GI Joe and the joy of the absurd
December 7, 2011
So, I discovered recently that semi-obscure cable channel Hub airs the old-school Transformers and GI Joe cartoons right before bedtime, and it is glorious. Just like middle school. I feel like I ought to be doing algebra homework while I watch.
What I’ve learned: I love GI Joe even more now than I did when I was a kid. As a kid, I loved it because, well, because what’s not to love? It was fun and squirrely. Now? I love it from an artistic standpoint.
I know, I know, you just squirted coffee out of your nose. I’m sorry. I’ll explain.
This show is ridiculous. Ridiculously ridiculous. So ridiculous it swings back around into purpose and meaning. In an episode I watched last week, a Cobra agent disguised as a mummy steals an ancient Egyptian tablet from the British Museum (a physically accurate, badly animated rendition of the British Museum, even!). The tablet contains the formula for a love potion, which the Baroness will use to secure the affections of a Greek shipping tycoon who is a thinly disguised Aristotle Onassis (his name is Socrates, see). Lady Jaye and Flint have to stop her, so they secret themselves aboard the yacht where he is having a party, and peel off their wetsuits to reveal perfect evening clothes. Awesome! And it gets better, because Destro and Cobra Commander are watching events through binoculars from a nearby sailboat. Destro is so insanely jealous that Baroness is flirting with another man that he dives overboard to swim to the yacht to win her back. Lady Jaye steals the love potion from Baroness and gets Socrates to fall for her instead, which makes Flint insanely jealous. Fist fights ensue, said fights including every woman on board because they’ve realized there’s an infallible love potion in that bottle and they all want Socrates’ fortune. The bottle falls overboard. The fight for the bottle continues underwater, until ultimately a crab makes away with the love potion, which is never seen again. Destro and Cobra Commander blame each other for ruining the plan, while Baroness motorboats off into the sunset (she escapes by switching evening gowns with another woman, so the Joes chase down the wrong target). Lady Jaye and Flint kiss and make up. Socrates declares he will remain a bachelor forever.
This happens in twenty frakkin’ minutes, y’all. It’s genius. It’s completely absurd, but it moves so fast you never really stop to question it. Same thing with the episodes where giant amoebas threaten to destroy Chicago, the one where a mad scientist called the Gamemaster kidnaps Flint and Lady Jaye and Cobra Commander and Baroness and makes them fight for their lives, the one where the Hollywood director hires GI Joe as consultants for the GI Joe movie he’s making, and so on. And do you remember the one where Iceberg got turned into a killer whale? Yeah, I know! How much crazy can a show pack into twenty minutes? A lot, it turns out!
Here’s what I figured out: there’s really only one absurd thing that GI Joe asks you to accept. Once you’ve accepted that one thing, everything else that happens is just kind of there. You can’t really question it because nothing they can possibly do is more ridiculous than the base concept of the show: that there is an international terrorist organization determined to the rule the world, that apparently has a net worth in the trillions and decided the snake theme is just so cool they’re going to paint a cobra head on all their equipment. And that the U.S.’s best possible response is to take the most insubordinate troublemakers (yet just competent enough that you can’t actually discharge them) out of every single military unit in existence — you know, like that chopper pilot who wears a cowboy hat and insists that everybody call him Wild Bill — and put them in their own unit to combat the group that is actually well organized enough to constitute a rogue nation rather than a terrorist group, and would be a lot scarier if they didn’t keep painting snake heads on everything.
Anyway. Once you’ve accepted that, everything else makes perfect sense. Of course forming a rock band to record a music video that will deliver subliminal messages is a great way to overthrow America and take over the world! Of course the bad guy ninja will discover Excalibur and use it to try to take over the world!
There’s a point where you just have to throw realism out the window. GI Joe is genius at this. It exists in an alternate universe where everything they do makes sense because, essentially, nothing does. So that’s why I love GI Joe more than ever. Because it just goes with it. They’ve sold us (or at least me) on the basic concept, despite its absurdity. After that, they can do anything they want to. And they do. It’s awesome. And it’s part of why I’ll defend the live-action GI Joe movie against all comers: it follows the same damn philosophy. It takes the absurd situation as a given and then runs with it.
It’s absurd and earnest at the same time. And that’s a trick. It’s a good trick, and worth doing. If you can accept the absurd, you’ll be in for a hell of a ride, because the show takes its premise seriously and will follow it to the absurd and bloody end. (Contrast this to the Michael Bay Transformers movies, which are never earnest. They never get past the absurdity of the situation to just give us full-throttle adventures, damn the implications. The entire things are designed to point out how absurd the concept is, and therefore how absurd its fans are for liking it.)
I dug out some of my comics — the run from Devil’s Due from a few years ago, the final issues of which tackled a pretty serious storyline with some gestures toward realism. In one thread, a group of Joes is in Jerusalem trying to stop the assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister. During this, Shipwreck makes an observation: “This makes me long for the days of mountain retreats shaped like snake heads.”
And I thought, You and me both, Shipwreck. You and me both.