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The second volume of Classic GI Joe is where the book really starts living up to its reputation. A lot of this has to do with the numerous character introductions. Larry Hama wastes no time in introducing a number of soon-to-be-fan-favorite Joes in the opening story as Wild Bill drops off Doc, Snow Job and Gung Ho to rendezvous with the main team in the Arctic. None of the previous characters get killed off to make room for the newcomers. They just get moved to the side and faded away, so that you don’t really notice that, for instance, Gung Ho has effectively replaced Steeler. There are some art quirks, such as Wild Bill and Gung Ho both having dark hair.
These new characters are more interesting both visually and personality-wise than the characters they replace. The crazy, shirtless Gung Ho becomes Snake-Eyes’ self-appointed new best friend. Snow Job pulls a funny prank on Rock’n’Roll to get the laid-back gunner to ease up on the over-the-top Marine, claiming that Gung Ho has a sister who’s a model. (I’m not going to ruin the punchline.) Doc feels out of place amongst his violent comrades, until he uses judo as effectively as other Joes use their rifles. The new arrivals pile on as the story continues, with Torpedo, Cover Girl, Tripwire, Ace and Airborne all joining up, and the stream of new members never really ends.
Cobra also sees some new arrivals. Along with the return of Kwinn and Dr. Venom, we also get to meet Cobra Commander’s new number two. One of Larry Hama’s complaints about the early Cobra toys is that none of them had faces; that’s why the Baroness was around and why he had to resort to creating Scar-Face, a mutilated Cobra officer. This gets corrected with the addition of Alexander McCullen Destro the XXIV. The hulking, chrome-faced weapons designer not only adds some muscle to Cobra’s core, but Destro is also the Baroness’ love interest, since clearly nothing was going to happen between her and the Commander.
Another long-standing character introduced in this volume is Major Bludd, who if he had debuted two issues earlier could have been one of Cobra’s best men. Instead, he’s overshadowed by Destro and gets stuck in the role of constantly-backstabbing toady. During a long chase while escorting the wounded Baroness, he sells her out at least three times. Of course, she sells him out just as often, Cobra Commander constantly screws them over, and let’s not forget the mutual hatred between Kwinn and Dr. Venom. Cobra Commander may be much more competent in the comics versus the cartoon, but it’s still clear that he gets his way more through coercion than any physical prowess.
The majority of Classic GI Joe Vol. 2 is one very long story effectively called the “Destro Saga”. Cobra uses the banana republic of Sierra Gordo to strike out at the Joes while trying to determine the location of their base. Various small teams of Joes get to shine, such as Breaker, Gung Ho and Stalker making their way through the jungle, the latter dressed in his best Miami Vice attire. Scar-Face the Cobra officer escapes to Coney Island, turning that unusual location into a battleground.
But the most memorable part of the story, and easily the most influential on fans, is the Snake-Eyes storyline. He, Kwinn and Dr. Venom get stuck in a sunken bunker for three issues straight, and to survive, Snake-Eyes draws on his ninja training. GI Joe wouldn’t really get ninja-crazy until the introduction of Storm Shadow, but this marked the change in Snake-Eyes from commando to ninja. The villains of this storyline are also great, with Dr. Venom an amoral, nasty jerk and Kwinn an arrogant but honorable foe. Even the inherent silliness of the blocky Serpent armor can’t interfere with the climax of the storyline. We’re getting an updated Kwinn figure later this year despite it initially being put in the prototype vault, and I’m really glad I read this story just in time to pick up that figure.
The art by Mike Vosburg and Geof Isherwood is serviceable, but Classic GI Joe isn’t a book you read for the art. More and more of what is truly “classic” in the franchise gets established during a thrilling—if somewhat convoluted—story. You could, in theory, skip the first volume and go straight to this one, but I think you really get a better sense of the story when you go issue by issue.
When Marvel began a tie-in comic to Hasbro’s new, smaller GI Joe toyline in 1982, I doubt either party expected it to be quite so successful or last so long. The ideas behind toy tie-in media were rapidly evolving thanks to new licensing laws and advertising rules, allowing toys and comics to be more openly advertised on television. But all of the modified rules would be for naught without the work of one Larry Hama. The original GI Joe: A Real American Hero comic ran for 155 issues; nearly every issue, almost all of its tie-in material, most of the toy bios and a second title, Special Missions, were all written by one man. When you look back at GI Joe in comics, it’s essentially a creator-owned book masquerading as a toy tie-in.
Without Larry Hama, GI Joe would have lacked authenticity. Hama had been in Vietnam as a “tunnel rat”, running underground missions; he was later honored with a figure designed after him, named Tunnel Rat. Most comic book writers don’t have battle experience, and as a result, war comics tend to be a bit silly. GI Joe has its silly moments—many of which come from Hasbro’s own merchandising choices—but throughout it, there’s a sense that Hama’s putting his all into the narrative. He’s still at it with IDW’s ARAH ongoing, which relaunched from issue 155.5 and is marching towards 200 even as the franchise returns to the public eye once more with what looks to be a much better live-action film in Retaliation.
If, like me, you grew up with the cartoon over the comic, then you might be surprised at the members of the Joes in Classic GI Joe Vol. 1. Major characters like Flint, Lady Jaye, Roadblock and Duke wouldn’t be created for another few years. Don’t let the cover fool you—that blonde guy isn’t Duke, but Hawk, who was blonde in the comics before he got a promotion, a helmet and a jetpack on the cartoon. J. Scott Campbell’s trade cover also moves two of the more prominent Joes onto its facsimile of issue 1’s cover; Rock’n’Roll replaces Zap, while Snake-Eyes replaces Stalker (who gets put on in Grunt’s stead). The original GI Joe toys were more or less larger, articulated Little Green Army Men… for the most part.
The exceptions to that last statement—Snake-Eyes, Stalker and Scarlett—became the most important and longest-lasting characters on the team. Snake-Eyes’ promotion to main character happens mostly in the next volume, but he does a lot for the team in these first ten issues, and issue 2 provides the first of many spotlights. It’s pretty amazing when you consider that his original toy was just a giant lump of unpainted black plastic! I have to think Hama patterned Snake-Eyes’ rise on the ascent of another mysterious, cover-stealing, ninja-retconned, often taciturn Marvel character in a group book: Wolverine. Unsurprisingly, one of Hama’s other long writing assignments was the Wolverine solo title, with mixed results. Snake-Eyes’ success also kept his best friend Stalker and girlfriend Scarlett around longer than most of the original team.
Many of the other team members in Volume 1 blend together; you can only do so much to differentiate a bunch of white guys in green fatigues. Hawk stands apart by virtue of being the leader, Zap is the Hispanic one, Grunt is the huge one, and you can always tell which one is Breaker by his constant gum-chewing. Some are so alike that I got confused, which isn’t helped by some of the name choices. I first thought that they had screwed up a scene with a bomb getting defused by having Breaker do it instead of Short-Fuse… but it turns out that Short-Fuse is actually the mortar guy! Not that you’d know that without re-reading the first issue, because I think that’s the only time he gets any individual lines of dialogue or does anything important. You might similarly get confused between Flash and Zap; Flash is the one with the laser, while Zap is the one who drives the motorcycle.
The vehicle drivers are easier to remember, since they’re usually drawn in their vehicles, but the standout is Clutch. As the driver of the awesomely double-gunned VAMP jeep, Clutch is one of the most useful members, and he can always be found hitting on Scarlett. If you get a Shipwreck vibe from him, you’re on the money; by the time the cartoon came around, Shipwreck was the new figure on the shelves, so they shifted his characterization to him. Unusually, the Joes didn’t have any aircraft of their own for some time, enabling Cobra to get away more than once.
Speaking of Cobra, as you might imagine, the comics version of Cobra Commander is far more competent than the cartoon version. While the Baroness is his ever-present right-hand here, there’s no sign of Destro or the various kind of Vipers. Instead, there are numerous basic Cobra troopers, the Eskimo mercenary Kwinn, and the fearsome Dr. Venom. These latter two will become major characters in the next volume, but for now, each serves as a great single-issue foe, with Venom extracting Snake-Eyes’ origin in issue 10. This story also introduces the Cobra-controlled town of Springfield and one of its occupants, Billy, who won’t be important for another few years.
In the comments for the Collected Editions review of Captain Atom: Evolution (http://collectededitions.blogspot.com/2013/01/review-captain-atom-vol-1-evolution-trade.html), I mentioned that there’s a lack of job security in today’s Big 2 compared to years ago. You can see this in play in Classic GI Joe. Larry Hama keeps setting up characters and plot lines that won’t get used for dozens of issues; I just finished Volume 3 and Billy’s plotline still hasn’t really started. The artwork is primarily by Don Perlin, Herb Trimpe and Mike Vosberg, with Trimpe also writing the super-fast-paced issue 8. It’s one of those art styles where it just looks perfect for the subject matter, even if Trimpe has a weird tendency of mis-drawing Cobra Commander’s hood to look like a thumb.
Classic GI Joe Vol. 1 doesn’t really build to a much larger story until the last issue, but it sets up the concept and allows you evolve with the team.
This is a Tumblr celebrating one of comics’ Golden Ages. With more and more comics nodding back to the 80s and early 90s, I decided to go back and read the books I missed out on when I was a kid.
About me: I’m Doug Glassman, a writer for http://collectededitions.blogspot.com/.