Max Allan Collins is usually a great author (Road to Perdition, the Quarry novels, and the Mike Hammer continuation novels are among his most successful works), but he freely admits in the beginning of his novelization of the movie screenplay - of which this prequel builds upon - that he is not someone who grew up with the G.I. Joe universe. He credits an associate, Matthew Clemens, with bringing him "up to speed". Let's also be clear that he is not personally responsible for having flushed the Joe mythos down the tubes in favor of the ridiculous Duke/Ana/Rex triangular origin story. Nor did the horrid buddy relationship between the film's unrecognizable Duke and the ever-juvenile Ripcord begin with him (though it really doesn't get any better in his care). We have the screenwriters to thank for this - and much more. In any case, what Collins is left to begin with has little to do with the G.I. Joe Clemens or the rest of us know and is a flimsy premise to base any franchise on, no matter what the title may be. That said, the most charitable thing I can share about this work is that every once in a great while it vaguely reminded me of the comics I grew up with. That is probably due to the insertion of minor details on secondary characters drawn from bios by Larry Hama. (Had Clemens suggested "Sierra Gordo" instead of "San Sabastiano", for instance, I might have been more impressed by his help.) Often times though, one gets the impression that Collins is merely putting up a cheap facade and that this is G.I. Joe in name only.
Sadly, instead of making the best of a bad premise, Collins gives us shoddy prose and silly scenarios that seem tailored to unsophisticated fourteen-year-olds. He doesn't seem to take this project very seriously and it shows. "President Martin Vincente certainly did not consider himself royalty; nonetheless, he was royally ticked off," begins Chapter 3(43). If that bit of writing appeals to you at all, then this may be your book. During Duke's covert mission, he tells the corrupt General Lopez, "I'm not exactly a geopolitical whiz, but I heard he disappeared. It was on Fox News and everything." (123) I will spare you the never-ending antics of Ripcord. His role in battle as the comedy relief to Duke's straight man might be excusable if any of the things he said was actually funny or clever. Unfortunately, he seems to be a graduate of the Bob Saget school of comedy.
Like it or not, it would seem that the one thing in this prequel that is crucial for Collins to get right is the relationship between Duke, Ana, and Rex. We are, after all, now basing the entire creation of Cobra on this romance (and bromance) gone wrong. For some reason though, Duke is constantly showing up on his dates with Ana with the uncouth Ripcord in tow. At one point, that crazy madcap Rip shows up at a fine restaurant in a T-shirt. "Couldn't find your 'Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out' T-shirt?" teases Duke. (99) Quite a knee-slapper there, Duke. Clearly, these are guys who take their job seriously. And Ana is, strangely, constantly chaperoned by her snobby scientist brother, Rex, who yearns to leave his testtubes aside and prove his manliness by fighting alongside Duke and Ripcord. The whole relationship seems very artificial and the scant two portions of the book where Duke and Ana meet seem inadequate for proper character development. I'd like to know how Duke feels about Rex's constant intrusions; wouldn't he be the least bit annoyed by this other guy? Collins doesn't go there. Ana, whom I imagine most readers already realize becomes a major villain, is portrayed here as a lily-white good girl. That she seems devoid of almost any specific emotional quality or thought save her reluctance to see her brother drawn into battle leads me to believe that the inevitable-brainwashing-to-come ought to be easy. She seems like an ill-defined synthoid to begin with. (She and the whole plot might melt away like wax at the press of a button.) Why Duke is gaga over her aside from her fair hair, one has little idea. Instead of giving us a strong feminine character to love, Collins squanders more time and effort in describing Walker, Texas Ranger-style bar fights that ill-fit G.I. Joe.
There are a few bright spots to be found; I thought the Vicente character was well thought-out. Duke's Able Team was more interesting at times than the Joes. There is a couple interesting spots the Joes get into and out of. None of this redeems this prequel from being anything other than disappointingly superfluous though.