More new thoughts about comics released in 2014-15!
Tom Scioli’s G.I. Joe v. Transformers was another reminder that interesting and experimental stories can be found in any medium and genre, even comic books based on licensed toys. I love the efforts to play with the superhero genre in books like Grant Morrison’s Multiversity, but the formal innovation in G.I. Joe v. Transformers felt more unsettling and transgressive. Scioli’s approach to storytelling (down to the characters posed like action figures) evoked the childhood ritual of using action figures to remix pop culture brands. Scioli does more than stage battles between recognizable toys, he blends the mythologies that have developed around both properties while adding in layers of inventive madness inspired by the subtext and themes of the original. We get an unsettling (but unsurprising!) US coup staged by General Flagg and an epic battle between Duke and Destro on Megatron’s head. It was a reminder of a childhood spent telling stories about G.I. Joe members joining forces with the Ghostbusters and the Superfriends to combat the combined forces of Darkseid, Cobra, and the Deceptions during endless Saturday afternoons.
The G.I. Joe cartoons were combat fantasies for late cold-war adolescents set in a vague near-future. The show was an age-appropriate celebration of violence, with loving depictions of military equipment and weapons that fired curiously non-lethal lasers. There were occasional injuries and a few ‘dramatic’ comas, but the conflict was about as safe as a competitive laser tag match. The cartoon wasn’t overly concerned with the characters carrying the weapons and operating the equipment. The narrative was focused on the large scale struggle between the world’s greatest fighting force and the world’s most dangerous terrorist group. I think I learned more about the characters from reading the file cards that came with individual action figures than from watching the show. The Transformers cartoons had a similar dynamic, but added a boring story about a clash between two ancient enemies over the fates of two worlds. The best part of both cartoons was Chris Latta’s performances as Starscream (the scheming Decepticon underling) and the Cobra Commander (the name says it all).
Larry Hama and his artist collaborators were also telling adolescent war fantasies in the concurrent Marvel comic book based on the G.I. Joe toy line, but they also incorporated a pop rumination on the life of a soldier and the roots of radical fundamentalism. Hama firmly set the book in the 1980’s and featured characters grappling with the psychic aftermath of the Vietnam War. Hama expanded upon the basic types introduced in the cartoons to create characters that pushed young readers to consider that even evil characters like Destro or the Baroness were capable of displaying courage or that in a story about war, a character you like might unexpectedly die in combat.
Simon Furman and Bob Budiansky partnered with artists Frank Springer, Don Perlin, Jose Delbo, Geoff Senior, Andrew Wildman and Nelson Yomtov to navigate the demands of a superhero comics publisher and a toy company and develop something that almost felt like a world for the Transformers franchise. They gave the characters individual personalities and motivations beyond their allegiance to one of the sides in the war. Unlike Hama, Budiansky was mostly focused on telling escapist stories for young people. He introduced mythology that encouraged readers to imagine the inner workings of a world populated by mechanical shapeshifters. Furman exanded the scope of the narrative with epic stories about time travel, creation myths and planet sized Transformers.
Scioli distills the myths of childhood to their violent essence. He suggests a deep, complicated mythology that entwines both properties, but they feel almost irrelevant in the final work, distractions from a story that’s fundamentally about people (or sentient objects) trying to hurt each other. He uses some of the characters and ideas introduced in the early wave of Marvel comic books based on these franchises, but the pace and the tone of the story evokes the 1980’s cartoons.
Scioli’s approach to storytelling adds a layer of irony absent from other incarnations of either franchise. He avoids the quiet moments that distinguished the earlier comics from the cartoons. G.I. Joe v. Transformers largely consists of a series of well crafted action scenes that feel like set pieces from a mainstream blockbuster film or an eight year old’s bedroom.
In contrast to Hama, Budiansky and Furman, Scioli doesn’t spend a moment trying to establish a sense of realism or draw parallels to the real world. He’s spinning an epic yarn in a world equally inspired by Jack Kirby (who influences everything Scioli does) and the designers of the 1980’s Hasbro toys. Scioli’s characters resemble action figures and he positions them accordingly. Many pages (including the one above) look like action figure dioramas carefully assembled by an imaginative child. They remind me that these are stories about corporate products. Scioli juxtaposes this reminder of effective corporate advertising with heady text and dialogue about morality, identity and shared personhood that evokes Bronze Age superhero comics. It’s an awkward blend of tones that is curiously effective. The contrast deepens the sense of discomfort that comes with watching creative people direct their energies towards creating expertly designed commercials for mass-produced children’s toys, but it also reminds me that the ‘official’ narratives established by the toy company can easily be modified or discarded by the child playing with the toys.
- John R. Parker’s profile of Larry Hama (focused on his work on G.I. Joe)
- Mike Diver’s interview with Simon Furman for Vice Magazine
- The Cheater’s Guide to Transformers Generation One Continuities Part 1 (1984-1990), by ‘Vector Sigma’
Reading: School Spirit vol. 1 by Kate Leth and Arielle Jovellanos; All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu
Watching: Season 4 of the Great British Bake Show, Gani, Our New Friend/Hana and Gani (Tayo the Little Bus, S01 E09-10)
Listening: Ctrl by SZA, Big Fish Theory by Vince Staples
Cooking: Charred Eggplant and Squash and Pecan Pesto Pasta Salad (adapted from here)
John Sorensen said:
The story is total pants, but I did love the pop art. I just wish someone would put Tom’s art with a readable story. I had to stop actually reading the words at some point and just enjoy the art, as I found it a painful slog. Also, his art for TF should be on metal lunchboxes!