Tales From The Cobra Wars by Max Brooks – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews IDW’s first full prose collection of short stories set within its G.I.Joe (licensed) franchise.
“Some of the best G.I.Joe fiction I’ve read to date, Tales From The Cobra Wars is a top-notch collection of short stories from some really talented writers.” ~The Founding Fields
I’ve mentioned before my love and fascination for all things G.I.Joe, both of which have remained undimmed for almost 18 years or so now. Well, except for the new movies, which I think are just plain terrible (review of G.I.Joe: Retaliation). The fascination I have for G.I.Joe is not something I can explain really well, even though the old Funskool toys were a huge part of my childhood and I’ve been reading IDW’s comics in the setting for almost a year now, having also gone through the original Marvel series in full at least once in the last seven years or so. Being as invested in the various comics as I’ve been, reading a fully prose collection featuring my favourite characters was something of a really welcome surprise. Given that Chuck Dixon, Matt Forbeck and Duane Swierczynski were a part of the anthology was a great boost to my expectations since all three are writers (comics and novels) that I’ve enjoyed reading to date and can always expect great things from them. They’ve certainly never disappointed, which is a huge plus as well.
Normally, I’d do a mini-review for each story here, but that is quite intensive to do, to be frank. Not to mention that I always end up repeating points, so I’m going to do something slightly different here, as I did previously for a couple other anthologies.
The anthology begins with Chuck Dixon writing his first fully prose fiction, Snake Eyes, and featuring the titular character himself. Right from the start, of both the anthology and the story, we are put right in the middle of the world of G.I.Joe as Snake Eyes is out and about on a top-secret mission. I could not have asked for a better start. Among all the G.I.Joe characters, Snake Eyes is my absolute favourite, since I love ninjas and Snake Eyes represents the peak of ninja perfection. He is a thoroughly badass character and Dixon has done a damn fine job of capturing the essence of what makes him what he is.
And this is something that I saw repeatedly in the anthology. Every character that the authors chose to write about, whether it is Flint or Scarlett or Duke, or anyone else, they’ve all managed to successfully capture the core concepts of the characters. They all behave as I expect them to behave, and there are some great callbacks to how these characters have been shown in the various comics and TV shows over the years, particularly the original Marvel run and the related animated show. Even though I’ve been reading G.I.Joe comics for almost a year now and have seen a lot of diversity in how these characters are… characterised, in this anthology I found the characterisations to be the truest.
Take Matt Forbeck’s Just a Game or Jonathan McGoran’s Unfriendly Fire for example. The common characters in both stories are Duke and Scarlett, two characters I hold in high esteem as much as I do Snake Eyes. The two short stories do a wonderful job of exploring what makes each of these characters tick, even though Scarlett is often in a supporting role and Duke is the point man here. The insights into each character are really what push the stories over into the awesome cateogry.
Duke’s resilience, Scarlett’s calm professionalism, Snake Eyes’ sheer badassery, Skidmark’s dedication to his work, these are things that define these characters.
Additionally, from what I’ve been reading of the start of IDW’s comics relaunch with G.I.Joe, and G.I.Joe: Cobra, these characterisations match almost point-to-point with what can be found in the comics. There’s often a sense of shared camaraderie between the short stories and the comics, and I found that to be a really nice touch. I’m not sure just how well they are actually supposed to map to each other, but there is enough of a connection there that should the reader of either be interested, he/she can jump between the two and not miss a beat with the characters and events.
The two finishers, Message In A Bottle by John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow, plus Exorcist by Max Brooks himself, had a big tonal shift and they are the only stories in the anthology that I wasn’t automatically taken with and spellbound by. Message In A Bottle is notable for the fact that almost the entirety of the story is from an outsider’s perspective, looking in, and thus the two authors have an incredible amount of playing room to experiment with, but there was often something lacking as well. I guess, the outsider perspective just too much of that, outside. A closer relationship to either COBRA or G.I.Joe would have served the protagonist much better I think. It was just too… normal, I guess. With Exorcist, I’ll confess that I have no idea what the story was about. I’m afraid that I missed completely what direction Brooks was going for. I just couldn’t make sense of where the story was going. As such, this was the only bad story in the anthology, and by far.
All that said, one of the best things about the anthology is the diversity of characters on display, whether its the Joes or the COBRA agents. Jonathan Maberry’s Flint and Steel deserves a top mention because of how many characters he brings together, even just for really short cameos, and still stays true to their particular identities.
Each and every story in the anthology, barring Exorcist has excellent pacing, particularly Duane’s Speed Trap which is all about pacing, literally. Initially, making the transition from comics to full prose was not a comfortable one, but each story put me at ease quite soon in that respect. And the pacing had a lot to do with it as well. The writers don’t give you time to get lost in the complexities, they keep you moving from character to character, situation to situation and so things never slow down interminably since there is always tension in the scene, whether at the point of a gun or otherwise.
I also liked the internal illustrations that accompany each story. They help to frame some of the scenes from each story, and they give an added context as well, without which some of the stories wouldn’t have been as interesting. Most particularly, this applies to Message In A Bottle, where the use of the illustrations really helped in understanding events.
In the end, what it all boils down to is the fact that is a(n) (almost) superb collection of stories from some really talented authors. Reading the anthology makes me wish that there were more such anthologies, perhaps even a full-on novel, featuring the same characters, or another mix thereof since there are dozens and dozens of characters who would be ripe for something like this. Just off the top of my head, Cobra Commander, Storm Shadow, Chuckles, the Dreadnoks, Snow Job, Firefly, Jinx and others would make for some really exciting stories.
Now, if only someone could explain to me what the final story by Max Brooks was about since I have no clue!