In Part 1, I offered some context for the new G.I. Joe 40th Anniversary Special via a trio of Marvel Comics “Tribute” issues wherein top artists of today each redrew a page from a classic Marvel story. I started making an analogy that comics like these resemble popular song remakes. I’m going to return to that analogy later, but since the selling point of this new G.I. Joe work is each new artists’ take, and the ability to see this story anew, first thought I would riff on each page.
There’s an inherent challenge to a comic like this, and that is somehow showcasing the new artists in a way that doesn’t distract or detract from the original work, and keeping something of the new artist’s own style, that it doesn’t get completely subsumed in the remaking process. For example, page 1 is by Tom Feister. That name calls to mind a particular type of photo-referenced art and a particular color treatment, think G.I. Joe Origins circa 2009.
I like this new Silent Interlude page 1, but nothing about it says to me “Tom Feister.” Partly that’s the page composition. There’s no front-on figure work, and most comics artists who took on this Larry Hama layout were going to disappear in it. Maybe an inker with a strong signature style, think a Klaus Janson or a Bill Sienkiewiez, would show through, but name any 23 current Marvel/DC/Dark Horse/IDW artists redrawing a Cobra CLAW flying in the mountains with two pairs of legs peeking through and I wouldn’t correctly guess them. So my comment that Feister disappears here is not a criticism. He draws the layout with no changes or embellishment. It’s handsome, and as per the original and Hama’s strengths as a storyteller, clear.
None of IDW’s Real American Hero issues written by Hama have had story titles, and somewhat in that spirit, and in saving time/money on a letterer (as with the 1983 original) the words “Silent Interlude” don’t appear on page 1.
Where this page falls down for me is the color. I’m on record as not being a big fan of J. Brown’s work on Real American Hero, so I’ll keep this short, but let me point out three things: 1) The original is sunset. It’s striking. Part of why that is striking is contrast. Pink (clouds) contrasts with green (mountains), and blue (sky) contrasts with brown (mountain). There are two colors in the sky, one for clouds and the other for actual-sky. There’s a different color for the mountains. And that time of day is absolutely certain. Yet in Brown’s hands, all sky and cloud and mountain are the same light purple. No contrast, and I can’t tell what time of day it is beyond “night time.”
[Left to right: “Silent Interlude” original separations on newsprint, 1983; “Silent Interlude” reseparated by Digital Chameleon using the original color as exact guides, 2002 (and used for all IDW reprints since); new art and color, 2022.]
2) Brown treats objects inconsistently. Here’s a zoom-in on the purple rock abutting the grey castle on page 1:
The highlight on this rock should also be a highight on this castle. It is not. If your response is that this is a nitpick, my counter is that this is what colorists do, they render light across space and surfaces, and they lead the eye. Brown often colors as if there are additional, invisible light sources all throughout a scene, and this rock/castle bit is but one example.
I mocked this up with real objects, a grey box and a purple piece of paper. Either the highlight can affect neither or both, but it should be consistent.–
But that third example above with the dark box and the brightened paper is what I see here:
This comment isn’t about one sliver of one page. This kind of light treatment happens all throughout the comic book.
3) Ugly gradients. Now certainly a color in and of itself can’t be ugly. As a kid, brown and green Crayola markers were the least interesting to me in those 10-packs. But now I keep a variety of brown Tombo brush pens near my sketchbook, to work both as colors in and of themselves but also to affect other colors. And certainly one needs brown for all sorts of objects — trees, skin, the cloth of a Cobra W.O.R.M.S. driving his Maggot tank. The same goes for grey-blue-purple or peach-pink-grey. Right? A color isn’t ugly in and of itself, it’s what you do with that. But this gradient, from grey-blue-purple to peach-pink-grey, is unattractive and distracting:
Here it is in situ, a distracting background swatch:
For some reason, the background grey-blue-purple matches Scarlett’s costume, while the peach-pink-grey almost matches her skin and does indeed match Storm Shadow’s. Rather than popping from the background, these foreground characters “rhyme” with it. Here, let me try something:
Not the best solution, as maybe the flat background doesn’t agree with the rendered characters, but at least there’s contrast, returning to point number one.
Then, two panels later, there’s so much activity in that background that it distracts from Storm Shadow’s mental anguish and the subtlety of his physical motion. Rather, that little electric storm of blue says “HEY, LOOK HERE AT THE TOP OF THE PANEL BY THIS GUY’S HAND!!!!” Storm Shadow’s inner conflict is adequately captured in the line art and needs no background exaggeration. And then, panels 3 and 4 below have the same color treatment, whether light can enter through the portal or the portal is closed. In both, the background is a) not rendered in a curve as per the shape of the prison cell, but as a flat marbleized texture, and b) the same muddy-violet regardless of the amount of light pouring in.
I get it, color need not be literal. It can be emotional. Certainly my yellow background above is not literal. But J. Brown uses every emotion all of the time. I don’t think his approach is a fit for G.I. Joe. And that’s all I’m going to say on the colors.
Let’s get back to me riffing on the pencil-and-ink artists and return to each art page, one at time.
FREDDIE WILLIAMS II
Page 2 is Freddie Williams II. This is a great bit of follow-through on Editorial’s part, because I’ve been a tad disappointed that someone of Williams’ stature has done so much 1980s-toy and licensed work (18 full issues Batman/Ninja Turtles and another dozen between He-Man/Thundercats and Godzilla/Power Rangers) but has only done covers for G.I. Joe. Where’s the love for interior pages? Finally we get one. Williams wrote a fascinating book on drawing comics digitally, and while his ink washes are far too much for my tastes and his covers often get too busy, he’s a earned his place in this comic book. Bonus: No ink washes here!
Williams is the first artist to fundamentally diverge from Hama’s original layout. This is not something I would do were I involved in the 40th Special, but to Williams’ credit, his take is as dramatic and clear — no net change up or down.
Page 3 comes from Tim Lattie. He’s drawn two G.I. Joe covers, but no interiors to this point. One of those covers was for a reprint of Yearbook #2, presumably linking Lattie’s cartooning to Michael Golden’s. Lattie’s “Silent Interlude” page continues this cartooning approach, something you’d expect more from an “Animated Adventures”-type series than a “regular” one. He’s concerned with curves and rounded shapes (like I said — “cartooning”) more than anyone else in the tribute. It’s attractive, but the first jarring shift from one style to another, from Williams’ page 2 to Lattie’s page 3. That is part and parcel of such a tribute comic, and doesn’t affect my enjoyment of any one page, but does affect how I take in the project as a whole, like the second verse of a song performed by a different band.
Page 4 is Alex Sanchez, who has drawn a few covers and two entire issues of G.I. Joe. What sticks out most to me with his previous Joe work is how much his layouts and approach to drawing resemble Travis Charest. Sanchez doesn’t hide this fact in interviews, Charest is indeed an influence. I don’t see that here save some detailing on Snake-Eyes and the plane, but Sanchez is of course playing by a strict set of rules. He makes a few panels smaller so he can increase the size of the main Snake-Eyes-Falling panel, not an unreasonable change. I’m not sure why SE’s left arm is aiming back, though. It gets lost in the inking.
Page 5 is drawn by Brian Shearer. Best known as an inker of many IDW Joe issues, Shearer not-just-inked but penciled and inked issues #253 and #277, and his work is much more open than most Joe artists. It’s not cartoony, but is in that direction. He sticks close to the 1983 layouts.
Page 6 belongs to Dan Schoening, who drew a regular issue of Joe in the style of the Sunbow cartoon, which led to a 4-issue miniseries set in that animated world. Schoening has drawn a load of Ghostbusters comics, and is something of a chameleon. I don’t have a sense of what his default or base style is, so I had to check who drew Page 6, as I couldn’t tell on my own. Schoening makes a tiny but dramatic change, placing not a Cobra Soldier atop the castle, but a Crimson Guard. I’d be up for this kind of update, except that it creates a continuity error a few pages later, as Snake Eyes is going to fight three Cobra Soldiers in that spot, not two Cobra Soldiers and one Seigie. It’s small enough that some readers won’t even notice.
(I know I wrote that I was done commenting on color, but J. Brown overloads the page with green light from every monitor and screen. Okay, back to the pencil/ink artists.)
Page 7 is drawn by Casey Maloney, who drew a bit of the Chuck Dixon run in 2011 and one Real American Hero issue of G.I. Joe quite recently. His work is closer to Brian Shearer and Tim Lattie in that it’s more open and his proportions are ever so slightly cartooned. A question I had concerning this page was how the background in panel 1 would get inked. In the 1983 original inker/finisher Steve Leialoha shows the artist’s hand with a sketchy, unfinished approach. The thick black lines reveal some of the paper beneath, equally suggesting a starry sky and the cross currents of rushing wind. You are aware of it as ink on paper. In Maloney’s hands, while those tiny white slivers and triangles still recall an artist making marks, colorist J. Brown adds a white glow-fuzz to each, so they are definitely stars. No other stars appear in panels 2, 3, or 4, but I’m going to let this inconsistency go since there are definitely stars on the previous page.
Page 8 comes from Maria Keane, who has inked a bit of G.I. Joe recently. This is an unusual way to “meet” her, as we’ve not seen her pencil G.I. Joe before. This is the 7-panel bobby pin page, and Keane makes only the slightest changes to posture and posing. It is with this page that I start to wonder if the 40th Anniversary Special is less fulfilling as a comic book and more interesting as an exercise, if it’s less that the sum of its parts, even if all those parts are strange and wondrous. I don’t write that to pick on Keane, as when this comic was solicited I briefly imagined myself redrawing this very page and thought “Oh, but I can’t change anything.” More on this later.
Page 9 is drawn by Adam Riches, who’s known for Hasbro G.I. Joe toy package art — both original and recreations — as well as a few variant comic book covers. Were I contributing to this book, I would be sorely tempted to sign my page as well! As this is the only page with an artist’s signature, it sticks out a little, but in the context of this remake, where I’m always aware that I’m reading a redo of an old comic, it’s fine. This reminds me of the occasional comic where the artist signs all the splash pages, a practice I lightly disagree with. Covers, yes. Final page of a big-deal story arc or the artist’s final issue ever, sure. Page 9? Not needed.
Riches winks at the whole affair, turning Destro’s chess pieces into actual G.I. Joe action figures. They’re colored in grey and white, alluding to marble or ivory, but they are toys, right down to the arm rivets and leg joints. This reminds me a little of the difference between the real world of 1995 and 2005. When the film Toy Story was released, those characters were all invented toys. By the time Toy Story 3 hit theaters, a generation of kids had grown up with Buzz and Woody action figures and plush toys, and so our reaction to the film was subtly different. Of course there were G.I. Joe action figures when “Silent Interlude” was first introduced and 1983-Destro reflected over his chess set, but 38 years later everyone reading (and drawing!) this Anniversary comic is acutely aware of Real American Hero as a generational, nostalgic proposition. There’s no room to make a joke in this special, but Riches finds a way. When I first saw this last month I rolled my eyes, but in re-reading the story since then, I find it sweet and quite funny.
Page 10 is one of the two most interesting of the whole batch. That is because it’s drawn by Alex Milne. He was a robot-drawing wiz, a discovery during the Dreamwave era of Transformers comics. The details were impressive, but the storytelling got lost. In 2006, he pitched in on the end of Devil Due’s third G.I. Joe vs. Transformers crossover, but taking a casual glance, he may have only drawn robots. Somewhere just before the transition to IDW Publishing, something clicked with his page layout, and Milne was on a path to being the best Transformers comic book artist ever. More and more detail, yes, but clear storytelling and great acting. Humans aren’t a big part of his ouevre, especially in the extraordinary More Than Meets The Eye series (10 paperbacks plus three essential tie-ins). However, a version of G.I. Joe was wandering around the Hasbro-verse post-“Revolution” in Transformers continuity, and Milne was briefly reunited with best-Transformers-colorist-ever Josh Burcham to fill-in on issue #4 of Optimus Prime in late 2016. All of the pages are great, but I still wasn’t fully convinced Milne could pull off humans, humans acting, and Joes specifically, until then. He can indeed draw humans:
And then Flint flies a Skyhawk! I’m skipping that page. Here’s the one that follows:
Milne would certainly nail the vehicles if he became series regular on Real American Hero, amiright? Oh, also, he did a V-Wars one-shot for IDW. I’m not sure why, but Milne’s acting and action in that entire comic book are a tad stiff. Maybe it’s the script, maybe it’s because vampires are kinda stiff. Interestingly, in the 40th Anniversary Special, Milne’s page is the closest to Hama’s originals, with the least amount of changes. I don’t want this to become a blog post about Transformers, but A) Alex Milne exaggerates and slightly cartoons his Transformers, which is an amazing feat. B) Josh Burcham knew the key to coloring complicated scenes of robots covered with detail and overlapping each other was to color less, not more. C) Please someone hire Alex Milne and Josh Burcham to make G.I. Joe comics.
Where was I? Oh, right, the G.I. Joe “Silent Interlude” tribute issue!
Page 12 belongs to Netho Diaz. This is bittersweet, as it’s likely Diaz’s swansong on Joe, minus a variant cover or some end-of-year/series-finale-issue-#300-surprise. Diaz’s decent-sized association with Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe, from the “Rise of the Arashikage” arc in #246 to #250, to the Silent Option miniseries, some of “Snake Hunt,” to a pair of self-contained issues since, are a ramping up in kinetic excitement for Real American Hero. Loads of detail. His storytelling at the start was not strong, but he brought a visual flair and amount of detail that would be right at home with the house style of, say, DC Comics in the last ten years. If not for that Thunderbolts fill-in upcoming, I’d bet Diaz would be drawing Green Lantern or Detective Comics in 2022. Clearly he was never going to stay at IDW for very long, as the lure of higher profile work would call. Here’s a nice reminder of how good we had it for a dozen-plus issues.
Diaz adds a torch to the background of panel 1, another small continuity glitch I’ll chalk up as “interesting.” He draws Snake-Eyes regularly in the bottom two panels, a change from the original issue #21, where the ninja commando is drawn and colored light and almost translucent, like he’s moving too fast to see. It’s a small story change, but I prefer the original.
Page 13 is a contribution from Billy Penn. This guy drew a great issue of Joe last year and then immediately returned to his day job, so like Diaz, I’m quite aware that this is likely it for him on Joe. Penn inks his G.I. Joe more like a 1980s comic book, and is one of the most thoughtful storytellers — I mean page and panel layout — of the last 12 years of Joe comics. Penn flops the angle on Hama’s panel 1, a change I wouldn’t dare, but he pulls it off. He pushes his third panel in closer, which adds some immediacy to this Cobra Soldier falling to his doom, but since the subsequent panel hits a similar note, I prefer the original Hama breath-pause of pulling back on that third panel. Penn’s final panel manages to lose some of the urgency of the moment as all of those Cobra Soldiers don’t look like they’re rushing. I still like this page, and love the balance of gritty realism and weird cartooning he pulls off. Someone came into my shop recently and wanted to read a new issue of G.I. Joe. I heartily recommended #287, seen above.
Kei Zama draws page 14. This is a fun pick, as some of you regular readers of the current Real American Hero series may have missed Zama’s contribution. She drew the 2019 G.I. Joe Yearbook, but more recently we know her from most-of-two-years on Optimus Prime (at the finale of the previous Transformers continuity, that ended with Unicron), and a (speaking of metal bipeds with guns) Death’s Head miniseries for Marvel. Zama’s storytelling was not always clear on the former, and there are some occasional chunky bits to her anatomical drawing — style over form — but she sticks close to Hama’s 1983 layouts and slightly shrinks three panels so the exciting one of Snake-Eyes at the end gets increased real estate.
While two-thirds of the way into this comic may not be an ideal place to wrap up this post, I will be back soon with riff-thoughts on the final nine pages, the cover, and an overall reflection on the object.
[Jump to Part 1] – [You Are Reading Part 2] – [Part 3 Coming Soon]