G.I. Joe has had a long and winding history since it’s debut in 1964, and comics have been a huge part in making this toy line a part of modern society. And artist Ryan Dunlavey has been telling that story in a series of one-page comics called “The Real History of G.I. Joe” that have been running as variant covers to the new IDW G.I. Joe series from issue #1 in February on through this month’s #5.
Dunlavey, a longtime fan of the G.I. Joe toyline who proudly remembers buying Eagle-Eyed Joe in the late 70s, comes into this unique assignment after illustrating the unconventional history of comics in the series Comic Book Comics (collected by IDW as The Comic Book History Of Comics) with writer Fred Van Lente. And with Van Lente firmly entrenched as the writer of this new G.I. Joe series, Dunlavey pulled double-duty as writer and artist chronicling this strange path the toyline created to success.
And now for our monthly G.I. Joe-centric column, we talked to Dunlavey about his cartooning and how he documented the rise of G.I. Joe.
Newsarama: Ryan, these are great – how did you get the plum gig to do these five story covers?
Ryan Dunlavey: Well, before this Fred Van Lente and I did a series of comic books about comic book history that IDW collected under the name Comic Book History Of Comics. That put Fred in touch with IDW to eventually take over the G.I. Joe title, and someone at IDW suggested along the way that he do a history of G.I. Joe in the style of Comic Book history of Comics. During the development of that, somehow I ended up being the one writing and drawing these one-page strips. I don’t know who came up with the idea of doing them as variant covers.
Nrama: Were you a big G.I. Joe fan growing up, or was this something you had to get up to speed on?
Dunlavey: Pretty big, but by the time G.I. Joe was popular I was a teenager. I as a kid growing up in the 70s I had some of the old Eagle-Eyed Joe, Bullet Man and other toys that were given to me from my older cousins. By the time characters like Scarlet and Snake-Eyes came out, I had moved overseas and didn’t get to experience it. I moved back in the United States in the mid-80s and saw how huge G.I. Joe had become. I lived with a younger cousin then and I started watching the cartoon with him, and began playing with his toys. I eventually picked up the G.I. Joe: Real American Hero comics and I was hooked. Ever since then I’ve been a big G.I. Joe fan.
Nrama: The quirks in the original G.I. Joe characters like the facial scar and the left thumbnail thing are something not everyone – not even most G.I. Joe fans – would know about. How’d you research this series of covers?
Dunlavey: I knew a good amount. For a time I was a collector of the smaller G.I. Joe figures, but I did go out and do a lot of further research. I found out things like the scar and thumbnail you mentioned through research, which let me to some “A-ha!” moments as to those mysteries when I was a kid. I’m sure there’ other people who read these comic strips and are having those similar moments with those reveals, and others who had known them for awhile.
There’s a lot of documentaries and books out about G.I. Joe, so I did a lot of reading and watching to inform the strips.
Nrama: Were there any nuggets of interesting G.I. Joe trivia that you found that, for one reason or another, couldn’t fit on these five one-page strips you did?
Dunlavey: Sure! One of my favorite things I found was this character from the 1980s G.I. Joe action figures and comics. There was a stealth pilot at that timed named Ghost Rider, but they couldn’t actually use his name in comics because, well, there’s already a pretty well-known comic book character with that name. At that time, Larry Hama came up with the great idea that no one in G.I. Joe or anywhere knew his name to speak it because he was such a stealth pilot that his name was even secret.
I actually scripted a sixth page that we ended up not doing that had all sorts of trivia like this.
Nrama: Going from research to plain childhood memories, which of these story points you included in the 5-part strip were pulled directly from your childhood? You mentioned you had Eagle Eye Joe growing up, but what else?
Dunlavey: I definitely wanted to include the weird 1970s toys they made before G.I. Joe went on hiatus. Now that you mention it, I also had that weird outer space Super Joe that I got as a birthday present once; they were just a very strange group of toys.
I tried to cram as much reference as possible in these five strips. If you look closely at the second strip you’ll see in one of the panels I drew a bunch of pictures on a wall. They’re really tiny, but if you look closely you can make out some other strange G.I. Joe toys from history like the G.I. Joe go cart and others.
Nrama: One question I have to ask is the idea of doing a comic strip as a cover. Was it difficult doing a strip that also had to work as a cover, or did you not think about that?
Dunlavey: There was more work in the scripting phase to get it down than in the drawing; I had to find the most logical breaks in the story to leave off with every installment. Truth be told, this was only five parts but it could have been as long as 10. Six would have been more comfortable; in the first one I crammed a lot in.
As for doing these as covers, IDW told me not to think of them as covers; for a time I tried designing them with one large panel, but IDW said to draw it as a regular comic strip pages because it was a special variant cover and not the main cover people see on the racks.
Nrama: It seems you got a real kick out of doing these – could you see yourself doing more of these, either for G.I. Joe or for other titles?
Dunlavey: I looked into doing more of these for other licensed comic titles, but most don’t have as much back story or aren’t as interesting as G.I. Joe is. G.I. Joe has a lot more to it because of everything it went through and the fact that it draws on real world history for its origin.
Actually, the idea of doing more G.I. Joe work would be something I’d get a kick out of, but I don’t know how my style of drawing or storytelling would fit with more stories.