GI Joe: Sierra Muerte #1

GI Joe: Sierra Muerte #1

There are certain cartoonists I associate with certain genres of music or songs, not very intelligently for the most part, Mark Beyer comics always get Don’t Worry About the Government by Talking Heads stuck in my head for some reason. Michel Fiffe’s comics always make me think of certain house remixes of '70s disco tracks by this Norweigan DJ Todd Terje. Again, it’s not really a smart thing, I was just listening to those a lot around the time Copra Round One came out, but I do find it fitting. Terje’s remixes are decompressed explorations of the good to be found in cliched pop ephemera of yesteryear, stretching out, honing in and pointing out the funky and fresh of bargain bin classics. The end product is something that clearly bears Terje’s stamp but leaves you excited about old disco junk, newly appreciating the groove of a track even when the thing you like really only does exist in the remix. So it is in Fiffe’s comics. Blessed with the opportunity to tell his own stories at whatever pace he wants, Fiffe reanimates the cliches and visual licks of the comics that clog the quarter bins (and our hearts). Whether in the '80s superhero analogizing COPRA or the continuity calculus of Bloodstrike: Brutalists, Fiffe’s artistic exuberance doesn’t just make good comics, it makes for comics that make you want to read comics.

With GI Joe: Sierra Muerte, Fiffe continues his foray into personalized expansions of the quarter stack with an official tie-in comic from IDW, the patron saint publisher of glossy new toy commercials. Unlike previous works in this vein from Fiffe, there are some serious constraints on what he can do in this book. COPRA had the benefit of being an original story, albeit one populated by familiar faces with serial numbers filed off, and even Bloodstrike was continuing a narrative that honestly few people remained attached to (at least not moreso than Fiffe). GI Joe is not the media force it was in the mid-'80s, but it still is one, and Fiffe has both fan and publisher expectations to bear in mind on this title. There are genuine external constraints on this book - he can’t push the formula too far. And besides which, Fiffe is a diligent fan himself in many respects, and the house style of GI Joe is not quite as outlandish as some of the material he’s riffed on in the past. As such, there is something of a ceiling on the excitement of this comic that I haven’t really felt before in his comics. The storyline is captivating, but a little boilerplate, and the parade of characters tossed by the reader in issue one are entertaining but it’s hard to have much attachment to them without the excitement of prior familiarity. Even the visual flair seems a little tampered down in comparison to other Fiffe books, although still wildly experimental in comparison to anything else on the Wednesday racks.

However, the presence of this ceiling does not mean that GI Joe is not an incredibly fun comic to read, full of interesting textures and playful ideas that are a testament to Fiffe’s creativity and resourcefulness as a cartoonist. For this comic, Fiffe has in fact crafted something a bit like those remixes, operating within the paradigm of a commercial something that can’t truly be altered and prodding at its edges. The comic’s story, a skirmish between rival gangs of toy men over some secret weapons not yet understood, unfolds over a new terrain of Fiffe’s invention, the familiar product of GI Joe travelling across a unique environment.

Tom Scioli’s Transformers Vs. GI Joe, another extended toy commercial that could justifiably be plopped next to your copy of Building Stories on the shelf, experimented with compressing huge amounts of visual information, arranging its figures in spaces as if actual toys were battling it out on the page, overhead splash pages resembling four color ant colonies. Fiffe’s approach is on the face of it quite the opposite, doling out splashy, decompressed action scenes where every mark made on the page is felt as hard as a punch connecting to the jaw, characters leaping to the center of the page to make their being known. It goes without saying I suppose that Fiffe is the best at drawing fight scenes in comics right now - only Ian MacEwan compares if you’re looking for a cartoonist who can make a figure sail through a space in dynamic action centerpieces, 30 pages at a time.

Scioli and Fiffe do however both share an interest in how their settings dwarf their characters. Scioli at his most toyetic arranges his little people (and robots) along Kirbyesque game boards which threaten to envelop the players entirely. Fiffe’s spaces are nominally more traditional action backdrops, beaches and marshes, city streets and alleyways, but there is a playfulness in how much or little the players connect to their arenas, a deliberate dissonance between the characters and their environment. The island of Sierra Muerte is dingy and lived-in, whereas the heroes and villains zipping about are bright and clean as a cell frame. A figure may stand out in bright flat animation colors against a watercolor wash background, until he’s pushed into the muck and sinks into handcrafted color gradient of the earth. Civilians sunken into the background panic while cartoon heroes perform their acrobatics.

The setting of the comic itself is neither real nor established lore. As the very nerdy backmatter of this issue helpfully explains in great detail, Sierra Muerte is an island that appears on maps in some of the Larry Hama comics but is never actually visited at any point in the GI Joe franchise, a new terrain to invent and explore. With this liberty available, Fiffe creates a flexible geography that often seems like it could actually be nowhere but is potentially very large and very definite. We are as out of our element here as the Joes and Cobra duking it out, around every seemingly deserted corner could be a new surprise, a new detail. We are in a definite place, but we don’t know how it fits together.

My favorite image in the first issue (okay, I have a lot of favorite images but this one is relevant) is one of the action shots of a character you like and remember[1] leaping across the page, or more specifically the panel behind her. In the awesomely drab street scene behind our action heroine, we see a street corner, a parked cab, garbage, and a dude with his face mushed into the pavement. But we also see, in the top left corner of the panel, kinda hidden but basically unmissable, a small image of a very stressed person peering out from a window, clearly thinking something along the lines of “what the f*ck.” I was cackling the first time I noticed this, but it’s also a microcosm of what this comic does very well. You can’t know this person, there’s no interior life to these lines on paper besides the current predicament they’re in. But you understand immediately that there’s an interiority there, a perspective from which the mayhem unfolding on page may look greatly different. I take this to be something like the thesis of Sierra Muerte, a franchise contribution from a thoughtful artist, telling a story that does not stray far outside the lines of the expected entertainment but suggesting occasionally that this fight might look different from another angle. There is a possibility that we could encounter the Joes and Cobra not as the pop-mythic forces they are but as rival militaries destroying communities turned turf. There’s also a chance to see the good and bad guy toys as human, not in a moralistic sense but in the sense of people who trip on a rock and curse real loud, or who stutter. Fiffe delivers these challenges to the stock formula without actually breaking from it. The Joes aren’t going to question their actions, you are, but only if you want to.

[1] Not me, I’m a Gen Z Canadian and I grew up without cable. I should probably read some Larry Hama comics at some point, y’all seem to think he’s the bee’s knees.