IDW Publishing is set to release the fifteenth volume of its Classic G.I. Joe trade paperback series this month, collecting in its near-entirety Larry Hama’s original run on the popular Marvel Comics/Hasbro toy tie-in comic book. Join us as we look back on one of the most fondly-remembered comics of the 1980s.
It was not too long ago when the G.I. Joe brand was a genuine merchandising and multimedia juggernaut. Hasbro’s 1:18 scale G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero line was the top-selling American toy of 1985 (outperforming Mattel’s Masters of the Universe and Kenner’s similarly-scaled Star Wars toys at retail), the G.I. Joe cartoon series was a reliable Saturday morning and after-school draw on 1980s network TV, and up until around 1989 or so, the licensed G.I. Joe comic series was one of Marvel Comics’ most successful books, rivaling well-established titles like The Uncanny X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man in terms of popularity—it was Marvel’s top subscription seller during the mid-1980s and a massive hit on the newsstands. It all seems a little strange now in light of the toys’ current struggles at retail, the current G.I. Joe comics’ reduced (although somewhat stable) niche in the contemporary comics climate, G.I. Joe: Renegades‘ quasi-cancellation on Hasbro-owned channel The Hub, and the recent fiasco over G.I. Joe: Retaliation‘s production delays.
In the Beginning
By now, the story of how artist-editor Larry Hama ended up with the assignment of writing Marvel’s licensed G.I. Joe comic book has entered industry lore. The tale goes that Hasbro struck a deal with Marvel Comics sometime in 1981 to create a comic book based on its new 1:18 scale toy soldier line that was slated to hit stores in 1982. According to former Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Jim Shooter
The President or CEO of Hasbro was at a charity event that Marvel’s President was also at. They ended up in the men’s room, standing next to each other peeing, and I think that’s how they met. They were talking about each other’s respective businesses, and it came up that Hasbro wanted to reactivate the trademark on G.I. Joe, but they were trying to come up with a new approach. [Marvel’s President] was like ‘We have the best creative people in the world! Let me bring in this editor-in-chief of mine and we’ll fix it for you!’
Shooter went to each of Marvel’s contract writers with the offer to write the book, but one after another, they declined. As recounted by Hama in an impromptu Q&A session at the 2012 Inkpot Award ceremony, the refusals were primarily because of the fact that the writers weren’t thrilled with the prospect of doing licensed comics, seeing it as “bottom of the barrel” sort of work—the pay rates would be considerably less than that for a typical comic book writing job, since a percentage of the licensing fee would be taken off of the creative team’s cheques. Shooter then went down editor’s row, looking for a staffer willing to take on the assignment. Hama was the last person Shooter asked (Hama’s office was the last one on the floor), and he accepted without knowing anything about the book other than it would be based on a toy license
I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it. What is it?’ If it had been [Mattel girls’ fashion doll] Barbie, I would have jumped at the chance to do Barbie.
Hama dusted off some character concepts from a rejected proposal he had written for a military-themed comic book set in the Marvel superhero universe called Fury Force and went about adapting them to fit the first toy designs supplied by Hasbro toy designer Ron Rudat.
In retrospect, Hama probably was the ideal candidate to “worldbuild” and write a licensed comic book intended to generate marketing synergy for a line of plastic toy soldiers. Hama had been in the Army, serving as a combat engineer during the Vietnam War. After completing the active service terms of his military contract in 1971, Hama—a graduate of Manhattan’s High School of Art and Design (where he studied alongside the likes of Frank Brunner and Ralph Reese)—returned to New York and found work as an assistant to legendary comics artist Wally Wood. Hama picked up advertising and commercial art experience as an associate at Neal Adams‘ Continuity Studios, where his duties included illustrating storyboards for TV commercials. Throughout the 1970s, Hama worked as a freelance comics artist, among his more notable works were a stint as a penciler on an Iron Fist serial in the Marvel Premiere comic book anthology and membership in the “Crusty Bunkers” freelance comic book inking collective. Hama joined the DC Comics editorial staff in the mid-1970s, where one of the comic books he oversaw was a licensed title based on the Welcome Back, Kotter TV show. Hama left for DC’s crosstown rival Marvel Comics as an editor in 1980, where his most renowned editorial contribution is probably the “Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work” paste-up—now considered standard instructional fare in one form or another in just about all contemporary post-secondary comics art programs in the States—created by Hama from Wally Wood’s old reminder sheets.
Hama’s unique combination of experience in the military, comics creation, advertising/commercial art, and licensed media production fields had him perfectly-equipped to write a toy soldier license-based comic book and all the ancillary tasks that responsibility entailed (which, in the case of G.I. Joe, included writing dossiers or “file cards” for the various G.I. Joe action figures designed by Rudat and his team) by the time Shooter had come to him with the offer. And when the 1980s “ninja craze” crept into comics, Hama—a sansei who spent many a childhood weekend watching black-and-white mystic swordsman period dramas at Japanese-American civic fundraisers and who also just so happened to have trained in certain Asian martial arts—was able to seamlessly integrate the comics’ military themes with fantastical ninja action.
A Product of its Time
Hama always made it a point not to “write down” G.I. Joe to explicitly appeal to the toy’s preteen market
I don’t think any comic should ever be ‘written down’ to a supposed kid level. I tried my best not to do that. I was still categorized and stigmatized as a ‘kiddie writer’ because I did a toy book.
G.I. Joe (and its sister-title, G.I. Joe: Special Missions) featured stories that were much more sophisticated and nuanced than one would normally expect from comic books meant to bolster toy sales. Sure, cartoonish and highly-stylized military action dominated the comic’s pages and many of the antics on display wouldn’t be out of place in a superhero comic book, but Hama was able to inject relevant and biting insight and commentary in his work. The villainous Cobra organization started out as a somewhat generic, jackbooted, paramilitary terrorist organization with a vaguely fascistic bent, but as the series went on, it started to embody threats more germane to the 1980s: capitalism-without-a-conscience, profiteering from the suffering of others, the unfettered pursuit of easy profits even—or especially—at the cost of international security and human life.
The Cold War bogeyman of communism and the Soviet bloc still played the role of the occasional non-Cobra antagonist in the comic, but depictions of the USSR military in the comic book increasingly reflected the thawing effects of perestroika and glasnost. The Oktober Guard, the Warsaw Pact equivalent of the G.I. Joe team, wasn’t a faceless and nameless horde. Instead, they were soldiers who shared many of the same characteristics and concerns as the G.I. Joe team save for the fact that they were on opposite sides of an ideological divide—an important feature that set G.I. Joe apart from the jingoistic pap that typified much of the military-themed popular media and entertainment of the time.
For many of us who were preteens at the peak of G.I. Joe‘s popularity in the mid- and late-1980s, Hama’s comics were our first real window into the adult world of politics, military history, and current events. “Toy book” perceptions notwithstanding, Hama did not hesitate to bring up morally and politically complex real-world situations—often caricatured but not to such a degree that the inspiration becomes inscrutable—such as the American government’s long history of military adventurism and its support of unpopular extreme right-wing and quasi-fascistic dictators in the developing world and its abandonment of ideological allies for the sake of economic and political expediency (in the sequence below, thinly-veiled references are made to the CIA’s aborted “secret war” in Tibet).
On occasion, Hama would even wax philosophical about the nature of war and the paradox at the very heart of the warrior’s way.
The stories in G.I. Joe and G.I. Joe: Special Missions ran a wide gamut of topics and plots, but three recurring themes revealed themselves again and again: (1) The US military’s true role in promoting and preserving modern democracy,
(2) the idea that hard-won liberties are worth more than any promise of security or material gain,
and (3) the unique sense of esprit de corps found at the small-unit level.
The Rise and Fall of G.I. Joe
There were no firm plans to extend the G.I. Joe comics license after the first year of publication. According to Hama
Nobody expected it to go beyond six or twelve issues because licensed toy books never did until that point.
Marvel actually had modest successes with toy license-based comics before they finalized the G.I. Joe deal with Hasbro. Shogun Warriors, a comic book launched in 1979 and featuring toys from the eponymous Mattel toy line (which itself consisted of licensed reproductions of action figures made by the Japanese toy company Popy/Bandai) managed to last 20 issues. The Micronauts and Rom: Spaceknight comics—both launched in 1979—continued to enjoy decent sales years after the source toys’ disappointing and abbreviated runs on retail shelves had ended (The Mego Corporation stopped selling its Micronauts toys in 1980, Parker Brothers abandoned the Rom: Spaceknight line due to poor toy sales not long after). But neither title was a break-out hit, at least not on the same level G.I. Joe would eventually become. G.I. Joe performed remarkably well at the newsstand and on the subscription sheets—Marvel sold more subscriptions to G.I. Joe in 1985 than any other comic in its stable. G.I. Joe, along with a couple of Marvel’s two other most successful licensed titles, was actively expanding comics readership and even subsidizing the then-fledgling direct market. As Jim Shooter noted in a 2011 blog entry
What seemed to be happening was this: The Newsstand market, with its many tens of thousands of outlets (around 75,000, I think) served by the 400+ ID Wholesalers in North America was continually bringing in new readers. Some of them became enthusiasts and found their way to the comics shops. But new newsstand buyers kept turning up to replace them.
Titles like G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Star Wars helped attract new readers at the newsstands. Most people, especially kids, didn’t know or care who Iron Man was, but every kid knew G.I. Joe. Sooner or later, a kid with a Snake-Eyes figure in his pocket was bound to pass a spinner rack somewhere.
The newsstand cast a wide net. It funneled wannabe collectors into the comics shops. In a way, the spotty, unreliable, inconsistent nature of newsstand distribution was a good thing, because someone who just had to have every issue was more or less forced to seek out a comics shop.
Copies printed for the newsstand elevated the total print run and brought down the unit cost. Larger print runs amortize the fixed costs over more copies, making each copy cost less to produce. (Generally. Of course, if the print run is astronomical, the savings level off due to replating costs, etc.) So, because of the newsstand portion of the run, the Direct Market copies cost less per book, and were therefore more profitable!
As complete and as incontrovertible G.I. Joe‘s sales dominance was, it did little to change the perception in the greater comic book community that what Hama was doing was little more than getting paid substandard rates to write what was virtually ad copy for kids’ toys. The writer/artist remarked in a 1998 interview that
[The G.I. Joe comics’ success] was pretty hard to believe. Of course, it garnered me absolutely no respect in general comicdom…
… Even when I was writing the best-selling comic in the country, I couldn’t get another editor at Marvel to give me an assignment. I have never been offered an ‘A’ list book to write in my life. Wolverine was about to be canceled when I got it. In fact, when I was an editor at Marvel, I was able to prove to the editor-in-chief that I had gone to every editor on the row and they had all refused to give me work—so I was granted special dispensation to write for other companies!
In a separate interview conducted that same year, Hama suggested that part of his difficulty in acquiring high-profile writing assignments despite the proven sales successes of his work on G.I. Joe (and later, Wolverine) was due to an institutional bias against artist-editors at Marvel and DC
All the editors are writers. I think me and Joe Kubert and Mike Golden were about the only artist-editors ever hired at DC or Marvel. Writers and editors tend to regard us pencil pushers as idiot-savants at the best or ‘cheque-chasing hacks’ at the worst. The glass ceiling involves fan-boy geeks turned editor sniffing your butt to see if you are one of them—if you don’t pass muster, forget it.
Whatever the reason, there did seem to be the notion in the comic book community that the G.I. Joe comic book sold well primarily because of the large demand for the toys and related merchandise among children, and not because it had any particularly strong creative merits of its own. It’s probably worth noting that this wasn’t true in my case: I didn’t have that many G.I. Joe toys to begin with—at least when compared to many of my primary school classmates—and I kept on reading Hama’s G.I. Joe long after my childhood fascination with Hasbro’s little plastic men had waned. But it didn’t help the book’s creative reputation any that the fall in the comic book’s popularity during the early 1990s paralleled the toys’ decline at retail. Still, it’s just as possible that the book’s fading fortunes were simply a part of larger, industry-wide trends. When the G.I. Joe comic book was abruptly canceled in 1994, it was during the on-going collapse of the comics speculator market and Marvel Comics was only two years away from filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. By then, Marvel had also almost completely abandoned the newsstand distribution model which was highly instrumental during the G.I. Joe comic’s quick rise in popularity during the 1980s. More importantly, the general comics readership was skewing significantly older than the toy-buying preteen demographic that formed the core of the book’s audience. By the time the G.I. Joe comic book was canceled, even the youngest of the children who met the “Ages 5 & Up” safety recommendation for the first G.I. Joe toys sold in 1982 would have been 17 years old. As observed by Hama in 1998
When G.I. Joe was up to #75 or 80, I went to do a signing in Washington D.C. at a shop in Georgetown. When I got there, there was a line all the way around the block. I sat there for about six hours, signing every minute and all the fans were between the ages of nine and fourteen. Some kids had the entire run in plastic bags. About two years ago, I did a signing in Manhattan. I signed Wolverines for about two hours and there wasn’t a single kid in the line. Everybody was over twenty. In fact, one of the fans was a mail man, who was still in uniform because he skipped out on his route to get his books signed. I think the audience is older and much narrower than it was. I think the comic industry cut its own throat by catering to a very vocal minority and forgetting that kids need something of their own.
Ironically, it was perhaps partially in the G.I. Joe comic book’s unexpected level of nuance and intelligence for a toy license-based title that lay the seeds of its eventual downfall. After having his eyes opened to the wider and more complicated world of geopolitical and military intrigue by Hama’s stories, how long could a still-maturing reader be expected to stick with a comic book whose licensed toy tie-in nature closed off certain storytelling avenues, occasionally forcing the story into incongruous directions intended solely to serve toy marketing concerns? In the case of fan-favorite biker-thug villains the Dreadnoks, Hama was able to convince Hasbro to change tack
I threatened to walk off the book when they wanted to introduce some new characters called the Dreadnoks that were big, cuddly, teddy bears… You have to understand that the Dreadnok thing happened about the time that Return of the Jedi came out and everybody in the toy business anticipated a big Ewok craze.
But in many instances, Hama had to walk a fine line between telling the story he wanted the way he intended it to be told and following directives from Hasbro, and the results sometimes clashed with the writer-artist’s storytelling inclinations. Regarding the death of the original Cobra Commander as shown in G.I. Joe #61 (cover-dated July, 1987)
I should have put my foot down harder about not killing off Cobra Commander.
… The G.I. Joe animated feature film was due to be released—and at the end of the movie, Cobra Commander dies—ergo, Hasbro wanted the comic book continuity to match. I protested that Cobra Commander was a very popular character and that it was a major mistake, but they insisted.
Looking back, what probably allowed other toy license-based comics titles like Micronauts and Rom: Spaceknight to last as long as they did despite the spectacular failures of their source toys at retail was the lack of creative interference from the licensors. Rom: Spaceknight writer Bill Mantlo was free to take the book in just about any direction between the time Parker Brothers stopped production of the Rom toy robot sometime in 1980 and the lapse of Marvel’s license to the character in 1986, and his work in that six-year span was so popular that “off-brand” versions of Rom and his supporting cast still occasionally appear in Marvel’s superhero comics. The symbiotic relationship between Marvel’s G.I. Joe comics and Hasbro’s toys unquestionably helped the former make inroads in a largely untapped readership during the 1980s. But it also meant that Hasbro’s flailing attempts during the early 1990s to reassert its dominance of the boy’s toys market in the face of the stiff competition offered by Playmates’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Bandai’s Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers would negatively impact a comic book that had previously found so much success with a formula blending military fantasy with just the right touch of pathos and real-world danger. The out-of-left-field introduction of gimmick-laden, neon-draped groups like the Eco-Warriors (Eco-Warrior villain Cesspool was decried by Hama as “Cobra-La all over again”) and Ninja Force (“a marketing move initiated by Hasbro” according to the writer-artist) rankled many long-time readers who came up reading prime G.I. Joe stuff from the 1980s. But through it all, Hama pushed on: He had taken on the task of writing the licensed book no one originally wanted and he saw it through to the very end.
IDW Publishing has collected the 155-issue run of G.I. Joe that ran from 1982 to 1994 in fifteen Classic G.I. Joe trade paperback volumes and the 28-issue run of G.I. Joe: Special Missions that ran from 1986 to 1989 in four G.I. Joe: Special Missions trade paperback volumes. I’m not a fan of the covers used for the trades (I would have vastly preferred remastered reproductions of classic covers or new covers drawn by “classic” G.I. Joe artists like Herb Trimpe, Larry Hama, Rod Whigham, Ron Wagner, Marshall Rogers, or Michael Golden) and apart from well-written introductions by G.I. Joe archivist Mark Bellomo in the G.I. Joe: Special Missions trade paperbacks and a brief introduction by Hama in the fifteenth Classic G.I. Joe volume, the collections offer absolutely nothing in the way of bonus features or extras. These are minor complaints in the grand scheme of things, however, and they’re all worth getting if you were ever a fan of the comics back in the day. For those of you who are more interested in cherry-picking the best of Hama’s G.I. Joe bibliography, below are my relatively spoiler-free recommendations
Classic G.I. Joe Vol. 1 (IDW Publishing)
Collects G.I. Joe #1–10 (June 1982–April 1983). Features the first appearances of the original G.I. Joe team, Cobra Commander, the Baroness, Dr. Venom, Kwinn, the Oktober Guard, Dr. Adele Burkhart, and Cobra Commander’s son Billy. Establishes many of the series’ recurring plot elements.
Classic G.I. Joe Vol. 2 (IDW Publishing)
Collects G.I. Joe #11–20 (May 1983–February 1984). Features the first appearances of popular characters such as Destro, Gung-Ho, Major Bludd, Wild Bill, Doc, Ace, Cover-Girl, Snow-Job, Mutt & Junkyard, and Torpedo as well as the fictional Latin American country of Sierra Gordo.
Classic G.I. Joe Vol. 3 (IDW Publishing)
Collects G.I. Joe #21–30 (March 1984–December 1984). Features “Silent Interlude” (G.I. Joe #21), the landmark Hama-drawn dialogue-free (“silent”) issue that inspired Marvel Comics’ “‘Nuff Said” month back in 2002. Features the first appearances of popular characters such as Storm-Shadow, Duke, Zartan, Roadblock, Firefly, and the Dreadnoks. Offers the first extended look at the Vietnam War history shared by Snake-Eyes, Stalker, and Storm-Shadow.
Classic G.I. Joe Vol. 4 (IDW Publishing)
Classic G.I. Joe Vol. 5 (IDW Publishing)
G.I. Joe Yearbook #2 (Marvel Comics)
Cover-dated March 1986. Features a highly-entertaining, full-length Oktober Guard story (“Triple Play”) illustrated by an-uncredited Michael Golden. Has not yet been reprinted by IDW Publishing, but is fairly easy to find and reasonably-priced in the back-issue market.
Classic G.I. Joe Vol. 6 (IDW Publishing)
Collects G.I. Joe #51–60 (September 1986–June 1987). Cobra Commander and Destro are unmasked for the first time. Features the first appearances of Low-Light, Chuckles, Law & Order, Zandar, and Falcon. Todd McFarlane draws issue #60 (“Cross Purposes”).
G.I. Joe Yearbook #3 (Marvel Comics)
Cover-dated March 1987. Another “silent” issue. Carries the conclusion to the story begun in G.I. Joe #56. Has not yet been reprinted by IDW Publishing, but is fairly easy to find and reasonably-priced in the back-issue market.
Classic G.I. Joe Vol. 7 (IDW Publishing)
Collects G.I. Joe #61–70 (July 1987–April 1988). Comprises the main portions of two of what I consider to be the best multi-issue storylines Hama wrote in the main title: They were never given official overarching titles, but I like to refer to them as “The Borovian Debacle” and “The Fall of Sierra Gordo.”
G.I. Joe: Special Missions Vol. 1 (IDW Publishing)
Collects the “Best Defense” short story from G.I. Joe #50 and G.I. Joe: Special Missions #1–7 (October 1986–October 1987). The story in G.I. Joe: Special Missions #6 (“Evasion”) takes place between issues #61 and 62 of the main G.I. Joe series. Most of the stories featured in this relatively short-lived satellite title are standalone, “one-and-done” stories similar in tone to the “two-fisted” war short stories popular during the 1950s and 1960s, although they did have implications on events depicted in the main title. With the exception of issues 22, 24, and 27, all of the G.I. Joe: Special Missions stories were illustrated by original G.I. Joe penciler Herb Trimpe.
G.I. Joe: Special Missions Vol. 2 (IDW Publishing)
Collects G.I. Joe: Special Missions #8–14 (December 1987–October 1988). “Ambush” ( G.I. Joe: Special Missions #8) and “Washout” (G.I. Joe: Special Missions #13) are two very good stand-alone tales found in this volume.
Classic G.I. Joe Vol. 8 (IDW Publishing)
Collects G.I. Joe #71–80 (May 1988–Late November 1988). Comprises the final installment of “The Fall of Sierra Gordo” as well as the four-part “Cobra Civil War.” Is a good, self-contained cut-off point for readers uninterested in the ninja-heavy later years of the G.I. Joe series.
G.I. Joe: Special Missions Vol. 3 (IDW Publishing)
Collects G.I. Joe: Special Missions #15–21 (November 1988–May 1989). While “Extraction” ( G.I. Joe: Special Missions #18) is a continuation of a story that began in G.I. Joe: Special Missions #14, it is also an effective (and affecting) stand-alone tale. “The Lower Depths” (G.I. Joe: Special Missions #21) features a Vietnam War veteran giving voice to what very well could be Hama’s unfiltered personal opinions about the sorry state of affairs that greeted returning soldiers from the Southeast Asian conflict.