Because my mom didn’t want to cook dinner every night of the week, Wednesdays we ate out. This tradition lasted for about 6 years. We loved our local mall. (Ironic since the growth of the suburban mall in the 1970s reflected the flight of retail stores from the American Downtown, a trend that closed my grandfather’s Baltimore department store years earlier.) After a renovation that added an entirely new wing complete with 3-screen movie theatre, video arcade, and food court, Montgomery Mall had us hooked. So after Mom came home from work she and brother Kevin and I would drive up the Beltway (the loop of interstate around Washington, D.C., and now the bane of many an automotive commuter) eager for a reliable night out in the consistent 72 degrees of our hermetic shopping experience.
After fast food dinner, we’d browse the book store and then split up – my mom to the department stores, and Kevin and I to – the arcade was actually called this, with a red and green neon sign – The Name of the Game. A half-hour later we’d drive home in time to finish homework and watch whatever ABC sitcoms were dulling our senses that particular season.
In the June between 5th and 6th grade, while strolling into Waldenbooks, past magazines and bestsellers, I looked up at the two spinner racks of comics and saw a revelation. His name was Road Pig.
The G.I. Joe cartoon had been in reruns for two years, a death spiral we could not fathom it pulling out of. New toys continually refreshed the line, but they didn’t speak or move. The explosions were imaginary, made in the onomatopoetic lexicon of little boys splayed out on a shag carpet.
From that top rack I pulled a comic book – odd thing it was – and noted several important elements: A bold “G.I. JOE” logo. The aforementioned Road Pig, a villain we had met in our role play, but never on television. He was brandishing his cinderblock-on-a-stick, a weapon so bizarre that if new episodes were on the air we inherently knew it would not appear, much like Snake-Eyes’ sword, television restrictions being what they were. On this cover image Road Pig was hauling two… who were they? I didn’t actually know since they were out of costume, but I could tell they were older Joes, circa year one. And a foreboding sign on the wall, pointing past them to something called the “Brain Wave Scanner.” Whatever all of this was, it begged several questions and I was curious for the answers.
Opening this flimsy periodical offered more surprises and teases. Over the first four pages, more characters who were too new to have appeared on the G.I. Joe cartoon! And an entire panel where one group of them – the Iron Grenadiers with their ceremonial swords (like U.S. Marines in their dress blues) actually brandish them! Threateningly! At other villains! It was too much for me to take. The Iron Grenadier action figures did come packed with swords, but they were permanently sheathed. So if Snake-Eyes was never going to use his sword on television (he did have it in hand once, but didn’t get to impale a robot or anything), and the Iron Grenadier toys made it physically impossible to properly use these other swords, that an “episode” of the G.I. Joe comic book had more relaxed rules concerning action and “violence” content made my eyes bulge.
And then a Cobra villain shoots another Cobra villain! All before page 5! (It was just a tranquilizer gun, but a kind of gattling tranq on steroids.)
But this was the icky G.I. Joe comic book! Hadn’t I already tried this out with Yearbook #3 and #4? Weren’t those printed on a dull newsprint, with a limited palette that could not rival the saturated intensity of animation cel vinyl photographed on 35mm film and telecined for broadcast? Yes. They were. But there were a few more colors here than those earlier comics, (or perhaps a more adept color artist), and the pull of all these characters and actions that were not available on television overrode my aesthetic concerns.
I flipped back to the cover. One dollar. That was a lot, but it also wasn’t. Kevin and I had a weekly allowance, and did not spend it on candy or gum. Or prose books. Those were all parental purchases. We tended to measure money with our own private system: The least expensive toys we bought were about three dollars. At Toys”R”Us, that meant a single G.I. Joe action figure, or an Autobot minicar (like Bumblebee). Everything scaled up from there in multiples of three and five. A $12 or $15 Joe vehicle was possible after a few weeks or months of saving. The $30 Metroplex was a bit out of my reach and became a birthday request. The $100 U.S.S. Flagg aircraft carrier was an utter impossibility. (Even the rich kid down the street didn’t have that, and he had a Millenium Falcon!)
So when I showed G.I. Joe issue #90 to my brother, his immediate response deflated, but did not surprise me: “Cool. Don’t buy it.”
Did I? Find out next week!