Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review: G.I. Joe - A Real American Hero! Annual#1

Oh, for goodness sake... I'm a grown man! A grown man about to start talking about a comic book based on an old action figure! And yet, is G.I. Joe necessarily more shameful than the super hero genre? Nostalgia, continuity, aging fanbase... no, probably not.

I did play with G.I. Joe toys in my youth. Although I grew out of them, my fascination with Marvel's G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero! persisted, thanks to the strong writing by Larry Hama, who seems to have done more for the franchise than any other individual. Hama draws from his own military career to give the outrageous world of G.I. Joe some plausbility; at the same time, he has a wild sense of humour which allowed him to embrace some of the more ridiculous aspects of the franchise and offer commentary on the world around him. A couple of years ago, IDW revived the series with Hama as its author, picking up directly from where the Marvel continuity ended 15 years earlier. Just he once commented on Reagan & Bush's USA, now Hama lives in Obama's USA; which brings us to G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero! Annual#1...

Our antagonist for this self-contained story is Ted Bergendorf, a Crimson Guardsman, one of Cobra's undercover operatives. After losing his day job at a factory because of the depressed economy, he becomes infuriated, laying the blame on immigrants (and Washington DC, of course). Pulling out his Cobra-issued credit card, he buys up some explosives then calls in his local Cobra buddies, declaring they'll launch their own unapproved terrorist attack! Cobra isn't pleased to have lost control over their agents (Cobra Commander is famously a terrorist who made his fortune through pyramid schemes - he hates being taken advantage of!), so Zartan and his Dreadnoks are sent to silence the rogue Guardsmen. Similarly, Scarlett, Gung-Ho, Mutt & Junkyard have been monitoring the situation and settle in to help stop the attack.

Art comes by way of some Marvel Comics veterans: Ron Frenz, Ron Wagner, Herb Trimpe and inker Sal Buscema. Frenz draws mainly the Crimson Guardsmen pages, while Wagner & Trimpe deal with most of the other pages, so the different styles are used to some advantage. Wagner & Trimpe have contributed to IDW's G.I. Joe before, but it feels a little odd to see Frenz & Buscema here; even though both men have worked for multiple publishers, they both honed their talents at Marvel, developing the "Marvel look." But with no monthly assignments now that their Spider-Girl is cancelled, they're back on the marketplace. If you've spent your whole career excelling at being a "Marvel look" artist, how do you find non-Marvel assignments? I suppose an ex-Marvel property like G.I. Joe is a pretty good place to start! There is one page where Mutt's mustache mysteriously vanishes, but otherwise it's a solid package; I love Frenz's take on the bulky Ted Bergendorf, who looks really off-model next to the typical Cobra troopers.

The climax takes place at an amusement park, the scene of the Crimson Guardsmen's attack; this leads to a familiar trope from Hama's stories where the Cobras and Joes wind up fighting in a public place where onlookers doubt the reality of what they're seeing (here, they assume the Cobras and Joes are performers, something the Crimson Guardsmen were actually banking on). It's both humourous and pathetic - Bergendorf's great plan is to destroy a small-scale mock-up of Ellis Island; even if he succeeded, that's not the same as destroying an actual US landmark!

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero! Annual#1 runs only 40 pages of story (about double a normal issue's size), yet costs $7.99 (double a normal issue's cost). Part of the cost is probably due to the "prestige" package - a heavy cardstock cover and thick spine instead of stapled binding. It's a lot to ask for a such a small package and I did consider leaving this annual on the shelf... but seeing a Tea Party-esque take on Cobra with Ron Frenz art sealed the deal!

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