Leaving Proof takes a look back on comics’ Oktober Guard, the Warsaw Pact’s foil to the American G.I. Joe team, and how their depiction over the years reflected and occasionally presaged changing popular attitudes during the Cold War.
The period between 1979 and 1985 is commonly referred to by military and political historians as the “second Cold War”—in contrast to the “early Cold War” of the 1950s and 1960s—a time marked by bloody proxy wars fought by the United States and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the developing world and a level of nuclear saber-rattling by the two superpowers not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1984, the board of directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the Doomsday Clock to “three minutes to midnight,” marking the closest the world had ever come to an all-out nuclear war since 1953.
The popular entertainment of the time reflected this elevated state of tension afflicting the world. Atari’s 1980 video game Missile Command had players defending six cities and an anti-missile station from wave after wave of ICBMs, MIRVs, and the occasional UFO. Like many of the earliest video games, there was no way to actually “win” in Missile Command—any sense of player victory came only in the pursuit of a high score—and the player’s death by nuclear holocaust is inevitable, although the game’s makers, perhaps seeing an opportunity to make a grimly humorous statement on world affairs, used “The End” instead of the usual “Game Over” to indicate when all the player’s assets have been vaporized. The host’s deadpan delivery of Missile Command tips in Vestron Video’s How to Beat Home Video Games (1982) casts an unintentionally absurdist light on what was already a fairly surreal game to begin with given the tenor of the times:
In the cinemas, WarGames grossed almost $80 million, good enough for the fifth-best box-office take of 1983, comfortably ahead of established franchise films like Octopussy (a James Bond film starring Roger Moore) and Sudden Impact (the fourth movie in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry oeuvre) despite starring an unknown Matthew Broderick. 1985 saw Rocky IV—which turned the mush-mouthed boxer’s pugilistic exploits into a ham-fisted metaphor for the USA/USSR rivalry—become the highest-grossing entry in Sylvester Stallone’s boxing movie series, raking in $127.8 million by year’s end.
On the radio, Sting’s “Russians”, the fourth single off of his 1985 hit debut solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles, the English musician dramatically intoned:
In Europe and America, there’s a growing feeling of hysteria
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets
Comics did not go untouched by the growing international apprehension over the deteriorating state of the peace dialogue. Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta—which started publication in 1982 as a strip in the UK anthology comic Warrior—was set in a Britain that had its political and social climate radically changed by a nuclear near-miss (nuclear war paranoia would play an even larger role in Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1986 smash-hit, Watchmen). In IPC/Fleetway’s 2000 AD, Judge Dredd patrolled a dystopian urban enclave in a future world birthed by an international conflict that left most of the rest of the world as a radioactive wasteland. For many younger comics readers in North America and elsewhere during the early 1980s though, their four-color fiction introduction to the precariously balanced military stalemate between the US-aligned democracies of the West and the communist states of the Eastern Bloc took place in the pages of the wildly popular G.I. Joe toy tie-in comic published by Marvel, in the form of the conflict between the book’s eponymous crack counter-terrorist team and their Warsaw Pact counterpart, the Oktober Guard.
The Truth Shall Set You Free
The Oktober Guard debuted in print in the sixth issue of Marvel’s licensed G.I. Joe comic book (as the “October Guard”, spelled with a “c”), in a story entitled “To Fail is to Conquer… to Succeed is to Die,” the first installment of a two-part story set in Afghanistan scripted by Larry Hama and plotted by penciler Herb Trimpe, one of the rare instances where someone besides Hama handled the plotting on the title. In the issue, the G.I. Joe team and the October Guard are in a race to recover a downed Soviet spy plane held by the CIA-supported elements of the Afghan mujahideen, only for the contested prize to be taken from them by forces led by the villainous Cobra Commander. Note that the October Guard were not the first non-Cobra or even the first Eastern Bloc enemies to be featured in the comics—G.I. Joe #2 (“Panic at the North Pole”) had the book’s protagonists fighting mercenaries and Soviet agents in the snows of Alaska—but they would later prove to be the series’ most enduring and popular nemesis apart from Cobra Commander and his various underlings and allies.
Herb Trimpe’s character designs for the members of the October Guard were actually derived from previously published characters he co-created with writer/editor Tom DeFalco, the Pravda Patrol (pravda is Russian for “truth”). The Pravda Patrol appeared in print some eight months before G.I. Joe #6 hit the newsstands, in a black-and-white five-page back-up story (“Let There be Life”) in Bizarre Adventures #31, cover-dated April 1982. Set during the opening days of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, “Let There be Life” was a bleak tale that presented an unvarnished take on the harsh reality and human cost of war, not unlike the better short stories from 1950s war comics anthologies such as Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. In a show of storytelling sophistication, DeFalco and Trimpe managed to express their condemnation of the Soviet invasion’s blatant breach of Afghanistan’s sovereignty and the Afghan people’s human rights while avoiding predictably portraying the five members of Pravda Patrol—team leader Captain Yuri, medic Sachi, and riflemen Big Bear, Stryker, and the Mouse—as out-and-out villains, instead depicting the “elite Soviet counter-terrorist task force” as soldiers committed to following their orders, devoted to protecting their comrades in a strange, unfamiliar, and dangerous theater of anti-guerrilla operations. The even-handed view of the professional soldier regardless of ideological and national alignment is a theme that would be carried forward in Hama and Trimpe’s Oktober Guard stories in G.I. Joe and its short-lived sister title G.I. Joe: Special Missions—that this would be the case shouldn’t be too surprising given both men’s experiences during the Vietnam War: Hama was a US Army combat engineer while Trimpe was an enlisted US Air Force weatherman attached to the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in the Central Highlands.
The story, dialogue, and art that would appear in G.I. Joe #6 was originally slated for publication G.I. Joe #3. The ashcan copy for G.I. Joe #3 featured the Pravda Patrol characters, and the issue’s indicia showed that Pravda Patrol copyright holders Tom DeFalco and Herb Trimpe had consented to their use in the comic:
Ron Conner’s speculation that G.I. Joe toymaker Hasbro rejected Hama and Trimpe’s use of Pravda Patrol on the grounds that they belonged to a third party and were thus unfit for use in a licensed product is likely correct. In any event, “To Fail is to Conquer… to Succeed is to Die” ended up being moved from the series’ third issue to the sixth to allow for the re-drawing and re-lettering of the relevant pages and Hama went ahead and created new Hasbro-owned characters based on the Pravda Patrol designs. Pravda Patrol became the October Guard (later stylized to “Oktober Guard”), Pravda Patrol’s Captain Yuri was replaced by Colonel Brekhov, Sachi became Daina, the Mouse was superseded by Stormavik, Big Bear was swapped out for Horrorshow, and Stryker’s roster slot was filled by Schrage.
One of the more subtle but important changes enacted by Hama in creating the October Guard from the inspiration offered by DeFalco and Trimpe’s Pravda Patrol was that the October Guard was no longer a Soviet military unit like its predecessor, but a Warsaw Pact unit, further adding individuality and personality to the group membership in the process. Daina was from the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Schrage from socialist East Germany, and even the three members of the team from the USSR came from different Soviet republics: Colonel Brekhov was from the Ukraine, Stormavik hailed from Russia, and Horrorshow (whose code-name is a nod to the Slavic-influenced Nadsat slang of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange) was a native of Georgia. At a time when many popular entertainment depictions of Eastern Bloc soldiers rarely rose above the level of jingoist stereotypes that lumped them all together as indistinct “Russians,” Hama and Trimpe’s October Guard showed a relatively sharp attention to detail and a recognition of the different nations and cultures behind the Iron Curtain.
All this isn’t to suggest that the introduction of the October Guard subverted the moral compass of the comic book—the members of the G.I. Joe team were still clearly the good guys and the October Guard plainly fulfilled the role of the antagonists—but they did reinforce certain recurring themes in Hama’s military-themed work, in G.I. Joe and elsewhere: (1) Professional soldiers share many of the same characteristics and concerns across ideological divisions and national boundaries, and (2) it is possible to maintain respect for the individual soldiers on the opposite side of the line even as one fights against what they stand for.
“Listen comrade, this won’t end well… ”
It would be over three years after their debut before Colonel Brekhov’s squad would return to comics. In G.I. Joe Yearbook #2 (cover-dated March 1986), the Oktober Guard, now spelled with a “k” and sporting a new member, the flamethrower-wielding Dragonsky, took center stage in “Triple Play” written by Larry Hama with excellent art by an uncredited Michael Golden, the only full-length G.I. Joe story illustrated by the fan-favorite regular series cover artist. The highly entertaining story sports something of a reversal of the roles the three factions—G.I. Joe, Cobra, and the Oktober Guard—played in their first encounter in Afghanistan. It was now the Oktober Guard and Cobra locked in a contest to retrieve lost weapons technology from the battlefield and it was up to the G.I. Joe team to play the spoiler. Reflecting the thawing effects of Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) on popular perception of East-West relations, the Oktober Guard, while nominally one of the two “villain” teams in the story, were for most intents and purposes the heroes of the piece, only losing their target to the G.I. Joe team on a last-minute double-cross.
The Oktober Guard would go on to become recurring supporting characters and quasi-villains in G.I. Joe: Special Missions, an ancillary title launched in the fall of 1986 spotlighting the G.I. Joe team’s highly-classified adventures that the creative team “couldn’t talk about—until now!” as the series’ first issue’s cover proclaimed. The Oktober Guard would be reunited with Pravda Patrol co-creator Herb Trimpe on this short-lived series where he was the regular penciler, appearing in issues #1 (October 1986), #4 (April 1987), #18 (February 1989), #20 (April 1989), and #26 (October 1989). G.I. Joe: Special Missions emphasized relatively grounded tales compared to the more fantastical, ninja and Cobra-heavy stories of the main G.I. Joe title, and this offered Hama a forum that worked quite well with his brand of political humor and commentary.
Improving popular attitudes in the West towards the rapidly liberalizing states of the Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s meant that the Oktober Guard were losing utility as traditional comic book villains. Four years after Sting wondered aloud “if the Russians love their children, too,” Billy Joel sang that “We never knew what friends we had/Until we came to Leningrad”
In a move that surprised many regular readers, Hama opted to kill off four of the six members of the Oktober Guard in G.I. Joe: Special Missions #26, betrayed by disillusioned Latin American revolutionaries in a story appropriately titled “Passing of the Guard.” The decision could not have been popular with the characters’ fans at the time, but in retrospect, it was definitely a more appropriate and artful outcome than having the team exist as some sort of anachronism, either as villains or heroes, in a world where the Warsaw Pact seemed inexorably headed to irrelevance and disbandment.
Don’t Call it a Comeback
As has often been the case in superhero and action-adventure comics however, the Oktober Guard just couldn’t stay dead. A new Oktober Guard composed of the surviving members of the old team and new recruits were revealed in G.I. Joe #101 (“The New Guard,” cover-dated June 1990).
The multi-part storyline featuring the re-formed Oktober Guard—now working clearly as joint partners with G.I. Joe against the threat of Cobra (and not just allies-of-convenience as in their previous pairings)—proved a decent read, but lacked the type of impact and immediacy that came with the height-of-the-Cold-War context that informed their 1980s encounters. In 1991, Hasbro introduced Red Star, the very first Oktober Guard action figure in its G.I. Joe toyline, a Soviet Naval Infantry captain from the Ukraine immediately outmoded upon its release—the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were both dissolved that very same year. The figure’s design was obviously based on Trimpe and Hama’s work on Colonel Brekhov, a “coincidence” the latter couldn’t help but make fun of in G.I. Joe #146 (cover-dated March 1994), which featured Red Star’s comics debut:
There have been various attempts over the years by Hasbro and its comics licensees to revive the Oktober Guard characters in the years since Marvel’s G.I. Joe comic came to an end, with varying degrees of success, the most recent appearing in IDW Publishing’s Cobra #18. To me however, the Oktober Guard works best tied to the context of the Cold War’s endgame, a reminder that the West’s “enemies,” whoever they are at any given moment, have more in common with us than we often realize, and that they always have the capacity for change and reform.
Recommended and related articles
If you enjoyed the above article, make sure to check out these other pieces:
- Leaving Proof 40: Petrograd GN review
- Leaving Proof 141: Looking Back on Larry Hama’s Original G.I. Joe Run
- Leaving Proof 145: The Sequential Art of War — Joe Kubert’s Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965
- Leaving Proof 148: The Sequential Art of War — Karl Zinsmeister’s Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq