left with is some sort of whimsy, something not concrete, and here IDW delivers three stories that serve purpose, that completely relay three stories. While I hesitate to offer too much conjecture on the future work based on a half-dozen pages what can be said is that the package offered in this issue does nothing to motivate me to not to dive into IDW’s play into G.I. JOE and this sampler goes beyond reassuring and take on the quality of enticing. Elite, special operations military action, a modern-telling of a fan boy bible, an espionage/spy title, it looks like bases are covered and if they can create a synergy while exploring different portions of the world – distinctly differentiated in rendering in these samples by the art – JOE fans, and people that aren’t JOE fans have a line that looks to be something worth exploring and at least initially looks like a sure step in the future and rebirth of G.I. Joe.