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Thursday, July 21, 2016

DC in the 80s reviews the 1991 GI Joe Impel trading card set - part 2

Why is DC in the 80s reviewing a non-DC affiliated trading card set? Read the intro.

Continuing along with our card/character review, we are once again joined by Chris Sheehan (of Chris is on Infinite Earths) and Aaron "Head" Moss (G.I. Joe: A Real American headcast) along with myself, Justin Francoeur...

Justin: There seems to be a subset within this set dedicated to the ‘original Joe team’ (aka: the first wave of G.I. Joe characters introduced in the comic books and action figures). The original group of Joes were the blandest and most boring characters I’ve ever seen or read (with the exception of Scarlett, Snake Eyes and Stalker). I mean, I can hardly tell them apart - they’re all dressed in green with matching green helmets. Thankfully the toy line got more ‘colorful’ by wave 2 (1983) otherwise I don’t think anyone could have retained interest.

Chris: I’ve always had a soft-spot for Clutch… who now goes by “Double Clutch”, friggin’ copyrights… at least he’s not “G.I. Joe’s Double Clutch”, I guess.

Aaron: Yeah, the action figures looked pretty much the same (except for the ones mentioned). I think a lot of the appeal to these characters is due to Larry Hama and the way he wrote them in the comic. It turned characters like Clutch from a run of the mill military toy into a character you can love. But giving credit where credit is due, if not for that first wave, we never would have gotten the later figures. Speaking of that first wave, me and my co-hosts talk about them on my 2015 Christmas special of G.I. Joe: A Real American Headcast.

I personally think that the... sameness, of that first wave was intentional, to make it seem more legit, if you will. More of a military look and feel. When they realized they had a hit, they were able to go more outside the box.

And don't get me started on copyrights... rumor has it, that's the reason we didn't get (I think) Roadblock in Rise of Cobra.

Justin: Speaking of the toy line getting more ‘colorful’ by wave 2, I’ve always wondered if that decision came from Hasbro or if it came from Marvel comics. According to Graphic NYC’s interview with Jim Shooter:
“Despite a batch of lousy licensed comics, about everything from truck drivers with metal cranial plates that received CB transmissions to Space Knights, Marvel hit gold when they teamed up with toy company Hasbro for their G.I. Joe license. Marvel did all of the character and creative development for this new line of action figures, and Hasbro offered cross advertising with Marvel.”
In the same interview, Shooter himself chimes in:
“The response to G.I. Joe surprised everyone but Mike Hobson, Larry Hama and me... Once G.I. Joe was going, it became its own little industry and did very well. We were so successful with it, we were doing backflips. Also with Hasbro, we did Transformers, which I did myself.”
Aaron: I haven't been able to talk with Larry Hama yet (Larry, if you're reading this, contact me!), but most things I've read, said that Hasbro gave Marvel (Hama) the toys (or designs) and Larry created the characters and history. But how much they gave and how much Larry and company created, I haven't been able to confirm yet....

But yes, after that first wave, the toys started getting more unique and colorful.

Justin: Snake-Eyes is “the man”. Bar-none the most interesting character on the G.I. Joe team and the fountainhead all other mute non-Asian military-oriented ninjas are compared to. He brought a Batman/vigilante element to an otherwise relatively-bland military adventure series (at least for the U.S. Marvel comic book series). Hasbro (and I’m assuming Larry Hama) were so confident that Snake-Eyes could carry the book, that sometime after this card set was released, Ninja Force was introduced and pretty much dominated the series until the end. (‘Ninja Force’ was Snake-eyes and a squad of other newly introduced G.I. Joe ninjas that went on covert missions.)

Aaron: Snake-Eyes... Of course one of my favorites. And a large reason for that was Larry's characterization in the comics. In the show, he was there but was very marginalized... so much so, that his "arch-enemy" was given over to Spirit and Quick Kick. And his lady, handed off to Duke. I think the writers of the show didn't know how to handle a mute character, unlike Larry.

In the comic, Larry was talented enough to get around the mute "problem" and make Snakes an interesting and beloved character... Larry gave Snake-Eyes a family and mutilated him and told us about it in flashbacks. Larry Hama made Snake-Eyes, da man. And like you said, eventually the series became "Snake-Eyes Guest Starring G.I. Joe"...

Chris: This was the guy we all wanted to be when we had our action-figure battles… until I talked myself into being more of a “Gung-Ho” guy. Dependent on when you got into collecting Joes, you may have had to wait quite a while to get your hands on a Snake-Eyes figure. In my neighborhood/social circle I only knew one kid who had a Snake-Eyes in his collection. Looking back, it’s kind of a mixed blessing… back then we weren’t bombarded with constant repaints or rejiggering of the main handful of characters year after year… but at the same time, I know the 7-8 year old me would have absolutely loved having a Snake-Eyes of his very own!

Regarding the tail end of the Marvel Comics run… Snake-Eyes and company did pretty much take it over… and brought with them a very dollar-store approximation of the early Image Comics aesthetic. Just frightening to look back on these days… and comes across quite cheap looking. A sad way for this enduring (and endearing) series to go out!

Aaron: ... I agree with Chris. The last few years of G.I, Joe (at least to me) wasn't up to the first decade of the series. In fact, that's about the time that G.I. Joe and I parted ways... sadly. In fact when I get to issue #120 and beyond in my show, that will be the first time I'll have read those issues.

Justin: Something else worth mentioning is the ‘Special Missions’ subset dedicated to the Marvel ongoing series of the same name (G.I. Joe Special Missions) that ran from 1986 to 1989. (That pretty much cements the idea in mind that this was meant to be a comic-oriented set first, and an action figure set second.) Herb Trimpe [and his Tijuana brass band] provided most of the interior art for all 28 issues in this series, while Larry Hama scripted. There’s a trading card for every issue in this series - showcasing the cover art of the issue and a brief synopsis of the issue on the back of the card..

It wasn’t unusual for guest artists to contribute a cover - flipping through these cards I’m spotting covers by: Mike Zeke, Dave Cockrum, Ron Wagner, Andy Kubert, and Herb Trimpe himself. John R Beatty, Dennis Janke, and Bob McLeod typically provided the inks on these covers. The G.I. Joe Special Mission comics were real gems, as they usually focused on a few characters at a time, and the stories *rarely* ran longer than one issue. We’re talking really tight character development with actual story resolutions here - often with a heavy morale message about war being hell. In researching this article, these were an absolute joy to flip through as opposed to the chore of slogging through the never-ending dramatic subplots that seemed to dominate the G.I. Joe regular ongoing series during the late 80s. Often, the Special Missions issues touched on story lines that were occurring in the regular ongoing series, but gave the writer the chance to explore things that were happening behind-the-scenes. I don’t feel bad saying I prefer one over the other because Larry Hama was writing them both.

Chris: These were probably my favorite cards in the set. I’m not only a sucker for comic book covers, but I dig the feeling of importance a given issue or story gets when it has a trading card devoted to it. I think back to all the “event” cards strewn through the Marvel Universe sets… it would make something as banal as Atlantis Attacks or the Evolutionary War seem to be the most important thing to occur in a generation!

Aaron: While I really enjoyed the Special Missions series as a whole, I liked the subplots and backstories in the ongoing G.I. Joe title. Not saying that I liked it more than Special Missions, as they were more or less different creatures, so I liked them both for different reasons.

Justin: I never understood why they made the 2 G.I. Joe “leaders” look exactly alike. Duke and Hawk. The only difference is that sometimes Hawk wears a brown leather bomber. Otherwise, they look like twins. One of my first childhood memories was owning the Duke G.I. Joe action figure and bringing him with me everywhere I went. For some reason I called him “Jon-Jon” (probably easier than saying ‘Duke’? I don’t know…)

Chris: It was tantamount to betrayal seeing that Duke wasn’t top dog in the comics. Who is this Hawk guy anyway? I was always more of a Flint guy, but was cool with Duke being “the boss” on the cartoon. Hawk… who now goes by General Tomahawk… or General Abernathy… depending on which way the copyright winds are blowing, was never quite as interesting to me. Though, I’ll concede that if I read the comics before “tooning” in, I may feel differently.

Aaron: I got started with G.I. Joe from the cartoon, so I too was surprised to see that Duke wasn't the big boss in the comic when I finally started reading it several years later. That and finding out that Scarlet was with Snakes instead of Duke. Though I did prefer her with Snake-Eyes much better.

Of course one thing that the cartoon did that was smart (IMO) was to give Hawk brown hair so he didn't look so much like Duke.


Justin: Just wanted to re-iterate that Cobra had the coolest characters. They had the coolest designs and almost ALWAYS won any battles I played them in. I was especially fond of my Astro-Viper and my Hydro-Viper. I’m especially intrigued with Range Viper, whose design appears to have been heavily influenced by the MARS ATTACKS! aliens:

Mars Attacks card (1962) from Topps. wikicommons

Justin: It always bothered me that all of the other Joes got adequate helmets/headgear/flak jackets, meanwhile Hardball here rushes into battle with nothing more than a New York Mets jersey, his favorite baseball cap and a bloop gun. I’m no coward by any means, but if I was entering a firefight with heavily armed adversaries, I’d be wanting all of the headgear and body armor the army would allow me. I’d also be hiding behind the biggest immobile object I could find hoping a mortar shell or grenade doesn’t land on me. It’s not like he’s the only G.I. Joe to go into combat wearing minimal headgear/armor, amiright?

Justin: Heyyyyy. Wait a minute...

Chris: You’re not trying to say General Hawk is prejudiced against... baseball, are you? Oh, perish the thought, he’s a staunch Dodgers fan... a Brooklyn Dodgers fan! Sadly nobody’s told him they left New York like a hundred years ago. He still buys tickets for games at Ebbet’s Field for cryin’ out loud... and that place was demolished in the 60’s! If I can be serious for a moment, these cats can just pull of the hat look better than most.

Aaron: There were other Joes without hard hats, thank you very much... Like this one...

Aaron: ... oh... never mind...

Justin: With the exception of the trading cards featuring comic book covers, this set holds true to it’s claim of ‘all original’ card art. The mystery of who drew which art for which card seems to be something either nobody knows or wants to divulge. Why didn’t Impel include this info on the back of the card? Was this at Impel’s request? The artist’s? Were the artists embarrassed about their contribution to this set? It’s a mystery to me - and I’m a sucker for a good mystery, so I’m going to try my hand at solving this.

click to enlarge image. please note: no artist signature anywhere on the card...

Justin: I don’t know who all drew these cards, but I can 100% confirm that M.D. Bright drew about one third of them. M.D. Bright and Randy Emberlin were the most consistent G.I. Joe ongoing series penciller/inker team prior to this card set being released - so this would make sense. (M.D. Bright also listed this info on his wikipedia page - unfortunately he doesn’t list which cards he drew.)

M.D. Bright Green Lantern illustration. Property of DC comics.
Mark D. Bright (aka M.D. Bright) illustrated a lot of Green Lantern comics in the early 90s 

Justin: If I had to take a wild guess, since this is a very ‘comic book heavy’ set, I’d wager Impel tapped a few artists who worked on the Marvel G.I. Joe comic book series in the late 80s/early 90s - so we’d be narrowing down our selection to Rod Whigham, Ron Wagner, William Johnson, Andy Mushynsky, Russ Heath, Randy Emberlin, Bob McLeod, Tony Salmons, Fred Fredericks, Tom Palmer, Paul Ryan, Geof Isherwood, Herb Trimpe, John Statema, Ron Garney, and/or Andrew Wildman. I’m going to confess that quickly comparing and identifying art styles based on previous sketches isn’t my forté [especially when an inker can really alter a penciller’s finished work. see: Joe Staton], but while Mike Zeck, Todd McFarlane, Andy KubertJohn Byrne, Dave Cockrum and Marshall Rogers contributed art to the ongoing Marvel comic book series during this time period, I seriously doubt they would’ve done any original card art. They were pretty high-profile by the time this set came out, and would’ve commanded higher prices for illustrations. I have a feeling that Impel wanted to produce a ‘good’ set, but nothing too expensive. My best guess is that Ron Wagner (with Randy Emberlin on inks) did a large majority, but only Ron would know for sure.

A little more ‘internet sleuthing’ uncovered that Herb Trimpe illustrated at least four cards in this set. Saying he only did four would be a long-shot - but those are the only ones I can confirm. Trimpe's original art for Dial Tone, Desert Scorpion, Dusty and Falcon recently showed up in an ebay auction and sold for a cool $408 USD. I’d be surprised if he didn’t illustrate the other one third that M.D. hadn’t - there must be more Herb Trimpe original Impel G.I. Joe card art floating around out there somewhere...

Justin: That still leaves 143 cards [200 cards - 51 featuring cover art + 2 checklists + 4 Herb Trimpe cards] unaccounted for. Anyone care to wages some guesses?

Aaron: Much like Justin, I'm not able to look at art and pick out the artist most of the time. There are a small handful, but not enough to be able to tell from this card set. Plus like you said, the tracer... I mean inker... can sometimes make a big difference. I also did a little Googling but I couldn't come up with any other names than Bright. But I would assume that Trimpe did a lot of the cards as he was "the artist" for the book.


About twenty minutes after posting a link to this article on Facebook and Twitter, we had quite a few comments roll in. Popular guesses included Lee Weeks (when reached for further comment, Weeks told us he did not work on the G.I. Joe trading card set), Ron Frenz, Rod Whigham and Andrew Wildman.

Tweeter-extraordinaire @layne uncovered this gem from a 2015 e-bay auction:

...but of course, we couldn't make out any signatures on the art, so we're still back at square one. In case anyone was curious, this entire lot of 21 pages of original 1991 Impel G.I. Joe card art (illustrated on Marvel Comics Illustration Quality Paper) sold for a whopping $1,702.77 USD.


That concludes this segment of the 1991 GI Joe Impel trading card review. Check in for part 3 when we examine more cards/characters and scrutinize more of this set. As always, I want to extend a big thanks to Chris Sheehan and Aaron "Head" Moss for assisting on this one. I really enjoy hearing other people's anecdotes about this influential toy set, so please feel free to comment below. If you happen to know who did the original art for these cards, for the love of God, I implore you to comment and share below. Seriously, I'm losing sleep over this.

All of the cards can be found online, at the Trading Card Database G.I. Joe checklist. (Yes, they may be viewable online, but it will never substitute for the REAL thing.)

Most images in this article were either "borrowed" from or The Trading Card Database. Both are fantastic sites and I can easily spend hours browsing through them.

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