Marching Orders: Schmidt Talks G.I. JOE

In 2006, Andy Schmidt helped revolutionize the face of cosmic warfare as editor of the Marvel Comics event story, “Annihilation.” This year, Schmidt hopes to do the same to a more earthbound conflict in his position as editor of IDW Publishing's line of G.I. JOE comics, which include: “G.I. JOE” by writer Chuck Dixon and artist Robert Atkins; “G.I. JOE: ORIGINS” by writer Larry Hama and artist Tom Feister; and the four-issue miniseries “G.I. JOE: COBRA” by writers Christos Gage and Mike Costa with art by Antonio Fuso. CBR News spoke with Schmidt about what readers can expect from the line.

The G.I. JOE versus COBRA story began in 1982 with Marvel Comics' “G.I. JOE: A Real American Hero” #1. It ran for 155 issues. In 2001, Devil’s Due Publishing revived the conflict with a new line of comics that wrapped up this summer and included over 130 issues. Rather than continue to add to the existing 26-year continuity, IDW is choosing to reboot and start the G.I. JOE story over from the beginning.

“Writer/creator Larry Hama had to introduce all thirteen JOE characters, as well as COBRA Commander, Destro, and the Baroness pretty much right off the bat in Marvel’s ‘G.I. JOE' #1. What that meant was you've got everybody right there, but it took out a large element of mystery and suspense because the cards were all on the table,” Schmidt told CBR News. “So the IDW reboot gives us the option to tell stories in a deliberate manner. We're not dragging them out, though. What this means is instead of getting just a page of Destro you're going to get a story of Destro.”

This gradual but richer form of introduction is how readers of IDW's G.I. JOE titles will get to know the forces of COBRA. “COBRA is the thing that changes the most in the reboot. We're rebuilding COBRA in such a way that we can roll them out in a more deliberate, more thought out manner and in a such a way that it creates mystery and a lot of suspense,” explained Schmidt. “So when these guys show up readers will flip. These are the bad guys behind the scenes. Are you going to see COBRA Commander in issue #1? I'll go ahead and tell you that you're not. It's going to take some time to get to him because COBRA Commander is the top dog. Or is he?”

Schmidt continued, “It was sort of my feeling that COBRA had lost relevance with the world, so we've re-imagined them in a way that's more relevant for today. In the ‘80s, during the Reagan era, when America was sort of carefree in a lot of ways, it was enough to say that they're a ruthless terrorist organization out to rule the world, but that's not enough anymore. It's not just because the world has changed. It's also because the audience has become more sophisticated. They want to know why you want to rule the world. What's wrong with it the way it is? What are these guys really trying to do? That's really why COBRA has changed. Hopefully they're going to be scarier and seem like real characters with real issues and problems. If we do our jobs right, at one time or another, our readers will go, 'Hey I can kind of see that line of thought.' Not that they're going to agree with the methods, hopefully!”

The cast of G.I. JOE characters won't be rolled out as slowly as COBRA, but the initial JOE team will be a small one. “We really are focusing on a core group of four or five JOES at least for the time being. I think to a certain degree those four or five characters will always be the focus, but that allows us to tell spotlight stories on other guys,” Schmidt explained. “We're trying to watch and make sure we're not rolling out characters unless they actually have a role. The reason for that is fans of the Snow Job character may get a kick out of seeing him in the back of a panel, but wouldn't they get a much bigger kick if when he gets introduced he gets a whole story arc? I think the answer is yes. So part of not showing every character right away is to do right by their fans.

“There will be other equally important characters. Duke is going to factor in pretty heavily here in terms of driving stories and certainly so are Scarlett and Hawk,” Schmidt continued. “Snake Eyes’ role is very interesting. I'm not going to tell you that he isn't in the comic book because we all know that's a lie, but he's not the central character all the time. The reason for that is Snake Eyes is special. He's a character that when used sparingly is absolutely awesome, but when he becomes the focal point of a story he becomes sort of devalued. It's really hard to resist making him the focal point because when he's awesome, he’s so awesome. So Snake Eyes is actually used a couple of different ways right off the bat that I think are refreshing and exciting. He won't always be front and center except for on the covers because; hey he sells comics!”

IDW's original plan was to produce just one G.I. JOE title, which would be written by Larry Hama and feature art by Robert Atkins. When Schmidt became editor of the book, he looked at the world Hama and Atkins were building and realized the story would be best served as three distinct books instead of one. “Larry wanted to focus on these really character-driven stories involving relationships and I said if you want to do that we should start at the beginning and show how those relationships were formed,” Schmidt said. “So Larry went over to 'G.I. JOE: ORIGINS,' which artistically has a more timeless feel to it.

“Chuck Dixon's book, 'G.I. JOE,' is sort of your meat-and-potatoes main stream G.I. JOE book,” Schmidt continued. “It's got your favorite characters and G.I. JOE is a fully formed team.”

The third title in the line, “G.I. JOE: COBRA,” sheds some light on the mysterious organization's origins and introduces readers to another revamped JOE character. “Since we're going to be rolling out COBRA more slowly it made sense to have a book focusing on them,” Schmidt said. “It's a book dedicated to the organization and Joe member, Chuckles' journey undercover inside it. It's fascinating but it also a very different book. It's got a different feel to it, which is important.”

Each IDW G.I. JOE title will have its own distinct feel, and all the books in the line will be equally important; there isn't a flagship book. It will ultimately be up to fans to decide which titles merit their attentions. “Chuck Dixon's book has a large cast and will focus on characters and character beats but it's more the 'big action movie' style title,' Schmidt remarked. “If you really want to get to know Duke, Stalker and the other JOES, then 'ORIGINS' is the book for you. If you're looking for more of a suspense-thriller feel then 'COBRA' is the way to go. None of the titles is the lead book. Together they all form a strong foundation.”

Events that occur in one title will be reflected in the others. “But not in such a way that you feel like you're missing something,” Schmidt said. “Obviously, I'm hoping fans will want to try all three and I think those that do will be very happy, but I don't want to twist anybody's arm. Each book can be read on its own, but if you're reading all three you're going to get some extra layers. We're not going to say though that 'COBRA' #3 is continued in 'ORIGINS' #4. We're not playing those tricks. We're trying to be as upfront and fair to readers as we possibly can be.”

The specially priced “G.I. JOE” #0, which hits this month, is designed to give readers a taste of all three titles. “We're only charging a dollar for it and there are three brand new stories. It's not preview pages, there's actual story content in the issue,” Schmidt said. “So you can see which one or two or three of the books you want to buy.”

In the old G.I. JOE continuity, it wouldn't be unusual to see the forces of G.I. JOE and COBRA engage in huge, epic battles, but one common trait of IDW’s JOE titles is that the main characters will wage a more guerrilla-style war against COBRA. “One of the things we're setting up with COBRA is that if, and, or when it ever came down to a head-on battle between G.I. JOE and COBRA-- COBRA would wipe the floor with them,” Schmidt stated. “So it's basically in the JOES’ best interest to keep the battles small. The COBRA army is much more powerful than they are, and that's part of making sure COBRA is a real threat. The way we're building COBRA now, it's almost impossible to engage them in straight on fight because you're not always going to know who is part of COBRA and who is not.”

COBRA is still G.I. JOE's primary enemy in the IDW books, but they aren't the only threat. Schmidt and his creators have assembled a number of enemies to test their characters’ mettle. “Right off the bat there's a non-COBRA threat. It's from a very cool villain and if fans respond the way I think they will, he'll most likely return in some form or another” Schmidt teased. “And in Larry's book there's a completely new villain who I think is fascinating.”

The battle against COBRA and other threats will take the forces of G.I. JOE around the world and often embroil them in conflicts in real-life hot spots. “I certainly want the book to be grounded. So I have no problem using real places and events,” Schmidt said. “Where I want to draw the line, though, and it's sort of a blurry one, is that I don't want the book to become political. Politics is always an issue because you're dealing with the military and you can't really divorce the two, but I don't want this to become a forum for anyone's particular views. Political content will be there underneath the surface at some point, it's unavoidable, but it just will never be overt. We're not going to have G.I. JOE go try and find Osama Bin Laden or anything like that but the book will reflect the real world.”

Schmidt wants the IDW G.I. JOE titles to be grounded in realism, but he's still giving his creators room to play with some of the more fantastic science fiction elements and martial arts mysticism that were part of the original JOE mythos. “The world being built allows for a certain amount of both science fiction and mysticism, but those elements are going to be very controlled,” the editor explained. “If something is not real and is being used, it’s going to be because there's a particular story purpose to it and it will probably only show up in the story arc which it's used. I'm not going to have G.I. JOE start using futuristic laser guns because it's cool. It would be more of a case of there is some new technology that exists which causes a chain of events and G.I. JOE gets involved, rather than a case of 'Look at this neat toy.'”

Larry Hama was the first writer recruited by IDW for its G.I. JOE line, which should come as no surprise to fans. In addition to writing the first issue and the bulk of Marvel Comics' original “G.I. JOE” series, the writer also penned the majority of the file cards that came with the G.I. JOE action figures. These cards usually contained biographical data and described the character's personality traits. Schmidt feels it's this knack and fondness for characterization that makes Hama the perfect writer for “G.I. JOE: ORIGINS.”

“Larry loves to write character driven stories. For him it's never about events and that sort of thing and here he gets to lay the foundation of who these characters are,” Schmidt said. “I read a post on an Internet message board where someone was asking, 'Why isn't Larry doing the main book?' And it was funny somebody else posted a reply to that asking, 'Wouldn't you have been angry if he wasn't doing the 'ORIGINS' book?' and the original poster replied, 'Yeah you're right I would have been.' So Larry is doing the book that takes place first. It's the one everyone else has to bow to.”

Schmidt enlisted Chuck Dixon to write “G.I. JOE” for a number of reasons. “[Dixon’s] an action guy and he knows the military stuff very well,” he said. “He's also very good at working with other creators. If you worked with him you know there aren't going to be conflicts with other creators because he's very easy going when it comes to working with other people. He's a team player. So he's a nice component to have because of all the things he does behind the scenes, but ultimately he's just really great at writing this kind of material: military action and character driven stuff. He's the total package.”

Schmidt wanted Christos Gage to write IDW's “G.I. JOE: COBRA” miniseries because the two had worked together on a number of projects when the editor was at Marvel. “He was insanely busy and recommended Mike Costa. So I called up Mike and he sent me his 'Secret History of the Authority: Hawksmoor' miniseries,” Schmidt explained. “I read it and I was really impressed with it and it turns out he's a huge G.I. JOE fan. So we talked it over and Christos was happy to co-write the series with Mike. They talked it over and came up with a shockingly good story.”

Bringing to life IDW's G.I. JOE line are three artists with styles as distinct as the books they're working on. “Robert Atkins has a very mainstream and accessible style. It's very kinetic too. So he's on the most mainstream of the books, which is Chuck's,” Schmidt said. “Tom Feister does all the way to colors himself and he's got this really timeless, vibrant feel to his artwork that few other people can capture. So his artwork fits the timeless feel of 'ORIGINS.' It would look right whether the story was set in the ‘20s, the ‘50s, or today. It fits all time periods and it's really darn pretty. And Antonio Fuso really does the dark, gritty film noir stuff of 'COBRA' very well.

“All three artists are storytellers, which to me was the most important thing,” Schmidt continued. “I know a ton of guys who can do cool splash pages but G.I. JOE is about characters and the story being told and I needed three guys that felt the same way. And as it turns out all three of them are JOE fans.”

Schmidt has enjoyed the chance to help create the new status quo of G.I. JOE and encourages readers who like what they see in this month's “G.I. JOE” #0 to spread the word. “If folks buy it, and I hope they do, be sure to tell your retailer how much you liked it and how much you want the other books,” the editor said. “The more they order and the more they sell, the more G.I. JOE we get to do. So everybody wins.”

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