G.I. Joe #300 and Thoughts on Final Issues

Note: While this writing has been posted after G.I. Joe issue #300 went on sale, it was written before that date.

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After a healthy, 12-year run, G.I. Joe is ending. Again. But this time, it doesn’t hurt.

My first experience with a series finale as a reader in the world of comics came just a few months after entering that world. I had purchased G.I. Joe issue #90 — essentially my first comic book, in May of 1989. By about that August, my brother and I had bought the next few, along with 10 or so more back issues via mail order. We were driving north to see my grandparents, and before the trip, stopped at our local Dart Drug. It had a small, low rack of comic books that I had never before noticed. And there was that tell-tale “G.I. Joe” logotype, or a squashed, busier version, peering out from a low shelf. The full title read “G.I. Joe Special Missions,” and while I didn’t realize it at the time, this was an unusual cover because not men and women, but vehicles — planes, specifically — were primary. It’s a great aerial issue, but it ends on a surprise note, as Hawk turns to the reader and explains there won’t be another issue.

This was only three months into my life as a comics reader. I certainly did understand that most comics series were monthly, and that some referred to in our older issues of G.I. Joe were no longer active, like The Thing or Micronauts. But it didn’t occur to me that G.I. Joe could end because I had barely just met it. This was my first interaction with any Joe spin-offs, and I had no time to mourn it because this finale was a surprise. “Oh, that’s funny,” I must have thought. “Why yes, Hawk, I will continue to follow the monthly adventures of the Joes over in the regular book, I was doing that anyway.”

As a fan of Special Missions — in many ways I like it more than the main G.I. Joe — looking back I do wish it has continued for another few years. There were (and are!) so many Joe team members, and a second series is a helpful tract of real estate. And writer Larry Hama often excels at the self-contained 22-page story. But in a way this the final issue that wasn’t, because the first day I met this series was the day it ended for me. No time to be sad.

Transformers #80 was a different story. Seeing the animated Transformers: The Movie was life-changing, and comics writer Simon Furman was starting to incorporate elements from it into his monthly Marvel Transformers comic book series. I had rented The Movie about four times a year since its home video debut in 1986, and owning a piece of artwork from it was a life goal I wrote about in an 8th grade school assignment. (Life goal achieved, by the way.)

Here again is a strange bit of timing, as I came to this party almost as late as Special Missions. My first issue of Transformers was #74, six months before the finale. The cover to #74 promises a strange, sideways connection to TFTM, and the final page is a mind-blowing full page reveal. We were visiting my (other) grandparents in Florida. It was late December 1990, and one of the two grocery stores had a spinner rack. Only a few pages into reading that comic book, I knew I had to buy more of this series. And the double-sized issue #75 — itself a kind of take on Transformers: The Movie — did not disappoint. In the letters page, the editors explained that sales were low and the series was in trouble. I didn’t take that seriously, because in the same sentence they said that they’d like to be around for a long time, maybe even issue #200!

That sounded like a promise, but it shouldn’t have. But I was doing my part — I was a new reader, one more sale! (Strangely, the other grocery store in town had a spinner rack and the previous issue! In the span of a week this series became my favorite — yes, topping G.I. Joe.) But then, four months later, the editors delivered the shocking news that the series would end the next month. This was terribly disappointing. I had managed to pull my comics-reading pal Nick into this orbit as well, this instantly must-read Transformers book that felt modern and fresh, and yet looked back to the stakes of the animated movie and the great character work of the first cartoon episodes. We watched that movie, and had dipped our toes back into Transformers toy-buying, even though we were a bit to old to play with them. And we talked about this run of issues, the Simon Furman/Andrew Wildman year, and all the punchy dialogue, incorporation of features carried over from the toy line, the weirdly yet evocative “human” faces that Wildman drew on his Autobots and Decepticons, and all the great mythology and action. They still are among my favorite comics. But whenever I look at these final issues, like in preparing for this blog post, I’m taken back to that mix of happiness over how good a comic book could be, and how disappointed I was to lose it just after I had found it.

Issue #80 of Transformers is a good finale, but it’s rushed. A major character dies in that blowout in #75, and the plan was to bring him back much later — #100 if I recall. Cybertron starts having tremors in #76, and was going to shake itself apart. Our heroes would have to find a new home, and then I think Cyberton would be reborn, a rough plan for the two years following issue #75. But with only five issues to tell that story, Furman and penciler Andrew Wildman shortened and simplified it, and that major character is revived in a page-turn reveal in #80. Yes, his death only lasts six issues, so while it’s a surprise that he returns, it reinforced the old complaint that character deaths don’t last or matter in comic books. The threat of planetary collapse is averted, and the final page ends with some heart and a sense of relief. I remember being glum reading it, but also kind of pleased, that my favorite robots were going to be okay. (A subplot about a time-traveling villain from the future, unconscious in a Canadian lake was one of those things I guess we just wouldn’t talk about.) In the letters page, Furman writes a heartfelt send-off, telling readers (not for the last time) that “it never ends,” that heroes and stories and creators and readers cycle around. The message didn’t lessen the sting of losing these favorite characters, but I appreciated that Furman wanted to say something, that he said something heartfelt, and that editor Rob Tokar let him. For me the great final issue is entangled with that whole seven month span, that string of final issues. I figured no one would ever again capture lightning in a bottle like that.

For some months after the demise of Marvel’s original Transformers, I focused my fandom for the Robots in Disguise in a positive way, interacting with a small but international fan club. Imagine my surprise when just a year and a half after Transformers ended, our little newsletter announced that the toy line would return! It did in November 1992, and a year later, Marvel rolled out (ha!) a new comic book series. As the cover to the premiere issue promised, this was not my father’s Autobot. We’ll dispense with the flawed logic of that claim. What it was really saying was that this was a grim and gritty take. A lot more black ink, clenched teeth, and character deaths.

Despite a killer debut, Transformers: Generation 2 immediately suffered, as the talented Derek Yaniger, who’d drawn that double-sized first issue, was already behind schedule with #2. A good fill-in named Manny Galan helped out, but he was miscast, and the series suffered from a polarizing inconsistency. However, as a fan I could rejoice that one of the artists of the original Marvel series, Geoff Senior, arrived to help. He’d contributed both to the UK stories made just for the British market, as well as the US series right after (and notably, that 75th issue I lauded above). He and Galan split the duties.

Elsewhere in the relaunch, the TF:G2 TV show was a reformatting of the original 1980s animated series, and the toy line was mostly made up of new color schemes for classic characters. The good news was that the comic book was all new, with returning writer Simon Furman creating a compelling story around my favorite robots, although he didn’t pick up any threads from the end of the original series. The bad news was that this comic book was somewhat saddled by the cartoon and toys being reruns and re-releases. Twleve issues in and it was gone. I remember being sad to read the news, and then counting down the months to the final issue, but the series had been something of a compromise as early as its second issue. I won’t say it was a relief to see it end, but I did take comfort that Simon Furman got a full year to try out this new take. The ending is satisfying, and hey, did I mention it’s double-sized? That is an important factor here. G.I. Joe Special Missions #28, G.I. Joe #155, and Transformers #80 are all regular-sized comic books. Final issues should be double-sized. Let me go out with a bang.

In a way, G.I. Joe #155 was less painful, because I had now lost Transformers twice. But mostly, it was worse. The toy line and the TV show were done. And here was the series that had gotten me into comic books. In the present day I read comics and graphic novels continuously throughout the week and month and year, and if you’re new here, I’ll mention that I own a comic book shop. G.I. Joe stayed amazing for a year and a half after that first issue I ever found, and then it was uneven for a few years. I’ve made my peace with the next 30 or so issues, and I love them, but at the time, the departure of favorite artist Mark Bright was a real blow. There were some high points, but also a few artists whose work I didn’t like (again, at the time), and all those too-brightly colored Joe action figure designs were populating the Marvel run. At issue #145, a new artist signed on in the form of Phil Gosier, and Larry Hama’s stories re-clicked for me. Issue #150 was something to celebrate, a double-sized special with pin-ups by guest artists, although I’ve always felt a little robbed that the cover received no “enhancement” that was all the rage with other special Marvel issues of the era — metallic foil stamping, a hologram sticker, a die-cut, or embossing. (But I also appreciate that that would have added to the cover price.)

I was staying with family in Massachusetts for the summer, and my father was driving me back to Maryland. I’ll never forget opening up the newest issue of the Westfield catalog, from a mail-order company based in Wisconsin. (Although I had a local comic book shop, I ordered a few items from Westfield each month, partly so that I could keep receiving the Westfield catalog itself, a roadmap for everything released to comic book shops two months in the future.) In the Marvel section, at the end of the listing for G.I. Joe #155 was a shock, those two unwelcome words: “Final issue.” It felt a little like Transformers again, that no, the series was returning to greatness. And out in the real world, there had also been a death in my family, so I’ll suggest in hindsight that saying goodbye to anything favorite, like my favorite comic book series, carried an additional weight. I can remember blurting out “oh-no” from the back seat of the car, and explaining what a big deal it was that G.I. Joe was cancelled, what bad news it was.

I was certainly at home in Maryland when I read G.I. Joe issue #155, and I had bought doubles from my local shop. (In that final year, I upped my subscription from one copy to two, figuring sales might be slipping.) That night, on the back of a Far Side Off the Wall Calendar page I wrote the date, and the landmark that the long-running G.I. Joe comic book series had ended. (Somewhere in a box in storage I hope I still have that piece of paper.) There’s so much to say about issue #155 that it could take up a whole ‘nother blog post (or a meaty paragraph in my book), so I’ll just state here that it’s a great story with good art, and one of the best issues of the series. And I was sad that the Joe team wouldn’t have anymore adventures. This isn’t the case where any other great fiction, like that amazing weekly sci-fi TV show, or some other monthly comic book series, took the place of G.I. Joe. There was simply a G.I. Joe comic-shaped hole in my life from then on.

When Devil’s Due announced it was publishing a new G.I. Joe series seven years later, I was ecstatic. But that series was a disappointment, and I didn’t stick around. When it came to an end in 2005 with issue #43, I was glad. Two weeks later, a new monthly started by a different creative team and with a revised focus. This meant a second chance for me to hop on the Devil’s Due Joe wagon, but that subsequent series lost its way soon enough and I didn’t follow it to its end. I don’t have any reaction to DDP’s actual-final Real American Hero comic book, 2007’s G.I. Joe: America’s Elite #36 — I haven’t ever read it — but you should be able to hear me muse about it down the road when we get to it on the Talking Joe podcast.

But G.I. Joe was coming back in other ways, and soon. More on that below.

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IDW Publishing continually thrilled me with its one-two punch of Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye and Transformers: Robots in Disguise starting in 2012. And so now it was an embarrassment of riches that the publisher asked writer Simon Furman and penciller Andrew Wildman to return, twenty years later, to create a version of that next arc they were considering after Marvel’s original Transformers issue #75. Marvel had succecssfully trotted out a few of these continuations, like Chris Claremont’s X-Men Forever and Louise Simonson’s X-Factor Forever, the “what if the original writer came back and wrote the next story that they would have?” concept. (Notably, this would sidestep the Marvel Transformers: Generation 2 continuity.) Furman made a cool compromise, though, that twenty years had passed in the story as well. Further, since that particular character had come back from the dead and Cybertron had righted itself in Marvel’s finale, the writer and artist would have to make some changes. But it was a lovely return, and nicely captured the feel of their Marvel collaboration. The series was dubbed Transformers: Regeneration One, and started with a Free Comic Book Day special, then running from issue #81 to a double-sized #100 (plus a zero issue thrown in as a neat narrative trick and also a cool scheduling gimmick). There’s a lot else to like about this series, but in short, this finale wasn’t sad because it was a gift, the finale we sort of hadn’t ever properly gotten. Furman had been able to return several times and ways to Transformers, to characters with whom he was affiliated and to ones that he wasn’t, in comics and on television, and even three other times with collaborator Andrew Wildman, but this one was a direct line back to those favorite issues from so early in my comics reading life. IDW and the smart editors who had this idea will always get a big Transformers fan-thumbs-up from me for that.

Bonus: The 21 issues of Regeneration One make for a good story on their own, so you don’t have to have read Furman’s earlier US or UK comics to appreciate the narrative.

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I know that the Hasbro-verse/Revolution-verse version of IDW is few peoples’ favorite, but that Scarlett’s Strike Force ended prematurely and in the middle of a story arc was a bummer. That series’ predecessors had stopped and started and stopped, the two-year cycle of launch and relaunch that affects so many mainstream comic books now, so it wasn’t painful. (But three issues in? Yikes.) That cycle had in fact already started with the aforementioned Devil’s Due runs. And besides, an alternative version of G.I. Joe ending couldn’t be a big deal if the one, true original was back and chugging along.

And with all of that as a lengthy set-up, I come to the paragraph on the main finale of 2022, and the final item in this blog post. In 2010, IDW assistant editor Carlos Guzman applied the X-Men Forever/X-Factor Forever logic to Larry Hama and G.I. Joe. (This return predates the aforementioned TF: Regeneration One limited series.) Marvel’s Joe had ended at #155, so IDW’s would start with a Free Comic Book Day special and then #156. I was excited, but I’d grown up a lot, so while I was ready for this to be a pitch-perfect continuation, I also knew that a lot of time had passed, the market was different, and this was a different publisher with different standards.

I have many complex feelings about this series that has run over the last 12 years, and I may put that into a separate blog post, the Tim-IDW-ARAH-post-mortem, but in a sentence, I’ve had a good time reading these stories. And I’m not discouraged at all that G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero by Larry Hama is ending again. When the news broke, in the form of a rumor at that well-known website, I had that gratitude I’d felt with Transformers: Generation 2. Except that this time, instead of an additional 12 issues, we got 12 years’ worth! And there was time for Hama to plan an ending. Sure, losing this book would be a gap in my monthly reading, but a series reaching its 300th issue is perfectly respectable, and certainly such an anniversary/finale would have extra pages. And really, with sales at one-fiftieth what they were in the peak of 1985 or so, this couldn’t be that much of a surprise.

Soon, additional “news” suggested that a different company would take on the license for G.I. Joe from Hasbro. And while there’s always a good chance the new company will do a poor job, and I’ll long for the days of IDW’s editorial and artistic choices, I’m optimistic that the new company will do as good, if not a better job. It’s not sadness that I feel, but a little sense of relief. IDW Publishing has been a good steward of the Joe brand, both with the IDW-verse/Chuck Dixon-verse continuity, its switch to the Hasbro-verse/Revolution-verse, a few one-offs by auteur talent, and A Real American Hero itself.

This bears emphasis and repetition: Minus spin-offs, Marvel published 155 issues of G.I. Joe, the main series. And also not counting spin-offs, IDW has published 147. (Don’t forget the FCBD issue and the Cobra World Order prelude issue that falls between #218 and #219.) One hundred forty-seven issues. That’s a feat.

I like the story in the past year of Hama’s G.I. Joe, but I’ll admit I don’t always love it. It’s mostly good. There are moments of greatness. That, plus a half-lifetime of favorite titles ending prematurely (or lots of greats series harmed when a key writer, artist, or colorist left) means my expectations for issue #300, which as I write this, is on-sale in two days, are tempered. I think Larry Hama will write a neat story. I think penciler Shannon Gallant will do yeoman work, stressed by a tough deadline. A little birdie told me that IDW was originally going to publish to March, but that the big H in Rhode Island asked for a wrap-up here in November, before the end of the year. Once again, it seems, a storyline has been truncated, and I tip my hat to the IDW team if they weren’t able to go out quite the way they wanted.

But I’m thrilled to write that I’m not sad in the least over this final issue, because there will be more, and soon.

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