Wednesday, March 27, 2013

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

Read Part I here!

Picking up where we left off yesterday, in the second half of my extended conversation with Larry Hama, the legendary G.I. Joe creator discusses the political underpinnings (or lack thereof) of his Joe comics, what it was like returning to the property almost ten years after its apparent demise, and what lessons he's learned from his many decades fighting in the trenches with the "Real American Hero." Catch all the festivities after the jump:

I think that’s a nice segue into a question I had about the time period when  “Real American Hero” really took off, which was a very politically charged time, I would say. We saw a renewed, really – you know, Reaganism and things like that. 

And my question is, how did you keep Joe apolitical? Because I notice that, especially now, reading them as an adult, it goes right down the middle. You can’t make any kind of a partisan designation, and I think that’s one of the strengths of the book. 

Well, I – that’s deliberate, you know? Like, I’ve never actually seen any of the animation, but I can understand the gist of it. It’s a lot more jingoistic, rah-rah, American flag-waving than my G.I. Joe comics. Because they're from the point of view of the grunt. They're from the point of view of – you know, of the ground slogger.

And it’s a point of view that recognizes internally that a soldier’s loyalties are first to the five guys in his fire team, and then the second set of loyalties is to the ten people in the squad, and then it goes up the ladder from that. People don’t throw themselves on the grenade for God, country and flag. They do it for the other five guys in their fire team. It’s personal. The – things like the flag are abstractions to a soldier. Total abstractions.

Things that are concrete are like, what's the food like? And how uncomfortable is it? Those are concrete realities, and the loyalty that you feel towards your fellow soldiers is very different. I’ve said this a thousand times before, but the thing that most – that soldiers are reminded of every single day, is that the chain of command runs both ways.

If you’re a corporal, you’re responsible for the privates that report to you. You don’t eat until they eat, you don’t sleep until they sleep. Mo matter how low on the ladder you are, you’re still responsible for the people below you. And that concept stays with you. They do not teach that in the MBA programs at Yale and Harvard. Like, the opposite. And that’s an important factor that a lot of people seem to overlook.

And that’s what it’s about. I’m not out there to, like, wave the flag for any side. Because the thing is, soldiers take an oath to defend the Constitution. Just like the President. The Constitution is a revolutionary document. And our country was meant to be a country in revolution. And it was founded by people who were not happy with having the bootheels of the king on them.

And there were lots of things wrong. But the founders built it into the Constitution that they could change it. They said, “You can amend this thing, and you should amend it. So, my feelings about it really stem from that. And, you know, I have to view the Joes as staunch defenders of the Constitution. But I inject my own attitude about what defending that Constitution means.

Sure. And, I mean, definitely you get the sense that the point of view is that of the person on the ground. And so it’s kind of – like I said, it feels very studiously apolitical, because it’s, like, if you’re the guy with the boots on the ground you’re not super-concerned with what party or whatever is making the decisions. You just care about what decisions are being made. 

Well, yeah. And a lot of times the guy on the ground may not believe – may not believe or may not think that that leadership, or that whoever is in charge at the time is right. But, you know, he's still the CIC. It’s the parties where everything falls apart.

Right. Well, in terms of – now, you had a very tricky balancing act between fantasy and reality in doing that, and we talked about how it got a little bit more fantastic as the line progressed. By the time the book ended, which – we're into, probably, 1994 – did you see the writing on the wall? I mean, did it come as a surprise to you?

It was a surprise to me every year that the book kept going. I mean I never thought I’d be writing it for three years, let alone 13. And so I, like, never assumed it was going to keep going. I just – I always assumed the entire comic book business was going to, like, evaporate. It’s not like – you can’t be blind to history.

I’m old enough to have been in the comic book business when they were still people around who remembered the pulps. The pulps used to be everywhere, and they just disappeared. And the entire magazine industry changed. I mean, in the last 20 years, 30 years, drastic. And everything about magazines and periodicals in circulation has changed drastically.

Everything in this country used to be printed in one place, in Sparta, Illinois. And it was, like, a town full of printing presses. And every day, hundreds and hundreds of trucks radiated out from Sparta, Illinois, to the entire country, hauling only this stuff. And that’s no more.

Yeah. So the book ends, and at that point, are you mentally – are you just, like, I’m done with this, it’s in the past? Does it ever occur to you that you’re gonna not only revisit it, but continue to revisit it, and it’s just – it’ll keep going and going?

Never occurred to me.

Wow. I remember probably the late 90s – it was probably, like, ’99, I remember I went back and I filled in all the gaps in my collection. So by, like, 1999, I had the full run. I had everything. And I even got the last issue, because I missed that when it was on the stands, and I got it for a couple bucks. I’ve seen it recently – it goes for quite a bit more than that.

Yeah. It’s way up there now.

Yeah. So I kind of, like – I got in just before the prices really went up, especially on those last few issues. But 2001, your version of G.I. Joe comes back, and how long was it before – this was Devil’s Due. How long was it before they roped you in?

It was awhile. But even then, they said, well, we want you to, like, do this old-school – you know, we want you to do the old-school G.I. Joe. And my first reaction was, like, well, there is no old-school. I mean, it’s like – I do things – I did things the way I did. But I evolve. I think I get better. (laughs)

I think that if you look back at stuff that you did two weeks ago and you’re satisfied with it, then something’s wrong. That’s when you sort of start to stagnate. But I was always trying to figure out new ways to try to tell the story visually. That’s basically what I do. I never considered myself a writer.

I thought of myself, in the writing mode, as a penciller working on a word processor. I’m basically thinking in the story in visual terms, and then writing down my description of the movie that’s playing in my head. And the words – the dialogue – are the very last things.

Now did – I’m remembering in – there was the – after the "Real American Hero" ended, there was also "Sgt. Savage." No, excuse me, there was the – well, there was Sgt. Savage, but there was also G.I. Joe Extreme, and – did you have any involvement in that one?

I don’t even know who Sgt. Savage is. (laughs)

So I'll take that as a no. (laughs) Yeah, there was, like, a ten-year interregnum where "Real American Hero" went away, and I think eventually they realized, well, this is really kind of the iconic version. And that brings us to where we are now, because with IDW and your book – now, I want to make sure that people check this out because this is a book I’ve been enjoying for the past couple of years. 

And could you tell us what led up to this? Because what this book does, essentially, is pick up where you left off in 1994. So it essentially ignores the Devil’s Due continuation from your run.

Well, it also ignores the IDW continuation.

That’s right.

Yeah, because I couldn't do it otherwise. I mean – I just – well, first of all, all the characters are based on people I know. Like, everybody else’s version doesn’t seem like the real characters to me because the dialect is wrong or they're not acting in character. Like, that’s not my cousin Randy (laughs). So when they said, why don’t you just pick it up from [issue] 155, I said I didn’t think that that was any problem at all.

Because there was really no other way I knew how to do it. And they weren't insisting on – they were happy to have me just do it issue by issue. Look, for 155 issues I never previewed what was coming in the next issue, because...I mean, that’s the only way I can do it. Same thing for – I did it for eight years, you know? I could never tell them what the next issue was about. Because it was literally being created on a page-by-page basis.

So – and most comic book companies, they want you to tell you what the whole next arc is. "Oh, what's the next four issues?" Which is what they did to me at Devil’s Due. They said,  "we want you to submit this for the summer" – you know, another four issues.

And I said, “I can’t do that.” And they said, "Well, then, you can’t do it, because that’s how we've gotta work." And I said, “But that violates completely my methodology for doing the stories.” And they – those four stories that I – the four issues that I did at – I can’t even remember what it was called.

I think it was Frontline. "The Lost Mission." (Self correction: Actually, it was "The Mission That Never Was" - Z) 

It was four issues called Frontline. And I – those were, like, probably the worst four issues I ever wrote, because they – I had to write this outline and stuck forcing these characters into that plot. And at times it just – they didn’t want to do it. The characters didn’t want to do it.

And you also did the Storm Shadow series at Devil’s Due. Was that – same issue there?

Storm Shadow, they didn’t – by that point, I said, look, I can’t – after Frontline I said, “I can’t do it that way.” So they said, OK, with Storm Shadow. So, I went ahead with that. Again, I just played it  the way I know it.

Yeah. Now I know we're going a little bit over, so I want to – I'll try to wrap things up for you here. It’s now 31 years after the "Real American Hero" line started. What is it about G.I. Joe? Why does G.I. Joe still matter? 

I have no idea. (laughs) I – well, there's lots of people out there who grew up with the characters, and there's that factor of, like, wanting to fill in the spaces of your own childhood. I’ve got, like, five shelves full of plastic model kits that I'll never build, but I’ve got them because when I was a kid I couldn't afford to buy ‘em. Now I can afford to buy it – buy that stuff, I bought it. And I’m sure there's, like, plenty of people out there that – like, maybe that’s why the value of the G.I. Joe Aircraft Carrier is so high.

Sure, absolutely.

There's, like, thousands of kids out there that were, like, they were going, "Oh my God, I really want that thing and I’m never gonna get it." And all of a sudden they're, like, thirty-something and they’ve got disposable income. And it’s like, well, you know, it’ll make a great coffee table. (laughs)

Yeah. I have a – one of my colleagues, his quest until fairly recently was to find Snow Job mint on the card. And my goodness, this was, like, the Holy – he was like Indiana Jones trying to track this thing down. And to this day he – I mean, when he found it, I mean, the grin on his face was just ear-to-ear and he has it encased in plastic. So, I mean, what you’re saying, I mean, I’ve experienced that firsthand. 

Yeah. And I think that, with the case of G.I. Joe, it’s like, it wasn’t a toy line that lasted two years. It was a toy line that lasted a long time. So you’re talking about, like, a huge chunk. 'Cause like, kids aged in and out. During, like, 50 years and more. So, that’s – when you think about it demographically, that’s a pretty large number. And then you’ve got, like, the second generation fans.

'Cause I’ve had people come up to me and say, oh, I got my kid involved in it. You know, my kid is collecting this stuff. So I think that’s the difference, is that  if the line has longevity and there’s actual characters – characterizations that you can relate to – that really helps. There’s – there was a – I think the Transformers had a little problem with it, because there weren't human or humanoid characters to relate to.

But – they were smart that they made some of the robotic characters really sort of cute and likable. It’s, like, the Bumblebee factor. And that works to offset it. But I think that in any of these IPs, it’s really about character identification.

When you go back and look at Harry Potter, you realize that what makes it work isn't magic. It’s like, nobody cares about the magic. You go back to that experience because you liked to hang out with those characters. And I think that’s the stuff that always makes it work.

Well, and just to wrap things up here, after this many years, you are still the guy who I think in terms of the fan community most people associate with G.I. Joe. You’ve taught a lot of kids a lot of lessons. What has G.I. Joe taught you?

Not to give up. It was very difficult to keep writing it month after month because, during the entire run I never got a single write-up or review in the fanboy – the fan press. It was considered below the radar because it was a toy book.

It wasn’t – it’s, like, that’s not a serious comic. Never got invited to a con. Got nothing except, you know, I did do well on the royalties on the book. But when you’re doing something creative and you get no – nobody’s writing a review. Nobody’s, like, you know –

Affirmation.

Yeah. I mean, my affirmation was real-world affirmation, that I would go to, like, a store signing and there would be, like, kids lined up around the block. So the – you know, but it was kids. It was real – it was the real readership.

Right. The real audience.

Yeah. And, there was nobody writing reviews for the Comics Journal. And when you’re writing something and you’re sitting there alone in a room and having to, like, do it every month, that’s a hard thing to – you want some appreciation from your peers. You know? And I got zip.

Even after G.I. Joe was selling really well, I couldn't get any other writing work. Because they said, well, you can only do, you know, kung fu and barbarians. And they only gave me Wolverine to write when the Wolverine comic was completely in the dumpster.

I never got – they never gave me a single book in Marvel that was an A-selling book when they gave it to me. I wasn’t considered an A-list writer. And all I – like I said, all the editors are writers. I don’t know how else to put it.

Well, I just – I really wanted, from the bottom of my heart, I mean, I am one of the readers who you directly affected, and I can point to so many specific lines and specific moments from Joe comics that have stayed with me throughout my life into my adulthood. 

And as far as the write-ups and everything else, I would hope that what I am saying, and you know this, is mirrored by so many people you’ve met through all your travels, I’m sure. So just – the fact that you’re still out there, you’re still doing Joe and it’s still great, is such a tremendous joy to me, and the fact that I’ve been able to spend nearly an hour talking to you is absolutely just one of the highlights of my life, sincerely.

Well, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

*****

Many thanks to Mr. Larry Hama for being so generous with his time and his memories. Be sure to check out his G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero comic series monthly or in trade paperback form from IDW Publishing.

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