A great mixture of the quiet moments in a high stakes, action-filled military-fiction in a manner that exceeded all possible expectations.
As a child of the 1980's, I wached, read, and played with G.I. JOE -- in all of its incarnations it is more than a brand name. They were the action figures that were packed up and lugged to every visit to a friend's house; they were cartoons that gave parents a 30-minute silent reprieve, and most significantly one of the tools that instilled my love of reading. I was a collecting G.I.JOE comics before I knew I was collecting comics, and just after Maurice Sendak and along with the likes of Twain, Lovecraft, Stevenson, and Dickens sits writer Larry Hama, who via his Marvel G.I. JOE series provided the foundation to what was among a child's first passions, the fictional bible to my first explorations of imagination.
The name G.I. JOE represents happy holidays, the risk-like battles in backyards, and the formative seeds of a psychotic love for collecting.
So it is easy to imagine that in 2007, being confronted with my first JOE comic in 20 years -- G.I. JOE: America's Elite, at a potentially dubious start-off point of issue #19 -- a review would be forthcoming that would be a slap to my nostalgic sensibilities. Admittedly my expectations didn't deviate much from that very thought -- after all, the cover had Serpentor dominating the background, a mug that for many the ushered the beginnings of lameness of the line that Zartan thankfully put to an end with an arrow during the Cobra Civil War. The premise of America's Elite is that it takes place a year after the original series -- it's not even trying to dodge the impending schmaltz hammer by disassociation.
It turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The first page debriefs us on the aftermath of previous issues; Joe HQ was infiltrated by the Phoenix Guard -- an anti-terrorist, Special Forces unit, and the would-be replacement for G.I. Joe. The attack was just short of a mortal blow to the team's infrastructure; three-dozen dead, an almost total loss of equipment, and a key agent crippled, it is revealed that the attack by the Phoenix Guard was the culmination of a cloak and dagger plot. As it turns out, the Chief of Staff of the United States is none other than Cobra Commander, and the Phoenix Guard houses some of the most elite operatives of his organization (and will have fan boys swooning) -- High Tide, Snake Eater, Mech, Halo, and Friday. Mean nothing to you? When last you saw them, they went by Copperhead, Firefly, Scrap Iron, Wild Weasel, and Zarana.
What one will immediately notice is the gloom-color choice that follows all the plotlines -- it is a day of remorse, and the melancholy serves as the unifying element to the separate threads. The comic explores the personal reflections of those pondering the ramifications of the attack: the inner demons and nightmares of the officer in charge of the attack, a former head of G.I. JOE with ties to the former Cobra Emperor; the current Joe CO seeking solace with the survivor who lost the most in the attacks; a commando/ninja silently questioning his beliefs while his student waits; the first lady of the Joe team reminded of why she fights. What this issue does surprisingly well is convey the frame story -- a large-scale battle against a terrorist organization -- while still presenting clearly defined individual threads concurrently, one of the chief strengths of the original series. The property perhaps sports the most equality one can find in terms of favorite characters from all sides of the battlefield.
But, where is the action? Has G.I. Joe been reduced to a Unit-inspired military-soap opera? A third thread takes readers to the Everglades on a Dreadnok hunt which was perfect for what seemingly was an issue seeming tailor made for me -- an appearance by fan favorite Zartan. The Joes want a word with Zandar, but they are going to have to ask his big brother first. His duplicitous reply serves as the first step to the off-page bridge you will feel a need to traverse in future issues.
This is the first of the two-issue "Emperor's New Clothes" story arc, and I found it to be sure foothold for a longtime fan to come back to, an optimal starting off point that offers a surprisingly palatable modern transition for the franchise that has me looking forward and back, figuratively. The term that comes to me regarding the issue is "effective" – a great mixture of the quiet moments in a high stakes, action-filled military-fiction in a manner that exceeded all possible expectations.