I've often described Transformers as the gateway drug to my geekdom. Oh, there were cartoons I'd watched prior to it, but it was the one I truly obsessed over, and when my fellow third graders were playing with the toys and drawing the characters, I had to follow suit. Eventually, when the toy and cartoon fervor began to die down, I started to collect the comic book, which led to other comic books. Who knows what my life would have been like without Transformers? Would I have gone into another field besides art? Played sports? Would I be married now, own a house, and/or have a high paying job involving math or architecture? I still lean towards Faraday's initial theory of “Whatever Happened, Happened.” Not only would changing past events create a paradox since your new path would never lead you to change them in the first place, there's also a flaw in his theory that free will makes us variables, because we're all variables so we don't know what another person might do.
And so, my path up to this point in my life is fixed. Of course, it was not a path without branches, and one cannot mention Transformers without mentioning G.I. Joe for several important reasons. My friends and I were not rushing home after school for one half hour cartoon, but two. For one hour, Sunbow Productions brought us two mesmerizing shows. I didn't care quite as much about G.I. Joe, but there were plenty of connections between the shows. Both shared voice talent. Both shared various bits of background music. Both were promoting Hasbro toy lines. One was a show about a civil war between giant alien robots, while another was about an elite unit of soldiers defending the world against the very comic book-ish terrorist organization of Cobra.
I had a few of the Joe figures, three inch plastic soldiers with a penchant for losing their legs when an internal rubber band inevitably rotted away. I had no idea at the time of their history, of the larger figures or “kung fu grip” variations that existed decades before my birth. The G.I. Joe cartoon often had five part events, stories that lasted through a week of episodes and spanned the globe. Mention a ”Weather Dominator” to just about any geek in his mid-30s, and he will know exactly what you're talking about. These episodes were a lot more “must see” for me than the regular standalone episodes.
Just as one cartoon led into another, so too did one comic lead to another. The shows only crossed over once, in the Transformers episode Only Human, set in the distant “future” of the year 2005, an older Cobra Commander appears. There is also strong speculation that the recurring season 3 character Marissa Faireborn was the daughter of Joes Flint and Lady Jaye. But the strongest crossover happened in the four issue limited series, G.I. Joe and the Transformers. A completist, I had to buy all Transformers-related comics, and after that series I found myself going back to check out back issues of G.I. Joe.
Larry Hama did an epic job writing the series. I dare say his run can be compared to Chris Claremont's Uncanny X-Men or Peter David's Incredible Hulk. Hama was not only responsible for the 155 issue series, but wrote the descriptions of each character that appeared on the back of the toy packaging. The figure for Tunnel Rat was actually based on Larry Hama's likeness.
Hama, himself a Vietnam vet, brought a gravity and realism to the comics that just wasn't there in the cartoon. He created real political situations and mirrored various conflicts on things that did or could happen in our own world climate. He had his own brand of humor, and his dialogue mirrored the way soldiers he knew spoke. Many concepts were fleshed out in the comics, such as Springfield, a town in the middle of the United States under which was concealed Cobra's main base of operations. His ninja characters had a richer history, with both Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow training with the Arashikage ninja clan. When Storm Shadow's uncle, the Hard Master, is taken out by an assassin's arrow, he is led to believe the scarred, mute Snake-Eyes, once considered a brother, is responsible. For this reason Storm Shadow joins Cobra, and the truth behind the Hard Master's death would not be revealed until years after Storm Shadow's first appearance in the historic Silent Interlude, a story told in pictures without words.
I could go on about Hama's run, how he took the ridiculous notion of Serpentor, a genetically-engineered hybrid of the world's greatest military minds, and made it work. Hama crafted a schism in Cobra, in which some took Cobra Commander's side while others were loyal to Serpentor, leading to the epic civil war storyline with the Joes in the middle. Destro in particular makes good use of this conflict to achieve his own goals. A Scottish lord and weapons supplier in the comics, Destro was often portrayed as a complex character with a very specific code of honor who respected his enemies though he saw everyone in his life as chess pieces. Hama introduced a wealth of supporting characters, family and friends to Joe and Cobra alike, to show how high the stakes were. Characters were injured and characters died. In one shocking issue, Destro's paramour The Baroness shoots Snake-Eyes' love Scarlett in the head at point blank range! Scarlett barely survives and is rendered comatose, while a furious Snake-Eyes goes into a trance to focus on a ninja vengeance spree. It was heavy stuff, but the gloves really came off when Hama had permission to kill the characters of some discontinued figures, and sent the Joes into the fictitious Middle Eastern nation of Trucial Abysmia where we finally saw what we never saw in the cartoon: soldiers die in battle. I still get chills thinking back on those dark issues.(“He popped caps on the Doc! Doc's DEAD!”)
This trip down memory lane was sparked when I read Sean's review of a new series of webisodes, G.I. Joe: Resolute, written by Warren Ellis. It's phenomenal. Ellis takes a lot of the Hama concepts and translates them into an updated version of the original animated series. Some elements of the show's best five-part episodes are there, with Cobra employing some device to threaten the world and the Joes confronting them on multiple fronts. Scarlett is also paired with the Joe first sergeant Duke, as she was in the original cartoon, and not Snake-Eyes as in the comics. The stakes are as high as in the Trucial Abysmia storyline, with major casualties in the first episode setting the tone that no one is safe, and anyone can perish. I was glued to my computer screen, and subsequently had to share the link with as many friends as I knew that grew up on the old cartoon.
I think the quality of both the writing and animation could have merited a DVD release; I'd certainly buy it. It's interesting that they chose a web approach, perhaps to gauge interest. I'll be happy if the upcoming live action movie is half as good as this animated epic. In eleven 5-10 minute chapters, Ellis managed to make all the familiar faces we remember shine. There were no “magic parachutes” when planes got shot down. The old cartoon had a ridiculous color coded laser system; the good guys always shot in green. Resolute uses real ammunition, and flying bullets find targets as surely as the swords of the iconic ninjas. And Snake-Eyes is even deadlier in this than he was in the comics. His confrontation with Storm Shadow is what fans of the old cartoon dreamed of seeing for years. For some reason, Storm Shadow often had one-on-one battles with any Joe but Snake-Eyes, most notably the Native-American warrior Spirit.
Will Resolute lead to a sequel or a new ongoing series? Neither side pulled punches, but there were still enough key characters left standing at the end of the series. Zartan, the devious master of camouflage makes a sick appearance, but we don't get to see his biker lackeys The Dreadnoks. And I would loved to have seen a modern look at the twin Crimson Guard Commanders. I didn't even know about the webisodes, so I'm glad I came across that review. They were definitely successful in sparking new interest in the franchise; I haven't been this stoked in years about G.I. Joe. Now I know, and knowing is...something something...