The other day, Larry Hama, the original writer of the “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” comic book series from Marvel, was at New York University, where he was introduced as the Asian Pacific American Institute’s Artist-in-Residence.
During his time at the institute he planned on exploring the role of comics in the new digital age. “I’d like to create some sort of anthology web comic that’s sort of a gateway and something that’s interactive,” he said. “Something you participate in and something you can listen to, too. It’s all involved, and it’s all one.”
There was a reception and a panel discussion (this was a comic book event after all) heavily attended by a cross-section of academics, comic book fans and artists, which made for a most interesting Q&A segment.
Knowing is Half the Battle
One man asked Hama if he imagined Snake Eyes, the mysterious ninja in the G.I. Joe series, as Asian before the character was unmasked in a later “origins” series as a blonde, blue-eyed Caucasian dude.
Hama, who wore a black T-shirt and a black suit jacket that seemed to drape over his broad shoulders like a cape, answered with a long explanation about character development before pausing.
“Wow, I completely lost my thread,” he laughed.
“But this is the way I write a comic anyway,” he went on (without missing a beat). “I have no idea what’s going to happen on page 22 until I get to page 21.”
Hama has short-cropped black hair and an expressive face that seems to change entirely with the slightest adjustment in his eyes or mouth.
I have no idea what’s going to happen on page 22 until I get to page 21.
In 1976, the producers of the Stephen Sondheim musical, “Pacific Overtures,” liked his look so much that they called him in to audition. “But I don’t sing or dance,” he recalled telling them. He auditioned, nonetheless, and won the part. He later appeared in the TV shows “M*A*S*H” and “Saturday Night Live.”
He was an editor at Marvel in 1982 when the publisher bought the rights to a new line of G.I. Joe toys produced by Hasbro.
“Toy books at any of the companies were at the bottom of the ladder,” he said at a reception that followed the Q&A. “They were disposable products. Everybody that worked on them was B list or C list.”
Pay rates, he explained, for those involved, from the writers to the artists, were also lower to make up the cost of licensing fees.
“I was the last person they asked. Everybody else turned it down,” said Hama. “I was a full editor, but I couldn’t get writing work. If they had offered me Barbie, I would’ve written Barbie. I didn’t care what it was, as long as it was a job.”
Not About War
Hama, who went on to work on Wolverine and Elektra, among other Marvel titles, said he wasn’t interested in doing a military comic.
“So I focused instead on the characters,” he said. “I decided to make it not about war but about soldiers. And about personal loyalty and about camaraderie and honor and things like that that had fallen by the wayside in other comics. Comics [in the 1980s] had sort of evolved into this anti-hero thing. It was just cool to be sort of against the grain.”
He created such memorable characters as Roadblock, a heavy machine gun specialist who had aspirations of becoming a gourmet chef; Scarlett, a crossbow specialists; and Gung-Ho, the brawny Marine with a knife-fighting past. Hama named them after family and friends and those he served with in Vietnam.
“I don’t care at all about the plot,” he added. “All I care about are the characters, making them walk around and be real.”
The Marvel series ended in October 1994 after 155 issues, far outlasting Hama’s expectations. “I was brought up as a Buddhist and nothing is permanent. I never thought the comic book industry was going to last,” he joked. The characters lived on through other publishers. In 2009, the material was given a movie adaptation, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” which raked in $150 million, and a sequel, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” starring Bruce Willis, is planned for 2012.
“It always amazes me,” said Hama about the characters’ longevity. “I didn’t set out to please the fan boys. I didn’t set out to please the people who write the reviews. But the comic brought people into the shops -- people who would have never gone into comic book shops.”
For more from Richard S. Chang, follow him on Twitter: @r_s_c