More than any other medium, comics is a home for passion projects. As often as a writer or artist create their own story, character, or title, a creator who has been a fan of a certain hero or franchise since they were young comes to the world of comics to play with those old toys… to see their dreams come true.
GI Joe: Hearts and Minds is such a story for Max Brooks, better known as the author of World War Z, the smash hit zombie novel that made him one of the most coveted prose writers in genre fic. Brooks has since flexed his muscle on other comic book work, such as Avatar’s Extinction Parade, but before that, he worked with IDW to revisit the characters he loved as a kid… the heroes and villains of GI Joe. Delving beyond the warfare itself, Brooks’ Hearts and Minds tells ten short stories focusing on the eponymous heroes, as well as the villains they stand against: the enigmatic Cobra. Along with artists Howard Chaykin and Antonio Fuso, with colors by Aburtov, Lovern Kindzierski, and Filippo Flores, Max Brooks uses in depth psychology, paired with a deep love for these characters and a desire to understand their humanity, to make their backstories into defining moments that sheds new light on these classic characters.
Howard Chaykin draws the Cobra section of this book, and his art gives these stories an almost unfair advantage. It’s hard not to compare the psychological depth of these stories to the mostly simpler GI Joe tales, and the edge that Chaykin’s powerful, humanizing art gives these darker chapters makes them far more enjoyable. Brooks and Chaykin depict Major Bludd as desperate to cling onto his relevance – his “manhood” – in a world where men are so often left behind; Firefly as a charming, disarming man who sees the flaws in people as similarly exploitable to the flaws in machinery; Interrogator as a genius manipulator who plays on war heroes need to be seen as that – heroes; Dr. Mindbender, a sociopathic scientist who feels that emotions and conscience are shackles, holding back human minds from their divine pursuit… eventually replacing God; and, finally, a story about the Cobra recruits that gives humanity to the faceless legion.
The stories focusing on the GI Joes are drawn by Antonio Fuso. Fuso is good, and his style is a mixture of Mignola’s stylized horror and more traditional superhero art. It doesn’t give the characters as much personality as Chaykin’s work, and the stories are by and large more straight-forward. The best two are the first couple, one which focuses on Spirit, a Native American who lives with a “disorder” (the quotes around it are his own) called Sensory Integration Dysfunction. While normal people are able to focus on select sights, sounds, and smells around them, Spirit is unable to filter out his surroundings, and experiences a sensory overload, where everything is happening at once. It’s fascinating, and it even goes so far as to subvert racist stereotypes the other Joes apply to him. The second focuses on Tripwire, who disassembles bombs fearlessly, feeling no risk… because if he dies, he will be reunited with his beloved, who was killed by a bomb.
The other three focus on Deep Six, who dives undersea and muses on all of the various ways he could die; Doc, who, as a child, was promised by a doctor that his mother would die… and the doctor’s failure to follow through on his promise acted as inspiration for Doc’s empathetic way of dealing with patients; and finally, Blowtorch, who compares civilization at war to prehistoric times, where everyone scrambles for survival… which fuels his belief that there is nothing more human than fire.
Overall, Hearts and Minds is a compelling, subtly moving examination of why GI Joe’s characters continue to captivate American audiences’ hearts and… well, you know.
PAT SHAND writes comics (Family Pets, Robyn Hood, Charmed: Season Ten) and pop culture journalism (Sad Girls Guide, Blastoff Comics). Like every other kid, he spent hours of his childhood using scotch tape to tend to the wounds of his GI Joe action figures.