Growing up, I was a huge G.I. Joe fan for one very memorable year. Fifth grade, 1986-’87, when, quite frankly, the Joe toyline reached its peak. It’s safe to say I was easily the only fangirl in my entire school. Of course, the backbone of the franchise was the abundance of those oh-so-memorable characters. However, always being a sucker for the underdog, I cared little for the Overexposed Hall of Fame: Snake-Eyes, Duke, Scarlett, Flint, and so on. Instead, my top three were Low-Light, Outback, and Chuckles, and those selections remain unchanged.
Yep, that Chuckles. You heard me correctly.
The oversized buffoon with the silly code name and sillier Hawaiian shirts, those two aspects which have earned him countless detractors over the course of two and a half decades…and the very two things that instantly attracted me to him when I first saw the figure at the Home Depot-sized Toys ‘R Us in Redwood City, my unofficial Joe headquarters. To paraphrase Barbara Mandrell, I was a Chuckles fan when being a Chuckles fan certainly wasn’t cool.
However, G.I. Joe would then drift out of my life until August 2012. Yep, 25 whole years. And that has led to me inevitably wondering: What had the Chuckster been up to since then?
Well, quite a lot, actually.
While Chuckles was grossly underused in Marvel’s A Real American Hero continuity (and sadly continues this trend in IDW’s current ARAH storyline), he made plenty of appearances in the Special Missions spinoff. Throughout the 2000s he was in no less than six miniseries: Devil’s Due’s Frontline, Master & Apprentice, and Declassified, and IDW’s G.I. Joe: Cobra (which itself ran for three separate series). With such a diverse collection of publishers and writers, the artwork is definitely going to follow suit, and even a Joe as visually minimalist as Chuckles has had his fair share of hits and misses over all these years.
Therefore, what follows below are my ratings of the works of the numerous artists responsible for bringing arguably the most star-crossed Joe of all time to life on the printed page. Keep in mind, I am not discussing their bodies of work as a whole, just their respective portrayals of this one character.
Oh, and because I am an artist critiquing other artists, there be nitpicking galore in here, with sporadic episodes of fangirling on the side. Ye have been warned.
And away we go…
Cream of the Crop
3. Eddy Barrows (Frontline #11-14, Devil’s Due Publishing, 2003)
After a ten-year absence following his final comic appearance in 1993 (ARAH #140, a Transformers crossover), Chuckles made his grand return with his own four-parter in Devil’s Due Publishing’s Frontline series, titled History Repeating and penned by newcomer Brandon Jerwa; it also happened to be his very first published work. And what a debut it was; it was positively received by readers and critics alike, and accomplished what once seemed impossible: finally getting Chuckles over with Joe fans after sixteen long years of languishing in ridicule.
Eddy Barrows’ solid artwork certainly didn’t hurt either. The first sighting of Chuckles is remarkably ordinary: he’s on an early-morning jog with Duke in New York’s Central Park. But it’s from these mere two pages that we get – and I kid you not – the sexiest version of the character to date. Gone is the clean-cut look and trademark overt mass from the Marvel era, in its place a new regular-sized Chuck replete with disheveled neck-length hair and a dark mustache and goatee. I don’t know; maybe it’s not having the pressure of selling action figures hanging overhead or there’s some unwritten rule that he has to look scraggly in the presence of the all-American Duke, but either way I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth.
This is just one of multiple styles of the character seen in the series. Plus, Chuckles gets an honest-to-God undercover assignment for the first time in any of the comics: in #11-12, he’s posing as a Cobra agent employed by Extensive Enterprises, for which he dresses the part by wearing a tacky brown ponytailed hairpiece. When he eventually ditches the disguise in #13, he gets a shave and a haircut, resembling a younger version of his Marvel incarnation. Despite #14 being the miniseries’ weakest with mediocre art and a screwjob ending for the character – save for a magnificent one-page opening flashback and a closing tag scene at the Pit, Chuckles spends the entire issue held hostage and upstaged by main baddie Tyler Wingfield – History Repeating is a prominent example of what happens what even the least-liked Joes are capable of in the hands of artists and writers who actually respect them regardless of their popularity. (Plus, anyone who works in references to Johnny Cash, Jimmy Buffett and Donna Summer in one volume gets an automatic thumbs-up in my book.)
And what did Jerwa and Devil’s Due do for an encore? Read on…
2. Stefano Caselli & Sunder Raj (Master & Apprentice #1, #3-4, Devil’s Due Publishing, 2004)
Barely a year after Frontline, Chuckles was written by Jerwa into Master & Apprentice, an awesome (albeit ninja-centric) miniseries, which, in all honesty, he probably had no business being in to begin with. And if Eddy Barrows swung for the fences in Frontline, then the double monster of Stefano Caselli and Sunder Raj shattered a few windshields out in the parking lot. M&A is a trip back in time to the mid-nineties after the disbanding of both G.I. Joe and Cobra, and their artwork is among the best I’ve ever seen in any of the Joe comics. Each panel is painstakingly detailed and often looks hand-painted.
Best of all, the gloves are also off here in regards to Chuckles’ character design, downsizing the Hawaiian shirts in favor of Men in Black-style suits and black battle gear…all while growing out his hair. Chuckles makes his first appearance in #1 again alongside Duke, this time when they’re both debriefing a military unit inside the Pentagon. His ‘do screams California beach bum while everyone else in the room is well-groomed (once again, it’s the Must-Look-Different-From-Duke Rule), and there’s one panel near the end in which he would never be mistaken for Owen Wilson. And when Chuckles reappears in #3, holy continuity, Batman: it’s now past his shoulders and in a ponytail.
I know, you’re probably thinking, Who are you, Vidal Sassoon? What’s the big deal? Bear with me, though. First, the events of #1 and #3 are set a year apart from each other, and even a minute detail like his hairstyle is a nice detail that establishes the passage of time. And while it doesn’t really scream the character, you get the feeling it’s something he would pull off simply to look different from everyone else. Lastly, I’ve never been a fan of long hair on guys, but this Chuck absolutely falls into the same hot-damn category as Frontline. The current ARAH run could certainly take a lesson in making this version of Chuckles look oh-so bodacious.
1. Rod Whigham, Herb Trimpe, Ron Wagner, Geof Isherwood, Dave Cockrum, M.D. Bright and Todd McFarlane (G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Marvel, 1987-1993; Special Missions, Marvel, 1987-1989)
Yep, you may have immediately noticed that all these guys are associated with Marvel. Being under the thumb of Hasbro at the time, their work in ARAH and Special Missions wasn’t too dissimilar from each other, plus there was that annoying propensity for not coloring his shirts in anything other than white.
So why is Team Marvel No. 1? Well, just mention the name “Chuckles” anytime today and I automatically go back to the old school. There was indeed some gimmickry involved in Larry Hama’s conception of the character; after all, nothing makes less sense than an oversized undercover agent with a personality as obnoxious as his wardrobe.
Out of this distinguished group of artists, four particularly stood out the most. When Chuckles was brought to life in the comics for the very first time in #60 – his rookie card, if you will – it proved an inauspicious debut for him and illustrator Todd McFarlane, who left Marvel after that one issue due to creative differences. #60 is still widely panned by Joe fans to this day, though, and now being older and wiser, it’s hard for me to disagree with that; while I loved the dialogue, the thin storyline was overbooked, giving us a freakin’ missile silo inside a hotel and a what-the-hell-is-going-on fight scene at the end. As for Chuckles, all he did was spout a boatload of exposition to Hawk and then beat the crap out of the worst Dreadnok of all time, Zanzibar. However, both the artist and the character have since gone on to much bigger things. Who would’ve thought?
Speaking of bigger, that’s exactly what McFarlane’s Chuckles was: a grizzly bear in a Hawaiian shirt who sometimes resembled Chris Farley (face only!) and towered over Hawk and the other Joes. However, that didn’t last beyond that one issue, as he was soon reduced to “normal” size but still retained his beefy stature: Ron Wagner first got this rolling in #63, where Chuckles, Hawk and Law meet with Billy in San Francisco (represent!), then in #64 when he and Psyche-Out snoop around for clues about the new Pit.
Chuckles disappeared from the main line thereafter and spent most of his page time in Special Missions, appearing in eight issues, seven of which were drawn by Herb Trimpe (Dave Cockrum penciled Chuckles’ eighth and final SM appearance in issue #22). While he often portrayed Chuck as the Serious Leader (see #14-15 and #18), Trimpe otherwise wasn’t afraid to get a little frisky, especially in #11, where Chuck is nonchalantly debriefing a group of Joes on a hostage situation while going over surveillance video; he has a greasy smirk on his face most of the time and cockily props his foot up on a box while jerking his thumb at the TV monitors as if he’s posing for a magazine ad, tossing in a politically incorrect comment or two along the way. Good stuff.
However, Chuckles was at his best at any point in the Marvel run in his last gasp at stardom, the 1991 “Destro: Search & Destroy” trilogy (ARAH #116-118). He goes undercover for the first and only time under Hama’s watch to keep an eye on Destro, then smuggles him across Europe to keep him away from international terrorists and Cobra Commander’s minions, all while being his signature wily-jokester self (a priceless highlight is him tricking two terrorist gangs into fighting each other by way of a strategically-parked car). This is all magnificently brought to life by Rod Whigham, the only artist who actually makes Chuckles live up to his code name, as he’s at his most playful here than in any of his other comic incarnations combined. He looks as if he’s actually enjoying himself.
With all due respect to the aforementioned artists deservedly included in this list, the Marvel crew best represented what Chuckles was all about aside from his occupation, each representing an individual facet of the man and the legend in their own unique way, from his size to his all-American looks to his gregarious personality. And for that, a tip of the hat to them.
Monkeys in the Middle
3. Pat Quinn & Valentine DeLandro (Declassified #1-2, IDW, 2006)
It’s no secret that Chuckles is/was among Larry Hama’s favorite characters, so much that he was even retconned into G.I. Joe’s beginnings via the first two issues of the 2006 Declassified miniseries. His Big Moment therein is when he, then known simply as Special Agent Provost, meets up with Hawk, Clutch and Breaker in New York to pass on intel regarding a conflict in Sierra Gordo. It’s a sweet little tidbit of storytelling that even gives us a bonus flashback sequence of him as a young MP working security in Borovia for an Army general who butts heads with Colonel Abernathy (Hawk).
The art by Pat Quinn and Valentine DeLandro is a 50-50 split. Their Joes and supporting cast all had rather square-shaped heads, and there was also an odd fixation with showing only their lower teeth whenever they spoke. It’s not a big deal in Chuckles’ case, as he’s always been a bit of a (literal) blockhead. But despite the fact that he is supposed to be younger in Declassified, here he just looks the opposite. The Borovia flashback is even more disappointing, because he looks worse than the present-day (in the story) version in his one close-up. It’s like some kind of negative Benjamin Button effect.
On the other hand, assuming Declassified maintained the “real-time” vibe of the old Marvel series, which it canonically predates, it’s likely that Chuckles’ segment of the story takes place sometime in 1982, since his New York meeting with Hawk commences just barely after G.I. Joe’s formation. If that’s indeed the case, Quinn and DeLandro do a good job in giving him a time-appropriate look and color palette, from his hairstyle to a truly tacky outfit of his omnipresent Technicolor-vomit shirt grouped with a tan sport coat, matching slacks, and white shoes. Mr. Blackwell, he ain’t.
Chuckles returns for a quick cameo in #2, this time in a pre-Joe flashback where he and another CID agent (in shadow, back ¾ to the reader) are questioning Specialist Alvin Kibbey (later Breaker). It’s a complete reversal from the previous issue; the prematurely-aged blockhead is gone, replaced by a virtual avatar of his filecard, his familiar girth hovering right over a nervous Breaker’s shoulder. The minimal mise en scène is wonderfully crafted, from three men cramped inside a fishbowl of an interrogation room to the scrutinizing light of the oh-so-familiar hanging lamp beaming down upon the suspect. The kicker? This all commences inside a single panel that occupies only about a quarter of the page, and with zero dialogue. Well done.
2. Robert Atkins (cover: G.I. Joe v. 2 #17, IDW, 2010)
Currently the best artist in the Joe stable without question, and his crack at Chuckles for the overcrowded variant cover of G.I. Joe #17 (April 2010; colors by Simon Gough) duly doesn’t disappoint. Atkins makes him stand out in the limited space he’s given. He subtly illustrates Chuck’s size – indeed, his shirt looks a bit too tight, not that I’m complaining! – while including minute details such as cuffing the sleeves, and with his typical nonchalant facial expression, he’s easily the coolest head in the frame. However, it’s Atkins’ only public depiction of him to date, and it therefore leaves me unable to judge him on this basis as a whole. Please, please, Mr. Atkins, give us more!
1. Howard Chaykin (covers: Cobra #1-4, Cobra II #1, 3-4, IDW, 2009-2010)
Arguably the most difficult task of launching the G.I. Joe: Cobra series undoubtedly was informing the public that the storyline would be revolving around one of the most maligned Joe characters. That task fell in part to Howard Chaykin, who provided the covers for seven of the series’ first eight issues, and the sheer intensity of the very first of those covers – Chuckles tied up in a wooden chair, with a mysterious gloved hand pulling a cowl off his head – hit readers over the head with a hammer, and with that, combined with superb writing by Mike Costa and Christos Gage, the series was officially on a roll. His compositions involving multiple characters are excellent, especially on Cobra #2, with Chuckles and Jinx holed up in a dingy room with a nice view.
So what’s the problem, you ask? Well, the character’s facial features are hit and miss, sometimes bordering on cartoonish. Several occasions Chuckles merely looked like a roided-up Leslie Nielsen (especially Cobra II #3), excessive fine lines and all. On the cover of Cobra #4, he looks as if he’s dozing off.
On the other hand, Chaykin is also the undisputed titleholder in having created the top Chuckles cover of all time – granted, there aren’t too many of them, but it’s still an accomplishment nonetheless – that of Cobra II #1 (January 2010), in which our lovable undercover agent, mired behind bars, simply stares daggers into us with burning eyes of ice. Even though Chuckles is seen only from the chest up, Chaykin turns back the clock and just positively nails the classic brawler with bomb-like precision, and not only because of the familiar signature tangibles like his very broad-chested size – as is the case with all his covers – and that notorious curlicue of hair on the center of his forehead. There’s also an indescribable energy that just emanates from a deceptively simple cover that was otherwise lacking save for that of Cobra #1, and here he actually looks – dare I even say it – handsome. Heck, Chuck even got what was a first for him: chest hair!
Bottom of the Barrel
3. Antonio Fuso (Cobra #1-4; Cobra II #1-4; Cobra #10-13; Cobra Vol. 2 #12, IDW, 2009-2012)
Not everyone’s going to like this, given the popularity of the G.I. Joe: Cobra series, but I’ll take the risk. The Brubaker-meets-Jack Bauer storytelling in twelve issues over the course of three miniseries by writers Mike Costa and Christos Gage was nothing short of phenomenal – they even made Crystal Ball, Croc Master and Big Boa cool, for God’s sake – and deservedly earned sweeping praise from fans and critics alike. And if Frontline finally boosted Chuckles into upper-echelon-Joe status, then the G.I. Joe: Cobra series immortalized him. In a perfect world, the meticulous storytelling would’ve been the G.I. Joe film to hit megaplexes instead of the 2009 crapfest that gave us freakin’ Marlon Wayans as Ripcord.
Unfortunately, if Costa and Gage’s writing is Citizen Kane, Antonio Fuso’s art borders on Twilight. I realize that’s harsh, but you can spin the greatest story in the world and I simply cannot get into it if the art is not up to par, and both elements therefore fail to jell. It’s like reading a printing of a classic novel that’s riddled with terrible grammar and spelling.
I’ve read on many sites and forums that Fuso’s minimalist storytelling well-represented the series’ film-noir grittiness. That does hold true to only one extent: a dynamic style such as Robert Atkins’ likely would not have worked here. Otherwise, this argument is bunk. While Fuso has a knack for expressing Chuckles’ body English (especially in the aftermath of a crucial character’s death), his facial expressions leave a truckload to be desired, rendering it extremely difficult for me to truly relate to the character. This frequently left Chuckles’ poignant inner dialogue to pick up the slack as a result. It’s further hindered by Fuso’s anemic backgrounds and poor use of shadowing and shading, which gives us panels in which parts of Chuckles’ face are simply blacked out, as if an ink bottle had been overturned on the drawing board.
However, I might’ve been willing to forgive Fuso’s sins if only – and I’m legitimately surprised none of the reviews and feedback that I’ve read ever picked up on this – his Chuckles hadn’t looked way too much like Eminem. Sorry, but when I think of Chuckles, I would rather conjure up images of a strapping flaxen-haired Magnum P.I. and not Slim Shady.
2. Tom Feister & Mark Hawthorne (Origins #1, IDW, 2009)
IDW really missed the boat in not giving Chuckles his own Origins issue or at least some prominent role therein, and I’m not saying that just because he’s my top Joe character. His background, aside from his pre-Joe stint with the Criminal Investigations Division (his primary MOS) is fairly threadbare – Cobra Vol. 2 #12 notwithstanding – and could have been a potential gold mine in terms of creating a detailed backstory from scratch.
Instead, he’s reduced to one unmemorable appearance in the debut issue of Origins, which is yet another retread of very early Joe history (this time, it’s the recruiting of Scarlett, Duke, and Snake Eyes). Chuckles appears among a scrum of police officers and FBI/ATF agents outside Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” house in Texas, where its homicidal billionaire owner – later identified as “Chimera” – is engaged in a violent standoff and picking off officers with a sniper rifle. Chuckles even has an unnamed MP (either Flint or Law; take your pick) tagging along with him, and his purpose is to explain Chimera’s convoluted history that led to his psychopathic rampage. However, Chuckles is never mentioned by name; instead he’s merely called “Army CID,” and readers are expected to identify him solely by the cliché Miami Vice-style baby-blue-and-bubblegum-pink suit he’s wearing.
Strangely enough, I can’t hate on the suit, for a reason that you may find ridiculous. In a comic based on the very first Mortal Kombat arcade game, published way back in 1992, MK co-creator John Tobias, who drew the comic, illustrated popular movie-star character Johnny Cage in the exact same outfit. Ah, memories.
What I can hate on, however, is Feister and Hawthorne’s inexcusably lazy artwork that tosses traditional inking right out the window and takes the all-computer-generated route, looking like paint-by-numbers gone Photoshop that is extremely out of place in such a gritty, brutal scene. It’s more criminal when Chuckles looks like Gary Busey’s illegitimate older brother with a tan that wouldn’t be out of place on Jersey Shore, plus a set of droopy eyes and a small mouth with a sagging, oversized upper lip, all with the same toothy expression plastered on his face. And even the much-ballyhooed suit is anachronistic; nobody was dressing like that in the early 1980s, and name me someone who would even enter a dangerous situation in such a garish outfit that would see Chimera pick him off first.
Since the mid-2000s, Chuckles’ physical appearance in the comics has gone south, and while Declassified got the ball rolling, Origins #1 finally sent it plummeting downhill, finally hitting rock bottom with…
1. S.L. Gallant (A Real American Hero, #161, #169-171, IDW, 2010 – present)
As of this writing, Chuckles has appeared in a whopping four of 33 issues of IDW’s ARAH relaunch: first when he’s held captive by Cobra in Springfield in #161 (December 2010), then in #169-171, when it’s revealed that he’d been serving as the handler for, and was now debriefing, none other than Sneak Peek, who had spent years under very deep cover in Darklonia but returned to the Pit after his cover was blown. (Memory jog: Sneak Peek was a minor ’87 character whom Hama bumped off late in the Marvel run but accidentally brought back in the current series, thus forcing him to whip up a convoluted storyline in which Mr. Peek had actually faked his death back in Benzheen and had since been working this whole time in Darklonia. Got all that?)
If you’re a fan of the seldom-used Joes as I am, there’s also the gut-twisting dilemma in which they’re so badly illustrated that whenever they do pop up, you still opt to keep your dollars inside your wallet. Unfortunately, Chuckles is no exception. That’s because the current IDW run boasts truly his worst-ever comic incarnation.
Like Robert John Burke’s character in the ’96 movie Thinner, Chuckles has actually deflated in size on a consistent basis since his debut to present day, from Todd McFarlane’s Andre-the-Giant stature to his smaller-but-hardy subsequent Marvel run to the average-sized – albeit very studly – versions in Frontline and Master & Apprentice. And now, at the mercy of S.L. Gallant, he’s merely an abysmal sack of loose bones.
I’m fully aware that comics have to evolve with the times and changing audiences, and Chuckles’ king-sized Sonny Crockett look probably wouldn’t have jelled with today’s audiences as it did in the 1980s. These Everyman changes in Frontline and M&A worked wonders but in ARAH it fails miserably on all counts. What’s especially aggravating about this is that Gallant’s overall art in the series is actually very good. It’s just that he’s just gone horribly wrong with this particular character.
Oh, the familiar shirt and snappy sarcasm (indeed, he was in rare form in #161) are still intact, but Gallant’s Chuckles is an emaciated mixture of Olive Oyl and Kurt Cobain, and I’m hardly being facetious. His baggy clothing just hangs loosely off his frame as if he were a malnourished street urchin instead of G.I. Joe’s top undercover agent, while his stringy jaw-length hair hangs limply like a parted curtain, obstructing his overly angular face, and constantly looks in dire need of a good washing. Just…yuck. Worse, here’s someone well known for his impish nature who’s now stick-up-the-rear humorless. For the very first time in his long, distinguished history, Chuckles has actually become…unlikable. (Then again, if I were confined to the Pit simply to play second fiddle to a bottom-carder like Sneak Peek, I wouldn’t be a happy camper either.) In only a few years, IDW hit a grand slam with Chuckles in Cobra and has so far whiffed completely with ARAH. Congratulations are in order, I suppose.
In closing, Jerwa once said in an interview with fansite JoeBattleLines, perhaps in jest, that he would’ve liked to have done a “Chuckles Forever” issue. If that ever comes to fruition, then I already have my own dream team in mind: I want him writing the story with Caselli & Raj taking the title character back to the Marvel days, capped off with a long-overdue Atkins solo cover.
And while I’m at it, I’d also like a pony and the ability to fly.
© 2013 Jane F. Carlson