Rapper Wordburglar Looks at G.I. Joe and Comics From a Different Perspective

Eric Goldman
TV Comics
TV Comics

Never before have I made a last minute request to delay an interview by 15 minutes in order to pre-order just-announced new G.I. Joe figures, but such was the case recently. However, in this specific situation, I correctly figured that if there was anyone I could make that request to who would not only be cool with it but share the same sentiment, it would be Sean Jordan, AKA Wordburglar.

The Toronto-based Canadian rapper has been putting out terrific albums steeped in nerd culture for the past two decades and recently released The Spinner Rack EP, a collection of seven songs focused on his experiences growing up as a comic and toy collector, from the communal feeling of working at a comic book store to the bad vibes of “The Other Shop” you tried to avoid. And then there’s the song “1980 FORCE,” which returns to one of Wordburglar’s favorite topics – the aforementioned G.I. Joe.

Unlike Wordburglar’s fantastic 2013 album, Welcome to Cobra Island, which told stories about and from the perspective of established Joe characters, the very funny “1980 FORCE” takes a more outside parody approach, about what it’s like when there’s a toyline that just keeps releasing new items, bringing with it the fan desperation to keep up with it all. The accompanying music video pushes this even further, with Wordburglar playing the 1980s-style wrestler/spokesperson aggressively pushing these toys on kids, while we see examples of the many, many figures from this fictional franchise, by way of some amusingly modified classic G.I. Joe figures.

I spoke to Wordburgler about coming up with “1980 FORCE” and the themes of The Spinner Rack EP and why the toys and comics from our youth still resonate so strongly. We also discussed his voice role on the Netflix animated series Transformers: BotBotsas the Transformer named Starscope, and the follow-up album he’s working on to Welcome to Cobra Island.

The custom figures seen in the 1980 FORCE music video. Photo Credit: Ozzie92, who also designed the figures.

Given this was a chat between two guys with a lot of very similar interests, this is an interview I had to do a healthy amount of editing and condensing on, because suffice to say, we went on a lot of  tangents. In fact, when we first began the interview, it was on the tail end of chatting about which of the new G.I. Joe Classified figures we’d ordered that morning… (Airborne was a priority, obviously).

Fandom: So our conversation about the new Joe figures we want is a perfect segue into “1980 FORCE” because that’s basically what the song’s about, right? We love these things and we love that they keep making more, but at the same time, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, they keep making more and I need them all!’” 

Wordburglar: That’s it. It’s that addiction and “1980 FORCE” was inspired by those days being a kid, watching those TV commercials and seeing all the kids in those ads and thinking, ‘How did they get all these brand new toys I’d never seen before in my life!? I want that Ninja Turtle! I want that G.I. Joe! Who are they?!’ I thought they had the best life ever. And, of course, now as an adult, I was like, ‘I’m gonna make a song all about that.’ And just capturing that, while also balancing out that, yeah, we were being marketed to. In the 80s, it was no holds barred. You had He-Man, Transformers, G.I. Joe… Everything’s flying at you. And it was the best and we loved it. But it was also like… They didn’t care. The gloves were off when it came to marketing. And getting a giant angry wrestler yelling at kids to buy toys was pretty common!

Wordburglar rocking his mulletted 1980 Force music video look

Fandom: How long did you work on that amazing look for yourself in the video, by the way? It’s kind of like Ultimate Warrior joins the Dreadnoks

Wordburglar: [Laughs] I love that you got that. I couldn’t have pitched that better myself to our costume team, which was me. That is perfect. And I hadn’t even thought how perfectly that works for, like, Zandar colors and stuff. But yeah, it was a happy accident of having my pandemic hair. I hadn’t had a haircut in like three years. And I was like, ‘I need to put this to good use somehow.’ And so I thought, well, I’m gonna turn it into the most outlandish 80s action mullet I could ever have. I went through my whole life without ever having a mullet, let alone a two or three foot long mullet or whatever it was, so I was like ‘I’ve to put the hair to good use.’ A week after we shot the video and me walking around with that hair, I did trim it down.

Fandom: How much fun did you have coming up with all those G.I. Joe style code names for the figures and their specialties?

Wordburglar: The hardest part about those code names that we used in “1980 FORCE” was editing it down to like 21 or however many are in it because, as a kid, you always come up with your own characters. If I got two of the same figure, I’d give some guy a different head and give them a new name. I’ve been coming up with wacky, wild code names for G.I. Joe figures my entire life. So this is one of those skills that really can’t be used for many things… [Laughs] And this was like the perfect way to do it. Definitely, a few of those names had been bouncing around in my head forever. Like Strikezone, it always struck me as like there should be another baseball guy. There’s already Hardball, but Strikezone’s perfect. As outlandish as the names get, they do follow a sort of rule of GI Joe, at least in my head. I’m like, yeah, technically a guy named Last-Nerve is not that out of the question! I can see that. Maybe not Grenade Balls…

Shrink-Rap, Last-Nerve and Kneel Haul are among the members of 1980 FORCE. Photo Credit: Ozzie92, who also designed the figures.

Fandom: I love the little disclaimers listed for every character in the video.

Wordburglar: Yeah, that came up because I was bouncing this around with a few of my friends and Brian Sauer — who’s an incredible artist and who designed the 1980 FORCE logo — we were talking and he was like ‘You’ve got to have those [disclaimers].’ I remember sending away for the Emperor from Star Wars and for Cobra Commander and all those mail aways and there were always ridiculous amounts of legalese. No kid knows what ‘void where prohibited’ is. And sometimes they’d even have the guy on the commercial read it out really quickly. And for some reason, I remember hearing ‘offer void in Hawaii.’ So we threw that in on Codename. [You get him] after you collect all 1980 characters and send away a garbage bag of points.

Fandom: Codename is one of my favorites among the characters, by the way. 

Wordburglar: I mean, who did give them their code names? This is all like the stuff I would think about as a kid. ‘They should have a chef. Who cuts their hair?!’

Fandom: [Laughs] Right. Well, we know Roadblock makes some meals on the side, but it’s not his primary specialty. 

Wordburglar: You know it, man! You understand. Finally, someone understands.

Code Name: Codename!

Fandom: Some of your other albums are more ‘in universe’ about these characters we grew up with and expand on stories from their mythologies, but this new EP is one more focused on growing up as a fan and a consumer. Do you enjoy moving back and forth between those perspectives?

Wordburglar: Well, I’m a lifelong fan. And I was thinking about how the earliest days of my fandom came from going to those corner stores and finding a spinner rack and the comic books I would find there…. That was, for lack of a better analogy, kind of like the internet. You would spin it around and find all these different things. Superheroes, horror, the Disney comics… It was just such a variety of stuff, and could just be instantly transported into another world. So with this release, with The Spinner Rack EP, I really wanted to give that vibe of here’s a great variety of comics, cartoons, action figures, based on my lifelong experiences. So we do delve from those days of me going finding comics on the spinner rack and getting inspired and really sparking my mind.

There was so much creativity of characters just blasted at your young brains, which goes into “1980 FORCE,” which is the advertising and the action figures and the excitement there. And as I got older in high school, I got a job working in comic book retail. So there’s a couple of songs on the album inspired by my days selling comics and working on that side of things, when I’m actually the one bringing the fans their new fandom and being on kind of the front lines of comic books and action figures. Being there unboxing new comics on an early Wednesday morning before putting them on the shelves and stocking those new Spawn action figures and Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and wanting to save one… ‘I’m just gonna tuck him over here because I want to make sure get him. We only got two of the new Landos!’

If you ever go to a comic shop and you’re like, ‘Hey, do you have that new Casey Jones limited edition?’ ‘Oh no, we didn’t get any!’ …They probably got two and the guys in there kept them.

Wordburglar's latest release, The Spinner Rack EP

Fandom: I bemoan that spinner racks don’t really exist anymore. Because for so many of us, that was our in to comics, finding those at a 7-Eleven or another convenience store. These days, not as many people read comics, even though the characters are so permeated into pop culture, and I feel like that’s one reason. 

Wordburglar: Yeah, and even at the grocery stores comics, on the rack, there’d be like the National Enquirer and People Magazine, and then you’d have your Archie [comics] and little DC digests and stuff like that. Those were great.

I love when an album can follow a theme, so yeah, I do have some, like Welcome to Cobra Island, which is all inspired by G.I. Joe. There’s SpaceVerse, which is all science fiction and space stuff like Star Wars, Doctor Who, Transformers, etc. And then some other albums which I just see kind of like as mixtapes, which is like a big variety of the larger Wordburglar universe, giving you a sample of everything.

With this one, I definitely wanted to hone in and just have a lot of fun playing in that realm. And I see this EP as kind of the first in a series exploring some of the themes that started in this. And they’re going to continue on we’re going to learn more about the Fanbase, which is the name of the comic shop that things start to float around [on the EP]. Because I’m very fascinated in the direct market and, having worked in it for so long, the origins of comic shops in North America and the world. I think they were really pivotal in a lot of ways that people don’t realize. Before the Marvel movies exploded, these comic shops were keeping all of these characters and IPs alive. And there’s so many things… Like Winter Soldier. You could have only read Winter Soldier had you gone to your local comic shop when that was coming out. There weren’t spinner racks for that. And it’s becomes arguably the greatest of the Marvel movies.

Fandom: When you began rapping, did you plan on doing so much about so-called ‘nerd culture’ or fan culture? Or did it just develop naturally, because, obviously, it’s a big part of you? 

Wordburglar: Yeah, that’s it. As nerdy as I am about my comics and action figures. I’m nerdy about music and hip hop. And I grew up and hip hop was number one for me. There was no other music. Maybe Weird Al, but other than that, it was just all rap and hip hop. And growing up, I never really thought ‘Oh, I’m just gonna be a rapper.’ I just wrote my rhymes, I would freestyle. And all my rhymes would just be about stuff I knew. I’d have rhymes about Spider-Man when I was in grade six, and rapping about G.I. Joe and Transformers and Mr. T, and whatever else would come up. And that’s just been my life.

So, in my writing… To use a cliche term, but keeping it real, I’m just making the rap that’s as real as I can make it and  being a nerd who’s obsessed with all this stuff, I’m not shy about it, I love it. And I just am happy to share it. And we’re living in a time now… I never could have imagined that I could have released an album all about G.I. Joe and met people from all over the world who heard it. It’s pretty phenomenal. That was just really for me and my friends. When I made Welcome to Cobra Island, I was like, this is the rap album where if I got this and I was 9 or 10 years old, it would have blown my mind. And so even now, these are like the things that I want to put out there. And it’s fun for me. I just have way more fun making a song about old videotapes or horror movies or Doctor Who than I would trying to make up something that I think might be popular. But yeah, that said, it’s just like I draw from my real life and a lot of my real life is clearly, and maybe dangerously, nerdy.

Fandom: Hey, no apologies needed!

Wordburglar: Yeah, right. Wear it proudly! But yeah, I know that they were marketing to us and I loved it. I know what they were doing. People can get all cynical about it but I think you have to look at the flip side of things. I will hear a lot of cynicism, especially not being a child anymore but still loving this stuff. We all hear these cynical comments. ‘How do you still like this stuff? They were just trying to sell you G.I. Joes…’

The one thing that I think those comments forget is all the art and creativity and genius that went into it. When you talk to a designer or sculptor or an artist or a writer or a painter, the people making this stuff are true artists. And sure, they had a job to do by selling us new He-Mans or Ninja Turtles or X-Men. But the ones that were done well are the ones that have stood the test of time. Snake Eyes is still popular because Larry Hama took this faceless, nameless character, and built this incredible history and backstory and mystique around him and all of the villains and heroes and things that we love. You look at Skeletor or Optimus Prime, and there are reasons, whether it was the voice actors or the artists or whoever brought this to life in ways that we feel and cherish. I don’t think that can be discounted, especially if you can bring magic into somebody’s life with it as a kid and then they can bring that joy into the rest of their life and continuously.

Sorry, that just kind of came out of me!

Wordburglar voices Starscope in Transformers: BotBots

Fandom: No, I get it! So I have to ask, how did you become the voice of Starscope? And how trippy is it to actually now be a Transformer? 

Wordburglar: Honestly, that’s one of the greatest and most surprising moments of my life. Some of the creators who were working on that BotBots show had found my music years ago, and they had been working on a TV show called Mystic Cosmic Patrol, which was a send up inspired by Power Rangers. I did the theme song for it and they just did a phenomenal job with this show. I wish that it kind of grown and continued.

Then I was doing a show in New York City and one of the [Mystic Cosmic Patrol] writers was at my concert, and came up after and said, ‘Hey, you know, have you ever considered doing a voice for a cartoon?’ I’ve done some acting and stuff in the past and I was like ‘Oh, yeah, that’d be cool. ‘Well, what about Transformers?’ I said ‘Great!’ but thought that it’s [probably] gonna be nothing. And then the pandemic had started, and I was at home and I got this email asking me to audition. So I did an audition and recorded here in Canada, and next thing I know, I got the part as Starscope, the rapping scientist. He’s a telescope to the stars. And I was just so thrilled to be part of that. I think it’s episode eight where Starscope really shines. It’s a really fun show. Being a transformer is one thing, but the BotBots and their whole take on it, it’s a super fun show. And hopefully we’ll see more seasons down the road because I think it’s a fun universe to explore.

Fandom: What can you say about your Welcome to Cobra Island sequel? 

Wordburglar: Ah, well, it’s in the works! The working title right now is Revenge of Cobra Island. We are going to be picking up some threads from the first one and there’s a bunch of new explorations. As soon as I finished the first album, I had ideas for 20 more songs. It’s been 10 years and one of the number one questions I get is, ‘Are you doing a sequel?’ I’ve always wanted to do another one but I didn’t want to do it until it felt right. And I had the ideas so it’s currently about half finished right now.

My goal is to launch it at some point in 2024. The 60th anniversary of G.I. Joe seems like a good year to launch it and this year is the 10th anniversary of Welcome to Cobra Island, which is an album I’m super proud of. It was essentially me writing, acting and directing the G.I. Joe movie of my dreams as a rap album. I get to play Zartan and Snake Eyes and Cobra Commander and Chuckles. It was the best. It was all the years of reading the comics and making up stories, playing with the toys and watching the cartoons and then just kind of taking all my favorite stuff and putting it into this one world and a combination of my favorite parts of all of the file cards, cartoons, comics, and everything.

The Spinner Rack EP is now available at Wordburglar.com.

Eric Goldman
Eric Goldman is Managing Editor for Fandom. He's a bit obsessed with Star Wars, Marvel, Disney, theme parks, and horror movies... and a few other things. Too many, TBH.