Tuesday, March 26, 2013

INTERVIEW: G.I. Joe's Larry Hama Reflects on 30 Years of A Real American Hero (Part I)

Last week I teased my interview with G.I. Joe creator Larry Hama by posting his fresh thoughts on the new feature film Retaliation, which he'd just seen. But that was just the tip of a very tall iceberg. Hama began his tour with Joe in 1982, when he took on the little "toy book" that no one else wanted to write. From there, he helped shape every aspect of the extended Joe universe, down to penning the "file cards" that adorned each toy's packaging, and was a key component in making the "Real American Hero" one of the most successful multimedia properties of the 1980s. Although the Marvel book ended its run in 1994, it didn't stop there for Larry Hama and G.I. Joe.

In 2001, when Joe was brought back to comics by Chicago-based Devil's Due Press, it wasn't long before Hama (who'd also clocked a lengthy run on Marvel's Wolverine and DC's Batman by then) was brought in to lend the brand his blessing. When the property jumped from Devil's Due to comic publisher IDW in 2008, he was again there for the creation, penning not only the G.I. Joe: Origins series that offered fresh insights into these legendary characters, but also, since 2010, the new G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero series that picks up its numbering and continuity right where the Marvel run left off lo those many years ago.

In part one of my extended conversation with Mr. Hama, he discusses the beginnings of G.I. Joe at Marvel, how he came to be involved and create the characters, how he dealt with the toyline's early '90s excess, and much more -- including an answer to a G.I. Joe question that's bedeviled me going all the way back to my childhood Joe fandom. Catch the full transcript of part one after the jump, and be sure to check tomorrow for the second half:

Let's go back in time a little bit, because I definitely think our listeners will want to get some context of what it was like for you to be there as the man on the ground when the G.I. Joe that we think of as G.I. Joe today took form, because a big chunk of that comes from you.

Well, you have to remember that back then, what they called in the business the "toy books" were considered the bottom of the barrel in comic publishing, because they paid...they had to pay a licensing fee. They took that off the top of the editorial budget, which meant they couldn't afford to pay guys that were top rates, so it was only like, y'know, the B and the C-list would even consider doing it.

And I'd been trying to get writing work at Marvel for years. Couldn't, even though I was an editor. Because, the prejudice against the guys that drew this stuff was really severe, because all the editors were writers. So if an artist came along that wrote the stuff, that was like a major threat. And you tend to get typecast. I did Iron Fist, and I did Wulf the Barbarian, stuff like that, so they would say, "You can only do Kung Fu and barbarian stuff."

So, this is like, late '70s, early '80s that we're talking about...

Yeah, early '80s. I was trying to get work, I couldn't get any work, and then Hasbro came to Marvel and said well, we have this G.I. Joe comic. And, so they asked everybody on the list, and they all turned it down. They went down Editors' Row asking all the editors who were writers, and they all turned it down. My office was the last office on the row. So they got to me, and they just sort of bluntly toldme that every single person had turned it down, and I said I'd take it.

Now, was that due to interest on your part, or was it just any port in the storm?

I've said this like a dozen times before, but if it was Barbie I would've taken it. I just..I needed the freelance work. I wanted to show I could do a monthly work. But honestly, after I wrote the first issue, I went into this bizarre panic mode because I thought, "Oh my God, I just shot my wad."

I had no idea where to go next. And I got the second issue done, and I thought, well, I'll feel more confident after the second issue. And y'know, that feeling never went away. It's panic mode, and I'd be afraid to write the next issue, so I'd keep procrastinating until I had to turn it in.

And that was the story for the next ten, twelve years as you worked on the book.

Yeah, never went away. It still hasn't gone away.

I'm interested a little bit in the creation process because, I've read this in the past and correct me if I'm wrong, but they came to you with designs for the characters but no bios. Is that essentially the way it was?

Yeah, they would have...it started with black & white drawings. Eventually it became color renderings. They would, for instance, they would have…they had the first batch, there was a guy standing there with a mask and an uzi and above him it said "Commando," and there was a girl with red hair and a crossbow, and above her it said "Intelligence." There was a mortar guy and an infantry guy and a laser trooper…that's how they were marked. They were just...they were black & white drawings.

So I had to from there, like, figure out who they were, where they came from, what their backgrounds were, what their personalities were. So that's why…and there were ten to start. So, I thought, well, that's more than there are Avengers.

And I'd known through experience working at Marvel that people that worked on books like Avengers -- what they called the group books -- were always complaining about how many characters there were, and how they had to memorize all these outfits, had to draw crowds all the time. Comic book artists like books where there's like one character, and it's like dark all the time. (laughs)

So, it occurred to me that if this goes on to a second year, they're going to add ten more characters. Twenty characters to keep track of. So I sat down, and I wrote what I call "dossiers" which were a couple of pages long, but they were basically the file folder on each character. Where they came from, education, training, so on and so forth. Really to keep it straight in my own head.

And then I basically based most of these characters on people I knew. So that I could really sort of pin down the characterization and keep them consistent. If you know how your cousin Joe reacts to something. So yo put him in a situation and you're not having to make up the character as you go. You've got a readymade character in there.

That's where a lot of continuity goes askew, its hat people are making up the characterization on the fly. I  play it the opposite way. I really try to nail the characters first, and put them into a situation and let how the characters react influence the situation. Because if you start from a plot, you're forcing the characters to follow choreography. And to me that seems unnatural, and it's also…it becomes predictable.

My creative process is I would get the Joes into this impossible situation and try to get them out of it by the end. And then my inner rule is that they had to act in character. Lots of times if you have the opposite situation, where someone is forcing characters into a plot that they've already manufactured you might get stuck having to force one of your characters to act out of character in order to resolve the plot. To me that's anathema.

One thing I've noticed, and I've actually been re-reading the Marvel issues just recently, so what really strikes me is that there's a pretty rapid turnover in terms of the core group of characters that we follow. I think that reflects what you're talking about where there's new waves of characters. 

I would say other than Scarlett and Snake Eyes and a few of those characters who stayed throughout, our center of focus tended to shift pretty often. Was that a challenge for you to have to move the cast that we're familiar with sort of out of the limelight and get the new characters in and do the same thing every couple of years?

It's not...it's easiest doing it the other way. It certainly helps the continuity and the concept. And also, y'know, it really is a very…they're nothing but commercials for the toys. And somebody could look at it that way, fi they want to, but I always had that fresh in my head that it was a commercial for the toys, because it was like, well, these guys ave to be in this issue.

But to me that's not a big deal that it's not crimping my style. It's like, these are parameters of the real world. These are the characters you deal with, and these are the situations you deal with. If you can't deal with that, you're a crybaby. Get out of the business! (laughs)

One of my colleagues wanted me to bring up this question to you, and I think it relates to what you're talking about right now. Definitely as the toyline progressed, and I think we're talking now into the early '90s, we saw it become a lot more fanciful, and we saw characters like "Eco Warriors" and "Star Brigade," and things like that. Was there any point there where you said, "Okay, things are getting a little out of hand."

The thing is that the toys, the animation, and the comics are apples, oranges, and bananas. What's good for one isn't always good for the other. If you have an animated series, you want the exact same characters there for every episode. You want real consistency because there you're dealing with a drop-in audience. And if you don't zero in on certain characters and say these are your core characters, and this is the set-up, so you don't have to keep explaining your set-up.

In comic books, the concept of continuity is very different. You have to keep it generalized enough so you can have somebody drop in, because the only way you can gain readership is through drop-ins. That's where stuff like X-Men sometimes went askew is that continuity would become so complex that you'd have to have been reading it for ten years to understand what the heck was going on, so there were very few drop-in points.

But I was conscious of that, so I said, well, you have to have a kind of drop-in point like every other issue or every third issue. And the way you accomplish that is to have a lot of overlapping continuities and subplots so a subplot could be something building under the surface for a couple of issues and then pop to the top. And that way people, somebody could pick up issue 28 and then start following that thread, and then if they like it, they could always go to the shop and buy the back issues. And that keeps propelling it.

Toys are another completely different thing. And the other thing you have to realize about the toy business is that back in 1982 the general thinking in the toy industry was that a line lasts two years…went two years. Nobody ever wanted to be caught with warehouses full of Cabbage Patch Dolls. That was when hubris really killed them. They thought, "Wow, these things are selling like flapjacks! We can sell them forever!" Well, they were really wrong. Look what happened to Beanie Babies!

So, after the second year of the show, they were – people were getting ready to pull the plug. Speaker 1: Well, they were going, “Well, OK, it works, but we fear, y'know, the Cabbage Patch cliff. But – so it was really remarkable that they opted to go on for the third year. But then, like I said, selling toys is different than selling comics and selling an animated series, you know?

So, I know this is a really convoluted way to get back to your question about Star Brigade, but the toy company is stuck with a different problem every season. It’s that they’ve gotta make the thing look different. So after a bunch of years of having everybody sort of look military and then sci-fi military, with camo all these variations, like, one year they said, well, neon colors are in, so, let’s do these neon-looking guys. OK, ecology is in, so let’s do, y'know, guys that go after polluters.

That's right, I remember when Flint was in the neon green... 

Right. So, then you have the whole Star Brigade sci-fi thing...That’s – y'know, you have to understand the forces that draw on each of these iterations. They're very different. It’s very difficult to create an IP that functions in all the different iterations and is consistent. The thing that, I think, that holds G.I. Joe together is that the characters are consistent. Snake Eyes is the same in the comic as he is in the cartoon, and, y'know, he's pretty much the same in the movies. That’s the main thing that holds it together.

Now you just mentioned Snake Eyes. And this is a question that’s dogged me for many, many years, and I figure, if there's anybody to ask it’s you. What is it about Snake Eyes? Because – and before you answer, let me tell you my own experience as a five-year-old. I went to Montgomery Ward and there was Snake Eyes and there was Storm Shadow hanging on the pegs, and I bought Snake Eyes. 

He was the one with the – that came with the dog. And my brother bought Storm Shadow. He was in the Cobra fatigues. And just as a little kid I was like, "I want Snake Eyes," and I remember that very distinctly. And I’m not alone, because Snake Eyes is THE G.I. Joe character. So please explain to me. What is the appeal of Snake Eyes? 

Well, the appeal of Snake Eyes, I think, is that – I think it’s stupidly simple. That any kid, no matter what they look like or where they're from, can fantasize about being Snake Eyes because he's in this mask. It could be anybody under there. It’s not because of – you know, the thing is, if you see the Joe’s face, they become specific.

And then they become more specific with the details from the file card. Oh, he went – he's from this state. He went to this school. He – this is his cultural background. With Snake Eyes, it’s like, everything is classified. And he can’t talk, so he can’t give away anything. And – you know, and he’s a cool-ass ninja.

I remember reading the origin story that you did. It was issue 25, 26, thereabouts – and it just – I mean, I was relatively young when I read it and I remember just being struck by the undercurrent of tragedy, under, just, that underlied his entire character. 

And I remember specifically, it’s where Hawk is narrating about what happens to him. And he says, "When Snake Eyes came back from Vietnam, nobody came to greet him. And he just saw me and he knew." And, I mean, just – even as a kid I remember thinking, God, this is a Shakespearean character. 

I mean, the fact that just one after the other there's tragedy that’s just heaped on him and yet he keeps powering on. I mean, I don’t know. Just for me, personally, that’s something that always stuck with me about the character and I found it very moving, even as a kid, when I read those books. 

I think that’s what defines him as a hero. That makes him very different from somebody who's, like, Batman. It’s like, well, it’s some rich white kid. He grew up with his own butler. What makes Batman fascinating is that core tragedy, where it’s like, y'know, both of his parents get shot right in front of him. Even though he's a rich kid, he's an orphan, you know? And that’s the other part to the fantasy that’s compelling is that, like, we all find that orphanage, that "orphans out in the storm" fantasy kind of compelling.

Because it’s about – it’s about ultimately getting away from your parents and having some of this weird freedom. I – you mix that fantasy with the real core fantasy of the Joes, which is about camaraderie and actually having friends that you can trust, is basically the same fantasy that drives things like Harry Potter. To me the G.I. Joes are basically the Junior Woodchucks with guns.

It really is a – y'know, the fantasy is about belonging to this really set of cool group and having a terrific hideout. And having friends that you can trust your life to. And if you boil it down to those three or four simple things, that’s also Harry Potter. So, a lot of the things are like that, because it’s all about this alternate universe where there’s no parental control and you can be with your pals.

*****

Coming tomorrow in part two of our lengthy chat: Mr. Hama discusses how he kept Joe apolitical -- especially against the backdrop of the very political 1980s, moving the brand forward into the post-'90s, post-Marvel era, and also talks about some of the lessons he's learned after his many decades guiding the fate of America's Movable Fighting Man. Don't miss it!

(Catch Part II here)

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