Comic Fodder

Interview With: Larry Hama

You know those people that spend a lifetime mastering a subject, or a field of expertise? A Renaissance Man can master six different fields, and excel at all of them, putting a normal person who specializes in one thing to shame. Larry Hama is a Renaissance Man. He has worked as an actor for television shows, written for animation, he plays rock and roll, and the list of accomplishments goes on for a while. What still gets comic fans excited, usually more than The ‘Nam, more than his editing for DC and Marvel, is his long relationship with the G.I. Joe franchise. He wrote most of the file cards of the back of the toy packaging, the Marvel comic series ran for more than ten years, and he agreed to come back and write for IDW’s relaunch of the series.

As luck (or good planning) would have it, a live-action movie was in the works too:G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Mr. Hama worked as a creative consultant for the movie, which is due in theatres August 7, 2009. I reached out recently to ask for an interview. But the problem with interviews is that lazy interviewers endlessly tend to ask the same questions, until you want to just put some standard answers on a tape recorder, hit the play button, and walk away, leaving the reporter to his typical Q&A session. So in order to move any further, I needed to make sure my questions were intelligent enough that Mr. Hama would actually respond.

Mission accomplished! Here is the interview, unedited.

Q1: You have expressed in the past that superheroes have a fascist tinge to them, with their tendency to always act like they are better and go above the law. What is your reaction to the current comic industry, which continues to have the capes front and center for its main attraction after all this time?

Larry Hama: I stopped buying comics back in the sixties. I used to get comics for free from both Marvel and DC, so I would at least look at the pictures. If I can't tell what the story is about by just looking at the pictures, I'm not interested. The companies have not comped me on comics for close to twenty years, so I have no idea what is going on in the story lines. I have a lot of problems with the concept of guys in masks dispensing "justice" according to their own standards. It's easy to rationalize these actions by having stories where the characters are troubled and conflicted by their own actions, but that is just white-washing the unpleasant truth.

Q2: There has been a heavy debate about the ability to transform comics into other formats, especially with the recent Watchmen film. With your experience in so many media formats, has any of your work been converted into a different format, in a way in which you were pleased?

Larry Hama: The "magic" of comics lies in the unseen stuff between the panels that the reader has to supply himself. What is not there is as important as what is there. This is not meant to be Zen psycho-babble. What was immediately gripping about comics in their original form was how they transcended their own limitations. BANG! KA-POW! The sound effect subbed for the sound track. The balloon and the pointer were developed. Lichtenstein showed us up close what exactly comprised the colors in the three color dot process and his work hangs in the MOMA. But try to translate the work of Bernard Krigstein (especially the subway scenes in the EC classic, THE MASTER RACE) and it doesn't work. But it works perfectly as a comic. There's a reason why Alan Moore kept saying that WATCHMEN was unfilmable. I didn't care for any of the GI Joe animation to the extent that I could never force myself to watch any of it past the first few minutes (this probably had more to do with the standards strictures for kids TV than anything else). I liked how the Wolverine's Revenge PS2 game came out. And I have thoroughly enjoyed what I have seen of the RISE OF COBRA.

Q3: Your point of view in writing always seems to be from the angle of each soldier. Is there any work you would like to do that might comment on a "bigger picture" issue, or are you satisfied with keeping everything on that more personal, individual level?

Larry Hama: The bigger picture always comes down to strategy and politesse in the context of greed and lust for power. I find that about as interesting as the lifestyles of the rich and famous, or what goes on under a wet rock.

Q4: People tend to ask a ton of questions about multiculturalism and diversity in interviews with you, more than with other comic writers. Given that making racial classifications is such an artificial exercise in labeling people, do you ever become frustrated as some try to classify you as an Asian-American and focus on what "importance" they can make out of it, or drag out stereotypes, specifically with regard to your comic work?

Larry Hama: I tried to read the Wikipedia article about me once, but the first thing it says is something about me being Japanese-American, which I found so off-putting it kept me from reading the rest of it. Is Ronald Reagan described as being Irish-American? Maybe it's to make clear that I am not Scandinavian or Syrian? (Hama being a perfectly good name in either place) Not that I am not proud of my heritage, but my grandparents came to this country a hundred years ago. When do I get to be just a plain American? This hyphenation distinction doesn't come into play outside of this country. In England, France, Spain, Russia, and even Japan, they peg me for an American right off the bat.

Q5: With your emphasis on the visual side of comics, has your appreciation for good, crisp writing improved over the years? I guess I'm trying to ask if you might ever feel you are limiting yourself by trying to minimize conversations between characters, or if your visualizations are intentionally geared to convey many of the core emotions in an art panel that some people might normally say out loud.

Larry Hama: Well, what we call "realistic" dialog is in actuality a wholly artificial construction that conforms to our western idea of what dramaturgy is. It's never really "real." We leave out the "ums.." and the "likes," and the long pauses and then we interject all the "oh, here's what I SHOULD have saids" that we think of long after the topic of conversation has changed. As much as I love Cormac McCarthy's writing, his dialog has never been realistic in any way, but what makes it great is the way it diverges from reality in the same way that Melville's dialog does. Let me make myself clear here. In the context of comics, I am only talking about dialog. I never did read what was in the captions. People act and they talk. If it needs to be narrated, something is wrong. I try in my comics plots to make the story apparent in the pictures. Then, I add what words are needed to keep the whole shebang moving along. The less words I have to write, the better. It totally makes my teeth hurt when the artist puts me in the position of having to write dialog to explain the action.

Q6: Why did you ask Sam Glanzman to have the dog die at the end of A SAILORS STORY?

Larry Hama: It tells you that his life wasn't vacuum-packed waiting for his return. The entire world was turned upside down by war and somehow he expected home to be exactly the way it was when he left. It didn't ring true. It was also what happened to a friend of mine. His parents never told him in letters that his dog died, so he didn't know until he got home.
With no genuine comics reading for the last couple decades, Mr. Hama might be unfamiliar with the short ban on thought balloons, the general trend toward having pictures tell more of the story, or Marvel’s own ‘Nuff Said experiment a few years back when almost every Marvel title had no text for the month, and told the picture only in stories (very similar to his classic “Silent Interlude” tale in G.I. Joe #21). However, my sense is that even if the medium has moved closer to his taste, it still has a ways to go for the most part.

Note: That last question was put to me by one of my friends, who had always been curious, so I had to try to get it in (although you could have just asked Glanzman yourself, Rich!).

There you have it, fans. The first comic interview on Filmfodder. And based on Mr. Hama’s responses, I opened an account on Wikipedia tonight and edited his entry to remove the hyphenated-American part from it, so now it just says, “Larry Hama is an American writer.” Cross your fingers and hope people let it stay that way.
Tpull is Travis Pullen. He started reading comics at 5 years old, and he can't seem to stop.

I am deeply grateful for Mr. Hama's willingness to play ball with Travis at Comic Fodder. So many of us are familiar with his work, that its a huge honor to have him take time out for us.

I confess that I may have had a drink or two, but about two weeks ago I lectured a room full of people on how how Larry Hama's Joe was the real deal, and what the producers should have been basing the movie on. These weren't comic fans, but mostly children of the 80's who knew Joe from TV and toys.

Mr. Hama's comments here assure me I was in the right for trying to set my friends straight.

I am off to seek out more of his work.

-- Posted by: Ryan at April 1, 2009 6:50 PM

Great interview.......I enjoyed the questions TPUll gave and the answers were even better.........

-- Posted by: Charles at April 3, 2009 4:09 PM