The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 174 | The Activity is a contemporary, mature readers spin on G.I. Joe done right

Leaving Proof 174 | The Activity is a contemporary, mature readers spin on G.I. Joe done right
Published on Wednesday, February 27, 2013 by
On The Activity, writer Nathan Edmondson recreates and updates the same dynamic that made Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe: Special Missions the stand-out military action/adventure comic of its time.

G.I._Joe_Special_Missions_Vol_1_1For most G.I. Joe comics aficionados, the original G.I.Joe: Special Missions—the short-lived comic book series that spun off of the hyper-popular G.I. Joe comic published by Marvel in the 1980s that itself was a tie-in to Hasbro’s line of military action figures—stands as perhaps the technical and creative apex of Larry Hama’s tenure as the driving force behind G.I. Joe canon and fiction. The title featured mostly “one-and-done,” single-issue, standalone stories in the mold of the best “two-fisted” war comics of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but they still fit within a framework tied to both the main G.I. Joe series and a loose, comic book approximation of real-world current events that bordered on satire. The book’s format played to the strengths of Hama’s self-admitted seat-of-the-pants attitude towards plotting while its relatively sophisticated characters and themes served as the introduction for many young readers to the gray morality of war as well as the pragmatic dedication that allows the experienced soldier to walk the middle ground between starry-eyed idealism and war-weary cynicism, making its cancellation after only having 28 issues released over the span of three years (1986–1989) all the more disappointing.

idw_GIJoe_arah_164Fast-forward some 23 years later and IDW Publishing has done a commendable job of making the G.I. Joe brand in comics relevant again* after its rapid post-1980s decline, but I’ve found it difficult to get into their offerings. This has less to do with the quality of the publisher’s G.I. Joe comics than it has with my tastes as a reader changing over the past two-and-a-half decades. The brand maintains some genuine charm for me—I’ve collected all the IDW trade paperbacks reprinting the classic Marvel G.I. Joe and G.I. Joe: Special Missions comics—but these days, I tend to view the overall G.I. Joe conceit as a product of its time, with an appeal strongly tied to nostalgia. Recent attempts to revamp G.I. Joe to fit contemporary times or to make it more “mature”— however one cares to define “maturity” in a comic book based on a toy line—even by Larry Hama himself, just further highlight the difficulty in bringing into the 21st century a comics property so decidedly informed by Cold War apprehension and post-Vietnam War sentiment, so burdened by unrealistic expectations born of prior success, and so influenced by 1980s action figure trends that have become petrified into immutable, arbitrary character design rules.

the_activity_volume_01This is where writer Nathan Edmondson and illustrator Mitch Gerads’ The Activity comes in. The series features Team Omaha, a fictional special mission unit modeled after actual special operations teams, and employs the same streamlined and satisfying one-and-done format that Hama and artist Herb Trimpe used to great effect in G.I. Joe: Special Missions. In terms of overall pacing, The Activity has the feel of a throwback comic—each issue’s plot marches forward at a constant, rapid tempo. At the same time, Edmondson finds space to develop characters and let the narrative breathe in the interstices between the story beats. It’s an impressive balancing act that seamlessly combines the best features of classic, action-centered comics storytelling and a more contemporary, character-and-theme oriented approach influenced by screenwriting for cinema as well as a slight, naturalistic bent descended from documentary filmmaking and embedded video journalism.

Also worth noting is how well Edmondson sells the complexity of navigating the current international counter-terrorism/irregular warfare milieu within each issue. In many instances, the conditions for defining what constitutes victory against the insurgent or the terrorist foe are ill-defined, and the resolution to conflict is rarely achieved solely through the application of lethal force, if immediate resolution is even a realistically achievable goal in the first place. Team Omaha often finds itself working with incomplete or even just plain inaccurate intelligence and having to improvise on the fly, leading to the occasional less-than-completely-favorable mission outcome or the team picking only the battles it can win and settling for compromises and acceptable losses elsewhere.

The Activity sees the spirit and technique of Hama and Trimpe’s G.I. Joe: Special Missions cultivated and refined for the older military comics reader in the 21st century: a smart, well-researched, proficiently executed, and—most importantly—entertaining comic that doesn’t have to concern itself with idiosyncratic and outmoded character designs, the baggage of past depictions, appeasing the suits in legal and marketing, and other issues and restrictions that are part and parcel of working with a decades-old, toy-based, licensed property like G.I. Joe.

*The publisher is far away from replicating the kind of head-of-the-pack success its 1980s predecessor enjoyed, though. The original G.I. Joe comic was Marvel’s top subscription seller in 1986 and one of its strongest titles on the newsstands throughout the 1980s, outperforming top books like Uncanny X-Men and Amazing Spider-Man. By contrast, last month’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #186 and G.I. Joe, Vol. 2 #21 were ranked at the 204th and 208th spots, respectively, in terms of actual sales based on data provided by Diamond Comics Distributors, significantly behind titles slated for cancellation like DC’s Savage Hawkman #16 (ranked at 150) and Grifter #16 (ranked at 173) and behind even the debut of IDW’s My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic #1 (ranked at 186). This isn’t all on the comics, of course. Hasbro’s multimedia management and promotion of the property has been wanting in the Internet era: Its most recent foray in serial G.I. Joe-themed television can be described, at best, as a mixed success, and a lot of digital ink has already been spilled regarding the embarrassing rumors surrounding the cancellation of what was supposed to be last year’s big-screen premiere for G.I. Joe: Retaliation.

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9 Responses
    • Activity sounds awesome I have not checked it out. I am a little sad to hear that the Joe books–which are solid overall, mostly—are being out sold by My Little Pony. Ouch.

      • I wouldn’t let it bother you. My Little Pony is bigger then Joe. I don’t think IDW will cancel Joe because it’s being outsold by MLP.

        Activity is awesome. Great book.

        • Yeah, offhand, MLP does seem to have more pop culture traction these days than GI Joe… I mused briefly on part of the reason on why this is so here.

          One of the smartest things Hasbro has done in promoting the MLP IP is that they’ve embraced (to a degree) the adult MLP fan community whilst not abandoning the original, traditional MLP audience (primary school-age girls). The strategy for GI Joe on the other hand, seems to be stuck in a bit of a crisis, at least it seems that way looking at it from the outside: Children don’t seem to be responding to GI Joe the way they have to, say, Transformers or stuff like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Bakugan while at the same time, it seems like adult audiences aren’t sure what to make of media featuring “toy-etic” military-themed IP like GI Joe.

          On IDW’s part however, the difficulty in establishing a wider audience for the IP isn’t for lack of imagination, talent, or effort… they’ve put out some excellently crafted GI Joe comics in the years since they acquired the license: The first GI Joe: Cobra mini-series by Christos Gage, I think, is the high watermark for the IDW line, and compares somewhat favorably to Edmondson and Gerads’ The Activity.

          • Branding for age groups is an interesting proposition. I know we’ve talked about it before and around it a few times. It is interesting to me that Joe can’t quite make the crossover from kids property to big kid property and it isn’t quite a kids property either. MLP on the other hand crosses easily from kids to adults? Odd.

            On a related note, and from the same company, Transformers were originally aimed at 5 year olds. Then a few decades later they have to launch Rescue Bots at the same age bracket because the big bot battle wasn’t age appropriate? I was recently on a TF forum discussing Rescue Bots and wether or not the kiddie bot show should have villian robots. Someone said that a cartoon for 5 year olds shouldn’t have Decipticons. My rebuttle was that the Transformers show pitched for my 5 year old self featured Decipticons. I was told I was wrong.

            According to the NY Times I was right.
            http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/02/business/hasbro-expands-transformers-brand-into-new-media.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

            It is interesting to me that things have changed that much. I’m not sure if I would understand how to pitch a kiddie show in a world where companies assume kids shows can’t have villians yet 5 year olds are playing Call of Duty and Halo.

            Transformers Prime will end with season 3 and Beast Hunters. Another show will launch soon after. I hopethe next show features a covert military team ala G.I. Joe, the Bay-vers bot movies, and All Hail Megatron. Perhaps it would kick start a military figure phase more than Renegades.

            The NY Times article also points out that movies sell toys. I bet cartoons do too.

            • The thing about all the comics IP-based licensing that goes on these days is that it cuts both ways: a popular cartoon series may have the potential to sell toys and other merchandise, but if it doesn’t fulfill that potential, it can lead to the show being canceled despite good reviews and decent ratings. That’s apparently the primary reason why Warner Bros. pulled the plug on the Young Justice and Green Lantern: The Animated Series cartoons this year. GL:TAS developer/producer Bruce Timm told Bleeding Cool‘s Rich Johnston at ECCC the past weekend that retailers refused to carry GL:TAS product after the toy merchandising failure of the Ryan Reynolds GL film—retailers were left with tons of unsold GL movie toys and were wary of picking up anything GL-related—and that pretty much sealed the show’s fate. Similar thing happened with Young Justice: poor sales of toys/merchandise based on the show pretty much doomed it to cancellation.

              Of course, to me, the common link here is that it was Mattel that made the poor-selling toys/merchandise, and that maybe if they’d made a better product or sold them at a price point that better reflected their actual value, they would have sold better (the Young Justice figures were particularly overpriced… borderline collectible/specialty shop-prices for figures with mass market-level build and paint quality). Blaming and axing the shows for the merchandise’s retail failures seems to be a skipping a step in the fault-attribution game. But perhaps this is the most cost-efficient way for Warner Bros. to deal with these types of failures.

    • […] Leaving Proof 174 | The Activity is a contemporary, mature readers spin on G.I. Joe done right February 27, 2013 […]

    • […] artist Mitch Gerads would be handling the book. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly in reviews and articles, I think Edmondson and Gerads’ The Activity (published by Image Comics) is one of the most […]

    • […] From Leaving Proof 174 | The Activity is a contemporary, mature readers spin on G.I. Joe done right: […]

    • […] Leaving Proof 174 | The Activity is a contemporary, mature readers spin on G.I. Joe done right […]

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