Remembering Andre Blais

I’ve gotten a little used to posting remembrances of G.I. Joe alums from the worlds of animation, comics, and toys, where the departed were born in the 1940s or ’50s. It’s sad, although it makes sense. But I was caught off guard this summer to learn that Andre Blais had died. He didn’t work on G.I. Joe, but for me, he worked around it. Longtime readers of this blog have “met” him, as Andre was my photographer from 2008 to 2017.

That’s a funny term, “my photographer.” We only worked together 15 times, so that’s just one or two sessions per year. But every time I retrieve printouts of the early sample chapters or a PDF on my laptop to show someone what my book looks like, there are Andre’s images. I would spend many hours in the days before a photo shoot gathering toys, thinking about textures and props (or not thinking about textures and props), and emailing Andre and book designer Liz with questions and ideas. They worked at the same studio. That’s how I “found” Andre. He was already there. And after each session I would await a PDF contact sheet, and then the big, uncompressed tiffs, the fruits of our labor. Andre would have spent a week or three turning his RAW files into something that looked good for the client, painting out dead pixels and adjusting color. In a few cases, I would pick a particular shot and ask for a bit of touch up. (Can you take the glare off Stalker’s thigh?)

And months or years later (oh boy, have I been taking forever to get through this book!) when it was time to link a photo from a particular photo shoot, I would pour over that contact sheet and decide which take, which select, would go into the text. For each chapter I make a big, complicated list with notes for designer Liz — what images go roughly with what paragraphs, what images should be after a page turn, or if three images could be smaller and grouped together. By this point, I wasn’t emailing Andre, but I was staring at his work and filled with the satisfaction of having hired a professional. A talented professional. (For a moment in 2005 I considered taking all the photos myself, but just a moment. You can tell a good or lucky amateur shot from a pro’s one. That makes all the difference, even for something basic like a small plastic man standing in front of a sheet of construction paper.)

Some of Andre’s effort was “copy work,” merely photographing a toy in its packaging in a neutral way. We’d spend time deciding on a background color, and any curve or ding in the package was an opportunity for distracting light reflections, so simple shoots were never simple. And some of that copy work was Andre photographing oversize original artwork that wouldn’t fit on my scanner. And that was straightforward enough that on one occasion I left a bunch of art with him and picked it up some months later.

Part of what made our collaboration feel like a bigger deal is that it wasn’t always just me driving to Pawtucket. Twice Andre and I met elsewhere at someone’s home, me having driven from my part of Massachusetts, and him from Rhode Island, to shoot a toy or prototype in their living room. That’s because that nice person was willing to let us in for a morning, but not interested in letting me schlep their valuable artifact to Andre’s studio. (But two times former Hasbro guys did let me schlep their artifacts over, which I returned the next day.)

And once, in 2015, Andre and I met in Texas to photograph a collector’s wares. We flew in separately on Saturday and started shooting, all three of us went to dinner, and Andre and I crashed at a hotel. The next day we shot more, and then headed to their airport to take our separate flights back to MA and RI.

Andre had two jobs. One was full-time photographer and videographer for Gladworks, that firm that’s designing my book. The other was his own wedding photography business. Wedding photography is hard. It’s a kind of photojournalism. When people think of this business, they imagine the staged images of the wedding party standing and looking at the camera. What interests me are the candids, those moments of someone talking to someone else, or someone telling a joke and someone else laughing, or a young kid fidgeting with their fancy clothes. My own wedding took place near my wife’s family, far from our home. We hired a pretty good wedding photographer. I remember sitting in her studio, trying to explain how I wanted the candids to resemble movie publicity photos, sort of effortlessly casual, and yet somehow brilliantly lit and staged. She nodded. Our photos turned out well enough, but I remember thinking of Andre’s photography website and all the gorgeously composed wedding photographs there. And sort of wondering if we should have hired him instead. (And flown him out to California? Yikes, that’s prohibitively expensive. Was he even available?) You have to be invisible to cover someone’s wedding, somehow capturing all the obvious moments without getting in the way or blocking the view. Or during the reception, you have to see everything, and somehow capture all the best moments — the best friend talking with the other best friend, a bit of foreground greenery stepping in from the left and out of focus; the friends from back home standing around and talking in a mini reunion; three older family members sitting and not quite looking at each other but sharing the same warm expression. Looking over his online portfolio in prepping for this blog post, I am very slightly jealous of those lucky couples around New England who had Andre Blais shoot their weddings in the last decade-plus.

One time, maybe around 2016, Andre and I were on a lunch break. We’d been shooting G.I. Joe toys on a cyc in the Gladwords studio room. I was probably eating a tuna sandwich. He pulled out his phone and showed me his new side business. Weddings are tiring, and being a successful wedding photographer means you have no weekends from April through October. Here was a way for Andre to make money while sitting at home! He was starting to upload his images to a few stock photography websites. He had an account. Whenever he went somewhere interesting, he’d be on the lookout for a striking image. Certainly a professional photographer is going to do that anyway, but Andre was looking for images that people or companies might license. You’ve probably landed on those stock image websites when Googling for something specific, stumbling onto a gymnast with a watermark, or a close up of jewels with a watermark. Now imagine you’re putting together a brochure and you need three people smiling in front of a tree, or a kid playing in a sun-dappled sprinkler. Or you’re producing a film and you need a neat sunset as a background plate. Then you’d head to one of these stock sites.

But with the spread of high definition both as a standard, and as something that people casually shoot with that device in their pocket, amateurs and indie filmmakers might need underwater imagery of fish, or that neat sunset not as a still, but as a continuous 30-second clip. Andre knew that common categories were crowded — puppies, smiling kids, athletes in action, flower close-ups — so he was trying to bank quirky and unusual clips. He showed me how many downloads he’d had, and where geographically the downloads were happening. He told me this was starting to ramp up, and rattled off a dollar amount that I can’t recall, but a nice little chunk of change he’d made for uploading and letting-a-stock-company-do-all-the-work with a dozen or three clips. One was, I think, a ’50s wind-up toy robot teetering in place in front of… a glass bowl of… fruit? The robot’s shadow or its reflection on the table was dramatic. Andre explained he took that robot or a few other interesting props wherever he went, because you never knew where you’d see something striking, and he could turn it into a quirky, unusual image or clip — not a kid running through a sprinkler in the grass on a bright summer day, but maybe a low-angle close-up of that toy robot with the sprinkler and the suburban house out of focus behind it. It was incredible to hear about this. I knew Andre had a great eye (my Joe toy pics), and was a crafty problem solver (color and BG choices for those pics), but he was a great businessman, too. And here he was solving a creative problem people didn’t know they had. And a pleasant kind of double-dipping, as Andre might already be on a paying job and could step aside for a minute and shoot something to make him more money, no one offended or the wiser. Did he then aim his camera and videotape some old Americana signage on the wall or a close-up of the pat of butter on his pancakes, while on this very lunch break? I don’t recall, but let’s say “sure.”

Now and then when I’m out and about, or traveling, and I see some overlap of weird but amazing elements — a hotel swimming pool populated by frolicking kids and relaxing adults, one set of legs straight up from the water as a teenager handstands and a few pool toy animals inadvertently migrate toward him or her — I vaguely think of Andre catching such an image, and naming and tagging it (“underwater walk”?), and profiting from it. And I smile.

My main memory of working with Andre is a composite of all of our “regular” shoots (the ones where we didn’t travel), looking for ideas in the junk at Gladworks. The above photo is after some office clean-up, and you’ll note the background is just office stuff. At times it was much more cluttered. But in those shelves and boxes were samples of tile, and paper, and sometimes baskets (Gladworks put together a grocery store wholesaler’s catalog, I think, so Andre one time had just shot a bunch of canned food and plastic fruit with fake grass and baskets on checkered tablecloths). I never prepared fully for our photo shoots. I’d have an idea of which figures would be in front of what kind of background. Sometimes I brought props, but mostly we used Andre’s collection of colored paper or dug around the studio for glass tile, or those baskets, never wanting to quite repeat ourselves. One time he said we should drive to Lorraine Fabrics, a discount shop nearby out of the 1950s. We bought some small samples, a textured yellow-sand piece bigger than a napkin, a pale blue sheet with an almost metallic shimmer, and it felt like art school again. Adventure. New places. Problem solving.

Some time in 2017, Liz told me that Andre had moved to Florida. I didn’t get to say goodbye, but I sent a text after the fact. (My book has survived without him — Gladworks hired a wonderful photographer and we had a shoot in late ’17.) I’m not sure what Andre was up to down south, but I think it was a good move.

Designer Liz tells me that more recently he moved back and was shooting for Hasbro. Ha! I don’t have any specifics, so I can’t speak to this brand or that brand, but the full circle is striking. He had avoided the big H previously. We would chat about product photography — here was Andre taking pictures of toys for me, and he knew people who did that for Hasbro locally, but he didn’t want that. Maybe it was having regular hours, or maybe the money was better combining the full-time photography/videographer Gladworks job with the fulltime-weekend-freelance-owning his own wedding photography business, but Hasbro was lucky to have him. And I wonder if, unknowingly, some toy I see online or in a Hasbro catalog this past year or in the coming months is his.

To Andre’s family, I’m thinking of you. Besides that great eye of his — the wedding couple kissing, leaning a bit forward toward each other, but on a curvature, reflected in the side window and door of the limo that will whisk them away, all in crisp black and white — I’ll miss his willingness to lie on his stomach (not precisely depicted here, but close enough), outside, to capture a dramatic low angle.

1 Comment

Filed under Book Behind the Scenes, Photography

Silent Interlude Redux: a Review of the G.I. Joe 40th Anniversary Special, Part 2

In Part 1, I offered some context for the new G.I. Joe 40th Anniversary Special via a trio of Marvel Comics “Tribute” issues wherein top artists of today each redrew a page from a classic Marvel story. I started making an analogy that comics like these resemble popular song remakes. I’m going to return to that analogy later, but since the selling point of this new G.I. Joe work is each new artists’ take, and the ability to see this story anew, first thought I would riff on each page.

There’s an inherent challenge to a comic like this, and that is somehow showcasing the new artists in a way that doesn’t distract or detract from the original work, and keeping something of the new artist’s own style, that it doesn’t get completely subsumed in the remaking process. For example, page 1 is by Tom Feister. That name calls to mind a particular type of photo-referenced art and a particular color treatment, think G.I. Joe Origins circa 2009.

I like this new Silent Interlude page 1, but nothing about it says to me “Tom Feister.” Partly that’s the page composition. There’s no front-on figure work, and most comics artists who took on this Larry Hama layout were going to disappear in it. Maybe an inker with a strong signature style, think a Klaus Janson or a Bill Sienkiewiez, would show through, but name any 23 current Marvel/DC/Dark Horse/IDW artists redrawing a Cobra CLAW flying in the mountains with two pairs of legs peeking through and I wouldn’t correctly guess them. So my comment that Feister disappears here is not a criticism. He draws the layout with no changes or embellishment. It’s handsome, and as per the original and Hama’s strengths as a storyteller, clear.

None of IDW’s Real American Hero issues written by Hama have had story titles, and somewhat in that spirit, and in saving time/money on a letterer (as with the 1983 original) the words “Silent Interlude” don’t appear on page 1.

Where this page falls down for me is the color. I’m on record as not being a big fan of J. Brown’s work on Real American Hero, so I’ll keep this short, but let me point out three things: 1) The original is sunset. It’s striking. Part of why that is striking is contrast. Pink (clouds) contrasts with green (mountains), and blue (sky) contrasts with brown (mountain). There are two colors in the sky, one for clouds and the other for actual-sky. There’s a different color for the mountains. And that time of day is absolutely certain. Yet in Brown’s hands, all sky and cloud and mountain are the same light purple. No contrast, and I can’t tell what time of day it is beyond “night time.”

[Left to right: “Silent Interlude” original separations on newsprint, 1983; “Silent Interlude” reseparated by Digital Chameleon using the original color as exact guides, 2002 (and used for all IDW reprints since); new art and color, 2022.]

2) Brown treats objects inconsistently. Here’s a zoom-in on the purple rock abutting the grey castle on page 1:

The highlight on this rock should also be a highight on this castle. It is not. If your response is that this is a nitpick, my counter is that this is what colorists do, they render light across space and surfaces, and they lead the eye. Brown often colors as if there are additional, invisible light sources all throughout a scene, and this rock/castle bit is but one example.

I mocked this up with real objects, a grey box and a purple piece of paper. Either the highlight can affect neither or both, but it should be consistent.–

But that third example above with the dark box and the brightened paper is what I see here:

This comment isn’t about one sliver of one page. This kind of light treatment happens all throughout the comic book.

3) Ugly gradients. Now certainly a color in and of itself can’t be ugly. As a kid, brown and green Crayola markers were the least interesting to me in those 10-packs. But now I keep a variety of brown Tombo brush pens near my sketchbook, to work both as colors in and of themselves but also to affect other colors. And certainly one needs brown for all sorts of objects — trees, skin, the cloth of a Cobra W.O.R.M.S. driving his Maggot tank. The same goes for grey-blue-purple or peach-pink-grey. Right? A color isn’t ugly in and of itself, it’s what you do with that. But this gradient, from grey-blue-purple to peach-pink-grey, is unattractive and distracting:

Here it is in situ, a distracting background swatch:

For some reason, the background grey-blue-purple matches Scarlett’s costume, while the peach-pink-grey almost matches her skin and does indeed match Storm Shadow’s. Rather than popping from the background, these foreground characters “rhyme” with it. Here, let me try something:

Not the best solution, as maybe the flat background doesn’t agree with the rendered characters, but at least there’s contrast, returning to point number one.

Then, two panels later, there’s so much activity in that background that it distracts from Storm Shadow’s mental anguish and the subtlety of his physical motion. Rather, that little electric storm of blue says “HEY, LOOK HERE AT THE TOP OF THE PANEL BY THIS GUY’S HAND!!!!” Storm Shadow’s inner conflict is adequately captured in the line art and needs no background exaggeration. And then, panels 3 and 4 below have the same color treatment, whether light can enter through the portal or the portal is closed. In both, the background is a) not rendered in a curve as per the shape of the prison cell, but as a flat marbleized texture, and b) the same muddy-violet regardless of the amount of light pouring in.

I get it, color need not be literal. It can be emotional. Certainly my yellow background above is not literal. But J. Brown uses every emotion all of the time. I don’t think his approach is a fit for G.I. Joe. And that’s all I’m going to say on the colors.

Let’s get back to me riffing on the pencil-and-ink artists and return to each art page, one at time.


Page 2 is Freddie Williams II. This is a great bit of follow-through on Editorial’s part, because I’ve been a tad disappointed that someone of Williams’ stature has done so much 1980s-toy and licensed work (18 full issues Batman/Ninja Turtles and another dozen between He-Man/Thundercats and Godzilla/Power Rangers) but has only done covers for G.I. Joe. Where’s the love for interior pages? Finally we get one. Williams wrote a fascinating book on drawing comics digitally, and while his ink washes are far too much for my tastes and his covers often get too busy, he’s a earned his place in this comic book. Bonus: No ink washes here!

Williams is the first artist to fundamentally diverge from Hama’s original layout. This is not something I would do were I involved in the 40th Special, but to Williams’ credit, his take is as dramatic and clear — no net change up or down.


Page 3 comes from Tim Lattie. He’s drawn two G.I. Joe covers, but no interiors to this point. One of those covers was for a reprint of Yearbook #2, presumably linking Lattie’s cartooning to Michael Golden’s. Lattie’s “Silent Interlude” page continues this cartooning approach, something you’d expect more from an “Animated Adventures”-type series than a “regular” one. He’s concerned with curves and rounded shapes (like I said — “cartooning”) more than anyone else in the tribute. It’s attractive, but the first jarring shift from one style to another, from Williams’ page 2 to Lattie’s page 3. That is part and parcel of such a tribute comic, and doesn’t affect my enjoyment of any one page, but does affect how I take in the project as a whole, like the second verse of a song performed by a different band.


Page 4 is Alex Sanchez, who has drawn a few covers and two entire issues of G.I. Joe. What sticks out most to me with his previous Joe work is how much his layouts and approach to drawing resemble Travis Charest. Sanchez doesn’t hide this fact in interviews, Charest is indeed an influence. I don’t see that here save some detailing on Snake-Eyes and the plane, but Sanchez is of course playing by a strict set of rules. He makes a few panels smaller so he can increase the size of the main Snake-Eyes-Falling panel, not an unreasonable change. I’m not sure why SE’s left arm is aiming back, though. It gets lost in the inking.


Page 5 is drawn by Brian Shearer. Best known as an inker of many IDW Joe issues, Shearer not-just-inked but penciled and inked issues #253 and #277, and his work is much more open than most Joe artists. It’s not cartoony, but is in that direction. He sticks close to the 1983 layouts.


Page 6 belongs to Dan Schoening, who drew a regular issue of Joe in the style of the Sunbow cartoon, which led to a 4-issue miniseries set in that animated world. Schoening has drawn a load of Ghostbusters comics, and is something of a chameleon. I don’t have a sense of what his default or base style is, so I had to check who drew Page 6, as I couldn’t tell on my own. Schoening makes a tiny but dramatic change, placing not a Cobra Soldier atop the castle, but a Crimson Guard. I’d be up for this kind of update, except that it creates a continuity error a few pages later, as Snake Eyes is going to fight three Cobra Soldiers in that spot, not two Cobra Soldiers and one Seigie. It’s small enough that some readers won’t even notice.

(I know I wrote that I was done commenting on color, but J. Brown overloads the page with green light from every monitor and screen. Okay, back to the pencil/ink artists.)


Page 7 is drawn by Casey Maloney, who drew a bit of the Chuck Dixon run in 2011 and one Real American Hero issue of G.I. Joe quite recently. His work is closer to Brian Shearer and Tim Lattie in that it’s more open and his proportions are ever so slightly cartooned. A question I had concerning this page was how the background in panel 1 would get inked. In the 1983 original inker/finisher Steve Leialoha shows the artist’s hand with a sketchy, unfinished approach. The thick black lines reveal some of the paper beneath, equally suggesting a starry sky and the cross currents of rushing wind. You are aware of it as ink on paper. In Maloney’s hands, while those tiny white slivers and triangles still recall an artist making marks, colorist J. Brown adds a white glow-fuzz to each, so they are definitely stars. No other stars appear in panels 2, 3, or 4, but I’m going to let this inconsistency go since there are definitely stars on the previous page.


Page 8 comes from Maria Keane, who has inked a bit of G.I. Joe recently. This is an unusual way to “meet” her, as we’ve not seen her pencil G.I. Joe before. This is the 7-panel bobby pin page, and Keane makes only the slightest changes to posture and posing. It is with this page that I start to wonder if the 40th Anniversary Special is less fulfilling as a comic book and more interesting as an exercise, if it’s less that the sum of its parts, even if all those parts are strange and wondrous. I don’t write that to pick on Keane, as when this comic was solicited I briefly imagined myself redrawing this very page and thought “Oh, but I can’t change anything.” More on this later.


Page 9 is drawn by Adam Riches, who’s known for Hasbro G.I. Joe toy package art — both original and recreations — as well as a few variant comic book covers. Were I contributing to this book, I would be sorely tempted to sign my page as well! As this is the only page with an artist’s signature, it sticks out a little, but in the context of this remake, where I’m always aware that I’m reading a redo of an old comic, it’s fine. This reminds me of the occasional comic where the artist signs all the splash pages, a practice I lightly disagree with. Covers, yes. Final page of a big-deal story arc or the artist’s final issue ever, sure. Page 9? Not needed.

Riches winks at the whole affair, turning Destro’s chess pieces into actual G.I. Joe action figures. They’re colored in grey and white, alluding to marble or ivory, but they are toys, right down to the arm rivets and leg joints. This reminds me a little of the difference between the real world of 1995 and 2005. When the film Toy Story was released, those characters were all invented toys. By the time Toy Story 3 hit theaters, a generation of kids had grown up with Buzz and Woody action figures and plush toys, and so our reaction to the film was subtly different. Of course there were G.I. Joe action figures when “Silent Interlude” was first introduced and 1983-Destro reflected over his chess set, but 38 years later everyone reading (and drawing!) this Anniversary comic is acutely aware of Real American Hero as a generational, nostalgic proposition. There’s no room to make a joke in this special, but Riches finds a way. When I first saw this last month I rolled my eyes, but in re-reading the story since then, I find it sweet and quite funny.


Page 10 is one of the two most interesting of the whole batch. That is because it’s drawn by Alex Milne. He was a robot-drawing wiz, a discovery during the Dreamwave era of Transformers comics. The details were impressive, but the storytelling got lost. In 2006, he pitched in on the end of Devil Due’s third G.I. Joe vs. Transformers crossover, but taking a casual glance, he may have only drawn robots. Somewhere just before the transition to IDW Publishing, something clicked with his page layout, and Milne was on a path to being the best Transformers comic book artist ever. More and more detail, yes, but clear storytelling and great acting. Humans aren’t a big part of his ouevre, especially in the extraordinary More Than Meets The Eye series (10 paperbacks plus three essential tie-ins). However, a version of G.I. Joe was wandering around the Hasbro-verse post-“Revolution” in Transformers continuity, and Milne was briefly reunited with best-Transformers-colorist-ever Josh Burcham to fill-in on issue #4 of Optimus Prime in late 2016. All of the pages are great, but I still wasn’t fully convinced Milne could pull off humans, humans acting, and Joes specifically, until then. He can indeed draw humans:

And then Flint flies a Skyhawk! I’m skipping that page. Here’s the one that follows:

Milne would certainly nail the vehicles if he became series regular on Real American Hero, amiright? Oh, also, he did a V-Wars one-shot for IDW. I’m not sure why, but Milne’s acting and action in that entire comic book are a tad stiff. Maybe it’s the script, maybe it’s because vampires are kinda stiff. Interestingly, in the 40th Anniversary Special, Milne’s page is the closest to Hama’s originals, with the least amount of changes. I don’t want this to become a blog post about Transformers, but A) Alex Milne exaggerates and slightly cartoons his Transformers, which is an amazing feat. B) Josh Burcham knew the key to coloring complicated scenes of robots covered with detail and overlapping each other was to color less, not more. C) Please someone hire Alex Milne and Josh Burcham to make G.I. Joe comics.

Where was I? Oh, right, the G.I. Joe “Silent Interlude” tribute issue!


Page 12 belongs to Netho Diaz. This is bittersweet, as it’s likely Diaz’s swansong on Joe, minus a variant cover or some end-of-year/series-finale-issue-#300-surprise. Diaz’s decent-sized association with Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe, from the “Rise of the Arashikage” arc in #246 to #250, to the Silent Option miniseries, some of “Snake Hunt,” to a pair of self-contained issues since, are a ramping up in kinetic excitement for Real American Hero. Loads of detail. His storytelling at the start was not strong, but he brought a visual flair and amount of detail that would be right at home with the house style of, say, DC Comics in the last ten years. If not for that Thunderbolts fill-in upcoming, I’d bet Diaz would be drawing Green Lantern or Detective Comics in 2022. Clearly he was never going to stay at IDW for very long, as the lure of higher profile work would call. Here’s a nice reminder of how good we had it for a dozen-plus issues.

Diaz adds a torch to the background of panel 1, another small continuity glitch I’ll chalk up as “interesting.” He draws Snake-Eyes regularly in the bottom two panels, a change from the original issue #21, where the ninja commando is drawn and colored light and almost translucent, like he’s moving too fast to see. It’s a small story change, but I prefer the original.


Page 13 is a contribution from Billy Penn. This guy drew a great issue of Joe last year and then immediately returned to his day job, so like Diaz, I’m quite aware that this is likely it for him on Joe. Penn inks his G.I. Joe more like a 1980s comic book, and is one of the most thoughtful storytellers — I mean page and panel layout — of the last 12 years of Joe comics. Penn flops the angle on Hama’s panel 1, a change I wouldn’t dare, but he pulls it off. He pushes his third panel in closer, which adds some immediacy to this Cobra Soldier falling to his doom, but since the subsequent panel hits a similar note, I prefer the original Hama breath-pause of pulling back on that third panel. Penn’s final panel manages to lose some of the urgency of the moment as all of those Cobra Soldiers don’t look like they’re rushing. I still like this page, and love the balance of gritty realism and weird cartooning he pulls off. Someone came into my shop recently and wanted to read a new issue of G.I. Joe. I heartily recommended #287, seen above.


Kei Zama draws page 14. This is a fun pick, as some of you regular readers of the current Real American Hero series may have missed Zama’s contribution. She drew the 2019 G.I. Joe Yearbook, but more recently we know her from most-of-two-years on Optimus Prime (at the finale of the previous Transformers continuity, that ended with Unicron), and a (speaking of metal bipeds with guns) Death’s Head miniseries for Marvel. Zama’s storytelling was not always clear on the former, and there are some occasional chunky bits to her anatomical drawing — style over form — but she sticks close to Hama’s 1983 layouts and slightly shrinks three panels so the exciting one of Snake-Eyes at the end gets increased real estate.

While two-thirds of the way into this comic may not be an ideal place to wrap up this post, I will be back soon with riff-thoughts on the final nine pages, the cover, and an overall reflection on the object.

[Jump to Part 1] – [You Are Reading Part 2] – [Part 3 Coming Soon]

Leave a comment

Filed under Comics Reviews, Reading comics

Silent Interlude Redux: a Review of the G.I. Joe 40th Anniversary Special, Part 1

I can’t write about this week’s double-sized G.I. Joe comic book special without first looking back a few years at something similar published not by IDW, but by the House of Ideas. In 2020 and 2021, Marvel Comics created a precedent with a trio of oversized remake comics. These were Fantastic Four Anniversary Tribute #1 (that premiere issue plus the wedding of Sue and Reed from FF Annual #3), Captain America Anniversary Tribute #1 (Cap’s origin/Red Skull’s debut from 1941’s Captain America Comics #1 plus Cap’s return in Avengers #4) and Giant Size X-Men Tribute #1, a double-sized redo of just that original issue from 1975). But these weren’t reprints.

The idea was to have current, popular artists each redraw a page from the originals, but to maintain the original scripts. The experience would be new, yet familiar, with a decades-old Joe Simon or Stan Lee or Len Wein script underneath modern drawings, the coloring of today, and re-done word balloons and sound effects. This is the beginning of the remake comic, and I wonder how long until we get several a year, with DC trotting out a “Case of the Chemical Syndicate” redux (sort of already done in 1991’s Detective Comics #627, but that involved new scripts) or IDW paying all these great modern Ninja Turtles artists to redraw the 1984 Eastman and Laird debut. To an extent, we’ve all lived with something comparable for years, as artists have drawn “homage” or “tribute” covers, swiping the pose and arrangement of well-known images but with new characters. It’s one thing when an artist cheekily “swipes” themself, like Todd McFarlane drawing black duds for the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #300, and then a month later, redrawing that same image with the web-crawler in his red-and-blues.

And of course, McFarlane did it again with Spider-Man #1 and #13. But it’s another thing when Phil Gosier adopted that Spidey haunch for the 1994 G.I. Joe Special Edition comic that ended the Marvel run for Real American Hero. Yes, cover “swipes”/”homages” have been here forever, and while they used to be rare and special, now there are several every month if you count up all the American comics publishers.

Name a famous cover, like the Byrne/Austin “Days of Future Past,” that McFarlane 1990 adjectiveless-Spider-Man, or the Lee/Williams adjectiveless-X-Men #1 from a year later (at this moment as I type this in 2022 being redrawn with Spawn characters by McFarlane of all people), and you can probably name several “swipes” for each. I think those were once fun, but there are too many, and too often lesser artists are riding on the coattails of greater talents. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but if Dynamite or Scout publishes four of these a month, with Vampirella and her pals taking the 1984 rooftop Ninja Turtle poses or whatever, it starts to lose its resonance. There’s the Mona Lisa, and there’s the Mona Lisa as a print available from the museum gift shop, and there’s the Mona Lisa duplicated in a repeating pattern on an umbrella. The umbrella designer isn’t saying anything important. Da Vinci was.

But covers are not interiors, and one full-frame image is not the same as 22 pages of panel continuity.

I was intrigued by those Marvel tributes, because it makes a kind of sense. Marvel artists often briefly draw in a Jack Kirby-style for a flashback, and everything post-Kirby and -Buscema and -Kane and -Romita Sr. and to a lesser extent -Ditko is in effect a love letter to them. Remaking a whole comic allows us to both appreciate the artistic heights of the original, as well as to see it through a new lens. I don’t know about you, but what a thrill it would be to have Kevin Nowlan, Chris Samnee, Takeshi Miyazawa, Marco Checchetto, and others redraw pages originated by Dave Cockrum! Because they and many others did just that for the X-Men Tribute. Cockrum’s style is a little old-fashioned, so some 2020-flair will inject new life into that foundational X-story. But an important question arises: Does this experiment run the risk of diminishing the original? I don’t mean that it would make me dislike “Second Genesis,” that killer tale that introduced a whole new mutant roster and the island of Krakoa, but is there a mismatch? Might it be more distracting to have all these disparate talents trying to make something cohesive? Does 2021 art fit a 1975 script? Is it impossible to enjoy one of these tributes on its own?

There have been X-Men comics that brilliantly split up the art chores, Uncanny X-Men #273 and X-Men Annual #1, notably. In the former, the best X-artists ever each take three pages in a row so Jim Lee could get ahead for the double-sized anniversary issue arriving two months hence. Joe Rosas, then regular colorist, handled the whole issue, so it’s all cohesive. And switching from Whilce Portacio to John Byrne to Rick Leonardi to Michael Golden (yes, it’s a murder’s row of eye-pop in this somewhat transitional story — wrapping up the last arc and setting up the next) works because most handle a discrete scene and they’re all incredible talents. Importantly, they’d all worked on that series, so this was a welcome return. Jim Lee provided layouts for the Annual, so while the art-style jumps are much bigger — P. Craig Russell’s art nouveau and Brian Stelfreeze’s architectural shading and Mark Texiera’s dimensional grit — it has an internal consistency. And while each creates sequential pages, they’re all in different amounts, so it’s a little distracting.

One is more successful and the other is less so. But now imagine if these two X-issues had divided up the contributors one page at a time. That’s a lot more shifting for the reader. And now imagine the colorist wasn’t the same all the way through. Here’s two pages from the 2020 X-Men Tribute, click to enlarge:

The first page is Rod Reis, who draws and colors his own work. It’s energetic in that post-Sienkiewicz style for which he’s known. Cool! Modern! The second page is penciled by Javier Rodriguez and inked by Alvaro Lopez. Rodriguez draws in a slightly reduced, “retro” style here, with less detail to more closely align with the look of a 45-year old story. He also colors himself, deciding to further make this page retro, not with the gleaming white of modern paper, but with a yellow tint that suggests the off-white newsprint of the 1975 original. That’s a cool decision, but these two pages slam up against each other. Reis and Rodriguez are certainly their own best colorists, but they’re subtly working at cross purposes here. Every page is different. Too different.

In flipping through these three Marvel Tribute comics, I decided that as much as I wanted to buy them, because they’re fun, and indeed a celebration, they’re also too distracting to enjoy. A music analogy: I was at a concert recently for a favorite rock music guy. It was powerful and visceral, as live music always is, but I was too aware that I was at a concert. Either the volume was too high, or with my earplugs in I was too aware that I wasn’t hearing everything. And either I could stand too far back but with an unobstructed view, or just thirty feet from that Famous Guy, but with a massive pillar blocking the rest of the band. I couldn’t ever entirely relax because I was constantly aware that I was at a venue seeing a live show. I had a great time, but just staying at home and listening to a CD on headphones would be the purest way to experience that music. Reading a Marvel Tribute issue is an exercise in never forgetting that I am reading a re-draw of an important comic. Flipping through it, now that I can do! But sinking into it? Impossible. Maybe I just want to re-read the 1941 original, the 1961 original, the 1975 original. Or a traditional reprint of them.

I’m going to return to a musical analogy, but let’s finally shift to G.I. Joe.

I will buy anything Joe that IDW publishes, both for myself, and also to stock at my store. I vote with my dollars as a reader and as a retailer. IDW has been a good steward of the G.I. Joe brand, and I was excited when this was first announced. Let’s check in with that solicit, click to enlarge:

Just in case that jpeg isn’t loading, here are highlights, followed by my reactions:

“SL Gallant, Netho Diaz, Andrew Lee Griffith, and many more!” Great! All those guys have turned in excellent work on Larry Hama’s monthly in the last few years, so they deserve to take part in this celebration! I wonder if anyone who drew IDW’s non-Hama continuity (sometimes called the “Chuck Dixon-verse”) will show up? (The answer: yes.)

But I immediately noticed that there are superstars and then there are superstars. Three artists out of 21 listed! There’s a likelihood that whoever your favorite artist is wasn’t going to contribute. Oh, there are many reasons, like so-and-so is under contract at DC or at Marvel and isn’t allowed to draw for another publisher, or the deadline is tight, or drawing for IDW’s page rate isn’t going to excite some talent. But you know what? As much as I want this single issue to break through and sell a million copies to all those readers and collectors and speculators who haven’t paid attention to G.I. Joe since 1994 (or earlier!), maybe this is actually just for the 7,000 of us who are paying attention to Larry Hama’s modern G.I. Joe monthly series, and damn the non-fans and lapsed fans. With that in mind, I made a mental guess of who else had drawn for Real American Hero since 2010, and when the final contributor list was made public earlier this week, I was pretty close. Music analogy: You don’t want to get back into our favorite band now that they’re reunited all these years later? Then that band’s new mixtape is just for me.

A sidenote: While I’m excited to see everyone’s contribution, from an SL Gallant (who has drawn more G.I. Joe than anyone ever!!!) to a Kewber Baal, who’s only ever drawn one G.I. Joe comic (and it’s so recent, you still haven’t heard of him), the two names that most jumped out to me are Antonio Fuso and Alex Milne. Why? Keep reading!

Another promise made in the catalog solicit: “Additionally, the issue will contain stories and essays by creators who were influenced by Hama.” Wow! That sounds amazing! Finally, some scholarship in this most famous of ’80s comics! As a G.I. Joe researcher/historian/nut, I am hungry for that! But I’m sorry to say that whoever wrote this copy was either hoping, or some things did not come through by deadline-time, because there are no such “stories” in the Anniversary Special, just the main story redo and a reprint of the original “Silent Interlude.” And there are not “essays by creators who were influenced by Hama.” Rather, there is one, a singular and not plural. This is a pet peeve of mine, when books promise loads of bonuses, only to under-deliver.

Titan did this with its Marvel Transformers reprints around 2002 (which, besides the complaint of this paragraph, I rather like), with each volume’s back cover promising “incredible background material.” You mean a credits page? An ad for the next volume in the series? No, that must not be it. Oh, you mean a couple “Story So Far” pages? Hey, Titan editor, do you think that counts as “incredible”? Maybe this is my fault for mentally swapping in “bonus” for “background,” as in “bonus material,” but I was hoping for some preliminary or rejected art or script pages, or an interview. Regarding the G.I. Joe Anniversary Special, any promise of multiples that results in a single amount is a disappointment. But hey, one essay is still something, right?

But I’m cautious about essay contributor Chad Bowers showing up here. He’s also the guy who wrote dialogue for Snake-Eyes: Deadgame. Uh, yeah, I guess that was influenced by Hama, but that was a Rob Liefeld vehicle, who in terms of writing and drawing and storytelling might be called an anti-Hama. That miniseries may have been a PR win, and moved some units, but it’s not going to turn anyone into a Joe fan or return any lapsed fans to the fold. But what a relief, Bowers’ essay is great, and everything you’d want it to be. It’s personal, it puts the original “Silent Interlude” in context, and it comments on that story’s legacy. He does earn his place in this 40th Anniversary Special. But surely there was a call for other contributors. Did no one else respond to what must have been Editorial’s “Since you were influenced by Hama, do you want to contribute a story or essay?” Or maybe Bowers was the only person who was asked, which stings even more. Bowers wrote text pieces on G.I. Joe and Hama in the 2019 Sierra Muerte miniseries, so that we have heard from him recently does make me wish for other voices here. I see so many comics professionals, people who wrote or drew or write or draw, effusively reply to Hama when he posts on Facebook, like “I learned so much from you,” and none of them are present in the Anniversary Special. Here’s one from a comics and animation pro (who even contributed to G.I. Joe a bit), name removed, from May 2021:

Larry, I see you as a mentor who gave me a shot
at the big time in comics and taught me much. Yes
sometimes I would show you a comic page and you
would tell me [it] sucks and laugh about it. Then
you would lay tracing paper over the page and explain
why it sucked and how to fix it. I also see you as
someone [whose] credibility I never question. Anybody
I know that actually knows you gets you and admires
you as much as I do.

And there are all those comics journalists who write for well regarded fanzines, comics criticism magazines, and established blogs — I had hoped that one of them would be included. As much as I didn’t want IDW to further double dip — we’ve got a lot of “Silent Interlude” reprints out there (one as recent as 21 months ago), I would’ve just included Mark Bellomo’s essay from the Silent Interlude 30th Anniversary Edition hardcover.

And now for that final promise: “as well as a fourth wall-breaking short story written by Larry himself, celebrating his unparalleled four decades of work on G.I. Joe: ARAH.” What!? An auto-bio yarn by Larry Hama? That’s amazing! Even if it’s only one page (I was hoping for six, but realistically guessed it would be four), that could be fun, and revealing, and maybe emotional! I know Larry, and he has a great sense of humor. Does “written by Larry himself” mean someone else would draw it? Or maybe it would be a text piece, an essay. But maybe Hama, who cranks out dozens of sketches at conventions, and who recently broke down in pencil dozens of entire Deathstroke issues for DC, was going to write and draw this! Some years back he posted to Facebook a two-panel gag comic, a funny interaction he had with a cab driver. Just pencil, like his cover sketches, and lettered in his pleasing, scratchy handwriting. Click to enlarge:

I’ve always wanted to see more, but drawing is a bit hard for Hama with arthritis, and he’s mostly getting paid to type plots and scripts. But comics or prose, this 40th Anniversary autobiographical story was going to be great! Or at the very least, an interesting failure! But alas, it doesn’t exist, or didn’t make the deadline.

As a reader, I can be disappointed that the advance solicitation for the G.I. Joe 40th Anniversary Special didn’t deliver on some of its promises. And as a retailer, I can be as well, because it’s harder to sell. But I have another tool in my toolkit, which is that IDW can authorize Diamond, our distributor, to make this returnable for credit. The sales terms for most publishers selling through Diamond Comic Distributors is that if a book is late, if the cover is different or if the interior contents are significantly different than what was solicited, then the book is to be made returnable. The idea is that I can’t sell it in the quantities that I expected back when I ordered it, and it’s the publisher’s fault, so they should be responsible. I don’t know if the G.I. Joe 40th Anniversary Special has been made returnable. I get the sense that no one notices these discrepancies — essay/essays and the Hama story — except me, and I get the sense that no one cares, both of which make me sad. I also don’t wish to punish IDW. This is supposed to be a celebration! I want IDW’s sales people to worry about selling the next issue rather than back peddling on the last one. And I want IDW’s editorial folks to spend time making the next issue of G.I. Joe rather than explaining why this one didn’t deliver. IDW is already losing the G.I. Joe license, do I actually want the company to pay me back (however indirectly) for the significant quantity of this eight-dollar comic that I ordered? No, I don’t. I will not ask Diamond to make this returnable. But this just adds to my complicated feelings about this Real American Hero comic book.

One last comment on this object, overall, before I get into the guts. It’s called the 40th Anniversary Special. But “Silent Interlude,” the original issue #21, is from 1984, so this is the 38th anniversary of that story. If you’re going to use the name 40th Anniversary Special, wouldn’t it make more sense to publish a remake of issue #1? Certainly a remake of “Operation: Lady Doomsday” isn’t going to sell as well as one of “Silent Interlude,” and I’m not actually suggesting the more-accurate “38th Anniversary Special” should be on the cover of this comic. Heck, the 40th Anniversary Special even reprints the cover to issue #1 as a full page interior for some reason. But then the immediately following pages are behind-the-scenes for this #21-remake, and there’s nothing about 1982 or G.I. Joe issue #1 anywhere.

As a title and its relationship to the object, what we did get feels a little off, and that on top of my earlier comments about what’s not included adds a lot of baggage to my experience of this book before I’ve even read the first page. But whatever anniversary we’re celebrating, and whatever content I was expecting, it’s a double-almost-triple-sized G.I. Joe comic book, which is always exciting!

As for what I thought of the actual interiors, check back in a few days for Part 2.


Filed under Comics Reviews

A Real American Book! 2021 in Review

It’s been a full and yet challenging year. Ha! Even the fact that this post is two months late is a commentary on that fact. But a remnant of the school-teaching calendar is that I consider February 15th to February 14th, rather than Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, to be my book-writing year, and here we are. Were. Are.

In December 2020 — that is, a little over 12 months ago — I was interviewed by “Funky Bunch” Mark for the Talking Joe podcast. He was interested in my book. I admitted the previous year hadn’t been great for writing, as pandemic challenges, teaching, and my shop renovation took up much time and mental space. But I was certain that 2021 was going to be different! But those three elements have continued, and in terms of just researching and just writing and just editing, I don’t have much to report.

It’s striking to see the great strides that a few hard working peers have made in the realm of G.I. Joe publishing. And I’m encouraged by the positive responses their various outreaches and crowdfunding campaigns have netted. Maybe that bodes well for a book like mine. Certainly the 40th anniversary would have been a good year to launch A Real American Book! into the world, but there’s still a chapter to write, several chapters to edit, and several to redesign. But something has shifted that will make part of ’22 better for sitting at the computer and flicking my fingers across the keyboard. More on that below.

A G.I. Joe Thing I Did This Year: Posted 10 articles here at the blog. That’s an okay number. To my eye, there are three glaring omissions, interview excerpts with and remembrances of a few important G.I. Joe alums who passed away. I just didn’t get around to banging those blog posts into shape. Maybe in this new year. (I keep trying to post short articles, like one rare image with a 50-word paragraph, but as you can see from the Rob Liefeld tome or the Marie Severin thing, it’s difficult to not expand — more context, more examples.

Non-G.I. Joe Things I Did This Year That Are Good or Interesting-

I finished the 16-month renovation of my comic book store. You know this part already, but the pandemic shutdown and the slowing of in-person commerce right after that offered a window of time to rip out some walls, floors, windows, electricals, and everything-elses. A year ago in the ’20 Review, I was only halfway done.

I shot, edited, uploaded, and posted 55 short films. To keep customers, as well as family, friends and internet well-wishers up to date on the renovation, I made use of my phone, Premiere, and social media. This was nice, because I got to scratch that filmmaking itch, plus my acting itch, and also to put on a different hat and be dumb on camera. By contrast, teaching and comics retail are serious. These video works are all one-minute in length, and by “short films,” I really mean “ads,” but they are informative ads with little to no hard sell. Posting these to YouTube, Facebook, the shop website, and then handing them over to an employee who runs our Instagram meant that merely rendering a final mp4 was never the last step on a Tuesday night, but we get nice reactions so it’s worth it. Here’s one from April ’21:

And all of them, in order, are here.

Re-opened my store. The renovation basically ended in mid-August, and we moved and unpacked 180 boxes and set the shop for the not-so-grand reopening four days later. As this is a G.I. Joe blog and not a Hub Comics blog, I’m keeping these non-RAH paragraphs short, but you probably know that everything is harder in the pandemic. Ordering merch, communicating with customers, wrangling employees, it’s all slower, more expensive, and/or heavier. We said goodbye to a wonderful staff member (who is fine, thanks), and have contended with Marvel and Penguin Random House and DC and so-and-so-Distributor and what you might call Distributor Wars Two. (Remember 1995?) But the customers have been kind and enthusiastic, and notice the great work by our contractors and their sub-contractors.

Almost capital “F”-finished the renovation of my store. That reopening date of August 14th, 2021 was also Free Comic Book Day, but we’d only actually gotten to “92% finished.” The fall and winter involved many punch list items and filled the progress thermometer up to “98% finished.” That’s new seating, reworking our internal forms, window blinds, fixing some water damage, rehanging the TV and resetting the A/V, cutting three inches off a table and putting it on casters, installing bookcase end caps, and more. The punch list continues. Even as I write this, today I’m coordinating with our electrician for next week and our handyman for the week after.

My company produced 27 video shorts. Most of the credit goes to partners Nick Nadel and Kevin Maher. If you want to see two of our two best bits, here’s a local TV ad gone off the rails. And you must like the ’80s if you’re here, right?, so here’s a video essay on an ’80s show that didn’t make it. Also, our marquee animated short got into 15 or so film festivals. It’s three and half minutes long and funny.

Co-hosted the long-running Talking Joe podcast. It turns out that “Funky Bunch” Mark was in need of a new on-air partner right when he was interviewing me. It was the pandemic, and so making internet friends from home made sense. Further, reading and then expounding on G.I. Joe comic books new and old was right up my alley. Two or three locals sure know about my strong feelings on printed Joe tales, and now the whole internet can, too! Plus I can get my name out there to a different audience, and bring in my own to Mark’s existing pool.

While I habitate the role of grump in our duo/trio — two hosts for current comics, three for older ones — most of the credit should go to Mark as well as “Disavowed” co-host Jay Cordray. It’s one thing to show up with a microphone and Talk Joe. That’s easy. It’s another to wrangle the audio feed, invite and manage guests, and to edit and post a two- to three-hour episode every week! Mark does that. Additionally, episodes also now have a bit of a visual component, our YouTube videos in case you like watching a podcast. Not us gesticulating to the camera, but graphics and comic panels that correspond to our chatter, and Mark edits and posts half of those! And Jay does the other half! You think editing a 60-second film every week is fun-but-tiring, man, think about content that’s 120 times as long! And on top of alllll that, Mark and Jay share and post all this to social media. I am grateful to Mark for the opportunities, both to explode my strong feelings about comics to a wider audience, but also for connecting us with killer guests, both current and retro. I take the art (and commerce!) of comics seriously, and it’s lovely that Mark and Jay are willing participants when it comes to construction, analysis, design, history, and context. An issue of G.I. Joe is not just an issue of G.I. Joe.

We’ve never met in person, so therefore we’ve never recorded in the same room, but you might pretend it looks like this.

I’ll post a separate blog “article” here with images and marquees for each of our episodes.

But to put a fine point on it, on the subject of G.I. Joe and with Mark and Jay, I recorded about 5,580 minutes of audio this year. Plus a few hundred more for when we continued to chat with guests after hitting “Stop.”

I read a book. In previous yearly Reviews, I’ve often recounted several pop culture histories that could directly or indirectly benefit A Real American Book! But it was just one in ’21. Douglas Wolk’s All of the Marvels doesn’t mention G.I. Joe, but it does mention Transformers, so it almost counts.

I taught History of Animation each semester. I had handed off my other classes recently, but this one is vitally important to me, the course I could not drop. I didn’t originate it, but I do think I evolved it and it evolved me in the last decade and a half.

But while my connection to this university where I’ve worked for 17 years is strong, I also need some time off, so this will be my last term teaching, at least for a time. I’ve thought about this a lot, and there are many feelings about being available to pursue other jobs and projects, yet feeling a tad bereft about leaving important moments, connections, and lessons behind. Yet it is time for something else. I may return, or teach elsewhere, but to loop back to the opening paragraph above, for now I need more time and mental space to work on my G.I. Joe book. And so this summer and fall look and feel open and sunny and wonderful for staring at a monitor and pounding the keyboard.

And so: A month back marked the actual anniversary of Marvel Comics’ G.I. Joe issue #1, and more recently saw the 40-year date for Hasbro’s first Real American Hero toys arriving. I appreciate that many G.I. Joe-friends marked these passages on social media. I thought of commenting, or making my own post. Then I thought I should turn that into a proper, full-blown blog post here. Then a few days went by, and the moment had passed. Plus there was this blog post to finish, and that Part Two post about Marie Severin, and three others I’ve started on. And then I needed to grade some school work, or format the weekly comic book store email to customers, or something like that. Which loops back to the beginning, that this has been a difficult year. Oh, it’s been a great year for my store, and satisfying for the educator in me, but I’ve talked a lot with my therapist about writing my book, or not writing my book. And now it’s time to get back to it, not just “working on” but actually finishing.

Leave a comment

Filed under Behind the Scenes, General Musings, Talking Joe podcast

Andy Mushynsky ink art – G.I. Joe #28

Last month I posted a photocopy of Marie Severin’s pencil art to a single page of G.I. Joe issue #28, cover dated October 1984, and offered a small, incomplete professional biography of Severin. If you haven’t looked, head over there first, as this new post is a companion piece.

When I think Andy Mushynsky, I first think “He inked Rod Whigham’s run on G.I. Joe,” but he also contributed to Spider-Man pages and covers, that of the Amazing, Spectacular, and Web of variety, and others, plus Topps’ Zorro. And there’s a G.I. Joe gap in the first sentence of this paragraph, as Mushynsky didn’t just ink Whigham, but Ron Wagner after him and Frank Springer before. In total, Andy Mushynsky inked 31 issues of A Real American Hero! Plus 10 of Special Missions.

The one that concerns us today is #28, that single issue penciled by Marie Severin. You’ve seen some pencils, and now here is a photocopy of the original art to that same page 18 with inks by Andy Mushynsky. Click to enlarge.

Mushynsky was born in West Germany, studied English Lit at Colgate, and worked in publishing, social justice, and art direction. Through a connection with his studio mates, Mushynsky started inking for DC Comics, and then for Marvel on series like Power Man and Iron Fist and Vision and the Scarlet Witch.

In a 1985 issue of David Anthony Kraft’s Comics Interview with Dwight Jon Zimmerman, Mushynsky refers to that Avengers maxi-series, stating that “I’ve discovered that because the super-hero characters are so much less detailed than the G.I. Joe characters — who have all these weapons, ammo belts and a multiplicity of details for each character — that the inking goes much more quickly. And the fact that the super-heroes have more open forms enables me to use more line-weight variations…. The Vision and Scarlet Witch is turning out to be a lot more brushwork, which is fun. And when I get tired of the brush, I can go back and pick up my pen and do little G.I. Joe figures.”

He does make the point that it’s a challenging series.

Leave a comment

Filed under Back issues, Comic Books, G.I. Joe Behind the Scenes

“G.I. Joe: Saturday Morning Adventures” issue #1 – The Real American Book! review

(Click to enlarge)

Congrats to the creative and editorial team on issue #1 of IDW Publishing’s G.I. Joe: Saturday Morning Adventures. It is so much fun, and pitch perfect. Kudos to Burnham, Schoening, and Delgado for completely capturing the look and feel of the ’80s cartoon. Also a tip of the hat to Uyetake that the lettering font is different from the monthly Real American Hero, to subtly differentiate it.

Burnham efficiently jumps right into the story (as with Destro arriving at the start of the very first episode of G.I. Joe — Cobra Commander immediately has the thing in his possession!) with Cobra Commander holding the object of power on page 1. And Burnham picks a fun story motivator here with a wish-granting genie of the lamp. This is a trope found in other ’80s cartoons, and it fits in here, a G.I. Joe story that wasn’t, but could have been. The scale of it also works, as Cobra Commander starts simple, allowing for a heightening of stakes in the back half of the issue as well as presumably bigger and more complicated threats in issue #2.

But I have three quibbles. One, everyone knows that G.I. Joe was not a Saturday morning cartoon, right? It was a weekday cartoon. Certainly the dual 5-part miniseries of 1983 and ’84 align with a Monday through Friday “strip,” but Joe was not ordered in increments of 13. (Transformers did start as a weekend show for its first season — the opening 3-part miniseries plus 13 episodes.) The order for the full Season 1 for 1985 brought up Joe‘s tally to 65 episodes, again, a quantity for weekday syndication. Did the occasional local station run the show on Saturday or Sunday? Sure. Was this a part of the phenomenon of Saturday morning cartoons? No. “Saturday morning cartoons” tends to refer to the big three, NBC, ABC, and CBS, not syndicated programming, which was a reaction to that. I understand the naming choice, though, as “G.I. Joe Animated Adventures” is perhaps too general. But the animation historian in me can’t help but see a factual error in the title of this series.

(But nice work on the ’80s color and font treatment of the “Saturday Morning Adventures” banner. Another feather in Mr. Uyetake’s cap? That lettering is more He-Man-episode-title-card than I’d want for Joe, but if the goal of the cover is to show people what this is, Cover A is a big success.) And before I get to the other quibbles, I’ll focus a bit on the covers.

Cover A is nearly perfect. It recalls two previous animation tie-ins, the front of Kid Rhino’s 2003 “Two Original Mini-Series” DVD set (Cobra Commander’s face, front-on, on top, fire behind him, Joes below him comin’ atcha), as well as the sleeve art to Hasbro’s “M.A.S.S. Device” DVD Battles Pack (Cobra Commander looming over Joes also comin’ atcha). This new Schoening/Delgado piece acts like a poster for this story-as-animated miniseries. It’s general enough with a team of Joes not doing anything specific, with Cobra looming over them, but then with a key prop that does specifically connect to the Macguffin of this story. Where Cover A needs a small fix is in Flint’s pose. He’d fall forward with that leg placement.

Megan Huang’s cover B is nice, and while I do get “G.I. Joe animation”-in-general as a vibe, I don’t get “1980s Marvel/Sunbow G.I. Joe animation” enough from this, so I’d like Huang to split the difference between her style and the show style. Also, those vehicles don’t work. There aren’t any F-4s in Joeland, and that tank is too general. And if Cobra is riding a tank, it wouldn’t be green, so the story snags here, like for some reason the Baroness and Destro have commandeered a Joe tank? But a Joe tank from before the ’82 miniseries when the Joes had no specific tanks, like how Major Bludd pilots MiGs before Cobra gets Rattlers in “the M.A.S.S. Device”? Ideally Baroness and Destro would be on a HISS or a Stun. This is a fun drawing, but needs a revision at the sketch stage.

The Retailer Incentive cover (shops could order one copy for every 10 of A and/or B) is fun, but doesn’t quite live up to the promise of a home video box cover because the regular logo is slapped across the top. The three “stickers” and the VHS bit are left adrift as Penn’s home video cues are at odds with the standard comic book logo treatment. Stated another way, this cover should look more different from Covers A and B, whether that means more of a straight homage to the F.H.E. boxes or something else evocative of cassette sleeve design. I do like Billy Penn’s plastic shrinkwrap highlights at the top, but they’re somewhat lost around the logo. The shading, color, and composition of this give me more of a ’70s pulp novel vibe than an ’80s VHS box vibe.

Penn shared his three sketch ideas for this cover online and I must admit to finding that the two unused ones are bolder compositions, but C looks a lot like Dan Schoening’s published cover, and the one they went with is most different from both of the other actual, published covers, so I understand the choice. Click to enlarge.

(This is not a blog post about Billy Penn, but if you missed the Talking Joe episode after he was our guest where I flashed back to laud his drawing skills, take a look at much he’s doing with so little in those characters and the lighting in “C,” above — this guy really knows how to draw, even if his finished style isn’t slick or hot.)

Getting back to my actual two other quibbles, these are small story moments either missing or not clearly shown, essentially a 4-panel page needing a fifth panel.

Which leads to Quibble Two: What is exploding on page 3? And where is it in the scene? Click to enlarge this, pages 2 and 3 side-by-side.

Cobra Commander is holding the artifact in his left hand, then cut to a close-up of something exploding (no laser beam shown), and then CC (without his pistol) is kneeling on the ground over debris that doesn’t look like the artifact. I was confused. Did the Commander toss up the artifact and shoot it? Was there a tiny bomb in it that detonated? Had he not been holding it on Page 2, had it instead been sitting on a pedestal in front of him, this would be clearer, but I don’t see when or how it leaves his hand, and it’s not clear that it is indeed the artifact that he’s shooting. Yes, story logic suggests and dialogue explains what is happening (“You destroyed it?” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here), but the art does not show the connective action. It actually looks like CC is going to shoot something else, something or someone across the room, certainly not the important item he’s almost cradling at the bottom of page 2. To use an animation term, the Commander’s pose at the bottom of page 2 offers no anticipation of him chucking a thing in front of himself.

I also note that the artifact is not big enough to actually hold the lamp, but no big deal there. I can pretend it was drawn 15% bigger.

Quibble Three: That Ace and [something something] a Skystriker and the B.A.T. is oblique. Here it is, page 10. Read it, and then I’ll explain. Click to enlarge:

Did you miss it? Ace ejected and rammed his jet into the B.A.T. Here’s all of the real estate that the ejection gets:

It’s almost impossible to see he’s so small, and I suspect that the wonderful Schoening lost the forest for the trees by… zooming in too much as he drew this on a computer?

Okay, yes, it’s big and clear on the page that comes after, but above on page 10 the plane explosion doesn’t read as different from the missiles exploding in that same panel. Bigger, yes, but there’s no plane debris. Here’s a suggestion:

I added a panel, moved a sound effect, added a word balloon to draw some attention to the tiniest and most furthest-away Ace ever seen in a G.I. Joe comic, added a few speed lines, and drew a bit of debris to indicate where the Skystriker went.

It’s not that I have a problem with Ace losing Skystrikers, rather, that the action is unclear. You could swap out my finger-pushing-button panel for the cockpit bursting off, or Ace springing up in the air with a “Wha-hoo!,” just something to show Ace leaving the plane.

Again, the art is to be commended. Delgado’s backgrounds feel authentic with their soft gradients and everything in the right palette. And it’s not easy to capture the look of Russ Heath’s model sheets, which Schoening does so handsomely — and not just close, but with utter accuracy. The genie in particular is a fun design — something that didn’t exist, but that looks like it could have then and there. It’s too easy to take for granted that this would all look great — poses, faces, costumes, and backgrounds. Even the linework looks like hand-drawn pencil photocopied onto cel*. A Real American Hero #278 (a one-off issue from last year by regular writer Larry Hama that was drawn by Schoening and Delgado in a mostly animated style) proved that this all could be done, but that doesn’t make it any less hard.

I also appreciate Burnham’s pacing. This isn’t quite a 22-minute episode’s worth of dialogue and plot, but a 20- or 22-page comic book can’t actually capture that. 1992’s monthly Batman Adventures is tremendous, and I appreciate that each issue has three acts in an attempt to match the feel of an episode of the corresponding TV show, but those issues never felt like half-hour adventures — too short. Burnham somehow splits the difference with a cliffhanger. This isn’t a single “episode,” and that it’s a limited series offers something between the animated two-parter and five-parter.  

Fun: I’m not sure where this falls in Season 1 or 2. Roadblock’s costume is S1, but B.A.T.s and Sci-Fi indicate S2. I can see this bothering some fans, but it’s 2022 and not 1980something, so the comic is all an approximation, a light amalgamation.

Also fun: Getting to see the B.A.T.’s action figure hand weapon attachment, which never showed up in the TV cartoon. Also, I pretended Sparks was in the big room.

More fun: Uyetake’s treatment of the “Yo, Joe!” call. I’d prefer these letters sticking out of a pointy word balloon with multiple tails aiming at several Joes, but that the letters get bigger left to right, that they’re big and friendly, and with the patriotic color fill, they are clear and fun.

A special call out to Mr. Burnham for the final page PSA, which struck the right balance of authentic and cheeky without being mocking or too modern. Everyone loves those “funny” internet remixed Public Service Announcements with the new dialogue from 2003, but I’m a grump, so I don’t. As a kid in 1985 I knew the authentic PSAs were a little too much, but they did offer helpful lessons. This new one-pager with Mainframe is just a little self-aware, and no more than it should be — a relief to this grump, and a small fist pump for nostalgia.

Oh, wait, am I not heeding Mainframe’s advice? Ha!

Two parting thoughts: The next issue box reveals a title for issue #2, but we don’t know what the story title was for this premiere outing because IDW doesn’t print story titles on inside front cover credits pages. Also, could we get something a little different for the back cover instead of the same black-nothing/logo from the last three years of ARAH? The cover art sans color, perhaps? (That request also applies to the main ARAH book.)

Despite my quibbles and extra quibbles, this is a fun issue that works both for this hard-to-please comic reader, as well as lapsed fans, and pop culture generalists. I laughed aloud when I saw it announced and listed in catalogs a few months back, beamed when we unpacked it at my shop this week, and smiled more over each page as I read it yesterday morning.

More, please!

And I don’t mean “I can’t wait to read the rest of the miniseries,” I mean “Please publish more than four issues!”


* – “Cel,” above, is indeed the correct spelling. Two L’s is for jails, phones, and microscopic bits of us.


Filed under Comics Reviews

Marie Severin pencil art – G.I. Joe #28


When we think of G.I. Joe comics in the 1980s and ’90s and we’re considering art, names like Trimpe, Vosburg, Wagner, and Wildman come to mind. (And about ten others.) There were American men (and a Brit) who penciled 22 pages at a time for this monthly series. Emphasis on that word, “men.” Yes, it was mostly men who created G.I. Joe and related books like Special Missions, the Yearbooks, and the like. Women did work on Real American Hero, with color, lettering, and editing contributions from folks like Glynis Oliver, Janice Chiang, Vickie Williams, Bobbie Chase, Renee Witterstaetter, and Hildy Mesnik. And women were indeed writing at Marvel, on New Mutants, for example, and drawing pages and stories for the House of Ideas on Star Wars, Power Pack, Muppet Babies, Sub-Mariner, Incredible Hulk, and What The–?!  (Slight emphasis on those final three.)

But no woman ever drew an issue of Marvel’s G.I. Joe, with one exception. That would be Marie Severin.


Severin might be best known for five things:

1) She colored most of the horror, crime, and sci-fi EC Comics of the early 1950s. (She is one of my favorite colorists, and as an extension of my strong feelings heard on the Talking Joe podcast, if you’d like another notion on what not to do with color, hey, Gemstone and Dark Horse, don’t recolor Marie Severin’s work for your EC Archives and call them in the spirit of the originals. They’re not.) Severin’s limited choices were great. Her use of 64 colors may look limited or old-fashioned, and the occasional pink sky or all-red panel may look like a mistake or a cop out. I assure you they are not. Click to enlarge.

From Two-Fisted Tales #15

As I say on Talking Joe, sometimes less is more.

2) She penciled a bunch of Sub-Mariner, What The–?!, and Incredible Hulk. Click to enlarge.


…And inked and colored dozens and dozens of Marvel pages, too, for all sorts of super-hero and non-super-hero titles. And knew so much about color, and was so good at it, she because head of Marvel’s coloring department.

3) More recently, Marie Severin recolored a few of her own EC stories for Greg Sadowski’s amazing Krigstein book.


(Fun fact, Severin recolored six Krigstein Atlas stories for Sadowski’s other Krigstein book.)

4) She was John Severin’s sister. Man, there’s a guy I wish had drawn G.I. Joe! Oh well, we’ll just squint at his Semper Fi and pretend it’s a Larry Hama-written Real American Flashback. But being someone’s brother isn’t a career highlight, so I’ll loop back around for another bullet point:

5) In the late 1960s and early 1970s, she sketched out almost all of Marvel’s covers for other artists to draw. You can learn more in Dewey Cassell’s TwoMorrows book, Marie Severin: The Mirthful Mistress of Comics. Click to enlarge.


In it, he said: “She was not the first lady in comics, but she is unquestionably the first lady of comics.”

But the reason you’re here today is because Marie Severin penciled one issue of G.I. Joe. And it’s awesome. Here’s a photocopy of Severin’s pencils for story page 18 (that’s not counting the ads). Click to enlarge.


Of course this is “Marvel style,” so Severin here is working from a Larry Hama plot, and writing in clarifications and any small changes in the margins. (She didn’t invent this, Trimpe did it as early as issue #1 — this was a standard practice.)

Seeing uninked work like this is a real transformation, or un-transformation, as it were, a sideways kind of time machine. Severin was a great artist, and I’m struck by how well she fit into the style of the monthly G.I. Joe. That might be more indicative of the fact that Marvel had a house style in the 1970s and ’80s — the post Romita/Buscema/Kane/Adams mix you get in a John Byrne, Herb Trimpe, or Ron Wilson. But for many years I’ve glossed over Real American Hero #28 even being a fill-in. Sure, it’s in the middle of Frank Springer’s short run, but stylistically, it does not stick out. It just looks like G.I. Joe.

And no shade on anyone else, but it actually looks better than some other issues. Severin was that talented.

Certainly Andy Mushynsky’s inks have something to do with this consistency — he inked most of Springer and stayed when Rod Whigham showed up shortly after. On the topic of Mushynsky, let’s take a look at this page-as-inked next time here at A Real American Book! But I sure wish Marie Severin, Mirthful Mistress of color and inks and cover designs, had penciled more issues.



As a postscript, I’ll note that Marvel’s G.I. Joe cover run is similarly allotted by gender. Men like Zeck, Kubert, and several of the series’ own interior artists drew the covers, and with one exception, no women ever drew a G.I. Joe cover. That would be issue #153, which was penciled by Amanda Conner.

Also, to further tease my next blog post (let’s say a week, okay?), I’ll point out the next time Marie Severin drew G.I. Joe characters, not for very long, not very big, and not in the pages of G.I. Joe.


Filed under Back issues, Comic Books, G.I. Joe Behind the Scenes

“Snake Eyes” – The A Real American Book! Film Review

(Spoilers below)

This is a strange year in which to release a new G.I. Joe movie. We’ve spent 16 months staying away from each other, worried about health and proximity, breathing, and hospitals. Big deal films have been shuffled around and at-home streaming has exploded. Some films have surprised with how much money they’ve made at the box office, while others quietly shifted to online, disappearing with little trace.

Personally, in the Before Times, I’m at the movie theater twice a week. Nearby are two non-profit repertory art houses, a medium-sized multiplex for smaller releases and a huge one for studio output, plus two neighborhood multiplexes. Without going out of my way, I can see Hollywood films in DCP, and both important works and notable schlock in both 35mm and 70mm. I don’t watch movies at home because there’s little power in that experience. I get it — you don’t like crowds, or jerks on their phones, and you want to pause for breaks — but there’s real energy in experiencing something with people, particularly when it is larger than you. Even my big TV doesn’t match the smallest screen out there.

And even stranger is that we live in a world where there are now four G.I. Joe feature films. One wasn’t released to theaters, of course, and this new one doesn’t connect with the previous two, but that’s certainly more than C.O.P.S. or Dino Riders have. But the G.I. Joe brand is in a delicate place. Hasbro, as both toy company and IP holder, has appeared less invested in this story of good-versus-evil than other brands. Transformers and Power Rangers are straightforward. Alien robots don’t bleed, lasers don’t kill, and martial arts are acceptable in a way that firearms aren’t. Further, the name “G.I. Joe” is an Americanism. Folks in other countries may not emotionally connect with the Joes. I’m not in the military, but if someone called me “an average Joe,” I’d understand and consider it a compliment. That doesn’t transmit everywhere, though. More importantly, American militarism has a checkered reputation. We’ve contributed to righteous wars and we’ve waged peace, but we’ve also invaded, overstayed welcomes, and ruined governments and movements.

The hardest hurdle to jump may be the simple fact that firearms create holes in people and people do bleed. The Empire’s Stormtroopers just fall over when “blasted,” and the monsters and giant robots of Power Rangers are similarly dispatched in not just bloodless ways, but ways that don’t even make you think about blood. I have long argued, and will continue to, that there is absolutely a way to make a palatable live-action Joe film that isn’t too “violent,” that is acceptable to a range of ages, that sells toys, that features favorite characters, and is still rated PG-13. That last bit is important, because a lot of people will avoid a PG film. PG-13 is that sweet spot. And so Paramount and Skydance Productions turned away from the machine guns and “army” action of G.I. Joe: Retaliation and settled on a martial arts flick. This clears one hurdle. And since the last two films are recent enough to suggest that this is a “threequel,” this one jumps backwards so it can be a continuity reset without having to explain that directly. There’s that question do I have to see the last one to understand this new one? You and I know the answer is “No,” but the casual movier-goer doesn’t. That clears another hurdle.

Just once I’ll use the original title, G.I. Joe Origins: Snake Eyes. Somewhere in the month or so before release, that was shortened to just Snake Eyes. I saw this opening night with two employees of my comic book shop, three friends (one who works in the toy industry), and the missus. The theater was pretty empty — noticeable compared to Black Widow at that location two weeks prior. Then, ten days later while visiting family in Maryland, I saw Snake Eyes a second time with my brother (a big part of my Joe fandom), his girlfriend, and the missus again. I’ll point out that my wife isn’t a G.I. Joe fan, but she reads up on anthropology and childhood development and is interested in the concept of play. She’s also game for historical comparisons. When I talk about why the G.I. Joe cartoon is better than MASK, she’s interested, and she’s a booster for my G.I. Joe history book. She hasn’t seen Rise of Cobra or Retaliation — or The Movie, for that matter — which makes for a helpful test audience — Does Snake Eyes work on its own?

I’ll admit I was surprised when Snake Eyes was first announced. Yes, that handsome guy from Crazy Rich Asians was an unusual pick — surely they meant he would play Storm Shadow? Yes, I didn’t need an origin story — visions of the botched X-Men Origins: Wolverine loomed. And a reboot from the previous continuity could be the worst of both worlds — confusing to people who like Dwayne Johnson and still too soon since that soft reboot from its predecessor. But if only seven years separate Man of Steel from Superman Returns, then the rules have changed. Besides, Superman Returns premiered during Smallville‘s broadcast run, and people weren’t confused. This is an important point. A few vocal fans online were dismayed that Snake Eyes was changing something integral to the character, that the backstory established in Marvel Comics in the 1980s and ’90s was inviolable. But continuities are plastic. As a kid, I wasn’t concerned that in some Bugs Bunny shorts he knows he’s a Hollywood star, and in others he’s in medieval times. There’s no one, pure Bugs Bunny.

With Snake Eyes, he has no back story in the TV cartoon, and nothing there establishes his ethnicity or hair color. I will fully admit my distress that folks out there think of the live-action Transformers films as definitive takes on those characters and their backstory — losing out on the richness of The Key to Vector Sigma or James Roberts’ jaw-dropping character turns in print. My concern with a new G.I. Joe movie was less that it would get something “wrong,” and more that it would do so badly. I don’t know that a disappointing box office gross for a G.I. Joe film in 2020 or 2021 allows for any more Joe movies after this, so the stakes are high.

My first impression came from Larry Hama in the fall of 2019. We were chatting in New York and he described his weekend in Vancouver, shooting his cameo. This was exciting, as Hama’s short appearance was cut from Rise of Cobra. Even better, he had good things to say about Snake Eyes. But there was a nagging worry on my part. Director Robert Schwentke had made some mediocre action flicks. I don’t know anyone who saw R.I.P.D., and while people are fond of RED, it doesn’t make anyone’s “best of” lists. The Time Traveler’s Wife is a drama based on a book — maybe Schwentke could balance the inter-character work and get lucky with the fights and explosions?

As time dragged on, the film’s release date was moved because of the COVID pandemic. Even if it’s not the film’s fault, delays hurt most films because audiences get tired or confused — “Didn’t that already come out?” But I was ready to believe the hype machine, that the practical fights are great. And I was hoping for a new version of Snake Eyes that was at least as interesting as the one we know from the comic books, if different. Writing for, Scott Mendelson worried “that this does feel like another doomed ‘the prequel to the movie you came to see’ origin story/franchise set-up flick,” that “because shareholders demanded it rather than audiences were actually excited about [it,] Paramount and Skydance [were] trying yet again with Real American Hero,” that “this looks like another destined-to-fail franchise relaunch that no one asked for.” What little online buzz I was absorbing about pandemic summer movies was reserved for Fast 9 and Black Widow. (Was that just Universal and Marvel spending more on marketing?)

As for the film itself, here’s my one-sentence review: I really, really like it, but it’s not very good.

The characters are all great. The casting is all great. The acting is all great. Golding’s likeability, Andrew Koji’s intensity, and all the things that contrast them, are great. Takehiro Hira is fully convincing as a villain, subtly chewing scenery, a turn I didn’t expect but thoroughly enjoyed.

The costumes are gorgeous. Every character looks great, and I particularly like Storm Shadow visual journey from the color black to the color white. That the motorcycles are electric vehicles is a nice nod to the future. The Soft Master has been replaced by Granny Demon, a modern invention of Larry Hama’s from the G.I. Joe comics. She doesn’t swing around her purse with a brick in it, but it was thrilling to see Tommy’s grandmother onscreen, and was a way to have one less man and one more woman in a film that needs to appeal to a wide audience.

I’ve been trying to figure out what the right formula is for a G.I. Joe movie, when and how it should introduce the team concept of G.I. Joe. Snake Eyes did what Rise of Cobra did, where roughly a quarter of the way in, Duke and Rip Cord are told of this secret team, and they want in. Similarly, a third of the way into Snake Eyes, we see a big Cobra logo. I like that it’s a visual nod (a stencil on a crate of weapons) before anyone says “Cobra” or “terrorist army,” but once that happens, as excited as I was to see the solo-origin-prequel, it was now also a more full franchise with marquee heroes and villains.

Again, I’m okay with Snake Eyes joining the team in a manner different from the Marvel Comics yarn, that Hawk and Stalker went up into the mountains to find this broken veteran who was now a bad ass ninja. But a new version of that recruitment needs to be exciting. And I’m struck by something that Jesse Farrell, sculptor and comic shop manager and thoughtful film guy, said: If Snake Eyes’ father was a Joe, than Snake Eyes is a legacy, which immediately makes him less interesting. He only sort of earned his spot. This is pretty damning, and unfortunately, the opening scene of our new film adventure, and a motivator for the protagonist, is to avenge his father. Sure, Snake Eyes demonstrates he can survive, and fight, and forgive, but losing his dad and going on a nebulous drifter quest for revenge — as presented in this film — is not as interesting as “Snake-Eyes: The Origin” and all of that from 1984. A year in-country weighs heavier on the protagonist — and the audience in shorthand! — than being a street fighter or a pit fighter.

Okay, maybe I can turn off my comparison machine and enjoy it on its own — a martial arts film that’s sort of G.I. Joe. The fight choreography was great. That is, I think it was, because it was undone by so much shaky camera and overly fast editing. Every time a film cuts mid-fight that’s a chance for me to not believe it’s the actor, but rather a stunt performer or a stand-in, making that effort. (Or the editor’s attempt to speed up the not-fast-enough movements of an actor who is not a professional athlete.) But this film went to great lengths to tell me how hard the actors worked on their practical fights — even Golding himself in a special onscreen welcome/thank you segment that played after the trailers and before the movie! Look at the director’s past works, that’s what a producer in New York and my creative partner on some film projects, Nick Nadel, says each time a G.I. Joe movie is announced. Van Helsing didn’t bode well for Rise of Cobra, and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never was a question mark before Retaliation (I’ve heard a great interview with director Jon M. Chu and made my peace with his Joe work). I haven’t seen RED (I liked the original comic and didn’t need any expansion), but based on how Schwentke handled Snake Eyes, now I’m much less interested.

One way in which the new Joe film excelled was its publicity. Henry Golding doing a lot of interviews, and the producers pulling in Larry Hama to talk about the movie, its connection to the comics, and the character of Snake Eyes all created goodwill. Hama’s involvement in particular provided some clearance, as he has some weapons training and his family comes from Japan, and he’s good on camera, and the two appearing virtually at a convention creates a striking visual — a veteran of G.I. Joe and the new guy, the older one saying “I approve of this” and having the cred to back it up because he’s still making Joe stories.

I do want to call out three visuals in the new G.I. Joe flick that are great: One, the sequence where Akiko follows Snake Eyes into the city and he loses her. There’s clear and dramatic visual storytelling with an over-the-shoulder shot looking down at him, and then a reverse angle looking past him up to her in front of a billboard. Then he loses her in an alley. It’s all real and practical. Two, the Arashikage shrine with the Jewel of the Sun. Snake Eyes enters a small room where each wall is a mirror with floor-to-ceiling candles! This was gorgeous! And yet the film rushed to the dragon-eye-button and the MacGuffin-in-the-wall and Akiko and Snake Eyes decidedly do not have a cool fight in this cool room. I know a franchise movie needs to be efficiently made to get to the business of selling those toys and video games and cereal box/candy tie-ins, but an important aspect of film is art direction — let me do that in caps — Art Direction. This ain’t Blade Runner or Blade Runner 2049, but how did no one involved with Snake Eyes jump up and say “we need to do something more with this awesome infinity room!!!”? Or for that matter, design and build more spaces that were as visually compelling. (As an aside, this was the second time in two weeks a film crew had come up with the best visual of a movie only to skip past it too quickly — that bit in Black Widow where we see the other Widows training in sync, like dancers in a studio.) But Snake Eyes still gets points for even having that gorgeous room. Three, the alley/rooftop fight in the rain, lit by neon signs. This was filled with color, lights and shadows, a claustrophobic, narrow, vertical upward push, and was maybe my favorite fight scene in any live-action G.I. Joe movie. But then I was a little worried that the Act III fight wouldn’t top this. It did not.

And a handful of laudible assets do not a film make. Could I spend a paragraph on the silly stuff, like the giant snakes or the magic MacGuffin that wandered in from a less grounded movie? Yes, but I’m going to focus on Akiko’s inconsistent character, which took me out of the story. She didn’t trust Snake Eyes, but then felt so sorry for him that she ruined the third trial to save him. And then they have a talk where she wears her heart on her sleeve about how they’re both outsiders. Wouldn’t she have been fired for interfering with the test? Isn’t she steely enough to not need to reveal a vague, painful past to this outsider who she still should not trust? I batted this around with my wife, who also frowned at Natasha and Yelena’s banter/fighting/whatever in Black Widow, surmising that “Hollywood doesn’t know how to write women.” I’m disappointed the writers on Snake Eyes didn’t come up with a better arc for Akiko, because this was a chance to introduce a new fan favorite. Joe fans sure love Pythona and Big Lob, and they didn’t originate in the toy line. There’s little hope that Akiko will show up somewhere else now, part of the larger Joe lore.

Ultimately, if I squint and turn my head sideways, I can piece together the Snake Eyes movie I wanted out of the other films that beat it at the box office. If it was going to have a flashback, I’d want the emotional intensity of a young sleeper agent and her sister at the airfield in 1995 at the beginning of Black Widow. Natasha pulling a guard’s gun and screaming to keep her family together is something new for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the most powerful moment of that film. I’d want the martial arts of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. (Or at least the bus and scaffolding scenes, as Shang-Chi‘s Act III is a lot like Snake Eyes‘ — too much VFX zapping. And both even have giant CG “snakes”!) I’d want the balance that No Time to Die strikes between grit and emotional stakes and an over-the-top secret good guy group taking on an over-the-top secret bad guy group. Now, these aren’t fair comparisons because Black Widow and No Time to Die benefit from being follow-ups and sequels. We’ve seen these characters before. Additionally, all three films have much higher budgets. Yet every producer, director, and writer makes choices, and I wish those creatives on Snake Eyes had made different ones.

This film was always going to have a hard time. Its budget was much lower than its two predecessors, and there was some brand fatigue (wait, a third one? Where’s the Rock?) and confusion (is this a G.I. Joe movie if that word is cut from the title?). But something else built into it was going to make it a tall order, that it’s a solo movie that has to introduce a team. Yet there are also a dozen other people that the stakeholders must include. I wouldn’t want to remove either the Hard Master or the Blind Master, but just thinking narratively, if one were gone, the other would have twice as much to do. Or if we were to have Kenta or the Baroness but not both, the one remaining would similarly net twice the screen- and character-developing time. The aforementioned Nick Nadel has a shorthand critique, a term he calls “modern movie problems.” Much of that is too many characters. And a franchise film can’t linger too long before getting to an action set piece.

Let’s compare the original Karate Kid (1984) and Snake Eyes. So much of that earlier film is just two characters getting to know each other and demonstrating to the audience who they are. Imagine if every four minutes Daniel bumped into a another bully, or Miyagi went off and met up with an underling who had a boss. There’d be much less time for this duo to develop. I really like Scarlett’s airport scene in Snake Eyes, but the stakes are high because this is the one shot the filmmakers have to introduce her, and it all becomes a kind of shorthand. I often look at modern movies (think Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) and imagine taking these two characters’ roles and mooshing them into one, or cutting this side character who makes a reference and a joke and isn’t central to the core story. I think G.I. Joe fans may not see it in Snake Eyes because we expect to see Joes, Cobras, Arashikage, and some other types, but it is a crowded movie.

Pal, editor, and film brain Bill Scurry wrote that this team of writers… “contribute[d] every cliche and unoriginal scenario from ninja- and yakuza-fiction,” that “a blanched retelling of The Challenge or The Yakuza isn’t going to get us anywhere.” I’ll admit to not having seen either of those, but I’ve seen a few low and medium-budget martial arts flicks, and they have a focus (cf. “modern movie problems,” above) that this does not. It’s not really a G.I. Joe film, and it’s not really a solo Joe film, so I think back to what my wife said soon after we left the theatre: “That was not very good.” But it’s a lot of fun (she thought so, too), and I write that truthfully even though I was desperate for it to be excellent and high-grossing.

To hear, rather than read more on this film, you can listen to a special episode of Talking Joe, the long-running podcast that I’ve been co-hosting with “Talking Joe” Mark and Jay Cordray for almost a year. The Snake Eyes episode, just 67 minutes, is at Apple, Spotify, Podbean, Stitcher, Google, and audio-only on YouTube.

Leave a comment

Filed under G.I. Joe live action films, G.I. Joe Origins: Snake Eyes

Torch by Rudat

It is in 1984 and 1985 that the G.I. Joe toy lines gets really fun.

’82 is great, but straightforward — all that green. A year later the color palette expands, but there’s still a lot of business. ’84 feels like my G.I. Joe, because those are the first figures I bought. And honestly, there’s a lot of mixing up of who and when, because I obtained several 1983 figures in their second year of availability, and key 1985 characters debuted on television in 1984.

But with the arrival of more flamboyant characters like Tomax and Xamot, and costume designs that were less formal like Bazooka and Quick Kick (or lack of a costume, as the case may be!), G.I. Joe found that right mix of serious and silly.

The Dreadnoks are a big part of that. For all of Zartan’s calculating performance, he’s still got these greedy bozos working for him. (Well, most of them are bozos.) I think much of the Dreadnoks’s popularity comes from their behavior in the Weather Dominator TV miniseries — they don’t fear Cobra Commander — but also how real-world and approachable their costumes are. They’re wearing blue jeans. And in an era when cool icons like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise were wearing cool sunglasses, there’s a small link to these biker thugs doing the same. Toy-wise, the Dreadnoks were also a trio. That was a team that was obtainable. A kid maybe couldn’t afford the full line of 20 open stock figures in 1985, but that could could probably get Torch, Buzzer, and Ripper and complete their sub-team!

So let’s look at Ron Rudat’s lovely character presentation artwork for Torch, my favorite of the original three Dreadnoks. Click to enlarge.

Rudat’s lines are lovely, with subtle feathering in his brushwork. The leather sure looks like leather, and while we’re a step away from this because it’s a color photocopy with those NTSC-like vertical lines, this piece still communicates care and skill.

And here’s Rudat’s sculpt input drawing via a photocopy, gorgeous in a different way. Click to enlarge.

I’ll never get over looking at this kind of drawing, that it is certainly a small consumer product, a toy, whereas the color piece is a person, a real guy.

Rudat draws a cocked brow here, and maybe the slightest smirk on Torch’s face. That does not carry over in the final sculpt, to the production figure that arrived at retail — Final Toy Torch has a neutral, more symmetrical expression. That’s fine, as in my mind he was always smirking, guffawing, pushing back at Zartan, at Cobra Commander, at the Joes.

1 Comment

Filed under G.I. Joe Behind the Scenes, Toys and Toy Art

Remembering David Anthony Kraft / interview Part 3 of 3

In Part One of my 2019 interview with David Anthony Kraft, DAK described his early days at Marvel Comics. In Part Two, he recalled the circumstances around the creation of the Marvel Books imprint. In Part Three, below, we delve into GI Joe Extreme. Kraft was co-story editor for Season 2 and wrote four episodes. This interview has been lightly edited and reordered for clarity.

GI Joe Extreme episodes Kraft

Roger Slifer and David Anthony Kraft had collaborated on early issues of Marvel’s Defenders, and around 1984, ’85, and ’86 Kraft was resisting the “siren song” of animation. While animation script-writing paid better than comics, Kraft’s conception of the American animation industry was left over from the 1970s, when it was almost uniformly cheaply made and boring to watch. As seemingly one-by-one his co-workers at Marvel got pulled into animation, men like Steve Gerber and Mike Vosburg, Kraft still resisted. In early 1986, Roger Slider lured him in:

DAK: We also knew that we could count on each other in a deadline crunch. And that’s a thing you only really learn in the trenches. There isn’t anybody in so-called Hollywood that would have known A) that I existed, and B) I could produce, and C) It doesn’t even matter if I’ve done it before, if you give me the job, I’ll rise to the occasion and show you some shit. But Roger knew that. So when he got in a jam on Jem, he called me and was like “You must fly to New York immediately and become my captive for a week and write this episode.” And I was like “No, no, no!” But I did it. That’s how I got sucked into animation.

This 1986 toe-dip was not the beginning of a career in animation, much less a side-gig, or even a start to a few more Jem assists. Instead, this was a one-time deal — at least for a decade. Kraft was busy running Fictioneer Books, which meant publishing at least 12 issues of Comics Interview magazine per year, plus specials, comics, and books. (Kraft was the first person to publish Brian Stelfreeze.) Less erudite than Fantagraphics’ The Comics Journal, David Anthony Kraft’s Comics Interview (that’s the full title) covered mainstream comics publishers, series, and creators, as well as genre television and films like Star Trek and Batman, and benefited from Kraft’s many connections in the comics industry. In 1995, Kraft was wrapping up CI — the 150th regular issue was also its final — and figured he needed a year off to recover. But Slifer again telephoned, in a bind worse than his Jem deadline ten years prior:

DAK: And right then Roger called me, because we talked almost every other day. By that time he was in California, he had been producing and writing for [several Sunbow shows from Los Angeles]. He called me and said there are two positions open to be story editor of the[se] series. He said one is Street Fighter and the other one is GI Joe Extreme. It was the second season of each. He said “I know what’s going to happen. I’ve got the qualifications. But if I apply for Street Fighter, I won’t get it. But I would’ve got it if I applied for GI Joe. And vice versa. If I apply for that, you know what’s going to happen, I won’t get that, I would’ve gotten Street Fighter.”

You know how you can rag on your good friends? Because we were good friends, I said “I’m going to deflate your balloon. Apply for both of them and when you get neither you won’t feel bad.” [LAUGHS] Easy for me to say, right? Stop finagling, apply for both of them, you’ll either get one or you’ll get none, but you won’t feel like you missed something. You’ll see your importance in the world here. The joke was on me. He applied for both of them and he got both of them. 

TF: Oh, wow.

DAK: Which was my doing because I was deflating him, but instead it inflated him. He’s like “Good Lord, now I don’t want to give up either one of them.”


DAK, CONT’D: When we ended up working together, we would tag team. I would work all night long until I was ready to drop and he’d get up and I’d tag off and he’d write all day while I slept. Because it’s all condensed. Not so much the later production [with] the art and stuff down the line, but the scripts and the story editing at the start, it’s all condensed into three months or less. You’re working like a son of a bitch and then you have like nine months off. I was totally worn out from all my publishing and comics and all of that. And I really, really, really, really just wanted a break. And thought I had one. So Roger called me and said “You got me into this, you have to get me out of it.” And I’m like “No, no, I can’t do it, I’m worn out. I’m a husk.”

I’ll give him this. He was a man of his word. I like Roger for that, among many other things. He was like “They don’t know you, and I do. I want to work with you. I’ll split the money. And I won’t tell them you’re helping me until they’re really happy with the work.” Which he kinda sorta knew they would be. Again, we went [way] back. “Then I’ll pull you out of the closet like Superboy Robot, ‘And here’s DAK!’ And I’ll get you a screen credit.” Anybody else that’d say that until they got what they wanted, and then they’d forget all about it: “What, did I ever say that?” Not Roger, though. The money offers kept getting better and better. I kept saying no, I just need a break. But it became impossible to resist. That sucking drain at the bottom of the bathtub really pulled at me [and I was finally working in the animation industry]. And I’m so glad I did because the next year Animation collapsed, most of the people were out of work. Comics collapsed, but I made enough money doing that, like a squirrel who stores up acorns for the hard winter. I’m so glad I did that because I was saying to Roger the whole time “I’ll do it next year after I rest.” There wasn’t a next year, that was it! Kind of.

So anyway, that’s the long, long story of how I ended up doing that, because he knew me. I used to annoy the shit out of him because I’d go “I taught you everything you know, but not everything I know.” Because he started as a letterer. You had to respect what he did. He worked himself up and learned how to do all this stuff until he got really good at what he was doing, [from letterer to writer to editor to producer]. It was really a pleasure working with him on the TV stuff. But I was flat worn out. But it all played out, just like he said. The very first script that they gave me was a Street Fighter that was just a disaster. Capcom in Japan hated it so much. You couldn’t hate anything more than that, they hated it more than I hated animation itself. [CHUCKLES] I had forgotten all the camera moves and [format expectations] from when I worked on Jem. And I kinda had to learn it on the fly, and I kind of had to stay up all weekend to rewrite all three acts.


TF: In joining GI Joe Extreme for Season 2, did you watch Season 1?

DAK: Oh yeah, of course. I was always big on research, which also slowed me down. When I got the Man-Wolf book at Marvel, because Man-Wolf was a Spidey villain and spun off from that. I don’t know if you remember those days, but when Stan was writing those characters, and the first wave of writers understand this stuff. Gerber used to always say this. You could take a DC comic, say a JLA, and you could take Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman’s pointers, and you could change them to each other, interchangeably. It made no difference. They were just ciphers that talked to advance the plot. And at Marvel you couldn’t do that. You could not take the Thing’s balloon and point it at Spider-Man. The Marvel characters all had voices of their own. And so I researched very thoroughly, I read the first, like, 100 issues of [Amazing] Spider-Man to get the speech patterns of J. Jonah Jameson. And he only appeared here and there in Man-Wolf. But I’m very thorough that way. So when I got on GI Joe, naturally I watched the first season and read the bible and I did all that stuff, too. How do you story edit something or script for it if you don’t have the background to it?

TF: What was your reaction to season 1?

DAK: I think that those [episodes] sort of got lost.

Kraft liked the art style for the show, but story-wise, “some of it made sense to me and some of it didn’t, but it was canon, so I learned the canon.”

You can’t help but getting involved in what you’re working on. Well, I should speak for myself. Unless you’re just a gun for hire. Well, it’s like, I don’t care, the product is the thing. But that’s never been me and it’s never been Roger. So naturally my antipathy to animation, once I got involved in this thing, I was involved with it full tilt, completely. So naturally, I’m going to say obviously, I liked it. I’m not coming at it from a fan perspective. And certainly I paid no attention to the really long G.I. Joe series that proceeded it. I know a lot of people thought [Extreme] was an abomination, like it was such a switch up from what had gone before.


TF: [Roger] Slifer wrote the first episode of season two, and the third. Marv Wolfman wrote the second, you wrote the fourth and fifth.

DAK: It’s all kind of one story if you look at it.

TF:  Yes. George Arthur Bloom wrote the sixth. Jay Bacal and Lloyd Goldfine #7. You wrote 8, Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, 9 and 10. You did 11 and then Roger did the final two.

DAK: And you can see me and Roger trying to pull our old Marvel guys in. [LAUGHS] Englehart was looking for work, then. You’re probably familiar with his comics stuff. He was always pretty off the wall. The only thing about it is, it came out really good, and not telling off on the script of anything, but I’m not sure how much experience he had had writing for animation. So we had to wrestle a little bit with the higher ups on the plot. Because it didn’t look like there was a lot of plot. It was a lot of talk, and cosmic jive. Let’s say that you’re corporate in any of the other inputs, whether it was Hasbro — Also, there was another [company] in California that had input.

TF: Gunther-Wahl, The animation studio.

DAK:  Gunther-Wahl, yeah, thank you. Sometimes they would look at it and go “oh, this is a friggin’ martial arts thing, but these people are sitting around and talking cosmic jive.” So we kind of had to finagle a bit. What was interesting is, you never know what’s going to come out in the actual animation. They have what they call the A-Team and the B-Team. It’s like comics only worse. Everything is done on such tight deadlines. And they’ll have someone like Will Meugniot. And he’ll be doing storyboards or having people like Dave Simon do storyboards under him. So he’ll be riding herd on that, but then it goes off to Korea or wherever. And sometimes when you’re hoping or expecting for the A team you get the B team or the C team. And you cannot always be sure what’s going to come back, even if the storyboards are good. But that Englehart episode, for some reason, it got really good animation. It really comes across great as an episode.

Will in my limited experience of working with him, because he was contributing ideas and stuff to both [those shows], he was kind of on the scenes and behind the scenes. He has the ability to think like a writer as well as an artist. And that’s pretty rare. It was a pleasure working with him because there would be scenes — and see, he knew those Street Fighter characters, they meant something to him. And ditto GI Joe. The whole point was, if they were out of character, or if there was a better way to do it, he would come back and go “This scene, that so-and-so, who shall remain unnamed, it really sucks. And what if we did this, this, and this?” And it would be like “Yes, that’s what to do with it!” So he was a pleasure. And he was always overworked.


We briefly talked about Kenner and the GI Joe Extreme toy line. While Slifer spoke with contacts at Kenner as well as the studio producers, Kraft was focused instead solely on character and story in animation.

DAK, CONT’D: I never saw the toys. I know this is part of a vast merchandising movement. But as always, I was into the creative aspect, and screw the merchandizing aspect. So I never saw the toys.

But obviously it didn’t succeed. And it wasn’t just GI Joe Extreme that went away. Pretty much the legs got knocked out from under the entire animation field after than year. Everything just went [STICKING OUT TONGUE NOISE]. People were scrambling, people who had been getting lots of work and had been doing great were suddenly without. This is why I was glad, looking back on it, that I did not stand my ground, because I resisted getting involved in working on GI Joe or Street Fighter, for probably weeks, as Roger grew more and more desperate and couldn’t let go of both jobs. [LAUGHS]

TF: Remind me, what is it about roughly 1997 that so much of the animation work is going away?

DAK: I don’t know because I was a guest star. I was pulled in from here, and the whole time I was going “I could work from home.” I’ve got a gazebo that’s nice to work in in the summer. And it was felt that I should be out there [in Los Angeles], not just by Roger, but like if they need you or we have to do X.  In point of fact, I never had to do anything [there in the location] – I was basically a captive of Roger’s apartment compound. But I did write the last episode that I wrote from here [in Georgia]. I came home and I wrote my final GI Joe Extreme actually in the gazebo [Ep 24 of 26, “Fear at Fifty Fathoms”], and I was like “shit, I could’ve done this from here.” [TIM LAUGHS] But honestly, I probably couldn’t have, because I could’ve never meshed with Roger 24/7 the way that we did. You wake up and you’re like “While I was asleep, I had this idea, it would solve that thing.” You can’t capture that even if you’re on the phone all the time. So probably I really did need to be out there. And Santa Monica isn’t such a bad place.


DAK, CONT’D: I remember sitting upstairs at Roger’s apartment, and staring at one of the stories I had scripted. But I had a problem. I wanted to have the GI Joes do something heroic and in the rough couple lines for the plot it wasn’t there. I wanted them to rescue all these people on the ships. I kept thinking “how do they do [it?]” in the context of what you can do in the couple of minutes you have on-screen. It’s like writing comics, there’s so many invisible restrictions that if you’re not doing it, you don’t even see. If you’re doing a super-hero team book and you’ve got 18 pages, you’ve got your work cut out for you. You’ve got to introduce those characters, set up their powers, actually characterize them, have some kind of a conflict, introduce a football teams’ full of enemies. It’s tough, it’s like shorthand.

I was wrestling with this problem. And then I thought waitaminute, they could string ropes or chains to the shore, and then hand over hand save those people. And I got a heroic bit for the GI Joes into it. I was so happy with that. You’re worked under such intense fucking pressure. It’s like what can I do over the next hour? And how can I fit it into the two minutes that I can allocate into the script? And what can they draw [and animate] that’s reasonable to ask for? There were a lot of challenges to solve. And Roger, because he’d been in animation a long time, like I said, I was used to him from the Marvel days when he was first starting writing and I was browbeating him and going “no, no, no, do it like this.” And then to come back and work with him was like, wow, he had so improved himself and how to think about story, plot, and everything. It was such a pleasure, it was great. Not that we didn’t enjoy working with each other all that time. But by that time he’d been in animation a long time. If there was a problem with GI Joe Extreme, it wasn’t because he or I were slacking. We were giving it everything we could. But there sure were a lot of people to please.

[End interview excerpt]

Back to Tim blogging in the first person:

I never met David Anthony Kraft in person, and I was sad to learn of his passing in April. Our phone conversation in June 2019 was wonderful. He was enthusiastic and generous with our interview, which made for a great contribution to Chapter 19 of my book. It was a bit of a bookend, too, as I had met Roger Slifer in L.A. in 2004 and visited him again in 2009, but he died in 2015, so it was lovely to speak with his longtime friend and creative partner. Connecting with DAK also led back to the topic of Marvel Books, which it turned out needed a mention in my writing. In chatting with DAK, I’ve got a tiny mystery I’d like to solve, as he recalled unabashedly recycling the plot of one of his G.I. Joe coloring books (which may or may not have credits) for one of his episodes of Extreme. I’d sure like to comb through all that to match up those two stories.

Once again I find myself posting an interview with a G.I. Joe alum after their passing, which is both sad, but also satisfying. I know Extreme isn’t most peoples’ favorite, but I find it fascinating, and DAK worked hard on his part of it.

-Tim Finn, July 2021


Filed under Animation, G.I. Joe Behind the Scenes, Interviews