In our last episode, Tim and his brother Kevin bought G.I. Joe issue #94!
Before I get too far into the Snake-Eyes Trilogy, I want to take a step back one month and sideways. Marvel’s G.I. Joe had a spin-off, G.I. Joe Special Missions. And Kevin and I showed up just in time to catch the final issue.
By 1986, writing G.I. Joe offered a certain challenge for scribe Larry Hama. Every year, Hasbro delivered to him 20 new characters, but the monthly series already had plenty. (Not to mention the vehicles, which may have lacked dialogue, but still netted starring roles, like all the attention paid to the Skystriker and Rattler jets in issue #34, “Shake Down!”) Marvel had already solved the problem of having too many X-Men characters by starting a second X-Men title in 1982, the monthly New Mutants. I don’t know whose idea it was – someone in Marvel Editorial, Marvel Sales, someone at Hasbro, kids writing in letters, Hama himself, or some combination, but G.I. Joe and Marvel’s coffers could use a similar expansion.
The double-sized G.I. Joe issue #50 featured a back-up tale of five Joes stopping a jetliner hostage situation, and two months later, G.I. Joe Special Missions debuted as its own bi-monthly series. (It went monthly in ’88.) Special Missions spotlighted Joes that didn’t appear in the regular series, and was all self-contained, single-issue stories. Cobra appeared, but the serial drama of G.I. Joe was side-stepped in favor of discrete 22-page narratives of overseas missions, backstabbing, and another hostage situation or two.
And this is a striking book. Artist Herb Trimpe drew almost every issue, and for its tightly written narratives, fast pacing, and crafty twists, it’s actually my desert island comic. While I’ve gone on at length about the merits of G.I. Joe, if I could only take one run of comic books with me on a permanent tropical exile, it would be the 28 issues of G.I. Joe Special Missions. While I love what Hama can do with a cliffhanger, and weaving threads together and apart over time, he’s at his best with finite sagas. (Going back to G.I. Joe #34, for example: It’s a self-contained story starring only 4 people and two jets, yet it doesn’t feel confined by 22-pages. It’s about fighting to live, honor, and the larger canvas of conflict reduced to a tiny scale, all told as a light adventure tale. Imagine 27 more comics like that and you have G.I. Joe Special Missions.)
In August of 1990, my father, mother, brother and I were headed to New York from Maryland to visit my paternal grandmother. (According to my calendar, this was right around when we went to the beach and found issue #93, although the two memories don’t “feel” chronologically close.) Near the Bethesda subway stop, our local Jerry’s Subs and Pizza, and one of the city’s three major intersections sat a Crown Books and a Dart Drug. I don’t know if the bookstore carried comics — I’d guess no – but it turns out that the drugstore did. Near the cashiers was a low, light grey rack of magazines, puzzle books, and possibly other comics.
Please remember at this point, Kevin and I only collect G.I. Joe. We haven’t yet moved on to other comic book series. (That’s one month away, and the topic for next week’s blog post.) While we’re not quite leery of other series, G.I. Joe makes sense, and our money is committed to action figures, LEGO, and the occasional radio controlled dune buggy. But if there’s a comic book that reads “G.I. JOE SOMETHING SOMETHING” on it, that’s not a big stretch.
There on that low, light grey rack was G.I. Joe Special Missions issue #28. Big, yellow block letters. White background. And tantalizingly, several vehicles we hadn’t yet seen in that one comic book we did read: The Cobra Stiletto, the Cobra Condor Z25, the G.I. Joe Defiant (or was it the Crusader?), and what kind of looked like the G.I. Joe Phantom X-19. And notably, no people. Again, the kind of cover you’d never see on Superman, Batman, or X-Men. This was just tanks and jeeps and planes. Or in this case, just planes. And like G.I. Joe issue #90 three months earlier, it was just a dollar. I bought it, or perhaps convinced my dad to buy it for me since I’d be reading it on a car ride and parents are suckers. And while Kevin had initially advised against buying #90, he was onboard this time.
Special Missions #28 is a great read. (If you want to learn how to write airplane comics, read it, the aforementioned G.I. Joe #34, Special Missions #5, and “Thunderjet!” from EC’s 1952 Frontline Combat #8 by Harvey Kurtzman and Alex Toth.) Hama deftly balances the nuances of piloted flight with the action of aerial combat, all while using authentic jargon, finding opportunities to explain that jargon to readers, and throwing in some goofy fun or less-than-realistic moments. In the case of Special Missions #28, that would be the Joes landing their Space Shuttle on the flight deck of their aircraft carrier. Without an arrestor cable. Which is somewhere between ridiculous and impossible. But it still makes for a fun yarn, and “Condor” (the title of this story) is the only time in all of Hama’s comics where the on-page characters speak directly to the readers. In this case it’s Hawk, kneeling in front of all the Joes, soccer team photo-style, on the deck of the Flagg, telling us to keep reading the regular monthly G.I. Joe. I didn’t like this breaking of the fourth wall, and I didn’t like discovering a whole ‘nother G.I. Joe series that was over the day I found it, but I’ve come to terms with Hawk’s goofy dialogue and I have a faint wish to track down the original art for that final page splash, buy it, frame it, and hang it on my wall.
Credit goes to Hama’s artistic collaborator, the talented and reliable Herb Trimpe, who had drawn the first year of G.I. Joe. Trimpe flew planes, and owned his own, so Hama tried to give him planes to draw in this spin-off. I’m convinced this particular comic book would never have happened unless Herb Trimpe was paired with Larry Hama to draw G.I. Joe Special Missions:
Back to the victorious Dart Drug purchase, I don’t remember reading that issue in the car ride north, but I do remember throwing it in the back of our Chevy Malibu station wagon a few weeks later when we drove the hour to visit my other grandparents in Baltimore. This was before Kevin and I discovered protective bags and boards, in that first year when our entire G.I. Joe collection sat stacked in a cardboard box at knee height on a bookshelf in my bedroom.
Anyway, Special Missions doesn’t get a lot of attention, but narratively it’s as vital as the regular series. And because each issue is a complete story unto itself, it’s actually more satisfying than G.I. Joe, even without Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow showing up all the time.
I have a distinct recollection of seeing a TV commercial for Special Missions #28, but I have never seen any evidence of it on the Internet. Bethesda, Maryland’s Dart Drug and Crown Books were demolished a few years later. A feud in the Crown family tore the business apart, competition from Borders and Barnes & Noble was fierce, and that entire plot of land was to become a eighteen-story, double-towered headquarters for Chevy Chase Bank.
But this wasn’t the end of buying comics in Bethesda. What was our new outlet? Tune in next week to find out!