A lot of people seem to be vocal about their dislike for so-called "nostalgia" comic books.
That doesn't bother Joshua Blaylock. You know why?
The first comic to kick off the "'80s nostalgia boom," "G.I. Joe" has proven to be a strong seller and popular with it's fanbase, not losing much steam through it's first year and half of publishing. But with the two-year mark approaching, writer Josh Blaylock and his crew are raising the stakes and CBR News spoke to the writer about what will be his biggest "Joe" story yet, his creator owned projects and provided new readers with an introduction to the series.
"Our 'G.I. Joe' comic book is about an elite team of Military specialists chosen from different branches of the armed forces, assembled to put a stop to the organization known as COBRA," explains the Devil's Due founder. "I think the easiest way to describe it is 'What if a bunch of normal soldiers had to take on a group of super villains.' Cobra is by no means full of super powered characters, but they are all very over the top. One of the other major themes of the G.I. Joe mythos, a lot of what ties it together, is the ninja element. There are characters like Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow who are a scarce few living remnants of an ages old clan, now used for military purposes.
"So for the newbie, there's Military action, martial arts, grounded sci-fi, and drama. I think that's why this particular G.I. Joe mythos still resonates with fans so strongly even after twenty years. It has the same great back story and character depth, as properties like Batman, X-Men, or Star Wars."
Some would say that the hardest part about getting into "G.I. Joe" is the cast size, but Blaylock has worked to make each issue reader accessible and says that there's something for everyone. "Beyond what I think I covered pretty well above, it's full of as much action, mystery, and suspense as any book out there, and the art on the book has never been better."
That being said, Blaylock is leaving the series with issue #25 and some might wonder why he'd leave a property he's made so successful and one he's been a fan of for so many years. "Since day one I said I wanted to do a two year run on the book. I wanted to show people that I could commit to a title for a good chunk of time, and on a regular basis, but what I didn't want was to get stale. Even though I still have a lot of ideas, I mean, I could go on for years, but there are some things a new writer will bring to the table that I never thought of. I will never completely leave the book - always staying involved in the plots and story direction with the occasional miniseries, but I'm leaving as the monthly writer. In all honesty, I need some time off, too, to focus on a few internal company matters, and to focus on our non-licensed Devil's Due books, 'Kore' and 'Misplaced,' which I'm also writing.
"Issue 25 sounds like such a nice round number to leave with too, doesn't it? [laughs]"
One thing that does sound nice to fans is the return of "Joe" villain Serpentor, who was a rival for leadership of Cobra in the cartoon and comic's continuities, but didn't survive either… it seemed. But to those who see Serpentor's defining moments as receiving a flying elbow drop from Sgt Slaughter or screaming "You know, at first I actually underestimated the passion of the Serpentor fans, and the amount of Serpentor fans out there. People have been asking for him for a long time, and when we finally hinted towards his return in issue 16, the book's reorders skyrocketed. What I'll be making an effort to do is to keep the Cobra Commander fans happy too, and I think the story will please both."
Still, to many Serpentor is too over the top for "G.I. Joe" and his continual use of the phrase "This I Command" is like fingers on a chalk board to many. But Josh Blaylock, the many fans credit with making the villainous Aussie Dreadnoks into "cool" characters, says, "This Serpentor is bad ass. Instead of playing on the goofier elements, such as his battle cry you just referred to, I have to say okay, so this guy is a clone. We've accepted that. He's made up of the greatest conquerers the world has ever known. We're swallowing that part as suspension of disbelief. Now what do we do with that to make it cool?
"He's an over the top character, and has to be treated as such. If he's made up of conquerors, he's going to want to take over the world. He's not content to run a small crime ring here, manipulate a small government there - he's not capable of thinking small. He'll spend years and years preparing for something, but when he makes his move, it's going to be big. Cobra Commander's an equal bad ass in his own right, but he's in it for himself - he's in it for multi-layered reasons - he's a much more complex character. Serpentor wants one thing - ultimate power over everything and everyone.
"He also wants revenge... but we'll get to that later."
When thinking of Serpentor, the character of Sgt Slaughter- yes, the same guy you saw in the WWE- comes to mind and while there aren't plans for his returns, Blaylock doesn't rule it our either. "He's so associated with the cartoon, but I was surprised at what a positive response the hard core 'comic only' fans have to him. Unless WWE wants to do something and Hasbro agrees, I don't think we'll be seeing that anytime soon... but never say never."
Before the big Serpentor story, there's another milestone- issue #21 will be an homage to the Marvel Comics "G.I. Joe #21," the now famous silent issue, and will feature art by Mike Zeck. "Mike rocks," gushes the "Joe" scribe. "He's professional, punctual, and delivers a solid product every time. I know fans are super psyched about seeing him finally do a full G.I. Joe issue. And for it to be the silent issue - a tribute to a milestone in comics - man, it doesn't get any better than that."
But doing a comic like this is asking for pressure and while anyone who knows Blaylock will tell you he's a confident guy, this is one endeavor that will test his mettle. "Hell yes there is [a lot of pressure]. Eventually you have to say, 'you're damned if you do and damned if you don't' and just do what you believe is a good story. You know, it's not the original, and nothing can replace that. This IS, however, a very important moment in our storyline - something that finally puts a few issues to rest, and sets the tone between two of the most popular G.I. Joe characters for quite a while. And Bringing Zeck on... well that's just something every fan has been wishing for fifteen years."
Okay, so the art's going to be pretty- but it's still about ninja's in the military, right? Now Blaylock isn't above poking fun at the "Ninja Force debacle of the 90's," as he did in issue #1, but he maintains that there's a serious side to the Snake Eyes (the good guy) and Storm Shadow (the bad guy) conflict. "That's why you've gotta read the comic :) They're struggle is just classic. I think the clincher is they used to be such good friends, and that Storm Shadow has been swallowed up in a world of lies and deceit, and is always just beyond Snake-Eyes' reach - and Snakes feels a definite loyalty to him...he owes him for so much. Also, I feel that people like to identify with Snake-Eyes. Yeah, we all know what he looks like now, but as a kid, he's the guy who's voice you never hear, and face you never see... he's the one that maybe... just MAYBE could be YOU."
If fans on the Internet are to be believed, there's too much use of the ninjas in "G.I. Joe," though orders increase dramatically when they are heavily featured in a story. "I don't know - maybe we should ask Wolverine how he does the same thing for X-men," laughs Blaylock when asked why those ninjas are such good moneymakers. "I can't explain it, but people love their Ninjas. We just have to maintain a balance - they're like candy. Everyone likes candy, but if you have too much of it you get sick of it. Now if they were like pizza, you'd never get sick of them. MMM... Pizzaaa...uhm sorry.
"It's funny, though, because the ninja 'haters' always speak up. We went like four or five issues once without Snake-Eyes, and the second he showed up again they begin ranting, 'Does Snake Eyes have to be in every issue?!!'"
Besides those two friends, there's the wild card of mercenary Firefly, whose actions have damaged both COBRA and G.I. Joe, leaving some fans to wonder whose side he's on, but more often leading other fans to think, "wow, he's neat." "Well, people love Firefly, and I think it's because to most fans, he's not a Ninja. Most fans rejected that idea that he was a ninja, which was added on later in the mythology, or at least choose not to think about it. See, he looks like a ninja, he's sneaky and bad ass like a ninja, but you can like him without the ninja guilt :)
"Seriously, though, what's so cool about him is that he's this mysterious character who's kind of beyond both Cobra and G.I. Joe."
If you've been paying attention to the latest "G.I. Joe" storyline, you'll have noticed some very high sexual tension between the married G.I. Joe Flint and very much committed weapons dealer called The Baroness. And next issue's cover has them making out… "I'm zipping my lip on this one," smirks Blaylock.
He's also keeping quiet on which plot threads he'll wrap up before he leaves, though Blaylock says he'll try to take care of most of it. "I will be wrapping up a lot of loose threads in this final story-arc. I'll leave a couple open because, well, I want you to come back and read the next issue, but we've been working towards this for about fifteen issues. What I try to do with each story arc is answer the major questions from the previous arc, and flesh out a couple of smaller teasers as well, making them the new subplot that you're dying to know the answers for. Then, in the next arc, I'll answer those questions, but introduce new ones.
"It's a good method I think, because it strings you along like the 'X-Files,' but unlike 'X-Files,' you know you're going to get a payoff in the end. Throwing the clone kids into issue 16 was something that went against this, but it was intentional - but see, with issue 22-25, you get the payoff."
The "G.I. Joe" comic may have had only one writer in this incarnation, but it's had a few pencillers and the newest one is Brandon Badeaux, best known for his fill-in work at DC Comics. "Brandon is bringing a whole new feel to the Joe book, and it's looking killer. He comes from a very film-influenced background, and that shows in his art. When you read the new G.I. Joe books, you feel like you're in a movie theatre. His designs for the characters are very fresh too, even when he bases a look off of a twenty year old costume. I'm the big Joe geek in the duo, so sometimes I have to reel him back in and explain why I think fans wouldn't like something, but that balance is making for some sweet looking comic books.
"Of course, even more importantly, he gets up in the morning and works a full day, and sends his pages in consistently, a page a day. That means a lot at the ol' DDP ranch."
For the G.I. Joe diehards, there's also the "G.I. Joe Frontline" series that spotlights second tier characters and tells stories that just don't fit in the regular series. "'Frontline' is a chance for other artists to show us their take on the G.I. Joe mythos," explains Blaylock. "It's also a chance to give exposure to other characters, and there are so many, who aren't being spotlighted in the regular book. It also opens the door for simple stories with less commitment, allowing the casual fan to try Joe out.
"In August, we decided to do the weekly book because, well, Why not? I'd put every book out weekly all the time if I could. The only reason we put books out monthly is because that's the way it's been done for years.
"We're a reliable company that puts out consistently solid, entertaining comic books and we put out a hell of a lot for a company our size. We've done what so many have tried to do, and I think this was a chance to show what we're really capable of. I just want to say I did it, and it gives us an opportunity to tell another story faster, opening the door for more creators.
"It's a challenge, but that's what we like."
So while August may seem like "G.I. Joe" month for fans of the long running toy line, Blaylock says more is yet to come and admits to being happy with his contribution to the fans, though he adds there are some things he wishes he could do. "Aside from masterminding the toy-line and heading production on a new animated series and writing the screenplay for a live action movie [which Blaylock would be glad to do at some point], I'm happy with what we're accomplishing. Hasbro has umpteen people working on the brand, and I'm glad we get to be a part of it. They're planning some big things for G.I. Joe next year."
Included in August's festivities, we have "G.I. Joe/Transformers," which combines two of today's (and yesterdays) most popular franchises, with a story that Blaylock explains will feel very fresh. "The G.I. Joe vs. The Transformers is a total 'how about if this happened?' alternate reality story. It's "what if COBRA found the Ark before the Transformers woke up?" What if they got ahold of Transformer technology, and that's why G.I. Joe was formed. It brings a whole Roswell element to G.I. Joe, and plays up the alien side of the TFs. I think we're so used to accepting them as friendly robotic 'buddies' that we kind of forget that in reality, hey, this is an alien invasion. Also, since I haven't had the chance to write Transformers yet, it's like my nostalgia geek-factor has been reset all over again. I'm having a blast.
"I don't know that I ever want to write a story with this many characters again, but I'm having fun :)"
Artist Mike Miller is handling the pencils and Blaylock says it was Miller's natural talent that got him the gig. "Mike saved our butts on an artist deadline once by drawing two pages a day. Then, when he heard about Joe TF, he went gunning for it. He sent over a quick sketch done in ballpoint pen... and it rocked. If he could do that with a sketch, imagine what he could do with like, a pencil, eraser, and art board."
Devil's Due has been flexing it's creative muscles with a multitude of creator projects, namely "Kore" and "Misplaced" and Blaylock explains that it's about economics and creativity. "Because licensed properties are like renting an apartment, while your company owned properties are your house. Sure, you can have a kick ass apartment, but what happens at the end of the day if your lease is terminated? We're in the fortunate position of having very hot licenses right now, which we hope to continue doing for years, but it's important that we own some characters, too. They're an investment.
"I can't tell you how many phone calls I've gotten from Hollywood asking if I can help them make a G.I. Joe movie because they love what we're doing with the comic book. I also know for a fact that Abrams Gentile Entertainment used our comic book to help sell the movie rights. But as long as we don't own those properties, we'll never see a piece of that action, or if we do, it's out of the kindness of the licensor's heart. If you ever want to exploit that yourself, you need to own characters.
"The business man aside, you just want people to read something that you created, you know? As cool as it is that people love our licensed stuff, when someone comes up to me at a con because they think 'Kore' or 'Misplaced' are a great read, that's a feeling you can't replace. I got in this business to create characters and comics, and if we're going to do it, we have to do it now, while we're hot.
"Launching an new character these days is friggin' hard, even for a company like Devil's Due, and you have to be prepared to invest and lose some money at first to do it."
There's a book coming up from Devil Due that Blaylock says typifies the approach that the company is taking to creator owned projects: keeping it all unique and special. "The book we haven't covered is 'Oxido,' created by Larry Hama and Pablo Raimondi. It's unlike anything I've ever seen Larry do before, and Pablo's art is amazing. It's a brutal, action packed science fiction adventure with an awesome concept. When the main character wakes up on a space ship under attack by alien enemies, he can't remember much of anything, but he knows how to fight these antagonists. It turns out he's on board a ship with a crew of space travelers that are transporting the most dangerous criminal in the known region to a prison world. He's also told that he's their captain - that the criminal, Oxido, was killed in the attack, and that he's their only hope out of this mess. As the story progresses his memories begin to return, and he realizes he's not their captain at all. He's Oxido. By the time this happens, he's started to walk down the path of good, and renounces his past. He's a very multi-dimensional character."
The two previously mentioned series, "Kore" and "Misplaced," have received favorable reviews from many critics and Blaylock says he has long-term arcs in mind for both series. "I want these books to be our flagship titles. Ultimately, the fans will decide, but we're committed to them. 'Kore' pencils for #5 are already DONE, and the book has an extra five pages or so. It nicely wraps up the first story arc, and sets the character up for the long haul. 'Misplaced' is being released more slowly, because I only have so much time to draw it, but it's the same concept. They both have the similar theme of characters out of their natural environment, who are the center of something larger than they understand, and how they will deal with it.
"If you read these books, we want you to know that these characters are going to be around for a long time.
"Overall, I have large, roughly 25 issue stories planned for them, and loose ideas for what lies beyond. But yes, they can go on for a long time."
Back on the topic of "G.I. Joe," the big man at DDP is willing to provide some teasers for future "Joe" comics that will leave many fans drooling. "Beyond the Serpentor arc, we have to tackle the issue of some major players in the Dreadnok gang still being in jail. Just like real gangs, they'll be running the prison community. That should be fun. I would also love to write the Origin of Zartan somewhere down the line, but one thing at a time. Other than that, we'll be announcing the new writer for the series soon, so stay tuned!"