Reporting for Duty: Character Census in G.I.Joe A Real American Hero

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The Marvel-produced comic G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero(1982-1994) ran against the grain of its own publisher’s successful formula: “single marquee heroes with real life problems.” Unlike deeply flawed Marvel protagonists, whose conflicts intertwined with their personal growth, G.I. Joe was sustained with literally hundreds of characters, all of them capably fulfilling their roles.

Today, I will present a demographic break down of the variety of fictional characters used by comic writer Larry Hama during his 155-issue run on the series. His winning formula, perhaps misunderstood by the wider Marvel bullpin, utilized an entirely different set of storytelling tools. Plot, spygames, black ops, combat tactics, yankee ingenuity and war craft to take the place of in-depth character building.

How do you make a successful comic book with no central hero, in conjunction with toys that presupposed no existing plot?

This presentation will attempt to answer the question of how this series sustained itself without a central, troubled, main character, and while conjuring narratives based on seasonally released toys. Hasbro’s toy production was so robust that diversity naturally emerged out of the commercial appeals..

When I first began speaking about G.I.Joe at Center for Cartoon Studies in 2012, many of my peers, who in their 20-somethings or younger, had never heard of G.I.Joe. If they HAD any impressions of the property – they were inaccurate, including but not limited to the false notion that there is actually a single character named “G.I.Joe.” For my colleagues and other uninitiated, the fact that “Joe, the general infantryman” didn’t exist raised further speculation on the nature of the comic and other iterations of multi-media property.  Furthermore, many thought that an army comic in the Era of Ronald Reagan would be populated with jingoistic characters- fascist white males with only blood-lust to animate their actions.

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With this four panel sequence from Issue #49 – I tried to demonstrate that actually G.I.Joe was a superb melting pot. The series was composed of dozens of specialized men and women with true grit and smarts only matched by their sense of duty. I tried to explain to the group that while other Marvel comics heroes were navel-gazing at their own problems, G.I.Joe’s  writer, Larry Hama, had the blessing (or duty) of choosing between literally hundreds of characters, based on their personal skill sets, well-suited for their mission, and went to work. Continue reading