Tuesday, April 2, 2013

REVIEW: GI Joe: Tales From the Cobra War (Digital Edition)

Published by IDW/Open Road Integrated Media
GI Joe: Tales from the Cobra Wars
GI Joe: Tales from the Cobra Wars is an anthology of eight prose stories, focusing on the ongoing struggle between the elite forces of GI Joe and the insidious menace of Cobra. Edited by Max ''World War Z'' Brooks and featuring contributions from Chuck Dixon, Duane Swierczynski and Max Brooks himself, the original anthology was released in 2011 (you can read Phillip Reed's review of the book here.)

Now to coincide with the release of GI Joe: Retaliation, publishers IDW have partnered with Open Road Integrated Media to re-issue the collection in E-book format and it's this digital version we're taking a look at today.

Please note that Open Road Integrated Media provided a copy of this ebook free of charge to That Figures for the purposes of this Review.

Eight Tales from the Cobra Wars
Before we proceed it's worth pointing out that despite its IDW's heritage, GI Joe: Tales from the Cobra Wars is not a graphic novel or collection of comic strips. Each of the eight stories - although sporting illustrated panels by Michael Montenat - is told in prose form. And as you'd expect from so many different authors, the tone, voice and even quality of the writing varies from story to story. I'll expand upon this as we take a closer look at each tale.

Snake Eyes by Chuck Dixon
IDW's long-time GI Joe comicbook scribe Chuck Dixon kicks off the collection with his short story, Snake Eyes. When an economics lecturer is kidnapped it's up to the Ninja Command to track him down and effect a rescue from the clutches of Cobra. But when Cobra raises the stakes and threatens the expert's daughter, things may not always be as they seem...

I have to admit that of the stories included in the collection, Snake Eyes was my least favorite for a couple of reasons. For starters, Snake Eyes himself - although a hugely popular character - is a man of mystery, who lets his actions speak in place of words. And that works in a visual medium but when he's the protagonist of a tale, yet we don't hear any inner monologue or insight into his perception of the events, he simply isn't interesting enough to really engage us as an audience. 
Snake Eyes is also something of a victim of his own awesomeness in this tale. Because he can kill an entire platoon of soldiers in a single, non-descriptive sentence and is always one step ahead of his foes, there's no real sense of any danger or drama. It's worth noting that this is the only story in which the Ninja Commando plays a major role - presumably for the reasons I mentioned - and it feels more like an obligation to include him over any sense of wanting to really tell a good story.

That's not to say it's a terrible tale but as an opening story it feels a little weak.

Flint and Steel by Jonathan Maberry
Things pick up for the second tale, a rather loose retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest. 

From the opening - and very clever - gambit to the finale, it's a more engaging, interesting tale than the opening Snake Eyes, thanks to the interplay between Doc, Flint and Scarlett. Like all good GI Joe stories, it's got action, heart, a great example of Cobra in action and - best of all - the kind of ''5 minutes into the future'' technology that differentiates GI Joe from other military properties and although the ending is a little weak, it's still a cool bit of techno-centric fun.

Speed Trap by Duane Swierczynski
Tales from the Cobra Wars really goes into overdrive (no pun intended) with the third story, Speed Trap, a fantastic stripped-down, man-against-the-clock no-nonsense thriller. With all air traffic grounded, it's up to the off-duty Joe Skid Mark to make a lifesaving rendezvous ahead of a Cobra driver who's stolen his identity and credentials. With no special pursuit vehicles to call upon and very little in the way of backup, Skid Mark must instead rely on his ingenuity, wits and unparalleled driving skills if he's to not only make the meeting but also survive.
As odd as it sounds, one of the reasons why Speed Trap works so well is because - a few minor plot points aside - it doesn't have to be a GI Joe story. This isn't shiny space lasers threatening to destroy London or man-eating robot plants wreaking havoc on the subway. It's two guys, on the road, doing whatever they need to do to get the job done. The stakes are as high as ever, for sure, but Speed Trap's realism and grit really make it the stand-out of the collection.
Just A Game by Matt Forbeck
We're back into familiar techno-thriller territory with Matt Forbeck's Just A Game, which sees a team of Joes, lead by Duke, infiltrating a Cobra complex that holds a surprise or two. 
A smart take on cyber-crime, Just A Game also features plenty of action to keep you turning the page but if I had one criticism it's that this story and Flint and Steel feel a little interchangeable. Personally I'd have preferred to see one story or the other, not both, included in the anthology, as - thematically and in terms of action - there are simply too many similarities between the two and no amount of smart writing will get around that point.

Unfriendly Fire by Jonathan McGoran
When the Joes find themselves delivering aid to the people of an invaded country, Duke finds himself struggling to follow his orders and not become involved with the plight of an oppressed nation.

With a plot ripped from today's headlines and featuring the minimum of shiny GI Joe super-tech, Unfriendly Fire is a much more down-to-earth, believable story with a heart. That's not to say there's a lack of action or drama here but the real conflict here is within Duke himself. Is there ever a point when orders can be ignored? Or when they can be used to justify turning a blind eye?

The Gun Show by Dennis Tafoya
When Duke and Red Dog attempt to snatch a dangerous weapons dealer they find their plans thrown off track by the sudden appearance of a heavily-armed religious extremist. Is there a connection to his military-grade weapons and those being used in a revolt thousands of miles away?

The Gun Show is another story that illustrates how adaptable the GI Joe concept is, being more akin to a detective show than a military tale. That's not to say there's a lack of action - far from it, the opening is tense, exciting and guaranteed to satisfy the biggest explosion fans - but the real story revolves around Duke and the Joes as they attempt to uncover the mystery behind these weapons.

Like Unfriendly Fire, The Gun Show goes beyond simply being an exciting tale and although, again, it's by no means a deep existentialist exploration of the human condition there's enough emotional depth to the story to give it a depth you wouldn't expect from a GI Joe story. Sure, the ending may feel as if it lacks a real resolution, that's kind of the point.
Message in a Bottle by John Skipp & Cody Goodfellow
Message in a Bottle is a first-person tale told from the perspective of one of Cobra's computer specialists. An apathetic, bored twenty-something, he thinks little about his actual impact upon the world, caring little for the effects of the viruses he writes or Cobra's activities until a letter from his Mom begins to make him reconsider his actions.

Written in a conversational, easy manner, Message in a Bottle is a computer/pop-culture geek's dream, being littered with inside jokes and nerd humor. But more than that, it's also a great story, with our unnamed hero growing from skinny-armed computer geek to... well, that would be telling and this is most definitely a story best read without spoilers, although again, the tone of this story is much darker than the earlier tales.

Exorcist by Max Brooks
Collection editor Brooks ends the anthology with Exorcist, in which we see the GI Joes potentially adding another member to their roster - and another weapon to their arsenal.

Of all the stories contained within Tales From the Cobra Wars, Exorcist is without a doubt the darkest and most believable, dealing with the topic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and bringing a level of realism to the series one wouldn't have anticipated from the pow-pow, shooty-bang fun of the opener, Snake Eyes. Which is, of course, the point...

Final Thoughts
I have to admit that after reading Snake Eyes I wasn't sure why Phillip at Battlegrip had been so exuberant about GI Joe: Tales from the Cobra Wars. The opening story seemed a little clunky in terms of its prose, there was little-to-nothing in the way of characterization or development and the story too simplistic. But given it starred Snake Eyes - a fairly cool-looking but also kind of character-less character - I let it slide. After all, in my view Snake Eyes has always been more about his Big Story and about doing cool Ninja stuff. And in the latter case the story delivered. But still, I'd hoped for more.

Things began to improve as I read Flint and Steel and by the time I'd finished Speed Trap I found that the ''chore'' of reading the book to Review it had become the joy of reading the book because I wanted to.

It's by no means a perfect read. Flint and Steel and Just A Game feel too similar in their feel, tone and resolution to really sit well together in the same anthology. There's an occasional over-reliance





to create dramatic effect. Some of the prose can be a little clunky but the latter is probably more to do with me being a bit too hypercritical than anything else.

But for all these faults, there are also some outstanding stories within this collection. Speed Trap is a superb, taut man-against-the-clock thriller; Unfriendly Fire presents the Joes in a political context (and the associated problems with being the World Police); Message in a Bottle features a sympathetic protagonist who undergoes a believable growth as a character and Exorcist brings GI Joe slap-bang into the realities of war.

Much as we've grown-up with GI Joes and it's adapted to every generation, so these stories chart the emotional and intellectual development of GI Joe. From the opening, simplistic story (which, when looked at again in the context of the whole suddenly makes more sense) to the dark realities of the closing installment - dealing as it does with the horrors of war and killing - Tales from the Cobra Wars takes the reader on a journey, maturing and growing with each story, integrating the traditional elements of duty, honor and teamwork into a modern context. And that's a credit not only to the individual contributors but also to Max Brooks for shaping such a powerful, well-rounded collection.

For fans of GI Joe, Tales from the Cobra War is a must-have. You'll meet your old friends - just in a new light - and find a lot of adventure and excitement to boot. And of course, if you've left the theaters having just seen GI Joe: Retaliation and you want more, then this is a great place to start.

Final Score: B+

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