One of these days one of these issues won't be even better than the one before, right? I mean, surely it's impossible to improve month upon month constantly like this? Well if these first three issues I've read of IDW's continuation of Marvel's 80s/90s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero comic are anything to go by I wouldn't hedge my bets! This issue is the best yet and while we all obviously hope comics keep getting better as we collect them, after the epic #250 and the superb first part of Special Missions in #251 I didn't expect the latest issue to be even better to this extent! The second of this series of individual stories focussing on one character from the Joes and Cobra sees one of my very favourite classic characters, Baroness, take centre stage and fans of hers simply couldn't have asked for a better issue.
As a young reader I was always fascinated with the Baroness. Unfortunately at the time there were very few strong female characters in my comics, with any there were only appearing now and again as one-off or recurring guest stars. I loved the tortured history of computer technician Josie Beller in Transformers and the unique relationship reporter Joy Meadows had with Dinobot Sludge in the same title, but they weren't in it nearly enough. Later Wildcat brought us the much needed Kitten Magee who was like a breath of fresh air and the Jurassic Park comic obviously contained Ellie Sattler from the movies. But for the most part we had comics such as The Real Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles Adventures where female characters only played supporting roles, or Ring Raiders which contained no such characters at all!
Baroness wasn't the only female lead in the Action Force strips as they were called back then in the UK, but she was by far the most interesting, so I was really looking forward to seeing what kind of story she'd be given for her own issue. As ever Larry Hama does not disappoint. In a story which could be plucked right out of the headlines, Cobra is in the fictional land of Darkonia to aid a corrupt regime fight back against rebel fighters. From the very first panel of the strip it's clear Cobra aren't the two-dimensional "bad guys" (they never were to be fair) of some toy line comics and the parallels between this world and the Syrian conflict are plain to see.
This makes for a fascinating read with Cobra, the worldwide terrorist organisation, showing they have lines they don't cross. I'd never heard of Saw Viper and Frag Viper (or I can't remember them) but throughout the tale they question why they're helping, what they're doing there and who is it they've allied themselves with. I do remember Cobra Island in the classic comics having a civilian population and it's been fun to reacquaint myself with the "baddies" who actually have something resembling a conscience and compassion for those who follow them.
As one of the main figures in Cobra, Baroness was at times much more ruthless than her male counterparts, certainly more devious and was also capable of using her looks and sexuality in ways that were new to a pre-teen Transformers reader! But she was also in love with Destro, weapons manufacturer as well as supplier for Cobra, and treating it in a mature fashion like an actual adult relationship was a revelation for me. She had a complicated past which the story would give us tantalising breadcrumbs about now and again and she could show real compassion towards innocents caught up in their fight. This aspect of her character comes to the fore again here when they discover a lone child whose family has been killed by the government strikes.
Needless to say, when one of the government fighters takes the toy off the girl to check it for a grenade he feels the full force of Baroness' compassion! We get to understand more of her decisions in this story through a series of flashbacks which, unlike Stalker's last issue, are peppered throughout the 20-page strip. They come very naturally out of the situation Baroness finds herself in, such as the one above which takes us back to her memories of her own favourite cuddly doll as a child and the horrible thing her father did to it.
A later flashback goes into more depth and involves how she first met the man who'd go on to become Destro and her one true love, as well as the original of her "title". It may only be a few snippets of her past, but as someone who enjoyed the tantalising nuggets of information Larry gave readers back in the 80s this was like a treasure trove of detail! None of these flashbacks feel forced, each one involving a beautiful transition whereupon on their individual conclusions we see a reflection of the younger Anastasia in the Baroness' glasses. A neat idea and expertly drawn by David Messina with Elisabeth D'Amico on inking duties.
As I said, the flashbacks never feel forced, nor does the main story ever feel like it's just an excuse for them. They work perfectly hand-in-hand to tell the main tale of Cobra advising Darkonia's forces and coming under snipper attack, embodying the tale with real, solid character development. Even as a new reader I felt real emotion behind Baroness' actions and words, real meaning behind everything she chose to do and that's no small feat, but then again Larry has been writing these characters for decades now. These are his creation more than they ever were Hasbro's in my opinion. If IDW had managed to keep Simon Furman as the sole Transformers writer maybe we'd be able to say the same about that comic, but as it stands G.I. Joe: ARAH is a unique title and one I hope to be reading for a long time to come.
I'll admit when I first saw David and Elisabeth's artwork I was a smidgen disappointed it wasn't more along the lines of the previous two issues. Upon my first glance it felt too polished after the rougher outlines of Alex Sanchez and Netho Diaz, but I couldn't have been more wrong. The style is perfectly fitting for this tale which juxtaposes the gritty modern world with perfect childhood memories and flashbacks to the first days of love. It's solid, dynamic and most importantly for me it's full of character. Just look at Baroness herself in these images, she feels like a fully fleshed out person without even reading her dialogue, Alessandra Alexakis' colours lifting it all off the two-dimensional page.
It's a stunning issue from start to finish and I can't sing its praises highly enough, as you may have noticed. $3.99 in the States (not $4.99 as stated on IDW's website), £3.70 in my local store they produced a huge variety of cover variants at different events and American stores for this issue, although the above default one is my favourite. Something I haven't mentioned before is the fact each issue has an honest-to-gosh letters page. Even better than that, it's Larry Hama himself who answers the questions from readers. It offers a brilliant insight into the creation and development of the comic and characters and is a lovely bonus to have each month.
There's been three issues of G.I. Joe: A Real American hero this month on the blog, the result of getting myself way behind with posting and having to play catch up, but from now on it'll be a monthly affair, hopefully as soon as it's released. #252 only came out yesterday so that's a good start anyway! If you ever enjoyed the classic strips then get yourself to a comic store and treat yourself to this little masterpiece.