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Scott McCloud is the Mary Poppins of comics. On a brisk day with a strong but gentle breeze, he will fly into your town trailing clouds of glory, sharing his whimsical observations and quirky yet sensible reasoning. Having enriched your life, and possibly taught a stodgy English banker to stop and smell the roses, he will vanish as quickly as he appeared, to return when the wind changes.
He's very perky. Talking to him makes me feel optimistic about the comics industry for up to three hours.
Every time I see McCloud, he's got a new theory. I suspect this would be the case if I saw McCloud every twenty minutes. He just dropped by the Cartoon Art Museum to peruse the Monsters of Webcomics show, and at one point he leaned over and asked me, "Are you familiar with something called the ‘silent issue' of the G.I. Joe
Did he mean "Silent Interlude," issue #21, starring Snake-Eyes? I was familiar. Oh yes.
"I've come to realize," he said, "that comic was a kind of watershed moment for cartoonists of your generation. Everyone remembers it. All these things came out of it. It was like 9/11."
For Scott McCloud, this was a puzzling revelation. In 1984, when "Silent Interlude" hit the stands, McCloud was just getting in on the ground floor of the nascent indie comics movement, agitating for creator rights, struggling against the iron grip of the big publishers. That was the year he launched Zot!
, his cheery rebuke to mainstream superhero comics. Toy tie-in comics like G.I. Joe
weren't even on his radar. As far as indie cartoonists of the time were concerned, they were disposable filler material. Unmentionable.
As it happened, however, Marvel's G.I. Joe
was written by Larry Hama, an artist and actor who, in the 1970s, had lurked around the fringes of the underground comics scene. Hama was and is a martial artist, gun enthusiast and Vietnam vet, and, reading his run on G.I. Joe
, it's clear he took the paramilitary concept as seriously as his prepubescent readers did. He was also active in New York's Asian-American community, and he seemed to lavish special care on storylines involving Asian characters and settings. He didn't watch the G.I. Joe
cartoon, which probably helped.
I just checked up my bio information on Hama's Wikipedia entry. The two samples of his work on the page are both from "Silent Interlude."
Kids who knew G.I. Joe
through the TV cartoon, with its fantasy espionage, Superfriends-like soldiers, and vaguely Middle Eastern, vaguely Soviet, wholly fictional terrorist enemy (in a 1989 guest editorial for The Comics Journal
, Scott Russell Sanders asks kids what country they think Cobra comes from, and they answer "China!" and "Russia!"—and, yes, 1989 is awfully late to be discussing G.I. Joe
as a cultural phenomenon, but that's The Comics Journal
for you), must have been knocked sideways by caption boxes like, "I was first on board with the commo gear and code books. Snake-Eyes was covering from the treeline and everything seemed copacetic—until the sky got filled with red tracer and Snake-Eyes went down like a rag doll." (G.I. Joe
#26, origin of Snake-Eyes, natch.) For his contributions, Hama was immortalized as the G.I. Joe action figure Tunnel Rat—an explosive ordnance expert, Hama's job in Vietnam.
Hama was given a licensed media tie-in and made it a labor of love. There's Carl Barks's Uncle Scrooge
, there's Dan DeCarlo's Archie
…and there's the silent issue of G.I. Joe
"Silent Interlude" is not a complex story. Scarlett, one of the token female figures in the G.I. Joe line, is captured by Cobra ninja Storm Shadow and brought before the Cobra high brass. While she breaks out of their dungeon, Snake-Eyes parachutes into Cobra headquarters, fights evil ninjas, and hooks up with Scarlett just in time for the two of them to save each other from Storm Shadow and fly away on a jetpack together. I know people who boycotted the G.I. Joe
movie because Scarlett was paired romantically with Duke rather than Snake-Eyes.
The one remarkable thing about the issue is, of course, its wordlessness. Comic books in the 1980s were wordy. "Silent Interlude" cuts through the verbiage; it's a 22-page action sequence. Hama's blunt, anatomically careful art (he drew this and a few other G.I. Joe
issues) isn't beautiful, but it has a clarity that's perfect for pantomime. "Silent Interlude" demonstrates how to tell a story visually. Hearing cartoonists who were kids—okay, boys—in the 1980s reminisce about it, I'm reminded of older manga artists who recall first looking into Tezuka's New Treasure Island
, the master's first graphic novel, with its wordless, cinematic opening sequence. Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
It's 1985. A nine-year-old boy in Ohio is home sick with a sore throat. His mother brings him two comic books from Lawson's convenience store: Transformers
#6 and G.I. Joe
#37. He's read his older brothers' comics before, but these are the first comic books of his very own. He reads them over and over. He tracks down back issues. Issue #21 is already noted on ordering forms as the "silent issue," a tantalizingly mysterious designation. He becomes a comic-book junkie.
It's 2000. The boy is living in San Francisco, volunteering at the Cartoon Art Museum. At the annual Halloween party, he meets local comics celebrities Trina Robbins and Steve Leialoha. He's thunderstruck. Steve Leialoha inked G.I. Joe
. Steve smiles benevolently. "I even inked the silent issue," he says.
It's 2008, and the boy is in New York City for (what else?) a comic-book convention. He makes a checklist of childhood dreams to fulfill. He and his wife arrange to visit MAD
magazine, Marvel Comics, Nickelodeon…and Larry Hama.
It's today, and the boy is my husband, the curator of the Cartoon Art Museum. Scott McCloud asks me if I'm familiar with the silent issue of G.I. Joe
. I call Andrew over and hope he can explain how these things happen, how a soft-spoken gun nut with a work-for-hire gig can derail a boy's life—half a million boys' lives—without a word.
Shaenon K. Garrity is a manga editor at Viz Media and is best known for her webcomics Narbonic and Skin Horse.
All the Comics in the World is © Shaenon K. Garrity, 2010