Michel Fiffe (W/A)
Dwight D. Eisenhower, former Supreme Allied Commander during World War II and twice elected President of the United States, warned Americans of a growing military industrial complex in his farewell address on January 17, 1961. He spoke of a growing and dangerous influence within the nation he had served mounted by “the immense military establishment” and “a large arms industry.” His concern was that these forces would continue to accumulate power and sway over public opinion, enriching themselves and directing future policies to that effect. Eisenhower’s warning went largely unheeded and American history in following half decade revealed it to be prophetic.
A few years after Eisenhower left office, a new line of toys provided one more drop in the pro-military propaganda bucket: G.I. Joe.
In addition to being a key historical point for toy manufacturing, taking the popularity of dolls like Barbie and providing them with a masculine veneer, G.I. Joe also offers an anecdotal storyline in the United State’s ongoing love affair with all things hawkish. The earliest offerings were modeled to be as realistically aligned with the various branches of the military with detailed weapons. Hasbro only strayed from this model as opposition to the Vietnam War increased, pushing the toy soldiers as an adventure line where members of the Army and Navy battled wild animals instead of men on an opposing side of an ideological divide.
Adjustments in marketing have continued ever since with the toys becoming more focused on individual characters and the demands of television (along with other adaptations) forcing other changes. One thing the franchise has never lost in its history is its connection to the military, providing a heroic veneer over the complexity of combat that has been continually packaged and sold to children almost since John F. Kennedy was increasing commitments in Vietnam. The notion of small units of soldiers deploying across the globe to tackle a poorly defined set of terrorists with carte blanche has aged poorly since it was used to revamp the franchise at Marvel Comics.
All of this makes telling a modern G.I. Joe story difficult, especially if one does not want to embrace the strains of jingoism and militarization intertwined with its history. The compulsion to tell new G.I. Joe stories can be distinct from these troubling elements though. Both the toys and the comics were defining storytelling devices for many young people. With memorable designs, an affordable price point, and some killer Larry Hama layouts, there was plenty to love even for children who were raised by wartime protestors. It presents a difficult contradiction and one that Michel Fiffe has navigated with his typical style in G.I. Joe: Sierra Muerte #1.
None of these historical topics provide a focal point for the comic in question. It is first and foremost an action comic, interested in telling a fast-paced, violent story with plenty of fantastical twists. Readers familiar with Fiffe from his work on COPRA or Bloodstrike will receive the impressive level of presentation they ought to expect. There is a visceral quality to each panel of action, even if the bloodshed and gore seem slightly reduced for this specific property. Characters blur with motion as they guide your eye to each new shift in momentum or climactic blow. Even based on a reasonable expectation from past work, these sequences still stun. “Sierra Muerte” is a celebration of violent stories, if not a celebration of violence itself.
However, the depiction of Joes taking it to Cobra Commander and his evil lackies does not embrace a pro-state agenda. Any connection between the individual squads spread across three distinct sequences and the United States is largely left to the audience’s memory of G.I. Joe lore and the distinctly American appearance of many commandos. Fiffe leaves out any mention that would connect these soldiers to real military elements, current campaigns like the ongoing “war on terror,” or even orders from Washington. Their existence is more closely related to that of the Justice League or Avengers, a set of uniquely gifted individuals battling bad guys without any clear relationship to geopolitical or historical realities.
Fiffe presents his story in media res with Cobra already engaging in apocalyptic machinations and the Joes already preparing to stop them. Like most modern superhero comics it is taken for granted that there are good guys and bad guys who must fight. They do not need to receive orders or justify their battles. Cobra Commander has far more in common with Despero than any real world despot, and the same could be said of Hawk and Superman in comparison to a “real American hero.”
This storytelling tactic helps to distance the property from its roots, but the memorable designs of many characters, Hawk in particular, still evokes a strong connection to deployments of American military might from throughout the past century. “Sierra Muerte” provides some preliminary groundwork in presenting its own morality distinct from modern warzones. One of the most heroic sequences in the issue comes when Hawk ceases fighting to throw himself into the line of fire and protect an innocent bystander. It is apparent that the fight is not occurring on American soil, but the lives of non-combatants remain of paramount importance to the Joes. This coincides with a lack of technology deployed in fighting. There are no drones or air support present, leaving the current state of international warfare and its many civilian casualties separated from the valorisation of these characters.
Critics of drone warfare and modern imperialism will not find “Sierra Madre” to be a rallying cry though. Even after focusing on the detainment of verifiable weapons of mass destruction and the protection of all civilian lives, Hawk still relishes a moment of implied torture. This is still a comic focused on violence and it enjoys the artful depiction of shocking moments. Just as The Raid embraced a violent narrative concerning police, without endorsing or defending violence by the police, “Sierra Madre” embraces violence by quasi-military superheroes.
It’s not a perfect solution to a toyline turned popular comic and cartoon property with troubling connections to modern history. That solution likely does not exist though, at least not under the umbrella of anything Hasbro will permit to be titled G.I. Joe. What Fiffe accomplishes here is to provide the beginnings of a story that is accessible to all fans of the property, hawks and doves alike. He largely circumvents glorifying what should not be glorified, without becoming didactic or forgetting the primal pull of violence in fictional media. It is an incredibly thin tightrope that is walked throughout these pages with the illusion of ease.