...reading comics from the year i was born!
G.I. Joe Special Missions #3-6 (Marvel)
by Larry Hama, Herb Trimpe, Bob Sharen, George Roussos, Phil Felix, Joe Rosen
There’s not a lot of subtlety in 'G.I. Joe Special Missions'. The dialogue is clunky, with characters naming each other when it does not feel natural, describing at length the various high-tech weapons and machines at their disposal, and explaining the past and present circumstances surrounding their missions in a weirdly expository fashion. Pretty much everyone has the same voice, and it’s not a very interesting one, always either wholly factual or awkwardly angry. This lack of personality also makes the stakes feel low, and thus detracts from the action scenes, because there’s no suspense created when the reader isn't invested in the cast. Yet even with this stale writing, the comic does a few things quite well. First of all, it tells self-contained stories in every issue, and does so without needing to rush through them or compress them too greatly. Even better, every story has an actual moral underlying it (a point to make about war, violence, friendship, etc.), and despite the heavy-handed nature of the dialogue, these underlying messages are delivered more skillfully. We’re not hammered with the morals in an obvious after school special style that makes them less effective. Instead, they exist beneath the surface of the narratives, there for the reader to find but not forcefully or distractingly calling attention to themselves.
The morals I referenced above are not all that original, but that doesn't make them valueless. There’s a story about loyalty, where a supposed friend first betrays the Joes and then sacrifices himself to save them. Along similar lines, one issue demonstrates the dangers of arrogance, when a villain who abuses and under-appreciates the rest of his crew pays the ultimate price for his asshole attitude. Where a lot of war fiction explores the unique brand of camaraderie and trust that combat creates between people, 'G.I. Joe Special Missions' is about more broadly applicable ideas. Everyone should look out for their friends, everyone should respect the people they work with, and no one should let their egos over-inflate to the point of hubris. These topics could be and have been discussed in many genres, but by looking at them through the lens of the military, Hama is able to cut to the chase with worst-case scenarios. The common, very human flaws and mistakes of these characters don’t just spoil their relationships, they get them rather quickly killed in horrible ways.
Eventually, a gang of river pirates kidnaps the Joes and all of their opponents. The pirates’ leader, Sarawak Sally, then forces them to battle each other in one-on-one fights to the death. At first, even this is not enough to make Lifeline participate in the violence, and he protests right up until one of the baddies gets inches away from landing a blow. Suddenly and surprisingly, Lifeline throws his attacker through the air, revealing that, though he doesn't believe in harming others, he’s a master of the all-defensive martial art known as aikido. He handily defeats the man assigned to fight him, and Sally says that Lifeline and his friends are free to go with the black boxes, but that their enemies will be killed. Unwilling to leave a bunch of defenseless people behind so they can be executed, Lifeline offers Sally an alternative: let everybody go free, and keep the black boxes for herself. She accepts, and while technically he fails the mission, Lifeline totally saves the day.
Last but not at all least is that Herb Trimpe’s artwork is at it's best here, in no small part due to the jungle setting of much of the story. He does good, dense backgrounds, and some amazing examples of wildlife, most notably the remarkably lifelike tiger. It looks almost human, which makes Lifeline’s intervention on its behalf all the more satisfying. Trimpe also has a lot of fun with the designs of the river pirates; they’re all barely clothed, the men and women alike, and they make quite the flashy entrance when they show up in their bizarre wooden sailboats with huge mounted guns. Sally has a wild rage about her that sets her apart from every other character, and makes her an impressive and intimidating leader. Lifeline, too, has a very distinct look, dressed in all red, wearing a helmet and goggles, and generally not fitting in with the other members of his team. He’s the odd man out in the narrative, and that is reflected in the art.
Unfortunately, Trimpe doesn’t get everything right. When Lifeline is tossing around the guy he has to fight, for example, all of their poses are wildly unnatural. But even if it’s not intentional, this scene acts as effective comic relief, and in truth the whole issue is visually sillier than usual. The comedic tone helps the wobbly writing—because the art doesn't feel too serious, it’s easier to accept the overly simplistic scripting. So while he has a rough spot here or there, Trimpe provides solid work on the whole, and even his mistakes do some amount of good.