Marvel published the 155th issue of GI Joe: A Real American Hero in December of 1994. Almost two decades later, IDW Publishing, which had long-since established its own Joe continuity separate from Marvel’s tales, invited original series writer Larry Hama to pick up where he left off in July 2010 with the release of GI Joe: A Real American Hero #156. Continuing up with the old numbering is a fascinating choice, standing in harsh opposition to the constant renumbering Joe’s former publisher uses for its titles. Beyond that, it speaks to the overall feel of the book. IDW’s marketing for the title has it right: “The 80s live on” in this new series, which feels very, very much – from the style of the writing down to the way the Agustin Padilla, the artist, draws muscles – like the sixteen years that passed since 1994… well, didn’t.
Now, gotta put this out there… I never read the original GI Joe comics. I collected the toys like any self-respecting kid with access to a Toys R Us, but I didn’t watch the cartoon or read the comic. I remember building my own stories with the action figures, never really knowing who was who or what they were fighting for. My first real GI Joe comic was Max Brooks’ Hearts & Minds, which I wrote about for my last Blastoff piece. Hama’s A Real American Hero couldn’t be more different, though Brooks made it clear in his introduction how reverent he is to “Sensei” Hama’s material. Where Hearts & Minds reveals character, motivation, and psychology, A Real American Hero focuses on both heightened action as well as the more plot-driven conflicts between the forces of GI Joe and COBRA.
I jumped headfirst into #156, which throws us right into the action and doesn’t let up for one minute. Again, in contrast to Hearts & Minds, which gave us intriguing situations while allowing us to stare into the darkest depths of Joe’s heroes and villains, A Real American Hero isn’t interested in giving readers a pause to catch their bearings, or really to think about the characters. It assumes we know the basics – and then it pulls the rug out from under the little that we do know, establishing that COBRA have been enlisted by the United States government to protect America, which has been the target of terrorist attacks of late. The issue’s second shocker is the reveal that the GI Joes have been designated as terrorists themselves.
Duke, the leader character here, begins to spread word to the remaining Joes that they are to meet at a rally point. Breakneck action follows as Duke tries to reassemble the team, climaxing when he finds Snake-Eyes, who is fighting off a trio of ninjas. As a series of action sequences, it works well, as the combat is thrilling and the art is a reminiscent of 90s action. There’s also a clever scene with Roadblock, who stops preparing his meal long enough to ward off some incoming COBRA agents with his cleaver. Nostalgia is the goal here, so it makes sense that this isn’t as much of a jumping on point as a comic book revival of a canceled title would usually be. New readers would be better off with something like Hearts & Minds, and perhaps IDW’s own continuity. However, readers of A Real American Hero, who know these characters well, will have a lot to enjoy, and an intriguing set-up for the continued conflicts between GI Joe and COBRA.
PAT SHAND writes comics (Family Pets, Robyn Hood, Charmed: Season Ten) and pop culture journalism. He’s been telling stories since he was a young, pitting his GI Joe action figures against Scar and the hyenas, as a horde of Creepy Crawlies flows out from the Technodrome in the distance. This was when he was, like, seven or something – totally not last night.