A Real American Hero: Larry Hama on “Robot Chicken,” “G.I. Joe,” and More
By Dan Casey on December 16, 2012
Yesterday, Kyle brought you inside the action figure-filled brains of Robot Chicken‘s Zeb Wells and Matthew Senreich, but today we’re saluting a real American hero, a man who brought the Real American Heroes of G.I. Joe to life through countless comic books, Larry Hama. In addition to writing a vampire novel and myriad comic projects, Hama also found time to make a special guest appearance on tonight’s Robot Chicken’s ATM Christmas Special on Adult Swim. What will he be doing? Will there be Bucky O’Hare? Cobra Commander? A claymation Hama? I caught up with the man himself to keep you in the know because, as a wise man once said, knowing is half the battle.
Nerdist: Let’s dive right in! Tell us about tonight’s Robot Chicken’s ATM Christmas Special. How did you get involved?
Larry Hama: How did I get involved? They called me and asked me if I wanted to be on it. [laughs]
Can you tell us a bit more? To what extent were you involved?
LH: Well, it’s a cameo. The reason they called me was because it’s a G.I. Joe reference. If I tell you exactly what I’m saying and doing, it’s a bit of a spoiler. Suffice to say that I thought it was funny and it seemed appropriate and it fit. Very in-character. I said, “Fine, let’s do it.” We did my bit right in my living room. It took like 5 minutes. Shot it on an iPhone. [laughs] The very best technology.
N: Of course, of course. Did you try to get them to do a Bucky O’Hare sketch as well?
LH: No, we didn’t try to get them to do that. [laughs] Snake-Eyes though. He might make an appearance.
N: So, how are you? What’s going on in the wild world of Larry Hama?
LH: I’m writing, keeping myself busy. I do G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero for IDW; it’s a monthly book. I have a few projects that are under NDAs – non-disclosure agreements. Boy, they’re pesky agreements! [laughs] It means that, at any given time, three-quarters of what I’m working on, I can’t even talk about! By the time it comes to talk about them, I’ve already forgotten about it, so they work against each other. But, I understand the reason why.
N: Well, of course, you want to keep people in suspense, you don’t want to give too much away…
LH: Right. And my vampire novel, The Stranger, is up on Amazon for the Kindle. I did the first draft on it almost ten years ago. My agent sent it around to all the different publishers and, editorially, they liked it, but they said there was no chance in hell of being able to market teenage vampire stories. [laughs]
N: It was a simple time back then.
LH: Then when you-know-what came along, I called my agent and said, “Hey!” Then, the reaction was, “Oh, well, now the market is glutted.” And I said, “But, but, my vampires aren’t sparkly!” [laughs] But, you know, sometimes, it’s really all about timing, isn’t it? It’s a big problem. The reason I wrote a vampire novel was that I’d written four or five years previously a Chinatown novel, an Asian/Chinese gang story where the protagonist gets caught up in a conflict with gangsters and their ilk. My agent really loved it, Literary Acquisitions at Paramount really loved it – she got me a really good agent. Again, all the editorial people loved it, but the sales people said that there was no way they could sell a novel in this genre with an Asian protagonist. My immediate protagonist was, “I guess Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto never counted.” [laughs]
The problem is that publishers and networks think in terms of limitations of the genres. If something doesn’t fit precisely into the slot, they don’t know what to do with it or they deny the genre exists. I suspect this is the same thing all the publishers told J.K. Rowling. Even today, none of the publishers admit that the genre she fits into exists.
N: Well, they never want to admit that they were wrong, especially on something huge.
LH: [laughs] I don’t think it’s a battle you ever win because it’s business is all about percentages and betting on the favorite. It’s all about putting money into something that is the least risk. I understand that and I just slog ahead. People who set out to be successful, I think, are better at it. [laughs] They’re good at finding a niche or a market then going after it, but I was never concerned with that. I just do what I like to do.
N: That’s also important because you want to keep yourself creatively fulfilled.
LH: I think that’s very important. Otherwise, I may as well be sitting in a factory wiring armatures or something. I am very and thankful for the fact that I wake up every morning and do stuff that I like to do. Sometimes it pays well, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s a blessing to be able to do that.
N: Sort of tangentially related – and I know you talk about G.I. Joe in every interview ever, so I’ll keep it brief – but when you’re waking up everyday to work on a title like G.I. Joe, which you’ve worked on for so long, how do you keep it fresh for yourself?
LH: It’s the same trick that I always use – the characters are based on people I know or know of, so that I can really keep them consistent. Instead of making them up from whole cloth, I know that they’re based on my old pal so-and-so and I know how he’d react or turn a phrase or whatever. Most important is that I know when I’m putting down something and it reads false. It really helps to keep me in line. And I’ve always written the stuff page-by-page. I never have any idea what happens at the end until I get to it. There’s always been a sense of terror for me. After I wrote the first issue of G.I. Joe, I had no idea what would come next. I was in a state of panic for two weeks…and it never got any better! [laughs] I would get to the end of the issue and go, “What the heck am I gonna do now?” But, I always managed to sit myself down and try to figure it out. I never plotted out entire arcs; I literally don’t know what happens on page 22 until I get to about page 18 or 19.
N: That’s pretty exciting actually to know that you’re in suspense the whole time too.
LH: I think that’s integral to surprising the reader. If you’re surprised yourself, it comes across. That’s my own little bugaboo when I’m reading, when I get new stuff and I’m reading and by page 3 I know, “Oh, the butler did it.” Some writers just keep me turning the page because I get to the end of the chapter and I go, “What the?!” Like Cormac McCarthy, he really fascinates me. You read No Country for Old Men and get to the end of the chapter and you go, “What? He dies?!” [laughs] I love that. I’m more interested in the characters than the choreography. That’s the important thing – getting these characters to be able to stand up and walk around and be people that you want to spend time with. To me, the plot is just choreography – you’re just moving chess pieces around. I’m not as interested in that. I just like to hang out with the characters. Basically, I think that was always the appeal of G.I. Joe. I had no way to try to actually capitalize on that; it’s the only way I know how to do it.
N: You do it very well, so at least there’s that. Switching gears for a moment, I really enjoyed the series Spooks that you, R.A. Salvatore and Ryan Schifrin worked on a while back.
LH: Oh, yes, Ryan is the one who created those characters; he was trying to develop it as a movie property and my job was to just make it work as a comic. You know, I took that on because I really liked the characters and the concept. It’s basically G.I. Joe versus monsters. I could get behind that. It’s an intersection of two mediums.
N: Any chance we could see a Spooks TV show? What if I said please?
LH: It’s continually in development, and the fact that I’m working on a couple of other projects with Ryan Schifrin might give you a clue. I really like him and like to work with him. That’s what it really comes down to in comics – and it’s always been true – you wind up spending a lot of time working with the people that you like if you get along with them. Comics has always been like a small town, and it still is. Everyone pretty much knows everyone else. You’ve got your little cliques and whatever, but it’s a pretty friendly and hospitable town.
N: That’s refreshing to hear.
LH: That’s my perception of it. I may be completely delusional. [laughs] I’ve been in the business for over forty years and it’s always felt like home to me.
Catch Larry Hama’s cameo on tonight’s Robot Chicken’s ATM Christmas Special and you can read his work monthly in G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero from IDW Publishing.