Sunday, February 5, 2012

Ethics and Choreography: An Interview With Larry Hama

Most people know Larry Hama for the Eighties reworking of GI Joe that's still spawning big blockbuster movies, or his recent comedy roman a clef, Barack the Barbarian, but I didn't read GI Joe when it was coming out and I was a kid, and we had Reagan and Bush back then. For me, Larry Hama was a Wonder Woman editor, the creator of Bucky O'Hare, and the writer of one of the best comics ever published, Nth Man. Larry Hama was a man who wrote casts of characters who were diverse in their politics, their ethnicities, their backgrounds, without anyone being a cardboard target or well-meaning stab at a “kind” inclusion, the token presence. And, between interviews, anecdotes, and his work, he seemed cool. Hama acknowledged what government positions and ranks, pay grades and titles like Doctor and Colonel, actually meant in ways that few writers in popular entertainment ever do, outside of titles they have used professionally. He managed to communicate more to me about humanity in Nth Man, which has never been reprinted, and his time on Wolverine, than Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen or any bit of Cerebus.

Today, more broadly familiar with his oeuvre as a writer (of fiction and nonfiction), actor, editor, photographer, and penciller, having had the chance to ask him questions directly, to see him with the eyes of an adult, he still seems honorable, sensible, and cool.

Travis Hedge Coke: “As an editor, penciler, writer, and probably everything else in comics, you've done work for very different markets over your career, from Sally Forth and International Times to GI Joe, Batman, and Bucky O'Hare. Do you deliberately tailor your work to the kind of publisher or the perceived market? Or, does it happen more naturally?”

Larry Hama: “95% of what I have done was work-for-hire, and done to please whoever it was that approved the check. I always saw myself as a working-class guy, and not an 'Artiste.' But I was brought up to believe in value for honest wages. I try to give it my best shot if I own it or not. I think I should basically give the audience what they want as long as it doesn't violate my own ethical concerns. I have a problem with vigilante justice, so I have to figure out alternate story angles when I did a character like Batman, so as not to accentuate that particular bent of the character.”

Hedge Coke: “How responsible do you feel about the contents of comics you work on? Responsible to your audience, to comics history, or to yourself.”

Hama: “It seems rather pretentious to be concerned about responsibility to comics history. The main responsibility I feel is to give the audience an entertaining read. I'm not out to preach, or send an overt message. I'm against war, but for the soldier. That doesn't blare out from the pages of GI Joe, but is a theme that runs throughout the extended narrative. If I am taking over an already established character, I feel responsible to the perceived history of that character. If I make any changes, it is usually to amplify what I feel is already there. I feel that is what I did with Wolverine. I objected strongly to the 'bone claws' arc and did it under duress, because it was agreed upon by the majority at an X-conference. It never felt 'right' to me, and I couldn't understand the logic of how that worked.”

Hedge Coke: “Have you ever done something in a comic that you couldn't have imagined would get anyone's dander up, only to be cautioned by someone above you at the publisher or find it enraged folks after publication?”

Hama: “More times than I can recount easily. No matter what you do, somebody out there will take offense at it. I named a malignant computer program 'Shiva' in Wolverine and because a single Hindu kid wrote in, I had to kill the rest of that particular arc. It wasn't even a character, it was the acronym for the application. And then of course there was the outcry from paranoid-schizophrenics about Zartan. A friend of mine, who is shrink, said 'what did you expect? they're PARANOID.' Jay Leno (before he hosted Tonight) went on Letterman and did a whole routine about how he was offended by the Dreadnoks being bikers.”

Hedge Coke: “Have you ever seen someone's contribution to a comic you worked on and been, if not offended, concerned about some content of their contribution?”

Hama: “I can't get bent out of shape about what happens to characters after I leave them. Everything will get eventually undone by people who figure they can make it 'better.' I avoid reading all of that stuff.

“Have not read a single issue of Wolverine since I left the book. (they stopped sending me bundles, and I don't go to comic shops and buy any.) I have never watched any of the GI Joe animation, either. For years, I was puzzled by people who came up to me at conventions and said 'knowing is half the battle.' I was like, 'um... sure.'”

Hedge Coke: “Does Nth Man still have enough to say, still do enough, in your opinion, to warrant a reprinting/collection? Do you think the ethical considerations embodied by the main characters are more or less valid today than when it was originally being serialized?”

Hama: “The ethical conflicts of the characters is what the Nth Man was really about. All the rest was just choreography. I had to cut it short because it got cancelled, but I had enough warning to wrap up most of the threads and bring it around to the rinse cycle like I had planned from the beginning.”

Hedge Coke: “When Ben Grimm and Logan came out, a comic you wrote about a pre-Fantastic Four military adventure involving some classic Marvel heroes, there was some outcry over (future Ms Marvel) Carol Danvers' introduction. She's got her arms over her head, chest out. That she's as competent as anyone in the story, well-used for her job – probably the only Carol Danvers story with an explicit understanding of what the NSA is and who works for them - and as a foil to the other characters (especially enemy agent, the Black Widow), that was where it stopped for some folks. Any thoughts on that?”

Hama: “All I can say is that an awful lot of women have thanked me for doing tough competent female characters that were in direct contrast to the bimbos with their palms nailed to their foreheads that were prevalent at the time.”

Hedge Coke: “I believe you were involved in the Wally Wood deal, 22 Panels That Always Work!! (which I would say was a nonfiction/instructional comic, itself, really, and one that always works), which seems to add fuel to the kind of people who want to take shots at Wood for being lazy or cheating. "Oh, sure, it looks great, but he cheated" and so. Can you say anything about either that twenty-two panel guide or shortcuts in general?”

Hama: “First off, anybody who thinks Woody 'cheated' is way off base. WHO are these people who take shots at Woody for being lazy?? Dollars to donuts, they are nobody you ever heard of. I compiled those 22 panels which were actually on three sheets originally. I had the Marvel stat room resize the frames to fit on one 8X10 sheet and I lettered the title and sub-heading with my own editorial comment which was a snide dig at writers. I ran off a hundred copies and kept them in my office to hand out to prospective pencilers. After a while, other editors asked for copies to hand out and it sort of spread. Joel Johnson now owns the original paste-up and you download a pristine digital file of it from his blog.”


Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed this interview! Thank you! I agree Nth Man is one of the best comic book series ever written. I wish more people could become familiar with it and appreciate it. It is simply a stunning comic book series in every sense of the word.

Anonymous said...

I would love to check out the Nth Man comic! The GI Joe series with him is the best comic i have ever read. Simply amazing!

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