Comic Book Character Spotlight: Billy from G.I. Joe
Back in the 1980s, it wasn't enough to have a successful toy line. To really capture the imaginations of children all over the world, toy companies partnered with other forms of media to produce cartoons, comic books, and every other tie-in imaginable (lunch boxes, cereal, etc) in an effort to push their properties into the consciousness of consumers eager to spend their money. It sounds awful when you look back on it today, but it wasn't awful for those of us who grew up during the heyday of cross-marketing consumerism. Many of us (myself included) believe that we were lucky to have been born during a window in which imagination ran wild, birthing a golden age of irony-free fun. We had He-Man and the Thundercats and Darth Vader to fuel our playground adventures, and the toys in our rooms when we got home from school. The adventures were on our television, in our toy box, and in our comics.
Those comics, in particular, gave us something that the shows and toys themselves never quite did: depth. Television shows like Transformers, Thundercats, and G.I. Joe were most definitely extended toy commercials, sometimes good, but sometimes not. I can still enjoy many of them for what they were, but I recognize that some people can't go back because the stories are often so simple and cheap. One thing aging fans agree on, however, is that the comic books based on some of these toy lines took things to the NEXT LEVEL. They were able to tell stories in a different way, giving us tons of character development and loads of action with consequences.
No comic book better typifies what I'm talking about than Marvel's run of G.I. Joe. From 1982 to 1994, the comic book adventures of the 3 3/4 scale toy line took readers to places they never thought they'd go, and accomplished something unbelievable. What started as the fairly straight-forward adventures of a covert military team soon evolved into a HUGE tapestry of intrigue that involved martial arts, murder, deception, mind control, and double--no, triple--no, quadruple--crosses.That original 155-issue-run It was largely the work of one man, Larry Hama, an icon for comics fans and the single person that's more responsible for the enduring success of the G.I. Joe toy line than anyone else. Sure, some sculptors and guys in a board room actually created this stuff, but he brought it to life (and wrote all the file cards for the action figures, too). His comics treated the premise seriously and took readers on a roller coaster ride every single month. Larry Hama is the reason that guys who are forty years old have tattoos of the Arashikage clan, those red lines that Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow bore on their arms. These guys read the saga in the comics and it made such an impression on them that they've made it a part of them permanently. Hama drew on his own military experience to craft stories that had one foot firmly planted in real military tactics and practices, and the other completely in fantasy. For kids who were into it, it was as good as it got.
Over the next few years, Billy became a lot of things. He was a junior member of G.I. Joe, invaluable because of the inside information that he had on his father. He was a student of Storm Shadow, learning the ways of Arashikage as he attempted to become a ninja. Yes, he was also brainwashed and recruited back into Cobra, his father's terrorist group. Through it all, the reader was engaged because Billy was a KID, a teenager who should have been worried about tests and meeting girls, not dodging bullets and trying killing his father. Billy was always a pawn in someone's game. Sometimes it was the good guys. Sometimes it was the bad guys. Sometimes it was mercenaries who had no allegiance at all. When Billy was involved in an car explosion that cost him his eye and a leg, it felt real. Cartoons definitely didn't show any real violence or consequence, but here in the pages of this comic book was both, and it mattered because it was different.
Ultimately, Billy was his father's weakness. Again, the Cobra Commander of the cartoon was a joke, but the Cobra Commander of the comic book still had a love for his son, somewhere under all the anger and paranoia. He wanted his son to carry on his work, wanted to teach him what he had learned. When he found out about Billy's accident and the subsequent coma (a kid in a coma? In a comic book?!), he pulled back from his violence and had a real crisis of conscience. Many issues later, Cobra Commander would survive yet another assassination attempt and betrayal to become much closer to the crazy guy from the cartoon, but when he eventually ended up at that place, it made sense. He'd had his very innermost circle, his FAMILY, turn against him. Billy was the Achilles Heel of Cobra Commander.
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