A Conversation with Larry Hama
by Brant W. Fowler
I had the distinct pleasure and opportunity to recently interview one of my favorite creators in this medium of comics we all so love. He brought to vivid life in comics these characters I had fallen in love with through action figures and cartoons, taking them in a completely different and very realistic way that maintained the fantasy and wonder of them as well.
I'm of course talking about Larry Hama, who is probably most well known for his long and storied run on the G.I. Joe franchise when Marvel Comics held the license. His credits go far beyond the Real American Heroes, but the Joes are who brought to my attention this wonderful creator.
This was originally intended to be an interview promoting Mr. Hama's appearance at Gem City Comic Con earlier this year, but he had fallen ill and was unable to attend. This weekend, however, Mr. Hama will be a guest at Derby City Comic Con in Louisville, KY on Saturday, June 30th. He will also appear at The Zone Comic Shop today, June 29th in Louisville.
There are few creators and celebrities I get starstruck over or can't wait to meet or talk to. Larry Hama is one of those people as his work served as my full introduction into the world of comics beyond the few I would get here and there as a child. Plus, being a huge G.I. Joe fan and understanding the respect and creativity Mr. Hama showed and gave to those characters has been an inspiration in my own writing.
Without further ado, my conversation with one of the greats, Mr. Larry Hama...
Brant Fowler: First, thank you for taking the time to speak with me, I am a huge fan of your work. But for those not as familiar, let's start with how you got into comics as a fan, specifically what drew you to this particular medium of storytelling?
Larry Hama: I wasn't an active fan as such. Never went to conventions, never collected comics as "collectible artifacts." As a kid I read Uncle Scrooge by Carl Barks, Looney Tunes, Harvey Comics, Little Lulu, Superman, Batman, Turok, Mad, Help! and then I lost interest until I got to high school. I had friends at the High School of Art and Design* who were into comics, and I started meeting actual cartoonists through one of them. This was how I first met Wallace Wood and Roy Krenkel. One of my teachers @ A&D was Bernie Krigstein, one of the most influential artists that ever came out of EC Comics.
*The High School of Art & Design (formerly, The School of Industrial Arts) in New York City has an alumni list that includes Neal Adams, Gil Kane, Calvin Klein, Dick Giordano, Joe Jusko, Michael Davis, Tony Bennett, Michael Carlin, Harvey Fierstein, Joe Rubinstein, Jack Abel, Ralph Reese, Frank Brunner, etc etc.
BF: Those familiar with your writing may not be aware that you actually started off as an artist. What was your first hired or sold comic work and some of your other pencilled or inked work?
LH: I sold my first cartoon to Castle of Frankenstein Magazine when I was 16. I worked in a studio drawing shoes for catalogues, and drew for undergrounds in the '60s for Gothic Blimp Works and OZ. When I got out of the army I worked in a studio with Ralph Reese doing comics and illustration for Skywald, CTW, Esquire and early NatLamp. I then worked for Wally Wood as his assistant and traded off scripting Sally Forth and Cannon for him in Overseas Weekly. My first credited comic book penciling job was an 8-pager for DC's Secrets of the Sinister House that was inked by Neal Adams. My first monthly comic gig was penciling Iron Fist in Marvel Premier.
BF: How did your career transition into an editorial position at DC, and later into writing? Was G.I. Joe the first series you wrote for, or had you written previous works?
LH: I took a year off comics to be an actor, and when I got back to NYC after the west coast tour of Pacific Overtures, I was offered an editing gig at DC along with Al Milgrom during their "Explosion." I always had a lot of trouble getting writing work because the editors kept saying, "you're an artist, you can't write." When I was editing CRAZY @ Marvel I had special dispensation to write the Young Master series for editor Weezie Jones at Warren because I could prove that every editor at Marvel refused to give me writing work. GI Joe was the first time anybody had offered me a monthly book to write, so I jumped at the chance. As I've said before, if they had offered me Barbie I would have taken it gladly.
BF: You are probably most known for your work on G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, the licensed Hasbro property published by Marvel Comics. You've gone on record to say you got the job because nobody else wanted it. Were you a fan of the property at all beforehand?
LH: I knew nothing about it. Never had one of the 12 inch figures. I was too old by the time they came out. I was basically a funny-animal guy and ha-ha guy.
BF: With G.I. Joe, you managed to take a toy-based property that others passed on and make it something far more than just a comic about action figures. You gave it depth, realism, grit and heart. Was it your intention to take that approach from day one, and how was it working with Hasbro? Did they buck against any of the directions you were taking it? It just seems that given the property's origins Hasbro might have been hesitant to allow it to go into some of the areas you ultimately took it.
LH: I didn't take into a pre-thought-out direction because I didn't have one. I just told the stories the only way I knew how. I don't think Hasbro really cared about any of that other stuff as long as I got all the vehicles and figures into the story. NOBODY figured on the toy line going beyond two or three years and nobody at Marvel expected the comic to go into a second year.
BF: If I'm not mistaken, you have a background in martial arts. How much did that come into play when writing characters like Snake Eyes and Stormshadow, and eventually the various ninja characters that basically took over the series in the later days of the run? You really made a very rich story with those characters in particular and delved into a lot of their back history throughout the run. I'm just curious if any of your personal experiences or expertise played into that at all.
LH: Some of the characters are based on people I knew through martial arts. The character of Dr. Yagyu in Nth Man is based on my Zen archery teacher.
BF: One of the most talked about G.I. Joe stories, and comic stories in general, was issue #21, the Silent Interlude. It was a masterfully done issue done with no dialogue that really highlighted that special quality that sets apart sequential storytelling, and you actually did the layouts on. What was your motivation to do a story like this, and was it met with any trepidation at all from editorial or Hasbro?
LH: There was a scheduling glitch and I had to make up the lost time. That's all it was. By not having the book lettered and having me write and draw simultaneously (I did it in three days) we were able to pare three weeks off the schedule. Nobody objected to the comic shipping on time.
BF: As the Marvel run of the title began winding down it almost became apparent it was heading toward an end given some of the material at that time. Specifically with the Transformers connection, was that forced on you to incorporate that, and how did that affect the story you were telling?
LH: Inserting the Transformers was no more onerous than anything else. Probably less so than Eco-Warriors or whatever that was. I didn't see that giant transforming robots was any weirder than Raptor or Dr. Mindbender.
BF: Were you surprised to hear about the Marvel run ending, or was that something you expected at that time. If I recall correctly, it came about right about the time the comics boom had died and things were looking dismal for comics in general.
LH: It was ten years longer than I expected it to run.
BF: Deviating from G.I. Joe for a minute as I do want to get back to it, I did want to ask you about one other particular comic run you are known for. That being, of course, Wolverine, which I believe you wrote on and off for 8 years? Like G.I. Joe, you landed the gig because no one else wanted it, you've said. Again, were you a fan of Wolverine prior, and what had you set out to do with the character from the onset?
LH: I wasn't familiar with the character at all. Had to take all the X-Assistants to lunch and pump them. "What do you like best about Wolverine?" Etc. I read the Chris Claremont, Barry Smith and Frank Miller iterations of the character and totally ignored everything else. What I wanted to explore about the character was his moral and ethical core.
BF: You were on the Wolverine title during some pivotal moments in the character's existence. What was your favorite issue or arc you did on the title?
LH: I'm discalculic, so I can't remember numbers- the issue where he's on the Blackbird going back to earth after the Adamantium got sucked out of him, and he writes the letter to Jubilee.
Snake Eyes or Wolverine
LH: The guy with the Adamantium claws and mutant healing factor.
BF: Bucky O'Hare or Maverick
BF: Scarlet or Elektra
BF: Going back to G.I. Joe, you not only wrote the comics, but you've been very involved with writing for the toy line and the various incarnations of animated series. How did that all come about? I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed poring over every detail on the back of the action figure packages when I was younger reading the bios of each character.
LH: I wrote "dossiers" for all the characters before I started writing the first script because I knew there were going to be many more characters if it went into a second year, and I needed a way to keep track of the characterizations. Somebody from Hasbro saw the dossiers and decided that abbreviated versions would be nice on the backs of the packages.
BF: Also, is it true that Tunnel Rat was based on your likeness? I was surprised to read that as he was my favorite of that particular new batch of characters at the time.
LH: I posed for the sculptor on that one. He's the guy who sculpted the dove for the VISA cards.
BF: In the early 2000s, Devil's Due got the Hasbro license and revived the property in comic book form. I know you did a Declassified miniseries for them, but were you consulted at all for the main title? Obviously they took the book in a different direction, shooting it forward seven years from when the Marvel run ended. Were you a fan of what they did with the series at all?
LH: I've never read any of those stories. Have never read any GI Joe material I did not write, nor have I seen any of the animated shows. Haven't read Wolverine since I stopped writing it.
BF: More recently, IDW picked up the license and has been publishing a number of G.I. Joe based titles, including G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, which picked up right where you left off in the Marvel run. How did that come about, and were you excited about returning to these characters and picking them back up, almost like you never left them? And had the story you wanted to tell from that point on changed at all, or did you just dive in and hit the ground running?
LH: I just picked the thread back up and kept going.
BF: Do you have an end in sight for your tale of these beloved characters, or do you not look that far ahead?
I don't know what's on page 2 of a story until I finish page 1. Always been that way.
BF: Are there any teasers or information you can give us about upcoming arcs or events within the series, or anything at all G.I. Joe related that you're involved with?
LH: Haven't been able to provide teasers ever. Because of the answer to [the previous question]. I don't know what's coming until I get there.
BF: What other projects are you currently working on or have upcoming that you can talk about?
LH: I can't talk about any of them.
BF: Are you still drawing, and is there any chance of you writing and drawing a title in the near future?
LH: I spend most of my time drawing. Always have.
BF: Thank you so much for your time, I hope the day comes when I can meet you in person finally. Thanks for all the great stories you've told over the years and being one of the reasons I am a comic fan.
Larry Hama is best known as writer of the Marvel Comics licensed series G.I. Joe, based on the Hasbro line of military action figures. Hama said in a 2006 interview that he was given the job by then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter after every other writer at Marvel had turned it down. Hama at the time had recently pitched a Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. spin-off series, Fury Force, about a daring special mission force. Hama used this concept as the back-story for G.I. Joe. He included military terms and strategies, Eastern philosophy, martial arts and historical references from his own background. The comic ran 155 issues (Feb. 1982-Oct. 1994).
From 1986-1993, Hama edited the acclaimed comic book The 'Nam, a gritty Marvel series about the Vietnam War. Additionally, he wrote the 16-issue Marvel series Nth Man: The Ultimate Ninja (August 1989-September 1990), concerning the adventures of John Doe, an American ninja and Special Forces commando in an alternate reality in which World War III is sparked after the world's nuclear weapons stockpiles are all destroyed. Hama also edited a relaunch of Marvel's black-and-white comics magazine Savage Tales, overseeing its change from sword-and-sorcery to men's adventure.
Other comics Hama has written include Wolverine, Before the Fantastic Four: Ben Grimm and Logan, and the X-Men brand extension Generation X for Marvel; and Batman stories for DC Comics. He wrote filecards for Hasbro's line of sci-fi/police action figures, C.O.P.S. 'n' Crooks and contributed to the relaunch of the G.I. Joe toy line and comic book in 2000.
While working at Neal Adams' Continuity Associates, Hama developed a series he first created in 1978,Bucky O'Hare, the story of a green anthropomorphic rabbit and his mutant mammal sidekicks in an intergalactic war against space amphibians, which went on to become a comic, cartoon, video game and toy line.
In 2006, Osprey Publishing announced that Hama would write its "Osprey Graphic History" series of comic books about historical battles, including the titles The Bloodiest DayóBattle of Antietam and Surprise AttackóBattle of Shiloh (both with artist Scott Moore) and Island of TerroróBattle of Iwo Jima (with Anthony Williams). That same year, Hama returned to his signature characters with the Devils Due Publishing miniseries G.I. Joe Declassified, which chronicled the recruitment of the squad's first members by General Hawk. In 2007, the company added the spin-off series Storm Shadow, written by Hama and penciled by Mark A. Robinson.
(From the Derby City Comic Con website's Creator page)
Brant W. Fowler / Writer, Letterer, Reviewer, Columnist, Podcaster, Partner/COO/Site Manager of Comic Related
Brant W. Fowler has been a professional comic book writer, editor, flatter, letterer and logo designer for several years, and has been a freelance editor for the past five years or so. He is one of the cast members and host of the Zone 4 podcast here at Comic Related, and he letters some of the webcomics on the site. You can see samples of his works and how to hire him at Gonzogoose Design and Just-Flats.net. And catch up with him on his forums right here at CR. Brant is also a member of the core operations team at Comic Related.
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