Thursday, May 14, 2009

"That was pretty ninja"

Or G.I. Joe : the Silent Stories

Though it looks bad, and I mean really really bad, like "Team America" without the gags, like "Street Fighter" without Kylie or Jean Claude Van Damme, like the ultimate big fascist American Imperialist blockbuster for adolescent boys, and though it's trailer is loaded with awful CGI sequences that look interminable already, even in bite-sized trailer form, and though its biggest stars are Denis Quaid and Christopher Eccleston and it is plainly opting for the pretty and empty approach with the likes of Channing Tatum and Sienna Miler in the bigger roles, and though it has that generic steely-grey palette every action spectacle seems contractually obliged to have in the late noughties, crushing all hope of beauty or cinematic transcendence through style, and though it has been directed by Stephen "Van Helsing" Sommers and halfway through that agonisingly terrible piece of trash I promised myself I would never watch another of his films, and though I know I will be twitching with irritation and impatience within ten minutes of it starting and will emerge from the cinema with a headache and a bad taste in my mouth, perhaps the taste of corporate America, feeling used and stupid and old, despite all this, I will be seeing "G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra" this summer.

The reason for this, like so many things, is rooted in my past.
For me, and for thousands of Irish and British men around my age, "G.I. Joe" is really called "Action Force." The term "G.I. Joe" has a cultural resonance in the U.S., but in Europe it's WW2 derived jingoism sounds almost silly and thoroughly irrelevant. "Action Force", designed to capitalise on the market for the earlier line of toys from Pallitoy (which used some of the licensed American G.I. Joe casts, often repainted and renamed) obviously evokes "Action Man", a name with its own cultural weight in the UK. That earlier Action Force had been a range of toys from the makers of Action Man, hoping to steal some of the market which the Star Wars toy industry (with its smaller, cheaper, more easily collectable figures) had gobbled up. The semi-classic IPC War comic "Battle" (most celebrated as home to "Charley's War") became "Battle Action Force", featuring new stories about these Action Force teams against their arch enemies The Red Shadows, led by Baron Ironblood. That entire series can be read online at this fantastic website , and is definitely worth a look for anyone nostalgic for that era or with an interest in the UK comics industry.

When Hasbro decided to step into the UK market with G.I Joe, the usage of some of their licenses in Action Force gave them an easy way in. Battle Action Force had already introduced some of the "new" characters to UK fans when Baron Ironblood assumed a new identity - Cobra Commander - and created a new organisation - Cobra. Key characters like Destro and Storm Shadow were already familiar to boys in the UK. Soon after, Marvel UK launched its own "Action Force International Heroes" title, featuring, in the style of their "Transformers" weekly, a mixture of stories produced in the UK by European creators, and reprints of Marvel US "G.I. Joe" stories.*

I was there from the start. I liked more or less all UK boys comics, from "2000AD" and "Eagle" through "Warlord" to "Roy of the Rovers". So I was reading Battle before it became Battle Action Force, and I stuck with it and also bought the Marvel UK title once it launched in 1986. I also had a couple of issues of the US "GI Joe", so I felt a bit ahead of the game in my understanding of what was going on. Until it merged with "Transformers" at issue 50 (and even after that, actually), "Action Force" was on order for me at my local Newsagents, and I loved it.

Its premise is almost insultingly simple, and obviously the brainchild of a Toy executive. Military Organisation of good guys with various different skills and specialities versus Military Organisation of bad guys bent on World domination. Meaning lots of different figures, vehicles and weapons. Marvel had done well with a couple of Toy licenses in the past, most notably "Micronauts" (remembered chiefly for Michael Golden's great artwork) and "ROM", both of which outlasted the toys upon which they were based in the US. But nobody wanted to write something as seemingly one-dimensional as "G.I. Joe" and so the relatively unknown Larry Hama was given a shot, based mainly on a series he had proposed about a Special Operations Unit of SHIELD. Hama would make a success of the title, and then some. "GI Joe" would run for 155 issues over twelve years, spawn several spin off mini-series, and is still a fixture in Comic Shops today, where the characters and concepts given life by Hama are the ones being used in various series of "GI Joe" from other Comics Publishers. The forthcoming movie is also obviously heavily based on Hama's work.

Key to this success was the use of Ninjas. When I was a kid, Ninjas were an elusive presence in popular culture. They were briefly featured in "You Only Live Twice" and bad films like the "American Ninja" series were VHS rental staples in the 80s, but these felt like less than satisfactory Ninja experiences. Martial arts films were harder to procure back then, and Ninjas hadn't quite gone mainstream in the way they have in modern culture. Their appearances in Frank Miller's "Daredevil" were incredibly thrilling to me, who knew what they were, what they looked like, but never found enough of them anywhere. This is probably down to the fact that Chinese Martial arts films dominated in that particular sector, with Japanese lagging significantly behind (the first time I even heard of Sonny Chiba was in a Tarantino interview). Miller's use would be crucial in the breakthrough of the cult of the Ninja in Western pop culture after it had been parodied in Eastman and Laird's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles". Once Ninjas were on children's cartoons, it was safe for them to be anywhere. Nowadays they show up in Tom Cruise films, and its no big deal.

Hama, perhaps down to his Japanese roots, was ahead of the game here. The G.I. Joe line-up featured one outright Ninja, Storm Shadow, a white-clad villain, and also Snake Eyes, a black-clad "commando" in the employ of the good guys. Hama made Snake Eyes a Ninja-commando, and the success of this move meant that the classic second Snake Eyes action figure came with a massive Sword as well as an Uzi (and his pet timber wolf, a must have for any discerning Ninja Commando). He also concentrated on the Snake Eyes-Storm Shadow angle in the comic's larger arcs, and the fans responded. The two characters were given a shared origin, involving a traumatic Long Range Recon Patrol in Vietnam and a shared Ninja Master in the Hard Master of the Arashikage clan.

Storm Shadow is visually a classical ninja, only dressed in white rather than black. Armed with a bow and two swords, he has the usual mastery of hand to hand combat. Snake Eyes, unusually for a hero, is far more interesting - left hideously scarred and mute by a helicopter crash, his love for fellow Joe Scarlett was one of the only examples of romance in the entire series (the other being the steamy affair conducted - behind Cobra Commander's back, I might add - by king of cool Destro and PG dominatrix the Baroness). He mixed ninja skills - martial arts and swordplay - with use of grenades and machine pistols. One of the ways Hama showed his preference for these characters was in the famous "silent stories". The first is the classic G.I. Joe Issue 21, "Silent Interlude".

Marvel didn't really put much effort into "G.I Joe." Hama, once proven to be competent, was left to do what he pleased, as long as Hasbro was happy. The book sold to its ready-made audience of "G.I. Joe" fans and young boys, and it almost didn't matter if the comic was any good or not. So the title never had any hot artists ( though Michael Golden would do brilliant work on a spin off sister title later on) and instead was usually drawn by slumming old-timers or in-house hacks like Don Perlin, Herb Trimpe, Mike Vosburg and Frank Springer. On "Silent Interlude", Hama himself did layouts while Steve Leialoha finished. The result is a fantastic piece of comic book storytelling - well-paced, economical and exciting. The story follows Snake Eyes' attempt to free Scarlett from a Cobra installation in the Balkans and his encounter with a group of Ninja Warriors there, led by Storm Shadow. There is not a line of dialogue, everything told through action, expression and nuance. Snake Eyes fights each of the Ninjas in turn, before finally saving Scarlett from a sword flung by Storm Shadow. Audaciously, though this was Storm Shadow's debut in the comic, Hama chose to reveal the link between him and Snake Eyes on the final page, when their matching tattoos are depicted. Almost a decade's worth of stories began with that page, and you can bet the movie will use the connection between the characters too. The story has also been surprisingly influential, according to numerous modern-day comics creators who read it and were wowed as impressionable youths. I can understand that; this was relatively sophisticated, even risky storytelling in a comic aimed squarely at 12 year old boys and younger.

I had that US issue, my only G.I. Joe comic at that time, before Marvel UK's Action Force existed, and it was fascinating to see how the British comic framed it when they got to it. Action Force was blessed with hungry young writers and artists at the time, and the man behind the pencils on that story, if I remember correctly, was a teenaged Bryan Hitch (I suspect that the shot at the top of this post may also be by Hitch, whose style back then was a little different).
The next silent story, "Hush Job" was in Gi Joe Yearbook Number 3, three years later. Again written by Hama, it was pencilled by Ron Wagner, and this time involved an attempt by Storm Shadow and Scarlett to rescue Snake Eyes from the Cobra Consulate in New York. G.I Joe was big on capturings and rescue missions, you see. By this time, Storm Shadow had revealed that he was only a member of Cobra in a bid to discover the identity of his Master's killer, and joined G.I. Joe. This story isn't anywhere near as good, in its all-too-obvious attempt to ape "Silent Interlude". The art isn't as good, the plotting isn't as tight, and the vibe just isn't as cool. But it does feature Snake Eyes breaking a brainwashing machine by going into a Zen state, and there is lots of Ninja action, so its not all bad. Like this:

Hama was always good at Ninja action. It was always well-choreographed and exciting, and there was always a significant cool factor. These characters were firm fan favourites, and Hama rarely let fans down. The third "silent" story is full of Ninja Action. But its not really silent. "SFX", from G.I. Joe Issue 85, is drawn by the always competent but never inspired Paul Ryan, and follows an attempt by chameleon-esque mercenary Zartan and a group of red-clad ninjas to kill Storm Shadow's pupil, Jinx, and Storm Shadow himself. Instead of silence, virtually every page is filled with sound effects as the fight scene sprawls across San Francisco. Much Ninja action, in museums, dojos, on rooftops and busy city streets. It has a very different feel, full of colour and incident, from the other silent stories.

Things change. Silent stories are pretty common in mainstream comics these days. A few years ago, one of the majors even had an entire month of completely silent comics, just as a sales gimmick. And Ninjas? Ninjas are old hat. Kids these days can probably do courses in Ninjitsu in school, or at least pick up the basics on the internet. Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow probably won't have quite the same resonance for them they had for me. But there they are, front and centre in the trailer for the new movie. There is even a shot of them crossing swords. That shot is why I'm going. And I probably won't be the only one. If only all their sequences could be utterly silent, I would be happy...

*Battle soldiered painfully on, introducing "Storm Force", and their arch-enemy, Tarantula, who freaked my 11 year old self out to a disturbing degree. Eventually Battle and Eagle merged before both perishing as the UK comics industry evaporated during the 90s.

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