Thee Comic Column #66 – Fare Thee Well, Cobra Files

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Last month with very little fanfare one of my top three books a month finished its brilliant almost six year run – GIJOE: The Cobra Files. Despite it’s tie-in with a major toy/movie/long-running character base the book, at the hands of constant writer Mike Costa, operated more like a sophisticated espionage thriller a la John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy or David Simon’s The Wire. The finale was sublime, magnificent and pulse-pounding. The series never really had a change.

That sounds weird right? Well, here’s the thing – this title, which began as four-issue mini series GIJOE: Cobra, became GIJOE: Cobra II for thirteen issues, stopped and started again as GIJOE: Cobra (Vol. 3) and finally re-booted once more as GIJOE: The Cobra Files. The entirety of each of these series was in actuality one epic run, the work of the aforementioned Mike Costa (though Christos Gage co-wrote on the series for the early volumes). The twisty, turvy uber story essentially comprised one continuous story that evolved considerably over the course of many mini-arcs. However, being that the title was forced to “reboot” so many times – usually due to the release of a GIJOE movie – any hopes publisher IDW had for ‘new readers’ jumping on became increasingly ridiculous with each new number one.

I’ve discussed the book here before and back on Chud around the time it began. I grew up reading Larry Hama’s GIJOE – in fact it was that comic that introduced me to comics in general as something more than Scrooge McDuck and his nephews flapping through kiddie-adventures, and to this day I look back on Mr. Hama’s run as epic and brilliant. When my friend Mike from Amazing Fantasy Comics in Chicago introduced me to GIJOE: Cobra I quite predictably turned my nose up at it. At the time the first Joe film was ramping up for release and in those months building toward that spectacle IDW acquired the rights for the GIJOE property and relaunched several comics at once, the Cobra mini series being one of them. “How dare they jettison Hama’s sacred continuity?” I’m sure I said at the time, along with a healthy, “I’ll never support that!” However, as usual Mike let me carry on and then subtly slipped me the first few issues of Cobra. I read them and immediately saw the error in my thinking: yes Hama’s continuity – which was sculpted marvelously over the course of many years – was historically the life’s blood of the franchise (Mr. Hama even wrote those file cards on the backs of the figures’ packaging). But it was also not entirely under Mr. Hama’s control at any given moment. While he did have massive amounts of creative freedom, Mr. Hama has spoken in interviews about operating beneath the burden of having to introduce each successive wave of figures into his book, many of which became increasingly ridiculous as time went on.

Case in point:

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Yes, anyone who grew up with this franchise remembers this stuff. As time went on I lost track of Hama’s continuity and just kind of placed a cap on it at about issue 115, pretended the book had stopped and relocated it to the balmy haze of nostalgia.

Now, with IDW’s Cobra book what I initially found was that Costa and Gage – along with artist Antonio Fuso, whose character designs operated at a darker, more ‘street level’ paradigm – had constructed a very realistic take on not just the characters but the stories themselves. This meant that the actual methods by which events unfolded and life and death, madness and survival all achieved a delicate balance, often slipping through the fingers of those involved in the shadowy underworld of deep cover, dirty tricks espionage they’d created, played out more like a feature film than a comic. And the reveal of Cobra as an organization itself was another tactic that really helped define this title’s tone. For the first three or so volumes there wasn’t even a ‘Cobra’ per se, if you consider Cobra the costumed, maniacal paramilitary organization that, while always steeped in some mystery, more often than not utilized heavy-handed war tactics and bad ass costumes as their MO. In those early volumes of what would become The Cobra Files there was no organization, hardly anything that could be construed as a costume and no clear line as to who was on whose side. It also helped that the few errant Joe’s the title followed – primarily deep cover operative Chuckles for a large part of its initial story – were not clear cut good guys. There was even one issue that essentially revealed Joe Commander Hawk as a dirty, double-crossing manipulator.  This served as the icing on the cake and really emphasized the ‘trust no one’ aesthetic the book sometimes depressingly adhered to. Of course you have to be a snake to run a deep-cover regime, and of course you have to be willing to be dragged down into a quagmire of evil in order to infiltrate and expunge it from the endlessly complicated structure of the corporate-driven modern day.

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The final issue of The Cobra Files was #9 and it brought a great deal of closure to the story at the point it had reached. That’s not to say there wasn’t room for the title to continue, or for the ever-evolving uber story to continue to ‘snake’ out into new and more diabolical directions, but as I always remind myself in times such as this, it’s better to end tidy and with your fans wanting more than to grind something into mediocrity, and that’s something this book NEVER suffered from. The core Joe title at IDW is apparently continuing, however I’ve not read any of the iterations of it and don’t intend to start now. You see, that was another element that allowed me to rest easy disregarding Hama’s continuity for this new take on the franchise – The Cobra Files, in all its incarnations, never really trafficked in anything that could in any way bump heads with that original continuity. For example, regardless of sophistication I did not want to get involved in a new spin on the Snake Eyes/Storm Shadow history because to me there’s simply no room for anything but Hama’s version. It’s too deep, endearing and well-developed. But with The Cobra Files, Costa (and Gage) utilized a lot of under-the-radar characters and built interesting and even brilliant re-imaginings for them. To return to an earlier allusion, as Hama’s title wore on the characters he was expected to utilize became downright preposterous. Costa (and Gage) did not have the same kind of burdens Hama did with these characters, and because of this many of the highlight moments of The Cobra Files seemed to relish in the chance to take certain inanities and make them shine. Take for example the preposterous Serpentor and Cobra La (pictured in all their absurdity above) were utilized in street-level ways: instead of being constructed from the DNA of dead warriors, the Serpentor character in The Cobra Files was an L. Ron Hubbard avatar – a smarmy Hollywood  self-help guru who operated a scientology-like cult that utilized the Cobra La characters as mythological archetypes through which they focused their bizarre inner-sanctum rituals.

See what I mean?

And then there was Crystal Ball. My god did they hit it out of the freakin’ park on that one – going from a ridiculous caricature of overblown psychiatrist-flavored goon (no offense Joe Hill, who wrote the file card for the character back in the day) to a cross between Alan Moore and Charles Manson:

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With The Cobra Files at an end it would appear so to is my monthly patronage of anything comic-wise from one of my most beloved franchises from my childhood – a franchise that Costa and Gage, along with the incomparable artists who worked on the title (most especially Antonio Fuso – good lord does that man’s art set a tone for an espionage thriller!) helped evolve into something very adult and very uninterested in tying into anyone else’s expectations. This is sad, but again, it’s better to go out big. And really when you consider how big this book went out, there’s really only one thing left to say:



Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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