Aubrey Sitterson has been making comics for a long time. He’s probably edited some of your favorite books—from the Image Comics smash hit The Walking Dead to Marvel titles like Ghost Rider, Blade, Punisher War Journal, and X-Factor. Aubrey became a comics editor right out of college, before leaving to become a writer and non-comics editor at WWE.com. (In case you don’t follow him yet, Aubrey Sitterson really, really loves wrestling.) As well as being a contributor to WWE.com for years, he has a wrestling podcast and is a huge fan and passionate historian.
If Aubrey’s name sounds familiar even though his earlier work isn’t, it’s probably due to his run on, as it shall now forever be fondly called, “Adjectiveless” G.I. Joe from IDW Publishing. Sitterson’s 2016 series ran for its originally slated 9 issues before leading into a crossover event and the launch of his new series, Scarlett’s Strike Force. In late November, IDW made the controversial decision to cancel SSF at #3 before the final order cut-off date for its first issue had even hit. I sat down with Sitterson to talk about his creative process, his career, and the book that fans might never get to see the end of.
Aubrey’s career began at the Big Two and has spanned multiple media platforms from the web to paper comics to podcasting. He’s always been driven by a need to create, and as with many writers he wanted to be able to create things on his own as well as collaboratively, which was a path that led to his two podcasts: Straight Shoot and Skald. They both showcase Sitterson’s personality and passions, one a weekly panel on wrestling and the other a sword and sorcery serial. His passion and experience in both areas were a large part of his journey to G.I. Joe, and were likely part of the reason that John Barber reached out to Sitterson to take on a particularly interesting property mashup over at IDW.
“Capcom had approached them and wanted to do Street Fighter x G.I. Joe, and no one there really knew what to do with that. But one of the things that I talk about on my podcast a lot is this idea of fight-based storytelling. I think too often in superhero comics the fights are just two people punching each other until one person punches the hardest. And it doesn’t mean anything, so it ends up just being empty. Something I really love about wrestling is that they tell a narrative over the course of the match. So when they reached out to me about Street Fighter x G.I. Joe, they said, ‘Do you know what you’d do with that?’ And I said, ‘YEAH! KING OF THE RING!'” Sitterson reminisced.
Sitterson’s unconventional take that filled the SFxGJ miniseries with action and fights was dynamic and roundly well received. So when it came time to launch a new title, Sitterson was an easy choice. “John [Barber] and Carlos Guzman called me and said they wanted to talk about a new project, and I was excited because I’d actually told them about how much I wanted to do a Final Fight comic,” Sitterson laughed. Sadly, his dream of an adaptation of the classic high concept beat ’em up game wasn’t what the IDW editors were calling about. It was, of course, about Aubrey taking on the massive responsibility of G.I. Joe.
G.I. Joe is a hugely pervasive part of American culture, from the original doll in the ’60s (known as Action Man in the UK and Australia) to the now synonymous Hasbro toy line. Sales of the popular action figures were fueled by a Larry Hama scribed comic book at Marvel, and Sunbow cartoons in the ’80s. Thanks to those enduring stories and Hasbro’s persistence, G.I. Joe has rarely been out of the cultural conversation for five decades. So taking on the role of writer on such a huge property was always going to be a massive undertaking, especially since Hama had recently returned to the main title, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, at the time. “I was floored when they offered me G.I. Joe. The folks at Hasbro really liked what I did with G.I. Joe because it was so different from what had been done in the IDW continuity and was heavily based on the cartoons, as that was my introduction to them. You know, the show and the action figures,” Sitterson explained.
“To me, the essence of G.I. Joe were these archetypes, and that’s what we did with Street Fighter x G.I. Joe, distilled them down to their essence. That’s what the folks at Hasbro really responded to and liked. So when they were gearing up to launch the Hasbro Comic Universe, they reached out to me,” Sitterson told me. “G.I. Joe was originally going to be an ongoing series, but with the nature of comic book publishing I think that actually changed before we even hit the first issue. The idea became let’s keep it to a tight nine issues rather than an ongoing like most of the other stuff they’d done. Then we’ll do our crossover issues and relaunch as a new title,” Sitterson said, expanding on the publishing decisions.
Everyone wants to write a series that runs for hundreds of issues, and as a lifelong comics fan Sitterson was no different…which was why the writer found himself disappointed with that particular choice. “It bummed me out when they told me that because a big touchstone for my G.I. Joe run, an inspiration for my run was Claremont, Cockrum, and Byrne’s [Uncanny] X-Men, so I really tried to write it that way. I knew we weren’t going to get that many issues so that’s why I used a lot of shorthand to build the universe. The stuff people actually remember from that Uncanny run is much later rather than the initial stuff, so I wanted to skip as much of that as I could and get right to it. So yeah, I was definitely bummed at the beginning because I wanted that big number. You know, I wanted to lap Larry Hama! I know it’s ridiculous and the comic book industry is so different now, and though people won’t say it the main structure for comics now is the miniseries, so I totally understood and was fine with it,” Sitterson shared.
There was also the fact that Larry Hama’s iconic G.I. Joe book was also currently ongoing at the publisher, which was something Sitterson was very aware of. “I knew our book was going to find its audience later because it was so different. I mean, when this first started I asked, ‘What’s happening to Larry’s book?’ because I can’t do what he does and I wouldn’t want to be the guy who killed Larry’s book. Basically, I love Larry Hama and I don’t think that he gets enough respect for what he’s done for comics. But also I knew it would kill our book if we were a replacement. So I was really relieved when they said Larry’s book wasn’t going anywhere because it meant that we were free to swing in the total other direction and do something really, really different. And not just that we were free but that we were encouraged to, I mean who wants Aubrey Sitterson’s Larry Hama Lite when you can have Larry Hama?” Sitterson exclaimed.
Working within the world of licensed comics can be notoriously dicey, with publishers and corporations often throwing down strict editorial edicts and draconian rules. But for Sitterson the experience with Hasbro was surprisingly open and relaxed. “It was shockingly easy. This might sound like fluff but honestly that was something I was super scared about on Street Fighter x G.I. Joe, because that’s not one but two properties! Plus Capcom is pretty notorious for being rigorous, and I was honestly terrified because during my time at Marvel people would have to work on licensed stuff and it was almost always a nightmare. Street Fighter x G.I. Joe was so easy, though. I think the only editorial notes we got were about costume choices and including too many obscure characters,” Sitterson laughed.
Sitterson sees his editorial stint at Marvel as a big part of why he found working with Hasbro and Capcom so easy. “One of the things that editors at Marvel told me all the time was that as an editor you’re the shepherd of these characters. These are characters that existed before you were here and will exist after you leave, and one of your primary responsibilities is to protect these characters. Like you want to scuff ’em up a bit, but you don’t want them broken irrevocably. So I knew that coming in and I have a great fondness for G.I. Joe, so I was never looking to do the deconstructionist take on G.I. Joe and ruin all these characters.”
Comics is full of all kinds of weird elitist gatekeeping, from fans to publishers to even creators themselves. When it comes to which comics are considered worthy, pure, and special, licensed books can be perceived as pretty low on the ladder, something that often rubbed Sitterson the wrong way. “It’s a thing that grates a little bit, this perception in comics that licensed comics are somehow lesser. Like the art hierarchy goes: creator-owned books, then Big Two books (which are somehow separate from licensed books), and then licensed books are way lower than that. I actually say this to people all the time, that if you think someone who’s writing Superman or Darth Vader had more freedom than I did writing G.I. Joe, you’re out of your mind!” Sitterson declared.
Creating the book was a joyous process for Sitterson and his collaborator Giannis Milonogiannis, with the pair hitting it off immediately and sharing a vision of what they wanted their G.I. Joe to be. “As best as I could tell, we were the latest born people who’d ever worked on a G.I. Joe title. So everyone before us had been heavily influenced by Hama’s run, which I read and loved, but much later on after falling in love with the cartoon, which was really our main influence. I asked Giannis for a list of stuff that he’d like to draw. Fights, locations, characters, just give it to me. I kept that, and every time I was writing an outline or a script I’d open that and shove them in! Also, man just seeing the way he drew certain characters, especially Quick Kick! Quick Kick is the big one!” Sitterson excitedly exclaimed.
In fact, Sitterson enjoyed Giannis’ version of Quick Kick so much that he changed his vision for the story completely. “Originally, I’d already planned for Rock ‘n Roll to be my in, the emotional character arc. But once I saw Giannis’ Quick Kick doing the blurred hands wing chun thing I was like, ‘Oh my god this guy is the baddest man on the planet. We have to do something incredible with him!’ Giannis has this heavy manga influence in his work too, and that’s the reason why in issue like #3 or #4 I said to him, ‘Just go full shonen! Just have Quick Kick swinging his meteor hammer around screaming out the name of the weapon that he’s swinging.’ Some of the more die hard G.I. Joe fans didn’t like that, but it’s still one of my favorite moments in the run because it’s all about leaning into what Giannis does best,” Sitterson said passionately.
The pair’s work really resonated with readers and after a few issues G.I. Joe seemed to really have found its feet and audience, though it wasn’t always that straightforward. “I’m not going to say it was easy. It wasn’t something where over night everyone was like, ‘OH G.I. JOE, CROWN JEWEL OF THE HASBRO UNIVERSE!’ But I got some really good response from creators that I cared about and that was really important to me because it’s always nice to get feedback from creators you respect. Some creators I’d known for years were like, ‘Uh, G.I. Joe…no thank you.’ Which I’ve given them shit about for years. But it goes back to what we were talking about earlier,” Sitterson told me, referencing the industry’s perception of licensed comics. “We were trying to kickstart a long-running series. We wanted to skip all the boring stuff at the top, skip all the slow issues before you get to the good stuff. We wanted to get right into it, to make this action-packed balls to the wall thing with all the melodrama constantly simmering underneath the surface,” Sitterson said.
Though the book had its fans, there were some highly publicized spats with certain contingents of the G.I Joe fandom. “There’s a vocal group of G.I. Joe fans who really hated what we were doing on this book. Some of them are fans of the Hama stuff and they don’t like anything that’s not that, and I get it. When you grow up loving something and you continue loving it passionately into adulthood, it’s tough for anything to live up to your memories. Nothing is going to compare with your favorite thing when you were twelve. Ever. So there were a lot of Joe fans who didn’t like we what did on the book, but there were a lot of Joe fans who did. Younger Joe fans who grew up with the same kind of stuff I did. They dug it and they loved that it touched on the same kind of stuff that worked in the cartoon,” Sitterson explained happily.
The plan for Sitterson’s G.I. Joe title was that it would run as shorter miniseries. At the completion of each one, it would be rebranded and continue. His recently cancelled book, Scarlett’s Strike Force—a source of much comics industry controversy—was intended to be the direct continuation of the series. “On the G.I. Joe book for the most part we were left to our own devices because everyone realized we were doing our own little thing and they liked it! I reveled in that and enjoyed it. So even though this is all part of the greater Hasbro Comic Universe—I mean we have Skywarp on the team, a Transformer on the team!—I didn’t really change a whole lot at all. There are things in SSF that we did because it was a first issue, like captions to identify characters. There are a couple of scenes I wrote with an eye to the fact that there might be new readers. But for me as a kid I loved picking up something halfway through the run and thinking, ‘What the hell is going on?’ and knowing I could go back and explore that world,” Sitterson said.
Sitterson’s version of G.I. Joe was always intended to be a shortcut to the kind of storytelling that made Claremont’s X-Men so beloved. Huge character arcs, long running stories, and hopefully decades worth of legend and lore. So even though the model IDW wanted to work with was unconventional, Sitterson was open to it. “Kickstarting this whole world, jumping straight into the action, alluding to all this other stuff but with that melodrama simmering under the surface, that was always the goal with this. So starting with a new number one that already has a whole bunch of already established character threads and interpersonal drama and stuff? Fine. That’s honestly perfect. It makes it easier because it already exists,” Sitterson told me.
Sadly, that world will never fully get explored, as Scarlett’s Strike Force was indeed cancelled before the final order cut-off date for #1 in a controversial move by IDW. The first three issues will be released, with the debut out this Wednesday, December 27. But after that…the future of Scarlett’s Strike Force and Sitterson’s work on G.I. Joe looks decidedly unsure. There isn’t much precedent for smaller publishers “uncancelling” series, and it’s more likely that they’ll announce a new creative team in the future. It’s a shame as we’ve gotten a sneak peek at where the series would have gone, and it looks like it could’ve been a whole lot of fun.