Larry Hama, Artist, Writer, Actor, Musician
By Dympna Burkhart
Larry Hama, best known for the 1980s G.I. Joe™ comic series, is not only a comic book legend, but also an actor, writer, artist, and musician. Since selling his first comic strip at fifteen, he has written, edited, and drawn for countless comic books, including Wolverine, The Avengers, Generation X, and Wonder Woman, and his illustrations and cartoons have appeared in The National Lampoon, Esquire, and Rolling Stone.
Larry has appeared on stage, TV, and film, including in Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, Saturday Night Live, M*A*S*H, and in the 1979 cult classic film The Warriors.
Last year he was an Artist in Residence at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University, and his book, The Death of Captain America: A Novel of the Marvel Universe, was published this year.
In August 2014, Larry sat down to talk to me in his spacious, sun-lit Tribeca loft in New York City. –db
C617: Your work spans so many areas. What do you think is your greatest strength?
Larry Hama: The only thing I know how to do is to tell stories with pictures. A lot of people can draw. A hundred thousand people can draw better than me and a hundred thousand can tell better stories, but I can do the two together and make a cohesive thing out of a sequence of pictures. And not a whole lot of people can do that.
A lot is recognizing what you can and can’t do, and playing to your strong points. Many people waste an awful lot of time doing stuff they’re not really good at, and it’s much more efficient to pare all that stuff away and focus on what you do well.
What is hard to do is to strip away the delusion, and to come to grips with what you’re trying to do with the medium itself. If all you want to do is satisfy some creative urge, that’s pretty much masturbation. But my aim was always to entertain. If I’m up there playing guitar, or acting, or drawing, my objective is to entertain.
I’m not out there to prove I’m an artist, because I refuse to call myself an artist. I’m a penciller, I’m a drawer, I’m a scripter. Because “artist,” as far as I’m concerned, is not a job description. You can’t award it to yourself; it seems like the height of hubris to call yourself an artist. It’s like you can’t call yourself a poet. Posterity will say whether you’re a poet or artist, you can’t make that declaration yourself. I see it as honing a craft.
It was always a surprise to me to find out that everything I thought was really difficult wasn’t all that difficult, whether it was acting or whatever. I got a part in a Stephen Sondheim musical without being able to sing or dance. This actor once told me, “Never tell anyone you can’t do anything.” And so I would go home every night and practice for hours, and then I found out I could actually dance or whatever.
I’ve got a Facebook page called “Larry, 'been faking it all my life,' Hama.” I’ve been always faking it. I never took a writing course, but I write. I don’t know the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, but I was an editor for years. I don’t have a natural “fist” for drawing, but I’m really good at suggesting gesture and expression. I draw very messily but very expressively, and that’s what gets me hired.
C617: Tell me a little about your background. Where did you grow up?
Larry Hama: When I was really young, we lived on 110th Street and Central Park West in Manhattan, back when it was a crummy neighborhood, but then we moved to Floral Park, which is on the eastern border of Queens. I was an only child, and from kindergarten to seventh grade, I was the only kid in school who wasn’t white.
C617: Did you read a lot of comics when you were a kid?
Larry Hama: Every kid read comics back then; I didn’t know a single kid who didn’t own a comic book. My favorite was Uncle Scrooge by Carl Barks. But it never occurred to me that I could do it as a living.
First of all, I didn’t even know who Cark Barks was until my twenties, because no one got credit back then; comics just came out of a strange place. Every single Disney comic strip was signed Walt Disney, and I used to think, “Wow, this guy can draw in so many different styles,” not realizing they were all by different people. It wasn’t something that I thought I could do; it didn’t occur to me that it was a real job.
C617: Did you draw a lot back then?
Larry Hama: I drew all the time. I would draw stuff that fulfilled my weird fantasies, like rocket ships, tanks, airplanes. I had lots of friends in the neighborhood but, being an only child, I did spend a lot of time alone, and drawing filled the time.
C617: Did you have any formal art training?
Larry Hama: I went to the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan in the mid-’60s. I majored in illustration and advertising art, as I thought that was a way to make a living, and my illustration teacher was Bernard Krigstein, a famous painter and comic book artist at EC Comics.
He made us keep sketchbooks, which we handed in for inspection every week. One week, I had only one sketch and I told him that I had worked on it all week. He said something like, “You have to do five hundred thousand really sucky drawings before you do one good one, so if I were you, I’d get those first five hundred thousand out of the way as fast as possible.”
Krigstein never talked about doing comics, because he was a painter who did comics in the ’50s as a day job. I don’t think many people in class even knew what he had done at EC. His innovations in comics still stand up today. He invented a whole new language and methodology.
C617: Is this when you first started getting into comics?
Larry Hama: Ironically, I didn’t get into comics through my instructors but through another student. My first day of school, this tall skinny black kid—a total stranger—walks up to me in the cafeteria and says, “Hey, do you like comics?” And this kid, John, kept going on and on about comics and how he knew a real comic book artist and would I like to go meet him. I was just carried along by his enthusiasm, and he introduced me to a comic book guy named Larry Ivie, and Larry Ivie introduced me to Wally Wood, one of Mad Magazine’s founding cartoonists, and that’s how it all got started.
I was fifteen. John would say, “Let’s go visit Mad Magazine,” which was only three blocks from our school, and I’d just tag along with him, and he’d get us in there and we’d walk up and down the halls looking at all the cover paintings hanging up in the hallways. We’d go over to Help!, this somewhat risqué satire magazine run by Harvey Kurtzman, one of the creators of Mad. The art director there was this young guy named Terry Gilliam and Kurtzman’s assistant was Gloria Steinem.
The office was this tiny little room with a desk, a drawing table, and a file cabinet. We’d go up there and just hang out. Terry would show us all this stuff that was coming in from new kids like R. Crumb. They had Woody Allen, John Cleese, and all these other young writers working for them; some of them would write these fumetti strips—comics with photos and balloon captions. These guys were way out of our league, but it opened up a great new world for me. I guess it inspired me—at fifteen, I sold my first comic work to the fantasy film magazine, Castle of Frankenstein.
C617: So where did you go once you left high school?
Larry Hama: I got an illustrating job in a studio that did catalogues—I was a shoe artist for Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney catalogues. I was also doing strips with underground comics, including Oz Magazine and Gothic Blimp Boards, which was like the underground Sunday funnies, where I was working with folks like Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Trina Robbins, and Art Spiegelman.
Then I was drafted into the army in ’69. I came back in ’71 and hooked up with this guy from high school, Ralph Reese, who was an established comic book artist, and he said why don’t you come start a studio with me? He penciled and I inked. We made a living doing comics and illustration. We did whatever came up—advertisements, comics for National Lampoon. There wasn’t a steady stream, and it was kind of rough. So Ralph fixed me up with Wally Wood, who needed an assistant. He was doing two scripts at the time—Cannon and Sally Forth—for overseas weekly papers sold in PXs to GIs, and I started to write these.
I eventually ended up at Neil Adams’ studio, Continuity, where I rented a table for $50 a month and all the coffee you could drink. The studio was an atelier, a meeting place for every comic book artist in NYC—it was three blocks from EC and DC Comics and six blocks from Marvel—so people would always be stopping by to shoot the breeze and get a free cup of coffee. It was an amazing crossroads.
C617: That sounds like a fascinating time, being around all these pioneering cartoonists. Is this when you did your first comic book?
Larry Hama: It was very hard to get your foot in the door. Neil convinced an editor at EC to give me a break, and he gave me an eight-page horror story to pencil and ink, House of Secrets, which was my first real comic book job. That led to work at Marvel, where I got a monthly comic book called Iron Fist. I was about twenty-four.
Then Atlas/Seaboard Comics offered to double my rate, and I did Wulf the Barbarian for them. Also, while working at Continuity, I created the Bucky O’Hare series, about a green rabbit that engages in intergalactic war against space amphibians. It did pretty well—it later became a comic, cartoon series, video game, and toy line.
C617: Weren’t you doing some acting at this time too? How did that happen?
Larry Hama: Yeah, one day I got into the elevator in my apartment building and met this woman; she asked if I was an actor, and when I said no, she said, “Well, do you want to be one?”
She ended up casting me in an off-Broadway production of Moby Dick, and somehow that led to a part in the Stephen Sondheim show, Pacific Overtures. I played all the bad guys. I did that for about a year, 1976-77, on Broadway and around the country. I was doing eight shows a week, so I wasn’t drawing much. I also ended up doing a M*A*S*H episode and a Saturday Night Live spoof of Apocalypse Now.
When I came back to NYC after that, I was offered a job as an editor at DC Comics doing Jonah Hex, Wonder Woman, and other books. Then I went to Marvel, to edit Crazy Magazine. I did that for a couple of years, and then the computer revolution pretty much killed all the humor work. I slid sideways to edit Conan the Barbarian.
C617: How did you come to do G.I. Joe™?
Larry Hama: About 1982, Hasbro launched the G.I. Joe™ Action Doll and they wanted a Marvel comic, but nobody wanted to do a toy license book—it was the bottom of barrel at that time for creators. Toy books were considered career killers. I was trying to get writing work for ages, so I took it. I did it for fourteen years and wrote one hundred fifty-five issues. In fact, it’s still running. It took off and got really huge.
C617: Why do you think G.I. Joe™ became so popular with readers?
Larry Hama: Well, for one thing, it was the first comic book ever advertised on television, and it was linked to a very hot toy. Plus, I gave it my best shot, and I never wrote down to the kids. I figured if they’re spending their own money to buy a comic book, then I’m dealing with a smart group of kids. Why patronize them? If they know how to use a dictionary, then they can damn well look it up.
Even now, when I go to comic conventions, many fans come up to me and say, “Thank you for my childhood.” Some say that what I wrote gave them a sense of stability when their parents were getting divorced or when they were going through other traumas. The reason for this, I think, is because this was at a time when antiheroes and depressed superheroes were the vogue in comics, and G.I. Joe™ wasn’t like that. It was about a team of people who could really depend on each other.
Plus, the women characters were not treated any differently—they took the same risks as male characters. As a result, I had a lot of female fans. They liked the way my female characters were treated.
C617: What else have you been working on recently?
Larry Hama: Basically, I go with whatever way the wind blows, whatever is paying. If someone pays me to write Popsicle jingles, I’ll write Popsicle jingles. I don’t see much difference between drawing shoes and drawing comic books. I never believed in art with a capital "A." I was brought up by people who went through the Great Depression and it was all about getting a job, making a living, the practicalities.
I’ve done some storyboarding—an episode of The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, commercials— and for years I played guitar and sang in a band, the K-Otics, made up mostly of other cartoonists and illustrators. I like to write songs that tell a story. I’ve also sold eight screenplays. Only one got made but it never got distributed, but at least I got paid. I wrote the prequel for The Lion in Winter, a screenplay for Milton’s Paradise Lost, and another based on Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse.
Last year I was artist-in-residence at Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University. I go to comic conventions, both here and abroad. Wolverine, for example, is very popular in Spain. In one of the books, Wolverine goes back in time and goes into the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side, so it’s especially popular in northern Spain.
I just got back from Trinidad, a trip sponsored by the U.S. State Department, where I met with artists and writers, talking about how comics can be used for educational purposes. Comics are a very useful tool in places where there is a lot of illiteracy or where there are a lot of indigenous languages—you don’t have to worry about translating into seventeen different dialects. I also recently finished a three-part vampire novel called The Stranger, plus my book, Captain America: The Death of Captain America, was published by Marvel.
C617: How did you make the transition to writing novels?
Larry Hama: I was out of work and needed to do something, and I thought it was worth a shot. I’d never written prose before, but writing a monthly comic is really writing long-form. The G.I. Joe™ plot line is just one long, continuous story. I was also very used to describing scenes, as that was what I had to do to write comic book plots. I plan the scenes out in my head as a visual narrative, and then describe it in words.
C617: Do you see yourself as having a mission?
Larry Hama: I don’t have a mission. I’m just trying to entertain and communicate. Communication is so difficult for most people, so that when communication works, I call that art. That’s all it is.
You go into those caves in France and see a painting that someone did twenty thousand years ago, and you look at it and know and understand what it is, and it looks beautiful to you. That’s communicating and that’s what makes it art. Once upon a time it was called magic; the people who did those paintings in those caves weren’t called artists, they were called sorcerers and magicians.
The purpose of art is to communicate. If you’re the only one who gets it, what good is it? For anyone who creates something that is eventually called art, the important thing is to make that human connection and have someone look at what you do, or listen to what you do, or read what you do, and go, “Holy shit, I get that, I see what you’re trying to say, and ain’t that terrific.”
*G.I. Joe is a trademark of Hasbro.
Visit Larry Hama’s Facebook page: Larry “been faking it all my life” Hama.