A New Century, A New Joe

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One of the joys of being a comics fan is the pleasant surprise, the sort of comic one might have written off at one point, only to find it on the pull list months later after realizing that it offers much more than expected.

Such is the case with the current iteration of G.I. Joe, America’s Elite, which reinvigorates and re-imagines the mythos while remaining true to that which has sustained the franchise for more than two decades.

Through the first nine issues of America’s Elite, a smaller, more nimble Joe team has been put through challenges like they’ve never seen before, both from without and within. Cobra is in tatters, but America still faces threats, this time from a lone terrorist named Vance Wingfield, who wages his one-man war with satellites falling from the sky. First, Chicago is devastated, then Silicon Valley. Other targets are in Wingfield’s sights, and only a newly reconstituted Joe team can stop him. The hardware for Wingfield’s crusade is supplied by master arms merchant Destro, the rage he feels after losing The Baroness taking the form of that which he knows best - warfare.

Together, they throw everything at G. I. Joe, who must prevent more satellites from crashing to Earth while also battling an armada of Destro’s robots. This adventure dovetails into a search for Scarlett, captured by Destro, the mission ending with Destro escaping and Snake-Eyes dead. The Joes hardly have time to grieve, however, as Major Bludd makes his return, his gun sights this time trained on the Vice-President, while Snake-Eyes’ lifeless body mysteriously disappears, taken by the Red Ninja Clan. And all the while, Duke has gone dark, his solo mission in the Amazon so classified that not even his boss, General Colton, G.I. Joe himself, has clearance to access it. But Duke’s mission, its ultimate goal still unknown, goes sideways when he’s captured by a former member of Cobra Commander’s Crimson Guard, who’s been slowly going mad after years stuck in the jungle building death-dealing robots for the greater glory of a Cobra that may no longer exist.

The nine issues of America’s Elite thus far released have been a fever-pitched thrill ride. With all due respect to Larry Hamma, his indelible stamp still felt on all things Joe, huge kudos go to Devil’s Due Publishing for handing the scripting reigns to Joe Casey. G.I. Joe wouldn’t be what it is without action, and Casey brings plenty of it. But while the face-offs, battles, and explosions are enough to whet anyone’s appetite for destruction and keep the pace moving at a pitched rhythm, it’s what Casey builds around the action that makes this series stand out. Seamlessly blending plot points so that the reader cannot easily tell where one chapter ends and the next begins, with twists and turns where we least expect them, Casey’s America’s Elite is one grand narrative that keeps the reader engrossed with it’s remarkable sense of narrative flow. And the suspense and gripping level of intrigue in the series is the product of bold characterization at every turn.

In a post-9-11 world, the challenges faced by the G.I. Joe team may be just as dangerous, but now they are more insidious, more oblique, more dastardly in a way that we can relate to much more directly. Whatever our individual thoughts about terrorism and the “global war” on it, whatever it is that’s going on in the world beyond our windows has become a part of our lives in a way it never has before. The sense that the world has changed in the Joe team’s absence pervades America’s Elite. It’s here—the way  in which the new world order we live in affects his characters personally and professionally—that Casey’s writing shines most brightly.

Indeed, though they are a tight, close-knit team, all is not well within G. I. Joe. Infantry specialist Flint is a ticking time bomb, how much he’s still suffering from the loss of Lady Jaye taken out on his comrades, his enemies, and himself. Counter-intelligence specialist Scarlett endures torture at the hands of Destro, but it’s nothing compared to what she endures when she looses Snake-Eyes. Storm Shadow, having once been a member of Cobra, is a lightning rod of suspicion for the other Joes, but proves his allegiance to the team at the most crucial moments. Perhaps commanding officer General Colton, “G. I. Joe” himself, has the hardest job of all—trying to hold the team together while navigating its headstrong, determined personalities as well as the rocky waters of Washington bureaucracy and the strictures placed on him by a president he obeys but hardly respects.

And Duke, many of his missions so off-the-radar that not even Colton has clearance for them, takes “an army of one” so seriously in his Amazon mission that just whom he’s really fighting for—the broken, disabled Hawk, the Joe team, or some idealized America that sleeps comfortably while he fights—is one of the most interesting and intriguing questions throughout America’s Elite. All the major players—even villains like Destro, Zartan, and The Baroness—with their deep, rich back stories, also have deep motivations for doing what they do, and it’s this level of characterization that can grab and hold fast to the attention of those who may not have read a G. I. Joe story in years. 

As for the art, it’s more than up to the task and the new direction Casey has set for the team. Strongest among the several artists who’ve illustrated America’s Elite thus far is Stefano Caseli, whose work can be seen in issues #0 trough #4, and issues #6 through #8, in which his pencils and inks are in lock-step with Casey’s writing, marching towards the same goal of (re)defining G. I. Joe for a new century. Caseli’s images have weight, depth, and kick-ass verve, his hybrid style a distinctive blend of Sgt. Rock’s realism and the energy found in the work of artists more influenced by manga and anime. But while stylized, Caseli’s Joes look like one might imagine them in real life—battle-hardened and the best at what they do, but shaped as much by what each has personally sacrificed for the life they’ve chosen as by the enemies they’ve defeated. They’re a dangerous, tough looking bunch of S.O.B.s, the sort of roughnecks you’d want defending your way of life, without knowing exactly how. Caseli’s linework is strong and muscular, with a dynamism that propels the story forward. His action sequences are fluid but charged with adrenaline, and his talking heads moments are just as charged with tension. And when conveying feeling and reaction, rarely does he hit a panel dead-on, instead “shooting” his frame from an up or down angle that captures as much emotion as possible.

All this said, perhaps it’s still easy to dismiss G. I. Joe, easy to think only of Hasbro toys and campy Saturday morning cartoons, easy to hold fast to the view that the world of Duke, Cobra Commander, Destro, Snake-Eyes, and The Baroness is itself too easy and has little to say to us about the dizzyingly complex world we live in. Indeed, it would have been easy for the writer of this article to say just as much, until I gave America’s Elite the chance it deserves and found that I had to seriously reconsider my view. It’s a highly entertaining and engrossing reading experience, but it also has something to say.

The levels of biting political commentary hardly overwhelm Casey’s writing, but it’s there, not that far beneath the surface, enriching the dramatic elements of the story. There are digs at the sometimes tense relationship between civilian government and the military that defends it, as well as swipes at a president who is all-too recognizable. There’s a spirited exchange about finally disposing of threats once and for all and not letting them getting away to terrorize America again, raising questions about how far anyone can go to fight evil without becoming at least a little like that which one is fighting. And, most intriguing, Casey touches on what one might call the “crisis of knowledge” that surrounds the very idea of covert operations. With missions that, by design, are secret and often solo and kept away from the team and its commander, the situation the Joes face gets so tense and grave that someone like Duke, precisely because he’s so far off the grid, comes under suspicion of possibly aiding the enemy.

This is a rougher, edgier, grungier Joe team, full of members sporting stubble and scowls, none of them shrinking from speaking their minds and sometimes vehemently disagreeing. It’s this sort of tension and static that makes America’s Elite compelling. If the letters page in back of the issues is any indication, this new Joe has been hard to accept for some fans, but I’m hoping that for every die-hard lost, two new ones are gained, because now I’m one of them.

G.I. Joe: America’s Elite #10 will be released soon, and the first trade paper back, The Newest War, is now in stores. All are available from Devils Due Publishing (www.devilsdue.net/gijoe).

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