I’ve written about my love for Larry Hama’s GI Joe comic series before (see HERE). As far as I’m concerned, Larry is one of the most influential writers to inspire me. Through his comic series, I learned how character drives plot, motivation and the power of great words. GI Joe is not what springs to most people’s mind when they think of great comics, but to me, it’s the greatest.
Digging around on an old hard drive the other day, I came across this interview I did with him in July 1998. This was published on my old website to help promote the limited return of the toy line, but reading over this some 13 years later, I see a lot of it speaks about the craft of writing which I find fascinating in a way I did not back then.
So I thought I’d share that interview with you. Enjoy!
Q: Writers naturally put some of themselves into their characters, so which G.I. Joe character(s) share your personality traits. Which Ones? Were they deliberate?
A: I don’t know if writers in this particular genre really do that. It would be dead frightening if that were true! I think that in my own case, I project the person I WANT to be in the heroic mode. Snake-Eyes is the “damaged other” who doesn’t fit in. He drags his past around with him like a heavy steamer trunk. That is easy for me to relate to. Storm Shadow is more of a Zen warrior. He is more of the ideal to work towards. Actually, most of the characters are based on real people, living and dead, some personal friends and some famous public personalities.
Did you always want to write comics? How did you end up working for Marvel?
I started out drawing comics. I sold my first work to “Castle of Frankenstein” when I was sixteen. I was doing a strip in the East Village Other’s “Gothic Blimp Works” when I was seventeen and by eighteen I was drawing for OZ in London. After a stint in the army, I went to work for Wally Wood doing lettering, writing and backgrounds for Sally Forth and Cannon. After that, I worked at Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios drawing storyboards and comics. Along the way, I did illustrations and comics for National Lampoon, Esquire, Rolling Stone, CTW, and tons of advertising work.
In 1978 I was an editor at DC for about a year, until their “implosion”. Shortly after that, I was offered an editorship at Marvel, and I’ve been there ever since, in one capacity or the other. I was Senior Editor when I left staff.
You have said that the filecards were basic compared to the ‘filecards’ you kept. What else did you keep on your filecards? For example, do you know Snake-Eyes real name?
Never came up with a real name for Snake-eyes. Better to keep the mystery in my own head. The extra stuff on my own file cards were psychological profiles. On the original batch of ten cards I did for Hasbro for the first ten Joes, I included fairly long psychological profiles, none of which made it into print.
How did you track all your characters through the series? Was it easy to leave a character in one issue and then forget 10 issues later where you had left them in terms of plot?
I was pretty immersed in the storyline at the time, mainly since it was the only thing I was doing! It took me ten years of doing a top-selling book before I was able to convice Marvel to let me try my hand at writing something other than G.I. Joe material. Some people complain that it is hard to break into the writing end and that it is real easy for the people on the “inside”, but let me tell you– I was Senior Editor, a writer of a best-selling series, and I couldn’t get another script assignment for love or money. (I was also the LAST choice for writing Joe.)
G.I. Joe was always full of surprises, with lots of twists and turns in the larger plot (i.e. the plot that ran between all the stories). How much of it was planned, and how much of it was spur of the moment? For example, Did you know from the moment he was introduced that Zartan was responsible for killing the Hard Master? Was it always your intention to bring the original Cobra Commander back?
I never knew how any issue was going to end when I started writing it. I figured that if I could surprise myself, I could surely surprise the reader. There is a great danger in planning too far in advance in any kind of soap opera continuity, in that there is a natural tendency to write TOWARDS an end. This always seems to telegraph the denoument. I didn’t know about Zartan’s complicity in the Hard Master’s death until way after the fact. It just seemed to fit in nicely during the Candy episodes. I fought tooth and nail to keep Cobra Commander from dying in the first place, but it was a losing battle. I had it the back of my mind to bring him back as soon as possible.
If G.I. Joe Comic was still running today what questions would have been answered? and what are those answers? (i.e. what secrets did you have up your sleeve ready to spring in issue 175 or whatever). For example, the secret of the Arashikage Clan Hexagram?
I think that most of these dread secrets were simply hanging threads. There is no great secret to the Arashikage hexagram. You can look it up in the I-CHING.
Is there any connection between the name Snake-Eyes and Cobra? Did Cobra Commander name his organisation Cobra after Snake-Eyes?
The late great Archie Goodwin came up with the name COBRA at the very first meeting that Marvel had with Hasbro. They only had the ten Joe figures designed at the time and the first question we brought up was, “Who do they fight?” and all we got were blank stares. I asked, “What are they going to do, march around in parades and polish their belt buckles?” After some moments of awkward silence, Archie piped up that perhaps there should be a para-military terrorist organization– let’s say we call it Cobra.”
Snake-Eyes’ name had nothing to do with snakes, really– it’s a crap-shooters term for a deuce.
Do you still find yourself unintentionally thinking of plotlines for the Joe Saga, or have you been able to mentally divorce yourself from it?
Got too many other things to clutter up the old brain now.
One thing I found with a lot of my friends who were into comics such as Sandman, Aliens, etc. (The then so called adult comics) was that they dismissed G.I. Joe as a kids comic. However, when they read it they became engrossed and were genuinely surprised. Did you have a similar experience with your colleagues at Marvel?
Absolutely. Since it was based on a toy, most people just wrote Joe off as a kiddy book. I NEVER thought of it as such and tried to write it as straight as possible. If you ask me, the term “adult comic” is a hilarious oxymoron. I found most of what used to be touted as “adult” to be ferociously boring, unremittingly depressing, egregiously pretentious and morally bankrupt. Allan Moore and Frank Miller were the great exceptions. Between their level of genius and the next level down, there was an awesome chasm.
If you were asked to write the comic again, and you were given total. creative freedom, what changes would you make?
I’d knock the team down to twenty five. That would be two ten-man squads of two five men fire teams each and a command section of five.