Category Archives: Writing Process
It felt good, a year ago, to put into words all that went into writing this G.I. Joe book, so I’m doing it again. Many things repeat from last year, and a few things are new. And there is — good news — some progress.
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.”
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.
In our last episode, Tim secured an interview with Larry Hama and took a train to New York…
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.
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.)
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…
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?
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?
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…