Review: GI Joe: Declassified trade paperback (Devil's Due Publishing)

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

[Doug Glassman ('80s Marvel Rocks!) celebrates "Indie-pendence Month" with his July reviews ...]

I’m impressed that Devil’s Due Publishing is still around despite losing the GI Joe license to IDW; a lot of that can be credited to having excellent in-house properties such as Hack/Slash. It helps that they weren’t owned by a crook like Dreamwave’s Pat Lee. Devil's Due can also be credited with getting Larry Hama back into writing for GI Joe titles when he returned to pen GI Joe: Declassified in 2003. While Brandon Jerwa’s Snake-Eyes: Declassified simply arranged the myriad retcons about Snake-Eyes’ past into a readable form, Hama told the long-awaited story of the GI Joe team’s origins. They had appeared fully-formed in their first Marvel issue ... which, as Declassified reveals, possessed a few secrets of its own.

There’s been a bit of continuity confusion over whether Declassified should “count." Initially, Devil’s Due’s GI Joe books were the sequel to the Marvel run. They have since been supplanted by Hama’s ongoing A Real American Hero series from IDW, though Devil's Due’s books are still in trade form from IDW under the Disavowed banner. Since Hama wrote Declassified and hasn’t done anything to invalidate its events within the pages of A Real American Hero, I don’t see a reason why it shouldn’t be considered canon.

The main reason behind this confusion has to do with the character of “Shooter," who has an important subplot throughout the book. Hama positions Declassified as taking place shortly before and during the first Marvel issue with numerous flashbacks to the recruitment of almost every character. Shooter’s origins trace back to an Easter egg in that issue; the Joes’ computer lists a member named “Shooter," a gag about how Marvel EIC Jim Shooter’s last name sounded like it could be a GI Joe code name. It turns out that Shooter was, in fact, a secret Joe used only for back-up and on secret missions. She was the team’s very first sniper -- a position the Joes notably lacked for years until Low-Light debuted in 1986. After Declassified, she was never seen or used again, but that doesn’t mean she should be forgotten.

With Snake-Eyes having his own mini-series and Scarlett getting a one-shot of her own, the series has more than enough room to explore the stories behind the original members. Some of these characters, such as Zap, Flash, and especially Short-Fuze, have been barely used since the first year of the franchise. The latter gets one of the most impressive origins of any Joe, resisting mental torture for weeks at a time as part of his training. Hama reveals that Colonel Hawk has to deal with soldiers under his command torturing a criminal for information; Stalker is put into a similar situation later on. This was written during the Abu Ghraib controversy and it’s clear that Hama, a veteran, was conflicted in his response to what was done and what should have been done. Some read Declassified as an apologia for soldiers torturing prisoners; to me, it’s Hama noting that in his experience, war can bring out the worst in people and sometimes the best people are the ones stuck with resolving it.

Even though the Original 13 are the focus of Declassified, many major Joes also appear ... just not as Joes. Wild Bill and Ace cameo as pilots dropping Shooter off on their assignments. Chuckles is their CIA contact, “Mr. Ha-Ha." Fred Broca appears at one point long before the Crimson Guards were introduced. I actually missed Duke and Roadblock’s appearance the first time around! Pages of notes at the end of the book point out who all these people are and, even better, tell what happened to them. Some fates were later reversed since most deaths in Devil's Due's run were negated for A Real American Hero, but it does remind the reader that a few of the Declassified characters are dead men walking if they passed in the Marvel run. (Poor Breaker.)

Perhaps the one downside to the focus on the Joes’ origins is that the bad guys get very little panel time. Cobra Commander, the Baroness, and Major Bludd all appear, but they do almost nothing apart from act as the behind-the-scenes commanders of the Sierra Gordo forces. Weirdly, this is one of the few times that Bludd’s henchmen, Damon and Pythias, have any major focus, mostly because Bludd was pushed aside once Destro was introduced. I kind of wish Hama had added Destro into the proceedings, perhaps as selling armaments to the government. On the other hand, that would just make the GI Joe continuity even more confusing; we didn’t need another “the Baroness thinks Snake-Eyes killed her brother” moment.

Unfortunately, GI Joe: Declassified is currently out of print, and the trade can be hard to find. There is hope: IDW’s republishing of the Devil’s Due GI Joe catalog is still ongoing, and the success of their A Real American Hero title means that interest in Declassified should be there. I wouldn’t be surprised if an omnibus collecting this, the Dreadnoks Declassified mini-series, and the aforementioned Scarlett and Snake-Eyes books was solicited soon.

This comic works a little better if you’ve read the original “Operation: Lady Doomsday!” so you can see what happened between the panels, but it’s perfectly readable without it. There’s a nice little undercurrent of the team’s need to change from difficult-to-distinguish green army men to a group of distinct and slightly quirky specialists. At this point in the franchise, Short-Fuze stands out simply because he looks so normal.

Next week, it’s time to return to the collided worlds of Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man and finish up one of my favorite inter-continuity crossovers.
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