Launching a new “G.I. Joe” comic book eight days after the United States’ 2016 presidential election is conspicuous timing. After all, what exactly does a “Real American Hero” mean when the nation is more divided than ever?
Aubrey Sitterson, the writer of IDW Publishing’s new “G.I. Joe” series, is keenly aware that a franchise built on glamorizing America’s military power could be seen as problematic in this day and age. In fact, that has actually helped guide his approach to the series — leaning into the science fiction aspects of the beloved property, a direction buoyed by IDW’s current post-“Revolution” status quo for its licensed Hasbro comics. In the new series, the G.I. Joe team won’t be limited to Americans — or humans at all, as there happens to be a Transformer on the team.
The “G.I. Joe: Revolution” one-shot from Sitterson, artist Giannis Milogiannis and colorist Lovern Kindzierski is on sale now, and the team is set to reunite for an ongoing series starting in January. Sitterson, whose association with G.I. Joe started earlier this year with IDW’s “Street Fighter X G.I. Joe,” spoke with CBR about how he’s looking embrace escapism with the new “G.I. Joe” comic book series, while underscoring the optimistic and aspirational elements of the franchise — which he distills as, “A diverse group of friends working together to combat evil.”
CBR: Aubrey, let’s start from a broader view — you mentioned that, even before recent events, you struggled with the idea of writing a military comic based on a kids’ toy line. How much did that factor into your ultimate approach to the series?
Aubrey Sitterson: An immense amount. An unspeakably immense amount. I grew up watching “G.I. Joe” and playing with the toys. I had fake plastic machine guns and fake plastic knives that I’d run around with outside. I loved all that stuff. But I’d be lying if I said that in 2016, it doesn’t feel… off.
Part of that is just getting older, I’m sure, and no longer seeing war as something to be glorified and celebrated — especially in the context of kids’ toys and entertainment. But also tied up in it are issues like the increasing militarization of the police, the increasingly indiscriminate use of drone strikes and generally just more knowledge of what’s actually going on in the world.
I know that some, maybe all of this, will get written off as big city, coastal, liberal elitist concerns, but I don’t think it should be. There’s something grim and uncomfortable about using a concept as optimistic and aspirational as G.I. Joe to push a very pro military-industrial complex agenda.
That’s a big part of why “G.I. Joe” is going to be striking the tone we’ve set out for it — one that, instead of being about real world combat drama and geopolitical events, focuses on the franchise’s more fantastical, science fiction elements. This is why the Joes are getting nonlethal lasers. This is why there’s a Transformer on the team. This is why we’re taking inspiration from the craziest stuff you remember from the Sunbow cartoon, because it’s all of that stuff that plays into what’s truly great about the G.I. Joe concept: A diverse group of friends working together to combat evil.
The focus on the fantastical, sci-fi elements is clear from the one-shot — but given the state of things, is it possible to write a comic like this without some real-world perspective seeping in?
I mean, to the extent that I read the news and keep up with things and that informs my overall worldview… no, not really. But I think there’s a big difference between being organically influenced by the real world and actively trying to speak to it, you know?
It’s like the difference between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis’ work is overt, mostly Christian, allegory. It’s designed from the ground-up to be seen that way. Tolkien saw fiction writing differently, however, and actively avoided metaphor. Even though you can find letters with him talking about how there is no metaphor though, you still get reams of criticism talking about what exactly the One Ring represents, or how Sauron connects to geopolitical events of the time. He was informed by it, naturally, without trying to shoehorn it in.
In the wake of the election, I actually thought, briefly, about maybe trying to change some plans. To do something a little more topical, to build up a villain that normalizes bigotry and xenophobia, one that manages to seize control of the government. I got a couple minutes into thinking about it and honestly… it just felt gross.
I love genre fiction. But I don’t think the solution to every problem is filtering it through pop culture. In fact, I think that’s the solution to very, very few problems. Not a knock on anyone who chooses to use genre fiction for very specific, very topical allegorical purposes, but I think that the form is better suited for broader, thematic and moral explorations.
And on top of all that? I think that there’s concrete value in escapism, especially when that escapism is, like Giannis, Lovern and my “G.I. Joe,” aspirational in its tone, goals and hopes.
That makes sense, but from a more philosophical perspective, have your thoughts on what it means to write a book about a “real American hero” been affected by the fact that what America represents, in how its viewed by the world and its citizens, already appears to be changing?
That’s a great question. And in short… no, not really. There’s always been a disconnect in terms of what America “means,” right? Not to get all Howard Zinn on you, but we’ve got a nasty, abhorrent history, one that we, as a people, have yet to fully own up to. The genocide of indigenous peoples, the enslavement of African-Americans, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the way that every wave of immigrants ever is treated with complete and utter disdain…that’s all very much at odds with what most people consider “The American Way,” you know?
It’s a weird linguistic ambiguity, one that gets exploited in angry rhetoric all the time. Because the fact of the matter is, that as much as I think what Donald Trump stands for and campaigned for is Unamerican to the extreme, it’s also very much in keeping with the most despicable parts of our history, which makes it… extremely American.
Fortunately… we’re able to sidestep a lot of that weird semantic confusion because of a simple, but far-reaching change that we’ve made to the status quo of G.I. Joe: They’re no longer a strictly American peacekeeping force. They’re now global.
That feels like a natural move, especially given that G.I. Joe has always involved globetrotting, ninjas, etc. It also speaks to one of the strengths of the franchise that you alluded to earlier — the diversity of its characters. It feels like an underrated element of G.I. Joe, given that it’s pretty much been there all along. How important is that aspect to you?
Extremely important. There was a great oral history of the Sunbow cartoon series that the Heat Vision blog did a month or two ago, and it was one of the things that the writers and voice actors kept nailing home. Even though there’s this conception of G.I. Joe, as a military-themed franchise, being very much geared at young, male, largely white boys, the Sunbow cartoon series was clearly designed from the ground up to be for everyone. No matter what gender, race or ethnic background a character was, they were a valued, important, useful part of the team. It’s hard to overstate how progressive and valuable that is as a major component of children’s entertainment.
So it’s absolutely something that we wanted to pick up on in our series, and I think we’ve demonstrated that with how we’ve built out our core cast. Naturally, all of the Joes in the preexisting continuity are American, but I’m hoping that’s something that we can address and change as we move forward. I already have plans for the first non-American G.I. Joe.
Beyond the Transformer on the team, presumably.
[Laughs] Yes! It completely slipped my mind that Cybertronians, by and large, do not have American citizenship. So, there are already plans for a second non-American G.I. Joe!
I know that some people will interpret this as the watering down of the concept, a sop to overly PC culture or whatever, but I’d put forth the idea that it’s actually a broadening and better expression of the Joe concept and identity.
Joe already has a lot of international fans and the world we live in is increasingly global in its scope. People the world over watch the same movies and read the same books. I want absolutely everyone to read “G.I. Joe,” no matter who they are or where they live, and I want them to feel the adrenaline rush that comes with good, aspirational action adventure fiction.
It also feels natural given the lean into sci-fi — why limit the scope in any way, right?
Exactly! It makes total sense with the new status quo of the Hasbro Universe. This is a world that has been invaded by giant shape-shifting robots, tiny astronauts from another dimension and medium-sized shape-shifting aliens. I think it’s absurd to think that the world’s premier fighting force would only concern itself with crazy stuff going on within one country’s borders.
The “G.I. Joe: Revolution” #1 one-shot is on sale now. IDW Publishing’s new “G.I. Joe” #1 is on sale
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