Thursday, March 28, 2013

G.I. JOE #1 & #2 / G.I. JOE: Special Missions #1

G.I. Joe has been launched, and relaunched more times than any other title in the history of comics. This is a fact.

Interestingly enough we're getting the third relaunch under the watchful eye of publisher IDW. This time out Fred Van Lente and artist Steve Kurth are at the helm. While Kurth is a relative unknown, Van Lente is one of the more prominent writers to take a stab at a JOE title since Max Brooks wrote the Hearts & Minds miniseries. The series launched last month to a fairly substantial amount of fanfare and relatively solid reviews. 

Our story picks up where the previous JOE incarnation ended. With JOE's previously-secret identity now made public by Cobra, the government decides to bring the "highly trained special missions force" into the modern era. They do this by essentially turning them into a "highly trained, special PR campaign", which pleases none of the veterans, particularly team leader Duke. 

Meanwhile a town called Warrenton, Ohio (obviously our villains have a thing for Ohio as they've previously gained ground in Springfield, Ohio as well) has been overtaken by the "ruthless criminal organization" known as Cobra. General Colton dispatches Duke and his hand picked team of soldiers to the town in an effort to stop Cobra's first real showing on American soil in quite some time. The team is comprised mostly of recognizable JOE characters with the exception of a legacy character and, unfortunately, a new one called Hashtag. The team hits the streets of Warrenton where they're quickly attacked by the locals with everything from rocket launchers to machine guns and from there the action escalates.

So, what's good? Well, Van Lente's plotting and story telling skills are solid as always. He lays out the new direction for the team as well as introduces us to our characters in such a way that old and new readers alike should be able to jump right in. The setting of this opening arc is particularly serviceable to older JOE fans in that it calls to mind the classic "Battle of Springfield" story. 

These first two issues recall classic trapped-behind-enemy-lines tales like Black Hawk Down. As soon as our leads hit the ground in Warrenton they're under fire and the odds are increasingly against them. Kurth handles these action sequences very well. His pencils seem to get more loose during a firefight which adds an energy to them and really helps to escalate the tension. He also handles the depiction of some of the more outlandish characters well, making them believable but still true to the originals. What he does with Shipwreck is bordering on parody but it works because the writer intends it to be entirely self referential. Van Lente knows these characters too and he handles their interactions well... for the most part. 

Which brings up the negative aspects of the book. Some of the dialogue here is eye-roll inducing. The worst offender being the new JOE, Hashtag. A character no one was asking for including her commanding officer. She spews "hip" lingo like an aging soccer mom desperate to connect with her children and constantly makes references to modern social media that will leave you shaking your head incredulously. It's rough. 

However, some dialogue problems aside, issues one and two of this newcomer are solid. There's an air of excitement and just enough of a touch of real danger that's been lacking from the title since it launched. It also seems like Van Lente is more willing to embrace the sillier aspects of the franchise while still making them fit within the believable world previously established by Chuck Dixon. It's a good jumping on point to be sure.

Speaking of Dixon, he's still mixing it up in the JOE corner of the IDW universe as the writer on G.I. JOE: Special Missions. Originally Special Missions was a series written by Larry Hama that ran concurrently with his JOE-proper Marvel title. The new series centers around an "urgent rapid response team" which is comprised of, apparently, the characters we aren't seeing on any given month over in the main title. His artist on the book is veteran comic penciller, Paul Gulacy. 

Gulacy draws what goes down as one of the best looking JOE books  since Stefano Casselli drew the title when it was still being published by Devil's Due. It's great stuff, with a hardened edge that suits the darker tone of the book perfectly. His pencils are tighter than Kurth's over in  JOE-proper but he draws the action sequences with a clarity that is so often lacking from books that are full of it.
The book opens with fan-favorite Baroness meeting with a scarred sea captain who she's looking to hire for a salvage job. From there we're kicked into the middle of a heavy fire fight between some old JOE favorites and what looks like an entire Libyan town turned against them. It's an intense sequence that, like JOE-proper reminds one of Black Hawk Down... and not just because there's a helicopter crash. From there the story opens up on a much larger canvas than the one seen in Pak's book as we're introduced to a huge cast of JOEs as well as begin to see what exactly the Baroness is up to.

Chuck Dixon is one of the great unsung writers in comics. His books are typically action-heavy with
surprisingly meaty plotting and he doesn't disappoint here. The one real action sequence is wonderfully written and matched perfectly by Gulacy's eye for motion. Back to Gulacy, his characters are occasionally awkward but his ability to lay out a clear, easy-to-follow "heavy" sequence is fantastic. 

Between these two titles IDW has come out of the gate strong on their latest (and hopefully last) G.I. JOE relaunch. Both are written well and, while JOE-proper could stand some improvements in both the dialogue and the art, Special Missions excels at both with a real nod to the artistic side of things. Of note is that both titles are fairly new-reader friendly and could serve as a good introduction into Hasbro's toy soldier universe.

Be sure to give a listen to our episode 56 of our podcast, our G.I. JOE spectacular!

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