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.