By Josh Hechinger
Welcome to From Strip to Script, where I take a page of finished comic art and try to derive a script from it, to see what I can learn from the exercise.
Happy belated Memorial Day, if that was a thing you observed. I'm using it as an (admittedly thin) excuse to tackle one of the all-time greatest action comics: Larry Hama and co's G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.
Now, I grew up on the Joe cartoon and toys; the D.E.A./Captain Gridiron stuff, the movie, that era. The comic wasn't on my radar until I was in high school, and even back then…these stories with the original thirteen Joes didn't make much of an impression on me as someone who grew up with, like, that truck that had a paper-towel-roll-sized missile-launcher-gatling-gun and a VHS of that episode where a Night Creeper thinks he's a Pharaoh and kidnaps Lady Jaye to be his queen.
Coming back to it here and there over the years, though, especially as I got more and more into the craft of actually making comics, I've come to realize that these Joe stories are great little story engines, perfectly paced to a page and keeping a great many plates spinning in an economical, but still engaging, fashion.
Let's take a look at this pair of scenes from the very first issue, by Larry Hama (script), Bob McLeod (inker), Jim Novak (lettering), the late, great Herb Trimpe (penciller), and Glynis Wein (colorist)
PAGE Twenty-three (five PANELS)
P1. STALKER'S JOES walk through what's left of the fishing village, the corpses of the villages have just been left where they fell.
– CAPTION 2200 Hrs., The Fishing Village
– BREAKER I-I don't believe it! Cobra wiped out the entire village!
– FLASH Women and kids…everybody…
– SHORT-FUZE They did it to keep them from helping us…
– FLASH It's our fault. If we hadn't come here–
P2. BREAKER looks around. STALKER'S face darkens.
– BREAKER Calm down, Flash! It's not our fault. But we should do the decent thing and bury them—
– STALKER Wrong, Breaker! We're not buryin' anyone—no matter how innocent they were.
– STALKER We've got an ambush to set! If we take time out to clean up this mess—we might as well call Cobra right now and tell 'em we're bugging out!
P3. Aerial view. Three Cobra tanks are coming down the left side of the fork in the road; the JOES' vehicles are waiting on the right side of the fork, mostly. STEELER'S MOBAT moves towards an opening in the treeline to intercept the COBRA TANKS, while GRAND SLAM and the FLAK sit just off the intersection, aiming up the road at the incoming tanks, but concealed by the curve of the road and the trees.
– CAPTION 2230 Hrs., The Road to the Fort
– STEELER (electric) Grand Slam, I've spotted three Cobra tanks in column formation.
– GRAND SLAM (electric) I've got you covered, Steeler! You can have dibs on the first two…
P4. Aerial. The MOBAT'S main cannon takes out the first two tanks in rapid succession. COBRA TROOPERS run past the carnage on foot, sticking to the treeline.
– SFX WHAM WHAM
– STEELER (electric) Thanks, pal!
– STEELER (electric) Be careful! We've got infantry runnin' through the bush here…
P5. Aerial. The FLAK takes out the last COBRA tank. The MOBAT has backed up and is making a left turn, covered by a clump of trees. ROCK 'N' ROLL, on the RAM, has looped around another clump and is starting to burn rubber up the right side of the fork.
– GRAND SLAM (electric) No sweat! I'll clean up the last tank—while Rock 'N' Roll gets his act in gear!
– ROCK 'N' ROLL (electric) I'll play 'em a solo—a blast from the past called–
So, What'd We Learn?
– As I mentioned above: economy. Stalker's team finds an entire village murdered by Cobra, has a brief debate over what to do with the bodies, but ultimately pushes on with the mission. Most writers, that'd be a page to itself, maybe two, maybe even three if they wanted to give a double-page spread to the slaughter before breaking in with dialogue. Hama and co do it in two panels, giving four different characters a range of different reactions on the event, and then moving on with that sub-plot before giving over the rest of the page to a visually interesting (if perhaps not slam-bang dynamic) tank and artillery ambush.
They do this in five panels.
That, gang, is some storytelling economy.
– Rock 'N' Roll's line being cut off at the end there isn't one of my usual typos, but a storytelling trick: you read enough of these comics, and you'll notice that Hama frequently scripts the last panel of any given page to be either a cliff-hanger (major or minor), or a transition.
It's almost like he wants to compel you to turn the page beyond just the rote act of reading the comic! Bonkers, I know.
– Additionally, the punch line on the next page is that Rock 'N' Roll is "playing 'Wipe Out'". By which I mean a quarter-page wide panel of him machine-gunning a half-dozen Cobra Troopers to death on a motorcycle (it sounds harsher than how it plays out on the page). Anyway, Hama and co get to eat a whole quarter of a page on a single action like that because they'd just compressed two or three normal-people-pages into one.
– The aerial-eye view of the MOBAT and FLAK taking the tanks out there is interesting to me, for two reasons:
First, and super tangential: I've had Warhammer 40k on the brain recently, thanks to Mad Max: Fury Road (people on Twitter were throwing around Gorkamorka comparisons, which…I'm an Ork guy, I can see it, but Immortan Joe's gang are clearly Chaos Cultists/just general heretics…didn't make me want to start futzing around gluing excessive bits to Ork vehicles any less, mind…), and this top-down view of the fight, where the scenery's got a bit more definition than the combatants reminds me a lot of playing 40k, or at least reading a battle report.
(Clearly, Flagg and Cobra Commander just sprayed their tanks with primer before bringing them to the table.)
Second: remember, this is a comic designed to sell toys, and I can't help but think that this page plays to a model-kit/wargame idea of the toys rather than the actual toyetic experience. Like…I'd put the FLAK on my army list, but I dunno if I'd go out and buy it to make pew-pew noises with based off this page? The MOBAT at least gets a "quick draw" effect, straight out of cowboy comics, only with a tank cannon.
– Admittedly, I'm not sure how dynamically the FLAK could be presented, considering the angle on the action. That said, it's neat that everything else in the scene is in constant motion in every panel. The MOBAT ducks and weaves around the trees almost as much as the Cobra Troopers who scatter when their tanks get blown up.
Philly-based comic writer Josh Hechinger [joshhechinger.tumblr.com] is a Cancer, and his blood type is A+. You can find him being a loquacious dope on Twitter, and read his comic collaborations on Comixology.