Knowing is Half the Battle
By Kevin Powers
A little under a month ago, IDW Publishing acquired the comic book rights to Hasbro's storied G.I. Joe franchise. In this latest Silver Soapbox, lifelong G.I. Joe fan and CB's own Kevin Powers lays the foundations for what he believes should be the direction of the franchise in comic book form.
I enjoyed Michael Bay's interpretation of Transformers. I thought it was fun, a bit over the top, action-packed and generally good entertainment. In fact, I thought Transformers was done damn near perfectly. I mean, what did you really expect from a movie based on a cartoon about giant super-intelligent robots fighting each other? In my best Michael Bay voice I will tell you it was "AWESOME" (cue exploding something).
Now I think one thing people forget is that while Lorenzo di Bonaventura was indeed a producer, and the driving force behind this film, there is also another name amongst the producers that holds a hell of a lot more water than Bonaventura, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg was there to almost ensure a good film was being made, and Transformers was well done.
So what of Hasbro's other major property? Hasbro is without doubt, the undisputed toy king, I am a stockholder, believe me, I know. Hasbro also does Lucas' s toys, Star Wars and Indiana Jones, as well as Marvel's toys, and they are all doing extremely well. But Hasbro has also recently revived their longest running franchise, a franchise which has an extremely loyal fan base of which I belong. This is a property that holds a special place in many people's hearts because of its impact on a person's childhood.
Sure, there was always Superman vs. Lex Luthor as a classic example of good vs. evil, but there was also G.I. Joe vs. Cobra. I personally am absolutely appalled at the movie version of G.I. Joe, but I am optimistic of what is planned for the true version of the franchise, the comic book. With that said, I am here now as a critic, an aspiring creator, a student of film, and an intensely loyal G.I. Joe fan, to comment on what I believe could lead to a re-vitalized G.I. Joe comic series.
About a year ago, I told my mother that my latest toy hunt was involving the G.I. Joe 25th Anniversary figures. She told me a story about how she bought my original collection of G.I. Joe's at a tag sale, the kid selling them kept the figures, their respective accessories and their file cards in pristine condition. Some of my most vivid memories as a child involve playing with G.I. Joes and being completely captivated by the cartoons. I distinctly remember a friend of mine having a G.I. Joe themed birthday party where we took a tour of the New Canaan, CT Armory where I remember a soldier got his kicks by letting us call him "Duke."
I have always wanted to professionally explore the characters and the mythology surrounding the franchise, but I am also a loyal fan of the original material created by Larry Hama. Recently, it was announced that IDW Publishing acquired the license to print G.I. Joe comic, a license that has been controlled by and helped launch Devil's Due Publishing. In all honesty, Devil's Due is one of the primary forces behind the revitalization of this franchise; they brought it back and ran with the original continuity. However, IDW must modernize and re-introduce the franchise, not a total re-boot, but more of a modernization. Thus, this column is born.
IDW's Role and the G.I. Joe Universe
IDW Publishing does indeed have one of the most coveted and beloved franchises in their kung-fu grip. They have an obligation to uphold the quality and integrity of a 26 year old franchise that still manages to inspire people. With the franchise, they automatically get the loyal fans as well as that prized 18-35 year old demographic who will look at a new G.I. Joe and say "what the hell, I'll give it a try." However, with G.I. Joe, IDW cannot do what it normally does. I know they announced an ongoing series, but that's the kicker. It has to be an ongoing series. The G.I. Joe franchise was born in comics and that will be the lifeline, the basis for the franchise making the transition from generation to generation. IDW cannot keep the franchise afloat with "Spotlights" or mini-series after mini-series like they often do with other franchises. For example, another franchise they have is Star Trek but there has yet to be a continuing and ongoing Star Trek series. Granted, what they do with Star Trek is very well done, there's no core series. G.I. Joe can be a major spring board for IDW and if they want to really take advantage of what they have, they'll do three things.
First, they should have a main ongoing series, a re-launch of the franchise. Not a complete re-imagining, but a modernized version of the franchise. Second, they should follow the continuity established in the film in a separate series that has nothing to do with the main property. There will be those who love the film and there will be those who hate it. With the film's continuity, this is the place where IDW can do the mini-series and the Spotlights. Third, a line of comics for younger readers entitled something like "G.I. Joe Adventure Team," all ages friendly stories that capture the essence of the 80s cartoon as well as well as offer stories and information for children.
By all means, IDW should re-launch the main universe. Devil's Due Publishing's final story-arc "World War III" truly seems like the final chapter in the continuity as we know it. They have continued the story from the original Marvel continuity and after 26 years, it seems to finally be at its end. Devil's Due also tried a few times to re-launch the franchise; some call it an effort to create "Ultimate G.I. Joe." While the concept was innovative, it was a bit before it's time. Now, given the state of the world, a G.I. Joe re-launch, while staying true to the source material, is certainly in order. Today, more than ever, G.I. Joe is a very relevant idea.
While I don't think the franchise is by any means "tired," it could use a new spin and more modern setting. The original G.I. Joe stories were set in the 80s and the team was mostly comprised of Vietnam Vets. Today, the world is a much different place. I've even heard the argument that the War on Terror is almost exactly like G.I. Joe vs. Cobra. Al-Qaeda is an unstoppable enemy, no matter what happens they never seem to die and their leader is always on the run, much like Cobra. The new G.I. Joe series should be knee deep in realism, while at the same time maintaining the same general ideas and concepts that made the franchise popular to begin with. This means that some of the concepts, such as the genetic cloning of historical conquerors to create Serpentor, need to be re-imagined in a more modern environment. The focus should be on the members of the unit, the personal, emotional and physical tolls such a war can take and of course, a feeling of realistic, authentic action. The violence can be kept at a "PG-13" level but the main series should not be watered down beyond that. Readers should open this book and feel like they are on the frontlines of modern combat. Now, I'm not saying that focus should be taken off of the characters at all, the various and unique characters are what make G.I. Joe what it is, however the true backbone of the story is war. After all, when you really boil it all down, G.I. Joe is a war comic.
This series should also be focused on today's military and the constant advancements in technology and combat. For the past seven years, America has been fighting a non-conventional war. The G.I. Joe vs. Cobra concept has always been fought in a more non-conventional theatre. The series should involve the ins and outs of modern warfare. I'm referring to the politics, the resources, the black market, third parties and of course the historical political agendas of certain nations. Again, while the re-launch should most certainly NOT entail a complete re-imagining of the franchise, it should indeed be modernized and include the true and real aspects of modern war.
For example, the company Blackwater employs mercenaries and private contractors for combat situations. While based in the United States, the members of Blackwater don't necessarily have a home affiliation, they are work for hire. This is where characters like Major Bludd and the Dreadnoks would come into play. They are characters that work for the highest bidder and in this case, Destro and Cobra. Or they are characters who differ greatly from Cobra Commander but share the same distaste for American policies.
The franchise should also start at the beginning, with the formation of Cobra and the influence of Destro and his weapons manufacturing. The new series does need to involve politics on some level and the War on Terror has to be the primary conflict. Destro should be a soldier of fortune; a weapons dealer and an all around mysterious man that no one knows anything about save for the Baroness. That's not to say that Cobra's make-up of being a relatively domestic terror group should change, but it should become a powerful player, if not the main player in the War on Terror. This would involve some character restructuring, most specifically for Cobra Commander. While the film version is sure to explore his origins, it is necessary for there to be a definitive story in the new ongoing series. I'll elaborate more on the characters in the next section.
The new series should certainly stay relatively true to the source material. G.I. Joe stands for "General Issue Joe" NOT "Global Integrated Joint Operations Entity." G.I. Joe is a purely American franchise; it is "A Real American Hero" and damnit it needs to stay that way. I'm all about including the Oktober Guard and real life organizations such as the SAS, but the core G.I. Joe team is American and is made up of the best of the best from all four branches of the American military. Changing this concept breaks the very foundation of the franchise and most certainly has lead to much of the distaste over the film version. Keep it simple, for overseas sales of the book, "Action Force" has always worked, but a modern adjustment to the name wouldn't hurt like "Special Operations Force."
The G.I. Joe universe is filled with unique characters, each with a different specialty and a nickname to match. Like many things G.I. Joe, these characters have a loyal following and years of development already in the bag. While I do think a more modern take on the franchise is in order for a re-launch, the characters do not need to be re-imagined or changed in any way, shape, size or form, however, a few tweaks couldn't hurt. For example, like the franchise, these characters should be modernized to reflect the current state of the world over the past fifteen years or so. And other things such as dropping Roadblock's overly "jive" talking should be dropped. There definitely shouldn't be any "creative license" when it comes to certain characters like Roadblock, i.e. he should not become a rapper. The stereotypes have to go, but the characters have to maintain their identities and functions within the realm of the military. Each main character's role and history with their respective branches of the military should be explored as well, such as Flint as a member of Delta Force, Duke as a member of the Airborne Rangers and Shipwreck as a Navy SEAL. Simple questions have to be covered, such as: Why are these characters chosen? What have they done to warrant them this special assignment with G.I. Joe? Does Duke show an exemplary combat and leadership record? Does Flint have a history with Destro and the Baroness? These are the types of questions that should be explored and could add to the character dev elopement and quality of the stories.
There's also the issue of dead characters, for example Lady Jay and Chuckles. Both characters have a fan base and could play an integral role in the new series. For the purposes of a re-launch, it would only be fitting that these characters be brought back, especially Lady Jaye. However, for this series to really stand apart from the original Marvel and Devil's Due runs, the realism must come into play. That means the possibility of characters dying has to be real. Whether they are a major character or an obscure character, the possibility of death should be present. If G.I Joe and Cobra are just locked into an eternal gun battle where no one dies, this series gets nowhere. The threat of death would add a level of suspense to the title and also a level of excitement as readers would see how their favorite characters get through certain war-time situations.
There's also an oversaturation of characters. For the purposes of the toy line, getting rid of some of these characters all together probably isn't even on the table. However, some of these characters are more important and more integral to the operations of the military than others. What I'm saying is that there should be a "Command Unit." The "Command Unit" should consist of G.I. Joe brass such as General Flagg, General Colton and General Hawk. Their jobs are to oversee operations from a logistical, strategic and political standpoint. As for the field teams, personally, I'd make it so that there are two G.I. Joe field units, an Alpha Unit and a Bravo Unit, if you will. One would be led by Duke, and the other would be led by Flint (if you really want to get nostalgic, Flint's team could be "Tiger Force"). This would essentially quell any fans fighting over which is really the team's field commander. One vision I've always had for G.I. Joe is that Duke and Flint are two competitive best friends always trying to one-up each other. This would lead to conflict amongst the team as well as efficiency on particular missions. One idea I've always thought would be cool about this kind of dynamic is when it comes time for new recruits to hit G.I. Joe boot camp, Duke brings in Sgt. Slaughter for the pep talk while Flint brings in R. Lee Ermy.
Duke and Flint would run joint missions; they would select their team members based on their skills and what is required for the mission. Characters such as Scarlet, Snake Eyes, Roadblock, Sgt. Stalker, Lady Jaye and Shipwreck would be mainstays and smaller characters such as Barbeque, Cutter, Spirit Iron-Knife and Cover Girl would be selected based on their specialties. This would offer a great deal of variety for the action side of the stories, but it would also leave room for the characters to be developed on a mission by mission basis.
One character that should be toned down and re-defined is Snake Eyes. I understand he's probably the most popular character, and I am all about the ninja idea, but the idea of he and Cobra Commander being directly linked is a bit of a stretch. I like the idea of Snake Eyes and I definitely like the character. However, the series should be rooted in military realism, and the history of Snake Eyes should be kept low-key. I always believed that Snake Eyes was in a way, Larry Hama's version of a pre-Origins Wolverine. When put into this context, I think details like Snake Eyes' relationship with Storm Shadow and his involvement with the Askrikage Clan should be explored, but the truly intimate aspects of his past should be kept quiet and/or slowly explored.
As for Storm Shadow, he has to be a character that goes both ways. He's a mercenary, but the idea of being brain-washed seems a little bit far-fetched for a ninja of his caliber. In terms of the re-launch, I think the way to keep Storm Shadow a morally ambiguous character constantly flopping sides is to ensure that whenever he picks an allegiance, it is because there is something he wants involved. Maybe he's running his own separate missions and needs information, or maybe he's the character that keeps the battle balanced. Either way, the dynamic between Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow should be slowly developed and also portrayed on a grand scale.
Cobra and Cobra Commander
As I mentioned, one idea I do like involving the film is that Destro is the main villain. This is indeed how the story should begin, while G.I. Joe chases Destro, he likes what Cobra Commander has to say and funds the Cobra organization as it slowly starts to build. Using today's world as a backdrop, the perfect excuse for Cobra also exists. We are in a time of economic crisis and heavy presidential distaste. Hell, most of America and the world are fed up with the current state of the government. What a perfect time to re-launch the G.I. Joe franchise by using America's current real-life situation as a jumping off point? Throughout history, men with their own vision of the world have often come to power during times of social and political discontent. Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Lenin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Franklin D. Roosevelt and George Washington are examples of political figures that have come into power during social, political and economic crisis for their respective nations. If you are a religious history buff, you will also know that Moses, Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad also developed their strong followings based on social, economic and political turmoil.
Cobra Commander should be very similar to these historical figures. He should also maintain the current personality that Devil's Due has given him, a ruthless and emotionless being who slowly degrades into only caring about ruling the world. Cobra Commander should start small, starting with Springfield and expanding from there. As his influence and power grows, his ego begins to move twice as fast and he quickly takes his cause globally to a world already feeling anti-American sentiment. Cobra Commander should be the type of individual that people can identify with. A man fed up with high energy costs, the War on Terror and the general direction of the country. The key to mastering Cobra Commander's character is not creating a ruthless man or a complete buffoon, the key to Cobra Commander is to make him a man with a just cause, but a "wrong" sense of execution. I put wrong in quotations because a major element to the character is that he thinks what he is doing is absolutely righteous.
As I've gotten older, Cobra has become more to me than just "a ruthless terrorist organization trying to take over the world." Cobra is an idea, an idea that would no doubt be split into factions both political and religious. For the purposes of the re-launch, I think Cobra could benefit from this type of spin. There's the main political group led by Cobra Commander, but there is also the potential for splinter groups focusing on the more religious aspects of such an organization. The religious side of things is where Serpentor and Dr. Mindbender could be re-imagined a bit.
G.I. Joe Adventure Team, an All-Ages Friendly Hero
While the 18-34 demographic is pretty much a lock for G.I. Joe, there's also the issue of introducing the franchise to a younger audience. More and more, entertainment mediums are becoming heavily geared towards becoming kid-friendly. For example, in the recent Incredible Hulk film, the original opening sequence showed Bruce Banner attempting to commit suicide in the Arctic. The Hulk prevents Banner from doing so and begins to smash the ice. Rumor has it that the Hulk is responsible for breaking Captain America free from whatever icy glacier he is stuck in. While this scene is crucial to the Avengers franchise, it was also cut because it was too dark for children and younger audiences. I see both sides of the argument, but in terms of G.I. Joe, we are dealing with war. As I've stated, I would personally love to see the mainstream comic series take a more realistic approach to the G.I. Joe universe. However, there's a level of violence that comes with that, and granted anyone at any age can turn on the news and see insane amounts of violence, for entertainment, it's not acceptable in some circles. This something along the lines of a kid-friendly "G.I. Joe: Adventure Team" series is in order.
Along with the publishing rights to G.I. Joe, IDW acquired the rights to re-prints as well. This presents a unique opportunity for G.I. Joe to tell original, all-ages stories with reprints as back up stories.
The "Adventure Team" series doesn't have to be overly cheesy or toned down, just something more in the vein of the 80s cartoon. A series such as this would have the potential to be fun, action-packed, mild on the violence and most importantly, educational. Children are often exposed to weapons of war and the military, especially over the past eight years. It would be prudent for Hasbro and IDW to take advantage of the G.I. Joe license and use an all-ages friendly series to teach children about the military and the technology used. Growing up and watching the cartoon, there was always a clear distinction between good vs. evil. As an adult and reading the comics, as with many comic book titles, the distinction between good and evil is a bit more of a gray area. Villains have very adult motivations economic, political, and social but children don't understand this concept, thus the line between good and evil has to remain clear. The "Adventure Team" is the perfect place for simple, clear cut good vs. evil.
Once again, there should be a clear set of main characters such as Duke, Scarlet, Roadblock and Snake Eyes, but other characters should be featured on a regular basis supporting the main group. The "Adventure Team" line can also focus on the supporting characters in accepting who they are and their roles as part of a team, valuable lessons for children.
As I stated earlier, this is the place for mini-series and "spotlights." IDW has a unique opportunity to keep the fan base and G.I. Joe loyals satisfied by up keeping a mainstream series but also offer a continued interpretation based off of the film for any fans who like that version of the franchise. This way, everybody is satisfied and based on sales it can be determined which continuity to focus on more. Determining how the film plays out, IDW can explore prequels based on the characters. Depending on the success of the film and possible sequels, that will open up avenues for further "movie-based missions" for the continuity established in the film and transferred into comics. Regardless of how well the film does, the G.I. Joe vs. Cobra franchise is 26 years old and completely changing the roots of said franchise could be disastrous.
There has been a lot of critical response over the concepts in the new film. Most of this has been negative. Personally, I'm not sure how I feel about it, but as I've stated throughout this column, G.I. Joe needs to fall into more realistic criteria. I'm not sure how much of that the film will offer in place of stylized action in the vein of the Transformers film. Time will tell, but the mainstream comic continuity and the movie continuity should be kept separate.
I am all for Larry Hama's involvement in the franchise. He's the father of the entire G.I. Joe vs. Cobra idea and he should definitely be the source of information on these characters. Hama should most certainly be the "character consultant." These are his characters, he is really the man behind it all and he should have a presence at the very least to ensure that these characters, while modernized, stay true to their original identities. Also, military consultants from the modern war should be included in up-keeping the realism and the tone of the franchise. I love the idea of including Hama in the process because it brings a level of integrity and influence to the way the characters are handled.
G.I. Joe is one of the most beloved franchises in all of comics, toys and entertainment. Hasbro and IDW have a unique opportunity to re-introduce the franchise to today's audiences in three different and unique forms. It's been a fantastic year as a G.I. Joe fan and collector, but now is the time, more than ever, to modernize and re-invent the franchise.
I hope Hasbro and IDW take what I've said into consideration and if a further discussion is warranted, I am ready for the frontlines. As an aspiring writer, a loyal fan of G.I. Joe and a comic book critic, now you know how I feel, and of course, knowing is half the battle. Yo Joe!
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