RETRO REVIEW: G.I. Joe – A Real American Hero #21 (March 1984)

by

Or – “Worth A Thousand Words…”

It’s a rare comic book that transcends it’s own medium.  This issue promises to be ‘the most unusual G.I. Joe story ever,’ and nearly 30 years down the line, that promise still holds true…

G.I. JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO #21
Writer: Larry Hama
Breakdowns: Larry Hama
Finished Art: Steve Leialoha
Colorist: George Roussos
Letterer: Not Applicable
Editor: Denny O’Neil
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: 60 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $14.00

Previously, in G.I. Joe- A Real American Hero:  G.I. Joe is the code name for America’s daring, highly-trained special mission force.  Its purpose: to defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world!  Occasionally, though, Cobra gets the upper hand, as this issue opens in a secret hidden Cobra temple, with the arrival of a mysterious operative on a flying jetpack…

You’ve probably figured out what the first unusual bit of this issue is:  It has no dialogue at all, and the only words in the issue appear on a computer terminal screen for one panel.  If you’re unfamiliar with G.I. Joe, the man in the evil-looking hood is Cobra Commander, while the white ninja is called Storm Shadow (here making his first appearance, I might add.)  The captive readhead is code-named Scarlett, a founding member of the G.I. Joe team, and a pretty badass hand-to-hand combatant herself, which sells the threat here.  Also worth noting:  she has very skilled friends.

Enter: Snake-Eyes.  The G.I. Joe teams commando and hand-to-hand specialist, Snake-Eyes also has a bit of a soft spot for Scarlett, in a very subdued British television sort of way.  The amazing thing about this issue is that Hama, the writer, is a former comic artist himself (notably as the first artist to succeed Gil Kane on the earliest Iron Fist tales), and did the layouts of this issue himself.  It makes for some particularly cinematic moments, as Snake-Eyes parachutes into the temple, making an almost impossible landing on the very top of the parapet and rappelling down to find his lady-friend.  Scarlett, for her part, isn’t very good at playing damsel in distress…

It should be noted that before picking her shackles, Scarlet also BIT the ninja who captured her, which always cracks me up.  While Snake-Eyes takes out a battalion of Cobra soldiers topside, Scarlett breaks free and begins working her way upward (stealing the experimental rocket glider, just to add insult to injury.)  Of course, Storm Shadow didn’t leave the temple completely unguarded…

NINJA ATTACK!  Snake-Eyes takes out his attacker with swift and blinding violence, and dispatches yet another with a grenade (!!), as he hasn’t quite been established as a super-ninja just yet.  But when G.I. Joe’s masked combat expert comes face-to-face with Cobra’s version of same, things start to become more complicated…

Hama and Leialoha’s art reminds me a lot of Frank Miller’s then-recent work on Daredevil, right down to the red ninjas, but there’s a fluidity here that Miller’s work often lacked in the 80′s.  Still without saying a word, the black and white ninjas find themselves evenly matched, each striking a glancing blow on the other, before Snake-Eyes capitalizes on his sensible military-grade footwear…

Scarlett arrives (Remember Scarlett?  This is a comic about Scarlett.) just in time to save the man who came to save her, but it is only Snake-Eyes superhuman speed that saves her from a sword in the face.  As the Joes pull off a daring escape (which, to be frank, looks really uncomfortable for Snake-Eyes, lying as he does across the glider’s probably-hot engines), Storm Shadow silently watches, not yet fully realizing that he’s just crossed swords with a very old friend…

I remember being very puzzled and intrigued by the matching tattoos that the two men sport in this last panel.  The ink is the 63rd hexagram of the I Ching, and can be translated as “already completed” or “already fording,” and it is eventually revealed to be the traditional marking of the Arashikage clan of ninjas.  Hama’s background in martial arts and eastern philosophy would eventually be conscripted by other writers into a ninjafication of the entire G.I. Joe premise, but this issue is an awesome introduction to a character who would change the course of the book forever.  Add to that the difficult task of clearly telling this story with no speaking roles at all, and the creators have truly created one for the ages. While reading G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #21, I found myself remembering nearly every moment vividly and admiring the impressive creative achievement it represents, earning 5 out of 5 stars overall.

Rating: ★★★★★