Thursday, 16 February 2017

Comic Review: G.I. Joe #108-114: The Benzheen Affair, or the Death of Credibility

G.I.Joe has always been saddled with an overly serious fandom; it was always the more grown-up and macho of the eighties grandees until pro-wrestling really gained traction with kids and it was one of the few that was a revival, meaning possibly a crossover with adults or at least a predestined image. The licenced Marvel comic book was in the same boat of sticking a couple of fingers up to the under-sixes thanks to the efforts of Larry Hama, who wrote well over a hundred issues of the series and later went on to serious comic writing for things like Batman. Where he devised Orca. His writing is still quite revered in the franchise's fandom, with his work on the profiles effectively making him the Godfather of the Real American Hero version of Joe thanks to his knowledge of about three pieces of military jargon (the book probably has the highest ever use of the word enfilade per issue, in a similar way to a toddler repeating what they've just learnt). He also had a major hard-on for ninjas, which meant the book rapidly became about Snake-eyes, frenemy Storm Shadow, missus Scarlett and various ninja bad guys with most of the mainstream Joes being either background or there to make the ninjas look good. 

The overall result was a book that was poor, and not just because Hasbro were pouring product into it as Larry had the approach of basically ignoring anyone new who wasn't a ninja. One of the other quirks of being in a licensed book was that deaths were tricky; partly because of the young readership and partly because Hasbro were still shipping characters for years in the eighties (as opposed to the modern wave system where a line is refreshed several times a year at the time if people kept buying Duke or someone Hasbro would keep making him) and as the line went on hit on the idea of not just adding new characters but updated version of existing ones. Hama had devised a small non-toy based supporting cast for the early days when the line consisted of around 15 figures and, when later ranges appeared, killed them off en mass, an end for such memorable characters as Captain Flagg, Scarface and Doctor Viper. After that deaths were largely limited to generics and guys created by Hama, none of whom were on the greatly overstaffed Joe team. Transformers had an easier life in this respect; kids would, apparently, be less upset about the death of robots compared to people and even before IDW got their hands on the property they were getting rebuilt left, right and centre.

Then in 1991 it all changed. In a hilarious and inept way, as any latent patina of military realism was finally chased out of the title when someone let Larry do killing. Snake-Eyes was off threatening Cobra Commander at the Cobra Consulate in New York (we haven't the time, really we haven't) for having brocrush Storm Shadow beaten up and with Ninja Force doing that other characters had to sort some trouble in Benzheen, a made-up Middle East country (because if Larry used the UAE they'd sue or something) under threat from a Cobra coup. Thus Duke led a small unit consisting of Falcon, Doc, Quick-Kick, Cross-Country, Crazy-Legs, Thunder, Crankcase and Heavy Metal into neighbouring Trucial Abyssinia to disrupt an operation led by Tomax & Xamot. Duke aside - being one of the few non-ninjas to get treated particularly well, possibly because Hama could never really keep track of whether he was Hawk or not - that's a suspicious mix of oddballs right there. How big a deal Falcon was has always been skewed by his lead role in the film, Doc was a mailaway toy who only really got involved when anyone got hurt before Lifeline showed up in '86, Quick-Kick was always treated with disdain by Larry for being vaguely Asian but not a ninja and most of the rest are vehicle drivers. Wild Bill aside, no-one got less respect in Joe media than vehicle drivers, who were generally fated to minor background roles in both the comic and cartoon while other people used their vehicles as Hasbro reasoned the AWEStriker and X-30 Conquest were the selling points, not Crankcase or Slipstream.

Due to Snake-Eyes not being there to do absolutely everything the Joes get captured by the Twins (take a shot for the gratuitous working in of the word enfilade!), end G.I. Joe #108. Start G.I.Joe #109. Tagline - BODY COUNT - 7 AND COUNTING, so you know seven people are going to die in this comic to greatly amp up the shock value; CASUALTIES OF WAR too, because Brian de Palma's botched Michael J. Fox vehicle was in BlockBuster at the time. Will it be Snake-Eyes, big and centre there on the cover? Of course it fucking won't, but readers were probably expecting it to be seven Cobra generics or one of the obvious comeback set-ups that they'd seen before. 

Excited, fumbling fingers turn the page to see the Joes still captive with Tomax & Xamot doing the - and I quote the hip-and-happening Lt. Falcon here - downtown stomp on Duke's head. I'm guessing that's official US military slang for punching him in the face that Larry's deigning to share from his detailed knowledge of modern warface. Cross-County isn't standing for this and makes a rush to help, only to get whipped by a Viper, at which point the twins decide to stick everyone in a handy ravine while they work out what to do with their captives. They get on the satellite phone to Cobra Commander; all shook up from Snake-Eyes' threat he orders the Twins to get rid of them; Hama's always-subtle skill means any intrigue is immediately cleared up when we get a frame where Cobra Commander's pretty sure he meant in to let them go and the twins think he meant to kill them. So far so farcical but Hama's writing depends on this sort of clumsiness; this is the original Cobra Commander back after that whole Fred thing but any threat he carried had long sicne gone in favour of buffoonery.

The Twins delegate this to their troops, which is fairly consistent with their portrayal in the comics as foppish weasels with just as much interest in making money as wiping out G.I. Joe. This is when it starts to get silly - the Vipers mainly try to wriggle out of it. The problem is that unlike, say, the German Army in WW2 the ranks aren't made up of misled men who think they're doing the right thing for their country or their families or whatever; Cobra are a mercenary evil terrorist operation made up of a mixture of bad people and those under heavy conditioning. So that they'd not just kill people goes against the grain. One man who gets the evil though is the SAW (that's Semi-Automatic Weapon, which is a real military term, albeit one for numerous weapons in common use and rarely needing a dedicated SAW guy in real life) Viper - Hama having decided Hasbro's latest generic update to the Cobra rank-and-file deserved to be one memorable guy rather than a kit-change for everyone, which in itself isn't a bad idea. He's basically a guy in a purple Viper outfit with a machine gun.

He asks for a pay bonus despite it presumably being his normal job to shoot Joes on the orders of superiors and the twins are so overjoyed at keeping their hands clean that they leave him to it, driving off with most of the troops. At the same time the Joes have decided they're not putting up with this; Cross-Country swiped a knife during his beating so the team decide to give him a boost out of the ravine so he can see what's going on. No, wait - sorry, they decide to give unarmed pacifist Doc who doesn't go into battles all that often a boost. He's then shot in the face by the SAW Viper (sorry, has caps popped in him, more of Larry organically dropping complex military terminology into the script) who then fires bullets into the ravine. Thunder, Crankcase and Heavy Metal throw themselves on the others and die while Falcon manages to thrown the knife into the SAW Viper and get his gun, throwing it to Quick-Kick when he gets shot in the arm. 

The karate adult then guns down the other Vipers. And has a crying fit about the dead Joes, an actual literal crying fit. This is a guy in a frontline highly specialised elite anti-terrorism unit and one of them seems not only to have never lost a comrade in battle but is reduced to tears by it. Christ. The survivors and the dead bodies make for the border in the Vipers' Rage tank while Breaker sort of gets a message out to Hawk back at base and he decides to launch a retrieval mission via the team's shuttle Defiant. Which is idiotic but I suppose if your military counter terrorism unit has a shuttle you might as well. While the rest of the Joes are readying a shuttle launch the Twins have realised what's going on, picked up the only-injured SAW Viper (thanks to composite armour, also a military thing military men wear when they're in the military) and set back off after Duke's team.

While the Joe extraction team have a difficult re-entry (almost like a shuttle isn't the perfect way of travelling, isn't it?) and engage in much banter about how Defiant pilot Wild Card is a clumsy oaf while their comrades get their tank blown out from under them; Duke, an injured Falcon and Cross-Country are the only ones to survive this little incident and the deaths of Quick-Kick, Crazy-Legs and Breaker are enough to reduce the latter into a blubbering mess as well as the SAW Viper closes in. The issue ends with the shuttle re-entry still not going particularly well.

The next issue (#110) has the SAW Viper and his victims on the cover and starts off with Duke, Falcon and Cross-Country preparing to make a stand having handily divvied up ammo to avenge their fallen comrades; thankfully there's no arguments along the lines of two of them both wanting payback for Crankcase. The SAW Viper lines up his shot and then there's the unsurprising revelation that the Defiant is alright while the Twins finally chat to Cobra Commander, who again freaks out and calls any more killing off. 

As a Tele-Viper handily explains there's no way the SAW Viper can disobey those looney lookalikes as they're crazoid to the max - I don't know about anyone else but I'm learning a lot about the world of soldiering from Hama's expertise. Soon after the Joes are turned loose Rock 'n Roll, Clutch and Wild Card arrive in some awful tank base thing and they set off after the Cobra forces. They soon do and take out most of the generics; the SAW Viper then shows what a nasty cowardly sod he is by refusing to lift his gun meaning Duke can't shoot him or take him prisoner due to the Joes' original mission being unofficial. Thankfully there's a chance for some payback when the Twins pull off their coup. The Emir of Benzheen escapes and requests US aid and guess which top anti-terrorist organisation gets the job? Yup.

Larry now has a taste for blood and the SAW Viper's victims aren't the last Joes to come home from the desert with a folded flag. It's still a weird thing, though - you're braced for Hama to have his Underbase and annihilate everyone he doesn't need but the deaths are very, very odd. #111 sees the SAW Viper getting a bit full of himself, lampshading his kill ratio compared to the rest of the Cobra army. This sort of jumped up tossery makes Cobra Commander decide the deaths were actually pretty cool and that the SAW Viper is now his bestest friend, because he's never had any trouble with ambitious, arrogant underlings before. The natural thing to do is literally throw a party, which the SAW Viper attends in his tattered combat armour. Seriously, there are sluts grinding on him while he drunkenly boasts about GI Joe covered in jagged carbon fibre.

Naturally Ninja Force are back in the mix and they handle most of it, albeit while whining about the various knocks being caught up in a level-breaking ninja superplot tend to involve. Amazingly other Joes get to do stuff, notably Stalker's recon team. Stalker was always a good buddy to Snake-Eyes (even lending him his name for a UK release) and his utter subservience to the silent commando meant he'd stayed the course and often got to get lines about how great Snake-Eyes is. This time he's landed the plum role of leading a stealth recce patrol who'll generally fuck up and make Ninja Force look good. One such team member is Cool Breeze - remember him? No, because Larry made him up for the story and named him after a flavour of chewing gum. Over the next two issues he has a cheesy developmental arc where he's all laid back and not fussed about procedure (naturally exactly the characteristics needed to be in a crucial recce team for a serious operation) before discovering how to be a team player and then taking a bullet for Stalker. All right, but why is Hama making someone up when he's got the go-ahead to wipe out toy-based characters? All it does is serve to make the rest of the team look stupid for taking him along.

Cool Breeze's story ends in #112, the same issue seeing Ninja Force taking time out from their mission to kill the SAW Viper off-screen after the inebriated Cobra tries to add to his tally. However, the other Cobras are getting the hang of this and #113 sees another batch of casualties. First to go is Sneak Peek, a relative long server with the special skill of owning a gigantic periscope that he presumably won't let anyone else use; he falls for a ruse designed to lure his team out into the open and is shot; there's actually a little bit of feeling to this one due to the use of well-written flashbacks establishing his bond with Dusty, who insists on lugging his friend's body back to base to fulfil a promise to his mother. It's nicely done to credit Hama for once, to the extent that you don't really question that they've probably never shared a panel with each other. Though the random choosing of the character makes the whole Cool Breeze thing seem even weirder.

Any hope of getting to Sneak Peek is cut short when his unit's planned back-up - Battleforce 2000 - are swiftly killed off. Battle Force 2000, for those who stopped paying attention to G.I.Joe when it started getting really dumb, were something of an attempt to do a 'combiner' team in that their six high-tech vehicles could be semi-combined into a mobile fortress. They were introduced in a story to show them off in #68-69 which is worth reading just for how much Hama hates the whole concept and then were barely seen. Their death is even announced on the cover of #113 and comes when Cobra Commander orders the oil refineries they've decided to travel through to be shelled, only Dodger surviving the resulting explosions.

By this point Hama's inability to write death convincingly in a military comic and his fetish for Snake-Eyes aren't the only foibles Larry has on show. Hama is, at least when writign G.I.Joe, psychotically patriotic to the point of borderline racism. Being of Asian extraction he's very respectful of Asian culture or at least ninjas but anyone else who's not American can basically go fuck themselves; digs at the right of people who buy German cars not to be treated like shit by American soldiers and the like pepper his work. 

Here it seems it's the Arabs he's got it in for; basically no-one from Behnzeen is portrayed in any sort of positive light. The Emir himself is a callous materialistic Sheik stereotype, openly valuing his gathered treasures over the lives of the Joes helping liberate his country in tactical discussions with Hawk and then throwing his lot in with Cobra to prevent further loss of his precious oil. But he could just be a bad apple, right? Lots of Middle Eastern leaders were at the time, yeah? So there's a resistance hoping to take the country while he's away. Only it turns out they're every bit as bad and led by a man so dumb and hellbent on murdering helpful Americans he tries to shoot Stalker on a G.I.Joe helicopter full of G.I.Joes. After Cool Breeze makes his entirely predictable sacrifice to save Stalker the grubby bastard is finished off by Snake-Eyes at point blank range with a heavy machine gun. On a G.I.Joe helicopter full of G.I.Joes.

The Emir then spends the last issue of the storyline, #114,  negotiating a covert peace deal with Cobra Commander. Despite the story making a point of him narrowly escaping the coup and leaving all his expensive possessions behind (hence why he falls out with G.I.Joe) he turns up for said meeting in a downtown bar in a similarly Arab-y neutral country in a Rolls-Royce. Probably had it under the towel on his head, am I right Larry? Hell yeah brah, U-S-A. Even then he tries to cheat Cobra Commander with some assassins that are taken out by the bar-scum and other Cobra guards; this guy is worse than Cobra Commander! And darker! While all this is going on there's a confrontation between a small unit of Joes and new Cobra Metal Head, most of which are showing off the line's latest innovation - ridiculously oversized weaponry. Metal Head has a backpack which fires anti-tank missiles without signing his hair or crippling his spine, Salvo one-handedly carries a rocket launcher the size of a mail box, that sort of rubbish. Thankfully that greasy Emir finally coughs up enough to reach a deal with Cobra Commander and peace breaks out.

So there we have it; Larry Hama is let off the leash at last by Hasbro and the result is the perfunctory death of a load of characters he's barely used for absolute minimal impact. They die at the hands of an idiot one notch above a generic, which really makes you wonder how hot basically every other Cobra operative has even been. There's an invasion of a Middle Eastern oil state that's an offensive cartoon and a continued frequent inability to understand basic military concepts, even within the frame of reference of a tie-in comic aimed at ten year-olds. It is, in short, the final destruction of any lingering credibility for the title. It staggered on for another forty issues but if you're reading critically this is the line in the sand, the point where you realise it isn't just those stuffy old suits at Hasbro holding Larry back, he really is this bad.


  1. Never understood why it tries so hard to keep the named Cobras generally and Cobra Commander's in particular hands clean. Was there some sort of edict he couldn't be seen as too nasty by actually wanting to kill his stated enemies?

    It's just so bizarre the first big wave of Joe deaths is the result of a sitcom misunderstanding.

    1. It is very odd; you do wonder if Hasbro maybe had a hand, perhaps not wanting to have made toys of a 'murderer' but that doesn't make much sense. Considering Hama's habit of turning Cobras into good guys (Storm Shadow, The Baroness, Destro, even Zartan to some extent) it's possible he just didn't want to sully someone. There are actually very few 'named' Cobra characters actually active and on the same side as Cobra Commander at that particular time in the comic; as the toyline went on it leant more towards producing umpteen Vipers and the like than named Cobras.

    2. Of course, none of that IMO excuses Hama voluntarily scripting himself into this stupid corner where both sides head into battle with loaded weapons and don't seem to like the idea of killing each other.

  2. Good points on the reluctance to kill named characters, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the toy aspect. After all, how do you sell a toy that died two years ago in the comics?

    I disagree on two points. The first, Hama's use of military jargon is actually fairly accurate. Hama was a decorated combat veteran in Vietnam. I seem to recall a couple instances where some of the terms seemed a little forced, ie they were put in to make it seem legit.
    The second point, is on the patriotism to the point of racism. Having an "evil" Arab leader is hardly bigotry and it certainly isn't racism as Arabs and middle easterners are not a race. I have seen these claims of jingoism and such before on GI Joe, but consider that of the original 13 Joes, you had an African American in a very key role, a hispanic, and a bad ass woman. There were additional minorities added as other characters were added. As you note, Hama is Asian, and considered race as important part of his identity.
    Anyway, enough complaining, really well written, thanks for this.