Remembering David Anthony Kraft / interview Part 1 of 2

David Anthony Kraft died recently. He was second-best known for writing Marvel’s The Defenders, Savage She-Hulk, and was the consultant for the young readers Spidey Super Stories. About his thoughtful and subversive work, Peter B. Gillis recently said on Facebook “He was one of the editorial crew up at the old offices in the big room, one of those who would get me past the receptionist—one of those of us who were dead set on changing the face of comics.” But DAK, as his friends called him (and Kraft called himself!) was best known for his wonderful Comics Interview magazine — full title: David Anthony Kraft’s Comics Interview — which Kraft edited and published from 1983 to 1995 — a whopping 150 issues!

A lot of early info about G.I. Joe filtered out through Comics Interview, as key issues featured interviews with Larry Hama, Buzz Dixon, and Steve Gerber on both Real American Hero comics and television. But hundreds of writers, artists, and projects got covered as well, and it’s a real document of an era. Actually, it’s more than one era! (For example, that Ninja Turtles issue above has nothing to do with Joe, but isn’t a 1985 interview with Eastman and Laird valuable to history?)

Before I get to Kraft’s 1983 and 1996 G.I. Joe connections, I want to set the scene with an excerpt from our 2019 phone interview. Kraft was a talker, and while I did ask questions, I was also able to just shut my mouth and let him go for long stretches. Although this recollection predates A Real American Hero and the controlled and successful Jim Shooter era of the 1980s, I love peeks behind-the-scenes at Marvel, and this is a good backdrop for Kraft’s decision to leave The House of Ideas a decade later. In 1972, Roy Thomas succeeded Stan Lee as Marvel Editor-in-Chief. Kraft had already worked in publishing as a teenager, and then in early 1974 joined Marvel as an Associate Editor working alongside Don McGregor, both under Thomas:

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DAK: I happened to enter comics, Marvel anyway, at a moment of ultimate anarchy, almost. It became anarchy after Roy [Thomas] stepped down [as Editor-in-Chief]. [But before that] what happened was Roy was editing like 40 color titles [on top of] writing all of [his] books. He didn’t have time to micro manage and to look over your shoulder. And he paid more attention to the major books, which made sense. If the books weren’t major books, basically you would talk to Roy and say “Here’s the direction I’m going to take,” and he’d day “cool” or “not cool.”

And then he had a little green file box of index cards of who was using what villains in which books that month. So that there wasn’t an unfortunate contradiction or duplication. The books would be written by the writers, or plotted by them, and drawn, and then [scripted], and then come to Don [McGregor] and me for editing. And there were some writers, and I’ll spare them and not mention names, [whose books] we would shove back and forth, like “You take this book,” “no, you take this book.” Because the continuity would be really, really bad, or the writing would make no sense, and we’d have to rewrite it. There were books that we would fight for, like Marv [Wolfman]’s [Tomb of] Dracula, or Starlin’s book, that I always grabbed. And then the books Don and I were doing nobody looked at except Don and I. So we were, before writer/editors existed, in effect writer/editors, because it wasn’t like Roy read them before they went to the printer, or Stan. They got make-readies after they were printed, and if you fucked up, they would call you on the carpet. So I made it a policy not to fuck up. Simple, right?

Basically all I did was go to Roy on my first color series, Man-Wolf, and I said he’s like a copy of a copy. Marvel has Werewolf by Night, like the Wolf Man in the Universal movies, and now you’ve got a blurry xerox copy of a generic — he around runs menacing people. [FLATLY] Rrrrr. Where’s the future in that? I always say this because post-Star Wars, it’s easy to [assume that space fantasies were popular and the norm], but this was before Star Wars. I’m going to make him a science fantasy character and take him to outer space where he’s a god and do this and that, because that’s something you haven’t seen with a werewolf. And I was kinda worried that Roy would turn it thumbs down. He was like “Sounds cool, go for it.”

Beyond that, he never looked at a plot. He never had any input. Apparently I was okay because he never called me on the carpet. Don and I would write our books, then they would go and be lettered, then they’d be inked, then they would come back and we would editor on the books, then they would go to the printer. Then Stan and Roy and everybody else would see them. That’s the Marvel I came to.

And then over time it became more and more like DC. I worked at DC in ’75. But I used to regard them with disdain and do horrible things. Gee, I don’t know why they didn’t warm up to me over there! They were all these guys in ties and suit jackets. They were all sitting in offices with clear glass. It was like a menagerie of zoo animals. It was so not like Marvel. At Marvel there’d be shit going on, we’d be having fun, but we’d still be working. So whenever I would go up to DC, I was such a hippie, I would go up barefoot with my knees hanging out of my pants just because I hated how constrained it was. Eventually that become Marvel. Then it became all of these offices, with glass, everybody sitting inside. [LAUGHS] It was like Omigod! It became bureaucratic and then more and more layers, and therefore more separated areas.

When there were three of us [editing] 40 color books a month, there wasn’t time for that sort of shit. You couldn’t form your own little area, your own little clique. But over time, eventually it turned into DC as I see things. And there was a lot of crap from that anarchy. As much as I like Steve Gerber, and as good as Steve was – and we all did this — he’d write himself into a corner. Because you were trying to come up with a good cliffhanger. So you’d do whatever was best for the story and you would come up with a great cliffhanger. And then you had to do the next issue and figure out how in the hell you’d get out of that. There was a lot of desperation involved with it. Sometimes the stories never really were satisfying and they meandered and they lost their thread. But you would have never had Howard the Duck and lots of other stuff if you had some kind of regimented little menagerie of editors in their little glass-fronted offices. I love the anarchy period because I could run amok and do whatever I wanted. Later on when it became not fun, I transitioned back to publishing.

[END INTERVIEW EXCERPT]

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On Friday I’ll post Part 2, wherein we get into actual G.I. Joe-related matters — the connection to Real American Hero in 1983 just as Kraft “transitioned back to publishing” and a hectic three months 13 years after that.

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Filed under Animation, Comic Books, G.I. Joe Behind the Scenes, Interviews

Extreme Freight by Ben Torres

Ben Torres had drawn comics for a pair of small black and white publishers when he started freelancing as a toy designer. This was around 1994, and with the A Real American Hero line of 3 3/4-inch figures ending, I’m referring not to Hasbro in Rhode Island, but Kenner in Ohio, and what became known as GI Joe Extreme.

This image was faxed from Kenner to Hasbro’s advertising agency in October of 1994, along with other drawings at a time when Kenner’s designers, marketers, and lawyers hadn’t yet pinned down all the character names. Click to enlarge.

GI Joe Extreme Kenner design Freight Ben Torres

I’m unclear on who “Tank” is supposed to be. To my mind, the biggest Extreme character is Freight, and while some characters morphed in the development process, what art I’ve seen indicates a pretty linear path for each character type (the leader, the martial artist, etc). From here, Freight is pretty locked in — shoulder pads, do-rag, and everything he says in the TV series is a football reference. Here’s a production figure:

Torres continues to have a fascinating career in toys, product design, brand creation, and marketing. He briefly returned to comics in 2017 for Marvel’s Kingpin miniseries, collected in softcover that same year.

Extreme fans, please feel to make a football reference in the comments.

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Psyche-Out design by Rudat

I’ve always had a soft spot for Psyche-Out, subtly 1987’s weirdest G.I. Joe action figure. Here’s mine, missing his two shoulder clips. (Sorry, there’s 25% of his weirdness gone right off the bat.) (EDIT: Stephen Jubber posted this correction: “I fear your childhood Psyche-Out may also be missing his original pistol, Tim. He’s got a loaner from a Night Force Shockwave!” Thank for the fact check, Stephen!)

And here’s Ron Rudat’s pencil final for the character. This would get turned into painted presentation art, then a sculpt input drawing (aka a “turnaround”), and then a wax sculpture.

My favorite thing about this drawing is Rudat’s nebulous notation for “Electronics of some sort” on Psyche-Out’s chest piece. My favorite aspect of this character in general comes from his action figure’s dossier, written by Larry Hama. It reads, in part, that “Psyche-Out got his degree in psychology from Berkeley and worked on various research projects involving the inducement of paranoia by means of low frequency radio waves.” And then explaining what “Deceptive Warfare” is, Psyche-Out’s specialty, the dossier continues: “…you see a commercial on TV ten times a day for a particular brand of cookies. One day at the supermarket, you’ve overcome by a sudden craving for cookies. Confronted by an array of unknown brands, you choose the one that you saw advertised. They’ve won… And you’ve lost.”

The day I bought this toy my brother and I then went to our local video store, which was called Video Cassette Rentals. We must have just been to Lowen’s, an extraordinary mom and pop toy shop and just a few blocks over. I was so struck by that cookie reference that I read it aloud to my brother, us sitting there in the back seat. Kevin probably thought that Psyche-Out’s neon green jacket and wacky satellite dishes made for an unrealistic and unappealing Joe, but A) I thought they were cool and always gravitated more towards the sci-fi in Joe, and B) I think I also identified with clean shaven blondes on the G.I. Joe team since I looked like them. But this was the first time I had an inkling that the back-of-package dossiers were unusually written.

But returning to Rudat’s wonderful design and drawing (that’s two different skills! Design being one and drawing being another), I’m impressed by those six solar cells on his arms. It makes sense that his gear wouldn’t just be battery powered. (Insert joke here about Night Force Psyche-Out’s ineffectiveness.) I like that Rudat is thinking through what such a soldier would need in the field, and yet if I didn’t know what these do-dads did, they offered just enough of an impression to be an addition to this costume without being confusing or distracting. Also great in this art is Rudat’s handling of Psyche-Out’s quilted jacket.

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Livestream! Also: Podcasts

*** Links for the last two months below the fold! ***

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Barbeque colors by Rudat

G.I. Joe fans are probably familiar with this guy:

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A Real American Book! 2020 in Review

It’s after mid-February, so it’s past time time for my annual “what did I do for the last 12 months” post. Rather than running January 1st to December 31st, my book year runs from about the end of January to the start of February because I teach and traditionally the winter break is a productive time.

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Cobrember 2020 part 3

I invented a G.I. Joe internet meme wherein one draws a Cobra character and posts it each day in December.

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Now Co-Hosting Talking Joe podcast

After my big interview with Mark “Funky Bunch” for a special episode of Talking Joe (between episodes 103 and 104, December 2020), Mark told me that the podcast was at a crossroads. After two years of hard work, founder Chief Stride was retiring, and Mark was considering a change in format or was a looking for a new co-host. And would I be interested? I’ll go into this more in a week or two in my big A Real American Book! year-in-review post, but the answer turned out to be yes.

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Cobrember 2020 part 2

I drew a Cobra agent or soldier every day in December.

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Rampart by Payette

James A. Payette made an important but limited contribution to G.I. Joe.

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