Sunday, September 9, 2018

G.I. JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO

"G.I. Joe is the codename for America's daring, highly trained special
missions force. Its purpose: to defend human freedom against Cobra,
a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world."
Thirty-five years ago this week, at least according to the sources I've found, G.I. JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO hit television airwaves in the form of a five-part miniseries event, created by Sunbow Productions in association with Marvel Productions, and serialized across a full week. Alternately known as "The Mass Device" and simply "A Real American Hero", the episodes were, I imagine, many kids' first exposure to G.I. Joe outside of the little plastic toys. Marvel had of course been publishing an ongoing JOE comic book for over a year at this point, but even with television commercials to advertise that series, a weekday syndicated cartoon would reach far more children far more easily than a comic.


I was too young for JOE at this point; being a few months shy of five years old in September of '83 -- so I would have missed the miniseries when it first aired. And, though G.I. Joe never floated my boat as a young child in the same way as the Transformers and He-Man, I did watch the subsequent year's "Revenge of Cobra" serial. But I didn't really become a fan and follower of JOE for several more years. It was actually when I was in middle school and my younger brother got into the toys that I began reading the comic book and watching the cartoon episodes wherever I could find them in syndication or at the video store. And our local store had a copy of "The MASS Device", which I rented several times.

Anyway, in honor of this week's anniversary, and inspired by Gene Kendall's recent interest in G.I. JOE, I decided to view the miniseries and write down some thoughts. But honestly, I probably didn't even need to watch! Though it's probably been close to a decade now since the last time I checked it out, I viewed "The MASS Device" so many times throughout middle school, high school, college, and even my twenties, that I have the whole thing basically memorized. And while the subsequent miniseries and episodes of the eventual full-fledged series turned in some great material, for me personally, it's hard to argue that these five episodes aren't the peak of G.I. JOE animation.

Written by Ron Friedman, who developed the show initially before eventually handing it off to story editor Steve Gerber for the first full season in 1985, this serial borrows from the action figure filecards and the continuity of Larry Hama's comics to set up its own universe and characterizations. The show hits the ground running, with a sneak attack on G.I. Joe headquarters by Cobra bombers. We meet our hero, Duke, and three of the major supporting Joes, Scarlett, Stalker, and Snake-Eyes, immediately -- and we also learn that, while relatively grounded compared with something like TRANSFORMERS or MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, the TV Joes live in a world where enlisted soldiers fly fighter jets and a first sergeant orders around officers as if they were his subordinates (two things which seem to drive the more militarily inclined JOE fans nuts, but which have never bugged me much at all).


But it's the next scene that really kicks things off, and right away demonstrates just what it is I love about this miniseries in particular above almost all other episodes of Sunbow's G.I. JOE. We're spirited to some dark, desolate peak in an unknown location, where a cloaked figure approaches a foreboding temple covered with snake iconography. The man's guide flees in terror when the temple opens up to receive its guests, and suddenly we realize that cartoon JOE isn't going to be a straight-up military action show along the lines of the comic book. No, Friedman has decided to present G.I. JOE as something akin to an old-fashioned adventure serial -- and as the week's worth of episodes progress, we'll find them replete with exotic locations, nonstop cliffhangers and narrow escapes, and all the trappings of the sort of Saturday matinee feel that inspired the likes of Indiana Jones.

It makes sense; even in syndication, where censorship was laxer than on network television, it would've been hard to present kids (and their watchful parents!) with the sort of military realism Larry Hama was showcasing in the comic book. So instead, TV JOE is infused with a much less formal command structure, a little science fiction, and a lot of that movie serial sensibility.


From here, a brief rundown of the miniseries' plot: Destro, weapon supplier to the terrorist organization called Cobra, builds a teleportation machine which the villains use it to steal a U.S. satellite called "relay star", kidnapping Duke in the process. While Duke spends some time as Cobra's prisoner before ultimately escaping, the Joes find the MASS device's designer, Doctor Vandermeer, and get him to build them a MASS device of their own to counter Cobra's. But the device requires three special and rare elements to function, and the Joes set out to find them, unaware that, thanks to Cobra Commander's frivolous use of his own device, Cobra needs more of the elements as well. The Joes and Cobra clash in the arctic, under the sea, and over a volcano, with each side procuring some of the needed elements. Eventually, the Joes locate Cobra's temple and the team attacks the bad guys in their home. Cobra is beaten and Cobra Commander is captured, while Destro escapes and vows revenge.

The trappings of the Saturday matinee are especially evident in Duke's storyline. After his capture by Cobra (which in itself lays the seed for an unintentional ongoing joke -- Duke always gets captured by Cobra), he's forced into a gladiatorial match with a hulking barbarian, then falls for the above-mentioned slave girl, Selina -- or rather, she falls for him. Duke, in this miniseries above all other appearances, really is the prototypical square-jawed, alpha male action hero. Heck, he identifies himself as a "man of action" in the series' first scene! Subsequently, Duke escapes into a swamp and eludes Cobra in a long action sequence which is one of the miniseries' highlights, before being found by the Joe team.


The old-fashioned serial feeling is present elsewhere, too, as Joe commando Snake-Eyes is separated from his team in the arctic and spends some time wandering around with radiation sickness and fighting a polar bear before he, too, reunites with the team. And the sci-fi factor comes into play as the Joes battle fantastical giant tube worms in the ocean. Plus, the volcano where the final element is found is called "the Devil's Cauldron" -- an Indiana Jones-style name if ever there was one. The entire thing has this very 1930s/40s pulp feel to it, which it would never quite capture again.

By the way, it's notable that Ron Friedman was born in 1932, making him exactly the right age to enjoy those sorts of movie serials as a child. Certainly, the influence of this genre on his G.I. JOE is not a coincidence. But just as he draws from the Saturday matinee for influence in the style and pacing of his story, Friedman also looks to the ongoing G.I. JOE comic book series for certain bits and pieces. Chief among these is the inclusion of the Baroness, top lieutenant of Cobra Commander and an invention of Marvel and Larry Hama. She's even drawn for this series in the uniform she wore in the JOE comics of the time, which predated her 1984 action figure. Another bit cribbed from the comic, which is pretty much never spoken of again following these five episodes, is the idea that Snake-Eyes and Scarlett share a special bond. While the TV series, even at this early point, pairs up Duke and Scarlett as a couple, Scarlett remains -- as in the comics -- the Joe who is closest with Snake-Eyes.


Any cartoon's quality must be judged as a whole, a synthesis of character design, storyboards/direction, animation, script and voice acting -- and this inaugural JOE miniseries, for the most part, doesn't disappoint in any of these arenas. Friedman's script is sharp, filled with fun banter between the characters (and it's my understanding that Friedman remained on staff for the full series to "punch up" scripts and keep them in line with his original characterizations). While many fans cite Destro referring to Cobra Commander as a "reptilian popinjay" as a highlight, for me the best line in these five shows has always been Duke's declaration that he's "...gonna kick the mustard outta that crazy hot dog" after being buzzed by a low-flying fighter jet in the series' opening moments. The sniping between Destro and Cobra Commander, the goofy buddy duo of Steeler and Short-Fuze, and the general good-natured camaraderie among the Joes are all highlights of Friedman's wonderful script. Even the weird pseudo-nonsequiturs, such as Gung-Ho's "Eye in the sky, go in high! Gung-Ho Joe is goin' in low!" feel somehow right in the moment -- which is a testament not only to Friedman's writing, but also to the voice cast's commitment to delivering his lines.

And the script is indeed serviced wonderfully by the cast. Michael Bell's tough, no-nonsense Duke and Chris Latta's genuinely menacing Cobra Commander (performed a few octaves lower than what the voice would eventually evolve to become), along with Arthur Burghardt's over-enunciating baritone as Destro, lead the pack in delivering memorable performances, with Morgan Lofting's apparently Transylvanian Baroness and Latta's tough-guy Gung-Ho coming in just behind them. But really, the entire production is very well cast and exquisitely directed by Wally Burr. There are horror stories in the voiceover community about the extent to which Burr would push in order to extract authentic performances from his actors, but while his method may have been difficult to tolerate, the results are hard to debate.


Plus, not only are the voices pitch-perfect, but pretty much every other aspect of the production is beyond reproach. The show features wonderful character designs from respected (and sadly, recently passed away) military comic book artist Russ Heath, who basically boils every action figure down to a simplified, animation-friendly look. Heath's work was so iconic that it would influence other iterations of JOE, with his interpretations of the characters usually appearing in coloring books, storybooks, and even the Marvel comic series. Sunbow's storyboard artists choreograph the script very nicely in most places, and the animation, from Japan's legendary Toei studio, brings those storyboards and Heath's designs to life with much greater consistency and attention to detail than a lot of the later series episodes. G.I. JOE never seemed to suffer from as many problems as its sister series, TRANSFORMERS, but there were certainly animation errors and off-model drawings over the years -- and while there are a few such occurrences in "The MASS Device", for the most part it's about at the level one might expect from an animated feature of the era.

And then there's the music. I know I geek out about TV and movie scores around here now and then; most often whenever La La Land Records releases a new BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES soundtrack, but I just can't help it -- scores are very important to me. I was the kid who wanted the soundtrack to every movie he saw, and who wished that television cartoons had score albums too. Johnny Douglas's music fits the mood and animation style of the miniseries just right. It's jaunty and jazzy, with shades of seventies funk, and it adapts the melody of the G.I. JOE theme song (composed by Sunbow's Ford Kinder for the TV commercials) into its motifs in several creative ways (action music, several variations of a military march, and even some soft/tender bits, among many more).


Douglas would return to JOE in 1984 to compose additional music for the sequel miniseries, but that's where his involvement ends. Subsequently, Sunbow would hire composer Robert Walsh to write and record a library of action music to be used across multiple series, including JOE and TRANSFORMERS. Walsh's music, while catchy and exciting in its own way, has never really fit JOE for me; without the quotations of the G.I. JOE theme, it comes across as generic (which was, of course, the point). Plus, Walsh brings the musical sound into a more modern decade, and my own personal taste leads me to like Douglas's seventies-inspired style better. Certainly, it's hard to uncouple Douglas's music from Friedman's dialogue. If this miniseries featured the later Walsh music, a lot of the charm of Friedman's words would sound corny.

So why this miniseries above all else? "The Revenge of Cobra" is certainly a worthy successor to what's set up here, and the 55 episodes that would comprise the show's first season are probably more refined in terms of scriptwriting, even if the animation sometimes lets those scripts down. Occasionally I think I have a bit of "John Byrne-itis", in that I generally find the earliest version of many media properties are the ones that appeal to me most. It's not always the case, but certainly often. But really, I think it's just a few simple factors: circa 1983, the Joe team is smaller, giving roles to a lot of characters would quickly get lost as the toyline expanded; Duke is my favorite Joe and his role is much bigger here than anyplace else in the series (clearly Hasbro and Friedman intended him to be the "star" at this point); and the adventure serial feel plus the more menacing Cobra Commander and Destro all combine to make this, in my mind, the best of G.I. Joe's animated exploits.

2 comments:

  1. I'm certainly celebrating the 35th Anniversary on the 12th-16th. Interesting, this mini-series and INSPECTOR GADGET premiered on the same day! DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS is celebrating its 35th on the 17th.
    I remember watching the series in the day, and usually missing out on the conclusion most of the time. Looking back at it today, it holds up better than REVENGE OF COBRA (which seems to run out of steam mid-way once they search for the missing pieces. The Joes strike back at Washington DC was the high point that the rest of the mini-series didn't match). Although I like Flint, Lady Jay, and Shipwreck, I felt this was the best ensemble.

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    1. I never actually watched DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, though I was a big fan of INSPECTOR GADGET as a kid. I had no idea it premiered the same day as G.I. JOE!

      I agree; "Revenge of Cobra" is good, but it definitely loses something partway through. I do like the final episode, where Zartan goes rogue for a little while, but it could've been better.

      Ron Friedman wrote all the G.I. JOE miniseries (plus the movie, though it was apparently very, very heavily rewritten by Buzz Dixon). I feel like each successive mini gets a little worse (though I might actually rank "Pyramid of Darkness" lower than "Arise Serpentor, Arise", only because the latter has less silly stuff).

      I'll probably write a post about "Revenge of Cobra" next year on its anniversary, though, if I remember.

      I agree on the ensemble, too. Like I said above, the Joe team here is small enough that nearly everyone gets a little moment to shine -- or at least, nearly every 1983 character. The 1982s, aside from Stalker, Snake-Eyes, and Scarlett, are pretty much all relegated to background roles.

      I feel like a full season of just this Joe team could have been fun! The earliest episodes of the first season (in terms of production order) do focus a lot on the '83 characters, but they still have '84s and '85s mixed in as well.

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