For a man whose comic book is credited by many with bringing 80's nostalgia back to prominence in the comic book world, you'll find that "G.I. Joe" writer Josh Blaylock is a pretty laid back guy. After his company, Devil's Due, successfully acquired the license to the popular 80's cartoon, comic and toy franchise and launched their own "Joe" comic book series in 2001 through Image Comics, Blaylock found himself vaulted from relative obscurity to instant stardom and each issue of "G.I. Joe" consistently selling high. Though many have since tried to capitalize on "80's fever," with the exception of Canadian Pat Lee's efforts with the "Transformers" franchise, none have reached the success levels of Blaylock or have been able to do what he's still doing: selling out of current issues.
"For the old standby, let's just say that 'G.I. Joe is the code name for America's daring, highly trained special missions force,'" explains Blaylock with a smile on his face. "'It's purpose, to defend freedom from COBRA, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.'
"Now actually, in our book, things take place after the original G.I. Joe vs. Cobra storyline... so Cobra's more concerned with rebuilding their organization than taking over the world. Their leader, Cobra Commander, is in it more for personal gain and conquest than anything. Cobra is scattered across the globe in small cells, and is backed by the Dreadnoks, a nationwide gang of biker-para-military thugs led by Zartan. Their arms are also supplemented by the European arms dealer, Destro, whose family has been specializing in weaponry for centuries.
"G.I. Joe is made up of the best of the best the Military has to offer. They're a huge task force, that has been called in to put a stop to Cobra. They're led by the honorable General Hawk (or Tomahawk, depending on which generation you hail from), and just under him are Duke and Flint. There are around two hundred G.I. Joe characters to draw from, so it's a daunting task to take on writing, but you just have to pick a few core characters and run with them."
Whereas other comics focus on the super powers of characters or the outlandish situations, or even the great machines involved, Blaylock believes the appeal of "G.I. Joe" is simply the characters themselves. "I've always thought the appeal of G.I. Joe is that the bad guys are these over the top super-villains, but instead of an over the top team of heroes fighting them, they're just good old fashion soldiers. They're damn good soldiers, but that's it. Okay, okay, so they have a little bit of ninja help, but mostly they're soldiers. (laughs)"
Blaylock also rejects the idea that "G.I Joe" is somehow less "mature" or "worthy" of being continued as a comic book because of it's origins as a successful cartoon and toy line, which some critics have used as ammo against the series, and believes those comments are absolutely ludicrous in an industry dominated by superheroes, many of which were created over 40 years ago.
"Anyone who knows anything about G.I. Joe knows what a rich universe the book entails. It has all of the makings of great fiction - well rounded characters, major backstories, trademark locations and settings. Of course it's something 80's kids are holding onto... just the same way that Spider-Man and Batman are something kids of the past 40 or 50 years are holding onto.
"As far as naysayers, if you're referring to the people who hate superhero and mainstream comics all together, that's a useless argument. I think there's room for both. We publish off kilter black and white stuff too, check it out. I love 'Hopeless Savages' and 'Arsenic Lullabies' and 'Pounded,' but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy 'Savage Dragon' or 'Spider-Man,' dammit.
"If you're referring to the people who are bitching about the 80's comeback while they're reading a copy of Superman, well, that's just laughable. Come on, people, you watched 'Super Friends' growing up, and I watched 'G.I. Joe' and 'He-Man.' Can't we all just get along?"
Since much of the "G.I. Joe" comic book fanbase has been bred through their childhood love for the franchise and characters, finding the right inspiration for the stories can be tricky- Blaylock has to play the stories to the long time fans, with nods to continuity, but also make these tales genuinely exciting for new fans who might be checking out the series as well. "I think having a thorough understanding of the characters is paramount," says the writer of his inspiration. "You have to know their past, and know what the fans are going to want to see. Sometimes it's so subtle, too, that it's easy to miss. At the same time you can't get too bogged down with continuity details, or else you alienate everyone. When it all comes down to it, the 80 some odd thousand people out there really supporting this book are the older crowd, so I have to please them. I want to bring in any younger readers I can, though, so it's a delicate balance. Their audience grows more slowly, as the toy re-launch picks up.
"When the time comes, we hope to be launching a kids book based specifically on the toys - but with Hasbro's help. Something people don't see, that I think is interesting, is that our newsstand is blowing up. Every month we're growing, and I can't help but wonder if it might be kids picking these up at Waldenbooks and what not off the spinner rack.
"The way I try to keep it interesting, and I'll admit this took some trial and error, is to keep the cast small for each particular story. This is the only way to explore the characters and develop their personalities. I've been trying to have one main storyline, with only a couple of subplots going on for each story arc. Then usually one subplot will remain unanswered, in hopes of bringing the reader along for the next big arc. Where a lot of books fall short, and where I'm trying to deliver is that the subplots will actually have a payoff! I know what's going to happen in 'G.I. Joe' from now up until issue twenty-five, so what that means is that if I've stuck a subplot in there in issue 15 or 16 or what have you, it probably has a purpose.
"This helps eliminate the problem of dangling plot lines that so many comics never wrap up. Like I said, this took some trial and error, but I feel better than ever about what we have planned for Joe in 2003."
Those plans for 2003 don't include any preferential treatment towards any specific member of the "G.I. Joe" cast, at least consciously on Blaylock's part, as the scribe admits to not having any real favorite character in the series. "Everyone asks that question, [about his favorite character] and I don't have an answer," laughs Blaylock. "I really enjoy the villains the most, but that's been all the reason to try and flesh out some of the G.I. Joe members personalities. I could write an entire one-shot about the Dreadnoks sitting around ripping on each other, and I think Destro is one of the best damn villains of all time. Tomax and Xamot are so slick, though, that you have to like those guys. Roadblock's a loveable badass. Snake-Eyes is a total badass. It just goes on. You can't pick just one. They're like potato chips n' shit."
And before any conspiracy theorists start thinking that Blaylock is not picking a favorite "Joe" character just because he has such a large cast and doesn't know how to keep track of all them, much less deal with all the characters, he says, "Dealing with such a large group of characters has been a learning experience, but I think I have a handle on it."
While getting a handle on that, Blaylock's been hammering home a major theme in the pages of "G.I. Joe," specifically that one's actions does affect one's future and has been showing how each of the core character's past machinations has come back to change their life, for better or worse. "Hmmm... I never realized that," laughs the writer and, as many will soon learn, capable artist. "I guess it is a major theme. Well I'm sure it has to do with the fact that this was a resurrected title, and it seemed a natural progression, and what fans would want to see," explains Blaylock. "I don't know, maybe it's because I'm big on accountability. I really believe people should be responsible for their own actions. I think that saying 'Everyone's their own worst critic' is a croc of shit. In general, most people are way too easy on themselves. You gotta be tough on yourself, especially in this business.
"Once you learn to be totally blunt with yourself, you can attack your weaknesses head on and come out a better human being for it. Nothing drives me crazier than excuses, which usually is accompanied by a lack of motivation, and now that I think about it, that theme pops up in some of my other story ideas too. It's also just a big 'what would happen' type scenario for these characters. If you ask yourself, what would have happened to this guy by now? Or this guy? For Cobra characters, the natural answer was usually, "all this mischief will probably catch up with them.
"Now that you've got me psychoanalyzing myself, I've always been a very 'future-minded' person. Ever since I was a little kid. My brain just works that way. I can't think about anything with out projecting the eventual outcome in my head. I think I do okay at setting aside time for fun too, and half the bars in Chicago can attest to that, but it's easy for me to get caught up worrying about what lies ahead."
After facetiously throwing a fit at CBR News for making him think about deep things, Blaylock explains that working on "G.I. Joe" is a dream come true and it's easy to define the job for him. "The easiest part is that it's bloody fun! I'm getting to shape the universe of 'G.I. friggin' JOE.' That's wild. I'm a geek for these characters, so ideas come naturally. It's not really a case of 'Gee, what could we do this time,' and more like 'Holy crap. Which story are we going to go with this time. There's so many to draw from.' The hardest, like we've said five times now, is the huge juggling act you have to do with the characters."
Another part of that juggling act Blaylock mentions is making sure that the comic remains accessible to new readers, which is part of the reason that the series has been structured in four-issue missions, with subplots carrying over from story to story. "That's just the nature of the beast these days," concedes Blaylock. "Trade Paperbacks is where the industry is going, so you have to plan for that. Like I said, though, I'm trying to make sure some subplots carry over into future arcs, and planning stories far ahead has helped that out in a big way. I also want people to be able to jump on at any given time, and not be bogged down with too much of what came before. The trend has taken a bit of a turn, though, and book stores are demanding higher page counts in their trades, so maybe we'll see a bit longer arcs in the future. So part of it is to be new reader friendly, and part is purely business influenced."
While you can say "Yo Joe" to almost anyone in their 20's in America and they'll think of the "G.I. Joe" cartoon, a lot of people will also think of the highly beloved comic that was brought to life by series writer Larry Hama, who is now writing the first arc of the Devil's Due series "G.I. Joe: Frontline." "Larry's become like our fun New York Uncle," says Blaylock, whose voice can't mask the absolute joy the scribe gets from being around Hama. "A bunch of us stopped by his house for dinner during a business trip not too long ago, and we've had a great time working with him. I gotta tell you, though, I'm more excited about what he's doing on his own creator owned book, 'OXIDO', with artist Pablo Raimondi. But then again, it's a DDue project, so maybe I'm biased. Image will be bringing that bad boy your way this summer.
"Larry's really cool about the Joe stuff. No ego there. It was a job for him, and it was a long time ago. He still enjoys the characters, but he's not calling us everyday to say that Snake-Eyes visor should have five slits instead of four - haha. The guy's also a wealth of stories and fascinating life experiences. I highly recommend getting a few mixed drinks in him and asking about the old Marvel Bullpen, and Studio 54. (Larry, don't kill me)."
Speaking of "Frontline," it's worth noting that despite the success of "G.I Joe," Blaylock has been adamant about not diluting the Joe-verse and maintains that quality will be the determinant of the number of G.I Joe spinoffs… not to mention the need for him to have weekends off. "Ah, another conundrum. 'Battle Files' just seemed like a natural thing. As far as more spinoffs like 'Frontline,' however, it goes both ways. There are SO many characters, and more books means you can tell more stories - explore more about their personalities and adventures. We also gain more financially that way too, which doesn't hurt, but then there's the ugly scenario of flooding the market. We will be amping up the number of Joe books coming out in 2003, but I don't think we're going too crazy. I'm finally getting the studio's hours back to a normal schedule, and I want to have the weekends off sometimes [laughs]"
When Blaylock looks back at the last couple of years on "G.I. Joe," all he sees are great times and a lot of hard work that he says has been worth it in the end. "Sneaking into comics through the back door and blowing the roof off of everyone's expectations has been the highlight," says the writer. "Devil's Due was ready for this. We just had to wait for everyone else's confidence in us to catch up. Now look - the entire industry is in an 80's retro boom, and thousands of fans have returned to comic book shops that haven't collected in years. Then, once they get there, they see all of the other great material that's out there now. They see other 80's books, they pick up 'Ultimates,' they pick up '100 Bullets' and now they're hooked. That's definitely something I'm very proud of. Next... kids.
"It's been such a whirlwind I'm actually looking forward to having time to reflect on the highlights before the next con season starts up again. We did eleven cons last year... one of the coolest things to happen was a bunch of fans in Orlando dressed up in very high quality G.I. Joe/Cobra costumes. Two of them were martial artists, and did a major Snake-Eyes, Storm Shadow fight. They were employees of the local amusement park theme shows, and took us to a haunted house after hours. We got to see how everything worked, and got our own tour. They made us feel very rock star. :)"
The love that Blaylock's received from fans will be reciprocated in the form of some very exciting stories and the scribe offers some juicy teasers for fans. "We're bringing on some major talent for little things here and there, and we're leading up to a huge battle in issue 25," hints the founder of Devil's Due. "We also may be doing our very own issue sans dialogue. I wonder if you can guess which issue that may be? Storm Shadow's mind-control subplot pops back up, and issue 16 will have big, big repercussions down the line. For 'Front Line' we have a stunt coming up that should get everyone's attention, and we'll be launching three new creator owned books this spring. By the middle of the year, Image Comics will be publishing seven to nine books a month from Devil's Due, so look out. We're actually becoming a significant portion of the market share, and that's pretty damn exciting."
If that weren't enough, the recent press release from Image and Devil's Due also offered some more hints for the new year of "G.I Joe":
"Everyone knows about America's secret task force who defends the world from COBRA, an evil organization determined to rule the world, but things really kick into high gear in 2003. Tony Harris, Dan Jolley and Drew Johnson start their stint on 'G.I. JOE FRONTLINE,' followed by an event to kick start to the production speed of the book in a big way. Most importantly, look for some MAJOR talent to be associated with 'G.I. JOE' this year, the return of a MAJOR, yet controversial character, and perhaps even an issue without words..."
Also in 2003, Image Comics and Devil's Due will release another first… Blaylock's first professionally pencilled comic book, one of the many creator owned books that Blaylock's studio is proud to present. "If I had to comment on anything, I'd like to add that one of the most exciting things for me this year is that I'll finally be drawing my own Image Comic. That's a dream come true for me, and I hope some of our readers check out 'Misplaced.' I'll be writing it as well. Backing me on the art chores will be Clint Hilinski and Clayton Brown."
But more than offering those teasers, Blaylock has some special sentiments that he wants to share with fans and he says that he truly thanks them for making his time on "G.I Joe" the special experience that it's been so far.
"Thank you! Thank you for supporting Devil's Due, and for allowing us to become a gigantic eight headed monster in 2003. We couldn't have done it without the support of the fans. When retailers, distributors, and the industry was unsure of what to make of this 80's property's return, G.I. Joe fans turned out in droves, and started an entire phenomenon. You guys rock!
"I started from the bottom, in the Small Press, and have bounced around a few industries since then, learning as many tricks of the trade as possible, and after seven years, things finally took off. After going through all that, you can bet your ass I'm here to stay. I'm not one of these guys who wants to start a comic book just to become a movie director- I'm not sure how people think that comics leads down that route anyway :) Seems to me if you want to direct you should, well, make some movies.
"I just want to make comic books. Do I want to see my characters appear in movies, toys and video games? Damn straight. But in the end, that just puts me in a financial position that allows me to make comics and not be so worried about the sales. Plus, getting your characters out to the mainstream is pretty damn exciting.
"So that's it, I guess. Josh like comics. Josh want to make comics."