Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Larry Hama: All About Character

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

    Larry Hama lives in the type of New York apartment you see in movies: steel staircases, open spaces, and large windows in a loft-like living room. A friendly pug comes up to me (“She’s an old lady,” Larry jokes. She’s twelve.) and periodically drops a pink toy bone for me to toss for her the hour Larry and I sit at his kitchen table and talk comics and writing.

    Hama and his wife moved to Tribeca twenty years ago, about after Larry’s successful run on pop culture defining G.I. Joe was winding down, and back when the neighborhood was desolate (a large black and white picture in his building’s lobby is testimony: the building sticks out from a snowy landscape of empty lots, few buildings, and a small number of cars). Now it’s booming with shops, bodegas, and lots of students milling about.

    Hama himself is about as unassuming as the building in that black and white photograph: wearing a black t-shirt and jeans, he’s a man of few words until you really get him talking, at which point he periodically bursts into a good-natured laugh. Hard to believe this is the same man who’s been everything from an actor, a rock guitarist (a guitar case flanks the hardwood floor no more than a few feet from us), and the virtual creator of the G.I. Joe toy line and comic book series (155 issues in all).

    You’d think he’d have a swelled head, and that he’d be railing on his own greatness and contributions to contemporary pop culture.

    Not so: this man with spurts of gray showing in his close-cropped black hair is as Zen about Joe as one of the ninja masters in his comics.

“I don’t call myself an artist: that’s an appellation, and not a job title…[I consider myself] a drawer. It’s like people who call themselves poets who are possibly a little presumptuous,” Larry laughs. “Writer’s so innocuous a term that I don’t really think of myself as a writer. I’m still the guy who draws the stuff, but I just draw it in my head now and describe the pictures with words.”

That’s it: This man who’s written hundreds of comic books (including a decade plus run on G.I. Joe, as well as a stint on Wolverine), countless file cards on the backs of the Joe figures, and has drawn several comics (while learning from legendary artists/drawers in their own right), is merely a drawer of words.
The word “cool” is an old slang term that jazz musicians used to define a detachment from one’s work.

In that case, Hama is definitely cool.

“I was into comics the same way everybody else was into comics. When I was a kid, everybody I knew had comics. It wasn’t just the weird kid,” Larry points out about his New York childhood. “Comics were this universal, and every kid I knew had a stack of comics. Comics were one of the two or three items of kid capital. You had your comics and your toys and your baseball cards.

“You could actually trade them and they had intrinsic value. You could put them on your wagon, go down the block, and then swap. Even girls had comics.

“All my girl cousins had stacks of Little Lulus, Archies, and Harvey Comics. The thing that didn’t get through to publishers was that if you’ve got three or four kids in a household, and one kid gets it, then all of the other kids see it. No matter what it is, they’ll all probably read it, even if it’s not meant for their gender, because it’s there…Comic books, for a long time when they were really a kid’s medium, had some of the highest pass-along rates of anything.

“I remember, as a kid, going to the local barbershop and there were comics in that barbershop that were dated from World War II. They were ragged, but they were still readable and covered with little hairs. They had Blackhawk issues where they were fighting Nazis, and they had a big stack because a lot of their clientele were kids, and they never threw them away. You’d get a Jimmy Olsen, but then in the middle of it there’d be a Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge, or a Blackhawk, or a Captain America, some real treasures. You can imagine how many kids read those comics.

    “People buy a comic now and put it in a bag, and not even one person reads it. It’s a completely different medium.”

    Like other kids, Larry Hama grew up with a desire to pursue art – not comic book art specifically – but art. His entry into the High School of Art and Design put him in touch with a comics visionary who, at that point, had left the medium.

“The High School of Art and Design was a public specialized high school, where you had to pass a test to get into,” Larry recalls. “There were schools you could go to to learn how to be a cook, like the High School of Food Trade, the High School of Printing, and in Queens they even still have the High School of Aviation, where they actually take apart airplanes. High School of Art and Design was a commercial high school where they taught illustration, animation, photography; a huge number of New Yorkers who went into the comic book business came out of that school, like Neal Adams and Gil Kane. Whole generations of them came out of there.”

While there, the young Larry had former EC Comics cartoonist Bernie Krigstein as an Illustration teacher. Krigstein, known for his fluid and organic, kinetic style of art, drew some of the more memorable stories for the 1950s company, particularly the suspense story “Master Race”, a testimony to his cinematic pacing and sense of atmosphere.

“[Bernie] had a really distinctive way of teaching,” Larry notes. “He tried to get stuff out of you in a very natural way, rather than dictating rote. We were required to turn in sketchbooks every week, and after one week I turned in a sketchbook that only had one drawing. Bernie said ‘This is one drawing.’

    “‘Well, I worked on it for one whole week.’

    “He said one of the most important things anyone has ever said to me, which was ‘You have to do 500,000 really sucky drawings before you do your first really good one. So, if I were you, I’d get those 500,000 sucky ones out of the way as soon as I could.’ What he was basically telling me was a bunch of things: that your stuff isn’t precious, and if it’s not working to go onto the next one, and to not get stuck doing the stuff, but to keep doing it and taking chances. You don’t get any better playing the piano by going C,C,C,C,C. You have to take the next steps and that’s very important. There aren’t a lot of teachers out there that strive to open those specific doors of perception. They’re intrinsic about creating the methodology in which you create stuff.”

    After a tour in Vietnam, Larry returned stateside, and fell into working in comics with an old classmate, Ralph Reese. From there, other jobs came and went, including a stint as assistant to cartoonist Wally Wood. Wood carved a niche for himself on the EC Comics’ science-fiction titles (such as Weird Science), later developing the cult T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents characters and comics for ‘60s publisher Tower Comics. His style has a gloss over a certain stiffness in character, all beautifully rendered and highly detailed.

“Even somebody who was a real genius, like Wally Wood, had such a bad self-image and such a lack of confidence that he felt compelled to add all this stuff to make up for what he thought was his lack of drawing skill,” admits Larry. “I go ‘Wow,’ this guy could really draw, but in his own mind he was comparing his draftsmanship to Al Williamson or Hal Foster, or Alex Raymond who could draw really naturalistic gesture and it looked really right. Their draftsmanship is impeccable and he felt like his stuff was always stiff, because he was a constructionist and these other guys weren’t: they were gesturalists.

“There’s an intrinsic place where this stuff comes from:” he further explains. “You have gesturalists and constructionists, and a constructionist tends to make the stuff look stiffer, so the constructionists tend to load on the detail and make everything precise. You get this anal retentiveness. You don’t have to be super-realistic to be a constructionist. Herge, the guy who did Tintin, was a manic constructionist, and Alex Toth is the opposite. With Alex Toth it’s all the gesture. People are always, in their heads, trying to make up what they see in themselves as what they lack. When I worked for Wally Wood, I’d ask him once in a while to give me a critique. His answer was ‘Look, I’ll tell you when it stops sucking.’

    But isn’t that a tad on the harsh side?

“I think if you’ve got the wherewithal to put up with that, then you can learn an awful lot from the response,” Hama shrugs. “You have to also consider that lots of people can’t do that, they get shot down that first time and never go back. It’s like going to some Zen master – you have to understand that he’s going to hit you over the head with the stick! People go away, but if you get past that, you realize that it’s a filter. They’re basically saying ‘If you can’t get past the first filter, why am I wasting my time with you?’ That’s what it comes down to.”

Shortly after his work with Wood, Larry found his way to Neal Adams’ famous Continuity and Associates, doing everything from drawing figures for ad illustrations (later embellished by Neal), to joining the inking free-for-all group known as the Crusty Bunkers. Continuity was not only a learning ground for Hama, but also a hub of the comics community, situated between both Marvel and DC’s respective offices.

“The second most important thing ever told to me about the comics process was from Neal Adams. He was looking at something I was drawing. I sat at the drawing table next to him for years at Continuity, which was kind of intimidating. I sat there because nobody else would,” Larry laughs. “It wasn’t like everyone was going ‘I want that seat!’ He’d just stand behind you and look at what you do, and then suck crumbs out from between his teeth. One day he said ‘You’re settling for that.’

    “I said ‘What do you mean?’

“‘You’re drawing something you’ve drawn a hundred times, because you know that you can do it. For this particular thing that you’re trying to draw, you can probably see this thing in your head that’s probably a thousand times better and more dynamic, more dramatic, or more whatever. But there’s something inside of you saying ‘I don’t think I can get away with that,’ or ‘If I do it, it’s going to suck’. So you settle, and every time you settle, you push your dial back one notch. Each time you try to do that thing that’s the next thing you’ve never done, it might suck, but then it might not, or at least you’ll know not to do it that way. If you’re not always pushing it that way, then all you’re doing is just tracing stencils.”

It was a unique time for the comics industry, the halcyon days of the early ‘70s: the first group of professionals weaned on comics were coming to power, while the talent remained local to New York City. Every month, a rotating First Friday party was held at someone’s apartment or house, and this new group connected, comparing notes in apartments and houses.

“They were revolving-hosted parties that started being at Roy Thomas’, and then somehow drifted over to being at Jeff Jones’,” Larry states. “Various people took it up. Jenette Kahn did them for a while, and that turned into a poker game, and then Neal Adams did it for a few years. It was a place where people in the business could go and socialize with other people of the same ilk. There was a lot of exchange going on.”

Larry was also being further informed as a comics professional, exposed to a variety of influences that were, then, non-mainstream, while honing his personal philosophies about comics.

“I never read captions, and hardly read anything in a comic,” Larry admits. “I used to look at the pictures, and most of my favorite comics were stuff I didn’t have to read. Foreign comics were always fun. When I finally saw the Moebius stuff in translation, I was really disappointed. There should have been kick-ass words to go with kick-ass pictures.

    “One thing that wasn’t a disappointing translation was the baby cart stuff, the Ogammi Itto samurai comics [Lone Wolf and Cub]. There weren’t really comic shops that sold Japanese comics in those days. I stumbled across them in a Zen bookstore and started buying them. I had them in my office at Continuity (I later had a room in the back), and it was a place where people congregated. You could walk over from DC or Marvel and hang out, and they had free coffee. Guys would see the books and then go out and get them for themselves.

“I remember sitting around and talking to Mike Kaluta one day, and we were just talking about the stories. We realized we were talking about a story that neither of us could possibly read, but it was as if we had read it. We knew everything about these characters, and we understood the characters and continuity, but we just didn’t know what their names were!” Larry laughs again. “It was like ‘Wow! That’s the power of that visual continuity.’”

Larry shows up as a penciler here and there, on Iron Fist and Ka-Zar for Marvel, and Wulf the Barbarian and Planet of the Vampires for Marvel competitor Atlas. Not long after, he became an editor at DC Comics, where he conceived the project that he still considers “his favorite baby”.

Bucky O’Hare had a weird genesis,” Larry says. “It was supposed to be one of the first creator-owned properties at DC, when I was an editor there. I’d done all this work on it and they never came up with the contract. I bugged them for a year, and they kept saying ‘Hand it in, you can trust us.’ My lawyer was Ed Preiss, who was Byron Preiss’s dad, who had also been Siegel and Shuster’s lawyer. When I wanted a lawyer, I looked around and went ‘He did okay by Siegel and Shuster, so I’ll go with this guy.’

    “Ed Preiss told me a spoken contract was worth the paper it’s written on. By that time, me and Al Milgrom had gotten imploded out of DC in what they called ‘The Great Implosion’. I was cast adrift, and I’d not signed over Bucky O’Hare. Neal Adams said ‘I like this.’ Originally, I was going to write and pencil it, and Neal was going to ink and publish it. Luckily, before I even drew page one, this guy Michael Golden walked through the door. We both looked at his stuff and said ‘Wow, this guy should do it.’”
    A green-furred intergalactic rabbit from an alternate universe, Bucky O’Hare and his mammal sidekicks (including a human kid from San Francisco) fight a war against the evil Toad Empire. Bucky not only spawned his own cartoon series for a short while (complete with early ‘90s power metal theme), but also a Nintendo and arcade games. It’s a bit of a far cry from the franchise Larry is most known for, one that was a bit more local than an intergalactic rabbit.

“[G.I. Joe] was despised. It sold really well, and the company loved it,” Larry points out with a laugh. “Marvel loved it, Hasbro loved it, and it made lots of bucks for everybody. Everybody was happy with the checks and numbers for a long time. But critically? It was considered garbage, because it was toy book prejudice. There was that weird pretentious elitism that says ‘If it sells a lot, it can’t be any good.’

“At the same time, I was making inroads at creating this underground fan base that would outnumber those people.”

 When toy company Hasbro brought their soldier doll back as a series of Star Wars-sized figures, they approached Marvel Comics to develop the characters and storylines. Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter approached Larry, who had developed a Nick Fury spy pitch called Fury Force, to retool his pitch to fit the developing action figure line they’d just licensed. The result: an entire series of action figures developed by Larry (with mock personality-revealing “file cards” on the packaging, written by Hama) and given life in a new comic book and animated series.

 With pencils by long-time Marvel Comics staff artist Herb Trimpe and inks by Bob McLeod, G.I. Joe #1 came out in June of 1982. The series was also advertised in animated TV commercials, a corresponding cartoon, and the release of the small line of action figures in toy stores the nation over. Thanks to the multi-media ad campaign, G.I. Joe got a lot of kids who wouldn’t normally buy comics but loved the toys and cartoons to follow it month to month.

“After I plotted the first Joe, I remembered sitting there thinking ‘What the heck am I going to do now?’” Larry confesses. “It was one of those moments of panic, but I’d have those moments of panic every month. The whole thing is to push them over the cliff right at the beginning, and have a situation to get it rolling, and then follow that snowball down the hill. The action is secondary. The action and the plot are there as a framework to support the characters. The characters are the only thing to make people come back. This is primary, and something that publishers and editors don’t seem to understand. They don’t get it.”

Larry never knew what was happening issue to issue; in an attempt to keep readers guessing, he kept himself guessing as well. Writing on the fly? Possibly, but it was a formula that grabbed the interest of new readers and kept them coming back.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Larry admits. “That knowing what the end was and then intricately plotting out towards that end never really worked for me. It doesn’t work for me when I’m reading it other people’s stuff, either. If I get to page three and can figure out what’s going to happen, it doesn’t work for me.”

“I think that’s important, and what always made Dickens work,” he cites later. “He was knocking that stuff out as weekly serials, and you can tell, when it’s all put together (especially Great Expectations), that half the book is retcon! He works himself into this corner and all the books have incredible coincidences. You can tell, because you get to the end of a chapter and you have no idea what’s going to happen, and have to find out. Maybe it’s because Dickens didn’t know, either. It’s a scary thing to pull off.”

As G.I. Joe developed, Larry built character relationships built on coincidence and fate: Snake-Eyes served in ‘Nam with rival ninja Storm Shadow; Zartan killed Storm Shadow’s ninja master uncle; a COBRA agent served in ‘Nam with Snake-Eyes and Stalker…Using the G.I. Joe team’s resident ninja commando as the focal point for coincidence, Hama wove a web of revelations from issue to issue.

“I never really wrote in anything other than what they called the ‘Marvel style’,” he says. “Before that, I wrote in what was called the ‘Archie Goodwin’ style – I drew the layout of the page and then wrote the dialogue in actual balloons. It was all there. Lots of times, the artist stuck to my layouts. When I bought an electric typewriter, that’s when I switched over to doing thing the Marvel way. I don’t think people do that anymore, and that they all do full scripts.

“I always did it as a page breakdown. My methodology was to try to picture the whole thing as a series of graphic images in my head. I started drawing the story as pictures. That’s why I don’t have lots of pages of people sitting around talking. The talking has nothing to do with it, because the dialogue is the last thing I worry about. I only put as much dialogue in that needs to cover what isn’t covered by the visual storytelling. The visual storytelling is always first. That’s why I don’t call myself a writer: I just see it as the pictures. I never understood the dichotomy in comics. People will say ‘I like the story but didn’t like the art.’ That’s like coming out of a Broadway show and going ‘The scenery was terrific!’”

    Because of his visual approach to writing comics, as well as his lack of ego in his actual writing, Hama laid off of the excessive word balloons of most comics of that time, and opted for a more action-packed way of telling his stories.

“There was some consternation about that,” Larry admits. “Because a third of everybody else’s pages were filled with captions. They were omniscient narrator captions – ‘Slowly, he walked through the doors as sunlight was bathed across his shoulders’ – and basically from lazy writers reiterating what was in the art.

    “And thought balloons all over the place,” he adds. “Again, writers were running rampant to squeeze out all the stream of consciousness. I hated all that stuff. I figured it’s all going to be in the pictures, and there’s only so much dialogue you’d need, and if there would be a caption, it would say ‘Meanwhile, in Washington,’ or ‘Later’. No thought balloons. That was pretty radical, and nobody seemed to notice it. Over a period of time, that became the norm.”

    Pick up a comic book today, and the thought balloon is all but dead, traded off for first-person captions that don’t describe the visuals, but provide a soundtrack or “voice-over” for the story. The breed of ‘70s writers were mostly die-hard fans of the medium, and many of them were out to prove their worth in the quantity of words on each page. Hama’s more workman-like take on creating comics, as well as his modesty bordering on near-apathy, led him to abandon the glut of words per page.

    Larry did one better with G.I. Joe #21, the “silent issue”, now considered a legendary trendsetter in comics storytelling. The issue, which featured no dialogue and only sound effects, became a regular staple of the G.I. Joe comic book series.

“There was some sort of scheduling glitch or something was late and we needed to slide in another story,” Larry admits. “We ended up doing it in record time. I figured if I consolidated three of the steps myself (I’d write it and draw it at the same time), and then figure out the story in such a way that it didn’t need to be lettered, we could cut two weeks off the schedule, maybe more than that. This was in the days when everything had to physically go through Fed Ex, so we’d have to add on days to the schedule to deliver it. It wasn’t a planned-out thing, and the plot points that happened in it were totally random.”

The issue also revealed that opposing ninjas, Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow, bore the same tattoo on their forearms.

“It wasn’t like I’d figured out this whole thing, and I just kept drawing it. I got to a point where I went ‘Maybe they’ve got the same tattoo.’ Didn’t know why they had the same tattoo, but maybe there’s a connection. Everything about those characters was really retconned after that, to fit that aspect of the story.”

    G.I. Joe ran for over a decade, with Larry writing most every issue, as well as annual “yearbooks” and a second series. It was a phenomenon that began in 1982 and died a gradual death well into the next decade. Despite that longevity and success, though, it was still considered a sub-standard comic:

“You had to understand that, the entire time I did G.I. Joe, I never got a single review or write-up,” Larry points out. “None exists, because it was considered below serious critical radar, because it was a toy book. I was never a fan favorite, and I wasn’t taken seriously as any kind of creator. It gave me a lot of freedom. I never got invited to a convention, and never even made it to B status. Toy books are C status.”

    Apparently, G.I. Joe was equally dismissed by comics dealers, as well as professionals, while loved by a rabid fanbase of kids.

“You have to understand that I never got to go to conventions. Nobody that ran conventions were interested; but guys that had shops were very interested. I went to do a signing in Alexandria, or some suburb of Washington. I got there and the line went along three blocks. I was there for six hours, signing books, and the line never went down. I would show up at shops and it’d be like that. It was selling comics, and scads of people who’d never gone into a comic shop before. Down at that level, store owners were going ‘Wow! When they come into the shop I could try to pawn off X-Men.’

“The serious geeked-out fanboys who ran the conventions, I was like nowhere. I never got invited to one,” Larry laughs. “I still don’t get invited to conventions, but if they ask me, I go.”

At worst, Larry Hama has become a cult figure in comics, on par with a Sam Raimi in film. His run on G.I. Joe and other comics having inspired a new generation of comic book writers and artists, and also served as a gateway drug to reading other comic books.

Throughout his run on G.I. Joe, Hama also wrote Wolverine and the short-lived Nth Man. Perhaps his greatest contribution as an editor is the critically-acclaimed series The ‘Nam, initially drawn by Michael Golden and written by fellow Vietnam vet Doug Murray. The ‘Nam showed the Vietnam War through the eyes of the average American soldier, and was a sharp contrast to the bright action of G.I. Joe.

G.I. Joe returned to comic book racks and toystores in 2001, and stuck around until a recent resurgence, due in part to the G.I. Joe movie (which he openly admits to enjoying) and a handful of comics by new publisher IDW. Hama serves as writer on G.I. Joe: Origins, as well as an upcoming continuation of his Marvel run, numbering and all.

     “I did 155 issues of retcon and changed it as I went along,” Larry states. “When people oppose canon, it’s weird to me because it was all done off the cuff. The Wolverine stuff was done that way, too. When you have so many people writing about this guy. I said ‘Look, as far as I’m concerned, if Claremont and Frank Miller and Barry Smith didn’t write it, it didn’t exist. All the other stuff was extraneous. Let’s go with the stuff that sticks here, because otherwise it doesn’t make any sense and has no impact on the general and overall perception of the characters and property.

“In doing this stuff, you always bear that in mind about what is really important, and then you don’t get bogged down in inconsequentialities and these weird tangents that nobody cares about.

“It’s all about the character, what the character feels, or how the character relates to other characters.”