Category Archives: G.I. Joe Behind the Scenes

G.I. Joe BG key – “Where the Reptiles Roam”

Where The Reptiles Roam BG KEY detail

“Where the Reptiles Roam,” a 1985 Sunbow/Marvel episode of G.I. Joe, is great. And silly. Which is the best thing I can say about the 1980s Sunbow/Marvel show. Teleplays balance action and a bit of drama, while characters chew scenery and veer into charming archtype. I love everything about this show. In this episode, written by Gerry Conway and Carla Conway, four Joes infiltrate a Texas dude ranch where Cobra has harnessed a space laser to destroy American cities. You remember three sentences ago when I said this show was charming, right?

(Today’s blog post is about art, not writing, but I want to toss out that although in comics Gerry Conway is best known for killing Gwen Stacy, he has a big career writing for live-action TV, and is writing some Spidertitles again.)

To repeat from an earlier blog post, animation background keys don’t appear in animation, but provide master shots for the BG artists to draw and paint specific angles within a location. Let’s do this one backwards. The last time we looked at a background key from G.I. Joe, we examined the actual painting first, and then screencaps from that scene second. But here are the screencaps. Click to embiggen, and follow along. Wild Bill leads the square dance. Pan past him from the stage and the shifty old folks, cut to our three undercover heroes. Over the shoulder from them, they see the shifty old folks leave. Cut back to a three-shot as Alpine suggests they follow. This whole thing is 20 seconds.

Where The Reptiles Roam screencaps

This scene involves seven shots. One is reused, so this scene only involves six BG paintings. All of those BGs are drawn and painted to match shots from the storyboards. And the BG key is the master shot for it all. I can’t prove this is the only key for this scene, but it’s a safe assumption. This painting is unsigned, so I don’t know who drew it and who painted it. Sadly, G.I. Joe Season 1 end credits don’t list BG artists, so we may never know. There is crossover from the talent that worked on the TV show also working on the animated movie, so perhaps of the 14 people in the BG department who are credited in the animated movie, one did this. But sorry, I don’t know. Again — one fancy painting to envision a setting for 20 seconds of a 22-minute show. That’s a lot of work!

Where The Reptiles Roam BG KEYInteresting to note how the space changes. The key makes the room feel shallow and yet horizontal. That’s what a landscape composition might do for you. But the animated scene fills this space with people, and makes the room feel quite deep. The steepness of the stairs also changes. I’ll chalk that up to a many hands working on a rush job. That’s exactly the kind of inconsistency you don’t see on a big budget feature film like, say, the 1989 Little Mermaid, (animated in America and over several years) but you do see on an ’80s TV show animated in one or two countries over several months. Additionally, the stone hearth is unseen in the animation. It might have been simplified out of the scene, or it might be in that fourth shot above, obstructed by Alpine on the right.

Whatever the case, I’m sure glad the Joes stop that space laser.

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G.I. Joe #26 George Roussos original color guide art

GI Joe 26 pg14 COLOR GUIDE detail
Everybody knows Larry Hama has written about 250 G.I. Joe comics. And almost everybody talks about that famous issue that Hama drew. Well, did rough pencils on. And most of those people recall the other issue Hama roughed — issue #26, “Snake-Eyes: The Origin! Part One.” (And people forget he also-also drew portions of #35 and #36 — so many issues behind schedule!) But a member of the creative team who rarely gets mentioned is George Roussos, who besides coloring a few dozen issues of G.I. Joe, had a long career in comics. He inked part of Two-Face’s first appearance in 1942. As George Bell he’d inked Jack Kirby in the ’60s, and between the two he’d drawn much more. But by the time G.I. Joe rolled around Roussos was a staff colorist for Marvel, and for a bit he colored all of Marvel’s covers. It is Roussos’ colors that we see here on this original color guide to G.I. Joe issue #26 page 14.

Comic art is drawn in black ink on large, white bristol. Photocopies, often shrunk to common 8.5″ x 11″ paper, were handed to the color artists, who applied Dr. Ph. Martin’s dyes, which are concentrated watercolor. The color artist then coded each color, using the limited four-color palette of the day — combinations of just a few percentages of cyan, yellow, magenta, and blank ink. This is how it was all done until the 1990s, when Photoshop, computer separations, and digital pre-press became the norm.

GI Joe 26 pg14 COLOR GUIDE Roussos

Other folks then would painstakingly cut rubylith masking film to match the placement of the four printing colors, and turn those into plates for the printer. So what you’re looking at above is George Roussos’ original color guide to G.I. Joe issue #26, page 14. It’s not the original comic art — that is left untouched — but it is the original color art.

Oh, here’s something fun. For some reason this color guide was done in two parts, the top half of one sheet of paper, and the bottom half of another, then cut out and taped to the first, revealing some uncolored art. Not easy to find black and white Hama/Leialoha G.I. Joe art!

GI Joe 26 pg14 COLOR GUIDE detail

When I asked Hama if he had any recollections of George Roussos, he replied “George was a character. He was a staff colorist, but everyone suspected that a lot of the freelance stuff he took home with him was actually colored by his wife, who was always referred to as ‘Mrs. George.'” We have no way of knowing who colored this page, and I don’t include Hama’s quote to swipe at Mr. Roussos, who passed away in 2000, but rather as a fun anecdote. Artists and color artists have long had assistants who filled in large areas of black ink, finished backgrounds or crowd scenes, or more recently, flatted colors before a rendering stage. If one could steadily hold a brush, one could fill in color where one’s boss (or husband?) had designated. (Duck fans: Carl Barks’ wife Gare lettered and inked backgrounds for Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck stories.) And in the limited language of 20th century comics coloring, there’s some interesting stuff going on here in G.I. Joe #26 — the blues-and-purples only of the flashback in the final panel. So I do credit this page to George Roussos, and appreciate his color work at the House of Ideas.

Additionally, Larry Hama added “He came into my office once and told me he had a ten year run of Prince Valiant Sunday pages [clipped] from the Newark Star Ledger, which printed them on gravure at the biggest possible size. He offered me the whole stack for 200 bucks, so I got them. I had them sitting around in my closet for another ten years, and finally sold them to Adam Kubert for what I paid for them.”



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1988 Repeater turnaround by George Woodbridge

1988 GI Joe Repeater detail

My brother always got the big Joes, the heavy machine gunners. He got Rock ‘n Roll (both!), Roadblock (both!), and later, Salvo. To my delight, I finally “called” a Joe who was beefier, and came with a big weapon — steadi-cam machine gunner, codename: Repeater. Here he is in scale, plastic glory.

1988 Repeater action figure

But you came here for art, not well-disguised photos of my kitchen counter.

George Woodbridge, master illustrator! Did much of the ’88 turnarounds.

1988 Repeater turnaround Woodbridge

Mark Pennington, a big part of the Joe team at Hasbro. Did much of the ’88 accessories. And ’88 figures. (Later inked a lot of “X-Men.”)

1988 Repeater backpack PenningtonAnd that wonderous weapon!

1988 Repeater steadicam Pennington


Filed under Animation, Toys and Toy Art

Cobra Commander and Destro’s Control Device

This is fun. Characters, of course, get animation model sheets. So do costume changes for those characters, even small ones. Bart Simpson. Bart Simpson with an Isotopes baseball cap. And so do props. That baseball cap if it’s picked up. Or the hat rack, if it needs to be a discreet object, separate from the painted background.

So back to G.I. Joe, you probably recall this exciting scene.

Slaves of the Cobra Master screencaps

Every prop!

GI Joe animation model sheet

Animation color models are made the same way production cels are. A pencil drawing on one sheet of paper is run through a photocopier loaded with blank cel sheets. Out comes that drawing, now on a transparent cel. Detail:

GI Joe animation model sheetAnd they’re painted the same way, on the back side, with cel paint (which is like acrylic, except not available at stores).

modelsheet Control Device cel paintI didn’t light this in such a way as to really sell it, but you can see the brush strokes. From the front (the top), cel paint color appears flat, because it’s flush with the plastic sheet. On the back (the underside), it looks a bit like peanut butter spread across bread. Oh, and the white bits on the red — that’s from the cel being stored against a sheet of paper for years, and then sticking to it, and pulling some paper fibers off when I separated the two. I’ve heard that putting cels-stuck-to-paper in an anti-static bag in the refrigerator can separate them better, but I’ve not tried it.

Also, while I’m musing, I’ll point out that in the screencaps above, there’s a glow effect on the control device. (Mattes!) I doubt there’s a second color model that denotes that color effect, but if this were a modern production, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a reference existed.

I have to say, even as a kid, I could not comprehend how an 8-direction joystick with two buttons could translate into articulated movements for a bipedal human. It was one of those times where the limitations of animation or animation design shook me out of my suspension of disbelief. I’m glad that Duke escaped, though.


Filed under Animation, G.I. Joe Behind the Scenes

Rudat Serpentor Air Chariot sketches

Serpentor Air Chariot sketch detail by Ron Rudat

We had this tradition, in my family, that on my brother’s birthday, or mine, one of our presents — a small one — was hidden under our beds. Or each others’. Or my parents’. I distinctly remember lying sideways, pulling up the dark brown bed cover from the white shag carpet in my parents’ room, that July morning in 1986, to find a small, wrapped present. I had already looked under my own bed — nothing there. My mom had already left for work. My dad was probably somewhere behind me, shaving or tying his tie. In front of and above me, past the bed, Charlie Gibson and Joan Lunden’s calming voices were probably transmitting from the television.

This small birthday box wasn’t the right proportions for a Transformer, and it didn’t sound, when shook, like LEGO. To my delight, it was a G.I. Joe toy. Cobra Emperor Serpentor and his Air Chariot, to be precise. This was important. My brother and I divided up each year’s worth of Joe product. He could buy (or receive as gifts) certain figures, and I could get others. It was an even split. In our stories Kevin had claimed most executive decisions regarding that ruthless terrorist organization because he had Cobra Commander. (Both of them.) While I had Destro, we were starting to understand that the TV cartoon had invented Destro’s role as second-in-command, so I didn’t have much power. But now I had the Emperor, who was by definition, higher up than a Commander.

A few months later, I would try to consistently match Dick Gautier’s aggravated tone in all my scale role-play Serpentor dialogue. Our games, Kevin’s and mine, found a new dynamic, inspired by the power play on display in the animated series. Cobra Commander was still around, but he wasn’t in charge any more. But he was still important. And Duke’s incredible grenade-inspired dispatching of Serpentor’s Air Chariot in 1987’s G.I. Joe: The Movie was mimicked dozens of times in our games.

I’m most fond of Serpentor, and what he represents. Much of that is in the details — his costume, his color scheme, and that wonderful Air Chariot. Let’s take a closer look at that little flying vehicle. It was designed by Ron Rudat (as was Serpentor himself). It’s snake-shaped, and perhaps the most organic-looking of any G.I. Joe or Cobra vehicle. And it went through the same development process as every other figure and vehicle — a price point, sketches, more sketches, and color comps. Let’s look at four of Rudat’s ideas.

Serpentor Air Chariot sketch 1 by Ron Rudat

Serpentor Air Chariot sketch 2 by Ron Rudat

Serpentor Air Chariot sketch 3 by Ron Rudat

Serpentor Air Chariot sketch 4 by Ron Rudat

Of note is that three of these are dated. Rudat usually did not date his work. That there was such a huge volume of sketches, drawings, comps, and occasional paintings, it’s no surprise. But with these ones, we get a glimpse into the timeline of when a mid-1986 figure was in development.

What did Serpentor’s Air Chariot mean to you?


Filed under G.I. Joe Behind the Scenes, Toys and Toy Art

Russ Heath – Steeler model sheet

Steeler model sheet detail Russ Heath

I never much got to know the ’82 characters. Not until later. Since my brother and I started buying the toys in ’84, we weren’t properly exposed to that first wave of action figures. Oh, we did buy a few, still hanging on pegs, and we saw them in the ’83 miniseries to be certain, but to my young eyes, all those green guys looked the same. My brother and I used that term, in fact: “Green guys.” As in “the green guys,” the 1982 G.I. Joe team that with the exception of the redhead, the black guy, and the guy in black, all looked the same. The 1982 cast was never “my” G.I. Joe. Now the flamethrower guy and the sailor with the parrot and the ninja redux with the wolf — absolutely.

So it’s with pleasure that I have gotten to know the green guys in the intervening years. And in the animated series, there are more changes and details to differentiate them, like Steeler’s two-color outfit. What stands out most, from a character standpoint, is Steeler’s pain in “Worlds Without End.” (Which I haven’t watched in fifteen years — yes, I know, that doesn’t make sense.) Actor Chris Latta’s amazing performance as him. Which started with artist Russ Heath’s wonderful model sheet. I love the thickness, the bluntness that his pencil line has accumulated over the Xerox generations here:

Steeler model sheet Russ HeathHelp me get to know Steeler. What’d he do in your games? What’s he mean to you?


Filed under Animation, G.I. Joe Behind the Scenes

G.I. Joe Yearbook #3 by Ron Wagner

G.I. Joe Yearbook 3 pg 4 Wagner DeMulder

“Silent Interlude” gets a lot of attention. People who’ve read comics, but have never read G.I. Joe, and who don’t like G.I. Joe, have heard of that twenty-first issue of Marvel Comics’ G.I. Joe, with its wordless tale of action and rescue. And all that attention is deserved. But what never gets mentioned alongside this comic that Larry Hama wrote and drew (at the same time — it was a single step), is the other two silent stories published in the original Marvel run: “SFX,” issue #85, April 1989, penciled by Paul Ryan and Randy Emberlin; and “Hush Job” from Yearbook #3, drawn by Ron Wagner and Kim DeMulder.

Let’s take a look at page 4 of “Hush Job.”

G.I. Joe Yearbook 3 pg 4 Wagner DeMulder

To repeat: This is a silent story. It’s not that the word balloons fell off. There aren’t any.

Ron Wagner, a graduate of the Kubert School, really knows how to draw. Look at those two 3/4 rear views on Storm Shadow. And one is an up-shot. Look at that jaw in panel 4! Look at the intensity of Storm Shadow’s expression in the final panel!

Ron Wagner draws some of my favorite comics ever, and his work here, under DeMulder’s inks, really shines. Note that wonderful negative space treatment on the trees in panel 2. They’re left out, so color and the hatching at that edge creates the night sky. Wonderful depth in panel 1 — foreground, middle ground, background. Also note the storytelling. Silent stories are hard. (If you want to see Marvel stumble, check out the “‘Nuff Said” month of silent comics from 2002.) Here Ron Wagner pulls if off deftly — Storm Shadow and Timber at rest, yet we see the sky, so we’re ready for something to appear. Up-shot, and Scarlett does appear. Touchdown, and Storm Shadow is up. Scarlett shows a photo of Snake-Eyes, captive. Storm Shadow sees it, and is surprised and concerned. Every panel a strong composition, and the whole page has a great balance with darks at top and bottom, with horizontal panels bracketing three tall ones. Great!

Here’s a detail, click to embiggen:

G.I. Joe Yearbook 3 pg 4 Wagner DeMulder

Ron Wagner drew Marvel comics for years: G.I. Joe, Nth Man, Excalibur, Punisher. And at DC, he drew a forgotten “event,” Genesis. Later, he storyboarded for various WB cartoons, where his storytelling skills undoubtedly made him shine but presumably the demands of animation timetables meant more focus on shapes and angles and less on lines and details. And in recent years, he’s drawn a few issues of G.I. Joe — yes, the Larry Hama series that continues the original one that you all ignore — and Wagner is about to draw four comics for DC as part of its “Convergence” event, one with Green Lantern (image below reposted from Wagner’s tumblr) —

Ron Wagner Bill Reinhold Convergence Green Lantern

— and the other with the Teen Titans. Wagner’s art has changed since 1987. In the 2000s, it’s streamlined, and there’s no feathering. That may be down to inkers, but I suspect that he’s saying more with less, as many of the best artists in comics tend to do.

What’s your favorite work by Ron Wagner?


Filed under Comic Books, G.I. Joe Behind the Scenes