Cartoons Vs. Comics: The Great G.I. Joe and Marvel Double Standard
.....For some 18 years, the pillar of American toylines has been none other than G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. From figures to comic books and cartoons to watches and school supplies, the image of G.I. Joe as a 12" action figure (really a doll) and the guy that Barbie really goes for has shifted to that of, to quote the infamous theme song,
"America's daring, highly trained special mission force. Its purpose: to
defend human freedom from Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to
rule the world." But who is responsible for the success of this most
extraordinary toyline? Some would lead you to believe that it is Larry Hama, the
writer that wrote most of the early filecards (character bios), and virtually
the entire run of the comic.
.....But is this correct? Some, especially myself, think not. In fact, I think Mr. Hama is in fact both a victim and a creator of the greatest sin to ever befall Marvel Comics: the belief that cartoons and toy tie-ins are "below" the level of Marvel's (no longer) talented and powerful corporate umbrella. While many credit the success of the comics to the success of the toys, these people forget the brutal truth behind the comics: without the advertisements for the initial issue of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (which was itself highly integrated with the toy ads that premiered later), the fast success of the comic and toyline would not have been possible.
.....So, you ask, what does this have to do with cartoons? Easy: the advertisements of G.I. Joe on television from 1982 to around 1990 were heavily reliant on animation, by a small firm known as Sunbow Productions, which was then a subsidiary of Griffin-Bacal, Inc., the ad agency (even now) of Hasbro, and under the extremely capable direction of Tom Griffin, Joe Bacal, and to a slightly different extent and capability, Jay Bacal. This firm, which specializes in child research and marketing, did an amazing, if not revolutionary thing: they fully animated the commercials. Nowadays, using stock footage has basically gone the way of the dodo, but in 1982, everyone, even Disney, engaged in this practice. Along with the use of the Asian animation firms for the actual animation, this helped to heavily cut the costs of making cartoons, particularly in the high-risk, low-return realm of television. What Sunbow did was risky, controversial, and expensive. It was also a smashing success, and pushed the G.I. Joe line into a very resounding level of success in its first year.
.....At this time, Marvel themselves was entering the world of animation, with equally successful results. Upon purchasing DePatie-Freleng Animation (makers of the well-known Pink Panther cartoon shorts) and re-christening the company Marvel Productions, Ltd., Marvel raked up quick successes with Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends and The Incredible Hulk, both for NBC. Putting two and two together, the heads of both Marvel and Sunbow decided that a week-long miniseries based on the comic would do just as well, if not even better. Animated in Japan by Toei Animation Company, Ltd. (the Japanese Disney) fully, with no stock footage at all, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was a grand success, and through the introduction of Conrad S. Hauser, codenamed "Duke", to the cast of characters, single-handedly redefined the line. In addition to CBS' (and Marvel's own production) Dungeons & Dragons and Filmation's equally ground-breaking He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, it was obvious that animation was now an extremely profitable and attention-grabbing medium, in addition to one of the few places where intelligent subject matter could be produced and directed at younger audiences.
.....But Marvel Comics wasn't exactly pleased with this, or at least many staffers weren't. Steve Gerber, writer of Marvel's then-successful and then-untainted Howard the Duck, was doing story editing for the cartoon based on the Dungeons & Dragons game, and would eventually recruit, or help recruit, a number of people (including Gerry Conway, who has edited the various Spider-Man titles, as well as G.I. Joe) to work on that show (and in Conway's instance, later shows such as Joe) as writers. The so-called "kiddie" nature of the Spider-Friends and D&D (one of the darkest cartoons of its time) quickly caused the studio's parent to think of Marvel Productions in a less than endearing light (the fact that Marvel ended up owning very little of the company's output didn't help matters much), despite the almost unheard of level of quality in the shows. Even worse, Larry Hama was none too pleased about the end result of the now-legendary "MASS Device" saga (as it has come to be known). In addition to the complete (and absolutely necessary) dissolution of the "Top Secret" status of both Joe and Cobra, Hama's power couple (Scarlett and Snake Eyes) were quickly dissolved in favor of the legendary pairing of Duke and Scarlett. While Scarlett had a rapport with Snake Eyes in the miniseries (and continued to as the series went on), it was clear that Duke and Scarlett were nothing short of perfect for each other. While never fully developed in the series, this relationship would be at the core of G.I. Joe's values, and has inspired fan fiction, shrines, and a host of other tributes to these truly classic animated (and action figure) heroes.
.....This is not to say that Hama had any choice to despise the cartoon; he didn't, really. Once it premiered, the glare upon the comic as "kiddie" fare increased infinitely. The introduction of the Transformers by Hasbro in 1984 (in both comics and animation, nearly simultaneously) only increased the perception at Marvel that the cartoons and the Hasbro-funded comics were pure silliness. Jim Shooter, then editor-in-chief at Marvel, had great faith in Hama, and was never able to get anyone who cared half as much as he did to write for G.I. Joe's sister publication, or for any of the other tie-in based comics that were part of the Star Comics line. He knew the potential of both animation and tie-ins, and was proven right when G.I. Joe and The Transformers spent time at the top of Marvel's sales charts. However, the infamous appearance of Spider-Man, Nick Fury, Ka-Zar's Savage Land (a world traveled to, no less, by Steve Gerber's imagination), and other Marvel Comics icons in early issues of The Transformers caused a huge uproar and caused those appearances to be stricken from the continuity. Once the Joe cartoon began production, the "kiddie" label was attached to the entire line forever, despite very biting and deep parodies of network television, the record industry, politicians, and the technology that the cartoon embraced and glamorized daily. And as the continuities diverged greatly (Cover Girl, Shipwreck, Alpine, Bazooka, Airtight, Spirit, Mutt, and many others are known primarily due to the cartoon), the comparisons began. As the comic became more serious, including its long-term (and fatal) association with ninjas, the cartoon became more outrageous and the adventures and romance more prevalent. The creator was losing his creations, and his ability to maintain respect in a crowded and highly prosperous market.
.....By 1987, Jim Shooter left Marvel and all hell broke loose with the Marvel/Sunbow/Hasbro relationship. While both G.I. Joe and The Transformers were still successes as comic books (financially, at least), the Star Comics line (introduced in 1986 in one of Marvel's 25th Anniversary moves to shake up the industry) was a failure, and the new Marvel regime left Sunbow out in the cold letting their faces rust as Hasbro dumped the expensive (but wildly popular) productions and signed a very lucrative deal with DIC. The Transformers were on life support after the movie crashed and burned at the box office, and the My Little Pony, Jem, and G.I. Joe cartoons also got the shaft, with Joe getting continued by DIC in the most insipid manner possible. The G.I. Joe toyline fell apart as did the cartoon, and Larry Hama's writing struggled to keep up (especially as he landed the job writing the Wolverine comic, to extreme praise) as he relied more and more on the staggering ninja craze that some argue was started by him, if not by the Eastman and Laird duo who created Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
.....This still doesn't justify the crude remarks made in the letters pages about the cartoon, many of which I'm told come directly from the mouth of Hama himself. Steve Gerber, among others, continually credit Larry Hama for creating the characters in various interviews, both then and now. It's very well known that one of Hama's least favorite characters is none other than Duke himself, who to many is far more synonymous with G.I. Joe than Snake Eyes will ever be. His two scripts (which have never seen the light of day, even on the Internet) for the cartoon were rejected flatly. Why? Who knows. Hama has claimed that he was not "safe" enough for TV, which is, to quote John Belushi in Animal House, "Bullshit!" The writers of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero were daring, intelligent, and most importantly, largely culled from the ranks of various comic book companies, including Marvel. Steve Gerber especially looks for daring writers, and quit work on Dungeons & Dragons (and nearly the animation industry itself) due to the constant struggles to be daring (read: intelligent) on the Saturday morning network cartoons. Looking at the writers involved with Joe, you see Paul Dini (the story editor/producer of the recent rash of highly-acclaimed Batman cartoons), Christy Marx (the woman who created for Hasbro virtually every aspect of Jem), Buzz Dixon (the mind behind many an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, as well as the bold and controversial second season of G.I. Joe), Marv Wolfman (one of the great comic writers of the 70s and 80s), among other great talents. It took Ron Freidman five episodes of "The Revenge of Cobra" to do what Larry Hama took two years: build the Lady Jaye/Flint romance (which shares with the Duke/Scarlett pairing the prestigious honor of being viewed as the center of the series). To call the writers of G.I. Joe anything but daring and talented is a supreme insult to those writers, and is one very bad joke.
.....Despite the quality of writers in the Marvel/Sunbow corps, as well as the overwhelming success of Rhino's absolutely excellent releases of the cartoon (which has included the first American releases of such classic episodes as "Worlds Without End", "The Traitor", "Cold Slither", and "Twenty Questions" to video), Larry Hama's G.I. Joe vision is far more respected by the online community (already fractured because of the huge differences between the 12" and 3 3/4" versions of Joe), so much so that the figure re-releases of 1997 and 1998 frequently paraphrased events from the comic's continuity (one of the reasons for my avoidance of many of the figures from that period). The releases from 2000 on haven't been that much better (particularly since Hama is back writing the bios for the figures). Characters like Dusty and Dial-Tone (who were featured far more on television than in the comic) were good news for cartoon fans, but I seriously doubt that the next version of Gung Ho will come with a XMLR-3 laser rifle (the rifle used in the action figures that was the basis for the Joes' primary weapon on the cartoon) named "Baby" any time soon (nor should he, seeing as how the best filecards were happily neutral in terms of continuity). But why not? What is so wrong about the 95 episode (not counting the direct-to-video film) series that makes it the target of a lot of elitist comic book fans? Based on my assessment of their arguments, it seems that the following reasons (all which I shall discuss) are why the comic is the "real" G.I. Joe continuity:
The comic is more complex: Well, DUH. It's a comic book. Regardless of the comic part, the "book" connotation implies a storytelling style much like that of a book-which is driven by text. Even further, until the recent lionization of Japanese animation (which is part of the reason why I started this site), continuous, saga-type cartoons have been extremely rare (read: I've never seen one in the States before Dragonball Z. Have you?). Comic books, however, have been using this format since the beginning of the medium.
Result: Don't blame the show, blame the medium.
Result: Maturity is one of the weakest arguments in creative fiction today (as it is currently used). Weak arguments end up as great losses in the long run.
Result: Don't knock it until you've tried it. Dismissing the animated exploits of the Joes is just as foolish as the similar dismissal of the comic by many Marvel Comics staffers back in the 80s.
Result: We got lucky, kids. But that isn't to say that the concept wasn't flawed (although the biggest critics seem to be either comic fans, or those who'd appreciate some realism in Joe). But I'll take Cobra-La over ninjas any day.....
Result: I still don't get this one. I thought that Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow were better in the cartoon.....
Result: Push. The cartoon and comic versions of Cobra Commander are, excluding origin, too far intertwined in how they were written to really distinguish either one, and both provide excellent depth to their respective series.
As you can see, there are quite a few arguments about the cartoon (and I probably missed some, too). Oh, well. My only point is not to dismiss the comic as complete rubbish (although the last half of the run rivals DIC for its inanity), but to just try and validate the run to the "other" set of Joe fans. Just because I don't like the comic, it doesn't mean that someone doesn't. Besides, I only have one continuity in my mind because it's easier, and because I hate THOSE FUCKING NINJAS!!! (Sorry.) I'm just here to promote some cartoons. ;) (Hell, I've borrowed from comic continuity to flesh out that first year or so of the Joe team before Duke in my fanfics.) I hope I did just that, as well as caused a certain comic book writer (*cough*Larry Hama*cough*) to take a full, and much fairer, look at one of animation's finest shows: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.
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