Five Stars: How Larry Hama Made Comics History One Issue At A Time
Five Stars is a new interview feature in which Steve Morris looks back over an artist’s career by discussing five of their milestone works.
Since his start working as an assistant in Wally Wood's Manhattan studios, Larry Hama has assumed practically every role imaginable within the medium. From letterer and inker through writer, penciller, editor, Hama has seen the industry from every angle, and considered every aspect of how to make great comics.
Some of his first work was as an editor at Marvel, where he set up base in an infamous office known as 'The Bunker'. A military veteran, it was at Marvel that he first became known for the genre that he would forever be associated with; war stories.
G.I. Joe: An American Hero is his most celebrated work; a sprawling, ambitious run that he wrote and occasionally pencilled. Running for over a hundred issues at Marvel, and now published by IDW, the series introduced a huge cast of characters whose actions had lasting repercussions. That became a feature of Hama's work on comics including Wolverine, Batman, and Elektra, and in more personal projects such as The 'Nam.
Hama's career in comics has spanned more than forty years, not just on the page but also behind the scenes, where he's mentored countless new writers and artists as they make their way through the industry. He continues to redefine the industry and the way people approach comics as a whole.
Published by Marvel Comics
ComicsAlliance: This seems like a hugely important period for you, where you worked as an editor within Marvel’s offices with some of the brightest people in the industry. What’s your take on the editorial role within comics?
Larry Hama: I thought that the editor’s main job was to have good taste. You find the best people and you let them do their thing.
I never rewrote a single word of anybody’s script in all my time as an editor. If a change had to be made, I had the writer do it himself. I was sensitive to this because an editor changed a whole balloon in G.I. Joe #1. The original line was, "A soldier’s job is to do the unthinkable and be forgotten." What was substituted was some jingoistic patriotic crap that I carried the baggage for in silence for 30 years.
The thing was, the editor was just down the hall from me, and he could have walked over and had me change it on the spot. I would have changed it, no prob. Same with art corrections. Best to have the artist do it himself.
But back in those days before jpegs and email attachments, it was a lot harder, and sometimes stuff had to be changed in the office. In that case, I got the best artist I had available who could try at least to mimic the style, or I or my assistant Pat Redding would do it ourselves. The art corrections staff in the bullpen were quite capable, but I wanted the best for my people.
CA: Christopher Priest, known at the time as Jim Owsley, has said he had to deal with a lot of casual racism on a daily basis, and working with you helped him find ways around it. As an Asian American, but also simply as a creative colleague during that period, what was it like day-to-day in that office?
LH: You have to let a lot of casual racism go, since most people aren’t even aware they’re doing it. A lot of Brits don’t comprehend how bad it is to say “chop chop” to an Asian. But you have to set a line, and you don’t let anybody put a single toe over that line.
My office was called the bunker because I had a wall of flat files between me and the door. All the stuff in our office was bogarted because Dorothy, the HR person, didn’t like me, and sent a memo to the effect that I was not to be given any of the primo furniture etc. (I knew this because I suborned the mail room first thing, and bribed them to slip me copies of any inter-office memos about me.)
Owz and I used to sneak up to the 10th floor where all the suits and haircuts worked after hours and steal their furniture. I had a beautiful leather couch we snagged from the CFO’s office. Months later, he came down to talk to me about something and he was sitting on his ex-couch, totally clueless.
When I left editorial, I passed the couch on to Mark Gruenwald.
Owsley and I prevailed against racism just by being there. Most white people don’t know any people of color. They talk to them at work, and they really do think that the black guy who brings around the mail is their friend. But neither Owsley or I ever got invited to the pool parties or social gatherings. Funny about that, huh?
G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero
Writer/Penciller, 1982-1994, 2009-
Published by Marvel Comics (Vol 1), IDW (Vol 2)
CA: There can’t be a question left unasked on your seminal G.I. Joe run. What I find most interesting was your approach to the serialized nature of comics, which followed from G.I. Joe to several other comics you worked on later. You wouldn’t have a grand narrative planned out; you worked issue-to-issue, month-to-month.
LH: There was no plan at all. I really had no idea what was on page three until I finished page two. It’s exciting to work that way. It’s like taking a guitar solo in the middle of a blues song. If you plan it out, it’s going to just lie there. You have to go with what you’re really feeling. Okay, sometimes it sucks. But sometimes you hit some gold. But if you always take the safe route, well, we know where that leads.
Also, I don’t think of stories in words. I’m not a writer, I’m a penciler with a word processor. I see the story as a series of pictures, and when I sit down to “write,” I am just describing the visuals. Dialog comes dead last. Any captions are there to denote place or time, or to cover deficiencies in the drawing.
CA: There was the cartoon, the toys, and all the other media that played into and out of your G.I. Joe stories. Do you think that cross-pollination of media can actually benefit the overall storytelling across the board, or is it restrictive to getting to tell a good story?
LH: I’ve never seen a single episode of any of the animation for G.I. Joe. That was a different universe as far as I was concerned. I have also not read a single issue of G.I. Joe that I didn’t write. I try not to reread my own stories once they go out the door. The toys were my only source material. I tried to keep it pure.
Other writers have killed off characters and introduced new characters. I ignore that. The characters they killed are still living, in my universe, and the new characters don’t exist.
I have to thank the folks at IDW for allowing me to do that. Every other comic universe has been retconned, restarted, and jiggered to death, but my continuity runs in a straight line from issue #1 to the current issue I am working on, which is #234.
CA: The industry finds it very easy to stick people into certain boxes. Having worked on books like G.I. Joe, The 'Nam, and Nth Man, do you find it hard to be considered by publishers for anything but more war stories, at times?
LH: It’s a hard ghetto to break out of. Considering that what I really wanted to do
from the beginning was funny animals. I’m a duck man, like Carl Barks, but nobody was buying. So I did what was around. The closest I got to doing what I really wanted to do was Bucky O’Hare.
Echo Of Futurepast
Writer, 1984, with artist Michael Golden
Publisher: Continuity Comics
CA: How did the opportunity for Bucky O'Hare, who debuted in the Echo of Futurepast anthology, first come about? Do you have similar all-ages/kids comics ideas you'd like to bring to print at some stage?
LH: Back in 1977, when I was an editor at DC Comics, they decided to do a line of creator-owned titles. The asked the editors to come up with stuff, or get freelancers to bring stuff in. Al Milgrom worked up a character he called Firestorm. I had Bucky kicking around on the back-burner for years, along with something I was developing called "Newts," which was post-apocalyptic mutant kids battling toads from outer space. So I mix-mastered the two concepts together and came up with Buck Bunny.
DC started bugging all of us to turn in the material and get it all rolling, but they didn't have contracts. They were like, "the contract will come later, you can trust us." My lawyer was Edmund Preiss (Byron's dad) who was also the attorney that Neal Adams hired to represent [Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster against DC. Mr. Preiss told me "a verbal contract is worth the paper it's written on," and strongly advised me not to hand it in. So I was still sitting on it when the "DC Implosion" sucked me out of my office in the 666 building and deposited me back on the street. Milgrom had handed in the Firestorm material. Guess who owns it now?
Anyhoo --- I'm sitting on this rabbit and duck concept, and had designs and a plot and whole concept about making the characters totally toy-friendly, and proportioned so they could be easily animated. I was going to write and pencil, and Neal was going to ink. We were set to roll when Michael Golden walked in the door, and we were like, "He can do it better than either of us."
Nth Man: The Ultimate Ninja
Publisher: Marvel Comics
CA: Nth Man was a graphic novel, but one originally split up into 20-odd chapters. How did the story come about? Was this something you approached Marvel about, and specifically wanted to create, or did they come to you with a concept?
LH: I wanted to do something really different. To combine mutants with realistic combat and science fiction. They went along with it, but it couldn’t really exist in the Marvel universe because it was a separate reality (the Rinse Cycle) and Marvel had no way to hype it or sell it within their structure, which is based on the interconnectivity of all the characters. That is a very good sales strategy, but limits your product.
I wanted to create some books that were outside the box. Nth Man, Mort The Dead Teenager, Dakota North, and Steeltown Rockers was part of that plan. All were sales duds --- although Mort did get optioned by Dreamworks, and I got to co-write a screenplay before everything crashed and burned.
Later, [Quentin] Tarantino and Madonna got interested in Mort, enough to produce a fake trailer with Jessica Simpson in it... but that’s another long story.
CA: Was it difficult to find ways to break through the corporate structure and tell stories in your own voice, as you got to do with Nth Man, or did you find they were always open to hearing new ideas?
LH: There was a small window where they were completely open to new ideas because management had mortgaged all the characters, and every single long-underwear hero was optioned by somebody or their dead uncle. I went to a meeting and said if Hollywood is willing to plunk down bucks to option The Dazzler and Night Nurse, why the hell don’t we create some new stuff that can be made without expensive special effects? They said, like what for example? Off the top of my head, I said, "Mort the Dead Teenager."
They gave me the greenlight to do four issues and then I had to come up with everything else --- because all I had was the title, which I had made up on the spot.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III
Writer, 2015, with artists including Marcelo Ferreira
Publisher: Dark Horse
CA: Some of your recent latest work outside of G.I. Joe was with the Call of Duty comics. You’re a military veteran yourself, having served at Vietnam. How important was it to you that you had the opportunity to accurately depict life in the military, and perhaps offer readers a more fair view of those serving in the armed forces?
LH: I get hundreds coming up to me and saying that G.I. Joe inspired them to join the service, and I tell them I never said there was glory to be had, and never said they’d get a parade, and never said that anybody but a fellow soldier would ever understand what it’s all about, and they all say, “Yes, we knew all that, and we signed up anyway, and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.” It’s bloody heart-breaking.
CA: Many people have told me that you spend a lot of time now mentoring writers, artists; people who are breaking into comics. Would you say that’s a large part of your general focus now, or do you still have plans for new comics material in years to come, creator-owned or otherwise?
LH: I still work a full day. I’ve never thought I was mentoring anybody. I thought of it as paying back into the stream. Paying it forward. Whatever you want to call it. I got help every step of the way as I was coming up --- artists gave me their precious time, opened doors for me, shared their craft, introduced me to their peers, and welcomed me into their community. The folks who draw comics are fans, and they love to see new talent coming into the pool. There is little jealousy or competition like I see between the writers --- and I’ve seen episodes of writer back-stabbing that would curdle your whey.
Ralph Reese partnered up with me as soon as I got out of the army (I penciled, he inked) and we worked together for many years. He introduced me to Wallace Wood, and I was his assistant on Sally Forth and Cannon. Woody fixed me up with Neal Adams, and I went to work in Continuity Studios, where Neal got me in the door at DC comics by offering to ink a job if they gave me a story to pencil. The list goes on an on. I got to count Gray Morrow, Russ Heath and Herb Trimpe as personal friends. And then, one day, I found myself sitting in an editorial chair, and it was my turn to give back.
And you give back in the same way you received --- by giving your time, and passing on craft and lore. By opening doors, and giving somebody a chance. If you don’t pass it on, you’re a deficient human being, right?
CA: As you’ve said, you’ve had this goal to work on "duck comics" for your entire career. Are you any closer to that goal? Given the opportunity, would you still be interested in working on comics for kids?
LH: I’m not one inch closer to that goal. My dream job has always been to write Uncle Scrooge, but I guess that will never come to pass. I would love to write comics for kids, but I have claw my way out of the military comics ghetto to get there.
Larry Hama is an editor, penciller, inker, letterer, and the writer on IDW's ongoing G.I. Joe: A True American Hero, a continuation of his run with the series at Marvel. He can be found online on his Facebook Page here, and will also be touring conventions through America, Australia and New Zealand through the end of 2016.