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Marvel’s GI Joe Retrospective, Issue #1b: “Hot Potato”

“Hot Potato” is a short story appended to issue #1, “Operation: Lady Doomsday.” It’s fairly slight, but sufficiently interesting and different that I decided to talk about it separately.

“Hot Potato” opens in media res with a fantastic full-page scene that pulls you right into the action:

What’s the story?

A team of Joes has infiltrated a nameless “emirate” in the Middle East and gotten their hands on a tape of information that will defuse a tense political situation. When they’re attacked and outnumbered by emirate soldiers, a succession of Joes must relay the tape—the “hot potato”—across the desert to the border. Each Joe in the relay chain hands off the tape to the next, then races back to help defend (and ultimately rescue) the wounded and encircled original team.

What’s noteworthy about this issue?

Duty and sacrifice. The running gag here is that none of the Joes wants to abandon the encircled team, although their orders require them to prioritize the safe delivery of the tape over the lives of their fellow Joes. So each Joe in turn (grudgingly) obeys orders but then doubles back—because they haven’t been ordered not to—to help the friends they left behind. Scarlett in particular aggressively reminds the Joes of their duty, even though those orders mean leaving her behind to die. Nobly following orders like this is a standard action-hero trope, but we also learn from this (and from similar grousing about orders in issue #1) that the Joes are first and foremost a military unit that is beholden above all else to the chain of command; they’re not just a roving band of do-gooders.

No sign of Cobra. Except for one throwaway sentence mentioning that Cobra is bankrolling the corrupt emirate, there’s no sign of the Joes’ traditional enemy. This suggests that the Joes won’t always be fighting costumed supervillains—sometimes they’ll be dealing with more “real life” enemies and hotspots. I’m curious to see if this is a rare occurence or a running theme.

The enemy here appears to be the regular army of this fictional Middle Eastern nation—not the Taliban-style guerillas and terrorists that would likely be the villains were this issue written today. The appearance of Gaddafi-like uniformed colonel and a few references to the harshness of the emirate’s “justice” suggests a represssive but legitimate state like Iran or Saudi Arabia led by a Saddam Hussein-style dictator. To a 1982 reader, this would have evoked the Arab factions of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which had flared into shooting wars several times in the decades before this issue’s publication. Little details like the Soviet-style MiG flown by the emirate’s army reinforce this.

Deeply nuanced enemies, these are not. And the trope of nameless, fanatical non-white enemies—not much different in 1982 than it is in 2022—feels icky. But I’m intrigued that already in issue #1, we’re dealing with non-Cobra enemies that clearly reference real-world places and situations.

Scarlett’s just part of the team. Scarlett is the only female Joe we’ve met so far, and refreshingly, she is portrayed as… well, just a regular Joe. Her character design isn’t particularly sexualized, she’s not there as a love interest (although Rock-n-Roll mentions that Snake-Eyes might be interested, we don’t hear that it’s reciprocated), and if anything, she’s shown as a particularly committed and serious team member. It’s not weird yet! Let’s hope this continues.

It’s a little grim. Despite the overall lightheartedness of the “hot potato” theme, the story takes at least one dramatic swerve into grim territory, as Scarlett (wounded and unable to retreat) prepares to kill herself rather than be captured:

That escalated quickly!

That’s a bit grim for a kid’s comic! But it reminds us, here at the outset of the series, that the Joes are mortal and that death is (at least in theory) a possibility in these stories.

Favorite panel: I love the facial expressions and details in this sequence of panels showing Rock-n-Roll getting angrier and angrier at his orders to abandon Scarlett:

That’s about all there is to say about this short (just 10 pages) story. Next time, we’ll tackle issue #2, “Panic at the South Pole.”

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Marvel’s GI Joe Retrospective: Issue #1, “Operation: Lady Doomsday”

This post is part of a series revisiting Marvel’s 1980s GI Joe comic books. Here’s an introduction to this series.

This is issue #1 of GI Joe, released in June 1982. It’s a big issue, with lots to talk about. Let’s get started!

What’s the story?

A prominent scientist—and controversial whistleblower who is publicly condemning a sketchy U.S. government weapons program—is kidnapped by Cobra, a stateless terrorist military force. GI Joe, the “sensational new special missions force for the ’80s,” is dispatched to raid the island fortress where Cobra is holding their prisoner. This setup turns out to be a Cobra trap (the first of many to come over the decades) intended to bait GI Joe into the open where they can be destroyed. Working in several small teams, a team of about a dozen Joes infiltrates the island, evades the trap, and rescues the scientist—although they fail to capture (not for the last time) a fleeing Cobra Commander and his sidekick, the Baroness.

What’s noteworthy about this issue?

The “real military” feel. Whereas some later incarnations of the GI Joe franchise veered into superspy or even near-superhero territory, with colorfully-costumed characters and sci-fi vehicles and weaponry, the GI Joe of 1982 is a fairly grounded affair. GI Joe is presented as a sort of elite extension of the regular military; they wear (mostly) regular-looking army fatigues; they have ranks, roles, tactics, and weapons that evoke the real military. Larry Hama, the revered Marvel talent who wrote and developed the GI Joe line for many years, was a Vietnam vet, and he brings a very noticeable “grunt’s eye view” to the franchise that will persist even as the stories, characters, and technology get more outlandish in later years.

That is not to say that this is a realistic story. The plots, villains, and action sequences are fanciful comic-book affairs with a light coating of real-world military terms and concepts sprinkled on top. Everyone here is a one-man army with access to sci-fi gadgets, but they act like grunts—grumbling about food in the mess hall, commiserating about boneheaded orders, etc.—and it gives this story and series a vibe that sets it apart from superhero stories.

Cobra is a nasty piece of work. In the later television cartoon, Cobra and its leadership are depicted as buffoonish clowns. Here, they’re a ruthless terrorist group with apparently a standing army (I recall that questions like “How is Cobra funding all these troops and gadgets?” are addressed to some extent in the series’ future). Their motives are left vague, but one gets the impression they’re mostly in this for the money, and that they plan to financially profit off of the info they can extract from their scientist prisoner.

Two named Cobra enemies appear in this issue—Baroness (who carries out the kidnapping with the help of her disguise/infiltration skills) and Cobra Commander, wearing a blue hood that evokes the KKK. Both are portrayed as ruthless jerks and murderers. Cobra Commander actually comes across as reasonably smart—he’s anticipated the government response to the kidnapping and accurately guesses how the Joes will go about their attack.

The Baroness is an unpleasant person. (I love the facial expressions in this panel!)

Cobra soldiers are masked, making them look like faceless hordes in contrast to GI Joe, whose members don’t (in most cases) hide their faces. I’m sure there’s plenty of psychological messaging to be unpacked there. Cobra’s vehicles and equipment resemble Soviet designs from the 70s and 80s. If the rows of goose-stepping, nameless soldiers didn’t do it, the MiG-like aircraft would definitely have evoked “enemy of freedom” vibes in the imaginations of 1980s readers. Soon, Cobra will get their own quirky and weird vehicles to match those in the GI Joe arsenal; I’ll be interested to see how long this Soviet aesthetic lingers. Certainly it’s an easy visual shortcut to let American readers in 1982 instantly recognize the bad guys:

Check out those Soviet, I mean Cobra, MiGs!

The bullets are real! People can get killed in this comic! The guns are shooting real bullets! This is not a grim and gritty story of violence and its consequences, but it does feel important that already in issue #1, the Joes and Cobras alike are shooting to kill. Cobra appears to kill several bystanders during their kidnapping, and later executes the entire population of a village to prevent them from lending aid to the Joes (we see bodies strewn about in one mildly chilling panel).

That said, battle scenes are pretty tame—there’s no gore or realistic depictions of violence on display. And in one amusing scene, it’s suggested that the Joes, at least, are pulling their punches just a tad.

But this isn’t a cartoon world of blue and red lasers that never hit anything, where aircraft crew always manage to bail out when their plane is shot down.

In later years, keeping up with trends in the comic world, GI Joe will move in a grittier and more violent direction. For now, everything is overall quite tame, but the presence of real bullets establishes some stakes.

The politics are muddled and weird. The setup here is that a scientist has been tricked by the US government into working on technology for a project she finds morally abhorrent—a “doomsday machine”:

That seems pretty morally straightforward, right? A device that would incinerate the world’s population in response to a nuclear first strike is a bad thing, I think most people would agree. (The Soviets reportedly implemented just such a system in 1985, a few years after this comic hit the stands.) So the kidnapped whistleblower scientist is the hero of the story, right?

Well, not according to this comic. Upon hearing the news of her kidnapping, here are the responses suggested by the heroic members of America’s elite freedom force:

First, General Flagg suggests intentionally bungling a rescue operation to goad Cobra into executing their prisoner.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present America’s greatest heroes!

Other Joes chime in:

  • Stalker sneers at the idea of rescuing “a woman who’s practically a traitor.”
  • Snake-Eyes suggests carpet-bombing the entire island where she’s being held with B-52s to kill everyone there (including the civilian population). Scarlett later has to remind Snake-Eyes that killing the kidnapped scientist “with one well-placed shot” isn’t the plan.
  • Short-Fuse describes the scientist as a “traitor.”

Yo, Joe!!!

To be fair, I think this issue is trying to find a middle ground here. In 1982, when this issue was published, the reputation of the US military and its government leaders was likely pretty low after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandals. (And at the time of this issue’s publication, the US president was engaged in a startingly illegal and immoral arms sales scheme to circumvent Congressional disapproval, although Hama wouldn’t have known about that yet.) It’s impossible not to wonder if Larry Hama, drawing on his experiences as a veteran, is trying to remind us that the real-world US military is comprised of good and moral people—people who would risk their lives to save the life even of somebody who criticized the military.

In the end, the kidnapped scientist expresses remorse that she assumed she had a “monopoly on scruples.” I appreciate that she doesn’t back down from her views:

We’ve all learned a valuable lesson today.

But there’s no reciprocation from the other side; no Joes acknowledge that the scientist is just as much a patriot as they are. I think that “We’ll come to your aid, even if you’ve criticized an ethically dubious military project!” is not the most inspiring slogan for America’s elite freedom force.

Ultimately, I think Hama is trying to deliver a nuanced message here, about the presence of fundamentally good people on different sides of a societal debate about America’s military operations and the people carrying them out. And in future issues, I think we’ll see him tease out this nuance more effectively. Here, it’s clunky and somewhat off-putting.

Favorite panel: I like this image of Cobra Commander parading around on a horse like a tin-pot dictator. It tells us that Cobra is a weird organization. Is it a would-be nation-state? A terrorist force motivated by ideology? A cult of personality? We’ll find out in future issues!

Next up: The Joes travel to the Middle East in “Hot Potato.”

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Revisiting Marvel Comics’ GI Joe

Remember GI Joe?

The image that probably springs to mind is that of the goofy 1980s cartoon, in which garishly-costumed members of GI Joe struggled to stop Cobra from enacting devious schemes like carving a picture of Cobra Commander’s face on the moon.

But that wasn’t the GI Joe I knew and loved in my awkward and nerdy youth.

Every week, on the way home from piano lessons, my mom would take us to the corner store to pick up a Slurpee. But my heart wasn’t in the Slurpee. It was in the rotating rack of comic books, which I would peruse every week in the hopes that a new issue of Marvel’s GI Joe had come out.

Marvel’s GI Joe was an amazing soap opera aimed at kids my age. It had convoluted backstories for characters, intricate plotlines that played out over a dozen issues, and stories that occasionally touched on real-life issues like grief, family, and what it meant to be an American in emotionally and morally turbulent times. I read and re-read every issue. I savored every line of dialogue, scrutinized every illustrated panel. It was this, and not the silly mid-80s cartoon, that was the real beating heart of GI Joe.

Could this comic book series have possibly have contained this much depth? Or is this my nostalgia speaking?

Let’s find out as I revisit the first year of Marvel’s GI Joe comics. Because knowing is half the battle.

First up: The Joes grapple with the nuances of Cold War ethics in “Operation: Lady Doomsday.”

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A short hiatus

Apologies for the long pause in the Stephen King story writeups. Things have gotten a bit busy and distracting this month.

But we’re still on for “Night Surf,” which I’ll likely get to in the next day or two. In the meantime, if you’re following along, I’ve got my eyes on one more King novella to cover this month—”The Mist,” from Skeleton Crew.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

In nomine

Thessaly is upset about her bath.One of the most fun parts of pregnancy—from my perspective as a dad, at least—was brainstorming names for our little Bundle of Joy. For years (well before the pregnancy happened), Michele and I have noted cool, amusing, and interesting names that might be appropriate for a hypothetical child. Most of them were probably not appropriate, being ancient Mesopotamian and Byzantine in origin, but when we learned last year that a baby was on the way, we were nevertheless faced with the challenge of distilling a monstrous list of potential names down to our very favorites.

I won’t list out the various names we considered (hey, if another baby ever comes along, we might put one of them to use). But as you know, an important part of choosing a baby name is trying to think of any possible embarassing nicknames that might be derived from the name by angsty junior-high classmates. We were unable to come up with anything too awful for Thessaly (what’s that—you thought of a dirty-sounding nickname? Get your mind out of the gutter!), but since her birth we have nevertheless seen the emergence of many nicknames that we never anticipated.

Here’s a partial list of names that we’ve used for Thessaly that are not her actual name:

  • Thesso
  • Fussaly
  • T-Bot
  • Thessie
  • Señorita Fussypants
  • Sweetie (awwww…)
  • Your Daughter (as in “Hey Michele, Your Daughter just spit up all over the chair again”)
  • FormuLass (her superhero identity)
  • That Baby
  • Little Miss Pee Pants (or “Poopy Pants,” depending on the situation)
  • Cuddles (awwww…)

We’ll have to get in the habit of using her actual name by the time she becomes sufficiently aware as to understand what we’re saying—I don’t think we really want her going through life as T-Bot. (OK, that would actually be kinda cool.) So what obvious nicknames for Thessaly are we missing?

Oh, and choice #2—narrowly beaten out by “Thessaly”—was the name of a Byzantine empress. Maybe next time.
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Yes Virginia, bloggers are still destroying civilization

Ah, the sweet sound of another old-media journalist bemoaning the end of Culture at the hands of those pesky bloggers. Don’t those rank amateurs recognize the harm they’re doing by… sharing their thoughts and ideas with others online?

I exaggerate, but not by much. It’s a bit puzzling to see a book like this come out in 2007—it seems clear at this point that while the phenomenon is still evolving and changing, the blogging/social-internet/citizen-journalist cat is highly unlikely to crawl back into the bag whence it emerged, and so it seems a bit pointless to whine about it. There are plenty of serious questions and problems one could raise about this media shift (actually they have been raised, and discussed to death already), but what are these whiners seriously suggesting we do about them? Sit there and wish really hard that people would stop, uh, sharing their thoughts and ideas with others online? Good luck with that.
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Because you really want to know what I think about politics these days

So today is the big Iowa caucus. I’ve been alternately interested and repulsed by this latest, interminable election cycle (and so many months to go yet!), but the caucus has managed to once again get me reading all those political blogs I periodically try to purge from my daily reading list.

One of the ways in which this election cycle is different is that it’s the first one in a long while where I’ve been genuinely interested in who the Other Party—the Democrats—will put forth as their candidate. I don’t remember ever feeling like I had a personal stake in the Democratic party’s choice of nominees, as I’m usually most concerned with who the Republicans will pick. But this year, there are worthy candidates in both parties, and the closeness of the races makes this all interesting in a way that it hasn’t been in… oh, about seven years. Small as it might be, the potential exists that I might, for the first time I can remember, have to choose between two candidates who each look pretty good, rather than settling for the least distasteful choice, and that’s exciting. We’re in a brief window here where politics is (sort of) fun and interesting again. By February or March, of course, the two main opposing candidates (almost certainly the least pleasant of all the possibilities) will have been effectively chosen, and we’ll have to wade through months of degrading political muck to get to the actual election.

But until that happens, I’m going to try and be positive about all this. Here’s hoping that the end-result of all these caucus shenanigans is a presidential race in which two respectable candidates face off against each other in an old-school Battle of Ideas (*cough*Obama and McCain*cough*). And while I’m at it, I would really like a pony for my birthday this year, and I wish my Warcraft character were level 70.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Put it in writing!

Charles Stross, author of numerous sci-fi and other novels, recently mused online about why the commercial ebook market is broken. Much of his post (which is focused on the ebook novel market) revolves around the issues of piracy, DRM, short-sighted publishers, etc. Insightful stuff.

I have often wondered why digital versions of novels haven’t seemed to catch on; in theory, making available digital versions of clunky print books seems like a no-brainer. I have no doubt that publisher overreaction to the piracy issue has done a great deal to hobble the ebook market. But as for myself, I just don’t enjoy reading novels in electronic format as much as I enjoy reading them in print format. I regularly use and purchase ebooks (in PDF format, generally), but the ones I use the most are invariably some form of reference work. I skim through them looking for specific pieces of information; I don’t read them from start to finish.

I don’t know if it’s a hard-wired mental association that makes me prefer print novels; but put a lengthy story on any size screen (computer monitor, PDA, whatever) and it becomes a struggle for me to read it. I just can’t read any form of narrative onscreen for more than a few pages (see, I can’t even break out of archaic pre-digital metrics!) before I start getting antsy. Lengthy blog posts and online articles in the New York Times are about all I can handle before I start wishing for a print version. If I want to read something by Jane Austen, I’d sooner shell out for the paperback than read the freely-available online text.

Maybe I’m just a dinosaur when it comes to this issue. My wife, for one, seems fairly comfortable reading longer pieces of literature on a computer screen. But I suspect, given the failure of ebooks compared to the popularity of digital music, that I’m not alone in just not finding ebooks as they exist today to be an attractive medium for lengthy, involved stories. While I certainly agree in principle that cumbersome DRM and other reader-hostile practices are a terrible idea, the real reason I’m not buying ebooks is that I just don’t find them very usable to me. Maybe somebody will come along in the next few years and make the medium more attractive to aging Gen Xers like myself, but until then I’ll stick with my beat-up, cracked-binding, age-yellowed print library.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather