Often the greatest creations of our time come from the most humble of beginnings, which, as Larry Hama puts it, can be partially accredited to the assertion that “the best way to be creative is to be working on something that everybody’s not looking at.” With Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins hitting cinemas this week, our film critic Travis Johnson sat down with the comics legend, who once took an unpopular assignment to write a toy tie-in comic and turned it into one of the defining media franchises of the ‘80s: G.I. Joe.
Did you ever imagine, almost 40 years ago when you started doing G.I. Joe, that it would lead to this massive media franchise?
It was always a total surprise. You have to understand that in 1981, toy licensed comics in the comic business were the bottom of the bag. In fact, they paid the lowest rates because the licensing fee came off the top of the page rate. So, none of the superstar artists and writers wanted to work on it because of the pay cut at that time, and there were no royalties, so all you got was less money. The only people they could attract were the B-list and even the C-list.
So when Hasbro came to Marvel and they wanted a comic, the editor-in-chief asked every contract writer if they wanted to do the book and they all turned it down. Then they asked all the non-contact writers and they all turned it down. And then they proceeded to ask all the editors, assistant editors, and the kid that went out for coffee, and even the kid that went out for coffee turned it down!
So, the editor actually started going down the hallway at Marvel, office to office, trying to find somebody to write this book, and my office was the last office in the row. I said, “I’ll do it!” because I’d been drawing comics for 15, 20 years and they would never let me write one. You know, it was a major prejudice of most editors against letting artists write stories and I’ll tell you why: Editors are writers. It’s like picking your own pocket. It’s taking work away from yourself, you know?
And then every artist I knew told me, “Don’t do it. If you take this, a toy book, you’ll never get offered an A-list book from any company ever again, because you’ll have classified yourself as, you know, D-list.” But I wanted to have the experience and start writing. And we just never figured that it would last. Toy books at that point never lasted more than a year or two. And in fact, toy lines were expected to only last three years. So yeah, as a roundabout way of answering the question, not only did we have no idea if it would be around that 40 years, but we were dead certain it was going to be gone in a year and a half.