|Home Interviews Larry Hama (conducted by Dwight Jon Zimmerman in Comics Interview #37 & #38 - 1986)
Part One (from David Anthony Kraft's Comics Interview #37)
Name: Larry Hama
Born: June 7, 1949
First Professional Comic Book Sale: an eight-page story for House of Secrets or Secrets of the Sinister House
Favorite Handgun: .45 Automatic Colt
Character Would Like to Work On: Dr. Doom
One Thing That Would Really Like a Chance At: Flying
Artist, editor, writer - Larry Hama’s career in comics has led him along a very winding path, as you will discover. The main focus at the moment, as you will discover, is on G.I.Joe, but Larry is much more than just a driving force behind one of the most successful comic book series and toy lines in recent history. To get the full story, Jim Salicrup and I cornered Larry in his Marvel office and proceeded, against the chaotic background of noise there, to get the lowdown not just on G.I.Joe, but Larry’s views on comics, fans, and much more...
DJZ: When Hasbro decided to come up with this updated version of G.I.Joe, how did you get involved with the whole thing?
LH: There was a big meeting at Hasrbo to discuss the project. It was attended by Jim Shooter, Tom DeFalco, Archie Goodwin, myself, and, I believe, Nelson Yomtov. Basically, they had decided to switch from having a large single figure of Joe with a lot of accessories, going for smaller action figures. The big, really major difference was they wanted to give all of the guys characters and backgrounds, and they wanted to have a comic book. They wanted to have a back story. That’s why Marvel was brought in at the very beginning. When we showed up they had basic designs for the figures. What they knew about these figures at the time was that one was a basic infantryman, one was a commando, one was a mortar, one was communications, one was a laser expert, and so on and so forth. We agreed to do dossiers on each figure, to come up with the background and characterization and the way they would fit together as a team. The surprising thing for all of us was they hadn’t even though of doing a bad guy.
DJZ: Cobra hadn’t been invented at all?
LH: No. As a matter of fact, it was Archie Goodwin, I think, who threw out the name. All of us agreed that these guys can’t just march around and go on maneuvers or whatnot, they have to be battling some things, some threat, whatever. We took it from there.
Jim Salicrup: Did they want to make is a contemporary group, or was that Marvel?
LH: They wanted it to be very contemporary. So, I sat down to a bunch of dossiers - enough to give me a good blueprint to work from. I think I included two to three times as much information as was actually needed. We even did appeal and personality profiles and psychological assessments of characters.
DJZ: Where’d you draw from, to come up with the background and personalities? What was it based on?
LH: Basically, for my own purposes, for me to get a handle on the character, I assigned each a sort of role model.
DJZ: Any examples?
LH: A real example? Um, gee...this falls into some really great legal areas. (laughter) Suffice it to say that that’s more a tool for me to be able to keep tabs on stuff. It’s much easier to keep track of. Otherwise, you have a less specific view of the character of the character, the character tends to drift in and out of focus. I think the characterizations in any of this stuff is extremely important. The actual technical stuff, even the military material, I don’t think is ever as important as putting down very consistent, likable characters. Very few people are going to know whether the material is right, but everyone will automatically sense if a character is not right. Mostly, I think that’s what people remember about anything. Like I keep saying to the writers that work for me: You can read PEANUTS for 25 years and you will know all of these Schultz characters backwards and forwards, know how any one of those characters would react in a situation; but it’s very difficult for you to sit down and recount one strip from the past 25 years.
DJZ: What have been you most successful characters?
LH: Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, I believe.
DJZ: Why is that?
LH: Well, Snake Eyes was purposely made very mysterious. He’s completely covered from head to toe. Nobody knows what he looks like. He doesn’t speak - no thought balloons. He is your blank slate, and he becomes a universal blank slate for projection of fantasy for anybody, because he is so unspecific. But he is specific in his personality traits: his sincerity, his will, his loyalty.
DJZ: And Storm Shadow?
LH: Well, Storm Shadow ties in with Snake Eyes. They sort of complement each other. There’s a sort of triad of intertwining loyalties between Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow and Scarlett. I think the whole factor of actual loyalties as it appears is a very powerful fantasy, especially with the age group we’re dealing with.
DJZ: You did an adventure which featured Snake Eyes which had absolutely no dialogue at all.
LH: Yeah, that was "Silent Interlude." I wanted to see if I could do a story that was a real, complete story - beginning, middle, end, conflict, characterization, action, solid resolution - without balloons or captions or sound effects. I tried to do it again, as a matter of fact, with the Joe Yearbook #3 story. It’s a 22-page silent story drawn by Ron Wagner, who is a newcomer who I think is really hot. Gonna be a contenduh (laughter)
JS: How have you worked with the different artists on G.I.Joe, like say Herb Trimpe and Rod Whigham? Do you do layouts?
LH: No, I do page-by-page plots, because I like to have a real specific page break. I like to try to engineer my stories so that makes them want to turn the page; just a little bit of mystery or a little bit of what’s going to happen next. I generally plot it page by page and I try to figure out an average of four-to-six panels per page and engineer it that way, and it pretty much seems to work out. Rod is very fussy and a real stickler for detail. Herb is always a pleasure to work with. I’ve been very lucky.
DJZ: How often do you have to create new characters for the line?
LH: Every year.
DJZ: But is it like one a year or twice a year or...
LH: It stretches out. I just finished, a few months ago, a whole batch of new dossiers - about 24 or 25 characters. There’s a little more this year, because there’s a movie coming out which has a bunch of new characters.
DJZ: How has the movie affected what you’re doing both in the dossiers and in the comic books?
LH: Well, the plotlines of the movies, the mini-series, the syndicated series, they don’t really affect the storyline of the regular JOE book or the SPECIAL MISSIONS book because it’s two completely different mediums. Each one has its own set of restrictions and so on and so forth. Because of programming restrictions, there’s a lot of things that the Joes can do in the comics that they can’t do on TV - and there’s a lot of purely kinetic things that you can do wonderfully with animation that you just can’t make work in a comic book. The animation is pretty damn good.
We’ve been following one basic storyline pretty much in the comic for fifty issues. It’s sort of like an extended soap opera, although I try to have a real solid resolution at the end of each book. But I like to keep some plot threads going. There a sort of episodic quality to some of the earlier books, like one episode will last six issues. That will resolve completely, but two issues into it another thread may have started. At any given time there’s probably about three overlapping threads. Did I wander off the question? (laughter)
JS: Are you involved with the animated series at all?
LH: No. I was going to write an episode and them my time problem became too acute - since I’m writing two month books and one bi-monthly book, as well as holding down my editorial job, it got pretty rough. Denny O’Neil, I think, did write one that was already produced and aired.
DJZ: Sgt. Slaughter recently became a new member of the Joes. How did that wind up fitting into the G.I.Joe continuity?
LH: I tried to make him fit into the continuity as naturally as I could. Next year I have to fit Rocky in, so it’s...
JS: Rocky’s going to be in it?
DJZ: Are you serious?
LH: Yeah, Rocky Balboa is another Joe.
DJZ: Tell us more.
LH: I haven’t even seen the doll yet. I’ve seen preliminary sketches, but I already did the dossiers and he will be in, I guess, 1987.
DJZ: I wonder why Rocky and not Rambo?
LH: Rambo is already licensed. (laughter) You know, Hasbro makes a deal and for the most part I try to incorporate it in as best I can. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. There’s a few cases where it becomes very difficult, but they generally work themselves out.
DJZ: I was thinking, Zartan’s first background created a bit of controversy.
LH: Yes, it did, because he seemed apparently to be a shape-shifter. My attempt to rationalize that was through the use of holographic projection rather than to actually have him capable of organically, psychologically changing his shape.
DJZ: I was thinking specifically of his dossier, in his personality chart, he was labeled -
LH: Oh, that one! (laughter)
DJZ: - a paranoid schizophrenic.
LH: Yeah, I said he was a paranoid schizophrenic and, apparently, paranoid schizophrenics are organized. As a friend of mine said, "You should have known - if anyone was going to be organized, it was going to be paranoids." (Laughter) I think, in a certain way, it was an overreaction. I didn’t say in the dossier that all schizophrenics were criminals. I just said that this particular person happened to be criminally-oriented and was also a paranoid schizophrenic. And I’m sure there are plenty of criminal people who are.
DJZ: What did you change the profile to?
LH: I didn’t. (laughter) I think the toy package was changed and that one line was removed.
DJZ: How much latitude are given on the background of the individual characters? Does Hasbro give you guidelines or are you given carte blanche?
LH: I’m given a lot of freedom. Basically, when I start to sit down and write it, I sort of know what the guy looks like and what his job skills are. Okay, this guy has a blonde mustache and he is a survivalist. That’s about it. Then I have to come up with a background, figure out where he went to school, why he’s into it, you know, and spice it up and give him some motivation.
DJZ: Ever since G.I.Joe came out, the book’s had mixed fan reaction. Why do you think fans come out so strongly against it?
LH: I don’t write for fans, that’s why. (laughter) Because it’s about, I suppose, stuff they’re really not into.
JS: Well, you mentioned something before about a specific age group. Is there a specific audience you’re writing for?
LH: Well, yeah. I think the major part of the market that buys the comics is between eight and thirteen years old or thereabouts. I try not to write it down. I figure if they don’t understand something, then they can look it up. I also figure that any kid that’s reading a comic is reading, which probably makes him a cut above the other kids in his age group who never read anything other than what they are require to read in school. And I figure what they want from a comic is an entertaining read. I’m really not out to do anything else. My primary objective is to entertain - my objective is not to curry the favor of somebody that writes reviews of things.
My problem with the fans, I think, is that they’re trying to see something in the medium that’s not there - trying to rationalize their involvement in something that they should have given up when they were fourteen by trying to read something into the comics that isn’t there and, in a way, shouldn’t be there. They take it too damn seriously. Read real books. I love reading. I read between half-a-dozen to a dozen books a week. I don’t read that many comics.
DJZ: Which ones do you read?
LH: I can’t name one off the bat. (laughter) I read the early POWER PACKs. I liked them.
DJZ: Do you read many of the independent publications?
LH: No. If I can’t understand what’s going on by looking at the pictures then I don’t even bother to read it. I think that’s the bottom line. If you can’t figure out 50% of what’s going on simply by looking at the pictures, something’s wrong with the comic book.
DJZ: Getting back to G.I.Joe... (laughter) Have you seen all of the toys assembled in one room?
LH: Yes, I have, as matter of fact.
DJZ: What’s it look like?
LH: It look like a veritable army. (laughter) It’s pretty damn impressive.
A tender moment for the Man of Steel,
rendered by Neal Adams and Dick
Giodano, two of Larry's first inkers
JS: This is one of the first comic books to be heavily promoted on TV. Has it worked?
LH: Has it worked? I’ll say it has! I think it’s also opened it up to a very different type of audience. I get a lot of letters from girls. I get a lot of letters from young housewives who sort of started watching the cartoons with their kids and sort of started getting into the characters, and then somewhere along the line they picked up the comic book and they started following the stories and got caught up in the continuity.
||DJZ: It seems like a contradiction, almost, because women’s interests have always been typecast for things like MISTY.|
LH: There’ s something that I hadn’t even realized that I was doing which comes up in the mail - and I get an awful lot of mail on the book, like 1,200 letters a week...
LH: Most of the girls that write in say that the reason they like the comic is that the women characters are simply part of the team. They’re not treated as any different from the other team members. They don’t go around with their palms nailed to their foreheads. They’re competent, straight forward, and they go ahead and get the job done. They also participate emotionally. They have their likes and dislikes. They’re not ill-treated and they’re not running around being worrywarts.
DJZ: You mentioned once in a talk I had with you that you’ll make suggestions for names, but sometimes you’ll have to go through multiple name-changes before one will actually be accepted.
LH: Well, sure. It has to be cleared. Somebody down the line someplace else may have already had that particular name copyrighted as a toy. It’s impossible for me to foresee that, so I give them my first choice and then I usually supply up to a half-dozen alternates in order of preference. Most of the time my first preference make it. If it doesn’t, it’s usually because of a copyright conflict, more than anything else.
PIC> A tender moment for the Man of Steel, rendered by Neal Adams and Dick Giodano, two of Larry's first inkers
JS: Why don’t we get some background from Larry and start from the beginning? (laughter) You don’t have a code name do you?
LH: No. (laughter)
DJZ: Jim is reading from one of Larry’s dossiers.
LH: My particular background, I don’t know if it’s all that pertinent. As a writer, I think it’s the work that counts.
DJZ: Well, you’re also an artist.
LH: I’ve been in this business awhile. I’ve only really started writing fairly recently, but I’ve done pretty much every job in comics. I’ve been a letterer, a colorist.
JS: What attracted you to comic books in the first place? What made you want to read a comic book?
LH: Well, like most kids I knew when I was a kid I had a big stack of comic books in my closet. The comics I read as a kid were pretty varied. I had a big stack of BUGS BUNNYs, DAFFY DUCKs, UNCLE SCROOGEs...I loved UNCLE SCROOGE. I loved the stories.
DJZ: The stories were what appealed to you?
LH: I think I was always more fascinated by the stories and the characterizations. When the Marvels appeared I pretty much had the complete run from #1 of FANTASTIC FOUR and SPIDER-MAN and so on. Of course, I always read SUPERMAN and BATMAN, but more sporadically.
DJZ: Were you drawing at this time?
LH: Yeah, I drew as a kid. I used to try to do my own comics on looseleaf paper, in pencil or whatever. Basically, I tried to actually do whole stories rather than just drawing the characters - but I never really saw it as something I could do as a career. I went to the High School of Art and Design, in New York, and when I started going there I wanted to be a painter. And in my first week I ran into a kid named, honest to God, John Smith. (laughter) John Smith was one of the best artists I’d ever met. This guy could really draw. And he was a real comics freak. He was into the good stuff: Hal Foster, Lou Fine, Reed Crandall, Frank Franzetta. He started showing me stuff that I wasn’t even aware of having existed.
Then he introduced me to a guy by the name of Larry Ivie who was putting together a magazine called LARRY IVIE’S MONSTERS AND HEROES. We’d go over to Larry’s after school and all sorts of people traipsed through his house, like Roy Krenkel and Archie Goodwin; and Larry had bound copies of PRINCE VALIANT and THE SPIRIT.
This was the first time I’d ever seen a complete collection of Reed Crandall’s BLACKHAWKs. It was just totally mind boggling. That opened up a whole aspect of it that I’d been totally unaware of. And it was through Larry Ivie that I got to meet Wally Wood, which was a major turning point in my life.
DJZ: After you got out of high school, what did you do next? Were you thinking about a career in comic books at that point?
LH: Actually, when I got out of high school I was doing some undergrounds. You know, the concept back then - this is the late 60s - breaking into mainstream comics seemed a very unreachable goal. The companies seemed a lot more inaccessible in a lot of ways. They all seemed to have house artists. But the boom in the undergrounds was at its apex. Everybody was publishing them and it just seemed wide open. All these guys had, like, come into town to get into comics, like Berni Wrightson and Mike Kaluda. Vaughn Bode was putting out a tabloid called GOTHIC BLIMPWORKS that was publishing an awful lot - Berni’s early stuff when he was working in a very Graham Inges style, Kaluta’s "Star Child," which was very late 60s stuff. It was a lot of fun. But even then I didn’t quite see it like...it didn’t pay much. So I was working drawing shoes for mail-order catalogs. It was a job. Afterward, when I was working for Wally Wood -
JS: How did you get from drawing shoes to working for Woody?
LH: Actually, I guess in ‘71 or thereabouts, I was living in Brooklyn and working with Ralph Reese, freelance stuff. I was penciling and he was inking and we were doing a lot of jobs for NATIONAL LAMPOON - and at the time Woody was moving to Brooklyn, six to eight blocks from where I lived. In the process of helping him move, he said, "Hey, are you interested in a semi-regular job?" (laughter) I said sure.
He has two regular strips to do at the time and basically needed a jack-of-all-trades assistant and somebody to talk to. That’s why the little diploma on the wall reads THE WALLY WOOD SCHOOL OF COMIC ART AND APPLIED PSYCHOLOGY. And basically, Woody sat me down and taught me how to letter because "you should always know how to letter your own stuff." Working in the Wood studio was like a real concentrated education because he would take the time to teach. For everything he said, he was really into it.
He would make up slogans and charts and put them on the wall then he would in practice ignore them. His most famous one was: Never draw anything you can copy, never copy anything you can trace, never trace anything you can cut out and put up. He would put that up there and you would go, "We’re really going to roll ahead now and really be productive and stuff." And then it would just go out the window and he would just be doodling away on something. He’d really get into it.
He was like that. He was a very warm guy and that was infectious. He loved the form and he made you appreciate it. I think the same is true of somebody like Neal Adams, who really helped dozens of guys break into the field, one way or the other, and is not too appreciated these days. He’d tell you the truth and a lot of people...it’s very hard for them to take that. He’d tell you exactly what was wrong with your work and you could either benefit from it or you could get uptight about it.
DJZ: Artists always seemed to have that sort of community atmosphere where they would collect and exchange pointers and notes...
LH: Well, Continuity Studios was infamous for that. (laughter)
DJZ: But writers, it seems they’ve always been stuck on their own or they didn’t have that association.
LH: Not really. I remember that Roy Thomas used to have what we called First Fridays at his apartment. Everybody would get together - writers and artists, everybody - once a month on the First Friday. This must have been in the early ‘70s. My dates get a little hazy there. That was later taken up by Jeff Jones, which brought in a weirdly-overlapping crowd. It was very social and very laid back. I think from Jeff the torch was passed to Frank Brunner, who at the time was living in the Bronx. Then, I think, the First Fridays became dormant for awhile. They somehow evolved into poker games. (laughter) Then Neal Adams picked it up and it lasted for about a year or two. I don’t know if anyone is still having them. It would be nice, because I think it’s really very important to have an exchange of ideas and that sort of sense of camaraderie and belonging to something.
Part Two (from David Anthony Kraft's Comics Interview #38)
When last heard from (a whole issue ago) Dwight Jon Zimmerman and Jim Salicrup were teaming Larry Hama (what a guy) about G.I.JOE and his comic-book career. Having covered every aspect of G.I JOE that they could - including why it has a female readership (got the letters to prove it) and why the fans don't go for it (we don' need no stinkin 'fans) and how it relates to other media - the conversation turned into a more-or-less sequential account of Larry's life as an artist (I'm sorry but he's busy right now) and the unusual circumstances that brought him into the comic-book industry in the first place (why don't you call again later), up to and through his working side-by-side with the legendary artist, Wally Wood. Now, mere nanoseconds later, the conversation picks up where it left off (it had better) as Larry tells of his time with Neal Adams...
JIM SALICRUP: You went from working with Wally Wood to working at Neal Adams' Continuity Studios?
LARRY HAMA: Continuity was a great place. At that point, I was renting desk space at Continuity for $50 a month or something really ridiculous. You know, it was like you get a desk and all of the coffee you can drink. (laughter) We used to sit there sometimes three days straight knocking out storyboards, or three days straight inking a DOCTOR STRANGE -'cause you gotta remember, at that time Continuity was also the center of the Crusty Bunkers, which was sorta like that era's equivalent of the All-Hands Brigade or whatever.
If a job was incredibly late, then the Crusty Bunkers would gather together half-a-dozen to a dozen inkers and, you know, turn out a whole book in a day or two, all under the supervision of Neal. It was a whirl. Guys would be passing pages back and forth. Guys would be standing over boards filling in blacks upside down while somebody was, like, rendering a face at the bottom of the page. It was hectic but it was great!
And an incredibly varied amount of stuff came through the studio. We did all sorts of comics. Neal's studio also did a bunch of those Peter Pan record sets that came with a record and a comic book. And then he did these TV series adaptations, THE SIX-MILLION DOLLAR MAN and RESCUE and those things. And tons of advertising, And Neal could ink that stuff as fast as four guys could pencil it. Faster! If you didn't go fast enough, you know, Neal would be at the coffee machine knockin' down the chocolate doughnuts. (laughter) That was a really incredible time at Continuity, because it was sort of a bizarre crossroads - anybody could walk through the door, and pretty much did.
DJZ: Weren't you involved with acting, also?
LH: Ahhh, as a matter of fact that all came about in a weird way through Continuity. I went through about a year ot more where I was just sitting there drawing for twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, and reached a sort of bumout point. I said, "The heck with this!" (laughter) I'd made a lot of money so I got on a plane and went to California for about a month and just, like, sat on beaches and drove around and just cooled out. When I got back, Neal gave me a message that some casting director had called up for me - and I called this number and this woman said that she was casting for this Broadway show, it was a musical comedy, and could I come over to audition for her? And I said, "Well, I don't know why you're calling me." She got my name through a friend of mine that was an actor and a singer and a dancer. I'd done a couple of pick-up gigs with this guy, playing guitar while he sang, and he had recommended me. They had asked him, "Do you know any more Asian actors?" (laughter)
So I said, "If it's a musical comedy, I don't know why you're calling me, because I neither sing nor dance." (laughter) She was so persistent that finally she said, "Well, look, this number I called you at has the same three-number prefix as mine. Where are you?" I told her where I was. She said, "We're right across the street from you." It was literally a minute away. "If you come over right now I'll see you immediately. You won't have to wait around or anything." So I said, "What the heck!" Now, I had hair down to my waist at the time, and I went over and she gave me a copy of the script and I did a reading for her. Her name was Joanna Merlin. She's a wonderful actress. She was one of the daughters in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. And she said, "Well, I want to take you in and see the director right away," which was Hal Prince. And I read for him and he said, "Great! I want to see him in the theater tomorrow!" And I walk out very confused at this point. (laughter) Joanna Merlin said, "Come in tomorrow and do another reading and bring a song with you." And I said, "I keep telling you, I don't sing or dance!" She said, “You play in a rock 'n' roll band. You must do something." I said, "Well, okay, but I don't have any sheet music."
So I show up the next day at the Broadway theater where, I think, CANDIDE was still playing, and I brought my guitar and an amplifier, and I'm sitting there and there's these three guys in front of me, each with the sheet music to "The Impossible Dream" and "Try To Remember." (laughter) They ran through their numbers and it was my turn and I get up on stage and do a reading and they said, "Well, let's hear the song." The musical director is sitting right there in front of me, next to Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince. I plug in my guitar and I give them the first two verses of Bob Dylan's "Just Like A Woman"; at which point the musical director, Paul Jemanyoni - who conducted just about everything Hal Prince ever did, including SWEENY TODD and EVITA - said, "Stop! Hold it right there! Okay, give me one more verse and this time don't imitate Bob Dylan." And I said, "I'm not imitating Bob Dylan. This is the way I sing." (laughter) Jemanyoni slaps his forehead, at which point Hal Prince says, "Well, at least he's musical." (laughter) "Can you read music?" And I said, "Well, I can sight read for E-flat alto saxaphone," whereupon Jemanyoni slaps his head again. So I packed up my stuff and I went back to Continuity.
About two hours later, I got a phone call to come in and sign a contract. So I went up front and I talked to Neal. I said, "Gee, I don't know what the beck is going on." He said, "You should go check it out. Explore all the avenues." I figured what they wanted was a spear-carrier or something, so I walked in and what they put in front of me was an Equity Principal's Contract. And I thought, "Gee, the money is pretty good and I have employment at least until opening night." (laughter) What the heck. It seemed like a great experience, so I did it. So I pretty much made a living as an actor off of that for about a year.
JS: What was the name of the play?
LH: PACIFIC OVERTURES.
DJZ: And the part that you played?
LH: I was about three different bad guys. I got the part because he said I looked classically Japanese, right? My major part was Lt. Williams in the United States Navy, which I played in a red beard and a red wig! (laughter) I was also the evil lord of the south and a gangster. All I ever got to be ever was bad guys. But I got into Actors Equity and eventually got into the Screen Actors Guild. But there, working in that enivironment - I was working with, really, some of the best people in that genre of theater.
JS: The play won a Tony, didn't it?
LH: Yeah. It won a few Tonys. And, you know, we previewed in Boston and we did a month in Washington, the Kennedy Center, and then we opened on Broadway, and then we took it on the road to San Francisco and Los Angeles. But working with really top professionals you learn ten times more. That's one thing that I'm always grateful about. I was extremely lucky, you know, to work with really good people on a lot of these things, comics included. I mean, the first people that inked my pencils were Ralph Reese, Wally Wood, Neal Adams, Dick Glordano and Klaus Janson. I was very lucky!
DJZ: You had a small part in a M*A*S*H once, didn't you?
LH: Yeah, I did. I was a bad guy on M*A*S*H, sort of an evil North Korean. I got to kidnap Frank Burns and try to take him into North Korea. And I did a spot on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE with Martin Sheen. I got to be abusive and eat chicken, you know. (laughter)
JS: The APOCALYPSE NOW take-off?
LH: Right. That was a lot of fun. You know, I didn't do an awful lot of stuff, but at least I got to work on stuff that was the best of what it was at the time. Those were my only two TV credits.
DJZ: Why did you get back into comics? Did the acting work dry up?
LH: What happened was that I came back to New York and I'd never given up my desk space at Continuity. (laughter)
DJZ: You were still paying the $50 a month?
LH: I think it went up to, like, $75 or $100 or something. But, you know, I had all of my stuff there, and I always basically saw myself as an artist, not as anything else. It was one thing that I knew how to do and I knew I could make a living doing, so that's what I basically went back to doing. It was bread and butter. Other actors wait on tables. Somewhere along the line I got..they were looking for new editors at DC. Al Milgrom and I both got hired to be editors at DC. That was a pretty enjoyable stay. I have no animosities towards anybody there.
DJZ: Which books did you work on?
LH: I worked on WONDER WOMAN; SUPER FRIENDS; WELCOMC BACK, KOTTER - which was very popular at the time (laughter) - CLAW; JONAH HEX; WARLORD; and MISTER MIRACLE. That was a lot of fun, working with those guys. We had a newcomer, a guy by the name of Michael Golden. Both Al and I just went crazy about his stuff. Some of the other editors complained that he drew the heads too big. They just sort of saw his stuff as being too cartoony. But you would look at his pages and just go, "Wow! This guy is tremendous!" Both Al and I tried to go out of our way to get him and inkers that not only would complement his stuff but, like, help him along. I think Al got Craig Russell to ink a bunch of BATMAN stuff. I somehow talked Russ Heath into inking some MISTER MIRACLEs - I don't know how I did that. (laughter) And it seemed like Mike just took that stuff home with him. I think when he saw what Russ did with his MISTER MIRACLEs... he's one of those guys that is a learning machine. He looks at stuff and analyzes it and understands how it works. He's working for me on THE 'NAM book for Marvel...we have a lot of difficulties finding reference photos of artillery pieces in action. We tried sending him, like, two or three really foggy photos, and he came to me and said, "Look, all I have to do is see it work. If I can understand how it works then I can draw it from almost any angle." And I believe that. Really amazing guy.
JS: Somewhere in all of this, weren't you in the Service?
LH: Yeah. I got drafted. I was doing shoes for Sears catalogues and it was one of those things where I kept getting a deferment and then one day, you know, I went down there and they were taking everybody. It was a weird time.
JS: Which branch were you in?
LH: I was in the Army. I spent a lot of time being in headquarters companies doing some pretty weird stuff. But it's an experience that...I don't think that it made me any more weirdly paramilitary than anybody else. You know, I always had a fascination with certain types of things, anyway. It's not something I regret.
I regret my teenage indolence more. (laughter) It's like when you're eighteen years old, seventeen years old, hanging out on the street corner thinking this is where it's at. If I had been sitting there, like, drawing, it would have been better. I regret not pushing myself earlier, in drawing, and not experiencing those whitelight breakthroughs until much later. I think you sit there, guys who pencil, sit at the drawing board and you want each thing you're doing to be perfect, somehow. It makes you slow because to finish something and have it be bad is just very depressing; whereas, the only way to get any better is to just do volumes of stuff and make all of your mistakes. That's my true regret. I wish I'd spent more time sitting there drawing. It's a source of frustration now when I sit here and think, "Oh, my God, how do I do this?" It should he easier for me at this point.
Then you hear from guys who have been doing it for, like, 40 years, "It never gets easier! It's always hard!" (laughter) Woody used to say, sitting at the board, he would turn around and go, "You know, comic book artists don't retire. You just die at the drawing board." (laughter) I was 22 years old! My God, this is not the right thing to be telling me! (laughter) He hit all the right triggers. I've been very fortunate to have been associated with a lot of really good talents in this business.
DJZ: Well, now that you're editing THE 'NAM book and working on the G.I. JOE books, has the Army experience benefited you?
LH: Yeah. Anything that cuts down on your research is good. (laughter) I mean, there's a lot of stuff that I obviously do have to keep researching and keep up on, you know. Stuff has changed. I plow through stuff like this (points out a technical manual on rifle squads, mechanized and light infantry). Really technical stuff. I try to keep up, but everything has changed completely: the uniforms, the equipment, the terminology. It takes a lot of effort to keep up on this stuff. You can't just rely on the old stuff because the technology has just, you know, changed so much. It's difficult for me to comprehend how some of this stuff works.
JS: It seems you have a passion for all of this type of stuff in the books you edit and write. It seems like you truly enjoy them all.
LH: Hey, you know, I'm into gadgets. I like loud guitars and fast cars and bigbore handguns. I don't think that's the primary appeal of the books, though. You got a few gadget freaks out there that are really into "is that the right machine gun" or the "right" tank or the "right" motorcycle or whatever - but that's not going to sell the book. You still really have to have a solid story and likeable, good characters.
JS: Yeah, but I think, you prefer what you're doing over, say, editing FANTASTIC FOUR or other superhero stuff.
LH: See, the thing is that I would approach superheroes in a different way. One of the first comic book jobs I did was IRON FIST - I think I did the second and third and fourth issues. I took it over from Gil Kane. It was like a strange cross-over, a sort of Kung-Fu superhero. There are a bunch of superheroes that Marvel has that are sort of borderline. They're not quite superheroes. They're more understandable in how they do what they do. Daredevil, for instance, is a prime example. He's not a mutant. That's a character that I've been able to do on occasion because I can identify with that better than a guy who can shoot beams out of his eyes. You know, I guess it's because I don't believe a man can fly. (laughter) I think there's more drama to be had out of situations with a person who has limitations.
JS: Let's backtrack a little. After DC, where did you go next? CRAZY Magazine?
LH: Yeah. Should I talk about the DC implosion? (laughter) Actually, you know, Al and I were imploded simultaneously. We were the last hired so we were the first imploded. (laughter) I just rebounded back to Continuity. Al came pretty much straight over to Marvel. After about, I don't know, six or eight months, Al called me and said, "Hey, look, they're talking about revamping CRAZY. Why don't you come over and have lunch?"
And so I came over and talked to Al and talked to Shooter and came up with a game plan and I dived right into doing a funny book, that was really - when I was a kid I had been a total MAD freak - that was really one big fantasy fulfillment, to run CRAZY. The whole idea of having my own humor magazine, you know, to play with and work up and do something with, that was terrific! I had a lot of fun. Good times.
JS: Well, from that, you shifted to SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN. How was the transition?
LH: The transition was pretty smooth. I was pretty familiar with all of the Howard material. I think I discovered Robert E. Howard when I was in high school, before the paperbacks came out. I used to haunt my local public library in Queens. I had gone through their entire science-fiction section and had somehow stumbled across these books that nobody seemed interested in. One was a CONAN hardcover. I opened it up, you know, and even the way it was printed just blew my mind. There on the first page in this big type it said, "The King of India lay dying..." I remember this distinctly! (laughter) It blew me away! I read the first story just standing there in the stacks, and spent a futile search trying to dig up other Howard stuff. And then one day years later Whammo! - it's in paperback. I just, you know, ate it all up! I loved that stuff! I loved all that Fritz Liebet stuff, too. Poui Anderson. All those guys.
DJZ: What was the condition of CONAN when you took over?
LH: The condition? (laughter) It's hard to say. I think that everybody that comes to it, you know, gives their own interpretation of it. Obviously, there's a world of difference between the Barry Smith CONAN and the John Buscema CONAN - both of which are very valid - because they both saw really different things in it. I think Barry was very concerned with the world of it and John was more concerned with this hulking, brooding characterization of Conan.
DJZ: Well, have you talked with Barry about doing a new CONAN story?
LH: No, I really haven't. I don't know if the time is right. I would love to see him do one. I would love to see Roy Thomas write another one. (laughter) It's just the mechanics of going about it, because I think that comics and magazines are very dependent on continuity and everything. Somebody stepping in and doing one issue or four issues or something might be beneficial to it on a very short term basis, but I think you need a long-term commitment from a lot of different parties concerned to do something really well. You're talking about a guy spending years doing one character, and if you look back you can see that that's a very prominent pattern. The stuff that stands up is the stuff that somebody stuck at for years, or one team stuck at for a long peried of time.
You don't get to know a comic book character or team characters in one issue. Your knowledge and your appreciation of characters in comics is cumulative. You learn something about the guy in this issue and six months later you pick up something else and it all sort of blends together. That's natural. It's like getting to know a real person over a long period of time. That is part and parcel with your appreciation of it. It takes time for people to get acclimated to something.
DJZ: What keeps you in comics?
LH: I like to tell stories. I think the key is being into it and liking it and believing in it, more so than any amount of technical expertise or chops or what-have-you. There are people around who can draw incredibly well. They are incredible draftsmen. They're not necessarily the most popular storytellers or artists, and a lot of guys who are very popular are not really very technically proficient as draftsmen. They're just incredibly sincere and into the stories they tell. That's the bottom line. I think the great majority of the actual consumers of the primary product really can't tell the difference between three given artists. What they can sense is whether or not somebody is into it.
When somebody is really into it then you're willing to completely overlook any flaws in proportion, or rendering, or stiffness, or what-have-you, because they're delivering the goods. The Tinkerbell Syndrome is what you call it. If you stop believing in Tinkerbell, then she dies. That's why you can't really judge comic books by any sort of yardstick that takes into consideration the finesse in the artwork or the wonderful structure of the words or whatever. It's the impact of the whole, put together as an entertainment.
You know, everything is subjective, of course. In a way, the comics industry is very much like a small town where everyone knows each other. You become sort of familiar in a way and, you know, you garner your enjoyment from whatever facet you can. Some people may be very difficult to work with, but they may do exemplary work, and somebody who may be a real dream to deal with - like, their stuff may be just okay. It's fine. It doesn't, like, make your heart sing, you know, but the guy is totally efficient, dependable, likeable. There's always a trade-off. It's too small a family, or like a clique, to be cuttin' down somebody. There's obviously stuff, material, that I really love, and stuff that I'm not really that crazy about - but somebody out there must like it. Everybody has different tastes.
The only thing I really object to is people putting down a book or a concept just on the basis that they don't like the groundwork of the concept, without even reading it. There's stuff out there that's extremely popular with the fans that I can't comprehend at all, that doesn't appeal to my sensibilities, but at the same time I can understand why a certain segment of the readership likes it. That stuff should be out there. But I think that we have to make comics accessible to a lot more people. There's whole segments of the reading population out there that we don't reach, because we just don't do anything for them. For, like, ten or fifteen years or so, the entire comic-book industry gave up on girls. We're just not going to make comic books that appeal to girls anymore. That's half your readership! (laughter) That's very silly. And there are kids out there that like different types of comics other than superheroes. They got ignored for a long period of time!
I think we should do anything that we can to branch out. I think that we're at a real crossroads in comics. The potential is there in the medium to really grow and to reach a much bigger segment of the population! In the '40s, a much bigger percentage of kids actually read comic books. Part of that, I really feel, has to do with the comics of the '40s having a slightly more universal appeal. That's something worth striving for.
Interview published in David Anthony Kraft's COMICS INTERVIEW magazine. Copyright (c) 1986 Fictioneer Books, Ltd. Used by permission under non-commercial license.