“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 Forbes.com, 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.

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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.

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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.”

GI JOE EXTREME SEASON TWO

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.

DAK’S RESEARCH BEFORE SEASON 2

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.

STORY ARC and STEVE ENGLEHART

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.

WRAPPING UP SEASON 2 AND AFTER

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.

RESTRICTIONS and A HEROIC MOMENT

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

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Remembering David Anthony Kraft / interview Part 2 of 3

Besides being a Marvel Comics editor, a freelance Marvel Comics writer, and publisher of Comics Interview magazine that occasionally covered Real American Hero, David Anthony Kraft also had two important other connections to G.I. Joe. One was that he was the original editor of Marvel Books. This was an imprint that started up in 1982 as a way for Marvel to publish storybooks and coloring books and get them into outlets like Target, Wal-Mart, and Toys R Us. Kraft recalled editing 1983’s The Spy Eye, and while I didn’t confirm his involvement with the 1984 illustrated storybook Operation: Disappearance and the 1983 reprint of three issues of the regular comic book, The Trojan Gambit, it’s a distinct possibility.

Read Part One here or skip to Part Three. Continuing the excerpts of our 2019 phone interview:

————

A FIEFDOM IN MARVEL BOOKS

TF: I’ve always wondered about Marvel Books. Did it exist before you the editor? Were you the only editor? Were you the art director? What was Marvel Books?

DAK: Uh, me. [LAUGHS] But I didn’t originate it. It came down from on high — Jim Galton, who was the CEO of Marvel at the time. And he had a background in publishing paperbacks and books and things before he came to Marvel. Really didn’t know much of anything about comics. He was always looking to steer Marvel in the direction of kids’ books and places it wasn’t: story books, kids’ books, novelizations. Just the kind of stuff that I guess was his familiarity. His area of expertise.

However that came about, it came down through Sol Brodsky. Sol was Vice President [of Special Projects]. I had a great relationship with Sol. And I had a pretty good relationship with Jim Shooter. [But] there were like opposing departments at Marvel. A simplified version of the Balkanization process. Lots of people who were unhappy under Shooter’s regime would flee over to Sol’s department. [CHUCKLES] And among them, eventually, Marie Severin and John Romita, and lots of other people. Sol wrote me a contract. I had bought a house [in Georgia], and I felt like I was in with the mob: I had a first mortgage payment one week. Second mortgage the next week. I had a note for the furniture and everything the third week. The fourth week was taxes, utilities, insurance. So I had to run as fast as I could. And finding freelance, it’s like two jobs. One is you talk to editors or whoever and to pitch stuff and you get work. But the other one is doing the work. Well, if you need that much to keep going, there’s not enough hours in the day to find the work and do the work.

So Sol did me a good turn. I’m sort of like the invisible DAK in certain areas at Marvel. There was all the big, top creators, John Buscema, Roy [Thomas], and people like that, that had contracts, that guaranteed them work. And then oddly enough there was me. [CHUCKLES] The last of the writer/editors, and Sol got me a contract that Marvel had to provide me at least as much money as I needed by contract and if they failed to so, they still had to pay me. I of course [still] had to do the work. […] In the course of that that’s how I ended up editing Marvel Books. They created this whole new division. And who better to edit it than me because Sol and I had worked together well and had done so for years. […] So I had a fiefdom that was independent from regular Marvel and Shooter’s side.

KRAFT’S OFFICE

TF: Did you have a desk, an office, a floor?

DAK: Absolutely. And here was the funny part. [While I had a contract,] I was not on staff, I was still freelance. It was the same as saying to John Buscema or Jack Kirby “you’re going to have so many pages of work a month and we’ll guarantee you this.” It was a peculiar situation. Even though I was freelance, I had an office and everything, but I didn’t have office hours or anything like that. But I needed a place to meet artists and writers and licensors and people like that. It couldn’t be at my [New York] apartment [which I had in addition to my house in Georgia]. That would be very strange if I was representing Marvel and editing Marvel Books, “Hey, come up to my eastside apartment.” [CHUCKLES]

What was really funny, was when we moved from 585 Madison to 387 Park Avenue South, there was a huge memo posted everywhere, because freelancers used to come in, artists and writers, they would hang around in the bullpen. And in the artists’ case, they’d pull up a chair in the bullpen and do some of their freelance there and talk to other people. And in the case of writers, we’d scarf an office, [if] we had to do an editorial or this or that. Anyway, there was this posted thing all over the offices,When we go to 373 Park Avenue South: No freelancers shall have space in the offices. And I went to Sol and said “How is this going to work? How do I edit?” And I was doing a lot more than Marvel Books, and a lot of it for Sol. But I’m like “How do I do this if I can’t do it in the office?” And Sol was like “Let me worry about that.” And he was a VP [of Special Projects] back then, long before Shooter was [a different Vice President]. And so when we got to 387 Park Avenue South, not only did I have an office, it was diametrically opposite of Jim Shooter’s. [CHUCKLES] Which was news to me! It was like holy cow!

What was so funny about that was A) I was not the instigator in that. But it was really delightful because I only answered to me. I was like the DAK over there and then there was Shooter over there. And I don’t think he cared a lot for that, even though we tended to get along. […] Because I had my own department, I didn’t have to follow certain mandates. At that time, say, Don McGregor was persona non grata and had fallen on the bad side of mainstream Marvel. [But] it didn’t mean I couldn’t use him in my department or have him in the offices. So I think my having certain people over there, including Gary Groth [CHUCKLES], probably was looked poorly upon by Shooter, who was diametrically opposite of me. I don’t know, I don’t want to speak for him. Eventually they said “we need the Marvel library” — There was an internal staircase that connected us to the executive floor at 387. And they said “We need access to the Marvel library, and that needs to be down here.” To use the words of Jim Galton, very corporate speak-stuff, that redounded to my benefit even more. If they needed the Marvel library down there, guess what? Now my office was [up and] around the corner from Galton and the executive floor. [LAUGHS] 

TF: Oh, you got bumped up and your office became the Marvel library?

DAK: Yeah, my office on the Marvel level became the library, and I got moved up to the executive floor with Stan and Galton. And I was still freelancing. Crazy days.

———— [End interview transcript]

Kraft couldn’t recall the precise length of his time running Marvel Books, but he estimated it was a year or less.

DAK’s other key connection to G.I. Joe was that he helped Roger Slifer edit the second season of GI Joe Extreme, and he in fact wrote four episodes. Read about that in Part Three, or jump back to the 1970s in Part One.

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Remembering David Anthony Kraft / interview Part 1 of 3

David Anthony Kraft died recently. He was second-best known for writing Marvel’s The Defenders, Savage She-Hulk, and was the consultant for the young readers Spidey Super Stories. About his thoughtful and subversive work, Peter B. Gillis recently said on Facebook “He was one of the editorial crew up at the old offices in the big room, one of those who would get me past the receptionist—one of those of us who were dead set on changing the face of comics.” But DAK, as his friends called him (and Kraft called himself!) was best known for his wonderful Comics Interview magazine — full title: David Anthony Kraft’s Comics Interview — which Kraft edited and published from 1983 to 1995 — a whopping 150 issues!

A lot of early info about G.I. Joe filtered out through Comics Interview, as key issues featured interviews with Larry Hama, Buzz Dixon, and Steve Gerber on both Real American Hero comics and television. But hundreds of writers, artists, and projects got covered as well, and it’s a real document of an era. Actually, it’s more than one era! (For example, that Ninja Turtles issue above has nothing to do with Joe, but isn’t a 1985 interview with Eastman and Laird valuable to history?)

Before I get to Kraft’s 1983 and 1996 G.I. Joe connections, I want to set the scene with an excerpt from our 2019 phone interview. Kraft was a talker, and while I did ask questions, I was also able to just shut my mouth and let him go for long stretches. Although this recollection predates A Real American Hero and the controlled and successful Jim Shooter era of the 1980s, I love peeks behind-the-scenes at Marvel, and this is a good backdrop for Kraft’s decision to leave The House of Ideas a decade later. In 1972, Roy Thomas succeeded Stan Lee as Marvel Editor-in-Chief. Kraft had already worked in publishing as a teenager, and then in early 1974 joined Marvel as an Associate Editor working alongside Don McGregor, both under Thomas:

———–

DAK: I happened to enter comics, Marvel anyway, at a moment of ultimate anarchy, almost. It became anarchy after Roy [Thomas] stepped down [as Editor-in-Chief]. [But before that] what happened was Roy was editing like 40 color titles [on top of] writing all of [his] books. He didn’t have time to micro manage and to look over your shoulder. And he paid more attention to the major books, which made sense. If the books weren’t major books, basically you would talk to Roy and say “Here’s the direction I’m going to take,” and he’d day “cool” or “not cool.”

And then he had a little green file box of index cards of who was using what villains in which books that month. So that there wasn’t an unfortunate contradiction or duplication. The books would be written by the writers, or plotted by them, and drawn, and then [scripted], and then come to Don [McGregor] and me for editing. And there were some writers, and I’ll spare them and not mention names, [whose books] we would shove back and forth, like “You take this book,” “no, you take this book.” Because the continuity would be really, really bad, or the writing would make no sense, and we’d have to rewrite it. There were books that we would fight for, like Marv [Wolfman]’s [Tomb of] Dracula, or Starlin’s book, that I always grabbed. And then the books Don and I were doing nobody looked at except Don and I. So we were, before writer/editors existed, in effect writer/editors, because it wasn’t like Roy read them before they went to the printer, or Stan. They got make-readies after they were printed, and if you fucked up, they would call you on the carpet. So I made it a policy not to fuck up. Simple, right?

Basically all I did was go to Roy on my first color series, Man-Wolf, and I said he’s like a copy of a copy. Marvel has Werewolf by Night, like the Wolf Man in the Universal movies, and now you’ve got a blurry xerox copy of a generic — he around runs menacing people. [FLATLY] Rrrrr. Where’s the future in that? I always say this because post-Star Wars, it’s easy to [assume that space fantasies were popular and the norm], but this was before Star Wars. I’m going to make him a science fantasy character and take him to outer space where he’s a god and do this and that, because that’s something you haven’t seen with a werewolf. And I was kinda worried that Roy would turn it thumbs down. He was like “Sounds cool, go for it.”

Beyond that, he never looked at a plot. He never had any input. Apparently I was okay because he never called me on the carpet. Don and I would write our books, then they would go and be lettered, then they’d be inked, then they would come back and we would editor on the books, then they would go to the printer. Then Stan and Roy and everybody else would see them. That’s the Marvel I came to.

And then over time it became more and more like DC. I worked at DC in ’75. But I used to regard them with disdain and do horrible things. Gee, I don’t know why they didn’t warm up to me over there! They were all these guys in ties and suit jackets. They were all sitting in offices with clear glass. It was like a menagerie of zoo animals. It was so not like Marvel. At Marvel there’d be shit going on, we’d be having fun, but we’d still be working. So whenever I would go up to DC, I was such a hippie, I would go up barefoot with my knees hanging out of my pants just because I hated how constrained it was. Eventually that become Marvel. Then it became all of these offices, with glass, everybody sitting inside. [LAUGHS] It was like Omigod! It became bureaucratic and then more and more layers, and therefore more separated areas.

When there were three of us [editing] 40 color books a month, there wasn’t time for that sort of shit. You couldn’t form your own little area, your own little clique. But over time, eventually it turned into DC as I see things. And there was a lot of crap from that anarchy. As much as I like Steve Gerber, and as good as Steve was – and we all did this — he’d write himself into a corner. Because you were trying to come up with a good cliffhanger. So you’d do whatever was best for the story and you would come up with a great cliffhanger. And then you had to do the next issue and figure out how in the hell you’d get out of that. There was a lot of desperation involved with it. Sometimes the stories never really were satisfying and they meandered and they lost their thread. But you would have never had Howard the Duck and lots of other stuff if you had some kind of regimented little menagerie of editors in their little glass-fronted offices. I love the anarchy period because I could run amok and do whatever I wanted. Later on when it became not fun, I transitioned back to publishing.

[End interview transcript]

————

In Part Two, we get into actual G.I. Joe-related matters — the connection to Real American Hero in 1983 just as Kraft “transitioned back to publishing,” and then in Part Three, a hectic three months 13 years after that.

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Extreme Freight by Ben Torres

Ben Torres had drawn comics for a pair of small black and white publishers when he started freelancing as a toy designer. This was around 1994, and with the A Real American Hero line of 3 3/4-inch figures ending, I’m referring not to Hasbro in Rhode Island, but Kenner in Ohio, and what became known as GI Joe Extreme.

This image was faxed from Kenner to Hasbro’s advertising agency in October of 1994, along with other drawings at a time when Kenner’s designers, marketers, and lawyers hadn’t yet pinned down all the character names. Click to enlarge.

GI Joe Extreme Kenner design Freight Ben Torres

I’m unclear on who “Tank” is supposed to be. To my mind, the biggest Extreme character is Freight, and while some characters morphed in the development process, what art I’ve seen indicates a pretty linear path for each character type (the leader, the martial artist, etc). From here, Freight is pretty locked in — shoulder pads, do-rag, and everything he says in the TV series is a football reference. Here’s a production figure:

Torres continues to have a fascinating career in toys, product design, brand creation, and marketing. He briefly returned to comics in 2017 for Marvel’s Kingpin miniseries, collected in softcover that same year.

Extreme fans, please feel to make a football reference in the comments.

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Psyche-Out design by Rudat

I’ve always had a soft spot for Psyche-Out, subtly 1987’s weirdest G.I. Joe action figure. Here’s mine, missing his two shoulder clips. (Sorry, there’s 25% of his weirdness gone right off the bat.) (EDIT: Stephen Jubber posted this correction: “I fear your childhood Psyche-Out may also be missing his original pistol, Tim. He’s got a loaner from a Night Force Shockwave!” Thank for the fact check, Stephen!)

And here’s Ron Rudat’s pencil final for the character. This would get turned into painted presentation art, then a sculpt input drawing (aka a “turnaround”), and then a wax sculpture.

My favorite thing about this drawing is Rudat’s nebulous notation for “Electronics of some sort” on Psyche-Out’s chest piece. My favorite aspect of this character in general comes from his action figure’s dossier, written by Larry Hama. It reads, in part, that “Psyche-Out got his degree in psychology from Berkeley and worked on various research projects involving the inducement of paranoia by means of low frequency radio waves.” And then explaining what “Deceptive Warfare” is, Psyche-Out’s specialty, the dossier continues: “…you see a commercial on TV ten times a day for a particular brand of cookies. One day at the supermarket, you’ve overcome by a sudden craving for cookies. Confronted by an array of unknown brands, you choose the one that you saw advertised. They’ve won… And you’ve lost.”

The day I bought this toy my brother and I then went to our local video store, which was called Video Cassette Rentals. We must have just been to Lowen’s, an extraordinary mom and pop toy shop and just a few blocks over. I was so struck by that cookie reference that I read it aloud to my brother, us sitting there in the back seat. Kevin probably thought that Psyche-Out’s neon green jacket and wacky satellite dishes made for an unrealistic and unappealing Joe, but A) I thought they were cool and always gravitated more towards the sci-fi in Joe, and B) I think I also identified with clean shaven blondes on the G.I. Joe team since I looked like them. But this was the first time I had an inkling that the back-of-package dossiers were unusually written.

But returning to Rudat’s wonderful design and drawing (that’s two different skills! Design being one and drawing being another), I’m impressed by those six solar cells on his arms. It makes sense that his gear wouldn’t just be battery powered. (Insert joke here about Night Force Psyche-Out’s ineffectiveness.) I like that Rudat is thinking through what such a soldier would need in the field, and yet if I didn’t know what these do-dads did, they offered just enough of an impression to be an addition to this costume without being confusing or distracting. Also great in this art is Rudat’s handling of Psyche-Out’s quilted jacket.

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Livestream! Also: Podcasts

*** Links for the last two months below the fold! ***

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Barbeque colors by Rudat

G.I. Joe fans are probably familiar with this guy:

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A Real American Book! 2020 in Review

It’s after mid-February, so it’s past time time for my annual “what did I do for the last 12 months” post. Rather than running January 1st to December 31st, my book year runs from about the end of January to the start of February because I teach and traditionally the winter break is a productive time.

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