Just as I owe my imagination to a movie trilogy and a role-playing game, I owe my social values to a comic book and a television series.
G.I.JOE: A Real American Hero (said aforementioned comic) and Star Trek (the previously referred to television show) together helped shape my conscience as a child and early teen. As Trek has been discussed at length by me elsewhere, I’ll discuss JOE here.
My first taste of G.I. JOE was in 1982. It was not an action figure but was instead a friend’s comic tucked inside a textbook and covertly read during class in the fourth grade.
For those of you who never experienced it, that comic is not what the general public perception of JOE is.
While the eventual cartoon was ultimately sci-fi driven kids’ entertainment, for over a decade Larry Hama’s G.I. JOE comic series was grounded in a near reality full of mature themes and concepts—and I don’t mean of the rated R variety. The comic taught a ten-year-old me about racial and sexual equality. It taught diversity, honor, and the difference between doing what you are told to do and the right thing to do.
Through its characters’ past in Vietnam, it showed me that war was a terrible thing that no normal person wants to go through. It satirized real-world political and social situations, providing an unwitting me a glimpse at policy, bureaucracy, diplomacy and even economics. It showed me people can judge for the wrong reasons and can lose their way over legitimate issues. It taught me what freedom of speech meant. It taught me sacrifice and it taught me loyalty.
Finally, for a boy who was ostracized for his imaginative and intellectual pursuits, it taught me acceptance.
While Snake Eyes, the de-facto star of the series, was white (like me), his best friends—two other main characters—were Asian and Black. Snake Eyes had suffered through Vietnam and emerged from the war with his family dead. He wasn’t considered a hero by the public but was instead labeled a baby killer for nothing more than being a soldier in a war he never wanted to fight. He soon found himself without any direction. He was taken in by his friend’s family and trained by them in special skills until tragedy struck there as well—causing a schism of hatred between two men who previously thought of themselves as brothers.
With nowhere else to go, Snake Eyes returned to the military—the only life he knew—and soon took an engine blast to the face when saving a fellow member from a helicopter crash. He was disfigured and rendered mute—unable to express his pent-up emotions and frustrations—and wore a mask to hide his scarred visage.
And yet he was loved, both by his friends and the highly skilled strong woman he had saved during the helicopter accident. She loved him for the man he was underneath that black mask. Constantly in physical and emotional pain, he didn’t make it easy for her. She loved him for his tortured heart and his personal code of honor.
Heavy stuff for an insecure outcast kid who thought of himself as ugly. Surely if Snake Eyes could find love and acceptance, one day I could as well.
Ironically, my mother originally wanted to keep me away from G.I. JOE because she was afraid it would lead to me wanting a life in the military. My father was an NYC Police Officer, and the idea of her son being professionally in harm’s way as well was something she didn’t want to deal with.
It was the colorful, racially diverse cast of characters (along with my persistent nagging) that made her change her mind. At first, I was only allowed to get the figures that “didn’t look army”—Snake Eyes, Scarlett, the Cobra Troopers, etc.—basically anyone who wasn’t wearing green.
Finally, when she figured out I’d been buying the comic behind her back with any spare change I could scrounge up, she conceded.
Even got me the U.S.S.Flagg Aircraft Carrier.
G.I. JOE spurred both my creativity and my sense of social justice.
Thank you, Larry, for helping set me on the right path.
Andrew. E. C. Gaska