When I first started taking the bus to school there was this older kid that was mean to me. I don’t remember exactly how, but he was being a jerk. I went home and told my mom about it and she – ever the good-natured optimist – said I should talk to him and ask him why he was being mean and tell him I didn’t think I deserved it. Ridiculous, right?
Only it wasn’t. Because I did exactly that and I guess something got through because we ended up hanging out. It turned out he collected GI Joe just like I did. Not only that, he was a member of some sort of fan club that got special magazines and offers. One of those magazines had an article about using a Sharpie to color in some of the unpainted details on GI Joe figures like sculpted pistols and grenades.
That kid’s name was Peyton and he ended up being my best friend for years. His house had a huge playroom in the basement and we would set up the Joes on one side and COBRA on the other. We’d take turns being one or the other. GI Joe would send out patrols looking for COBRA and COBRA would attempt to either ambush the patrols or attack the base. We staged some epic battles and launched some memorable missions.
And then the first animated GI Joe: A Real American Hero miniseries happened and blew my little mind.
I had had it all wrong. And it was all so much better than what I had been pretending. Those rifles didn’t shoot bullets, they shot color-coordinated lasers. And Colonel Hawk wasn’t the leader. It was this guy with a flat-top haircut and a tan shirt named Duke. A tan shirt! Nobody else had a tan shirt!
Side Note: Oh, and by the way – where the heck was a Duke action figure!?! (We got one later)
Scarlett didn’t have some awful mom haircut, she had a ponytail. And was a total hot babe. Scarlett was my first redhead crush and it always made me mad that the figure did not live up to the hotness of the cartoon version. Lady Jaye, on the other hand, worked in both mediums.
Other major revelations of the GI Joe cartoon were that Snake Eyes didn’t talk, Destro had the coolest voice ever, Flash was not a major character at all (I would have sworn he was thanks to his awesome red padding, visor, and the fact that he had a laser gun. But in the cartoon everybody had laser guns.), and Cobra Commander sounded utterly ridiculous.
That firs miniseries was called A Real American Hero or The MASS Device depending on when you saw it and it changed my life. Up until that point I had done only the bare minimum of voice acting when I played with my toys. Darth Vader, C-3P0, and R2-D2 along with various creatures were all that really got the effort required to attempt mimicry. But the GI Joe cartoon compelled me to really dig in and make my figures speak like their animated counterparts. I would absolutely love to have recordings of young me attempting to imitate Destro, Major Bludd, Cobra Commander, Shipwreck, Quick Kick, and all of those other distinctive and often outrageous voices. And I did them all. I honestly don’t recall what I did about the females. I guess I did lady voices because I know I wouldn’t have just done a regular voice and I doubt they just didn’t talk.
It’s hilarious how similar – and yet still great – the four GI Joe miniseries were. The MASS Device, The Revenge of COBRA, The Pyramid of Darkness, and Arise, Serpentor, Arise! all involved the Joes and COBRAs racing around the world trying to be the first to get to something; whether it was a piece of the Weather Dominator, the elements that powered the titular MASS Device, or genetic material (ew) from a deceased conqueror or tyrant.
Side Note: I think the best illustration of just how deluded Cobra Commander was is that he even allowed Destro and Dr. Mindbender to make Serpentor. If that guy had any self-awareness whatsoever he would have known that he was a complete assclown and that any combination of great leaders would immediately usurp him as leader of COBRA. The great mystery of the cartoon was how that version of COBRA Commander ever managed to get a terrorist organization together in the first place.
GI Joe: A Real American Hero produced some of my favorite cartoon memories from the 80s. Like all 80s cartoons, maturity and perspective have rendered them much more absurd than I remembered. I don’t know if it’s the quality of the voice work and animation or just nostalgia, but I can still watch GI Joe regardless of how silly the Fatal Fluffies might be or how many times Bazooka’s actions should have resulted in a squad of Joes being decimated. There’s something about that cartoon that endears it to me more than any other.
And then I discovered Marvel’s GI Joe: A Real American Hero comic book. And it was just as revelatory as the cartoon had been when I first saw it. There was real military action. The guns fired bullets. People got shot. And – unlike the animated series – the story just kept going. From issue to issue the comic followed various characters from the Joe and COBRA teams as their conflict continued on. It was fascinating and engrossing and the first comic I actually attempted to collect. I say “attempted” because I would get every new issue I could when we were in Kroger or Waldenbooks or whatever. The idea of comic book stores was not something I was aware of back then.
I often credit Uncanny X-Men as the first comic I collected, and it was the first one that I bought on a monthly basis thanks to Marvel’s subscription service. I kept that one going until I did find a comic book shop (Titan Games & Comics in Duluth, GA). But GI Joe was the book that introduced me to the idea of following or even buying comic books. And I think that is precisely why licensed comic books are not only a good thing but a vital part of the industry. They truly can bring in the uninitiated and turn them into fans and lifelong devotees.
So the GI Joe comic was great. Why was it great? Larry Hama. You can read all of the facts about Hama’s life on Wikipedia or something. The important thing is that he is the man that made the 1980s GI Joe toy line what it was. He wrote all of the file cards and comic books with little to no editorial interference from Marvel or Hasbro. The only direction he received was which vehicles and playsets and characters he needed to use at certain times. Other than that Hama basically had carte blanche to create an ongoing narrative. His run on GI Joe is second only to Chris Claremont’s legendary Uncanny X-Men on my list of favorites. I’ve read the first eighty or so issues several times over since I was a kid. I own the single issues as well as the trades that Marvel and IDW released.
And folks, I hate it, but I have run out of time. It looks like we’re going to get a repeat of Predator Week here and I’m going to have to do one more GI Joe post next week to talk about GI Joe: The Movie, the post-Marvel comics, and of course, Rise of COBRA.