Tag Archives: Behind the scenes

Interview – Flag Points Part One

In October I fired up my microphone and Skyped with Don and Dave of the G.I. Joe podcast Flag Points.  It’s pretty nerdy, but should appeal beyond a narrow band of hardcore toy Joe fans.  We talk about collecting, my book, and Hasbro, and we also make Star Wars and Transformers references.  And after I overmodulate for the first few minutes I back off from the microphone.  Perfect for those long drives or killing time on the treadmill.  We talked for so long they broke it in half.  You can stream or download to take with you.
http://flagpoints.podbean.com/2011/10/28/flag-points-10-part-1/

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G.I. Joe Book Photography – Duke and Spirit

G.I. Joe Duke and Spirit action figures MG0581

G.I. Joe toy photography by Andre Blais for Gladworks

Ace lensman Andre Blais came on board just a few weeks after I signed the contract for Gladworks to design my book, and part of the appeal was that he was (and is) in-house there.  So in one room there’s designer Liz Sousa at a Mac, and in another is Andre, with a cyc, pro lights and diffusion, tripods, and more.  (And a Mac.)  I’ll interview him soon for a future blog post.

The general idea for these photos came from the toy photography of Brian Malloy and Erik Hildebrandt in John Michlig‘s G.I. Joe: The Complete Story of America’s Favorite Man of Action.  (Regular readers will recognize that book as one of the two main inspirations for A Real American Book.)  There are only four “fantasy” shots in Michlig, where the reader point of view is in scale with the 12-inch Joes, but the toys themselves are set against the scale of the man-made world.  Rather than product shots, like a catalog displaying toys on a table top (even if the table top is a dressed set), I wanted story moments, like movie stills.

This was also practical.  I don’t want to reproduce too many visuals that are commonly available.  My book aims to continually show and tell unrevealed facts, anecdotes, and imagery.  But whole sections tell the history of people talking and making decisions, but people weren’t taking candid photos of co-workers at the office in 1982.  (Which may seem odd compared to today when every cell phone and music player is also a high resolution camera.)  If an interviewee recalls making the Snake-Eyes figure, an obvious pairing would be a photo of that figure, or a scan of a concept sketch.  But what if there’s no obvious pairing?  To break up stretches of history that have no clearly analogous visuals, the solution was to sprinkle in dramatic diorama-style toy photos.

For this photoshoot, I had only a vague idea of where (or why) an image of Duke and Spirit would go.  Maybe Chapter 4, when the narrative gets to the second and third waves of toys?  Sadly, nothing from this shoot made the final cut.  There are two reasons for that:  First, I had forgotten to bring Spirit’s belt.  I was worried that hardcore fans would dismiss the photo for not being fully accessorized, so I asked Andre to crop above Spirit’s waist, which really limited the composition.  Second, the chapter where this photo would go ultimately didn’t need a photo of two action figures in a “fantasy” setting, even if it’s a great photo.

G.I. Joe Duke and Spirit action figures, photo by Andre Blais - MG0590

G.I. Joe toy photography by Andre Blais for Gladworks

G.I. Joe Duke and Spirit action figure photo by Andre Blais - MG0590

G.I. Joe toy photography by Andre Blais for Gladworks

Note the difference in these two — how the golden light from the left adds dimension and warmth to Spirit’s hair, gun-holding arm, and torso.  It’s not in the first shot.  Here they are together for comparison:

G.I. Joe Duke and Spirit action figure photo by Andre Blais - MG0590

G.I. Joe toy photography by Andre Blais for Gladworks

A few weeks later we tried this shoot again, this time with the belt, but the magic was too difficult to recapture.

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The Comic That Changed Everything – Part One

Part One – Two - Three - FourFive – SixSevenEightNine

Because my mom didn’t want to cook dinner every night of the week, Wednesdays we ate out.  This tradition lasted for about 6 years.  We loved our local mall.  (Ironic since the growth of the suburban mall in the 1970s reflected the flight of retail stores from the American Downtown, a trend that closed my grandfather’s Baltimore department store years earlier.)  After a renovation that added an entirely new wing complete with 3-screen movie theatre, video arcade, and food court, Montgomery Mall had us hooked.  So after Mom came home from work she and brother Kevin and I would drive up the Beltway (the loop of interstate around Washington, D.C., and now the bane of many an automotive commuter) eager for a reliable night out in the consistent 72 degrees of our hermetic shopping experience.

After fast food dinner, we’d browse the book store and then split up – my mom to the department stores, and Kevin and I to – the arcade was actually called this, with a red and green neon sign – The Name of the Game.  A half-hour later we’d drive home in time to finish homework and watch whatever ABC sitcoms were dulling our senses that particular season.

In the June between 5th and 6th grade, while strolling into Waldenbooks, past magazines and bestsellers, I looked up at the two spinner racks of comics and saw a revelation.  His name was Road Pig.

The G.I. Joe cartoon had been in reruns for two years, a death spiral we could not fathom it pulling out of.  New toys continually refreshed the line, but they didn’t speak or move.  The explosions were imaginary, made in the onomatopoetic lexicon of little boys splayed out on a shag carpet.

From that top rack I pulled a comic book – odd thing it was – and noted several important elements:  A bold “G.I. JOE” logo.  The aforementioned Road Pig, a villain we had met in our role play, but never on television.  He was brandishing his cinderblock-on-a-stick, a weapon so bizarre that if new episodes were on the air we inherently knew it would not appear, much like Snake-Eyes’ sword, television restrictions being what they were.  On this cover image Road Pig was hauling two… who were they?  I didn’t actually know since they were out of costume, but I could tell they were older Joes, circa year one.  And a foreboding sign on the wall, pointing past them to something called the “Brain Wave Scanner.”  Whatever all of this was, it begged several questions and I was curious for the answers.

Opening this flimsy periodical offered more surprises and teases.  Over the first four pages, more characters who were too new to have appeared on the G.I. Joe cartoon!  And an entire panel where one group of them – the Iron Grenadiers with their ceremonial swords (like U.S. Marines in their dress blues) actually brandish them!  Threateningly!  At other villains!  It was too much for me to take.  The Iron Grenadier action figures did come packed with swords, but they were permanently sheathed.  So if Snake-Eyes was never going to use his sword on television (he did have it in hand once, but didn’t get to impale a robot or anything), and the Iron Grenadier toys made it physically impossible to properly use these other swords, that an “episode” of the G.I. Joe comic book had more relaxed rules concerning action and “violence” content made my eyes bulge.

And then a Cobra villain shoots another Cobra villain!  All before page 5!  (It was just a tranquilizer gun, but a kind of gattling tranq on steroids.)

But this was the icky G.I. Joe comic book!  Hadn’t I already tried this out with Yearbook #3 and #4?  Weren’t those printed on a dull newsprint, with a limited palette that could not rival the saturated intensity of animation cel vinyl photographed on 35mm film and telecined for broadcast?  Yes.  They were.  But there were a few more colors here than those earlier comics, (or perhaps a more adept color artist), and the pull of all these characters and actions that were not available on television overrode my aesthetic concerns.

I flipped back to the cover.  One dollar.  That was a lot, but it also wasn’t.  Kevin and I had a weekly allowance, and did not spend it on candy or gum.  Or prose books.  Those were all parental purchases.  We tended to measure money with our own private system:  The least expensive toys we bought were about three dollars.  At Toys”R”Us, that meant a single G.I. Joe action figure, or an Autobot minicar (like Bumblebee).  Everything scaled up from there in multiples of three and five.  A $12 or $15 Joe vehicle was possible after a few weeks or months of saving.  The $30 Metroplex was a bit out of my reach and became a birthday request.  The $100 U.S.S. Flagg aircraft carrier was an utter impossibility.  (Even the rich kid down the street didn’t have that, and he had a Millenium Falcon!)

So when I showed G.I. Joe issue #90 to my brother, his immediate response deflated, but did not surprise me:  “Cool.  Don’t buy it.”

Did I? Find out next week!

Part One – Two - Three - FourFive – SixSevenEightNine

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Behind the scenes of G.I. Joe – Hawk

1986 G.I. Joe Hawk Card front CU crop

Something simple today:  A blister card sample, front and back, for 1986 Hawk.  No blister, no figure, no accessories.

I’m attributing the artwork to Hector Garrido.

G.I. Joe 1986 Hawk blister card front

G.I. Joe 1986 Hawk blister card back

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Behind the scenes of G.I. Joe – Hydro-Viper

Today’s art post is the complete sculpt input (i.e. “turnaround”) for the 1988 Hydro-Viper.  Again for casual or non-fans, let’s start with a photo (by me, not my fancy book photographer) of the production figure for a baseline comparison.

G.I. Joe 1988 Hydro-Viper figure

Here’s George Woodbridge’s turnaround.  Such a crisp and clean line, and a deft spotting of blacks.

G.I. Joe 1988 Hydro-Viper figure turnaround

Note that the figure is referred to as “Cobra Frogman,” so “Hydro-Viper” hadn’t yet cleared Legal.

Woodbridge’s association with G.I. Joe is limited. He drew most of the ’88 inputs, and did many of the Hasbro-internal figure presentation paintings that Dave Dorman and Bart Sears didn’t around 1988.  Writer Mark Evanier wrote a short biography of Woodbridge in 2004 when the artist passed away.  You can find it here, but if you want a shorter version, I’ll just throw out the terms “Mad Magazine” and “military and historical illustration.”  In the near future I’ll show a few more pieces like this here, and in the not-near future I’ll have Woodbridge’s Crazylegs (a Joe paratrooper) color piece in my book.

Here are three sheets of the Hydro-Viper’s accessories, drawn by Bart Sears.  In toys, Sears is known for designing Hasbro’s C.O.P.S.  In comics, Sears drew Justice League Europe and has recently penciled some Conan and Indiana Jones for Dark Horse.  Of note here is the ray, the most bizarre of all animals that any G.I. Joe figure came packaged with.

G.I. Joe 1988 Hydro-Viper backpack turnaround

G.I. Joe 1988 Hydro-Viper weapons turnaround

G.I. Joe 1988 Hydro-Viper manta ray turnaround

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Behind the scenes of G.I. Joe – PSA #10 Storyboard

G.I. Joe PSA

Endorsed by the National Child Safety Council, a non-profit founded in 1955, the now infamous G.I. Joe public service announcements (PSAs) were created to elevate the series’ profile as an agent for pro-social values and to ward off criticism from parents’ groups that the G.I. Joe cartoon was a) violent and b) a half-hour toy commercial.  35 PSAs were created in all, with topics ranging from not giving in to peer pressure, to nutrition, and to owning up to one’s own mistakes.  The format was likely borrowed from Filmation’s 1983 series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.  In that show, at episode’s end a marquee character would directly address the audience and refer to an incident from the proceeding episode.  The Joe ones were different, working both in “regular” continuity wherein the Joes spoke to kids in-scene, and not the television audience, but also a kind of parallel universe where the Joes were always near suburban danger and utterly lacking in top secret status.

For Footloose’s rapid-fire instructions, PSA #10 is one of my favorites — there’s no way I’d remember what to do in my own soccer crisis unless I had a transcript handy.  Also, this is perhaps one of three incidents in all of G.I. Joe animation 1983 to 2000 where the animators showed blood.  I appreciate the added dash of seriousness.

Here’s the storyboard for PSA #10.  I should know who drew this, but don’t.  I’ll check my sources and update this post when I can.

G.I. Joe PSA #10 storyboard pg 1

G.I. Joe PSA #10 storyboard pg 2 of 3

G.I. Joe PSA #10 storyboard pg 3 of 3

For those unfamiliar with storyboard formatting, here are a few items of note:

-The second panel — the stretched out one — represents a camera move.

-The numbers under the panels represent length of footage in feet and frames.  Old school film editing (and animating) was measured not in seconds/frames, but in feet/frames, with a foot being the physical length of 16 frames of film, and a frame lasting 1/24th of a second.  So where it says “SLUGGED BOARD” at the top left of page one, the board artist has timed out to the audio track each shot’s duration, or is providing a time table for the animators to show how long each shot should last.

As a special thank you, I’d like to acknowlege YouTube user PSAGIJoe, who has uploaded the original, non-satirized PSAs.  You can find them here.

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Behind the scenes of G.I. Joe – Rock-Viper

Today’s post reveals some development artwork for the 1990 Cobra Rock-Viper.  First, a not-great photo by me of the production toy to serve as a baseline for all you casual fans.

Interesting to note this Cobra soldier, of which there were many (rather than a specific individual like Destro or Gristle) has a moustache.  So I guess graduates from training school had a facial hair requirement?

First up is Dave Hasle’s sculpt input drawing for the Rock-Viper’s backpack:

A black and white photocopy (probably of a color photocopy and not a chrome) of Dave Dorman’s internal presentation painting:

Note above and below there’s no moustache.  Here’s the pencil sketch of what will become the final package painting.  I’m attributing this to Hector Garrido:

Here’s the almost complete layout of the cart front and back, in b+w photocopy form, with Garrido’s drawing now a finished painting:

I don’t have a color copy of the painting or a full blister card (any readers want to help?) so this cropped close-up from my dossier and the tiny back-of-package thumbnail of Garrido’s final painting will have to do for comparison.

If you didn’t read this above, check it out here.  Dossier writer Larry Hama’s sense of humor on display.

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Interview #1: Larry Hama, June 2001 – Part Three

Regular readers: Sorry for posting a day late!

In our last episode, Tim sat down to interview Larry Hama, either the best person to start with or the worst…

“Best” because Hama never answered a question with “I don’t remember.”  He recalled stuff from the beginning of G.I. Joe as well as the end.  He talked for two hours.  And he dropped several helpful names, good people to track down next.  He was candid, funny, and not severe.

So why was this the worst interview to start with?

One, because I was starstruck.  Could I even ask the questions without stuttering?

Two, would Hama call my bluff?  I wasn’t a writer, and what research project was I researching anyway?  But this was a writer.  Sitting in front of me, humoring me, was a major reason why I was a comics reader, a Wednesday regular wherever my local store was – Bethesda, Providence, Cambridge.  Here was this famous guy whose name was credited first in almost 200 comic books I kept in my closet at home.  The writer of my “desert island” comics.  I worried my questions were too fannish, that I was bothering Hama and wasting his time.

Three, some of his answers were short, not because he was cutting me off, but because that’s just the way he answers some questions.  To the point.  I didn’t know Hama or his conversational cadence, so in the short term I thought my inquiry was lacking if I wasn’t teasing out bigger answers.  I didn’t feel like I had gotten much of the information I had gone looking for.

Two hours in, Hama suggested we break, and offered up some snacks from his pantry.  As I had stupidly skipped lunch, but hadn’t wanted to impose by asking for food, my relief was palpable.  Those cheese slices, crackers, and salami were a relief, and in the times I’ve visited Larry since ’01 I always smile when I see his kitchen.  Years later I would realize in fact it was a great interview, and that much of the work philosophy and analytical introspection was better than nuts and bolts like “favorite character.”

Nth Man issue #16 cover by Ron Wagner and Bob McLeod, 1990.

We talked for a little while longer, bouncing around non-Joe topics like Nth Man, an underappreciated Marvel gem, and the K-Otics, the blues band Hama played in for years.  When we were done, Hama walked me out.  Heading toward the elevator I sort of mumbled that I was writing a book, which codified it for me.  If I hadn’t been writing a book before, I certainly was now, even if I didn’t know what that meant.  Off the cuff Hama mentioned one Susan Faludi, a writer for Esquire Magazine.  I didn’t know who this was.  Larry explained that she had previously interviewed him by phone for 45 minutes, and that she had interviewed “everyone” regarding G.I. Joe.  Everyone.  It ricocheted around in my head like a lightning bolt.  My heart sank.  Already my project had competition!  Someone had tracked down all the people I didn’t even yet know I needed to track down!  I would later learn that Faludi had won a Pulitzer Prize, and that any article or book of hers on society, the male, and/or G.I. Joe would in no way compete with mine.  But that word “everyone,” as frightening as it was because I was now behind in the race, was vital.  As the elevator doors closed I promised myself that I would interview “everyone” and more, that I would find obscure contributors to G.I. Joe comic books, toys, and animation.  That I would track down people until I had an unreasonably large number of interviews.

So I did.

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Interview #1: Larry Hama, June 2001 – Part Two

In our last episode, Tim secured an interview with Larry Hama and took a train to New York…

Canon GL-1 and a GE microcassette recorder

In my backpack were a marble journal for taking notes, a video camera for recording audio (I’d keep the lens cap on), and a back-up microcassette recorder.  Even though we hadn’t agreed on an exact time, I worried that I had no time for lunch, so I called from a payphone at Penn Station and immediately hopped a subway.  When I got to Hama’s place, I was struck by how open it was, a two floor studio apartment with lots of light and a high ceiling.  My experiences with New York living spaces were all dark and narrow — whatever college dorms and apartments friend (and future book editor) Nick Nadel had been squeezed into.  Years later Larry would tell me about how his building used to have a view all the way to New Jersey, but by the time I got there in 2001, the whole street was built up with shops and tall apartment buildings.

I was also struck by the decorations.  On the left wall was a Gary Hallgren post-modern painting of Dick Tracy.  Across from it was another Halgren of Blondie, Dagwood, and Krazy Kat.  Next to the kitchen was a 1976 ink drawing of Bilbo Baggins and 12 dwarves by a young Michael Golden.  Up the steps to a narrow passageway filled with books and packaged G.I. Joe toys (and Golden’s original cover artwork to The ‘Nam #12) was a tiny room – Hama’s office.  Art, photos, memos, and an old paycheck covered the right wall.  Straight ahead was a computer, to the left were windows and an A/C unit.  A second PC, papers and books, and a flight simulator joystick covered the spare table, smaller than a chess board.  The whole space must have been six feet by fifteen feet, a sliver of a room you’d give to your drunk friend who’s crashing after the party ends.  A glorified closet, and yet so out of the way and with such an interesting view of the street it made perfect sense as a writer’s room.  And this is where scripts and cover layouts for my favorite comic books had been typed and drawn.

I drew this after another visit years later. The space hadn't changed.

Leaning against the left wall and below the windows was Hama’s guitar.  (Years later on a subsequent visit there was a guitar and a metal 1:1 scale working model of a machine gun, which made me think of the Warren Ellis quote “Larry Hama, perhaps unsurprisingly, knows a lot of people with guns, and so has marvelous stories to tell about stone lunatics with too much artillery who also happen to be comic artists.”)  (And it’s telling that the one time Larry appeared on the cover to a Marvel comic book, he’s holding a machine gun.)

Art by Paul Ryan and Tom Palmer, 1990.

There was just enough space for the two of us to sit down, me in the spare seat.  I turned on my gear, and started asking questions.  Mel, Larry’s pug, joined us halfway through.  I will never stop smiling at the seeming incongruity of it:  The famous Larry Hama, who had written a light “war” comic for 12 years, and who guided Wolverine’s solo adventures through a swath of Yakuza and evil mutants for another seven, who bridged the ninja craze at Marvel Comics after Frank Miller left Daredevil for DC, thoughtfully and quietly reminiscing with a pug in his lap.  What did I expect?  A chat at a shooting range?  With no plan besides “get the interview,” I didn’t know what to expect, but it turns out that the man I met was the real Larry Hama: a reserved and modest guy, a thoughtful and learned reader and writer.

In some ways, this was the best interview to start with, and the worst.

Why?  Find out next week…

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Interview #1: Larry Hama, June 2001 – Part One

The idea of me writing a book had not coalesced, despite the revelation that John Michlig and Paul Dini would likely never write my ideal G.I. Joe history.  It was still a vague notion.  But one day while wasting time on the internet at work, I stumbled across Larry Hama’s e-mail address.  I frequented toy and comic book news sites, and someone was announcing Hama’s birthday, or the completion of an interview.  Hama wasn’t doing much in comics in the spring of 2001.  His brief term as writer of the flagship Batman book the previous year was over, his seven-year Wolverine run had ended in ’97, and G.I. Joe’s 1994 finale was a distant memory.  Finding this address was dumb luck, and felt like I was breaking some unspoken rule.  This was a famous person, and I was not.  Whatever kind of opportunity this was, I had to take it, and I had to ask for an interview, even if I didn’t know what for.  I recall mentioning a “research project,” as if I was still somewhere in the limbo between my G.I. Joe Mixed Media issue and this as yet non-existent book.  Surely the fan or webmaster who had included this address had done so by accident!  I couldn’t just copy and paste it into a new e-mail message and bother the man, could I?

For years Larry Hama had been just this to me, a name -- a credit -- in hundreds of comics I owned.

I could and did.  Hama responded, which was a surprise.  I had only corresponded with two famous people at the time, and the instantaneity of e-mail was still shocking.   Moreso how it broke down barriers between fans and pros.  A celebrity would not call back by telephone, and paper mail was iffy, but e-mail was somehow different.  Hama provided a phone number and asked if I would need his fax, or if this would be an e-mail interview.  I suggested in-person.  New York wasn’t far and I knew that any interview would come out better if conducted face to face.  To my surprise, Hama said yes.  It was generous and trusting of him.  What if I turned out to be an axe murderer?  Or the worst kind of fanboy, digging for dirt and begging for autographs?

For years, all I knew about Hama came from this bio that had run in all Marvel Comics cover dated October 1987.

Hama had a few trips in the near future, and we settled on a tentative date in June.  I sent him links to various toy photos and catalog scans at yojoe.com, thinking that he might need a memory jog.  (He didn’t.)  And then I asked my friend and future editor Nick Nadel if he could help me come up with questions.

I didn’t want to ask noodley fan questions.  The problem was that I wasn’t a writer and didn’t know what made for good questions and what made for bad.  All I knew was that the interviews I read in Wizard Magazine were fluffy, while those in The Comics Journal were smart and long, and I needed to somehow keep Hama talking.  If he ended up terse or forgetful, the trip would be wasted, and whatever this “research project” was would now lack a necessary lynchpin.  Nick looked over my list and suggested fewer specifics like “Favorite issue?” and more process ones, like “Who do you write for?”  The day came and I hopped an Amtrak bound for Manhattan.

More next time…

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