Do Not Fade Away

If the news is to be believed, IDW will lose its G.I. Joe license at the end of 2022. This might be the end of Larry Hama’s run on the series, right around issue #300. To clarify, Hama has been writing the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero title for IDW since May 2010, starting from issue #155.5 (ah, comics numbering), which picked up from when Hama finished his Marvel run on the same title with issue #155 in December of 1994 - so, he gets the rare pleasure of doing a big epic ending twice. I haven't been following the IDW run too closely; too much of the art is on the wrong side of 'medium' and it sometimes feels like the writing is indebted to old ideas and storylines. But still, even lower-tier Hama is something worth your time... and that Marvel run was anything but lower-tier Hama.

Between June 1982 and December 1994, Hama wrote almost all of the 155-issue run of Marvel’s A Real American Hero - there were less than 10 fill-in issues. Hama also wrote around 40 issues of various spin-off titles. That’s a lot of comics, which shouldn’t be surprising; if Marvel is good at anything it’s milking a successful idea until it’s bone dry. What is surprising is that it’s a lot of good comics. Some of it very good, even.

Oh, the Marvel run takes a while to find its legs, and gets really shaggy towards the end - too many characters, too many plotlines, too many damn ninjas. The art side going stereotypically 1990s didn’t help much either. You can’t even blame any particular artist; the last three issues had three different pencilers. It was simply that the zeitgeist had passed the title by. Still, when it was on, Hama’s G.I. Joe was some of the best of the 1980s adventure team comics, right alongside the Claremont-written Uncanny X-Men, the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League International and the Ostrander/Yale/McDonnell Suicide Squad.

It really shouldn’t work. It’s a toy-based comic, and those are mostly awful. Interference was sure to come from two corporations (Marvel and Hasbro) instead of one.1 It was a war comic, of sort, at time when the genre didn’t really exist anymore. Larry Hama, who seemingly got the job because no one else wanted it, was still mostly known as an editor (apparently giving young Christopher Priest the valued advice “never let the white man take advantage of you”) and an occasional artist. It was his job to take these little plastic people given to him by the corporation(s) and breath some life into them: a degree of personality.

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was a lot of things, some of them contradictory, but the charm of it is that it manages to be all these different things without ever tipping in one direction. It’s an action series - a lot of big boys with big toys shooting at other boys and their toys. It’s also a globetrotting adventure series in the style of Carl Barks’ duck comics.2 Like the above-mentioned Uncanny X-Men, it’s an extremely convoluted soap opera in which every major character turns out to be related, either by blood or fate. And, oddly enough, it’s pretty often a comedy series with a rather sharp eye for the foibles of 1980s America. Which is the last thing you expect from a series designed to promote and sell military-themed toys.

From G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #19, written by Larry Hama, penciled by Mike Vosburg, inked by Jon D'Agostino, colored by George Roussos, lettered by Rick Parker. Please note that 're-mastered' colors as evidenced throughout this article, either uncredited or credited to "Digikore Design Limited" in their various reprint packages, may not reflect the original work of such contributors.

Reading through these 155 issues, one keeps getting surprised at what Hama is allowed to do in a series aimed at children. It’s not like he’s being subtle about it. In one early issue, the Joes are defending their base by booby-trapping ambulances with claymore mines; one character calls attention to the fact that this a violation of Geneva Convention, only to be told: “did you know that most weapons used by American police departments are illegal under the rules of the Geneva Convention?” Another long-standing storyline was concerned with interference in the fictional country of Sierra Gordo by the “North American Banana Monopoly” - an obvious stand in for the United Fruit Company and its dirty deeds in service of Uncle Sam in Guatemala. For a large chunk of the series, the protagonists have to worry more about the people giving them orders, sending them to fight and die, than the people shooting at them. You can at least defend yourself from an enemy in front of you; not so much the one above you.

It’s tempting to call this ‘satire’, especially considering the comedic tone Hama often takes,3 but I am not sure this is the correct designation. Hama’s take on the American military is more complex than one would expect, though one should not read G.I. Joe looking for the bitter anger of a Garth Ennis or the melodramatic ‘oh, this senseless waste of human life’ of Harvey Kurtzman. Hama had served in the armed forced during the Vietnam War, and there’s something notably cynical about his attitude that a soldier should expect nothing but the worst from his country. That's not to say this is what these soldiers deserve, but it is what they get. It's something that's entwined in the text, a constant theme throughout every story.

Possibly, this was encouraged by Hama's continued employment in the comics market, which seems equally hostile to its working force. As Hama noted when discussing the origins of A Real American Hero: “I never rewrote a single word of anybody’s script in all my time as an editor. If a change had to be made, I had the writer do it himself. I was sensitive to this because an editor changed a whole balloon in G.I. Joe #1. The original line was, 'A soldier’s job is to do the unthinkable and be forgotten.' What was substituted was some jingoistic patriotic crap that I carried the baggage for in silence for 30 years.” In the same interview, Hama reflects on the bunker mentality he had to adopt to survive in a mostly-white workplace (“You have to let a lot of casual racism go, since most people aren’t even aware they’re doing it”), which has the same resigned tone of an old soldier knowing command is going to fuck them over again. Not that it’s going to stop that soldier from doing his job - it is the one thing they’re good at.

From G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #7, written by Larry Hama, penciled by Herb Trimpe, inked by Chic Stone, colored by Christie Scheele, lettered by Jim Novak.

An early story arc spanning issues #6-7 involves a team of Joes repeatedly risking life and limb in order to safeguard top secret equipment salvaged from the Russian military... only to be told by the end that it was all a decoy; all their efforts were basically for nothing. The final image of issue #7, a panel showing the field team’s shocked-silent responses to the truth, is a great understated drawing from the usually-bombastic Herb Trimpe. You get used, and you have to get used to being used.

Over 100 issues later, the G.I. Joe team finds itself deployed to a fictional country in the Middle East - a not particularly subtle nod to the American invasion of Iraq (the first one, that is). It’s a slightly overlong storyline that’s mostly notable for the large amount of deaths in a series that was otherwise a relatively bloodless war story.4 Characters drop like flies throughout, until the people higher up the food chain come to an agreement and the whole operation is scrapped. Nothing really happened, except some money changing hands and some civilians and soldiers dying. It’s wholly unsatisfying, which is exactly the point Hama is trying to make.

From G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #113, written Larry Hama, penciled by John Statema, inked by Randy Emberlin, colored by Bob Sharen, lettered by Rick Parker.

And, again, it’s a case of business synergy making Hama's point for him - these characters weren’t let go simply because the writer wanted to make some grand artistic statement. They were let go because the toys were giving way to newer toys, and Hama got the ok to clear the deck a little. Without even saying so, Hama makes the point that the business of the military is business.5 Another particularly great Herb Trimpe page can be found in issue #99, when two Joes get some time out and try to spend it with their family - only to find the quaint little burg where they grew up is a slowly dying ruin. A full page depicts an old man looking out a window, contemplating how there’s no future to look forward to, while the two Joes simply look at one another at a loss for words.

So much of military fiction, and even military history, seems to consider a completely separate sphere from the civilian world. It takes place ‘over there’ and it involves ‘soldiers’ rather than ‘people’. Throughout A Real American Hero we see the G.I. Joe team costing U.S. taxpayers untold amounts of money with their gear and campaigns, with an oft-repeated refrain that Uncle Sugar (not a codename for one the characters) will take care of all expenses. There’s always money for war, but not for everything else.

From G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #100, written by Larry Hama, penciled by M.D. Bright, inked by Randy Emberlin, colored by Bob Sharen, lettered by R.L. Parker.

This is exactly where Cobra enters the picture. The series' enemy organization is the expected grab-bag of disposable troops, colorful mercenaries and mad scientists. But, in a rather unique touch for the period, Cobra isn’t portrayed as a threat from without, but from within. Cobra Commander’s slowly-dripped origin story is that of a former used-car salesman who makes his fortune through pyramid schemes and direct marketing. Twice we see his forces taking over small towns in America by essentially promising the dissatisfied citizens everything they want to hear - lots of money, under the table with no government interference, and the ability to keep their lifestyle as-is. A true child of the 1980s political structure, Cobra offers the American Dream to people who consider themselves ‘Real Americans’ - which necessarily involves the creation of ‘unreal Americans’ as counterbalance.

The unspoken fact is that G.I. Joe is the sort of multi-ethnic, multi-racial team that would probably warrant angry four-hour rants on YouTube if debuted today,6 while Cobra seems to be almost entirely white. This notion is made extremely creepy by the recurring ‘Fred series’ - a group of Cobra agents given plastic surgery to appear as generic yuppies, the sort of men America is assumed to trust inherently. More dangerous than the blue-clad soldiers with their guns and bombs, the Freds are expected to worm their way into politics, local and national, to slowly take control of the public perception; to shift the Overton window. And so, the ongoing question throughout much of the series: who is the Real American? The sad answer is that Cobra has as much (or even more) claim to the soul of the nation than the G.I. Joe team.

From G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #29, written by Larry Hama, penciled by Frank Springer, inked by Andy Mushynsky, colored by George Roussos, lettered by Rick Parker.

Look, no one is going to confuse G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero with It Was the War of the Trenches, or even Charley's War. It's too jingoistic–one early story features the team casually mowing down Iranian troops who've made perfectly valid objections to American and Russian forces crossing their border–too toyetic, and not brutal enough. Hama can perfectly elucidate various faults with the American War apparatus, but always from the point of view that such things are necessary. His questions can only go so deep. But at the same time... Hama was a man with a lot on his mind about the way the country was being run, about the way the military was being used, and this was the outlet he was given. He made use of it.

This is also not to say that the comic is all some intellectual debate about American force projection. It's a fun series to read; Hama was balancing crazy amount of characters (which ended up being the thing that dragged the book down, quality-wise; no one needs to suffer through three full issues dedicates to *shudder* Ninja Force), and somehow managed to find enough plot to give everyone something to do. He could do action, he could do comedy, he could do drama. And the important thing was - he could do them all at the same time. The above-mentioned issue #99, the one with the Springsteen-like moment of kitchen sink Americana with the man staring out the window, also has a subplot with two teenage girls discovering G.I. Joe’s secret base and a lot of sitcom shenanigans as the soldiers try to decide what to do with them.

All of this is doubly impressive when you consider Hama, by his own testimony, did not plan ahead. All these plots were concocted on the go, on an issue-by-issue basis, and he makes it all work without being too incongruous. Like any good long-form superhero story, everything somehow ends up connected - these same girls are vital to the neutralization of a Cobra scheme. If Jonathan Hickman's writing is like a series of charts, Hama’s is like a juggling act - one in which new items are constantly being fed into the mix without the whole thing somehow falling. This seat-of-your-pants plotting moves so fast the audience doesn’t really have time to ask difficult questions -they just accept the next ridiculous turn (combat in space, mutants, robots) and roll with it.

It helps that the series had mostly good artists to work with. Herb Trimpe, Mike Vosburg and Rod Whigham penciled most of the first 100 issues, and while none of them became superstars off that work, there’s a certain joy in the solidness of 1980s Marvel art - the kind of meat-and-potatoes storytelling that took everything the script asked and just showed it as was. Take issue #34, a personal favorite, which is basically a long aerial action scene. Air fights are hard to draw clearly, because when both combatants are up in the air (especially when they fly non-emotive vehicles instead of being superheroes) there’s no frame of reference. But Hama and Whigham make it work, partly by Hama just constantly narrating the character actions, but also by going through every narrative possibility, as both sides exhaust every weapon and trick up their sleeve, constantly trying to one-up each other’s strategy. Like a game of chess, with sidewinders.

From G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #27, written by Larry Hama, penciled by Frank Springer, inked by Andy Mushynsky, colored by George Roussos, lettered by Rick Parker.

Even Frank Springer, already the oldest of hands by the time the series came out, found new life in its pages. He had an eye for the inherent ridiculousness of the concept, and could show it without the need to play it up for cartoonish effect. In fact, the very deadpan nature of his lines is what sold the gags best: just look at long vertical panel above from issue #27, like something straight of MAD magazine with all the small bit players that occupy the street, but in a manner that never crosses the line into outright parody.

Later still, M.D. Bright would take over for several issues, and that fact that he didn’t become a bigger name right there and then (and though work he was doing on Power Man and Iron Fist at the same time) is proof no one was looking at the book properly. He could do action, he could do comedy, he could do quite affecting drama. A truly all-in-one artist who would only get (some) of the recognition owed to him after the arrival of Milestone Media.

Even when the 1990s took over, in the form of Andrew Wildman’s more exuberant large-poses-and-larger-mouths set pieces, the series still managed to make it work. You could sense a tiredness by then, however; even thinning the character herd didn’t help. Issue #124 has three different set pieces in three locations with three different sets of characters. It’s exhausting to read, and must have been even more exhausting to create. Even so, there’s something in it to admire - the construction of it, uneven as it is. Hama, an artist himself, respected the craft of a proper action scene: the need to think through the choices each character makes and the implications of elements like ‘setting’ and ‘equipment’. Respect - that’s a good word here. Hama respected his readers, respected his craft.

That Marvel series came to end with issue #155, a coda in which Snake Eyes writes a letter to a teenager thinking about enlistment. It’s a mix of the things that made the series work and signs that its age has long passed. A big dramatic soliloquy about the nature of service to one’s country superimposed over Scarlett's new post-Liefeld costume does not work as well it should have. Trying to reframe the Vietnam War in the context of secret ninja warriors feels tasteless now, and was probably even more tasteless then.

From G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #155, written by Larry Hama, penciled by Phil Gosier, inked by Scott Koblish, colored by Chia-Chi Wang (as: "Chi"), lettered by Vickie Williams.

Still, Hama doesn’t spare the younger readers some of the harsher truths; a shot of Snake Eyes recalling a burnt-up soldier in a hospital begging to be put out of his misery still echoes in the mind. A story of a soldier who stayed in Vietnam simply so his brother wouldn’t be sent to the front; another who kept signing up trying to finance medical treatment for his father.7 It’s in these moments, not in the mawkish talk about ‘camaraderie’ and the ‘sacred bond’, that the series truly excels. Truth is often unpleasant, but it is still the truth. And as long as America refuses to confront its truths, as long it keeps listening to that used-car salesman within–that figure promising that you can have it all, for cheap, and without sacrifice–it can never become better. All of that, spoken through the mouth of a 3.75-inch action figure.

* * *

Front page image from G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #155, written by Larry Hama, penciled by Phil Gosier, inked by Scott Koblish, colored by Chia-Chi Wang (as: "Chi"), lettered by Vickie Williams.

  1. For example, at a certain point Hasbro wanted Hama to use the G.I. Joe character Ghostrider. Marvel, who published Ghost Rider, refused to allow the name on the page to avoid confusion between a jet pilot and a burning skull man on a motorcycle.
  2. Apparently one of Hama’s great sorrows is that he never got a shot at writing Uncle Scrooge; he did, however, make own attempt at writing funny animal stories with Bucky O’Hare, created with the artist Michael Golden.
  3. One issue has a bumbling sheriff taken straight from The Dukes of Hazzard, while another has a criminal accountant who is also a madman in a flight suit accompanied by trained birds of prey.
  4. This was a departure from the G.I. Joe television cartoon, which was an action show infamously free of any perceived violence. Hama himself remarked of the cartoon, in the Netflix documentary series The Toys That Made Us: "I thought it was morally bankrupt not to have death." That being said... the comics had no problem dropping random enemy soldiers, and the heroes do get shot up and bloodied quite a bit, but actual protagonist death is extremely rare in the first 100 issues. Can’t throw away the toys without Hasbro’s say so.
  5. “Yes, ships will continue to be built, for the shipbuilders must make their profits. And guns still will be manufactured and powder and rifles will be made, for the munitions makers must make their huge profits. And the soldiers, of course, must wear uniforms, for the manufacturer must make their war profits too.” Smedley D. Butler, War is a Racket, 1935.
  6. In issue #11, new recruit Franklin Talltree is asked: “Talltree. Is that an Indian name?” He curtly replies: “No. It’s Native American.”
  7. Once again, the notion that there is money for war, but no money for anything else - people have to fend for themselves.