Dec 19, 2014

Cube Roundtable: GI Joe: Silent Interlude

On G.I. Joe: Silent Interlude


Duy:  Of the three of us you're about to read pieces from right now, I am decidedly the one who would not be classified a GI Joe fan. Yes, I watched the show when I was a kid, more than Travis did, but I never really took the time to get to know the different characters (really, off the top of my head, I can name Snake-Eyes, Duke, Scarlett, Hawk, Flint, Lady Jaye, Gung Ho, Roadblock, Shipwreck, Storm Shadow, Destro, Cobra Commander, Baroness, Major Blood, Dr. Mindbender, Serpentor, Tomax and Xamot, and Zartan. So basically, everyone who got a significant amount of screen time that I'd have to really be not paying attention to not know who they were. Everyone else is just another Joe or a Cobra henchman. I can also name Snowjob, but I don't know what he looks like. I assume I'd be able to pick him out of a lineup because he'd be the one in winter gear, but let's not kid around, I don't remember "Snowjob" because he's a great character or anything. And I can also name Sgt. Slaughter, but I knew who he was way before I saw him in GI Joe), and I only have a handful of the comics.

If any one of the Joes keeps me coming back though, at least to take a cursory look at what's up with the franchise, it's Snake-Eyes. That's a cliche answer, but it's true. I love Snake-Eyes. Snake-Eyes is cool. Snake-Eyes is a ninja soldier who can't and doesn't talk. Snake-Eyes was wearing pouches and carrying loads of weapons before the 90s ever hit, and he looked awesome.

And so, 20 years after the fact, the famous silent issue, "Silent Interlude," probably the quintessential Snake-Eyes story, has me obsessed. This one single issue was a landmark of comic book storytelling, inspiring many youngsters at the time to to get into the comics game. This past August, IDW released a recolored, remastered edition of Silent Interlude, complete with extras, in hardcover format. Let me say that again: a single issue, 22 pages, got the hardcover treatment. I saw the copy in the store, then passed on it when I realized I could buy the trade paperback that contained it instead, which also had the origin of Snake Eyes in it.

Snake Eyes was the most popular Joe when I was a kid, and it couldn't have been from the show, because he was barely in the show and didn't have many highlights past the first miniseries, when he survived radioactivity with nothing but his willpower (yes, I just typed that. And it was awesome!). So it must have been from the comic. And "Silent Interlude" was the start of the comic's process of delving into his past. It's not a complex story. Storm Shadow kidnaps Scarlett, and Snake Eyes goes to save her. They get away, and then it's revealed at the end that there's a connection between Snake and Storm Shadow.

There's a few notable things about the comic. The first one is that it's actually really progressive for 1984. Yes, Scarlett's been kidnapped by Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes goes to save her, but she really doesn't need any saving. She's able to break free of her chains, outwit Storm Shadow, fight her way past a bunch of guards, and steal a cool glider thing. She comes really close to getting stabbed with Storm Shadow's sword, yes, but that's because she puts herself in between it and Snake Eyes, so he doesn't have to take the hit. We talk a lot about strong female characters now, but Scarlett was right there, front and center. Added to that, Storm Shadow's pretty clearly Japanese. Snake Eyes is a white American male, but he's covered up from head to toe that anyone reading the comic in a vacuum may automatically assume he's Asian, as well.


I was also pretty surprised at how violent the comic is. The only real reason for this is because I'm so used to GI Joe being that show where you can fire a bunch of lasers at other people and blow up airplanes without anyone actually dying or getting hurt (except for Duke not-dying-but-falling-into-a-coma). In this one though, Snake Eyes plays for keeps, throwing enemies into the way of swords and blowing them up with grenades. It reminded me of the fights in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. No moralizing, just surviving.

Finally, of course, there's the fact that the issue is completely silent, with no captions, word balloons, or sound effects. How many of us just skim through the pictures and read the words, figuring that they'll provide us with all the information we need to get through the story? More, how many comics — mostly the ones rushing to meet a deadline — rely on captions and dialogue to make sure they're understood clearly? The comic gets rid of those crutches, and really makes you "read" the pictures. It's a good comic to give to someone who doesn't read comics and who doesn't know how to (which, weirdly, has been common in my experience).

What's more, it's pretty easy to see how, if you were a kid who had any interest in drawing and/or making comics, this comic fueled your imagination. This was the first completely silent action comic that was seen by a mass audience (And how appropriate then, that the protagonist was Snake Eyes.), and it had to be mind-blowing. Marvel's entire silent "'Nuff Said" month last decade could be traced back to it, and I would even bet that something like the Batman/Catwoman short, "Chase Me," can as well. But it's more than that. For a whole comic to be told completely in visuals, the entire principle of "show, don't tell" must have been hammered into a lot of aspiring creators' minds.

On the whole, "Silent Interlude" is a comic that can be given to new fans and aspiring creators, and have them learn from it. But it's also a comic that can be given to casual GI Joe fans, such as I, and to more devoted fans, such as the two who are about to talk about it. I didn't read this comic off the rack, and I didn't read it in the context of a larger GI Joe saga — I just saw "Silent Interlude" as the high mark of the licensed comics of the 80s, the kind of comic that makes me wonder why the other creators on other similar titles didn't try something similar, or something as ambitious. Considering the only other comic based on a pre-existing property that I've felt that way about are the Carl Barks Ducks, I'd say that's saying something.

And now, on to Ben and Travis.

Ben: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was the definitive gateway comic, bringing in an entire generation of new comic readers, unrivaled by anything this side of the Star Wars comic. Unlike Star Wars though, the G.I. Joe comic was actually good, and that’s almost singularly because of Larry Hama. I can imagine a world where the editorial team at Marvel didn’t give much thought to the G.I. Joe comic, despite it being probably one of their biggest sellers (it was the first comic with its own television commercial, after all). Obviously Hasbro wasn’t paying attention, beyond the characters looking toy accurate. So Larry Hama was able to do pretty much anything he wanted, which culminated in the landmark “silent issue.”

Like Duy alluded to, I am a G.I. Joe fan, but my fandom mostly came after the demise of the Transformers. (A fact I can distinctly remember my brother and his friend chastising me for since, in their estimation, G.I. Joe could really happen and Transformers couldn’t. While a special mission’s force created to battle terrorists is very definitely a real thing, I’d still like to believe that alien robots will one day visit us, and fight each other for our natural resources.) I was always a Snake Eyes fan, because what boy wasn’t at the time, but I don’t think I had many, if any, issues of the comic book. I think Duy is wrong (as he often is) that it wasn’t the cartoon or the comic, but the toy that made him so awesome. Even if you never saw or read anything with him in it, you can’t beat a toy ninja with machine guns.

I did watch the cartoon of course, and remember vividly Snake Eyes shrugging off radiation poisoning like most people do the flu, and that was about it for him in the cartoon. Maybe it was enough, because it’s still the main thing I think about when it comes to the series, and that was probably true for me as a kid. No matter how much they wanted to make me like Shipwreck, I always had Snake Eyes glowing red with radiation (or him in a dress, but that’s beside the point).

It wasn’t until a few years ago I decided to hunker down with the IDW trade paperbacks and read the series in full. I was surprised by how well the series aged. It wasn’t as burdened with the required exposition of comics of the era, and it presented a violent take on the war between Joe and Cobra. (I remember my parents not really liking G.I. Joe so much because it presented a war where no one dies, and that’s in stark contrast to the real thing.) Duy mentioned it before, there’s no moralizing in a firefight, only surviving, and the comic series did a good job of portraying that. Something that I’m sure was important to Hama, being a Vietnam veteran. Sure, the main characters may have all survived, but that’s because there were still toys to sell.

The silent issue was obviously a landmark issue in the annals of comic history. Here was one of the most popular comics of the era, trying an experimental method of comic storytelling, to a wide-ranging and varied audience. It’s not hard to figure out why the next generation of comic book creators was so artist centric, because Hama had shown them that a comic could be told without words. You could say Hama and Snake Eyes are directly responsible for all the clichéd excess of the ‘90s. Liefeld and Jim Lee took all the wrong lessons from the silent issue, giving you nothing but art, with none of the storytelling. Deadpool might as well have been the love child of Snake Eyes and Wolverine. Pouches, ninja swords, and machine guns were suddenly everywhere. Cable is a descendant of the silent issue, and I’m a little sad for that.

The silent issue inspired an entire generation of young readers, and future creators. Like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, future writers and artists would learn all the wrong lessons from the comic. Art still needs storytelling, no matter how pretty the poses.

Travis:  Silent Interlude is one of the best-written GI Joe comics, and possibly one of the best-written Marvel comics. It’s practically a masterclass in comics storytelling techniques and application. Most Marvel comics, even up to that point in time, were filled with action-to-action panel transitions with a steady Bam-Bam-Bam pacing in roughly three six-page acts and a hook epilogue per story. A lot of Marvel comics, a lot of action comics in general, were very into followthrough and explanation. Silent Interlude implicitly trusts its reader. Nothing is explained twice, visual and text cues are all eidetic, in the scene and anchored, almost embedded in a palpable sense of veracity. These are real places, that people with legs and arms and a sense of fear or hunger or anger are actually moving through. Snake Eyes, Cobra Commander, Scarlett and Destro all come off as developed, living and breathing characters

And, the danger in this comic, the veracity, comes through because Larry Hama knew when to keep it real, when to exaggerate for the readers’ sake, and when to cut off the fat that in real life you have to chew through, but takes time and gets distracting. When Scarlett, who is just the best, steals a jetpack, the page is given over primarily to three panels of her wrapping a chain around too guys’ necks and dropping them. The considerably more complicated act of strapping herself into the pack, working the wings or the flaps and slats on the wings, is left off-panel. While that scene has to have happened, and it would not take her out of her concern or awareness of her situation, it would take us out of it. A fight being paced into three panels does not dilute our excitement or investment, but a technical run-through, would.

Which, leads me to my favorite scene, wherein Hama outdoes Raiders of the Lost Ark by having a ninja showing off his mad sai-twirling ninja skills and Snake Eyes chucks a grenade at him. All the details are there. It’s a grenade in the air, safety lever flying off, pin in Snake Eyes’ hand still, but the panel at the bottom of the page as the wording on it rotate towards us, as the ninja stares at his impending death. At least for me, there’s an immediate feeling of a deeper, realer understanding. Like seeing “Front Toward Enemy” on a Claymore, it has a psychological effect to read it, that goes beyond what the visual alone can carry, the same way that seeing the damage a bullet can cause affects one separately from the understanding one has looking at an unfired round.

Silent Interlude does not shy away from words, it just uses them where they’re best suited for the story. Words are only one tool in the toolbox of comics and from perspective shifts, to insets, scene transitions, panel pacing, changing up the shape and rhythm of the panels, close ups and obfuscations, this is a comic that’s using near the whole toolkit. There are scenes, like Scarlett, chained in an enemy base, biting Storm Shadow’s finger or Snake Eyes parachuting down, that are extended to far more panels than they would have got in any other comic that year, they are affording breathing room just to hammer in how badass the characters and those moments are, but when we need quick cuts, we have those abrupt cuts. When a symbol, such as the shared tattoos on Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, or the Cobra emblem communicate better than detailed descriptions, that’s what we get. If words and numbers best get across the message, such as the probability of airborne infiltration we see Destro look at, that’s not a “cheat” or a weakness, it’s the best way to communicate that piece of information, and the best way to, in that scene, heighten our awareness as readers that what Snake Eyes is trying here is high stakes.

Rules or expectations aren’t what makes this comic excellent. It’s energy, it’s pacing and emotion, the way it affects a reader is immense. That’s what’s important, at least to my mind. It’s a very giving comic. It’s rewarding. and when you read it again, it pulls through right back through. It pushes you along, nonstop, fully-immersed, all the time radiating full-burn energy and fighting an invisible clock, as the heroes know they might not get out, and we know eventually we’ll hit the final page.

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