Tag Archives: Ron Wagner
In our last episode, Tim and his brother Kevin placed their biggest mail order of G.I. Joe comics yet, and the excruciating wait began…
My grade school had half-day Fridays every single week, so I would have lunch at Roy Rogers with Betty, my family’s housekeeper/nanny/second mom, on the way home. And my brother, in 9th grade at a different school, didn’t get home until 4 or 5pm, whereas I was already playing Dig Dug on our IBM XT and watching Dennis the Menace at 1. On a Friday after what felt like months, where every day I longed to see a package awaiting me at my front door, Betty and I pulled into the driveway, my neck still careening for an angle on the screen door in case THIS WAS THE DAY.
Indeed the screen door was just a tad ajar, but in no way the amount needed to make room for an eight-foot tall box of comics. And there had been a few false alarms — small packages for my mom, or all our regular mail bundled together with a rubber band, so I wasn’t going to get my hopes up again on the short flagstone walk to the front stoop. But there it was anyway, another modestly sized, tightly taped East Coast Comics box!
I have no recollection of getting it inside, or forming half-words to Betty to express its significance, but soon I was kneeling on the bed in my parents’ room, an odd place for the unpacking operation, but one that makes its own sense. Betty watched soap operas downstairs in the family room, and from an early age my brother and I knew we weren’t allowed to join in. (At the time soap operas showed the occasional sex scene, all tastefully under the covers, really nothing more than prone kissing – tame by today’s standards. But nonetheless we were chased out of the room if we lingered too long while fetching an action figure or an afterschool Pudding Pop.) So that room was out.
My room was too narrow for stacks of loose comics so large they threatened to asphyxiate me should they topple over. What I needed was a big space to spread out so I could take in all the G.I. Joe goodness at once. We watched TV on our parents’ bed, and sometimes read for school there, so it was atop the brown 1970s bedspread and before the orange, brown, and white tulips of Vera Wang’s wallpaper that I gingerly dumped 40 new G.I. Joe comics out in front of me.
I’ve alluded to this a few times before here at Real American Book, the unattainably nostalgic feeling of reading during that first year of collecting comics. This was when a comic took 45 minutes to finish, when I would read every page three times, and then read the comic again. When I was legitimately concerned that whatever deathtrap or point blank pistol promised inescapable death to Snake-Eyes, to Ed Marks, to Daredevil on the cover might actually happen. I was worried Snake-Eyes would step on that landmine on the cover of G.I. Joe #63 even though I had already read issue #s 90-95 — starring an alive and well Snake-Eyes! (Okay, not always well, since he got hot ash thrown in his face in #95.) But here now was an almost overwhelming tableau of those images, Marvel’s 1980s cover stock and color saturation popping off that bedspread, yellows that blinded, red that promised of blood, white in the steely eyes of determined heroes, flamboyant purples for villains, dangerous green jungles, ultramarine skies. Like an amateur card dealer I shuffled the comics around with the palms of my hands, over and over, prepping for a game of Go Fish that would never finish, would never start. These cover images, most drawn by Mike Zeck and Ron Wagner, are indelibly burned into my brain, and the power they hold, supported by the interior narratives, multiplied by the unassailable guilding of nostalgia make most other comics dissatisfying by comparison.
There would be no buyer’s remorse for this splurge. Only the satisfaction of having half-completed an entire run of Marvel G.I. Joe in one fell swoop.
I must have spent a half hour just looking at them, moving them around, arranging them, picking some up, flipping through them. Looking at them. Looking at them.
While I was still curious how 40 comics hadn’t needed a box bigger than a coffin, that concern faded, and the entire stack went with me into my bedroom. I sat propped up against two navy blue pillows on my lower bunk bed, Prince’s Batman soundtrack playing on my boom box. (Oh, how I’ve tried to keep the ‘80s from overwhelming every paragraph of this blog. Oh, how I failed on that last sentence.) And there I read comics for hours.
I should note here once again how memory misaligns. For years I’ve remembered this big order as my second, but the date (12/15/89) on the one I showed in part 14 of this story means this bigger order had to be our third. And I remember it arrived in the spring of 1989, but the Batman album didn’t street until June 15 of that year. And I wouldn’t have bought it opening day. But school got out in early June, and not only did I come from school that East Coast day, I must have told Will all about it the following Monday. Right? So how was I listening to an album that I hadn’t bought yet? Could I be conflating a later reading session with this victorious day of postal receipt?
Regardless of the answer, I have no memory of Kevin coming home later, and me telling him the good news, and him sorting through the stack, taking in the pulp bounty for himself. But I do remember both of us spent hours that weekend reading, me prone on the family room floor, elbows digging into our soft yellow shag carpet, and Kevin lying on the couch, a tall pile of comics on the coffee table between us. The coffee table where my father kept his coffee table books, the ones that indirectly seeded the idea for A Real American Book.
And though the dual afternoons offered us much in the way of thrilling narratives, double crosses and death-defying escapes, it doesn’t quite compare to that break in the tension storm when my months-long anxiety at last broke, and that giant East Coast Comics order finally arrived, on a spring Friday afternoon at the end of 6th grade.
I still think about that day when I listen to Batman.
Not much to say about this, except that it hangs on my wall and is a wonderful piece by Ron Wagner and Bob McLeod. It’s been great to see Wagner back on G.I. Joe at IDW, and there are twenty books from Marvel and DC I wish Bob McLeod were inking. His talents are stellar, and it’s unfortunate he’s not active in the industry. Click to enlarge:
Part of the thrill of this image is that it pairs the obscure Spearhead (and his lynx, Max), who never showed up on the G.I. Joe cartoon and barely appeared in print, with the slightly higher profile Tunnel Rat and Airtight. And it’s replete with mood, and just wonderful, wonderful spotted blacks. Here’s a detail.
Here’s a great example (not from G.I. Joe) showing how much decision-making can go into inking. McLeod’s website has numerous before and after examples, some where he maintains the style of the pencil artist, others where he’s given more leeway and adds much of himself. And then another page of such examples.
In our last episode, young Tim paid a whole dollar for G.I. Joe issue #90!
There was much to love about this comic:
-Page one was a splash, that is, a single illustration taking up the whole page. Modern comics eschew this in favor of text recaps or several smaller panels that lead to a page two splash or a page 2-and-3 double splash, but for my oddly tuned aesthetics, comics should start with a splash on page 1. And this particular splash page showed two characters I’d never seen bicker – Zaranna and the Baroness, screaming and grappling with each other while almost falling out of a Cobra transport helicopter over Manhattan. Once again, several things rare or unheard of in the Joe cartoon: Villains fighting, more than one female villain in the same scene, and more than one female villain fighting.
-There was something “open” about the art. It would be another year before I decided Mark D. Bright, the pencil artist who drew G.I. Joe #90 (and the following 15 issues or so) was my favorite artist in all of comics. And it would be another two years before I decided I would buy any comic he drew once his G.I. Joe run had ended. But for now, there was a strong sense of spotted blacks (a term in illustration that denotes where significant shapes filled with black ink help provide a sense of form and depth to anatomy, props, and backgrounds — something you don’t see in the line-only styles of, say, the Garfield newspaper strip or Herge’s Tintin) that didn’t overpower the artwork, and that let the color breathe more than that first comic I’d ever looked at and rejected. (That would be G.I. Joe #54, drawn by the wonderful Ron Wagner, whose work I quickly came to love.) There were also more colors by now – Marvel had upped its palette in the intervening years, and slightly improved its paper stock.
-An entire scene comprising of the Cobra brass – Cobra Commander, Destro, Voltar, Zaranna, the Baroness, Dr. Mindbender, and Darklon arguing about the power balance of their organization. But the meeting is led by Destro, not Cobra Commander! This made my head spin, but in a good way. And insults are hurled:
“This throwback wears a monocle and a cape and he’s casting aspersions on my character.” (Darklon to Destro)
And they’re funny!
I had briefly seen Destro take over Cobra during the first TV miniseries six years earlier, and Serpentor (the Cobra Emperor) had permanently wrested power from Cobra Commander within seconds of first appearing, but this was more involved, humorous, and pleasantly disorienting. (And where was Serpentor, anyway?)
-Joe prisoners and Brain Wave Scanner. At last, the promise of the cover art fulfilled! Worse, Cobra agents travel into the Joes’ memories and plant false information! As a fan, my heart went out to these fictional characters.
-Old Joes and new Joes. Conspicuously each new season of the G.I. Joe TV cartoon would leave out older characters as newer ones appeared. There were debut toys to sell, after all, despite the challenge this unending stream of characters caused the show’s writers. And when it came time to populate a crowd scene, rather than place “retired” Joes in the background, it was the nonsensical “greenshirts,” anonymous, generic Joes that would fill that role. I even have a memo from 1985 where a Sunbow producer spells out for the writers which characters to no longer include for that year. It was that purposeful. But here in this Marvel comic book were the aforementioned new characters, as well as Breaker, Cover Girl, Mutt, and Bazooka from ’82, ’83, ’84, and ‘85.
-Serpentor’s corpse! I cannot overstate what an odd surprise this was. On TV, no one ever died. (My brother and I didn’t know that Duke was supposed to have died in the 1987 animated G.I. Joe: The Movie. So convinced were we by the clunky audio patches that place him merely in a coma after taking a poisoned staff to the heart that we believed the small eruption of red liquid from said wound was in fact blood-colored poison. Of course it was a coma, because no one died in kids’ cartoons.) Here, not only were Destro and Dr. Mindbender talking about hiding Serpentor’s corpse, they alluded to having plans for it. So not only had I missed his death, and any ensuing power struggle, now I had to keep reading to see what would happen to Serpentor’s body.
-Also, the B.A.T.S talked. On the cartoon, Cobra’s Battle Android Trooper robots didn’t speak. Zombie-like, they merely walked and fired their machine guns. Here they talked and piloted helicopters.
-Also importantly, one bit a dialogue in issue #90 had a footnote. Destro refers to the “Cobra Civil War,” giving me that heart-bending tingling feeling I get when a story hits a cliffhanger or I realize I’ve missed some revelation. That certainly explained him trying to sort out the chain of command and Serpentor’s body being preserved in ice. That footnote pointed us to issue #77, which could now be a likely next comic book to track down. (Footnotes, like sound effects, have most unfortunately fallen out of favor in monthly mainstream comic books, but at the time they were all the rage.) This will be important later on in the story of my brother and I starting out in comics as we bought our next issue of G.I. Joe at Waldenbooks a month later – but shockingly, it wasn’t #91!
What issue was it? Tune in next week!