Friday, September 20, 2013

1987 and all that 014: lifeline is awesome and other stories

by Matt Derman
...reading comics from the year i was born!

G.I. Joe Special Missions #3-6 (Marvel)
by Larry Hama, Herb Trimpe, Bob Sharen, George Roussos, Phil Felix, Joe Rosen

There’s not a lot of subtlety in 'G.I. Joe Special Missions'. The dialogue is clunky, with characters naming each other when it does not feel natural, describing at length the various high-tech weapons and machines at their disposal, and explaining the past and present circumstances surrounding their missions in a weirdly expository fashion. Pretty much everyone has the same voice, and it’s not a very interesting one, always either wholly factual or awkwardly angry. This lack of personality also makes the stakes feel low, and thus detracts from the action scenes, because there’s no suspense created when the reader isn't invested in the cast. Yet even with this stale writing, the comic does a few things quite well. First of all, it tells self-contained stories in every issue, and does so without needing to rush through them or compress them too greatly. Even better, every story has an actual moral underlying it (a point to make about war, violence, friendship, etc.), and despite the heavy-handed nature of the dialogue, these underlying messages are delivered more skillfully. We’re not hammered with the morals in an obvious after school special style that makes them less effective. Instead, they exist beneath the surface of the narratives, there for the reader to find but not forcefully or distractingly calling attention to themselves.

The basic format of the series, as it's title suggests, is that each issue features a select team of Joes carrying out a specific, small-scale mission. To his credit, writer Larry Hama does a pretty good job of coming up with different kinds of threats for his heroes to face and goals for them to accomplish: destroying an enemy stronghold, keeping spies at bay, escaping imprisonment, etc. None of them are especially complex, and the resolutions to each story tend to be easy to spot from a mile off because the good guys always win (and, as I said, the scripts aren't particularly nuanced). But at least there’s some variety, and Hama also uses different combinations of characters every time, though several people do show up in multiple issues. I don’t know the G.I. Joe world well enough to say if the casting choices have any special meaning by-and-large, though I suspect they do not, as the characters seem mostly interchangeable. Point being, any individual issue of this book can be picked up and read cold without it affecting the reader’s understanding or appreciation of it. They are truly standalone narratives.

The morals I referenced above are not all that original, but that doesn't make them valueless. There’s a story about loyalty, where a supposed friend first betrays the Joes and then sacrifices himself to save them. Along similar lines, one issue demonstrates the dangers of arrogance, when a villain who abuses and under-appreciates the rest of his crew pays the ultimate price for his asshole attitude. Where a lot of war fiction explores the unique brand of camaraderie and trust that combat creates between people, 'G.I. Joe Special Missions' is about more broadly applicable ideas. Everyone should look out for their friends, everyone should respect the people they work with, and no one should let their egos over-inflate to the point of hubris. These topics could be and have been discussed in many genres, but by looking at them through the lens of the military, Hama is able to cut to the chase with worst-case scenarios. The common, very human flaws and mistakes of these characters don’t just spoil their relationships, they get them rather quickly killed in horrible ways.

For me, the best of these stories is in issue #4, "No Holds Barred." When it opens, the Joes are already embroiled in a dangerous aerial fight/chase, easily the most captivating first page of any of these comics. The heroes’ enormous plane is transporting a smaller one called a firebat, from which they want to extract specific pieces of technology (referred to as black boxes, but I don’t think they are the same as black boxes on modern planes, though it’s not all that clear). The bad guys are of course trying to steal the technology for themselves. While most of the Joes attempt to shoot down the enemies’ gunship, one of them, going by the codename Lifeline, works on breaking into the firebat to get the black boxes out, and refuses to join in the fight. Even when the rest of his team gets pissed off at him, he is insistent about his non-combatant status and stays focused entirely on the task at hand. His stubborn pacifism lasts even after they are shot down, even when half of his allies get wounded. He goes so far as to actively stop one of them from killing a wild tiger. It borders on comedy how unflappable he is while surrounded by men with over-sized automatic weapons who keep calling him useless.

Eventually, a gang of river pirates kidnaps the Joes and all of their opponents. The pirates’ leader, Sarawak Sally, then forces them to battle each other in one-on-one fights to the death. At first, even this is not enough to make Lifeline participate in the violence, and he protests right up until one of the baddies gets inches away from landing a blow. Suddenly and surprisingly, Lifeline throws his attacker through the air, revealing that, though he doesn't believe in harming others, he’s a master of the all-defensive martial art known as aikido. He handily defeats the man assigned to fight him, and Sally says that Lifeline and his friends are free to go with the black boxes, but that their enemies will be killed. Unwilling to leave a bunch of defenseless people behind so they can be executed, Lifeline offers Sally an alternative: let everybody go free, and keep the black boxes for herself. She accepts, and while technically he fails the mission, Lifeline totally saves the day.

I like this issue more than the others for a lot of reasons. Partially it’s just that I’m a big fan of characters who avoid violence, especially in war (or superhero) stories where violence is everyone else’s default mode. And even though Lifeline’s decision to spare his foes’ lives isn't exactly a shock, this is the only time the Joes don’t actually achieve what they initially set out to do. They merely survive, an atypical outcome that nevertheless feels like a win.

Last but not at all least is that Herb Trimpe’s artwork is at it's best here, in no small part due to the jungle setting of much of the story. He does good, dense backgrounds, and some amazing examples of wildlife, most notably the remarkably lifelike tiger. It looks almost human, which makes Lifeline’s intervention on its behalf all the more satisfying. Trimpe also has a lot of fun with the designs of the river pirates; they’re all barely clothed, the men and women alike, and they make quite the flashy entrance when they show up in their bizarre wooden sailboats with huge mounted guns. Sally has a wild rage about her that sets her apart from every other character, and makes her an impressive and intimidating leader. Lifeline, too, has a very distinct look, dressed in all red, wearing a helmet and goggles, and generally not fitting in with the other members of his team. He’s the odd man out in the narrative, and that is reflected in the art.

Unfortunately, Trimpe doesn’t get everything right. When Lifeline is tossing around the guy he has to fight, for example, all of their poses are wildly unnatural. But even if it’s not intentional, this scene acts as effective comic relief, and in truth the whole issue is visually sillier than usual. The comedic tone helps the wobbly writing—because the art doesn't feel too serious, it’s easier to accept the overly simplistic scripting. So while he has a rough spot here or there, Trimpe provides solid work on the whole, and even his mistakes do some amount of good.

'G.I. Joe Special Missions' isn't a great series, but it does have an interesting approach to war stories. This is never clearer than in the Lifeline issue, where the book not only makes some unexpected moves for a war comic, but breaks away from its own patterns as well. Nobody dies, the mission isn't completed, and hand-to-hand combat is the most powerful weapon used. I would have liked to see more of this kind of experimentation from Hama and Trimpe both, and maybe in later issues they do try some new things. Even if that’s the case, though, this title is only fair-to-middling, telling lukewarm stories about cipher characters working toward pretty dull goals.

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