Marty Pasko was a writer known to many different audiences. He wrote across the DC line, notably Superman. In live-action television, he contributed to The Twilight Zone revival and Simon & Simon. In animation, he’s an Emmy winner best known as a story editor on Batman: The Animated Series. To G.I. Joe fans, Marty Pasko of course wrote three episodes and co-wrote a fourth, which aired in 1985 and 1986.
I spoke with Marty by telephone in early 2009. He was warm and recalled much. We compared notes on writing this kind of pop culture coffee table book, as at the time, his DC Vault: A Museum-in-a-Book with Rare Collectibles from the DC Universe was out from Running Press (“I was asked to summarize a 75-year history of a company in 20,000 words,”) and Marty was working on The Essential Superman Encyclopedia for Del Rey/Ballantine (“But my client on the things that I’m doing is DC, not the publisher.”)
At the end of our talk, we decided to meet in person at New York Comic Con, which was only a few weeks away. That Friday afternoon, we chatted in the lower level food court, where Marty was friendly and encouraging. We only communicated on those two occasions, and of course 2009 is a long time ago, but Marty’s death earlier this month still affected me. He had much to say about the writing process, G.I. Joe story editor Steve Gerber, and television animation. Here’s the first of two excerpts from our phone interview, seen here for the first time. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tim Finn: What TV writing had you done before G.I. Joe? Or if you were one of the people that Gerber was pulling in from comics?
Marty Pasko: Well, actually what happened was that Steve and I had a very long history as collaborators, well before G.I. Joe. Let me see if I can run this down for you as tersely as possible. I moved out to the Coast from New York at the encouragement of a number of people I knew in New York who had gone out there ahead of me and had a fairly successful run at television. Alan Brennert was the primary old friend. And I did an episode of Buck Rogers. I did some stuff on Fantasy Island.
The minute I hit town, Mark Evanier said, “Would you like to get into animation?” And I said, “Well, I’m sort of interested in that. But it’s not my primary focus.” And I continued to do comics for a few years. But it wasn’t until Mark brought Steve into Ruby-Spears Productions that I was more intrigued at getting into animation because of the opportunity to work with an old collaborator. Steve had been a friend of mine in New York as well.
When he was editing Crazy Magazine for Marvel, I had been a contributor. We used to hang out a lot at a couple of coffee houses and diners. When he would be stuck on a Howard the Duck plot, I would have occasional ideas. It was a very collegial working relationship. And although we didn’t have the opportunity to really formally collaborate in New York, it was something that we always wanted to do.
Well, Steve started on a Plastic Man series for Ruby-Spears. And then he developed Thundarr The Barbarian with Jack Kirby. And that’s what he brought me into. And I was a staff writer at Ruby-Spears, a story editor and writer for about three or four years. And Steve and I co-developed the Mr. T shows, a big hit for the studio.
And so Steve was hot. And I think as a function of, in some peculiar way that I didn’t fully understand, his settlement with Marvel over the Howard the Duck suit, he developed the relationship with the players at Marvel Productions. In the early ‘80s, they were doing things like The Incredible Hulk series, Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends, and a number of very strange things. And at the time of the height of the success of Mr. T, Steve didn’t like the way a negotiation for the renewal of his contract was going. He went over to Marvel and he worked on Dungeons & Dragons, and a number of other things. And Steve was at Marvel when they became production partners, on G.I. Joe. They began the whole Sunbow relationship.
I was still at Ruby-Spears. They threw a lot of money at me to take up Steve’s job. I became the senior story editor there. And then after about a year, I chose to leave there. And Steve got me involved in G.I. Joe when I was freelancing, before my next gig. And that’s basically how I got involved with G.I. Joe. And [I did] a lot of other live-action stuff after that, which is why I didn’t really continue on that much with G.I. Joe.
When I first started on G.I. Joe, Steve was essentially working out of his home and I was working out of mine. And he was the primary contact. I would meet guys like [Creative Producer] Jay Bacal socially. And then of course later on when my old buddy from comics, Roger Slifer, was a senior producer with Sunbow, I would come into the offices more frequently. [And it was on Bucky O’Hare that I worked with Roger.]
For the creatives, the real problem with G.I. Joe was one of playing connect the dots. I wrote what I believed was, like, the third episode after the original miniseries. It may not have been the third produced or aired, but in terms of at least the assignment of the production numbers, “Operation Mind Menace” was, like, the third show to my recollection…which can be faulty after all these years, of course.
And it was an experience that was unlike anything I’d ever encountered because you had to write to very specific targets. They literally gave you a sheet enumerating the product that had to be included in the show. It was a brilliant procedure from a marketing standpoint in the sense that they had very specific targets in mind as to when the individual episodes would be aired and what the timing would be with regard to product rollout. And this is not at all surprising considering that as you know, Griffin Bacal was [Hasbro’s] ad agency, and only secondarily became a production entity as a way of protecting their clients’ interests.
So everything you did on G.I. Joe began with, “All right, these,” you know, “…ten or twelve action figures have to be represented in the show. And when you construct the action beats, you have to figure out a way to use this following list here of another five to ten props, vehicles, toys of one sort or another.” And so whatever you came up with, your creativity was limited by having to service this laundry list.
I had never seen anything like that. I later found out that that was a common practice that was going on in the industry. It was just more extreme because Sunbow was so much better at it. Well, I remember years later talking to people like, I think it was Joe Straczynski in fact who was involved briefly with something called Spiral Zone, which was based on a Mattel toy. And it was the same kind of thing. But I got the impression that it was much less sophisticated.
Check back in two days for part 2 of my interview with Marty Pasko.