Saturday, November 22, 2014

Comic Review -- G.I. Joe (Vol. 4): The Fall of G.I. Joe

After a five-month hiatus, G.I. Joe is back at IDW with G.I. Joe: The Fall of G.I. Joe, written by Karen Traviss, art by Steve Kurth.  I started reading G.I. Joe (Vol. 3) in the wake of the last G.I. Joe movie, the one that starred Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson as Roadblock, and I liked it.  Full disclosure: I don’t usually concern myself over-much with whether or not G.I. Joe makes any sense or is at all realistic.  My girls and I enjoy sitting down occasionally to watch some of the old 80s-era G.I. Joe cartoons onNetflix, and I’ve read several volumes worth of the old Larry Hama comics via Comixology.  None of that stuff is overly serious, but it’s presented in a genuine, rarely cynical action-movie spirit that I can’t help but enjoy.  But.  Traviss was a Naval Reservist and a defense correspondent, and she and IDW both go to some trouble in the new volume’s back matter to let readers know that hers is the “realistic” take on G.I. Joe.  
That’s fine.  If that’s the way they’re playing it, I can certainly play along.

Interestingly, our story opens with Scarlet and General Joe preparing for a Senate subcommittee hearing on G.I. Joe’s funding and operational command structure, which is meant to create a threat to the Joes.  Congress would like to shutter G.I. Joe as an organization, reassign its soldiers to the Regular Army, the CIA, and the NSA according to their operational specialties, and pursue further engagement with Cobra on a non-military basis.  This is possible because—surprisingly—Cobra has gone legit.  What began as “a ruthless terrorist organization determined to take over the world” has morphed to become a publicly-traded peacekeeping and defense contractor with ties to the international energy sector along the lines of Haliburton/KBR/Blackwater.  Things at the hearing don’t go well for Scarlet, to the point where I as a reader am onboard with Congress’s plan to dismantle G.I. Joe and work with Cobra on a commercial basis, and as a result our heroine is left scrambling for a way to hold her unit together.  Enter the mystery man from “Logistical Support”.  Logistical Support is apparently a very special operations group with an undisclosed relationship to the U.S. government, and with their help, G.I. Joe might have a future after all.  Except that Scarlet isn’t sure she can trust these guys.  In an ill-considered bid to retain the Joes’ independence, Scarlet decides to send a team of Joes to assassinate (!!!) a separatist leader in our story’s fictional, nonspecific stand-in version of Eastern Ukraine.  Meanwhile, Cobra is trying to stop further violence, having been hired by the government of fictional Kiev to prevent cessation without bloodshed.  However, a pair of young Cobra hotheads actually supports cessation, leading them to desert in favor of the separatist leader, and suddenly Cobra is scrambling to find its own special operators in-country who can work without traceable ties to the now legitimate Cobra Corporation.  For this purpose, Cobra hires Duke, who’s out on his ass following the events at the close of Volume 3 and therefore working as a freelance mercenary.  Wackiness ensues.
Scarlett's good in a fight, but like many Army officers, she's
not real good in front of a Senate subcommittee.
As of this writing, I’ve read issues 1 and 2 of this series.  I liked them both because they were agreeably complex and because this was a decidedly different take on G.I. Joe, but man, there are some problems.  For example, when you bring up Congress and funding, it raises questions that then apply to every aspect of the story.  How do the guys from Logistical Support have both funding and a mission when G.I. Joe can’t get either?  Especially since Logistical Support is obviously redundant with both G.I. Joe and the CIA’s Covert Operations division.  For that matter, why wouldn’t the government fold Support into G.I. Joe rather than the reverse?  I could buy Logistical Support as a subsidiary of Covert Operations, but the CIA gets name-checked in the book separately, so we know that they’re supposed to be something else.  Ditto for the NSA.  So who the Hell are these guys, and why aren’t they involved in the same Congressional hearings that Scarlet’s attending?  Similarly, I can buy Cobra as an independent entity, but they’re supposed to be a publicly traded company, too.  Where the Hell do they get money?  Armored vehicles are ruinously expensive capital investments, and their fuel is even worse.  The U.S. Government can’t pay for shit here, but somehow Cobra is flush?  I buy it if Cobra has slave laborers, hidden diamond mines, and an agenda of conquest by force of arms.  However, this Cobra has an actual profit motive.  That’s a much tougher sell.  And then, too, there’s a whole section in the back of issue 2 about the “realism” of one of the action scenes, but… really?  Come on, these guys aren’t even wearing helmets!  I mean, the 80s-era G.I. Joe was gloriously ridiculous, but at least those Joes wore steel pots on their heads.  Finally, Scarlet has Flint at her disposal, but instead she deploys Mainframe and one of her other information specialists on a direct-action mission, leaving her best operator to work on his tan while her best information folks are incommunicado.  This makes no sense and is not addressed in any way.
Issue 3 promises more of the
Still, there is still a lot to like here.  I loved that Cobra is not some monolithic organization.  Instead, we see something along the lines of uneasy cooperation between Tomax, who represents Cobra’s legitimate efforts, and the Baroness, who misses the days of blood and broken teeth.  Similarly, Scarlet is in way over her head as the Joes’ commander.  She deploys a team in haste on an ill-conceived mission, and they flounder uselessly as a result.  Meanwhile, Duke—who ought to be leading G.I. Joe—finds the rebel leader in a matter of hours using a simple mix of bribery and operational experience.  He doesn’t realize he’s working for Cobra, nor does it seem like he cares that he might be.  After all, the story makes it clear that G.I. Joe is in the wrong on this one while Cobra is supporting the peace process.  Duke’s mission makes sense to him on moral grounds, and that’s enough.  Sure, he’d like to know more, but in the main, he’s concerned with what the work actually is.  He comes across as a tough, no-nonsense guy, and it works.  One gets the idea that if more Joes were like Duke, Congress wouldn’t be looking to disband the team.  However, G.I. Joe has lost itself, and as a result, the team is headed in some unfortunate directions.
Tomax looks good in a suit.
I also really liked this book’s art.  The pencils in particular are excellent, and the color palette is appropriately muted.  I disliked Volume 3’s tendency to explode with color, but that’s gone now, and the result is a much closer match to the overall tone of the story.  Logically, it seems like G.I. Joe ought to be one of IDW’s cornerstone licensed properties, but the art for Volume 3 didn’t always reflect that.  By contrast, this book looks as good as anything the Big Two are putting out, and that’s a tremendous improvement.  I hope sales warrant this level of continued investment, but I have no idea whether or not that’s likely to be the case.
Volume 3 by Fred Van Lente
definitely had its moments, but
he's writing Conan now over at
Dark Horse, and I think it's a
better fit.
Volume 3 of G.I. Joe was trifurcated into three storylines.  We had the primary title, staring Duke, Cover Girl, Roadblock, Shipwreck, and Hashtag; we had Special Missions, staring Scarlet, a covert team, and the memory of Snake Eyes; and we had The Cobra Files, staring Flint, Lady Jaye, and a few others, mostly as a continuation of the G.I. Joe: Cobra storyline.  I hated Special Missions and thought the art was a train wreck.  I loved The Cobra Files, but calling its art “inconsistent” is being charitable in the extreme.  And I thought the core title, G.I. Joe, had its moments—it certainly had the best art of the three, color palette not withstanding—but it was uneven in terms of storytelling.  There were great issues to be sure, but there were also spots where the plot-points jumped and then smashed together, leaving the main story rushed at all the wrong times.  If I had to guess, I’d say that Volume 3 suffered from a need to weave action into every issue, sometimes to the detriment of the character moments that actually made the story work.  
Volume 4 has a lot going on, but it has so far avoided most of the traps that hurt Volume 3.  There are at least four storylines running concurrently, but so far it doesn’t feel rush so much as simply complicated.  Granted, we’re more than two full issues in without so much as a single round being fired in anger, and even some of the characters are complaining about the lack of action within the story, but I liked it quite a bit.  It is very different, but it’s being told with a purpose, and I feel confident that when it’s time for action, we’ll see action in spades.  What’s good is that because the groundwork is being laid early, once things kick off for real, the twists and turns will have real consequences.
Old School G.I. Joes wore helmets.
Granted, they didn't often buckle their chin-straps.
At least so far, G.I. Joe (Vol. 4): The Fall of G.I. Joe is a political thriller set around a fictionalized version of the war in Eastern Ukraine.  This book boasts terrific art, and if its subject-matter isn’t out of the ordinary for the title itself, the execution is still very different from any brand of G.I. Joe I’ve ever seen.  The book’s ethos shares some DNA withG.I. Joe: The Cobra Files, but this is a book that takes a decidedly wider view, that encompasses the entirety of the G.I. Joe universe.  If you don’t mind a few issues of set-up, then I’ll recommend this new G.I. Joe strongly, but despite the marketing, this is not G.I. Joe as written by Tom Clancy.  It is perhaps a less-goofy take on the story than the core title was in Volume 3, but it’s still not more serious than, say, The Cobra Files was.  If that doesn’t bother you, then you’ll probably like what you see here.  However, you definitely have to take it for what it is.

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