Category Archives: G.I. Joe Behind the Scenes

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.

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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?

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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?

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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?

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Windchill turnaround by Pennington

1989 Mark Pennington G.I. Joe Windchill close up

I had a thing for arctic figures. Even though my brother bought Snow Job, the tooth fairy brought me Iceberg, and from then on, it was quietly understood that I would get the arctic figures (or maybe I announced it?) — Blizzard with his many accessories, Sub-Zero with his giant machine gun. Except for the Stalker remake — Kevin had had the original ’83 Stalker, so he got dibs on any revisions. And ’89 Stalker was a tundra soldier, which is not quite arctic. I realize here I’m misusing the word “arctic.” I should just be writing “cold weather” — I got all the cold weather Joes — since an antarctic figure would be a different category. Anyhoo, I skipped Avalanche because he was underpainted and looked silly.

1989 Windchill and his crazy vehicle, the dragstrip racer-like Arctic Blast, was the one that got away. Never bought him, and the tooth fairy had moved on to other, younger kids. But I enjoy peaking behind the scenes at this Mark Pennington sculpt input sheet for Windchill.

1989 Mark Pennington G.I. Joe Windchill

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Wild Weasel color study circa 1983

84 Wild Weasel color study close up

We all likely respond to Wild Weasel’s signature red flight suit. Depending on the light, it’s a little maroon, a little magenta. But overall, it’s red. Red, the color of blood, the color of rage, the color of evil, the color of the Red Baron’s plane. Much of what made Cobra stand out so much from G.I. Joe those first few years, 1982 – 1986 or so, was color: Joes were generally greens, browns, and tans. Cobra was generally blue, black, and red.

After figure designer Ron Rudat finalized each Joe or Cobra, he would color several — sometimes several dozen — photocopies of his final drawing, and with markers or ink, brainstorm a myriad of color schemes. You lose much of the effect if you see any one by itself, as the real revelation comes in seeing ten or fifteen laid out together, all the strange and wonderful possibilities that might have been.

But here’s a might-have-been for Wild Weasel.

84 Wild Weasel color studyI think he might have gotten lost against a dark blue plane had he arrived in this grey. But it’s neat nonetheless. (Perhaps these duds against a red plane!) In what colors have you wanted to see Wild Weasel?

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Dreadnok Thrasher color comp

1986 Thrasher sketch color comp Ron Rudat

Today’s post is a color comp of a photocopy of a Ron Rudat presentation sketch for the 1986 Dreadnok Thrasher. So this would probably have been colored in 1985. It’s pretty close to his final colors. I had no memory of the Thrasher action figure coming with a weapon, so I guess that’s a rare case of my brother and I losing a G.I. Joe accessory — and it must have been immediately upon opening the toy — and then me completely forgetting it existed. It was a mild surprise just now when I looked up the figure on YoJoe. I did recall a faint connection to sports, what with the chest pads, but it wasn’t until seeing this —

1986 Thrasher sketch color comp 2— and the red-colored glove that I see all the lacrosse uniform bits. Red would’ve stood out on the figure, and maybe it was painted black to keep costs down and not add one more color, but plastic Thrasher loses a little of that athlete-gone-bad attitude for having just a black glove. Like it could be any kind of glove.

Musing aside, Ron Rudat would marker up dozens of these copies, searching for the right color combination. I want to point out that now and then, Rudat would use a silver pen, which my scanner doesn’t quite pick up unless you see it at an angle or in close-up:

1986 Thrasher sketch color comp 3

I always loved Thrasher because of his attitude and voice on the show. (“Taking a dip, love?”) While I liked the toy as well, he tended to stay in the Thunder Machine since his head was just a tiny bit too big, despite being otherwise nicely sculpted and painted.

What do you think of that lacrosse stick weapon?

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