I don’t remember where it came from, or who gave it to me, but when I was four years old I had a copy of G.I. Joe #1. I could read, but had never read a comic book before, and had never read anything like this.
It was over-sized, brightly colored, and simple enough for me to wrap my brain around. There were good guys (The Joes), bad guys (Cobra), and even a robot. I remember reading that comic over and over until I wore it out.
Unfortunately, because I wasn’t familiar with how comics work, I did not realize an important fact: There were more of these. That’s one of the best things about comics: New ones come out every month!
It would be two more years until I saw another comic. For some forgotten reason, I had to come with my father to his work. He, as a gainfully employed man, began to work. I, as an exceptionally weird six year old, began to distract everyone around me. To keep me occupied, my father’s secretary gave me a comic book. Where she got it I have no idea, but she handed me an issue of G.I. Joe #25.
For the rest of the workday, I sat in the uncomfortable chair in the wood-panelled room outside my father’s office and read that comic. As Zartan hunted the Joes through the Everglades, I sat transfixed, enjoying this new comic even more than I did its tattered cousin I had back home.
Because something had changed in the two years between those two issues; For the first few issues of Marvel’s G.I. Joe comic series, it is almost exactly what a cynical person would think: An incredibly simple, jingoistic excuse to advertise toys. But slowly, over the course of the next few years, writer Larry Hama managed to inject the series with a surprising amount of depth.
A verteran of the Vietnam War, Hama was given the job of writing a comic book series based on the “G.I. Joe” toys for one major reason: Nobody else wanted it. Hama had very little experience in comics at the time, and jumped at the chance to write an ongoing series. As he said in a 2009 interview:
“If they had asked me to write Barbie, I would have done that, too.”
As Hama grew more comfortable in his role as a writer, and more secure in his position (due to increasing sales), he began to fill the book with reflections of his own experiences in the military. Issue by issue, the back stories of the characters were filled in, revealing lives spent facing poverty, racism, and even PTSD.
These characters weren’t just action figures, they were people. The reason Snake Eyes wore a mask wasn’t because of some epic ninja duel or battle to the death with a Cobra agent; He wore it because his face was disfigured in a car accident on the way home from Vietnam.
To a young boy in the 1980s, these comics were an incredible revelation. The characters were colorful enough to hold my attention, but their actions were real enough that they taught me about the world around me. Cobra Commander may be a larger than life figure, but readers of the comic series know him for what he really is: The failed former leader of a Multi Level Marketing scheme who has a bad pony tail and a son who hates him.
While the Cold War quietly simmered around me, and Hollywood projected war and violence as exciting and glamorous, Hama made sure to show the consequences of using violence as a solution. In G.I. Joe, people died. Not due to magic, or making a heroic last stand, but because they were shot. One second here, gone the next. One issue I particularly remember was spent at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., and educated me on the conflicting feelings some of the men who fought in that war had about it.
I look back now, as an adult, and have fond nostalgia for a lot of comics of the 1980s. Re-reading them, however, quickly takes the shine off. But I’m delighted to say that Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe series maintains its charm and value to me even today. It taught me many lessons when I was at the perfect age to learn them, and for that I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Larry Hama and G.I. Joe.