Marty Pasko: The A Real American Book! Interview (excerpts)
Earlier this week, I posted about 1,000 words from my 2009 interview with Marty Pasko, who wrote “Operation Mind Menace,” “Worlds Without End” parts 1 and 2, and with partner Rebecca Parr, “Cobrathon.” You can read that interview here. Here’s another 1,500 words from that interview. Marty continues with a story about My Little Pony, and while that was not a show that interested me as a kid, I love what it reveals about Pasko’s thinking.
ON THE TOPIC OF MY LITTLE PONY—
MARTY PASKO: While this isn’t relevant to G.I. Joe, I can share with you an anecdote, my favorite anecdote regarding My Little Pony. As I said, I was a story editor on that, Becky and I were the first story editors. And the producer was Roger Slifer. And he and Tom Griffin […] Tom was the primary person taking point at that point. Even though My Little Pony had been near and dear to Joe [Bacal]’s heart, he was kind of out of the loop at this point. And they were happy with what we were doing, but there were some issues with Hasbro. And they broke with their usual policy and asked me to speak directly to a junior executive at Hasbro, to pick her brain as to what her dissatisfactions were with the stories we would break.
And in the conversation she said, “Do there have to be conflict in these stories?” [TIM LAUGHS] And there was the long pause as I’m trying to think, “How do I,” you know, “…respond to this diplomatically?” And I said to the woman, “Well, I guess I don’t understand what you mean by conflict, because all drama is conflict. And no matter what the demographic and no matter how soft or sweet or gentle anything is, this is still a dramatic form in the broadest sense,” you know? I mean, I’m not saying drama as opposed to comedy. I’m saying drama as in representational, versus a presentational form.
If you say, “Take out the conflict,” where are the stories? And I put it to her. I said, “Can you give me an example of what you’re talking about?” And she said, “Well, why can’t we have a story where, you know, the ponies put on a show for the other ponies and we just have a lot of singing and dancing? There’s no conflict in that.” I said, “Yeah, there’s also no story. The story starts when the ponies want to put on their show, but it’s raining or something that the other ponies do gets in the way of having them achieve that goal. What is dramatically interesting is setting up a conflict that must be overcome. And you can do this in very small, kid‑friendly terms and very gentle terms. But there is, nonetheless, conflict.”
And I can tell you that the conversation did not resolve itself satisfactorily to either party. She did not understand what I was saying. And she was at pains to conceal an irritation, shall we say, that I didn’t just say, “Yes, ma’am, we’ll eliminate all the conflict.” It’s memorable to me because after I downloaded all of this to Tom, who was positioned as more of the money guy than Joe, who fancied himself more of a creative talent, Tom got it immediately. And there were no consequences to us. We kept our jobs. But there was a feeling after that at Sunbow that maybe direct contact with Hasbro isn’t the best thing in the world.
The point of all of this is just to say that Sunbow was extremely good at managing that relationship with Hasbro, at least to the extent that I could tell in my experience with it, and insulating the creatives from an undue burden placed on them by the agenda of marketing people who really didn’t understand what was necessary to adapt the material to the medium. I mean, the key to all of this stuff is in finding a way to structure stories that mimic the play activity with the toys so that the show really is indeed an effective 22-minute commercial for the toy, while at the same time being dramatically satisfying, or satisfying as entertainment to an audience that doesn’t even play with the toys, just wants to look at a cartoon show.
ON THE TOPIC OF “WORLDS WITHOUT END”—
To his credit, [G.I. Joe Story Editor] Steve [Gerber] would always tell his talent “Well, don’t worry about it. If you can’t hit all of the marks [and include all the toys designated for your episode], I will make the argument. I’m here to be your advocate. And I will make the argument that it’s just not possible.” And that was how, in the case of the parallel world show, “Worlds Without End” [came about], which I’m told, among G.I. Joe fans, is apparently very popular–
TIM FINN: Yeah. It raises the stakes.
MARTY PASKO: Oh, that’s very flattering.
TIM FINN: I mean, you see a skeleton [which was novel for that show, that a character had died off-screen].
MARTY PASKO: From a writer’s point of view, you never know when you’re doing something that’s going to be memorable. Because you can never see this stuff from the perspective of the audience. But anyway, when we were doing the parallel world show, Steve, with his incredible intuitive sense about structure and pacing, said immediately, “This is good. This will be fine. But it has to be a two-parter to do justice to it.” And so it ended up being the first two-parter of the series.
TIM FINN: Now that two-parter, to me, is very much from a writer who has worked in comic books. Is that a fair analysis? That the concept of parallel worlds is not something that I think had been done in kid’s animated TV.
MARTY PASKO: I guess the best way to answer that is to say that in that particular case, it was very much a product of the nature of the longstanding collaborative relationship I’d had with Steve up to that point. What Steve [before his time at Sunbow] brought to Ruby-Spears and made them so successful, I think, on the shows that he was primarily responsible for from the writing standpoint that were number one shows– Thundarr was a huge hit for ABC. And Mr. T that we did was a number one show. What Steve did was impress upon Joe Ruby, who was an admirer of comic books to begin with– He had worked with Alex Toth as a model designer at Hanna-Barbera and had deep respect for people with that background. Steve and Mark Evanier, who recommended that Jack Kirby come aboard, and then later, Gil Kane come aboard as model designers, what Steve was all about at Ruby-Spears was impressing upon Joe [Ruby] that fact that people with a comic book background [as opposed to a TV animation background] had a much broader range of tools, many more strings in their bow, if you will, with regard to fantasy and action adventure tropes.
And what Steve saw was the opportunity to bring in people with a comic book background who could immeasurably enhance the range of things that you could do in action adventure animation. And that had worked very well for him. And it worked very well for me later when I was in a position to hire people. I brought in a lot of the Batman comic book writers when I was a story editor on Batman: The Animated Series. And that was something I learned from Steve.
When the time came for him to say, “Hey Marty, do you want to do some G.I. Joes for me,” and I said, “Yes, provided that you understand that I’m not a big war person. I don’t know how to do that kind of”– I had to learn later on when I wrote Blackhawk at DC. But at the time, the whole militaristic angle on it was kind of foreign to me. I said to him, you know, “As long as you understand that that’s not necessarily the value I’m going to emphasize or be good at hitting, a mark I’m not going to necessarily be good at hitting, sure, I’d love to do it.” He said, “No, that’s fine.”
So there was this understanding based on our previous collaboration that the stuff that was, as you’ve obliquely indicated, very familiar to a comic book audience, was still uncharted territory in the animation business. Today [in 2009], it doesn’t seem like that particular concept of parallel worlds is so unusual [MARTY HERE IS REFERRING TO THE TV SERIES SLIDERS]. But it took another ten years on from G.I. Joe for it to catch on in the popular imagination.
And at the time we did “Worlds Without End” basically what I was doing, I mean, to be perfectly honest with you, is I was thinking of the Star Trek episode, “Mirror Universe.” I said to Steve, “Look, the audience of Star Trek could grasp that concept of a world which is similar to the one we know, but with these kinds of differences, then they’ll be able to do that here.” And he bought into it immediately. But a lot of the stuff, I think correctly as you perceived, a lot of the stuff you see in G.I. Joe does deal in tropes, themes, constructs, whatever, that are very familiar to a comic book audience, but were fresh to producers certainly and distributors of animated content.
As with much about A Real American Book!, these two blog posts were a balancing act. Marty’s interview runs 17,000 words, which is 35 pages. He had more to say about G.I. Joe, writing, other series, Steve Gerber, and television (if you’re writing a history of Batman: The Animated Series, this is someone I hope you interviewed!), but I wanted to keep these two posts digestible. For a few other digestible obits, here are remembrances from Buzz Dixon, Mark Evanier, and The Hollywood Reporter.
As I wrote on Tuesday, I very much enjoyed speaking with Marty Pasko, both by phone this one time in 2009, and a few weeks later in person at New York Comic Con. His coffee table book The DC Vault had been released the previous year, and was not dissimilar to what I’m aiming for with A Real American Book! (the book, not the blog). Marty was encouraging, and these past few weeks I have been heartened to read many warm and thoughtful remembrances from comics and TV writers who knew and respected him. His legacy is in a significant body of work across TV, comics, and more, but for G.I. Joe fans, it’s in these four excellent episodes that added a lot of emotion, fun, and, yes, action to the series.
Thank you, Marty, for your talent and generosity.