Larry Hama and the making of a ‘real American hero’

WALK SOFTLY BUT CARRY A BIG SWORD — Larry Hama has spun many adventure stories in the comic book universe, and has been the primary creative force behind the Marvel Comics series “G.I. Joe, A Real American Hero.” One of the more notable installments in the series, “Silent Interlude,” featured Hama’s original character Thomas S. Arashikage, a Nikkei ninja known by the alias Storm Shadow. Storm Shadow is pictured above, dressed in white, along with his rival Snake Eyes, dressed in blue, in a panel from “Silent Interlude.” photo by Marina Moskina; “Silent Interlude” artwork by Larry Hama, © Hasbro TM

Every so often, a Hollywood movie studio makes plans to bring a popular property — be it a comic book, toy or TV series — to the big screen. Fans then fervently follow news of project developments, eager to learn the names of the screenwriter, director, and actors, or to glean script details. When Paramount Pictures announced it would be making a film adaptation of the “G.I. Joe” franchise, it was no exception. While some pieces of news were better received than others, there was one announcement that received universal fan approval — Paramount brought Larry Hama on as a creative consultant.

The Nikkei writer, artist, actor and musician is best known as the primary creative force behind “G.I. Joe.” When Hasbro re-launched its line of toy soldiers in 1982, they hired Marvel comics to create a backstory for the characters and a series of comics to chronicle their adventures. The job of writing the comics was given to Hama, after the project had been turned down by several other writers. Hama had recently pitched a story that had comic book military hero and spy “Nick Fury” assembling an elite special missions force to combat the neo-Nazi group, HYDRA. The idea was rejected, but Hama was able to keep many of the elements and put them to use in his “Joe” series. Drawing on his own military service during the Vietnam War, his training in the kyudo and iaido martial arts, and his interest in eastern philosophy, he created some of the best loved stories in the “Joe” universe, as well as fan favorite characters such as Nikkei ninja “Storm Shadow.”

Though best known for “Joe,” Hama also created the comic series “Bucky O’Hare,” which featured a crew of anthropomorphic animal space pilots who fought against the evil Toad Empire. While it debuted in the late 1970s, “Bucky O’Hare” got its own cartoon series in the 1990s, as well as a video game produced by Konami.

Hama also wrote the Marvel comic book “Wolverine” starting in 1990 when the character was not so popular and on through the peak of its popularity in the mid ’90s.

As a writer, Hama is known as an exceptional visual storyteller, famously writing and penciling the textless “Silent Interlude” issue of “G.I. Joe.” The Nichi Bei Weekly caught up with Hama recently to talk with the icon about his distinguished career.

Nichi Bei Weekly: First off, can you tell us a bit about your background, what generation you are and where you’re from?

Larry Hama: I’m a Sansei, born and raised in New York City. My mom was born in Sacramento, and I still have an aunt and cousins there. When I go to visit them, it’s like going home. There’s still a sense of small-town community there that really hits me when a Nisei looks at my face and says, “You must be related to Michi.”

NBW: I read that you used to act before getting into comics. Is this true? If so, why did you make the transition?

LH: I was in comics way before I got into acting — and both were completely by accident. In 1975, I got in an elevator and somebody asked me if I was an actor. When I said no, she asked, “Do you want to be one?” That led to a part in an off-Broadway play, and less than a year later I got cast in the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures.”

NBW: You have said that one of your early works, Bucky O’Hare was inspired by Wally Wood’s work, but were there any other inspirations? It predates the Ninja Turtles and Usagi Yojimbo by quite a bit and it seems like Cerebus came out at just about the same time, so there aren’t any obvious inspirations in terms of serious epic tales involving anthropomorphic animals.

LH: I actually created Bucky O’Hare in the ’70s. It took over a decade to get it really rolling and off the ground… The storytelling influence was mainly Carl Barks. What he did in “Uncle Scrooge” were serious adventure stories with ducks as protagonists. I was more interested in doing funny animals from the start, but there was no work doing that at the time I was trying to break into the business.

NBW: What was your relationship like to the other anthropomorphic series? Bucky O’Hare sort of went through a second surge in popularity in the early ’90s with a video game, action figures and a TV series — did the popularity of the Turtles allow for this? Also, did you own the rights to the characters, how much input did you have into the games, TV show, etc.?

LH: [Continuity Comics founder] Neal Adams owns the overall rights, but [co-creator] Michael Golden and I retain percentages. I had very little input in the TV show and the games. Michael Golden, Neal Adams and I did the concept drawings for the toys. The Turtles opened the door for a lot of things, and nobody would have given Bucky O’Hare a second glance otherwise.

NBW: I read that you were given a high level of creative freedom with the G.I. Joe series, in some ways, because it was considered an undesirable job at the time. It seems like today if a company as big as Hasbro were to commission a comic book series, they would be very watchful of what was being done to their brand. Why were they so hands off in 1982?

LH: To paraphrase Bob Prupis who was in charge of the G.I. Joe brand at the time, “We [at Hasbro] know how to make toys; you guys [at Marvel] know how to make comic books.” This was pretty enlightened at the time. Things were also wide-open back then. Nobody knew if G.I. Joe was going to fly or not. Even if it was successful, nobody figured it would last more than three years.

NBW: For many kids, G.I. Joe was their first introduction to the concept of the military maybe not the comics necessarily, but certainly characters you created. I assume you don’t want to talk much about your own political beliefs, but I was wondering what you feel your role/responsibility is in writing military-themed comics for young readers?

LH: I am now, and have always been, a moderate Democrat. Most of my family, like many Japanese Americans, retained their party loyalty even after they were sent to relocation camps during the Roosevelt administration. This may be indicative of what they suspected their treatment would have been under the Republicans. All we have to do is look at Arizona to get a glimpse of that.

I am against war, but for the soldier. The dominant themes in my G.I. Joe universe are that loyalty is to your immediate buddies and not to abstractions, that there is no end or satisfaction to revenge, and that if you want to be a soldier you should not expect recognition or the gratitude of the nation. I think of the last one every time Congress acts to cut veterans benefits. The main fantasies in the comic are about loyalty, honor and the primary martial art precept that the only logical reason for mastering a deadly art is to reach a point where you no longer have to use it. I received hundreds of letters from soldiers who read the G.I. Joe comics when they were kids and not a single one ever said I sold them a bill of goods.

NBW: In another interview, you said that much fiction that deals with the military gets things completely wrong. How do you ensure a degree of authenticity in military stories set in fictional or fantasy universes?

LH: I wasn’t even talking about technical details, like uniforms and equipment. I was talking about the stuff that soldiers yell at the screen when they watch a ‘war’ movie, like, “Spread out! Don’t bunch up!” or, “Don’t silhouette yourself on the ridgeline, dummy!” It’s like yelling at the teen protagonist of a horror movie, “Don’t go down into that dark cellar by yourself, stupid!” Also, any writer who thinks that 19-year-old boys in a stressful situation would have serious conversations about how scared they are is woefully misinformed about young male peer pressure.

NBW: Latino Review commented that G.I. Joe comics had more women and minorities in the story and they were better developed than in other comics at the time. Do you think this is true and if so, was this something you made a conscious effort to do in G.I. Joe and other series you wrote?

LH: Women in the G.I. Joe unit were treated exactly the same as the men. I never cared for the female superhero and mutant characters who stood around with their palms nailed to their foreheads and complained about stuff. My obaasan would call them monkutare. I tried to base all of my characters on people I actually knew, so they would have consistent traits, and not be the same old stereotype. Most ethnic characters at the time were simply white people painted a different color. That really bugged me. You can meet your “diversity quota” by having all sorts of ethnicities in your story, but if they don’t ring true as believable people, if you can’t make them stand up and walk the walk, and you can’t imbue them with the cultural issues and individualities that define who they are by how they got there, then you might as well just name those characters “Second Boring Asian Guy,” or “Bland Latina #3.”

NBW: Quick Kick is a particularly beloved character amongst many Asian American fans. His backstory has some really interesting elements. He’s part Japanese and part Korean, his parents owned a grocery store in Watts, he was once a Hollywood stuntman and he took up martial arts because he was too short for basketball. How did you come up with it?

LH: I knew people like that. My aunt and uncle had a small grocery store in Washington, D.C. I grew up with Asian kids whose parents ran groceries, dry cleaners, restaurants, laundries, etc. My own dad had a tiny jewelry and watch-repair shop in the Bronx. That was not research; that was life.

NBW: Marvel tends to be pretty strict with continuity and during your run on Wolverine, there were some pretty big twists. What elements of his past, or supposed past, were your ideas? What parameters were you given that you had to work within in regards to Wolverine’s backstory? How did you feel about those restrictions?

LH: I had pretty free rein with Wolverine for the first year or so, because nobody really cared what I did. Then, when it began to sell well, I had the clamp come down on me. But all things considered, I had it pretty easy. I wasn’t even all that familiar with the character when I signed on to write the book. When I tried wading through the back issues, I decided that I would use the material written by Chris Claremont, Frank Miller and Barry Windsor-Smith as the canon, and disregard everything else. Otherwise, there were too many dead-ends and contradictions to deal with. I wrote the book for eight years. I can’t remember what I made up whole cloth or what I did as a riff on what came before. I was never as concerned with events as I was with Wolverine’s character, that is, his own internal dialogue and his moral center. You don’t like a character because he did this or that, you like a character because he fulfills a fantasy about doing the right thing despite it being personally disadvantageous. Isn’t that what a hero is?

NBW: Comic books are a really unique medium to write for. So much of the story is told by the artwork contained in the panels and by what is implied to occur between the panels. The work’s tone and pacing are also dependent on the size of the panels, the amount of time that elapses between them, etc. How much direction do you give in your “scripts”? Do you write to the specific strengths and weaknesses of the artist as a visual stylist and storyteller?

LH: I don’t consider myself a writer — I think of myself as a penciler with a word processor. I try to picture the whole story visually, and then I describe in words what I see. I always try to work toward the penciler’s strengths, and I provide copious amounts of visual reference. I also do diagrams and maps. It’s supposed to be a visual medium so I am totally against having characters sitting in a room, explaining plot in dialogue. I am also pretty much against captions. Back in ’82 when I first started writing “G.I. Joe,” most Marvel stories were extremely caption-heavy, so I got a lot of flack at the time because I only wrote captions that were as long as, “Meanwhile, in Springfield…” I also refused to use thought balloons. This is all pretty much standard these days, but back then very few were doing it that way.

NBW: In terms of mainstream comics  like Marvel and DC, it seems like most people who worked on books were exclusively writers or exclusively artists. Did you ever feel like you stood apart from others as someone who understood both sides? Does your experience with art make you write comics in a different way?

LH: I don’t really know if I understand both sides. I find it very difficult to think in words instead of pictures. This is why I write plots instead of full scripts. It is also why I can’t read most comics that are written by people who can’t draw [although] there are a few exceptions to that.

My favorite comics were the ones written and drawn by the same person, like the original “Terry and the Pirates” [by Milton Caniff], “Uncle Scrooge” [by Carl Barks] and “The Spirit” [Will Eisner]. There are comics creators I admire who rarely scripted their own stories, like Wallace Wood, Bernard Krigstein, Will Elder and Jack Davis, but they had the distinct advantage of working from scripts by genius writer and artist Harvey Kurtzman. I think that many people who draw comics would prefer to write their own stories, but there are many market pressures that weigh against that.

NBW: I read that you became active in the Asian community in New York when you got out of the army.

LH: When I came home from the army in 1971, a good many of my Asian friends had become involved in the Asian movement. It was like, “Come home, bro.” I became affiliated with the Basement Workshop Chinatown [in New York] and worked on the publication project “Yellow Pearl.” That led to doing covers and interior art for Bridge Magazine. I played in a mostly Asian rock band back then. It was a good creative time. At the same time, I was getting my start in comics. The world of comics and the Asian movement were like two small towns that I had dual citizenship in. Sometimes, they oddly overlapped.

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