Larry Hama is an American comic-book writer, artist, actor, and musician who has worked in the fields of entertainment and publishing since the 1960s. He is best known to American comic book readers as a writer and editor for Marvel Comics, where he wrote the licensed comic series G.I Joe : A Real American Hero, based on the Hasbro toyline. He has also written for the series Wolverine, Nth Man: The Ultimate Ninja, and Elektra. He co-created the character Bucky O’Hare, which was developed into a comic book, a toy line and television cartoon
Exclusive Interview with a Comic Legend Larry Hama
Q: You grew up in New York, learned judo from Kodokan and was very athletic but how did you get interested in comic books? You were also a painter when you were a child.
Larry Hama: I loved comics as a kid. I read mostly Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck. My favorite artist was a guy named Carl Barks. He created the Uncle Scrooge characters and did the best Disney comics. During high school, I wanted to be a fashion designer/illustrator. But when I got out of high school, I did two things. I went to work in the studio, drawing shoes for catalogs. But I was also working in underground comics so I worked at the beginning of the underground comix movement with R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Trina Robbins and Spain Rodriguez. Everybody that started underground comics. We all worked in New York for a publication called Gothic Blimp Works, which was started by Vaughn Bode and it was the Sunday funnies to the East Village Other. This was in 1968… very early.
Q: You went to the Manhattan art and design high school.
Larry Hama: The High School of Art and Design was where almost all of the comic book artists went to. [Major Marvel and DC creators at the time such as] Neal Adams, Alex Toth, Dick Giordano [and more] all went to High School of Art and Design.
Q: You met your mentor Bernard Krigstein. How did he help shape who you are as a comic book artist/editor?
Larry Hama: Bernard Krigstein was my illustration teacher at the High School of Art and Design. It helped because all you have to do is know who Bernard Krigstein is. I had never heard of him until he was my teacher. Other friends of mine who were comic book fanatics said, “Oh, you got to look at his comic stuff” that he did for EC comics. That was really the most influential because he created modern comics. Up until Bernard Krigstein, all the EC comics were exactly six panels, equal panels, boom, boom, you know, two rows by three…
All the comics were lettered before they were drawn… with Leroy lettering. All the artist did was fill in under the balloons. Krigstein didn’t like that, he wanted to be able to change it so that instead of six pages, it would be 12 pages or whatever. He wanted to do cinematic effects like a character falling and he was really good at looking at film and movies and translating what he saw in motion into static 2D. He’s one of the first people to do that and that opened my eyes up completely. This is a really wonderful way to tell a story and to tell a story almost completely visually.
When I came home from the Army, I got a job working as an assistant for Wally Wood. I learned so much working there. He taught me how to letter first of all, because he said, if I can’t teach you how to letter, I can’t teach you how to ink. He said, learning lettering is very simple because there’s only 26 letters in the English alphabet and the control of the tool of the pen, that is your training to do everything else.
If you can control the pen to letter, you can control the pen to ink. It’s a step-by-step process. I learned that from him. When Woody [the late Wally Wood, another legendary EC/Marvel artist] moved to Connecticut, he set me up with Neal Adams at his studio. I had the drawing table next to Neal Adams for three years. Nobody wanted to sit there because he was so intimidating! People were afraid of his critique because he told people exactly what he thought and I learned so much there because I have a thick skin. It didn’t bother me as long as… He wouldn’t just say, “Oh, that’s bad or that sucks or whatever.” People would say, “oh, don’t get your work criticized by Neal because he’s just really mean,” but it was the truth.
Q: You sharpened your skill by listening to his criticism…
Larry Hama: I was sitting there when Frank Miller first showed up. Frank was 17, when he came and showed Neal his portfolio and Neal just ripped him apart. But …
Q: The guys who stick with Neal got successful later…
Larry Hama: [Neal] spent an hour with Frank, going over every page and showing him what was wrong. He said, “Look, you’ve got a lot of potential, work on this and come back in six months.” Six months later, he came back and Neal did it again. Went through everything tearing them apart…
Q: It must be a daunting task to get his approval.
Larry Hama: A lot of people that Neal did this to never come back. They just get pissed off — their egos couldn’t take it. But Frank wanted to learn, so he kept coming back [with his portfolio]. Finally one day, Neal looked at it and didn’t say anything. Picks up the phone, he calls the editor at Marvel, Dennis O’neill and he says, “look, I’m going to send this kid over and if you don’t give him work, you’re crazy”. That’s how [Frank] got in the door. Neal did that for dozens when he was at DC.
You know, he literally stuck his foot in the door to keep the door open. He convinced them to use all these people that they didn’t think would fit DC’s style. He got [other great artists like] Jeff Jones to do covers. He got them Michael Kaluta, he brought them Bernie Wrightson, these were all people who had styles that were nothing at all like the DC style. That revolutionized everything. He got all these people their first work. He got me my first job at DC by saying, “look, if you give this kid, an eight page story, a pencil, I’ll ink it.” He inked my first job.
Q: That’s an amazing story.
Larry: He was my stepfather in a way. I always called him Uncle Neal, I still feel like I’m part of the family because I’ve been to all the weddings of his kids. Now, his kids see me as their uncle. So it all goes around.
Q: You talk about serving in Vietnam for a couple of years. How much of that experience influenced the creation of “The ‘Nam” and “G.I. Joe.”
Larry: By the time I was doing “G.I. Joe,” I had been out of the army for 12 years so a lot of stuff had changed. What sticks with you is the people and how you interacted and the attitude of the soldiers. Basically, what happened When I came to do “The ‘Nam,” was that Jim Shooter, the editor in chief, came into my office and he had a cover mocked up that said the ‘Nam on it. Actually he took a “G.I. Joe” cover with the guy in camouflage and put the ‘Nam logo over it. He had this fake cover and said, “We want to do this book.” I said, “Well, what’s it about?” He said, “All I have is the cover and the title.”
I told him that I didn’t want to do a book about something real like Vietnam unless it could be as realistic as possible and that it wouldn’t be Sergeant Fury. It wouldn’t be this macho military fantasy stuff. It would be the real thing and would be in real time. The soldiers who served in Vietnam went for one year, they called it 364 and a wake up. I said, “Ok, every month, every issue, one month goes by in real time. If you’ve got a character who comes into Vietnam through his unit, in 12 issues, he goes back home. In the meantime, other characters come in. It reproduces the entire feeling of what it was like.
I got my friend Doug Murray, who did two tours in Vietnam, to write it and got Mike Golden to draw it. He’d actually been in Vietnam as a civilian contractor, plus he knew all the military stuff so it was really easy. I got another friend, Lee Russell, who did two tours in Vietnam with the engineers, come on as a technical consultant. We had a pretty good team that really knew what the material was and felt [strongly] about the material. We sold a lot of copies of that book and I think the book still stands up. It’s still relevant.
Q: A little off topic, but I’m curious about your acting career as listed on Wikipedia. It mentions “M.A.S.H.” and “Saturday Night Live.”
Larry Hama: Haha, The “Saturday Night Live” was for an “Apocalypse Now” skit with Martin Sheen. I had to wear this loincloth the whole time.
Q: You appeared in a parade for Steven Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures.” What was it like to work with Sondheim at that time?
Larry Hama: Sondheim was a genius. For “Pacific Overtures,” I think I got the part because they really needed bad guys. I’m a fairly convincing bad guy plus I had martial arts training. I grew up with this training like Judo and Kendo. I knew all the mannerisms and how to handle the sword and the sword etiquette. The costume designer was very taken with me and how I knew how to wear my costume. With my Kendo training, working with the other dancers was pretty easy.
Q: When you were doing stuff for Marvel Comics, how much interaction did you have with Stan Lee and other creators to keep the momentum of the comic books? What did you guys do to inspire each other?
Larry Hama: It was very different back then. There was a real sense of community where everybody knew each other. We did everything together. When “Star Wars” first came out, Chris Claremont went to the theater at six in the morning and stood in line. He was the first one in line.
As all of us from Marvel and DC showed up, he would let us cut in front of him, everybody behind us was really angry. There were over 100 of us and we took up the first three rows of the theater passing around the doobie. Everybody was really toasted. By the time we got into the theater, we were holy shit. I went with 20 people to see “Alien.” Comic book artists did a lot of pop culture things together back then.
Q: With all the camaraderie, was it competitive working with each other as well?
Larry Hama: The thing is that most of the comic book artists are fans themselves and they love to see good stuff. It’s always about encouraging the new people. All they asked was that you just pass it along. Everybody learned from each other. If somebody figured out how to do something back you could just call each other up. Al Milgrom and I were editors at DC, so he convinced DC to pay for life drawing to have higher models once a week and use the conference room.
Any artist could come for free and do life drawing. DC would provide refreshments, some fruits and a couple of bottles of wine. What was weird is that the people that always showed up were the people who didn’t need it. It was Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta and Jeff Jones, they all came for the life drawing classes which they didn’t need and all the people that couldn’t really draw never came.
It was a whole lifestyle. All your friends are artists and you did everything together. You partied together and everything and that doesn’t exist anymore. The most common way to get into the business was to go work for an older artist as an assistant. I did that with Wally Wood. Howard Chaykin worked for Gil Kane and other people.
Q: When you became an editor at Marvel and DC Comics, can you talk about licensing, how important it was for you to have the licensing later on for a film adaptation and all those things. How did you make that move?
Larry Hama: That became very important. Printed comics [themselves] have almost always been a loss leader. The comics themselves don’t make a lot of money, but the licensing is where all the income is. The licensing alone on “X-Men” is enormous. And it’s mostly for Wolverine. Betty Boop hasn’t been a comic strip or a cartoon in 50 years and people still license her.
Same thing with Popeye, all these comic characters live on in licensing because the value is the recognition. Everybody knows who Popeye is. It’s very easy to sell a license, right? Everybody knows who Batman is and who Superman is. Everybody knows who Spiderman is. A lot of people are consciously trying to come up with new characters that are going to have that type of impact and legs. It’s very hard because you can’t predict it. It’s hard to know what people will care about in 10 years.
Q: Were you aware of Japanese comics [manga]? If so, what did you learn from them?
Larry Hama: You could look at the pictures and understand the whole story [back then]. That’s the philosophy that I tried to convey when I was an editor. I would try to get my artists to look at these things [manga] and say this is the way you tell me a story. Somebody who can’t even read one of the words can tell 80% of what’s going on and then you have to have a really good artist to do the acting.
About four years ago, I was laying out four books a month for DC comics because they had all these artists that could draw a lot better than me, really good artists, but they couldn’t tell a story, they couldn’t do acting. I would put all that into the layouts and the breakdowns. Do the acting, the gestures, the clear storytelling but that was the state of the art, drawing comics or manga is a combination of really specific skills and if you’re missing one of them, it doesn’t work.
Q: Are there any comics which you wanted to turn into a film?
Larry Hama: I did “Bucky O’Hare.” We were trying to make a movie out of that for 20 years. My original concept was that it was a combination of live action and animation like “Roger Rabbit.” The kid really did it with a live action actor and then he would get sucked into this animated universe. I wrote two graphic novels, one of which was actually drawn and published. The two graphic novels comprise the screenplay and we’ve had like, two or three production companies [interested]… We had one that was really close to getting it done and then the pandemic happened.
Q: How about a ‘Nam film? That’s not possible?
Larry Hama: It’d be really hard. The whole concept is about the continuity and how it takes place in real time. You can’t duplicate that in the movie. But one thing that I thought of as a possible movie thing was “Anthem Man,” which took place in the Cold War. I’ve done a bunch of stuff that’s been optioned but never got made. I created something called “Mort the Dead Teenager” for Marvel. They put out four issues of the limited series. Steven Spielberg loved it, bought the option, got me and a co-writer to write the screenplay. I got paid to write the screenplay but then the guy that I co-wrote it with was a director. He had a movie come out that was a big flop.
All of a sudden, because he was connected to this thing, they didn’t want to do it. A year later, Quentin Tarantino and Madonna both decided that they liked this property and wanted to put their own money into trying to get it going. They paid to have a fake trailer made and they got the DP Dean Cundey to direct it. They got Jessica Simpson and all these Warner Brothers teenage stars to be in it. They paid a lot of money for this; they had special effects, blew up cars and stuff and made a 10 minute fake trailer to get the financing and everything but it never happened. If Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino and Madonna can’t get this done. What are my chances? [Chuckles.]
Q: Are there any Japanese comics or movies that you were really influenced by, or that you wanted to work with?
Larry Hama: I was never that much into anime, except for maybe, “Ghosts in the Shell” and “Akira.” Of course [I like] Hayao Miyazaki which is an entirely different thing. I went to the museum [dedicated to him] in Tokyo. They recreated his original office! It’s my favorite place in Tokyo.