Category Archives: Comics

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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Local comic book store owner shot

Wow. Reading this in the local newspaper this weekend was a bit of a shock:

KENTWOOD — Friends of a comic-book store owner shot in an apparent robbery said they can’t understand why the shop would be a target.

David Pirkola is in critical but stable condition in a local hospital, said Stephen Jahner, who owns Apparitions Comics and Books with Pirkola.

“People open comic stores because they love comics and are lucky if they can make a living,” Jahner said. “It’s not like we ever have a lot of cash in the store. It’s just unbelievable.”

Kentwood police said a man entered the store at 2757 Ridgemoor Drive SE around 7 p.m. and demanded money, shot Pirkola and fled.

Jahner said Saturday he has known Pirkola for decades.

“He’s just a sweet guy, one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” he said. “He’s the kind of guy you want watching your back.”

I don’t know Dave personally, and I’m not a super-regular customer of his comic store, but I stop by to browse around Apparitions every other month or so. Dave has always seemed like a really nice guy, always asking if I need any help finding something, and not minding that I tend to sit for hours thumbing through his collection of used RPGs.

I can’t imagine why a comic book store, of all places, would stand out as a tempting target for a robbery. And how horrible that such a stupid crime was made even worse when an innocent person got shot.

I hope Dave pulls through. Some of his friends have put together a donation page where you can contribute to help out with his medical costs. From the donation page:

…David is in the hospital and stable, but still severely injured. As you can imagine, no matter how speedy the recovery, getting back to running his business will be challenging. Even normally, running an independent comic book store is an incredibly difficult job, and many retailers often operate with limited or no personal health insurance. Given that retailers are such an important part of our industry, we want to help out as much as possible.

Hang in there, Dave!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

A superhero house divided

Over the holiday weekend, I had the privilege of traveling to Missouri, there to visit with Mark and family. While packing up for the trip, I found myself faced with that most difficult of questions: what to bring along as reading material for the plane flight? None of the usual suspects appealed, so I decided on a change of pace: comic books. I stopped by the local comic store and picked up a number of recent comics–the first several issues of Marvel’s Civil War and several related comics.

Civil War is a seven-issue story (only the first three have been published thus far, I believe) that has gotten a fair amount of hype even in the mainstream press this summer. (You can hear a bit about it, and read the first several pages of the first issue, in this NPR story).

Here’s a quick rundown of the Civil War plot: while filming a superhero reality-TV show, a reckless band of superheroes goes after a group of supervillains that are hiding out in a residential area. Their desire for TV ratings trumps common sense–the heroes are in over their heads, and in the ensuing confrontation with the villain Nitro they are all killed… along with a few hundred innocent people in the neighborhood and a nearby elementary school.

The incident creates a massive public backlash, as people demand some form of accountability for superheroes. More than a few famous superheroes agree that something needs to be done to keep “the kids, the amateurs, and the sociopaths” (as Iron Man puts it) from wreaking havoc. Before long the Superhuman Registration Act is before Congress. The Act would require superheroes to register with the government. Once registered, superheroes would be free to keep doing their work, but they’d be on the government payroll and subject to government oversight.

Iron Man and Captain America aren't getting along too well these days

The “should superheroes be regulated by the government” issue is not a new one, and has cropped up in many comics and movies. But Marvel’s Civil War makes the issue more compelling than many previous efforts by placing popular superheroes on both sides of the debate. While a narrative bias against the Registration Act does shine through (the idea of such a thing flies in the face of an awful lot of genre tradition), the writers are careful not to portray either side as evil; each is motivated by a sincere desire to Do the Right Thing. The result is a fun fictional event that is certainly inspired by contemporary politics, but which is not (thus far, at least) being used as a soapbox for the writers’ political views.

That’s certainly refreshing to read these days. And Civil War is made more interesting by the fact that certain famous superheroes have wound up on unexpected sides of the debate: for instance, uber-patriotic Captain America is leading the resistance against the Act, while Spider-Man has stepped forward in support of it. There’s a certain excitement in finding out where Your Favorite Superhero falls on the political spectrum.

If the Civil War story falls short, it’s mostly because seven issues isn’t really enough to tell such an epic story without skipping over a lot of interesting details along the way. With a cast of dozens of well-known superheroes, each with years or decades of backstory and personality, a seven-issue story just doesn’t have room to explore these heroes’ choices in more than a superficial manner. Marvel is dealing with this by issuing a large number of Civil War spin-off comics that focus on specific superheroes’ reactions to the Registration Act, but personally I’d prefer to see the core story arc expanded to fit more of this info into the main plotline. But lacking that, the spin-off comics should fill the gap reasonably well.

And of course, this stuff ain’t exactly Shakespeare. For most readers, that’s a feature and not a bug; but before sitting down to Civil War you’ll need to prepare to have your reading periodically interrupted by full-page ads for Pokemon toys. You’ve been warned.

All in all, it’s good stuff. And let’s be honest: if you suspect that all this political plotline stuff is essentially one big excuse to stage an epic battle where Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, and the Thing beat the living crap out of each other… you’re probably right. May the best mutant win.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather