Mike Zeck needs no introduction. Here’s a short one anyway. He’s best known for four things: a three-year run on “Captain America,” the 1986 “Punisher” miniseries that made Frank Castle into a real character and not a Spider-Man foil; and 40 or so unbelievable G.I. Joe covers. His career in comics is bigger than that, but you only asked for a short introduction.
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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.
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!
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.”
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.
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?
Just a day after returning home from that calendar peak of G.I. Joe excitement, the annual G.I. Joe Convention, I learned the sad news that someone very important in the history of G.I. Joe, Herb Trimpe, had died.
Herb Trimpe is best known in comics for drawing a seven-year run on The Incredible Hulk, including the first appearance of some obscure, unpopular X-Man with claws, but to G.I. Joe fans, he’s best known for drawing G.I. Joe issue #1 in 1982. (Well, it was published in 1982, so let’s say it was drawn in 1981.) Trimpe drew most of that first year (and wrote issue #8), and signed on to draw the wonderful spin-off Special Missions, almost all of its 29 issues, between 1986 and 1989. He also pencilled the tepid 4 issue G.I. Joe and the Transformers crossover in ’86, and about the only interesting that that can be said about that miniseries is that Herb Trimpe pencilled it. He returned for issue #99 of the regular monthly G.I Joe, a fill-in that let the series’ then-regular artist get ahead for the double-sized issue #100, and Trimpe came back one more time to draw and write issue #120, another fill-in between the end of one artist’s run and the beginning of another’s.
I interviewed Trimpe (“TRIM-pee”) in April of 2002, probably only my 8th or 9th interview for the book. He was pleasant and lively, and had a few good anecdotes from his various jobs. I was mostly interested in the one that involved drawing comic books, but I was struck to learn that since Marvel had stopped offering him work, his teaching career (which I had heard about) had transitioned to volunteering at Ground Zero. Remember, this was seven months after September 11th:
“After leaving the comic business, I spent three years in school and went straight into the job. I never really stopped to think about what I actually wanted to do when I grew up. So I got my BA and I got a masters degree in humanistic education over that three-year period. And during those classes, I met a lot of teachers. And they said, ‘You know, you really should get your teaching certificate.’ Because, you know, you can always do it once you do it. So I did. I went ahead and did my student teaching and got my teaching certificate, and got a job right away.
“…I taught two years in public school. Technically I’m on leave of absence right now. I took a year’s leave of absence to work out some projects that I hadn’t been able to finish, do some commission work that had been building up. And also I was very fortunate to be able to work as a volunteer down at the Trade Center in New York. So I’ve been going down there once a week. It’s an ongoing thing down there. Since early October I’ve been down there.”
This was interesting. Just a few weeks after the attack, Trimpe was there, digging. And Trimpe was in a transition state in his life — having gone from a decades-long regular gig at Marvel, to school, to commissions and volunteering. I had worked at an animation studio for a year and a half, and was hitting a state of transition of my own — about to quit and go back to school to teach. So we sort of had something in common.
Trimpe didn’t have much of note to say about drawing G.I. Joe — it was part of his quota at Marvel and he did his job. But he had enjoyed working with Larry Hama and did get many toys shipped to him from Hasbro, a theme that has come up a few times in interviewing artists.
Five years later, I commissioned an original piece of G.I. Joe art from Trimpe. It was to somehow encapsulate that original run, which meant including a ton of details: the original 13 Joes; and also a nod to issues #6 and #7, the Oktober Guard team-up, with that iconic cover of issues #7 (Joe and Oktober Guard, back to back, surrounded!) and that amazing cliffhanger at the end of issue #6 (“Line up all the prisoners at the edge of the ravine — and kill them!”). And include the MOBAT (to nod to the cover of issue #1) and the VAMP (because it needed another vehicle). And a bit of Cobra stuff, like a helmet. Maybe even a subtle nod to the 1984 Missile Defense Unit, with some shot-out brick wall. This was a tall order, to cram all that into one image.
It turned out great. Click to enlarge.
“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.”
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:
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) —
— 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?
I know you toy types want the toy dope. But I’m an animation type first, so I’m always pleased to show you something cartoon-related. Like this background key from 1987’s G.I. Joe: The Movie. Background keys are not used in the final animation. They can be without color, or fully painted, and are an overview of what a location — interior or exterior — looks like. Generally they come before the storyboarding stage, so that storyboard artists know what a location looks like before planning (and drawing) scenes and shots in and around that location. Keys are used as a reference, too, for background artists and background painters, who will fully realize in line and in color the specific backgrounds needed in every angle called for by the storyboards.
This one’s by Robert Schaefer. His credit in G.I. Joe: The Movie is “Background Art Direction.” The whole background unit on that production is one BG Supervisor, another three on BG Art Direction, one BG Designer, nine BG painters, and one BG Coordinator. Some of these folks were in the States at Marvel Productions, others were in Japan at Toei. (A few uncredited ones may have been elsewhere in Japan or Korea, subcontracted, which I would never be able to track down.) Schaefer has worked on BGs for Hanna-Barbera, Ruby-Spears, Universal, and Disney Television Animation. And, probably of most interest to readers of this blog, Marvel Productions, where he also drew and painted on G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Jem.
Here’s how this key was used — for Pythona’s infiltration of the Cobra Terror Drome — note most of all the first shot.
An additional key or two may have been painted to describe these places. And it’s worth noting that the Terror Drome, both inside and out, had already been visualized in Season 2. I don’t have information on why any of that was revised or redone for The Movie, but presumably because here Cobra HQ is bigger and more labyrinthine. But imagine a show like The Simpsons, where a key for the Simpsons’ living room reflects a “standing set” and isn’t often redone.