Article Thumbnail

When G.I. Joe Taught Us About the Horrors of War

Larry Hama, the writer, artist and creator who gave the world the G.I. Joe comics universe, discusses why he never shied away from telling kids the truth about love, loss and the realities of combat

To help get you into the spirit of the season, this week we’re presenting MEL’s 2021 Holiday Toy Catalog! But instead of trying to sell you stuff like the department-store catalogs of yore, we’re offering up the little-known backstories to some of the greatest toys ever made. So take a break from your holiday shopping, grab some cocoa and be a kid again for a few minutes.

The difference between superheros, like Spider-Man, and regular heros, like G.I. Joe, is that superheros are “basically a fascist fantasy.” At least, that’s according to Larry Hama, the prolific comic book editor, writer and artist. “It’s just like, ‘Let a superior person fix all your problems.’ This is a major trope of American entertainment.” 

Over a Zoom call while Hama finishes his ramen lunch, he speaks with the sort of candor you’d expect from a man who calls himself “an old punk from the Village.” Hama has also earned the right to speak his mind on comics. Over the course of his five-decade career, he’s written for a range of titles, including Spider-Man, Batman, X-Men, The Avengers, Wonder Woman and Star Wars. But Hama is perhaps best known for his legacy as the writer-creator of G.I. Joe, which began in 1982 after every other editor at Marvel Comics passed on the “bottom-of-the-barrel” project based on a kid’s toy. But with Hama at the helm, G.I. Joe became one of Marvel’s most popular titles, and it’s often credited with creating a whole new generation of comic readers. 

Through G.I. Joe, Hama also did the unexpected and turned the military-focused series into one that attempted to “unglorify” war as he never shied away from themes of loyalty, loss, morality or deceit. His always honest portrayals were reinforced by his time in the military during the Vietnam War, where, from 1969 to 1971, he was a firearms and explosive ordinances expert for the Army Corps of Engineers. 

​At present, Hama is writing a new set of G.I. Joe stories for IDW Comics, which picks up the storyline where it left off with Marvel. He’s also been working on “a Japanese fairy tale type of concept” as a personal project. He recently, however, took some time away from his world-building to talk to me about his career writing stories that ensure young people can know the honest — if often harsh — truths about the world they will grow up in, while also giving them the joys of camaraderie, a well-told tale and the moral means to navigate life. 

Your work has always been somewhat dark, at least from what we expect of children’s entertainment. Do you think it’s good that children see and read less violence, or do you think it’s good that they’re able to use fictional violence as a way to deal with real-world violence inside the safe place of fiction? 

This has all changed numerous times back and forth. Did you ever read Treasure Island as a kid? That’s considered a children’s classic. The protagonist kid shoots a pirate in the face. If you propose that to a children’s book editor today, they’d go, “No way.”

But if you had to come down on one side or the other, do you think it’s important to show children violence?

It’s dangerous not to show them some of this stuff because then it’s like it doesn’t exist. I grew up watching all sorts of stuff that people today would go, “What?” Even the old Warner Bros. cartoons are incredibly violent. None of it really warped my mind.

When I was a kid, I watched samurai movies. At the Buddhist church in New York, they would show a double feature of samurai movies every other week. It was for fundraising. They didn’t have bingo; they had samurai movies. There was a snack bar in the lobby. They sold plates of loose sushi. So people would come, eat sushi and watch samurais. All these kids would be sitting in the first row watching Zatoichi slicing people up. Within that culture, violence wasn’t limited to adults. 

In fact, until very recently, movies were made in such a way that the entire family had something to look at. Where now it’s like, “Oh, there’s guy films and there’s chick films and there’s specifically kid films.” I think there’s something wrong with that.

Did that opinion affect how you approached writing comics?

I never specifically wrote down to a kid level because I figured if a kid didn’t know what a word meant, he could damn well look it up in a dictionary. Or, if it was important, I would provide notes, like footnotes. Kids will respect you for that. They know when they’re being patronized and written down to. They’ve got the radar for that. 

That’s why I wanted to have real deaths in G.I. Joe — characters died. They didn’t get miraculously resurrected. In kids entertainment and kids literature up until the 1960s, stuff like this happened all the time. Have you ever really read Hans Christian Andersen? The Little Match Girl keeps lighting those matches until she freezes to death.

Was it also important to you, as a Vietnam vet, to express the truth of war to those who would become the next generation of veterans?

Yeah. A lot of people come up to me at cons and say, “G.I. Joe was one of the reasons why I joined the military,” and I say, “That was not my intent.” In the last issue of the Marvel series, I tried to make that very clear. And I put in all this other stuff to un-glorify war.

They do at least say to me, “But you didn’t lie to us. You didn’t say it was going to be rosy and we’d have a parade, blah, blah, blah.” That makes me feel good. Because that’s the other idea that runs through all the stories — that people don’t throw themselves on grenades for God and their country and the flag. They throw themselves on grenades for their buddies. It’s almost like the Spider-Man trope. It’s like you have that great responsibility.

The most important thing that I think that they teach in the military is that no matter what rank you are, you’re directly responsible for the people that report to you. Directly responsible. If you’re a squad leader and you’ve got 10 guys reporting to you, you don’t eat until those guys eat. You don’t sleep until they sleep. Because you’re the one responsible. That’s what it comes down to. And that carries over into stuff, like what I wrote for G.I. Joe

That’s the fantasy that makes it work. It’s the fantasy of loyalty and trust, and the fact that no matter what kind of heavy trouble you’re in, you have people who will lay down their life for you. That is not something that happens in Corporate America.

For a little kid reading a comic, the fantasy of faithful friends who won’t betray you resonates. Because I guarantee you, by the time you get to kindergarten, you’ve been betrayed. So these are things every kid understands. And then, every adult understands.

In other words, this camaraderie and loyalty of the G.I. Joe team is the superpower, not an actual superpower.

I was interviewed for a documentary about superheroes for PBS years ago. They shot me for over an hour, and only one line made it into the documentary. I said, “The thing you have to understand about superheroes is: There’s no such thing as Jurisprudence Man.”

Superheroes are basically a fascist fantasy. It’s just, like, “Let a superior person fix all your problems.” This has been a major trope of American entertainment for generations and generations. And it’s why we have the white savior trope. And it’s why when stuff comes around like Black Panther, it’s an incredible breath of fresh air.

Why did Black Panther feel that way for you?

Well, what makes a hero a hero? It has to do with a certain degree of selflessness, compassion and, importantly, empathy. Black Panther is all of those things. 

Your grandmother used to yell for the family to gather in the living room, “There’s an Asian person on TV!” Obviously, we still have a long way to go, but seeing the recent change in entertainment — for instance, we have Shang-Chi, Cowboy Bebop and the Snake Eyes movie based on a badass Asian-American combat veteran you helped shape — how does this moment feel for you as an Asian creator? 

It’s really cool, but at the same time, I realize that, like everything else, it’s just as fragile. Look, 20 years ago you would’ve thought Roe vs. Wade was engraved in stone. These changes happen. But, boy, in a snap, it can all be rescinded. And that’s a big fear, and it’s not an invalid one. We’ve seen it happen too many times before. 

Some people see this new-guard representation of race and think, “Oh, this is a lefty, liberal agenda that’s suddenly appeared on the scene and they want to redo everything.” I’m like, “Hello? Did you ever read the X-Men?” It’s about these people who were persecuted for being different. Do these fans not understand the analogy? Don’t they understand that’s what it’s always been about? The entire Marvel universe is social justice warriors. The whole concept of the X-Men is very different from the Justice League because the Justice League is more fascist, while X-Men was all about righting wrongs. Big difference.

Why do you think so many comic book fans missed the “social justice” aspects and allegories?

There’s this sort of insipid casual racism going on there, especially with a character that’s basically a suit, like Iron Man. Of course, Iron Man could be Black. He could be anything. That’s how I felt about Snake Eyes — he was completely covered. He could’ve been purple underneath there for all we knew. Somebody was just saying they were upset because Iron Fist is going to be written by an Asian and the character is going to be an Asian. I’m going, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, Iron Fist is supposed to be white?” No! Iron Fist isn’t a person. Iron Fist is an office. It’s the title of the position. And it’s implied that for the last 3,000 years, the Iron Fist has been Asian, so this white guy is sort of like a flash in the pan, anyway. So why can’t the office go back?

Snake Eyes is this ultimate badass character — a commando and secret ninja who never speaks in the comics. It’s easy to see what fans like about the character, but what do you like about him?

He’s just quietly cool. This is going to seem divergent, but it’s not. Years ago, Neal Adams said, “The thing about Superman is that everybody sort of gets him wrong.” When Superman first came out, the comic was a big hit. All the other companies said, “Oh, we want to make our own Superman,” so they wrote this guy who was really strong, that could fly and do all this other Superman-type stuff. But they missed the whole point. The whole point is that Superman is like the ultimate big brother. 

No matter what ethical or moral decision he has to make, Superman makes the right one. And he’s always totally fair. Even more so than Solomon is, because screw Solomon. He would have cut the baby in half. Superman wouldn’t have cut the baby in half. Snake Eyes would also do the right thing. He makes the right decision. In Ethics 101, the right decision is always the one you least want to do.

These days, comic books have taken over the movies. But it also seems like the value of comic books is primarily as source material, as opposed to what they were before — a way for kids to practice having moral values before they have to get out into reality. Do you think the moral training aspect of comic books has been forgotten?

Of course, because the demographics changed. When I first started writing G.I. Joe, the kids coming into comic book stores were 10 to 13 years old. The average age that goes into a comic book store today is over 30 or 35. There are no kids going into comic book stores. It’s all adults. Those spinner racks in drug stores and all that, they’re all gone. You used to be able to buy comics at the corner candy store or whatever. Now it’s all specialty shops. 

The stories you tell have a lasting value for readers, much in the same way that old allegories from religious traditions would stay with a person. Is that something that people come up and tell you? Like, “Look, you helped me be a better person because these examples stayed with me?”

I’ve heard that a lot. I get people who come up to me, and the most common thing I hear them say is that they had a really terrible childhood and family situation. There was divorce or horrible things going on in their home. These comics were an escape into a world that was much more fair — where people had values. It’s important to pass along a certain amount of moral rectitude.