It was a series of fortunate events that led him to the path of comic book writing, but it all started in fashion design and illustrations. “I had a job drawing shoes for catalogues in the 60s,” he began casually thumbing through a menu before deciding on his order. Illustrating shoes for several big-name retail catalogues in the US had seemed to be his ideal job until he was recruited to join the army. “When I came back from the army, I just really didn’t feel like drawing shoes anymore,” he laughed. The Vietnam War veteran had lost his interest in fashion but couldn’t figure out what to turn to. Having dabbled in comics when he was in high-school [“I sold my first illustration when I was 16!”], an old friend offered him a gig as an illustrator for comics. “He said to me, ‘You can pencil and I’ll ink,’ and I thought this might be good for a year or two until I figure out what I want to do next,” he stirred his coffee with a smile. “Then one day, I woke up and 48 years had gone by!” This, is how Larry Hama – creator of G.I. Joe, Bucky O’Hare, and writer for Wolverine and Elektra – got his start in the world of comic books.
The US Embassy in Kuwait sponsored Larry’s visit to Kuwait this last April to present a lecture at Fikra’s Kuwait Game Expo – GX2017, as well as judging a cosplay competition. His lecture, entitled “Storytelling without words,” was aimed at those wanting to break into the world of comics. His advice: Keep practicing and keep drawing. “100,000 drawings later will lead you to that one good one. You need to be prepared for the struggle and not making much money for a while, and really not care about that. You need to have that commitment to it, it’s not something you can do as a hobby.”
While entering a career in your early 20s is now considered reasonable, Larry says that wasn’t the case for him. “A lot of people in comics started very young, especially the generation before me. They were working professionally when they were teenagers, so I was sort of late to the game,” Larry laughed. Luckily for him, the industry wasn’t as cutthroat as others, “In comics, people helped one another get ahead, they opened doors for each other and were very welcoming of new talents.” Or at least that used to be the situation when Larry was getting started. Still, his beginnings were in the underground comic book scene in New York and London back in the 60s and 70s. “There were a lot of people working in the same publications I worked in who became mainstream comics. Because at that time it was very difficult to break into the mainstream and there wasn’t much opportunity – which is basically why the underground was so important. They were sort of the independent comics of the day, but nowadays, there’s dozens and dozens of them.”
As someone that’s worked the underground scene as well as DC and Marvel, Larry noted the biggest difference between the three, is the control of the intellectual properties (IPs). “The major companies [DC and Marvel] are in the business of promoting and selling their individual IPs, which means their value is bound into the worth of their IPs,” he elaborated. “So they are legally obligated, since they’re public companies, to promote their going products.” That’s why in most cases, there’s a lack of new characters and stories, because at the end of the day it’s about growing what works. “That’s where the independents come in and fill that gap – they’re not bound by the restrictions and the industry codes,” Larry went on. “Also, the creators tend to be younger and probably hipper and they have a lot of freedom!” he laughed. “And with independent deals, you own your own property. When you work for the big guys you work for their property and they can tell you how to do it. In fact, they demand to be able to do that and they want control.”
Yet everyone’s goal is to eventually work at DC or Marvel, and it’s an artist’s dream come true to draw The X-Men, Batman, or The Avengers. “They’ll even go as far as forsaking ownership and shares to be able to do that,” Larry mused. Though, realistically, that never seems to be the case for too long. As many avid comic book readers and collectors know, the most coveted position on the cover is for the writer and illustrator’s names to precede the comic book’s title. That’s how you know someone’s made it big! “And as soon as somebody gets their name above the title, they no longer want to play that game anymore,” Larry explained. “They look around and see someone going the independent route and owns the property completely and makes a movie deal and all of a sudden, they want that too.” When it comes to protecting your work, most likely, the illustrations are copyrighted by the company you work for. But as an independent, or someone that’s just starting out away from the show-runners, you’d need to register your own work as you go along.
But our most burning question was about G.I. Joe and Bucky O’Hare. Simply because one does not simply speak to the man responsible for bringing the characters to life without asking about the generational icons. “I have never seen an episode of either!” Larry confessed. He did assure us though that he’s the proud owner of every single licensed product sold for both franchises. When we asked him about his thoughts on having written for generations, he laughed, “It’s sort of frightening and startling! Especially when someone that’s going gray and balding comes up to me and says I loved your stuff when I was a kid!”