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INTERVIEW: G.I. Joe Creator Larry Hama Reflects on 30 Years of the Real American Hero

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Larry Hama began his long tour chronicling G.I. Joe in 1982 while working as an editor at Marvel Comics, when he took on the little "toy book" that no one else wanted to write. From there, he helped shape every aspect of the extended Joe universe, down to penning the "file cards" that adorned each toy's packaging, and was a key component in making the "Real American Hero" one of the most successful multimedia properties of the 1980s.

Since 2010, Hama has been writing the new G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero series for comic publisher IDW, picking up the numbering and continuity right where Marvel's run left off in 1994. Read on for some highlights from our extended conversation. For the unedited transcript of our chat, find part one here, and part two here, and for the Joe creator's thoughts on the just-released global blockbuster G.I. Joe: Retaliation, click here.

Let's go back in time a little bit for some context of what it was like for you as the man on the ground when the G.I. Joe that we think of as G.I. Joe today took form.

Well, you have to remember that back then, what they called in the business the "toy books" were considered the bottom of the barrel in comic publishing, because they paid...they had to pay a licensing fee. They took that off the top of the editorial budget, which meant they couldn't afford to pay guys that were top rates, so it was only like, y'know, the B and the C-list would even consider doing it...

I was trying to get work, I couldn't get any work, and then Hasbro came to Marvel and said well, we have this G.I. Joe comic. And, so they asked everybody on the list, and they all turned it down. They went down Editors' Row asking all the editors who were writers, and they all turned it down. My office was the last office on the row. So they got to me, and they just sort of bluntly toldme that every single person had turned it down, and I said I'd take it.

I've read this in the past and correct me if I'm wrong, but they came to you with designs for the characters but no bios. Is that essentially the way it was?

Yeah, they would have...it started with black & white drawings. Eventually it became color renderings. They would, for instance, they would have...they had the first batch, there was a guy standing there with a mask and an uzi and above him it said "Commando," and there was a girl with red hair and a crossbow, and above her it said "Intelligence." There was a mortar guy and an infantry guy and a laser trooper...that's how they were marked. They were just...they were black & white drawings.

So I had to from there, like, figure out who they were, where they came from, what their backgrounds were, what their personalities were. So that's why...and there were ten to start. So, I thought, well, that's more than there are Avengers.

So, it occurred to me that if this goes on to a second year, they're going to add ten more characters. Twenty characters to keep track of. So I sat down, and I wrote what I call "dossiers" which were a couple of pages long, but they were basically the file folder on each character. Where they came from, education, training, so on and so forth. Really to keep it straight in my own head.

My creative process is I would get the Joes into this impossible situation and try to get them out of it by the end. And then my inner rule is that they had to act in character. Lots of times if you have the opposite situation, where someone is forcing characters into a plot that they've already manufactured you might get stuck having to force one of your characters to act out of character in order to resolve the plot. To me that's anathema.

How did you keep Joe apolitical? Because I notice that, especially now, reading them as an adult, it goes right down the middle. You can't make any kind of a partisan designation, and I think that's one of the strengths of the book. 

Well, I - that's deliberate, you know? Like, I've never actually seen any of the animation, but I can understand the gist of it. It's a lot more jingoistic, rah-rah, American flag-waving than my G.I. Joe comics. Because they're from the point of view of the grunt. They're from the point of view of - you know, of the ground slogger.

And it's a point of view that recognizes internally that a soldier's loyalties are first to the five guys in his fire team, and then the second set of loyalties is to the ten people in the squad, and then it goes up the ladder from that. People don't throw themselves on the grenade for God, country and flag. They do it for the other five guys in their fire team. It's personal. The - things like the flag are abstractions to a soldier. Total abstractions.

Things that are concrete are like, what's the food like? And how uncomfortable is it? Those are concrete realities, and the loyalty that you feel towards your fellow soldiers is very different. I've said this a thousand times before, but the thing that most - that soldiers are reminded of every single day, is that the chain of command runs both ways.

If you're a corporal, you're responsible for the privates that report to you. You don't eat until they eat, you don't sleep until they sleep. Mo matter how low on the ladder you are, you're still responsible for the people below you. And that concept stays with you. They do not teach that in the MBA programs at Yale and Harvard. Like, the opposite. And that's an important factor that a lot of people seem to overlook.

It's now 31 years after the "Real American Hero" line started. Why does G.I. Joe still matter? 

I have no idea. (laughs) I - well, there's lots of people out there who grew up with the characters, and there's that factor of, like, wanting to fill in the spaces of your own childhood. I've got, like, five shelves full of plastic model kits that I'll never build, but I've got them because when I was a kid I couldn't afford to buy 'em. Now I can afford to buy it - buy that stuff, I bought it. And I'm sure there's, like, plenty of people out there that - like, maybe that's why the value of the G.I. Joe Aircraft Carrier is so high.

'Cause I've had people come up to me and say, oh, I got my kid involved in it. You know, my kid is collecting this stuff. So I think that's the difference, is that  if the line has longevity and there's actual characters - characterizations that you can relate to - that really helps.

When you go back and look at Harry Potter, you realize that what makes it work isn't magic. It's like, nobody cares about the magic. You go back to that experience because you liked to hang out with those characters. And I think that's the stuff that always makes it work.

After this many years, you are still the guy who I think in terms of the fan community most people associate with G.I. Joe. You've taught a lot of kids a lot of lessons. What has G.I. Joe taught you?

Not to give up. It was very difficult to keep writing it month after month because, during the entire run I never got a single write-up or review in the fanboy - the fan press. It was considered below the radar because it was a toy book.

It wasn't - it's, like, that's not a serious comic. Never got invited to a con. Got nothing except, you know, I did do well on the royalties on the book. But when you're doing something creative and you get no - nobody's writing a review.

My affirmation was real-world affirmation, that I would go to, like, a store signing and there would be, like, kids lined up around the block. So the - you know, but it was kids. It was real - it was the real readership.

*****

As one of those readers he mentions, I can personally speak to how much his long tenure as G.I. Joe's commanding officer meant to me. My sincere thanks to Larry Hama for being so generous with his time and his memories. Be sure to check out his G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero comic series monthly or in trade paperback form from IDW Publishing. To hear some audio from this interview, download the latest MovieFilm Podcast at the link, or stream it below.


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