G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero is one of those titles that you can either hang with, or it’ll drive you nuts. Unless you don’t care one way or the other. (THANKS FOR THE JOKE MITCH!)
Debuting in 1983, it told the stories about an elite team of counter-terrorism soldiers—drawn from every branch of the military—and their arch enemies, the terrorist cabal Cobra (as related on the iconic cover of the very first issue, right).
Based on the Hasbro toy line, it featured characters and equipment that could be called “somewhat unrealistic” at times, but could also be called “balls out insane and awesome”. Which side of that line you fall on will determine how you feel about the comic.
G.I. Joe began as a eponymous comic strip called “Private Breger” in The Saturday Evening Post in 1941 (and has been published in every single decade since). When the Army asked Breger to do a similar comic for Yank, the Army Weekly, he came up with the title G.I. Joe. The comic became toys (and a bunch of other stuff), and the toys in turn gave rise to Marvel’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. I recently re-read the first two years of the comic—24 issues—so here’s some random thoughts.
This is an unabashed military adventure comic. If you set the colorful uniforms and freaky Sci-Fi tech aside, it could well be Sgt. Rock or Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos. Combat—including on-screen deaths, as this is the comic, not the Saturday morning cartoon show—is a staple of the series, as are spy thriller set pieces, outrageous terrorist plots, and tense “ticking clock” situations. People who loathe action-centric entertainment will loathe G.I. Joe.
The plots and settings are highly varied, right out of the gate. The first issue features an attack by Cobra on a military train to kidnap a nuclear weapons scientist, followed by a sea-air assault on Cobra Island to take her back. Issue #2 centers around an attack on American and a Russian research bases north of the Arctic Circle. A Cobra robot is the main opponent of Issue #3—the Joes brought it back to their HQ, where it reactivated, reassembled itself, and tried to fight its way out of the Pit. Variety is the key to any adventure series (cinematic, illustrated, or prose) and Larry Hama, the main writer of the series, certainly delivered.
The first year is episodic, each issue standing on its own. The start of the second year sees the introduction of running storylines, “story arcs” in the parlance of the industry, meaning that much of the time you can’t read an issue all by itself, you have to catch the whole arc to make sense of the story. Some of the issues suffered from this, being little more than interstitial continuations of previous storylines, lacking a clear plot or a payoff for the audience. In an episodic medium, where people have to wait a month between episodes, this is a significant weakness.
The art of the series was pretty much par for Marvel in the early ’80’s. It took a sharp drop about issue #5, but recovered over the next six or seven issues. (In addition to outright problems with the art, like failures of perspective, it apparently suffered from too-rapid inking, as a lot of the detail in the original pencils seem to have never made it to the page.) By the time the comic really hits its stride at the end of the second year, the art is mostly decent and only gets better from then on out.
The Joes and their foes are all given distinct personalities (many of which were carried over from the toyline), usually with some kind of twist. Roadblock, the black, muscle-bound heavy machine gunner, is also a gourmand and chef; Australian Major Bludd is a vicious mercenary who’s also well read (but an awful poet); Cover Girl, driver of the Wolverine tracked rocket artillery vehicle, is a former world-class model and and a girly girl, regularly checking her hair and makeup. This latter character is allowed to be unsure as she goes into her first combat, is allowed to get help from her male teammates when needed (but stands on her own when not needed), and is allowed to be attractive and feminine. The Joes have characters of all races and both sexes, a fact that just is and is never commented on or made an issue (at least in the first two years). Again, all this sharply contrasts with modern entertainment in so many ways.
In fact, the comic as a whole is far better than anyone would have the right to expect. The writer, Larry Hama, took the time to do research on real world military equipment and tactics, and inserted them wherever he could. He researched the proper checklist for taking off in a Lancaster bomber, plus the procedure to start up one of the engines which was missing a critical component. And inserted both without over-much exposition or a tedious lecture. The focus on accuracy kept the series grounded, lending verisimilitude to the more fantastic elements.
Larry Hama may not win any awards for his work on the series, but he’s a much better writer than the phrase “based on the Hasbro toy line” would indicate. He treats the Joes’ world seriously and respects the audience, something rare in any entertainment field (especially lately). He manages to tell interesting, action-filled stories which entertain the audience, the entire point of an entertainment medium.
The apex of the first two years, and perhaps the whole series (after #49-#50), is issue #21, “Silent Interlude”. The entire story is related visually, with no dialogue, internal monologue, or any other word boxes. Everything is communicated through characters’ postures, facial expressions, or actions. Despite this, the issue is dynamic and kinetic. The lack of talky bits forces a focus on the clear and unambiguous depiction of events, at which the comic absolutely succeeds.
Modern comics have all-too-frequently become little more than a vehicle for the author’s sexual peccadilloes or political obsessions, and sales have suffered for it. Reading G.I. Joe is a trip back into a time when ideological inculcation was nearly nonexistent, and the only thing that mattered was entertaining the audience. In that, the comic certainly succeeds.