After the jump: Learn about Sgt. Savage and his Screaming Eagles, the short-lived G.I. Joe spin-off designed in part by war comics legend Joe Kubert.
The publishing arc of the original G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero comic is a subject of endless fascination for me. While Star Wars is credited by former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter as the licensed comic that helped save a struggling Marvel Comics in the late 1970s, it was G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero—launched in 1982 as a merchandising tie-in for Hasbro’s eponymous line of toy soldiers—that established licensed comics as a significant segment of the comics market.
Before G.I. Joe, licensed comics were largely viewed in a somewhat negative light by editors and comics creators, expedient work that was only a small step up from advertising copy. But under the expert stewardship of writer (and occasional artist) Larry Hama and a platoon of illustrators that included talents such as Herb Trimpe, Mike Vosburg, Rod Whigham, Ron Wagner, Marshall Rogers, Tony Salmons, and Mark D. Bright, G.I. Joe (and its sister title, G.I. Joe: Special Missions) changed industry expectations of what licensed comics could achieve in terms of both craft and sales. Issue #21 of the series (written and illustrated by Hama), the series’ famed “silent issue,” is regarded by critics and creators as a modern classic. By 1985, G.I. Joe was far and away Marvel’s biggest subscription seller and one of its biggest unit movers at the newsstand alongside Uncanny X-Men and Amazing Spider-Man.
But if G.I. Joe‘s 1980s rise was unexpectedly meteoric, so was its decline during the early 1990s. We can float any number of reasons for this. It could be that many of the book’s readers were simply aging out of their “action figure phase” and faced with competition from emerging licensing and merchandising heavy-hitters like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the comic just couldn’t replace departing readers at a rate that would sustain previous sales numbers. The comics industry’s shift in focus from traditional magazine distribution channels to direct distribution (i.e., specialty comics shops) likely had a negative effect on G.I. Joe‘s market presence as well—the comic sold best in newsstands, grocery stores, and subscription. We can wax philosophical and speculate that perhaps the close of the Cold War might have dampened the market for military-inspired toys and comics. And a fourth factor could have been a decline in quality in the comic itself, as the comic’s creative team began chafing under the restrictions of the Hasbro licensing deal and the newer, more fantastical toy designs emerging from Hasbro’s Rhode Island headquarters grew increasingly at odds with the line’s original toy soldier ethos. Hama’s thinly-veiled frustration with Hasbro’s creative restrictions and the baffling designs of later G.I. Joe toys is evident in some of the letters page replies in later issues of the comic. In the years after the comic’s cancellation, he would be more forthcoming in interviews about the difficulties of dealing with the licensor’s “suits.”
Hasbro decided to pull the plug on its licensed comic deal with Marvel in 1994, the series ending with G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #155. The actual toyline would be cancelled not long after.
Hasbro almost immediately tried to revive its former flagship, however, hiring Sgt. Rock co-creator and war comics institution Joe Kubert to create preliminary character designs, packaging art, and pack-in minicomics for Sgt. Savage and his Screaming Eagles, a new G.I. Joe-branded toyline that featured a World War II soldier thrust forward in time to the present day to fight modern evils, much like Marvel’s Captain America.
In addition to the pack-in minicomics, a deluxe Sgt. Savage figure also came packaged with a VHS cassette of a 22-minute Sgt. Savage and his Screaming Eagles animated feature.
The sci-fi/superhero influence on the toyline’s accompanying fiction notwithstanding, Sgt. Savage and his Screaming Eagles was actually a return to the traditional toy soldier aesthetics that brought Hasbro (and Marvel) so much success in the early 1980s. Gone were the neon ninjas, space aliens, and the Mega Monsters of the latter-day A Real American Hero product lines, replaced by heroes and villains who looked like they came straight out of an issue of Our Army at War.
Despite the twin-pronged pack-in multimedia approach and recourse to proven approaches to design, sales of the Sgt. Savage toys were soft and the line was cancelled within a year of its retail debut. Hasbro went back to its bunker, and emerged in 1995 with something radically different. Indeed, one could have described Hasbro’s next attempt at a G.I. Joe revival as extreme.
But that is a column for another day.