This fall, G.I. Joe’s forces are facing something no one can stop: change. In September, IDW is relaunching the G.I. Joe comic series and pitting the “real American heroes” against a new version of their arch-enemies, Cobra: one that’s adapted with the times and eschewed their label as terrorists to be an alternative to the West’s military forces – all run by Tomax.
And running this new G.I. Joe series is defense correspondent-turned-novelist Karen Traviss. Traviss has worked in comics both, doing runs on DC’s Batman: Arkham Unhinged series, but is best known for her novel series ‘The Wess’har Wars’ and licensed work for Star Wars, Gears of War and Halo. The English writer is being paired with modern-day G.I. Joe veteran in artist Steve Kurth, and together they’re blazing a new trail for both G.I. Joe and Cobra that mixes militaristic action with political intrigue.
Newsarama: Karen, you’re kicking off G.I. Joe with an arc ominously titled “The Fall of G.I. Joe;” what is it about?
Karen Traviss: Well, Cobra's still around but it's been playing a very clever game for a few years and changed its policies. Its mission is still to counter U.S. influence in the world, but it's given up the gun for the diplomatic bag. It's still a threat, but for very different reasons: but not all the threats the Joes now face are foreign, and not all the domestic threats see themselves as a threat at all. Everyone sees themselves as a patriot. And there's more of an international perspective. But don't think that I've created some kind of alternate universe where Cobra are saints and the G.I. Joe team has gone bad – it's more a case of: "If Cobra and the G.I. Joe team was real and I was reporting on this situation, I can imagine things turning out like this."
Cobra has shifted its approach because it was stalled as a military force. It's positioned itself as an alternative to the United Nations or N.A.T.O., an international body that can mount peacekeeping operations and intervene in the world's wars. Tomax Paoli has taken America at its word and he's saying, "Okay, you keep saying other countries should step up and not leave policing the world to the U.S., so we'll do it too. Howdya like them apples?" Cobra's change of policy looks to politicians like a reason to adjust defense strategy – the G.I. Joe team has succeeded in stopping Cobra's military threats – so now they want to spend the defense budget on other things. The G.I. Joe team falls victim to its own success. They're facing disbandment and reassignment, hence the “Fall”. That happens all too often, as we know.
Everyone who's read my stuff knows that I don't do heroes and villains. I just write believable characters and let the reader decide. That's how I inject reality into fiction; it's how we process our impressions in the real world. It's more than dosing a story with authentic detail. You don't have to love the enemy to understand them, and if some things they say or do chime with you, then it can be uncomfortable. You can still see Cobra as the enemy, but at least you also see their point, even if it's the polar opposite of everything you believe in, and that ups the dramatic stakes.
Nrama: So this takes place several years after the finale of the last volume. Why’d you decide to shift things forward, and where’s the world at now for the G/I. Joe team?
Traviss: This was a classic case of spitballing on the phone with an editor and latching onto a throwaway comment. John Barber and I were talking and he happened to say, "You can set it any time you like – carry on from the last time-line or even set it a few years ahead."
"Okay," I said. "I'll fast-forward five or six years." I admit that was off the top of my head, because I didn't know a thing about the G.I. Joe comics (which is how I need to approach any series – no preconceived notions) and it was as good an idea as any. But a lot of good stories come out of extrapolation: how is the world changing, and what effect does that have on the G.I. Joe team?
You don't have to look back far to see how fast geopolitics changes. Nobody seemed to see the Arab Spring coming, for example, and it happened in the space of a year or two. Five years from now, Cobra has changed tack because it's facing different challenges, and the G.I. Joe team’s political masters have forgotten the best advice on foreign policy – it's not someone's intent you have to worry about, it's their capability. The intent of a country can change in a day. It's the size and strength of its armed forces that you need to base your plans on.
You'll see some of the characters facing the fall-out from actions taken in previous series. If this was a novel or even a spin off from a novel, I'd avoid time jumps like that because of the greater amount of risk with the tiny detail that a book hinges on. But, you have more latitude with comics, and with careful writing so that nobody else gets painted into corners, you can span a gap in the timeline and still leave breathing space for other stories to be told.
Nrama: This new spin on Cobra is enticing; tell us more.
Traviss: Cobra's like any other organization. It has a budget, it has a bureaucracy, it has power struggles, it has policies, it has dissent within, and it has agendas which not all the management agrees on. In real life, the Taliban send memos, right down to nagging people about their expenses, except they issue advice on avoiding drone surveillance and other stuff you wouldn't worry about if you worked for a regular company. Cobra is responding to change in the world just like the GI Joe team is, and Tomax Paoli now feels the need to take a very different tack, much to the disgust of the Baroness and others.
So Tomax Paoli is the pragmatic variety, although he does have an ego the size of a small planet and loves being "Kissinger Lite," as Mainframe now calls him in the series. Tomax thinks there's more to be gained from a two-fronted hearts and minds offensive – actually doing something about peacekeeping while encouraging international protest about U.S. expansionism – than by spending billions on actual wars. He might be right: he might be wrong. But everything he does for Cobra makes sense and you may even see Cobra's point, even if you'd never vote for them.
Nrama: And so what’s left of the G.I. Joe forces, and who is in charge?
Traviss: I need to keep the cast relatively tight to write the kind of detailed character arcs that I depend on. So five years on, plenty of G.I. Joe team members have probably left or been reassigned. Special Forces are small numbers anyway (even smaller in the United Kingdom...) but the G.I. Joe team has been shrinking year on year. Scarlett's gone the officer route and she's now a captain, the G.I. Joes team’s boss, with Colton in the background. It'll be interesting to see how she handles an increasingly political role, because she's used to getting out there and sticking the boot in. I can't see her sitting there signing memos, though. She'll want to be frontline again, especially when she finds out what's going on...
Some members of the G.I. Joe team have left to work for private contractors or have set up their own security services, as we'll see. It made sense to me to mirror the real world. What happens to all these guys who get a thank-you-for-your-service-and-goodbye? Some of my friends work for PMCs now and it's not like it is in the movies. And you don't hear about contractor casualties. It's all invisible. When I write military fiction now, I try to reflect the role that private security plays, because they're still serving us and we're heavily dependent on them.
Nrama: This isn’t your first time writing comics, but it is your first time launching a new series. How has this been compared to working on the DC Gears of War comic and the Batman story you did?
Traviss: Actually, it's not my first time. The Arkham Unhinged story was a new series within an existing IP, and so were my two Gears of War series. I've never really picked up a running story from anyone else. That's not why people hire me: the first franchise work I was offered way back was taking a game and making a new series out of it, so I fell immediately into the niche of being someone you bring in when you want a different take, a new launch, or even a reinvention of an IP. I'm not sure I could slot into an ongoing storyline for anyone now, even I wanted to. I've been turning new soil for ten years. It's how I think. I still have a journalist's mindset and that colors everything I do. I always gravitate towards a new angle.
Nrama: Like the esteemed Larry Hama, you will be joining G.I. Joe with a military background. Can you tell us how that impacts what you tell here with these fictional military men and women?
Traviss: I balk at the "military background" thing simply because it implies a great deal more than I actually did. I certainly didn't contribute anything even remotely close to what Larry did. I point that out on my website – and yes, there's yet another colloquial use of the G.I. Joe term, even though I uploaded this years ago: "... I spent time in the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service (now disbanded, alas) and the Territorial Army. But bear in mind that the most hazardous thing I've ever faced was a Royal Navy meat pie .... I'm not G.I. Jane. Don't include me with the fine men and women who do a truly dangerous job in our armed forces, both as regulars and reservists, because I have the privilege of knowing many of them, and they're the real deal, and I am not. "
I rest my case about the pervasiveness of the G.I. Joe archetype in the English-speaking world!
I come from a city that's the home of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, and that also had a strong Army presence well into my childhood. Most of my family had either served in the armed forces or worked in the naval dockyard. I was a defense correspondent in a previous career, too, and that's where a lot of my technical stuff comes from. I'm pretty well saturated. I still have a lot of contacts in the defense world. But the important thing – as far as I'm concerned – is that I know broadly what matters to people in uniform and how they approach their task. Even if G.I. Joe is subject to some poetic license, especially on the technology side, the people and their reactions are as real-world as I can make them within the ground rules.
I've been a journo and I've also been a spin doc, so I know that fiction's influence can trump fact any day, unfortunately. Most civilians can go through life without any contact with people in uniform, and fiction will eventually fill an information vacuum no matter how resistant you think you are. So I make sure I tell the truth in my stories, because that's the very least that I owe our armed forces.
Nrama: Your recent novel Going Grey has some mention of G.I. Joe; was that put in before or after you began talks with IDW? If before, can you tell us where G.I. Joe and Action Man sits in your headspace coming in to writing the flagship comic series?
Traviss: That was another fetch-me-my-tinfoil-hat moment. I get a lot of those. I'd literally just finished a scene in the book where two of the primary characters – one American vet, one English, both of them now private military contractors – are sitting in a diner, watching a little boy at another table playing with a G.I. Joe figure. They're talking about bringing up kids and what influence G.I. Joe and Action Man (our British version) had on their decisions to enlist. The book's a thriller, but its theme is identity and what society expects of men, and if there's an icon for military identity it's definitely G.I. Joe. (Or Action Man. I can't leave him out, can I?) Then IDW’s John Barber contacted me and asked how I'd feel about writing G.I. Joe. I had a good laugh and explained to him how spooky his timing was. When I was proof-reading the book later, I realized I'd written other Action Man references. It's part of the language. Even people who've never seen G.I. Joe or owned an Action Man know what it embodies; they might not be able to identify the product, but they know exactly what they mean when they say, "What are you, Action Man or something?" That's when you know you're dealing with something that's not just very popular, but that also resonates with people at a fundamental level.
I like to think that G.I. Joe stands for something we ought to respect and value – not just a "real American hero," either, but servicemen and women the world over. Since the announcement that I was writing G.I. Joe, I've had a lot of mail, and some has been from friends who grew up with G.I. Joe and Action Man and absolutely loved it. They'd never mentioned it to me: they'd never had reason to. I'd had no idea what an impact it had had on them until now. I understand why it matters so much to so many people.