In the column Leaving Proof #141, Zedric Dimalanta explored Larry Hama’s success in the early Marvel run of G.I. Joe. The column recounts how writers did not want to work on the project because it was a licensed comic which meant that the creators pay was lessened to cover the licensing fees and it should have guaranteed a flop. Also, Marvel was handling several less successful licensed comics that have been nearly forgotten. So, why did Joe work when other comics didn’t?IDW finally finishes the reprints the 15th volume of the Marvel Comics run of G.I. Joe in trade form. The sheer volume of comics speaks to how successful the title was. Consider the short lived nature of M.A.S.K., Team America, US1, Visionaries, and other licensed comics of the day, the 150 issue G.I. Joe is quite remarkable.
The story behind Hama being offered G.I. Joe last, and how he rose to the challenge is legendary, but worth retelling, as Leaving Proof #141 did. Editor Jim Shooter could not entice a writer onto the project. After being snubbed by the writers bullpen, Shooter turned to editors to scribe the military toy comic. The last editor’s office on the hallway made Larry Hama the last person asked. In response he 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.
The Leaving Proof article pointed out how Hama was the ideal candidate to build a complete world in a military comic book, given that Hama himself was more than a toy soldier. Hama had been in the Army, serving as a combat engineer during the Vietnam War and then returned to New York and found work as an assistant to legendary comics artist Wally Wood.
While my theory is not focused on Larry Hama and the creative team of the comics, I don’t want to minimize the great work that was created. Instead, I want to look at other options on why one licensed property comic worked when so many others didn’t.
While I appreciate the role that Hama played to create the G.I. Joe that most fans know, I don’t think that that is the complete answer. Sure, Hama wrote the comic that everyone only expected to last a year at best, wrote file cards for the packaging, and had a role in the cartoon shaping…but that is only part of the story at best.
Consider the other things that made G.I. Joe different from other toy based story lines that attempted to have comics.
Simply, G.I. Joe was a brand that was being resurrected instead of a brand that was being either launched or trying to salvage the toy line identities.
The 1983 US 1 can be found in back issue bins and dollar bins across the country, although it is often over looked and ignored. The distinctive logo does not register with very many readers. Ulysses Solomon (US 1) is far from being beloved. Sure, looking at the timeline, it seems as if Marvel was late to the craze, years after CB Hustlers and Smokey and the Bandit were released and the CB Craze of the 70s had dispersed, although that is not a complete look at why this title was less than G.I. Joe. US 1 is likewise a toy that many people have forgotten. US 1 was a short lived toy from Tyco. Tyco’s line of model trains and at home slot car racing sets are quite memorable. The truck racing set is not as memorable.
This is a toy that is far from legendary, but looks like a lot of fun. Luckily partial and full sets still pop up on E-Bay from time to time. Hardcore HO scale slot car collectors should be seeking these sets out. Long Haul, Logging, and other variations on the trucking set look like fun. The 1984-1985 G.I. Joe set is probably only known to hard core Joe or slot car collectors.
Given that the toys did not make the cultural impact of G.I. Joe, the comic had little hope of making a similar impact.
Stan Lee was presenting, Jim Shooter was editing, but this comic was not destined to be as strong as Hama’s military troop. The comic had to have two distinctive characters: the red, white, blue, and good truck, and the evil black truck from the toy set. In this instance, neither truck rises to the level of leading the comic like Optimus Prime did in another contemporary comic.
The trucks are more cumbersome that Ghost Rider’s motorcycle so it is not surprising that they become odd pieces within the comic.
The red, white, and blue truck becomes a command center of sorts out rigged with marvelous sci-fi bits to help Solomon track down the truck that killed his brother. Eventually the truck blasts off into space following a different trajectory than the sales and story that fell fast.
Perhaps this is a licensed comic that people are rooting to never become a Marvel film, but it is a zany 80s comic aimed at young readers. This comic pairs the comic to an expected kiddie reader audience.
Sadly, US 1 is not the only licensed product to be turned into a Marvel comic series that fell flat. Another nearly forgotten toy line that was not salvaged by the equally forgettable comic is Team America.
Team America may be a title that is better known to modern comic readers as a film title, but many years before, it was the title of an unrelated comic and toy line. As the story goes, Knievel toys were awesome…until the daredevil ran into criminal trouble and the licensed toys needed to be re-branded. Stunt cyclists in red, white, and blue or draped in a more sinister black became Team America. Instead of a solo character, it became a team of all-American and diverse motorcyclists.
The story of this short lived toy line is the story of a toy company trying to make the best with what they had at hand. In this case they had molds without a purpose. Unwilling to market America’s #1 daredevil any longer, these toys needed a purpose. Marvel comics provided the story. The characters created in-house by the comic company eventually became more specific in the toy line, but at its heart this toy line was more about play features than story line. Although I can’t say definitively, but my assumption is that most kids didn’t even know the story that was developed in the comic books.
How Marvel was the story line? The team were all mutants. When they came together as a team their strange mutant powers combined to create a dark rider…that was overlaid onto someone close at hand. Sure, most of the time one of the casts girl friend unknowingly was transformed into the mysterious rider.
So a little Ghost Rider and a little more X-Men shoved together…and they fought Hydra.
The comic was far from being genre changing. It did have some nice action art and a few nice biker gags, but the story itself seemed to only swirl around in laps. At times the comic almost seems to be channeling the Charlton teen romance comics, racing comics, and other action comics that were falling out of favor with young readers in favor of the rise of the super hero pulp comic. Not to be outdone, Marvel had inserted an oversized dose of super hero into the story line.
The comic was oddly entrenched in the Marvel Universe. Captain America, Ghost Rider, Iron Man, and the Thing all interact with these licensed heroes. Not only did Marvel heroes have cameos in the short lived title, but the star spangled team also popped up in other comic titles, most notably Captain America. After Marvel couldn’t call them Team America, the characters briefly became a stunt group by a different name and partnered with the ever-lovin’ Ben Grimm before riding off into complete obscurity.
The Hydra moments were brilliant. Instead of the world crushing Hydra that many incarnations have become, this was the early 80s Hydra that employed part time employees. Why do the heroes always beat the henchmen? Because the henchmen are regular people just trying to earn a living and insurance.
Oddly, a few people have created Team America websites, but not quite the cultural impact of G.I. Joe on the internet.
Again, while the comic was not quite Shakespeare or Wally Wood, the toy line was not helping keep this comic on the sales charts either. Whereas G.I. Joe was reviving a brand, Team America was trying to hide a brand. In the wake of abandoning Knievel this line just didn’t quite resonate through the memories of a generation. While a generation remembers Knievel’s stunt cycle, it is rare for anyone to wax poetic about their Team America stunt cycle even though it is the same cycle at heart.
The above examples of US1 and Team America had the toys and the comics but not much else going for it to keep them memorable. M.A.S.K. and Visionaires might have also been fortunate enough to rate cartoons, like the more popular G.I. Joe, but even the television wasn’t quite enough to help the comic to succeed. Since these were new toy lines, comics, and cartoons, they were only appealing to one narrow generation of audience. By reviving the brand, G.I. Joe was helped by the older toys. Even though the scale and story changed, Joe was more than just a generation.
So my theory on why G.I. Joe worked and others didn’t as a successful comic is rooted in the toys. I don’t discount the hard work and ingenuity provided by Larry Hama, Herb Trimpe, and the creators that worked on the comic, but the toy lines themselves can’t be ignored.