Earlier this year, IDW Publishing relaunched its entire G.I. Joe line and Fred Van Lente took point as writer of the main G.I. Joe series. But Newsarama has now learned that Van Lente will be calling his tour of duty short, leaving the title early next year with the series’ eleventh issue. Over the course of his run, he’s brought the Joe team squarely into modern warfare, seeing the team deal not only with new threats from COBRA and beyond, but also dealing with the everyday struggles that real military organizations face like inside controversies, public opinion, and government spying, seen in the current “Threat Matrix” arc.
In this special edition of Newsarama’s G.I. Joe column “Yo Joe!" we talk to Van Lente about upcoming events in the G.I. Joe series and his decision to leave the series. Amongst the events coming up include the return of the recently introduced fan favorite villain Mad Monk, the Joe team dealing with spies and leaks, and also the secret origin for one of the team’s classic members: Roadblock.
Newsarama: Fred, we had already scheduled a chat about what’s coming up in G.I. Joe but I just got news you’ll be leaving the title with next year’s #11. Can you tell us about your departure?
Fred Van Lente: It’s really more of a scheduling thing. It was one of those situations where something had to go, and I felt like I had pretty much done what I wanted to do with the characters in my first two arcs. So rather than make G.I. Joe suffer because of the tightness of my schedule I decided I should probably just let it go.
Nrama: Since you came onto the book earlier this year, you’ve really pushed the football down the field into a new era for the team. Can you tell us how your expectations matched up to the printed comics as they came out?
Van Lente: The thing that stuck with me about G.I. Joe was a lot of the original 1980s cartoon and Larry Hama’s original Marvel series. For this IDW G.I. Joe series I wanted to retain that spirit while forcing the book to confront very modern problems, controversies, and issues that our military has to deal with every day. This week’s G.I. Joe #7 begins the “Threat Matrix” arc, which hinges on NSA spying. That became a big news story in real life halfway through my writing this arc in kind of a bizarre and fascinating coincidence.
When I took on this book, I wanted to retain the sense of fun important to the G.I. Joe franchise but deal with the military working on publicity, dealing with dissent here in the United States, drone strikes and all of that stuff. To me, the fun of G.I. Joe isn’t just about the rivalry with COBRA but all the other stuff that swirls around the organization.
Nrama: Although we’re talking about your ending, we still have five issues before that happens. What can you tell us about what’s coming up?
Van Lente: Well, I’m definitely going out with a bang. The “Threat Matrix” arc brings back a villain from the IDW G.I. Joe: Origins series, the Mad Monk. David Lapham created a compelling character that fans repeatedly asked me to bring back. After reading David’s terrific comics, I said “hell yeah!” and went about bringing the Mad Monk back as a major antagonist.
To me the Mad Monk is a COBRA analogue to G.I. Joe’s Duke, and he’s bringing a wave of terror to New York City. He challenges the G.I. Joe team to stop all his various plans he has set in place around the city, and it turns into a big race against time.
And there’s even more COBRA characters involved, including a very major subplot involving the relationship between the Baroness and Destro. I learned that their relationship in the IDW comics isn’t what it was compared to the animation and earlier continuity, so we spend a lot of time in Scotland’s Castle Destro.
Nrama: For those that haven’t read those issues of G.I. Joe: Origins, tell us more about Mad Monk.
Van Lente: Over four issues, Lapham told this excellent story of how COBRA recruits all those guys you see acting as soldiers; the guys under the Viper helmets, the goons, and all the mercenaries. The Mad Monk is among those recruits, and the recruiters see he’s exceptional on this thing called the LOME SCALE developed by a COBRA psychiatrist. His ranking on that scale suggests that he’s unmanageable and ungovernable because he sees reality too clearly.
Spoiler alert here, but the psychiatrist basically inserts Mad Monk into COBRA despite these warnings as a way to undermine the organization and bring them down; a mote in God’s eye so to speak. Destro learns of this, and does not trust Mad Monk and knows he’s there to bring down Cobra Commander. Whether Cobra Commander believes this as well all this is another matter.
So you have both Destro and the G.I. Joe team both trying to bring down Mad Monk, leading to some intense, exciting confrontations.
Nrama: Your editor John Barber told me that January’s G.I. Joe #11, your last, will be a big one as you’re doing an origin for Roadblock. What can you say about that story?
Van Lente: The fans have constantly asked me to bring in characters from different eras of G.I. Joe history. We’ve had representatives from the “Adventure Team” era in the book, particularly in the form of Joe Colton, but also Bulletman made an appearance. We have a reference in #7 to the World War II era G.I. Joe Sgt. Savage. Another era of G.I. Joe than fans like is Sigma Six – the manga/anime version that introduced Roadblock’s cousin Heavy Duty. So in G.I. Joe #11 we see Roadblock from Heavy Duty’s point of view and see how he’s influenced by his cousin. And keeping with the Sigma Sixera, there’s lots of wide eyes, screaming and speed lines.
Nrama: And carrying out those wide eyes, screaming and speed lines is your primary artist for the book, Steve Kurth. Steve will be sticking with the book after you leave, so what do you say about what you two accomplished together and your collaboration?
Van Lente: We’ve been good buddies for a long time; we did Iron Man together at Marvel. And speaking of Marvel, with G.I. Joe we worked together Marvel style, which made the writing process more exciting. I wrote an 8 to 10 page plot that he breaks down with art and layouts, then I come back with dialogue and so forth. We’re close friends and it’s been super rewarding to work with him.
NramaAnd although your time on G.I. Joe is ending for now, are there still more G.I. Joe stories in your head you want to get out someday or did you set out to accomplish all you hoped for?
Van Lente: I think I hit all my goals. My interest in this book was partly a challenge to make Duke a more fully-rounded character, and over the course of the book – and with his origin in G.I. Joe #3 in particular – I think I’ve done that. What happened in #3 has big ramifications on him, and his girlfriend/wife Aisha plays a big part in the current “Threat Matrix” arc. G.I. Joe is seen as an ensemble book, but I wanted to focus on Duke because he’s often seen as people’s least favorite character and I wanted to flesh him out more.
Nrama: Although IDW has not announced who’ll be taking over the book after your final issue, what would you say to them as to what to expect?
Van Lente: Well, G.I. Joe fans are definitely a vocal and opinionated bunch, but when they love you they really love you. I love the response I’ve gotten from my run on the book, and I’d recommend whoever follows me to take the ball and run with it. In my 11 issues I’ve focused primarily on stories set inside the U.S., but G.I. Joe and COBRA are both global operations and I would recommend taking full advantage of that.