Aubrey Sitterson Revolutionizes the Modern Military Comic in G.I. Joe with Giannis Milonogiannis
Plus an Exclusive First Look at Issue #1's Retailer-Exclusive Variant CoversMain Art by Giannis Milonogiannis & Lovern Kindzierski Comics Features G.I. Joe
Writer Aubrey Sitterson saw two major hurdles when he took the reigns of G.I. Joe Revolution, the “crown jewel” of IDW’s Hasbro shared-universe launch: how do you write a military comic in 2016 without over-glorifying the horrors of armed conflict—and how do you get anyone outside of hardcore franchise fans to even care about a comic based on an action figure line? Overcoming the first concern is a matter of nuanced, aware execution, which is also helped by the solution to the second challenge—recruiting former Prophet artist Giannis Milonogiannis to elevate the art with bold line work and intricate world-building. Buoyed by Lovern Kindzierski’s colors, Milonogiannis is an off-the-wall artistic choice for the franchise, whose unique mélange of European and Japanese influences is unlike anything the Joes have seen before.
In advance of the Revolution one-shot that kicks off the new ongoing series, Sitterson chatted with Paste about rethinking G.I. Joe from the ground up in a modern context, working within the larger Hasbro shared universe and Milonogiannis’ unmistakable impact on where the property is headed. We’ve also got an exclusive first look at issue one’s retailer-exclusive variant cover line-up, including brand-new art from Sonny Liew, Jae Lee, and Andrew Griffith with Josh Perez.
Paste: Let’s start with the art: Giannis Milonogiannis is likely to be a huge draw for a lot of readers after his runs on Prophet and his own Old City Blues. His work on the book is giving major ‘80s action anime vibes, which is a striking new look for the franchise. How did the two of you come together for G.I. Joe and how much did you discuss the visual identity of the story, versus just trusting Milonogiannis to tear it up?
Aubrey Sitterson: I’m so glad you started with Giannis because, frankly, he’s crucial to this book, as is our phenomenal color artist, Lovern Kindzierski. The simple fact of the matter is that the art in a comic book is far more important than the writing—I don’t care how exquisite someone’s dialogue is if it’s on top of lousy, uninspired art. Going into G.I. Joe—a franchise that most comics readers made their mind up about years ago—I knew that we were going to need something shocking and amazing to absolutely force people to pick up the book.
Enter our genius editor Carlos Guzman. We’d had a bunch of talks about how it was important not just to get someone good on the book, but someone who could bring with them a specific visual identity. Carlos came back to me with “How about Giannis?” which knocked me on my ass because a) I’d been mispronouncing that guy’s name for years, and b) I didn’t even know that he was an option. Turns out, he’d spent the last couple years doing his compulsory military service in Greece, which only makes him a better fit for a book like G.I. Joe.
As for discuss vs. trust…it’s a lot of both, actually. While I have absolute faith in Giannis to execute things, I’m also in constant contact with the dude. Not because I’m worried about giving him something he can’t draw, but because I want to make sure I’m always playing not just to his strengths, but to what he actually wants to be drawing. G.I. Joe is meant to be an aspirational, fun concept, and as folks will see from the finished product, an artist’s tangible enthusiasm is a large component of imparting that tone.
Before Giannis even got started on pages, I sent him a big, massive document—not so much a planning document, but a list of concepts, ideas and inspirations. At the top of it, though, I had a very important note, and that was that they should all be taken as starting points—not end goals. I’d much rather we go with the best idea, as opposed to my idea, you know? That document had not only thoughts on the look and tone of the book overall, but also some visual touchstones for individual characters, especially the ones benefitting from those amazing Giannis redesigns.
Paste: Without totally sidelining the conversation into politics, how do you approach a military comic (even one with aliens and robots) in 2016 without over-glorifying armed conflict, especially at a time in which there’s growing concern over the militarization of police here on American soil and the indiscriminate use of drone warfare abroad?
Sitterson: So, to give some context: IDW first reached out to me about the G.I. Joe ongoing back in February. They were really excited about my take on the characters in Street Fighter x G.I. Joe, and they wanted a similar feel for the new book they were planning to launch. The reason I bring this up is that back in February, everyone seemed to think it would be outright impossible for Donald Trump to become president. Obviously…we were all wrong about that and we’re currently looking at a future that is…very different from what many of us had envisioned for our country.
Even then, though, the very concept of G.I. Joe—which, in a very real way, can be used to glamorize war, combat and death for its young audience—it gave me pause. Listen: These days, I’m as big city, coastal liberal as they come, but I grew up in the south. I went to a fundamentalist Methodist church. I’m an Eagle Scout. So I’m keenly aware of the difficult duality of something like G.I. Joe. The hard truth of the matter is that it’s impossible to depict war in fiction without making it look, at least at times, totally badass and awesome.
So, my solution was to lean into the more outrageous science fiction and, for lack of a better term, “cartoonier” aspects of the concept. It’s what informed my approach on Street Fighter x G.I. Joe; sure, Roadblock has a giant gun that he shoots, but no one ends up with a sucking chest wound or anything, right? This was also the impetus behind my decision to bring back something that, to me, is a crucial visual and conceptual touchstone for the entire concept of G.I. Joe: lasers. It might seem like a small thing, but by giving our Joes lasers, we further abstract the violence and death that comes with war, so that we can lean fully into the more aspirational aspects of the concept. Namely, people from vastly different backgrounds working together to combat evil and oppression worldwide.
And that’s another extremely important part of the new G.I. Joe status quo. We’ve said it in the solicits, but I don’t think people have really picked up on its significance yet. For the first time, G.I. Joe is not going to be an American organization…it’s a global organization. Instead of being used to prop up American interests over everything else, the Joe team is tasked with defending the entire planet. And they aren’t defending it from real-world issues and conflicts—I think Joe has gone quite far enough in that direction over the years. Instead, they’ll be defending it from weird aliens, transforming robots, miniature astronauts and any number of other weird science fiction threats.
Honestly, this past week I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about…well, everything, really. Especially how weird and difficult it feels to be promoting a G.I. Joe book in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. For a while, I considered kind of…shifting the focus. Maybe trying to use G.I. Joe to explore the current political landscape? Should there be a nationalist, xenophobic Cobra Commander? I quickly thought better of it though.
Reason being is that I’ve had enough of it. I’ve had enough of serious, complex, real-world issues being filtered, dumbed down and normalized through genre fiction, and it’s something that’s been done to death with G.I. Joe. Genre fiction can and should be used to explore big issues, but it’s best done at the abstract and thematic level, not at the specific and nitty-gritty. That long thought process actually left me more excited about the crown jewel of the Hasbro Universe than ever, because G.I. Joe, in leaning into what’s best about the concept, it’s going to be the aspirational, hopeful, fun action adventure book that we all need right now. It’s pure, cathartic escapism.
Paste: As a franchise, G.I. Joe has had major ups and downs over the decades, and fans of different ages are likely to point to different iterations as fundamental building blocks of the characters. Which cartoons, comics or action figures most impact your take on Scarlett and crew?
Sitterson: This is one of the toughest things with any long-running character or concept, right? While I’ve read and loved the [Larry] Hama stuff (which is truly foundational G.I. Joe work—the franchise wouldn’t be what it is today without him), and I reread the entire IDW run while pitching (it’s the continuity we’re building off of, after all), the absolute biggest influence on this new G.I. Joe series is the Sunbow cartoon.
In fact, I’m all but positive that, as the latest-born dudes to ever work on the comic, Giannis and I are the first Joe creative team to have been more influenced by the animated series than by Hama’s groundbreaking work on the comic. I didn’t actually get exposed to Hama’s stuff until years later. It’s phenomenal stuff, but it’s not what forms my bedrock idea of what Joe should be.
I’ve actually been rewatching the Sunbow stuff and while it’s very much dated in the syndicated-kids-cartoon style of the period, there’s a lot that contemporary writers can and should learn from it. First, is its relentless optimism and aspirational nature—the Joes aren’t just heroes, they’re actually good people and, beyond that, friends. Second, is the show’s frenetic pacing—it’s all plot and big action set pieces, with a constant flow of fun, quippy dialogue. And third, of course, is its willingness to get weird and wacky in pursuit of awesome visuals, whether that means lasers, weird temples, giant robots, monsters, snake-people or anything else.
Our goal with the G.I. Joe ongoing series is to take all of those aspects and filter them through a very 2016 aesthetic—a book that’s smart and dense enough for an adult audience, but one that doesn’t sacrifice the fun-loving optimism that made us all fall in love with the concept and characters in the first place.
Paste: Speaking of Scarlett—she’s thrust into a leadership role as soon as Revolution kicks off, without Duke, Flint, Hawk or other past team leaders in sight. What do you want to tell readers about Scarlett’s new role?
Sitterson: It’s time, right? It’s well past time for Scarlett to be in charge. Scarlett has always been, not just a strong female character, but a strong character period, full-stop. And that was one of the Joe concept’s great strengths: the creators’ insistence on a level of both gender and racial diversity and representation that wasn’t just progressive for the time, but practically unheard of. But still, looking back on the Scarlett of the past…she’s always left me wanting more.
While it was great to have her up in the mix, showing that she’s just as competent as her male colleagues—if not more so—at the end of the day, a distressing amount of Scarlett’s stories had to do with her being the center of one love triangle or another. Not to get all gender theory on you, but that’s troubling, as it turns her from an actor in her own right to a kind of damsel or prize to be won by the men in the storyline. Also: she did it all while wearing what amounts to a furry bathing suit.
No more of that. In our G.I. Joe, Scarlett is the boss. The buck stops with her. She’s not running things on behalf of someone else—she’s the leader. And she’ll be confronted by all of the challenges and difficulties that any leader would face in her position. And what’s more? She’s ditched the furry bathing suit.
The crossbow ain’t going anywhere, though. I love that on a team with a dude lugging a humongous cannon around, Scarlett is such a badass that all she needs is a medieval weapon.
Paste: Without spoiling anything, the squad we meet in the Revolution issue gets shaken up pretty quickly. How fixed is your cast going forward? Are you going to pull from the full roster as needed on a mission-by-mission basis?
Sitterson: The Joes you see in the Revolution one-shot, with the addition of Snake Eyes and Helix, are going to comprise our core cast. But seeing as one of the best things about G.I. Joe is how absurdly deep its bench is, and how absolutely every Joe is someone’s favorite…we’re definitely going to be availing ourselves of the rest of the roster. One of my favorite things about working on the book is that I can say “Hey, is there a Joe that’s particularly good at ______?” and nine times out of ten, there are at least two or three that fit the bill. I always pick the one that looks the coolest.
We’ve already got big plans in place for Scarlett, Roadblock, Shipwreck, Rock ‘n Roll, Quick Kick, Lady Jaye, Cover Girl, Gung-Ho, Spirit and both versions of Doc, as well as many others that I don’t quite want to give away just yet.
Paste: How much leeway has Hasbro and IDW given you to reinterpret or even kill off the characters? Based on your first issue, no one’s just wildly firing lasers into the sky anymore, and there seem to be some immediate casualties.
Sitterson: The simple answer is: a lot. There’s this stigma attached to working on “licensed books,” which is a term that I absolutely hate. The general consensus seems to be that “licensed books” have a low ceiling because of the involvement of the companies that own the license. But I’ll tell you this: If you think that people working on the Justice League or the Avengers have more freedom than I do on G.I. Joe…you’re out of your mind.
Both Hasbro and IDW recognize that we need something new and different from G.I. Joe, so they’ve been extremely easy to work with and open to all of Giannis’ and my crazy ideas. A big part of that, though, is because Giannis and I have a genuine love for the property. Our ideas are new and weird and different, but they respect and honor the concept and the characters—it all feels true and real to the book that Joe is meant to be.
We’re not trying to do things just to be different or shocking—that never leads anywhere good or worthwhile, and it’s an approach that too often throws the baby out with the bathwater. In the past, a lot of folks have tried to crack G.I. Joe by making it more “realistic,” trying to up the stakes by having people die on every other page as they deal with heavy, serious, real-world issues. We have no desire in pursuing that path—it’s been fully explored already—so there’s no need for us to try and push the envelope with Hasbro or IDW. They appreciate, understand and respect what we’re doing, so they’ve been happy to get out of the way and let us go to work.
Paste: You’re playing with toys from other parts of the Hasbro catalog for G.I. Joe—how integrated will the shared universe be going forward? Can we expect to see Robots in Disguise popping up as often as Cobra soldiers and warring ninja clans?
Sitterson: Early on, Carlos and [IDW editor] John Barber gave me a call to talk G.I. Joe, and I had a list of questions for them. First though, they wanted to run an idea by me, and John asked how I’d feel about putting a Transformer on the team. My response? “Are you HIGH!? That was going to be my FIRST question!”
So yeah, dude. You’ll have to wait to see who it is, but there’s an actual Transformer on the G.I. Joe team. A TRANSFORMER IS ON THE G.I. JOE TEAM. One of the coolest things about these Revolution books is that all of the creative teams are working together to build this universe from scratch. This isn’t a situation like Marvel or DC, where you’re trying to retrofit decades worth of continuity in a way that makes some kind of sense. We’ve designed things from the ground up so that there will be overlap not just in G.I. Joe, but in all of the titles, without actually requiring everyone to read every book just to know what’s going on.
Paste: Any final teasers for what you and Milonogiannis are cooking up in future arcs? Any chance of Nemesis Enforcer or other…more colorful…characters swooping into action any time soon?
Sitterson: I’ve got a big running list of all the coolest looking characters that I want to incorporate into the series and guess what? Nemesis Enforcer just made the list! I’ve got a ton of wacky, weird concepts and characters that we’re going to be tweaking and adjusting to fit into this brave new Hasbro Universe world. As for teasers though, I’d warn people to beware what lurks beneath the earth…
G.I. Joe Revolution #1 KwanChang.com Retailer Exclusive Cover Art by Jae Lee