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G.I. Joe Comics: The Amazing World and Life of Larry Hama

G.I. Joe: Retaliation makes its theatrical debut on June 29th, with plenty of licensed G.I. Joe comics on the way from IDW Publishing to greet it. Though the first movie wasn’t that well-reviewed, it was still highly watched, and the excitement over the sequel has grown steadily since the undeniably awesome Superbowl trailer. Before the fervor builds to a level that goes on to devour the earth and stars, let’s take a moment to appreciate the work of the man who made the whole G.I. Joe phenomenon possible: artist and writer Larry Hama.

Go to enough “How to Write Comics” panel discussions and you’re sure to hear several pieces of advice over and over again: how to build a plot, create complete characters, dramatic rise and blah blah blah everything else you should realistically already know. The most important piece of advice is the one that only comes up at the best panels: go live a life. Go out into the world and learn and experience things, so you’ll actually have something to write about. For living proof, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example in comics than Larry Hama.

Reading Hama’s Wikipedia page will make you feel pitiful and unimportant, and not just for relying on Wikipedia. Here’s a man who has been a writer, artist, editor, veteran, actor, musician, political activist, and martial artist who studied judo, Japanese archery and swordmanship. Hama attended the prestigious Manhattan High School of Art and Design, where he had the opportunity to learn under one of comic art’s first true masters, Bernie Krigstein, he served a tour in Vietnam as an explosive ordinance expert for the Army Corps of Engineers.After discharge, he worked as a graphic artist, actively participated in New York’s burgeoning Asian artistic community, and joined EC legend Wally Wood’s studio, assisting on strips like Cannon and Sally Forth.

After a stint as an inker in Neal Adams’ famed Continuity Associates studio, Hama went on to succeed Gil Kane as penciler on Marvel Premiere‘s “Iron Fist” feature, beginning his long association with martial arts-related characters. And in between all of that, he appeared on Saturday Night Live, M*A*S*H, and the original Broadway production of a Stephen Sondheim musical. I can’t even drive stick.

Eventually, Hama seemed to find his true calling as a writer/editor. After spending the late ’70s with DC Comics, he jumped to Marvel in 1980. When Hasbro sought to relaunch the G.I. Joe franchise in 1981-82, they partnered with Marvel for a licensing strategy that included toys, cartoons, and comics. Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter recalled a Nick Fury project Hama had pitched that drew heavily on his own military background… after everyone else Shooter offered the project to had passed on it. Which is insane. These days, it’s practically aneurysm-inducing to imagine anyone but Hama steering the ship, as he was the absolute perfect choice.

 

Working closely with Hasbro in character creation, Hama injected his own life experience and diverse interests into the franchise, a gave it a life, humor, and purpose that transcended the military appeal. A very unique congregation of influences went into Hama’s work on G.I. Joe. Hama possessed an extensive military knowledge and one tour as a bomb expert in Vietnam. He was also raised Buddhist. He seemed to embrace that dichotomy in the creation of several characters and the yin-yang architecture of Joe and Cobra. (Cobra and Cobra Commander were the legendary Archie Goodwin’s ideas, but Hama did the rest.)

He named characters after men he served with, some of whom died in service. He gave the Joes rich backstories and vibrant personalities to go along with their specialties and service records – several characters had even served in Vietnam. Hasbro’s 3 3/4″ wartoys were transformed into fascinating people with complex biographies, all through their compelling file cards, most of which were written by Hama. In a relatively short time, G.I. Joe became one of the most successful toy lines of all time.

Hasbro’s G.I. Joe resurrection went beyond the toys, of course. The Marvel/Sunbow-produced animated series elicited near-religious afterschool followings. Though there were some decent stories, the compromise that was necessary to make a children’s show dulled the potential that the action figures and file cards offered. Though the toys came with guns modeled after actual weapons, in the cartoons they fired antiseptic lasers that just seemed to knock Vipers from their vehicles. No one ever died, they just got a few scrapes and occasionally fell into comas, which they always came out of. Hama’s comic books bore little similarities.

 

Marvel’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, pretty much entirely written by Hama for 155 issues and occasionally drawn by him, went much, much farther than the animated series. It was life and death combat in the comic books. Guns fired bullets. Characters that readers had emotional ties to like Quick-Kick and Doc were blown to Hell, because Joes were soldiers and often, soldiers die. Cobra Commander, portrayed as a buffoon in the animation, was a frightening aggregation of radical fundamentalist and corporate terrorist.

Hama’s G.I. Joe run brought a depth and realism to the concept that the cartoons could never hope to achieve. Even with that seriousness, it still managed to be funny, soulful, and emotionally complex. Characters felt the tension of combat and broke it with humor, got into squabbles and romantic entanglements and interacted just as entertainingly as the Chris Claremont-written X-Men.

His run developed the rough sketches of the file cards into sculptures, complete characters who continued to grow and change throughout the series. Joes like Roadblock, Dusty, and Scarlet were sent through emotional wringers; even Cobras like Destro and Zartan were given depth and internal conflict, even positive traits like courage and loyalty. Devastating plot twists and shocking reveals awaited around every corner. Like all those boys and girls throughout the 1980s staging megafights with their action figures, Hama played with his toys, but in a way that made them fight and love and hate and die.

 

The most iconic character in G.I. Joe is without a doubt Snake Eyes. The soldier with blood on his hands and ghosts in his head, the white ninja with a past draped in shadows, the man without a face or a voice, Snake Eyes was the central character in many of the comic book’s classic stories, including issue 21, “Silent Interlude.” Touted on the cover as “The Most Unusual G.I. Joe Story Ever!!” (it was 1984), it featured Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, and Scarlet in a totally wordless story written and drawn by Hama that is both exciting and serene. A pop ballet that was later recognized as the best issue of the series, this sterling example of visual rhythm and pacing influenced its own genre, and helped make silent issue superhero comics a fairly regular occurrence.

The series was forward-thinking and ahead of its time in so many ways. Hama fearlessly explored militias and misplaced American outrage, the psychology of the soldier and the cracked worldview of the fundamentalist for twelve years. The toy franchise’s popularity peaked and crested in the eighties, and waned into the nineties. Hasbro seemed to think that ridiculous day-glo costumes fake weapons were the wave of the future, and they definitely were not. The toys got dumb, the cartoons got even worse, hurt by a startling loss of military authenticity. But the comic books were still good up to the end in 1994, when Marvel canceled the title and the Joes were decommissioned. Marvel let the license lapse.

 

Over the next few years, the rights to produce G.I. Joe comics bounced from Dark Horse to a company called Benchpress Comics, who planned to relaunch the whole franchise with Larry Hama writing once again. Good plan, but you have to not go bankrupt to publish comics, which proved more problematic. In 2001, Devil’s Due acquired the rights and began publishing, first through Image, stories that picked up the G.I. Joe story in real time, seven years after decommission. Though Hama was not initially involved with Devil’s Due’s reinstatement, he was lured back into the fray for G.I. Joe: Frontline, G.I. Joe: Declassified, and seven issues of Storm Shadow.

When the license jumped once again, this time to IDW in 2009, it seemed almost a foregone conclusion that Hama needed to be involved. Hama writes the ongoing G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, which picks up in numbering, continuity and in spirit right where the first series left off, and has contributed arcs to other series in IDW’s G.I. Joe line. Meanwhile, IDW continues to publish reprints of the original Marvel series.

Larry Hama put so much of himself into G.I. Joe, it seems ridiculous to think of them existing independently from one another. Like Tomax without Xamot (which actually happened, didn’t it?). Other imaginations went into G.I. Joe’s formation, and other writers have done good work in the universe. But all those bits and pieces of Hama’s life and philosophy and personality are what binds the whole damn thing together. Now that his creations are venturing to the big screen and being revamped, his work is poised to influence a new generation, to temper their sense of right and wrong, and foster their imagination. It’s a remarkable creative achievement.

And if Hama brings Bucky O’Hare back, I’m just going to s*** my pants.

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