Although the G.I. Joe toyline has been a pop culture institution for well over half a century, the version boasting the tag “A Real American Hero” is easily the most recognizable and fan-beloved.
While the brand has existed to varying success on store shelves since the 1960s (scaled roughly in keeping with Barbie dolls), by the late ‘70s/early 1980s toymakers Hasbro are losing a battle to smaller action figures, championed largely by upstart competitor Kenner’s licensing of the Star Wars juggernaut.
Looking to take the fight to this (downsized) arena, a relaunch of Joe is greenlit- except it’s still missing its “hook.” Serendipitously, Marvel Comics is set to reboot a new S.H.I.E.L.D. book roughly envisioned as “Fury Force”- focusing on an all-new elite super-spy/commando team. When Hasbro’s ad execs tap Marvel for a consult on “Operation Joe,” the two projects sort of merge into a multi-format endeavor the likes of which is rarely seen- especially as it continues to endure to this day.
Insanely enough, there is a mark of consistency in all this owed entirely to the career residency of one of the original “operatives,” Larry Hama. Hama’s military background qualifies him not only as the only Marvel Bullpenner capable of helming the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero ongoing title but his expertise also lends a bit of real world credulity to fleshing-out characters’ biographical information and backstories appearing on the “file cards” of the individual action figures.
Even though Marvel cancels the series in 1994, a resurgence in popularity leads to new publisher, IDW, renewing the property in 2010. Regarded as the definitive voice of the saga, Hama is brought back to continue roughly where he left off- continuous numbering from the old volume and everything!
For extensive info on the intersection of Marvel, Hasbro and the inception of the 1980s Joe strike team, check out the excellent Netflix series The Toys That Made Us. Also, there’s even more behind-the-scenes to found in this post on the personal website of former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter.
Now, let’s fall in to learn a little bit more about Joe’s comic tales because knowing is half the battle!
The Classic Marvel Era, Part 1: Early to Mid 1980s
Debuting in Spring 1982, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero is a bit of a game changer for Marvel’s licensed-property comics. Despite “toy comics” historically not being renowned as a showcase for A-list talent bringing their A-game, Joe does go on to become one of Marvel’s most widely-subscribed books of the decade and thereby bringing a whole new generation of comic readers into the medium.
Hama’s main collaborator in the early days is legendary artist Herb Trimpe, perhaps best known for his extensive 1970s run on Incredible Hulk– including the first appearance of everyone’s favorite stabby mutant, Wolverine. Trimpe is also a former enlisted man.
Although loaded with all this firsthand acumen, Hama, Trimpe and company have to straddle a fine line between simulating a somewhat “grounded” reality and producing work that is conducive to selling toys. It also takes them a little to find footing with the venture, as both the Joes and their evil opposition, Cobra, each initially do not have particularly deep roster benches. It’s only through the creators’ inventiveness to introduce elements outside of the original toyline that the title finally gets cooking.
Subsequent toy waves will see additions to both sides appear with clockwork regularity after that, though. Within a few years, there’s no shortage of characters- so many that specialties begin to overlap and in-story devices are required to “graduate” certain Joes from field status to clerical support positions in order to make way for successors.
Through all of this, the silent, black masked commando Snake-Eyes, his teammate and love interest Scarlett and his occasional frenemy and “sword brother,” Storm Shadow, remain a constant fixture with a perpetually-unfolding plot involving murder, intrigue and mistaken identity all mixed in a vat of ninja mysticism.
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982) #1-10
Larry Hama and company’s unending Joe versus Cobra struggle starts here! Also featuring the debuts of the mercenary Kwinn and the Oktober Guard!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982) #11-20
The conclusion of the first extended storyline featuring the debuts of Joes such as Doc, Snow Job and Gung-Ho while Cobra adds Destro and Major Bludd to their side!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982) #21-30
Focus begins to fall on Snake-Eyes with fan-fave “Silent Interlude” and origin issues featuring the introduction of Storm Shadow! Also debuting in this volume: Duke, Roadblock, Zartan and the Dreadnoks!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982) #31-40
Secret alliances escalate in the serpent high command as an assassination attempt reveals Cobra Commander’s son, Billy! First appearances of Joe Flint and Lady Jaye and Cobra’s twin Crimson Commanders, Tomax and Xamot!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982) #41-50
Cobra gains their own sovereign island nation and a new leader, Serpentor, while Hawk assumes command as General and the Joes welcome Sgt. Slaughter into the ranks! All of this and the big 50th Issue “Battle of Springfield”!
The Classic Marvel Era, Part 2: Mid to Late 1980s
Arguably by 1986, “Peak Joe” is achieved. By this point, the good guys can count among their arsenal a gargantuan seven-foot-long aircraft carrier playset which is soon to be joined by their own personal space shuttle. Cobra even sees some seismic shake-ups with the presence of a new Cobra emperor fomenting radical changes including reinventions of both Cobra Commander and weaponsmith Destro.
It’s also during this era that the more farcical sci-fi leanings of the massively popular animated Joe cartoon series begin to drive the train of the entire franchise. While once Hama only had to seemingly reconcile surprisingly technically-specific information with a slight suspension of disbelief, now he has to somehow make the amalgamated clone body of a dozen deceased historical figures work inside of a script that should be reading like Tom Clancy for kids.
To further demonstrate that the shark, perhaps she is jumping: Sgt. Slaughter, real-life World Wrestling Entertainment hall-of-famer joins up with the Joes as an actual team member during this period. He also goes on to serve as something of a live action mascot- fully capitalizing on and synergizing the pro wrestling zeitgeist making rounds at the time.
Plots of note center around a squad of Joes being captured and sentenced to an Eastern European prison camp, the explosion of a full-on Cobra civil war and a character-defining trilogy for Snake-Eyes. There’s even a special nod to the anniversary of the original 1960s toyline as semi-retired bearded agent Joe Colton is introduced.
Also bringing things sort of full-circle, Hama re-teams with Trimpe for a spin-off series, G.I. Joe Special Missions. As opposed to the long-format “soap opera” the regular monthly title perpetuates, Special Missions is reminiscent of the more “bare bones” style ops from the early days: small four or five-person teams running missions, getting in, getting out and all wrapped-up all within twenty-something pages.
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982) #51-60
Game-changing fallout from the Battle of Springfield including Destro and Cobra Commander’s one last old school assault on the secret Joe base, The Pit! Also featuring the addition of more Dreadnoks and the infamous one-off issue by Todd McFarlane!
Collects: G.I. Joe Yearbook (1985) #1-4
Anthology collection of the bonus “Annual”-type material published once a year during the peak Marvel era. Yearbook #3 is a direct continuation of the Snake-Eyes/Scarlett story from Issue #56 of the regular series!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982) #61-70
A small team of Joes is caught in a hostile foreign state and sentenced to a prison camp! A rogue Crimson Guardsman becomes the new Cobra Commander and Destro forms his own splinter group!
Collects: G.I. Joe: Special Missions (1986) #1-7
Small-squad done-in-one ops! Issue #6 is a direct pick-up to the story in Issue #61 of the main Joe series!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982) #71-80
After years in the making, it’s all-out Cobra Civil War!
Collects: G.I. Joe: Special Missions (1986) #8-14
More “get-in, get-out” from the original 1982 Joe creative team of Hama and Trimpe!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982) #81-90
Another silent ninja issue featuring the completion of Storm Shadow’s heroic face turn! More secrets revealed in the origins of Snake-Eyes, Zartan and the original Cobra Commander! Plus, the original 1960s G.I. Joe makes a special anniversary guest appearance!
Collects: G.I. Joe: Special Missions (1986) #15-21
Featuring an extended storyline guest-starring the Oktober Guard as the Joes attempt to extract Snake-Eyes, Scarlett and company from behind enemy lines!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982) #91-100
This collection closes out the 1980s with the character re-defining Snake-Eyes Trilogy! Also, the surprise return of the original Cobra Commander!
Collects: G.I. Joe: Special Missions (1986) #22-28
The final collection of Joe’s 1980s side-series!
The Classic Marvel Era, Part 3: The 1990s
By the dawn of the ‘90s, the Joe brand is in need of some reinvigoration. The original target audience (and their younger siblings) have all but aged out of the demographic as rah-rah Reagan-era Cold War gives way to Bush, Sr. Gulf War uneasiness. In this, the Joe comic begins to reflect a certain murkiness just as the Joe toys begin to take on more and more day-glowiness among other Captain Planet-type attributes…
In one shocking plot allegorically playing off the growing Middle East crisis, Hama does what is until then the unthinkable and kills several long-standing Joes during the course of a protracted combat situation. Yes, like their Hasbro brothers before them in Transformers: The Movie, you get to witness actual action figures you’ve played with as a child murdered before your eyes. What’s that Nietzschean saying about childhood trauma again?
Other “gimmick” approaches include sub-dividing the Joes into smaller specialized cells including counter eco-terrorism and drug enforcement squads. To no one’s surprise, Snake-Eyes even gets his own team, Ninja Force, with the title and cover logo even shifting for a while to spotlight the breakout star.
In a final “all hands on deck” story, the Joes’ main base of operations, The Pit, is decommissioned as the team and operatives are placed on inactive status. And you would think that’s it. Really, over a hundred a fifty issues is no joke longevity for any title- much less one based on a line of action figures! Well done. Take a victory lap. What’s that? You’re not done??
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982) #101-110
Featuring a fatal Middle East mission with Joes killed in action!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982) #111-123
The Joe body count increases as Middle East ops become more entrenched!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982) #124-134
The Joes diversify into smaller specialized squads such as Ninja Force and Eco Warriors!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982) #135-145
In this collection: a brief title change to “G.I. Joe Starring Snake-Eyes and Ninja Force” and a storyline featuring the Transformers!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982) #146-155
The final volume of the classic run!
The IDW Relaunch Era, Part 1: Early to Mid 2010s
Years later, IDW, a publisher specializing in licensed properties, begins releasing Joe comics- reprinting all of the old Marvel material as well as new stories playing in the classic sandbox. It all kicks off in a Free Comic Book Day half-numbered special helping to bridge the gap (Issue #155 ½). It’s not exactly “the next day” since the previous run nor is it necessarily “fifteen years later…” but it is a refreshing greatest hits remix of Hama’s previous body of work without all of the baggage, per se.
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #155.5-160
Larry Hama’s Joe versus Cobra saga returns with an all-new publisher!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #161-165
Snake-Eyes becomes Cobra’s brainwashed agent!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #166-170
Featuring an issue by Classic Joe artist Ron Wagner!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #171-175
Mysterious blue ninja cyborgs! The death of Billy! Plus, guest appearances by the Oktober Guard!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #176-180
Snake-Eyes and Cobra are uneasy allies against the blue ninjas! Plus, Joes at San Diego Comic Con!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #181-185
Featuring guest artist contibutions by legends Sal Buscema, Ron Frenz and Herb Trimpe!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #186-190
The Joes stage a rescue op in the Middle East for a few of their own just as rogue nukes enter the region, courtesy of the nefarious Darklon!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #191-195
The Joe team returns to the country of Sierra Gordo and encounters Major Bludd!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #196-200
The extra-length 200th issue goes full-circle to the Joes’ first mission with a fateful appearance by Dr. Adele Burkhart!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #201-205
With their base of operations out of commission, it’s a whole new era for the Joe team!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #206-210
While the Joes attempt some r&r, Cobra Commander seeds plans for mass Crimson Guardsmen infiltration of American society!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #211-215
The Joes have to revive Serpentor but does it also spell the end of Snake-Eyes??
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #216-218, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero Annual (2012) #1
The all-new Snake Eyes sends Cobra Commander a message while Storm Shadow and Zartan reach an understanding. Plus, a stand-alone aerial dogfight issue and a tribute to the late Herb Trimpe featuring the Joe 2012 Annual!
The IDW Relaunch Era, Part 2: Mid to Late 2010s
Now rolling two-hundred-something issues deep, Hama finally embarks upon Joe’s first big “bells and whistles” event-style comic book storyline: “Cobra World Order”- wherein Cobra Commander finally pulls the trigger on years of long-game plans involving the complete infiltration of his agents into the fabric of American society. Not only does this put the Joes on their heels it also cements the title in the modern age with an equally banner-worthy fallout arc, “Cobra Nation”.
Somehow, Hama still manages to keep things fresh employing a curated “mix and match” style of all the old properties. In fact, some of his earliest and more obscure creations have become strangely integral in stories of late with Cobra’s mind-altering Brain Wave Scanner and the insidious Dr. Venom particularly making strong surprise comebacks.
Indeed, it seems as long as Hama is able to continue writing Joe comics, there’s no reason to think he won’t so there’s no reason to think there’s an end in sight any time soon. Should there be? Just as war itself is a mechanism of the human condition, Larry Hama has touched into something deep and unending. Glad to find him there- fighting for freedom, wherever there’s trouble…
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #219-221, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero: Cobra World Order Prelude (2015) #0
Cobra World Order: A modern-day big comic book event story- Joe style! A great jumping-on point!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #222-225
Cobra World Order continues!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #226-230
Cobra World Order begats a return to Springfield in the “Cobra Nation” storyline!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #231-235
Cobra Commander’s new teenage assassin meets the Arashikage ninja clan while a family of Cobra operatives may not be what they seem!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #236-240
Ex-Crimson Guardsman Wade Collins and family’s stand against Cobra! Plus, Zartan’s plan to collect Dawn from the Arashikage Clan takes unexpected turns! All this as the Joes fight blue ninjas in Darklonia!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #241-245
It’s Zartan and the Dreadnoks versus Cobra while the Joes have another mission go sideways in Trucial Abyssmia. Plus, a new Snake Eyes-esque look for new ninja Dawn and the surprise return of… Dr. Venom?!!?
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #246-250
Ninja-centric “Dawn of the Arashikage” storyline!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2018) #1-4
Dawn’s first Joe mission as part of Bombstrike’s rescue squad!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #251-255
It’s a return to “Special Missions” and a collection of done-in-ones featuring rotating artists!
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #256-260
“The Cobra’s Venom” storyline
Collects: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (2010) #261-265
Artist Nethno Diaz returns for this collection entitled “Artificial Intelligence”!