IN-DEPTH: Larry Hama on GI Joe, The 'Nam & More

Most comics fans associate books and characters with certain creators. For example, the Fantastic Four are perhaps most associated with Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, or maybe John Byrne. Batman is often mentioned in the same breath as Frank Miller or Neal Adams. In many cases, it's debatable.

But when fans think of GI Joe comic books, only one name comes to mind - no debate: Larry Hama. 

With the upcoming release of the "GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra" film and IDW Publishing's auspicious relaunch of the comics franchise, it's a good time to talk with Hama about his long history with the characters, as well as his larger body of work as well. Indeed, Hama has a long history in the comics industry and has played many roles within it, from artist to writer to editor. As a consequence, Hama has a unique view of the business, one he shared in this extremely candid and insightful interview with CBR News.

CBR: You first broke into comics assisting Wally Wood. What type of work did you do in those early days of your career? Did it help you early on to assist other creators to learn the ropes?

LARRY HAMA: Actually, I had been doing underground comics four or five years before I went to work for Woody. Bhob Stewart wrote a strip I drew in "Gothic Blimp Works," which was sort of like the Sunday funnies of the "East Village Other." Before that, I had a strip in "OZ," and underground magazine in London. A copy of "GBW" #2 from 1969 is currently selling for $250.00. It includes work by R. Crumb, Vaugh Bode, Trina Robbins, Kim Deitch, Art Spiegelman, Mike Kaluta, Jay Lynch, George Metzger, Spain Rodriguez and S. Clay Wilson (and me and Bhob.)

I did the general assistant stuff for Woody (nobody who knew him called him "Wally"), like backgrounds, swipe-o-graphing, and lettering. During the Sally Forth/Cannon era we alternated scripting the strips. Woody taught me to letter using the Gaspar Saladino alphabet. He said if you could learn to letter, you could learn to ink. It was all about controlling the tool. Before that, I worked with my old high school buddy Ralph Reese on freelance jobs for Nat Lamp, CTW, "Esquire," and whoever else would have us.

Working in the shop of an old pro is better than getting a Masters. You get the straight dope from the people who came up with it in the first place and you get to see how it's done right on the page.

From there you moved to Neal Adam's Continuity Associates. How did the time you spent there help you hone your craft further?

Yes. That was like going on to a PhD Program. I had the desk next to Neal, so I was right at the font. You sort of have to have tough skin to sit there. It can be blistering at times, but wow, what an open floodgate of practical information! In the '70s, Continuity (when it was on 48th St.) was like a major comics pro hangout. It was a short walk from both Marvel and DC, so everybody stopped by when they were in town for business. Howie Chaykin, Gray Morrow, Jay Scott Pike, Mike Kaluta, Sergio Aragones, Russ Heath, Bernie Wrightson, Frank Brunner, Jim Starlin, Al Weiss, Al Milgrom, Vaughn Bode, Walt Simonson, Bob Brown, and Barry Smith would stop by. There was an endless supply of bad filter coffee and Entenmanns's crumb cake. Marshal Rogers, Jack Abel, Terry Austin, Joe Rubenstein, Mike Nasser, Dick Giordano (Neal's original partner) and even Woody all had desk space at Continuity at one time or the other.

The thing about Continuity that honed my storytelling chops was working on storyboards. Man, you had to crank those puppies out. And they had to be clear, make sense and have real acting in them. Neal could ink (with a Pentel) storyboard frames faster than four or five of us could pencil them. He always had two or three girls coloring them like crazy with AD Markers. The smell of an AD Marker is like Proust's Madeleine to me.

You created Bucky O'Hare while at Continuity. How did the concept for this series come about?

It's a tribute to Woody. Cute funny animals in space. Sort of taking two genres he really liked and combining them with a sort of serious story. Originally, I was going to write and pencil, and Neal was going to ink. Then, Michael Golden walked in the door...

Bucky O'Hare later saw its way to toys and games. Did you have much creative control of Bucky in these incarnations?

Well, Neal was point man on that. He was like a pit bull in polyester. Golden and I got a lot of design input on that stuff. They had other people try to do it, but they mostly didn't get it. The Nintendo people really did a bang-up job on the game. I was mondo impressed. Back when the Knitting Factory was on Houston Street, they had a Bucky arcade game there. How cool is that?

The story for the Bucky O'Hare comic book was left unfinished. Would you like to one day finish the story and see it all in print? Any current plans to get back to it?

I wrote a whole second graphic novel and Golden drew a big chunk of it. Big battles with Toad Battle Groups, the Toad invasion of San Francisco, Willy dueling it out with Toadborg. It's all sitting in a flat file at Continuity. Neal never stopped working on Bucky. If you go to the Continuity site he's got CG animation up!

Iron Fist was a character you illustrated for "Marvel Premiere." Was this book your first solo effort as a penciller?

I think my first pencil job was for DC's "Secrets of the Sinister House." It was an eight-pager inked by Neal. I also did a B&W job for one of the Marvel horror books that was inked by the Crusty Bunkers, but the pages were stolen from the Marvel office before the job was shot and printed!

You moved to editing for first DC and then Marvel years later. Do you prefer writing over editing? Do you feel that having worked as an artist and writer helped you in your abilities as an editor?

Being an editor is a lot of agro. The most rewarding part of being an editor is passing on what you know. It's a two-way street. In order to teach anything, you have to codify the process and understand how it's done. 90% of learning any craft is peeling away all the layers of procrastination and delusion that keeps you from getting down to brass tacks. I learned this from Neal. He was like, "just draw the damn thing already!" Most editors will tell you "love your stuff, we'll call you!" and you never hear from them again. I would spend an hour explaining what I thought the deficiencies were and how to correct them. Most of the time that created a Gollum reaction- "we hates you forever!" If they came back, I probably gave them a job. I had established rates at Marvel for writing, penciling, inking, lettering and coloring. Knowing how to do all the tasks yourself helps you to clearly see the big picture.

For the majority of comics readers, when they think GI Joe they think Larry Hama. How did the opportunity to write GI Joe first come about?

I've answered this in every single interview. I was the last person they asked. Everybody else had turned it down. I couldn't get any other writing work, so I took it. If they had asked me to write Barbie, I would have done that, too.

When approaching GI Joe, did you have a concept in mind going in, or did Hasbro have a direction they wanted to take? What was the initial process of creating the back-story and story arcs for this series?

Hasbro had no idea what story was. That was why they brought in Marvel. Knowing what you can't do is the best talent to have. Then, you can get somebody who knows how to do it to do it, and you can concentrate on what you do know you can do. I made up the back-story as I went along, mostly as retcon. I never submitted a single story arc beforehand because I never knew how any one given issue was going to end until I got to the last page. When I started drawing/writing "Silent Interlude" ("GI Joe: Real American Hero" #21) I had no idea that both Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow were going to have matching hexagram tattoos.

You wrote the majority of the file cards for the Hasbro toys. What was that process like? Did Hasbro show you figure designs and ask you to create a name and history for the toy? How much input, if any, did they have in the process?

They supplied me with a concept drawing of the figure and some sort of job description. "Missile Specialist" or something like that. Sometimes I changed that as well. They pretty much let me do my thing. I always based the characterization on real people, mostly people I knew or still know, so I had a reference point for nuances and for consistency. In any given circumstance, I knew how my cousin Randy would react, so the touchstone was always there to keep me from bending the character to the will of the plot.

Many of your characters created for the comics saw their way into the toy lines. Was that a rewarding experience to see your characters expand beyond the page into the toys, cartoons, and later film? How did the rights on those characters work out?

Hasbro owns everything. But that was the deal from the getgo. That's fine. It's called "business." I had to create new characters for the comics to hold the stories together or to facilitate storytelling. The Baroness came about because there wasn't a single Cobra character with a visible face! It's sort of hard to have acting going on when nobody has any agents of expression. It was very cool to see the Oktober Guard and Kwinn finally get their figures. I'm still waiting for Bongo The Balloon Bear, though.

"GI Joe" featured soldiers from all areas of combat and expertise from land, sea, air and beyond. Did you have to do extensive research into the different military aspects to try to keep the book somewhat realistic in terms of weapons, combat physics, etc.? Did you have any military consultants you consulted regularly? Any films or documentaries you used for inspiration?

Marvel at that time was a short walk away from a store called Sky Books that was the military book store in New York. The staff there was knew their stuff backwards and forwards. For the current SOPs I usually called the US Army PIO in New York. My friend, the late Lee Russell helped me a lot. He was a vet who a member of the Company of Military Historians and the Association of American Military Uniform Collectors. He wrote a number of books for Osprey Publishing including the terrific "Uniforms of the Vietnam War 2."

Until fairly recently, movies got everything wrong. I saw "Jarhead" with an ex-Marine who complained through the whole show. "They should spread out and keep their intervals! Why are they silhouetting themselves on the ridgeline?" "Bravo Two Zero" is amazingly right on and very detailed, down to poop-disposal in the field. It's about Brit SAS scud-hunters in Iraq during Desert Storm. An older SAS (Aussie) movie that's pretty good is "Odd Angry Shot." Book-wise I would recommend everything ever written by Stephen Ambrose and John Keegan.

One would imagine that the characters of GI Joe must be near and dear to you. Do you have a personal favorite Joe? How about a favorite villain? Is there a character you relate to personally?

Snake-Eyes. Easiest one to write. I like Destro but he's hard to write. I can't say I identify with any of them actually. As a kid, I identified with Huey, Dewey and Louie.

The popularity of characters such as Snake Eyes owe a large part to your giving the characters life through story. What do you think makes Snake Eyes such a fan favorite?

A total bad-ass with a sword and an Uzi -- what's there not to like?

Did you help at all creatively on the cartoon series? Or the upcoming feature film?

Had nothing to do with the animated series. Never actually seen an entire episode. I was on board as a consultant on the movie. I'm seeing the latest cut at the end of May, but I really liked the rough cut I saw in December. Stu Beattie wrote a killer screenplay. Marlon Wayans rocks. Ray Park owns Snake-Eyes. 'Nuff said.

Looking back on the Marvel "GI Joe" series, is there one story in particular you produced that is your absolute favorite?

I liked the two stories that I drew in entirety that were both inked by Steve Leialoha. Other faves are the Mike Golden yearbook story, Ron Wagner's space shuttle story, the Russ Heath issue, Mike Vosberg's Snake-Eyes and Kwinn in the Avro Lancaster story, Mark Bright's Snake-Eyes parachutes into Borovia and kicks butt story, Trimpe's original Oktober Guard two-parter and Don Perlin's Kwinn story ("Real American Hero" #2).

How far ahead did you plot out storylines for "GI Joe" when you were writing the series?

About two or three pages at the most.

Was there any pressure to have the continuity of the comics series of "GI Joe" match the cartoon continuity? Were there any stories or characters in the cartoon that made you cringe?

Not really-until the Cobra La movie. Then, they forced me to kill off Cobra Commander to match up to the movie. I was ready to quit at that point. I mean, how stupid was that?

While at Marvel you also edited "The 'Nam" series. Many war comics have an element of the fantastic involved seemingly to attract readership. Do you think "The 'Nam's" gritty realness is what garnered such a loyal fanbase?

Yes. People were ready for that at that point in time. That sort of surprised me. I had figured that nobody wanted to know what really happens in war. Nobody wants to see the terrible things that happen to ordinary people. But I didn't think there was any other way to do that book. Doug Murray agreed with me, and to his credit, Jim Shooter let us put out the book the way we thought it should be. Doug gave the characters a real humanity that made the whole thing work. These weren't super-soldiers, they were the kids you knew in high school, the guys who pumped gas at the Texaco, the guys who went back to "The World" and sold insurance or managed 7/11s.

My only creative input into the book was to tell Doug that I thought the story should center around ordinary grunts, be told from the squad and platoon POV and happen in real time. He took it from there, and I left him alone, and tried to find the best artists I could. Mr. Golden set a very high mark to follow, but the guys who came later were not too shabby, either. John Severin did an amazing issue. Wayne VanSant put in a tremendous amount of researched detail, and he didn't skimp on the emotional level.

"Wolverine" was another title you wrote for Marvel during your time there. The book's sales were way down when you took over the title but you managed to bring it back from the brink. Did you have plans in mind for the character going into your run on the book?

No, I just took it page-by-page and issue-by-issue. I never really planned out any arcs until later when all the X-writers had to coordinate on big through-stories. Even then, I had no idea how any given issue was going to end. I really don't know any other way to write the stories. The editors let me get away with it back then because when I started out on the books nobody cared about them. Then, when they really got popular, it was too late to fire me.

Was there much creative freedom with "Wolverine?" Or were there directions that the book needed to follow to stay in line with the rest of the X-Men titles?

For the first two years or so, I was left pretty much alone. Then all the X-people had to start going on these yearly weekend retreats where we secluded ourselves at some hotel in the sticks and pounded out what was going to happen in X-continuity for the following year. All I remember about them was that the food was very good. Oh, I used to bring it up at every retreat that the people who drew the books should be included for their input, but since everybody else was primarily a writer, I was always shouted down. I guess I continue to labor under the delusion that comics is supposed to be a visual medium.

"Nth Man" had a ninja element to the series. Is that a character type you like to write about? Is there something about a ninja that is particularly attractive to you creatively?

I'm really more interested in ducks, but they wouldn't let write a duck book. Someday, I'll do a ninja duck book. I think the "Nth Man" was the best thing I ever wrote. It would hold up as graphic novel even today. That's what the initial conception of it was. A 528-page graphic novel broken up into 24 twenty-two-page chapters.

You returned to "GI Joe" during its publishing at Devil's Due. What was it like returning to those characters after so many years? Did you find it difficult to get into that mindset to write those characters again?

They wanted me to do it "old school," and they wanted a detailed 4-issue story arc beforehand. I'm always looking to try something new, so having to do something the way I did it 25 years ago was a drag. Having to pre-think the story structure for four issues and forcing the characters into it was even worse. Although it wasn't anywhere near as bad as my Batman experience, where editorial insisted that the stories were for kids, and they handed me an inch thick binder that was full of stuff I was not allowed to do. Had a different problem with "Generation X" -- there, my directive was to "fix" it. I thought that it was what it was, and if it ain't broke, etc. But I just followed the marching orders. On the Amalgam stuff, I was given pretty free rein and the results showed.

The really terrific thing about taking on a book or a character that nobody cares about is that they let you do whatever you want to do on it- until it becomes successful; then everybody wants to have input into it so they can take part of the credit. Of course, if it tanks, it's all your fault. At Marvel, the sales department would say that the X-books sold like crazy because Sales did a good job of selling it. If a book didn't sell, the Sales Department said it was because Editorial did a lousy job. That's the way of the world, kiddies!

What was your role in the development of Devil's Due book "Spooks?"

Ryan Schifrin had a detailed movie treatment already written. He originally came to me and asked me to write GI Joe-type dossiers (file-cards) for all the characters. Then we started to develop it as a comic. I told Ryan that comics were different than movies and that some stuff would have to be compressed and other stuff expanded to fit the parameters of the medium. He pretty much let me fly with it. I had a bit more input into "Omega Team."

Any future comics projects in the works?

I'm working on a few new and very cool projects with Ryan Schifrin, one of which is called "The Devil's Handshake." A bunch of projects I signed non-disclosure agreements on, so I can't talk about them. I just finished writing the script for the first issue of a new three-issue arc for "GI Joe Origins" - and no, I have no idea what happens in the next two issues. Am having a lot of fun writing "Barack the Barbarian" for Devils Due- so everybody should pre-order at least ten copies as soon as that's possible!

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