This is the first comic book I ever bought, from one of those HEY KIDS! COMICS! spinner racks in a 7-Eleven somewhere on the south side of Chicago. I think I had stepped out from some kind of an event for a distant relative. I was very young.
Anyway, I found it again in a Midtown Manhattan comics shop this weekend. When I pointed it out to my girlfriend, she said she wanted to buy it for me. A sweet gesture, especially considering the price tag of $6 -- 800 percent what I paid for my long-lost copy in what the indicia at the bottom of page one tells me was 1986. Some of the best comics ever published came out that year, but I wouldn't find that out until a couple of years later.
I must've picked this up because I watched the G.I. JOE animated TV series that aired after school, and I owned many of the toys that both the cartoon and the comic book obviously existed to promote. The comic book got its own TV ads, separate from the commercials for the toys; I've never heard of another comic book being advertised on television. On the TV show, the characters fired evidently nonlethal laser guns at one another. But the comic book, I learned, was very interested in details of the design and operation of real-life firearms.
That was how I segued into buying the similarly trigger-happy vigilante series The Punisher -- the express shuttle between G.I. JOE and the Marvel Universe. Reaching a double-digit age, I grew out of action figures and right into comic books, mostly because a comics and used books specialty shop happened to open up within biking distance of my house.
It was 1988 when I bought my first issues of Batman and Detective Comics (starring Batman) and The Uncanny X-Men. I got my first issue of the whimsical, criminally undervalued indie sci-fi comic Nexus that year, too, which I still try to get discerning comics people to read. (Incredibly, the writer and co-creator of the funny, sensitive Nexus, a man named Mike Baron, was cranking out macho shoot-'em-up scripts for The Punisher at the same time.) I got the pricey ($12.95!) collected editions of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen that year, too. They were more than a little sophisticated for me at the time, but that was exactly why I bought them -- they'd been recommended in Rolling Stone! -- and why I loved them. When Sandman No. 1 appeared near the end of that year, I snatched it up, and every issue afterward.
So to recap: My comics trajectory went from G.I. JOE, military action for boys, to Sandman, beloved by comparative lit majors in black nail polish of all ages, in a little over two years. It would take much longer than that for me to begin to understand Sandman properly, but I was at least intrigued enough to keep buying it.
But I digress.
Unusually for a corporate property -- with the exception of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, funnily enough! -- G.I. JOE's entire 155-issue series was written by a single scribe, Larry Hama, over a period of 13 years. He really seemed to put his heart into it, offering a surprising degree of characterization and suspense for what was, after all, a toy catalogue. I don't remember which issue was my last, but that original series hung in until 1994, by which time collectormania and variant covers and the ubiquitous terribleness of Image Comics had all but pushed me out of comics. (I continued to buy Sandman every month.)
Anyway, let's unpack the most potent gateway drug I ever tried: G.I. JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO! #49. (You can click on any photo for a readably large version.)
We open in a torch-lit tomb "Somewhere in the Mid-East" where they speak Arabic. Destro, whose name I remembered, and the bare-chested, bald, fu-manchu-ed, monocle-wearing pervert men call Dr. Mindbender, which I did not recall, are up to a little tomb-raiding.
The all-caps roll call of 35 or 40 G.I. JOE characters in the indicia at the bottom of the page, all listed as the property of HASBRO, INC., takes me back.
The "local constabulary" -- I remember asking my dad what that latter word meant -- interrupt, but they have no idea who they're dealing with, the wretched fools. I really want to write something where I find a context to quote this very specific line of dialogue in tribute.
So we're off to a breakneck start here. Some nakedly expository dialogue in the following panels tells us this heist was part of the villainous organization COBRA's plan to steal the remains of history's most ruthless military leaders. And then use them to clone a brilliant super-tactician -- this is four years before the publication of Jurassic Park, now -- to lead them to victory.
Awesome. And then, this.
One of the many reasons I stopped buying single-issue comics more than a decade ago is because they have ads in them. I wouldn’t a watch a movie on TV with commercials, either. But this ad tells us who our audience was: People considered at least somewhat likely to be swayed to buy a candy whose whole sales message was “we will concuss your skull by dropping a freakishly enlarged piece of fruit from a great height” because they were offered a digital watch that can, how you say, transform into a robot. Transformation, also a trademark of HASBRO, INC., was very big at the time.
Examining this comic book in 2013, I’m grateful for what this ad contributes to the time capsule. But in 1986, this juvenile bullshit really pissed me off.
We cut to a bar, where biker-styled bad guys the Drednoks ordering “another round of grape sodas!” One of them says he likes this place because it “serves grape soda in hollowed-out pineapples.” This is a Comics Code-approved book, but then so were all the issues of Uncanny X-Men wherein we see Wolverine suck down multiple beers. So the teetotaling must just have been an odd touch Hama liked.
Unless drinking was forbidden in Springfield. But I’m getting ahead of myself now.
This panel was an eye-opener. “Somebody on these premises is revealing the location of Springfield to the G.I. JOE team!”
Somehow in all my years watching The Simpsons regularly I never recalled the plot point from G.I. JOE about how COBRA’s secret headquarters was in a place with the innocuous name of Springfield — and that its location was a big secret the Joes were always trying to uncover! Even the revelation in The Simpsons Movie in 2007 that their Springfield is in Kentucky didn’t jog my memory.
Larry Hama should demand royalties from Matt Groening.
And now, guns.
Firearms were always depicted in loving detail in G.I. JOE. Note how the recoil is pushing this semi-auto pistol's slide back and pushing the shell casing out the ejection port. And how this cowl is damned impractical.
We interrupt this gun lesson to try to get you to read a goddamn book.
Is it weirder that she has a revolver in her bag, or that she uses what is clearly a rehearsed speech right out of a Dirty Harry movie to threaten him with it? And then in the very next panel, she's all, "You're welcome, Mr. Dreadnok, Sir!"
Now, Bullpen Bulletins, from Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter. From everything I've read about Marvel in the 80s, he was a holy terror of a boss. But here he is earnestly endorsing some group he saw play on a trip to Denver (ooooooh, fancy!) called The Hit City Band, then teasing Marvel's New Universe line of comics, which would prove to be as popular as its cultural contemporary, New Coke. I got no hits when I searched on the Hit City Band in the iTunes store just now.
At the bottom of the page we have Marvel's monthly checklist, with a handful of TV Guide-style loglines where they needed to fill the page. My favorite is for Fantastic Four No. 292 -- "Versus Adolph Hitler!" Note how deeply the completist mania of self-described "Marvel Zombies" was folded into the business model. This was the era when only very popular runs of regular monthly series got republished as trade paperbacks (every monthly series goes to trade now; for years it's been the only way I buy comics). So we have Fantastic Four Index No. 8 promising "The real scoop on what happened in issues #126-147!" And Marvel Team-Up Index No. 4, wherein "Spidey and his partners swing into action in issues #60-82!"
Then there's the logline for Savage Tales #5 -- "The only place to go for hard-hitting adventure!" Marvel is perhaps unaware of the currently-in-progress hard-hitting adventure of G.I. JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO! #49?
They can't be. It's right there on the checklist.
I should've jumped on this offer when I had the chance. New single-issue Marvel comics start at like $3.99 now, right?
And here's our closing shot: Serpentor, COBRA's new genetically engineered "Emperor," muttering under his breath about the stupidity of the cannon fodder.
When I reread this comic the other night for the first time in 20-odd years, I was struck by how much happens in it. It's certainly paced much faster than the comics I read now (Hawkeye, Saga, Fatale), which focus much more carefully on characterization and mood, reflecting their generally PG-13-to-R intentions.
This comic was all, all about plot (and shilling for toys), as the workmanlike art suggests. So the super-weird bits, like the stuff about the bad guys all drinking grape sodas or the little moppet with the .357 magnum -- none of which would seem as noteworthy in something Matt Fraction wrote, though I expect he would address the moral repercussions of a gun-wielding-child, where Hama treats it as all very matter-of-fact -- probably stand out more here.
Comics would become an obsession of mine for about five solid years after this. They'd remain an interest after my full-on mania circa 1987-91 receded on account of factors that included a rapid expansion of my interest in movies, music, and women. But also the abysmal quality of most 90s mainstream comics.