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What I Learned from Reading Every Single GI Joe Comic

I just read every single GI Joe comic. Well, the ones Larry Hama wrote anyway.

To catch you up, Larry Hama was a Vietnam veteran who had just began to work at Marvel Comics where he pitched a SHIELD series in order to draw upon his military background. He was turned down, but offered GI Joe as a consolation, a job that was considered the kiss of death, as no writer wanted to write a comic that was associated with a toy line.

At the time, FCC rules prohibited children’s programs from advertising their own brand of toys, so Hasbro instead advertised the G.I. Joe comic — to fantastic results. Hama’s comic–GI Joe: A Real American Hero–was wildly successful, appearing at the top of 80s comic sales charts, sometimes even outselling The Amazing Spider-Man or Claremont’s X-Men!

The comic was praised for its attention to detail and realism in the area of military tactics and procedures, this due to Hama’s military experience.

But it was the soap-opera(y) nature of the book and the fact that the Joes were written as a family that ultimately made the comic such a beloved read. Hama didn’t write the Joes as soldiers, he wrote them as people.

The comic also had moments of incredible artistry, such as G.I. Joe #21, titled “Silent Interlude”, which was told entirely without words. There were also spin-off titles such as GI Joe: Special Missions.

There were stretches in the Marvel run where there was nothing better.

The comic lasted throughout the 80s and even into the 90s. Marvel cancelled it at issue 155, giving it a remarkable run. Various other companies like Devil’s Due and Image had the GI Joe license for a while, but a remarkable thing happened. IDW Comics got the license in the 00s and brought back Larry Hama to continue his story!

Starting with issue 155 1/2, Hama picked up where he left off with his Marvel run. The IDW run is now into the 260s and it is these 300(ish) comics I read for this article (I also included Hama’s Special Missions comics.)

What did I learn?

Larry Hama is vastly underrated. Creator-owned comics are glamorized and superhero comics are prioritized, so its understandable that folks overlook a writer like Larry Hama, as he has spent the bulk of his career writing stores about a toy line. But it’s a darned shame.

Company men like Hama get unjustly maligned as being uncreative. This couldn’t be further from the truth. He had to thread the needle of providing strong stories while introducing toys, even as he balanced militarily-believable satires that also stretched into sci-fi.

And he did it beautifully.

Comics have changed throughout the decades. Reading a single story that has stretched across several decades allowed me to get a feel for how the comic industry has changed.

I began reading comics in the 80s, so that has a nostalgic feel for me. Those stories were heavy with dialogue and inter-personal drama. But there was also an absolute wholesomeness to them. It’s as if the famous GI Joe cartoon PSAs were done without a hint of irony.

The 90s were absurd. Superhero comics were leaning into foil covers, big guns, extreme characters, and millions of pouches, and GI Joe comics were editorially driven in that direction as well. The vehicle colors became more garish, storylines were marketed as more “extreme,” and characters were rebranded to be hip and trendy.

I can’t always tell what is going on the in 2000s with decompressed storytelling. Hama, beginning his career in the 70s, doesn’t always hew to this. His stories still zip along but the comics have the more realistic art style that is marketable today.

Some runs stand out more than others. As a result of traversing hundreds of issues spanning decades, there are some peaks and valleys. The original Marvel run didn’t click until issue 11, but it didn’t get to be high octane until issue 21, the Silent Issue.

Then the 30s-50s of the GI Joe Marvel run is among the absolute best across all comics. In fact, there other moments of brilliance up until issue 110, but when the comic hit the 1990s, it was rough in most patches.

Issue 155 1/2 is actually a solid jumping on point. This begins the IDW run and even though it is still Hama on the book, the time jump helped modernize it.

The IDW run starts at issue #155 1/2 and picks up where the Marvel run left off.

It’s even better than before in many ways! No new toys are being introduced, so Hama is no longer forced by Hasbro to ham-fist the latest toy release into the pages of the comic. In fact, beloved characters like Scarlett and Firefly have been returned to their original looks, as Hama chose to cast off the 2.0 and 3.0 versions of the characters that were produced when the toy line was in the garishly neon of the 90s.

And Hama has balanced the military action with the wild sci-fi shenanigans of Cobra even better than ever. Let’s look at IDW issue 261 for example. It’s approximately 100 issues after the Marvel run and it contains two major storylines.

First is Cover Girl, Dusty, Repeater, Leatherneck, and Muskrat joining with Ripcord, Heavy Duty, and Airborne as they exfiltrate relief workers who are being pursued by hostiles. The second story is Destro and my dear Baroness battling an out-of-control A.I.

One is kooky science fiction and the other is grounded action, but Hama balances them both perfectly. And did you see those Joes listed above? Old favorites are included but under-appreciated Joes are given space to shine as well.

Hama can lean on old tropes and storylines at times (I never want another story involving Dr. Venom Mindbender’s brainwave scanner), but that’s understandable after decades of stories. And it pales in comparison to how fun the comic still is after all these years.

There is strong community support. There is a big GI Joe community on Twitter and YouTube, despite there being no toys on the shelves and the movies being duds. For example, Talking Joes podcast is one place to connect with follow GI Joe comic readers and the Michael Mercy YouTube channel is great to get a look art the old toys.

The issues can be difficult to track down if you like the dead trees version but if you are an Amazon Prime member, digital will rescue you. Amazon owns ComiXology, a digital comics service, and if you are a Prime member you are able to borrow lots of comics.

I was able to read approximately 85% of all the Larry Hama GI Joe comics for free by borrowing them through Comixology. Search “GI Joe classics,” look for volume 1 (which begins the Marvel #1 from the 80s), and click ‘Borrow.’ I paid for the Special Missions trades and it gets a little tricky when it shifts to IDW, but I trust your Google-Fu powers.

Hama didn’t shy away from the realities of war but he’s always humane.

Nerds, I had the time of my life reading those Larry Hama GI Joes comics! Nostalgia was strong with the Marvel run and it brought back wonderful memories. I was also reminded just how good so many of those comics were. They deserved to be the best-sellers they were.

And I’ve loved the IDW run so much that I added them to my pull list at my shop. Oh, I didn’t mention that? Yeah, they are current. I get to read GI Joe every month written by the legendary Larry Hama. You can too.

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