Ask a G.I. Joe fan about their favorite vehicle, and you’ll get a variety of answers: The Mobile Command Center. The U.S.S. Flagg. The Defiant Space Shuttle. You probably wouldn’t expect anyone to name a cherry red Vespa, but that might change after reading IDW’s most recent G.I. Joe series. Written by Paul Allor and illustrated by Chris Evenhuis, the title is a wonderful collection of surprises that’s about to receive a one-shot “season finale” in the form of G.I. Joe: Castle Fall.
One of the main problems with the ongoing G.I. Joe mythology is that it’s got nearly 40 years of momentum behind it. Like many major entertainment properties, there’s such an incredible amount of content that it’s practically overwhelming for newcomers.
This story wipes the slate clean and drops us fresh into a brand new reality that’s accessible for anyone, regardless of prior familiarity with the Joe universe. In a nod to the 1985 “Worlds Without End” episodes, the first issue takes place in a United States on the losing end of Cobra’s coup d’etat. We’re also introduced to Rithy “Tiger” Khay, a small-time smuggler who’s lost his boyfriend and parents in the conflict. By the end of the first issue, a major Joe is dead and the rest of his teammates are carrying on a guerrilla war after their country’s surrender.
“I don’t think they expected this to be as radical a departure as it was,” Allor wryly noted when I asked him about it. “When I came on, the guidelines were that they wanted to start a new continuity where Cobra was more of a world power, it could be a corporation or it could be a country, and we want G.I. Joe to be more of a civilian resistance group that’s fighting them. I don’t think they expected me to have Cobra take over the entire world, I think they thought it was going to be earlier in the war.”
If that mention of Tiger’s boyfriend made you sit up and take notice, you’re not alone. This G.I. Joe series features multiple queer characters, and their identities are introduced in wonderful, subtle moments. While you might feel it’s about time for queer characters on both sides of the G.I. Joe universe, Allor notes that it’s long overdue.
“I don’t feel like it’s the time [for queer Joes], I feel like the time was many many years ago,” he said. “I didn’t feel like it was a big deal. There are queer characters in the book because the book is coming out in the year 2019 and it’s a diverse book.
“There’ve been queer characters in the military and spy agencies since the very beginning and I didn’t think it was a big deal. I’m not naive, I knew there was going to be some resistance to it,” but he notes that Hasbro has been nothing but supportive of the decision, as have fans in general.
Tiger is a brand new character, created specifically for this series, who also serves as an audience surrogate while he navigates his new reality. He introduces us to fellow Joes -new and old- and continues to pop up throughout the series.
Each issue is a self-contained, one-shot adventure starring different characters. It’s a little reminiscent of Warren Ellis’s Global Frequency, in that sense. But the details are better realized here: Allor takes time to explore his characters, building their stories organically while spinning out more information about their world. We get to learn about their motivations and -most importantly- the trauma that often drives them.
Mental trauma is a recurring theme, but it never weighs the series down. Allor’s deftly woven a thoughtful, mature story that’s balanced with just the right amount of levity. Likewise, Evenhuis’s art does a wonderful job of keeping things from feeling too heavy. In fact, one of the funniest moments in the series comes from the issue that’s effectively a horror story.
That’s probably why this series is so good: Even though it’s telling new stories with new characters in a new setting, it always feels like G.I. Joe. Both Allor and Evenhuis have worked on the property before –in fact, Evenhuis illustrated a story about a past Cobra Commander and Dante– and it shows.
Allor’s clearly comfortable writing these characters, maneuvering them in ways that feel simultaneously familiar even when they’re taken in new directions. Evenhuis’s art perfectly conveys a world reminiscent of the animated series, and his action sequences walk that perfect line of believable and cartoony. “I think what Chris does really well is he combines a European style of line art with a more American style of paneling and pacing,” Allor said.
Brittany Peer’s color work is, likewise, perfect and helps create a sense of unity when Emma Vecieli, Niko Walter, and Ryan Kelly, whose art is seen in the image at the top of this article, step in to handle the art duties on individual issues.
Allor’s talked on Twitter about how he wrote the series to showcase everyday people fighting against tyranny and fascism. That message feels especially timely after the past four years. Not only have we seen so many people shrug away the atrocities of those in power, but we’ve also now witnessed a real-life attempt to overthrow democracy.
The previous administration’s reign was like an ongoing train wreck: Surreal and horrifying to watch, yet impossible to look away from. For many of us, it was unfathomable how many people tolerated -let alone cheered- that prolonged period of cruelty. But the truth is that it’s hard to make people care about fascism if it doesn’t negatively impact them.
Allor acknowledges how people can see the parallels between Cobra and the Trump administration but says he was aiming to create a story focused on the rising tide of fascism around the globe.
“Trump is a small piece of a much larger, incredibly scary picture,” he said. “Of course there was an influence there, but Cobra Commander has more in common with these other people you see around the world, in countries that don’t have the United States’ political guardrails, allowing them to go much farther and faster towards outright fascism. If you’re a Trump supporter and our depiction of a populist strongman automatically makes you think we’re talking about Trump, rather than Duterte, Bolsanaro, Erdogan, Orban, Putin, and on and on and on… well, that’s interesting!”
Allor’s story takes time to explore that idea: One issue, in particular, focuses on the Joes operating in a town that’s currently thriving under Cobra’s regime. Adding themes like these is a smart move, providing some much-needed shades of gray to a franchise so often known for black-and-white morality.
For Allor, adding this moral complexity, “came second nature to me. I do enjoy tweaking the politics a little bit… Cobra Commander is kinda an environmentalist and I also believe saving the planet should be our number one priority, politically. You can have the right idea and still go about it in a really horrible way.”
It’s hard to stress what a pleasant surprise this series has been. The issues have been alternately silly, scary, and strange, while always remaining smart. G.I. Joe is easily one of the best books to come out in the last year, and you should absolutely read it before Castle Fall comes out later this month.
Mike Thompson is a writer living in Northern California. He spends much of his time running, baking, and desperately scrounging for another cup of coffee. Feel free to follow him on Twitter and Instagram.