After the death of Cobra Commander, the world’s largest snake-themed terrorist organization is at a crossroads. To avoid a civil war, a contest between many of the group’s top agents is arranged to name a new leader. Who will win this perilous challenge – and is it any good?
G.I. Joe: The IDW Collection Volume 7 TPB (IDW)
For those of us who really only know G.I. Joe from the old Sunbeam or DIC cartoon shows of the 80s, the story of the world’s most elite fighting force and their rival organization, Cobra, was a relatively simple tale of good vs. evil. Freedom vs. terrorism. Blue lazers vs. red lazers. The show was kind of light, with the bad guys launching ridiculous plans including weather machines or fake alien invasions, and the good guys always thwarting these plans in a way that taught viewers life lessons about why it’s important not to hide in refrigerator boxes or why you shouldn’t be a baby because you’ve got a bloody nose.
What we didn’t realize, however, is that in the world of comics, G.I. Joe took on a much more serious tone. As one might expect in a series following a military force, soldiers die, civilians die, adult relationships are formed and shattered and – though it certainly ignored a lot of the more serious side effects that this kind of lifestyle can bring on (PTSD, for example) – essentially told a relatively adult story. The work of Larry Hama, in particular, helped define a lot of the lore of the series, and jesus is there a lot.
Over the past decade or two, however, as the publishing rights for G.I. Joe shifted from company to company a lot of this history was lost, retconned and reworked, so that long time followers were just as lost as first time readers. It’s a bit like starting Game of Thrones in the middle of season 4 – it’s still enjoyable but you’re missing so much of the story that it’s hard to get on board.
With Volume 7 of the IDW Collection Trade (which collects issues 5-8 of G.I. Joe, X-Y of Cobra, and 5-8 of Snake Eyes) takes us through the tail end of what, overall, is a pretty interesting story. At the climax of IDW’s original G.I. Joe series, a deep cover agent within Cobra set off a nuclear explosion that took out only an enemy base and untold numbers of hostile combatants (including notable cartoon baddies like Xamot, though not his twin brother Tomax), it also took the life of Cobra Commander, the unrivaled leader of the organization. In this power vacuum, the council that assumed control of Cobra set forth a competition between a group of the organization’s top field commanders – including notable names like Serpentor, Major Bludd and the Baroness, among others. These code-named cads and their callow cadres compete by causing the most cacophonous and catastrophic acts they can create, with the council carefully considering how each act benefits the organization as a whole. (Sorry, had to get that alliteration out of my system).
As the trade begins we’re already neck-deep in the civil war. Through several rounds of actions, the competitors for the crown (sorry, sorry) have been whittled down to only a few. The G.I. Joe’s main base of operations (the Pit) has been destroyed, a strange insanity plague (ala 28 Days Later) is devastating parts of Africa, and the Joe’s operations are constantly being hampered by a viper in their nest. We essentially follow three stories over the course of the trade: mute ninja Snake Eyes and ostensible team leader (and basis for the original Joe doll in the 70s) Duke’s attempt to track down the man behind the insanity plague; Cobra sleeper agent Steeler’s attempt to undermine the Joes while concealing his true motives and actions; a recon team headed by Flynt’s search for a secure base from which to operate. These storylines are framed by scenes of the Baronness, Major Bludd and other Cobra operatives in the competition sniping at each other while playing coy of their plans.
Unfortunately, while I really did enjoy the trade, it’s hard to shake the feeling that a lot of the coolest shit in this storyline already happened (or is about to come). Individually, each of the major story seems to scratch a different itch. Steeler’s story give us the militaristic thriller angle, Duke and Snake’s murder quest is essentially a buddy cop/Butch and Sundance-style road trip, and Flint’s ensemble piece speaks more to fans of the cartoon who just want to see some of their old favorites get some shine. There is also a brief aside featuring General Hawk, Shipwreck and a couple of other favorite attempting to re-purpose an old Cobra submarine (which in true series fashion is the size of an aircraft carrier) as new, mobile base of operations, but that ends as stupidly as you’d imagine when it turns out Cobra still remotely controlled this vessel. Naturally they sank it and killed dozens of no-name Joes offscreen.
It should be noted that the series is not shy about violence and death to the lesser known characters. While it does at times increase the drama and tension when people I’ve heard of like Sneak Peak or Breaker are killed, at a certain point they might as well be naming these characters Red Shirt or Long Gone since most of the dead are undeveloped and insignificant.
As one might expect of a trade that collects across multiple series, the artwork and story telling is not always consistent. The first featured issue of Snake Eyes, in particular, features relatively weak pencils by Alberto Muriel, who seems to struggle with drawing human faces – the silver lining being that his protagonist and most of the accompanying villains wear masks. That being said, I really enjoyed the stylized artwork of Werther Dell’edera and Antonio Fuso on the Cobra series.
As for the writing, all the stories come through well and the dialogue rarely feels hokey (despite the “bro” heavy moments, which feel less like common military vernacular and more like lazy scripting). As with the art, my highest praise has to go with the Cobra series (not just because those characters are the most developed and interesting) as Mike Costa’s plots never drag, his noir-style internal monologues never seem too heavy on exposition and his story actually moves.
All in all, the IDW collection is a good read, though it feels like only part of a much larger story. I finished the book hoping to go back and read earlier editions – which isn’t a bad thing at all, mind you, but as a stand alone trade on a shelf, I’d probably suggest trying to follow the story from the beginning.