Many folks knew G.I. Joe from the toys and the cartoon. The cartoon series was fun, but let's face it — it was also pretty cheesy. After all, how do you take a series about counter-terrorists seriously when no one ever gets hurt and the guns only shoot little beams of light that always seem to miss?
The "G.I. Joe" comics, on the other hand, have always been a horse of a different color, delving into darker themes and with a more serious tone of military life and espionage. And they’ve been around longer than you may think.
So, with "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" hitting theaters this weekend, let’s take a look at the history of G.I. Joe in comics.
BREGER: In the 1940s, Sgt. David Breger wrote a regular comic strip that showcased the whimsical antics of a character called Private Breger. In Yank Magazine, these adventures were re-printed as “G.I. Joe,” since this was a slang phrase that referred to any average soldier.
In 1964 and 1965, DC Comics printed two stories titled “G.I. Joe” but these had no connection to Breger’s strip. At the same time, a new toy had been created called “G.I. Joe: America’s Movable Fighting Man.” A comic book of the same name was published by Hasbro, followed by a comic series called “The Adventures of G.I. Joe” and then the comic series “G.I. Joe Adventure Team.”
MARVEL COMICS: In 1982, Hasbro toys decided to start a new line called G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. The toyline included a variety of different heroes, the "Joes," who fought the terrorist organization known as Cobra. Hasbro then met with Marvel writer Larry Hama who would help with the promotion by writing up little histories of each character to be included on cards that came with the action figures. Marvel would then begin publishing a regular comic book series based on the toyline, which Hama would also write.
Rather than simply write basic stories that showcased the characters and thus acted as advertisement for the show, Hama decided to write a serious series about a counter-terrorist strike force that would include members from all branches of the military, people who would give up living a normal life in order to join the fight against enemies to the U.S. that most of the world didn’t know about.
The series involved not only direct action stories but also plots of political manipulation, such as when Cobra had its island base declared a sovereign nation by the U.N. As the backgrounds of the characters were developed, there were many serious conversations about war and its effects on a man.
The series also delved into several science-fiction-themed tales, not the least of which was when the G.I. Joe team and Cobra crossed paths with the alien Transformers.
The series ended in 1994 after over 150 issues and a few spin-offs and specials. In keeping with the tone of the series, the story ended with Snake Eyes recalling men he’d served with in Vietnam as he told a young boy that being a soldier was not an “adventure” but was a serious matter because it involved a life of horror and tragedy as much as it did one of honor and bravery.
(For more on Marvel's "G.I. Joe" comics, be sure to check out our list of Must-Read "G.I. Joe" Stories!)
DEVIL’S DUE: A few other comic stories and reprints happened afterward, such as the "G.I. Joe: Extreme" miniseries published by Dark Horse. But G.I. Joe did not return to comics in full force until 2001 when Devil’s Due Publishing began a new series that continued the saga of the Marvel series, taking place seven years after Larry Hama’s final story. Since this comic was not meant to advertise a toyline, it had much greater freedom in storytelling and new characters were not forcibly introduced in order to market new action figures.
This series ended with issue #43. Devil’s Due also published a "G.I. Joe/Transformers" series with Dreamwave comics, along with a 14-issue series called "G.I. Joe Reloaded" which reimagined the continuity from scratch. But Devil’s Due lost the license for G.I. Joe in 2008.
IDW PUBLISHING: Recently, IDW has begun a new line of G.I. Joe comics, rebooting the entire saga and continuity from scratch so as to provide easy access for new readers and surprises for old readers. Helping to spearhead this is original series writer Larry Hama.
Rather than one comic, IDW is publishing three lines that interconnect but can also be enjoyed separately. “G.I. Joe” follows the modern day stories of the ultra-secret Joe team, which is only now beginning to hear rumors about a person or organization called “Cobra.” “G.I. Joe Origins” takes place a couple of years in the past and shows how the team first began. “G.I. Joe: Cobra” is a dark espionage story showing the deep cover Joe agent called Chuckles as he infiltrates the mysterious Cobra organization.
Recently, the old Marvel Comics stories have begun being collected in various trades, including several “Best Of” collections focusing on a single hero or villain. So check them out and give the new IDW series a look as well, where everything old is new again!
Have any favorites from the "G.I. Joe" comics history? Sound off in the comment section or on Twitter!