Interview with Larry Hama
In December 1997, Larry Hama graciously allowed us to interview him and ask him a few questions about his involvement with G.I.Joe. Most of us knew that Hama had written the G.I.Joe comic book by Marvel Comics between 1982 and 1994, but his involvement also included writing the filecards that were packaged with every nearly every G.I.Joe action figure.
In addition to G.I.Joe, Larry Hama wrote for such books as the Nth Man and Wolverine. Larry Hama is currently the scripter on Elektra, published monthly by Marvel Comics.
Q: Can you describe how you got involved with the G.I.Joe comic book?
I was working at Marvel as the editor of Crazy magazine. I had a special dispensation from Jim Shooter to write for Warren comics, since I demonstrated that I had gone to every single editor at Marvel and none of them were willing to give me any writing work. Marvel had a deal with Hasbro to produce the G.I. Joe comic and they went to every editor and writer they had and they all passed on the project. I was the last person they asked, and obviously their last choice. It took me about another eight years of writing G.I. Joe before I was able to convince another editor at Marvel that maybe I could write some other genre. The only reason I got to write Wolverine was because the sales had dropped off so severely that it was next in line to being canceled.
Q: What were your impressions when writing the first issues? Did you have
any idea that you'd be writing about these characters for the next twelve years? Did you have any idea that G.I.Joe would become one of the best selling books at Marvel Comics for many years?
Not a clue. We all figured the book would last two years at the most.
was the average for a toy tie-book at the time. I think Transformers is the only other toy book that came close.
Q: Since G.I.Joe was the first comic book to be sold on television with animated commercials, some of those storylines had to have been thought up months in advance. Case in point - the commercial for G.I.Joe #11. Did you have to turn in your story months in advance in cases like this? Or were you told that "The commercial's going to have Doc and Snow Job on a snowmobile being chased by Viper Gliders. Write around that."
The cover was generated after the book was drawn! The final tag on the
commercials when they showed the cover was an easy insert that was done at the last minute. I think all four commercials for any given season were all done at the same time. I was simply told what characters and what vehicles to use and given a general idea about what happens in the commercial. I did the cover sketches for just about every issue of G.I. Joe well up into the 100s.
Q: The writers of the cartoon had many of their stories essentially dictated to them by Griffin/Bacal and Hasbro. "Sell this figure and this vehicle." Did you have any such interference? If not, how'd you get around it?
I didn't get around it. I was always told what new characters and vehicles to push. I had to figure out a way to make it all work into the storyline.
Q: How much freedom did you have with your storylines? Anything you remember that was struck down, either by your editors or by Griffin/Bacal?
I had much more interference at first, but by the time I was into the third year, I was the only person who knew who all the characters were and nobody else was taking the time to read all the back issues and try to keep up with the complex storyline. In the very first issue, I wrote a scene where Hawk is briefing the Joes for the mission to rescue Burkhart, and he tells them rather succinctly that "a soldiers job is to do the unthinkable and be forgotten." The editor excised this line and substituted some jingoistic, right wing rant that I have had to live with ever since. At that point I made it quite clear that I should have first whack at any corrections!
Q: Can you describe how you got involved in writing filecards for the characters? Did you write most or all of the filecards between 1982 and 1994?
I did the file cards from the very beginning. In fact, it was my idea to do the file cards. I never actually intended them to be printed on the backs of the packages, I just did them (much more detailed!) for my own reference. I think I wrote just about every file card for the Joes except for Crystal Ball which was written by Stephen King's son. (That's a long story!)
Q: I remember during the time of the daily syndicated Sunbow cartoon that there were always rumors at comic book cons that you were going to write one of the cartoons. Denny O'Neil wrote one - were you ever approached or did you ever plan on writing one of them?
I did four "springboards", but that was as far as it went. They did not think I was a good enough writer to do Saturday morning.
A little different direction here. I'd like to ask you about certain characters, how they came about, and what you thought of them.
Q: Snake Eyes and Stormshadow - Is there any light you can shed about how they were created, what you had in mind with them, and what you liked about them? Was there any concern about creating an "assassin" action figure?
Snake-Eyes was always a mystery man from the very beginning. The first figure concept was so VAGUE and nondescript that I HAD to come up with a really cool back story for him. When Storm Shadow came along, it seemed natural to tie their histories together. Actually, Al and Tipper Gore were the models for Snake-Eyes and Scarlett. NOT! Sorry, just couldn't resist that one. Snake-eyes is loosely based on Sgt. Bob Light of the 1st Air Cav, God bless him, wherever he is. Ron Wagner claimed that his version of Storm-Shadow was based on me. Suffice to say, that Rons version is idealized and flattering!
Q: Baroness - She was around in the comic long before she became an action figure. Was she solely your creation later made into the popular action figure? How many characters did Hasbro produce an action figure from after you conceptualized the character? Which ones?
I can't think of many others. They did some weird versions of Oktober Guard figures. I think Red Star was actually based on Brekhov. The reason I created Baroness was that all the Cobra characters that Hasbro designed had masks covering their entire faces. That may be desirable in a toy, but it certainly doesn't work in a comic where you have to have ACTING going on.
As I've met and talked with other G.I.Joe fans online, I've found that the deaths of certain characters really bring out the most questions.
Q: The Oktober Guard - People _loved_ these guys. I mean really loved, to the point that they started writing Hasbro asking for action figures of them and got them an appearance on the Sunbow cartoon. Were you surprised that people liked them? Was their popularity a factor when you wrote the storyline with their demise? Or did you have another reason to have them meet their demise?
I really like the Oktober Guard characters and it would have been really nice to have seen some accurate figures, but such is life. After a while, I started "cleaning house" and getting rid of characters that were never going to have figures or were just plain uninteresting or unpopular. When you a dealing with a continuity that involves over two hundred characters, you have to start trimming or you go crazy. I thought it was pretty unrealistic to kill off all the unpopular characters, so I decided to terminate a few that I actually liked with extreme prejudice. That was how Doc ended up on the casualty roll.
Q: The characters that died in the Trucial Abysmia in issue #109. This was really shocking - especially considering that Joes didn't die very often and that some of these characters had been around for a _long_ time. What was there a reason behind their deaths? Was it to appease the "make it more realistic" fans? Was it to thin out ridiculous or boring characters - like BattleForce2000? If that was the case, where was the gory death of Tomax and Xamot?
I thought it was actually more realistic to have a lot of Joes buy the farm at once. That's the way it usually works in combat. Things go real slow and boring and then wham. It's a bit more shocking.
Q: Can you briefly describe the sudden end of the comic? Looking back on it, the editor at the time, Mike Lackey, seemed to be dropping hints that the book was going to be cancelled. Did it come down from Hasbro or from Marvel? Were you ready to take on a new writing gig, or was it disappointing to see such a great book go down?
The decision to cancel the book came from Marvel. Sales had really fallen off considerably, it was impossible to keep a decent artist on the book, and there was no support from Marvel sales on it. There was a very fickle readership as well. Kids who were nine or ten when they started reading the title got to be eleven and all of a sudden the perception of G.I. Joe being a "kiddie" book set in. Even if they continued to like the story line, peer pressure forced them to drop the title. I never felt like I was "writing down" to a kid level. Even if I was stuck with some silly characters, I tried to write stories that I would have liked to read myself. I've been told by a number of people that they thought that G.I. Joe and Uncle Scrooge were two comics that were perceived to be for kids, but were really for adults. Conversely, IMHO, I think that just about every comic I have ever seen that was labeled "For Adults" was egregiously juvenile drivel.
Q: Unlikely as it may seem, if the GI Joe comic were to return and you were asked to once again tell GI Joe's story, would you be interested or do you consider that part of your career permanently behind you?
Only if I had complete freedom to do it my way, and that ain't ever gonna happen.
Q: Lastly, do you own any of the G.I.Joe toys? Any particular favorites? Any hanging around by your computer?
I have the original Snake-Eyes, Scarlett, Stormy, CC, Destro and Baroness sitting on my monitor along with Albert the Alligator, the Dragon Ball kid, Uncle Scrooge, Mr. Natural and Dead-Eye Duck.