In Part One of my 2019 interview with David Anthony Kraft, DAK described his early days at Marvel Comics. In Part Two, he recalled the circumstances around the creation of the Marvel Books imprint. In Part Three, below, we delve into GI Joe Extreme. Kraft was co-story editor for Season 2 and wrote four episodes. This interview has been lightly edited and reordered for clarity.
Roger Slifer and David Anthony Kraft had collaborated on early issues of Marvel’s Defenders, and around 1984, ’85, and ’86 Kraft was resisting the “siren song” of animation. While animation script-writing paid better than comics, Kraft’s conception of the American animation industry was left over from the 1970s, when it was almost uniformly cheaply made and boring to watch. As seemingly one-by-one his co-workers at Marvel got pulled into animation, men like Steve Gerber and Mike Vosburg, Kraft still resisted. In early 1986, Roger Slider lured him in:
DAK: We also knew that we could count on each other in a deadline crunch. And that’s a thing you only really learn in the trenches. There isn’t anybody in so-called Hollywood that would have known A) that I existed, and B) I could produce, and C) It doesn’t even matter if I’ve done it before, if you give me the job, I’ll rise to the occasion and show you some shit. But Roger knew that. So when he got in a jam on Jem, he called me and was like “You must fly to New York immediately and become my captive for a week and write this episode.” And I was like “No, no, no!” But I did it. That’s how I got sucked into animation.
This 1986 toe-dip was not the beginning of a career in animation, much less a side-gig, or even a start to a few more Jem assists. Instead, this was a one-time deal — at least for a decade. Kraft was busy running Fictioneer Books, which meant publishing at least 12 issues of Comics Interview magazine per year, plus specials, comics, and books. (Kraft was the first person to publish Brian Stelfreeze.) Less erudite than Fantagraphics’ The Comics Journal, David Anthony Kraft’s Comics Interview (that’s the full title) covered mainstream comics publishers, series, and creators, as well as genre television and films like Star Trek and Batman, and benefited from Kraft’s many connections in the comics industry. In 1995, Kraft was wrapping up CI — the 150th regular issue was also its final — and figured he needed a year off to recover. But Slifer again telephoned, in a bind worse than his Jem deadline ten years prior:
DAK: And right then Roger called me, because we talked almost every other day. By that time he was in California, he had been producing and writing for [several Sunbow shows from Los Angeles]. He called me and said there are two positions open to be story editor of the[se] series. He said one is Street Fighter and the other one is GI Joe Extreme. It was the second season of each. He said “I know what’s going to happen. I’ve got the qualifications. But if I apply for Street Fighter, I won’t get it. But I would’ve got it if I applied for GI Joe. And vice versa. If I apply for that, you know what’s going to happen, I won’t get that, I would’ve gotten Street Fighter.”
You know how you can rag on your good friends? Because we were good friends, I said “I’m going to deflate your balloon. Apply for both of them and when you get neither you won’t feel bad.” [LAUGHS] Easy for me to say, right? Stop finagling, apply for both of them, you’ll either get one or you’ll get none, but you won’t feel like you missed something. You’ll see your importance in the world here. The joke was on me. He applied for both of them and he got both of them.
TF: Oh, wow.
DAK: Which was my doing because I was deflating him, but instead it inflated him. He’s like “Good Lord, now I don’t want to give up either one of them.”
GI JOE EXTREME SEASON TWO
DAK, CONT’D: When we ended up working together, we would tag team. I would work all night long until I was ready to drop and he’d get up and I’d tag off and he’d write all day while I slept. Because it’s all condensed. Not so much the later production [with] the art and stuff down the line, but the scripts and the story editing at the start, it’s all condensed into three months or less. You’re working like a son of a bitch and then you have like nine months off. I was totally worn out from all my publishing and comics and all of that. And I really, really, really, really just wanted a break. And thought I had one. So Roger called me and said “You got me into this, you have to get me out of it.” And I’m like “No, no, I can’t do it, I’m worn out. I’m a husk.”
I’ll give him this. He was a man of his word. I like Roger for that, among many other things. He was like “They don’t know you, and I do. I want to work with you. I’ll split the money. And I won’t tell them you’re helping me until they’re really happy with the work.” Which he kinda sorta knew they would be. Again, we went [way] back. “Then I’ll pull you out of the closet like Superboy Robot, ‘And here’s DAK!’ And I’ll get you a screen credit.” Anybody else that’d say that until they got what they wanted, and then they’d forget all about it: “What, did I ever say that?” Not Roger, though. The money offers kept getting better and better. I kept saying no, I just need a break. But it became impossible to resist. That sucking drain at the bottom of the bathtub really pulled at me [and I was finally working in the animation industry]. And I’m so glad I did because the next year Animation collapsed, most of the people were out of work. Comics collapsed, but I made enough money doing that, like a squirrel who stores up acorns for the hard winter. I’m so glad I did that because I was saying to Roger the whole time “I’ll do it next year after I rest.” There wasn’t a next year, that was it! Kind of.
So anyway, that’s the long, long story of how I ended up doing that, because he knew me. I used to annoy the shit out of him because I’d go “I taught you everything you know, but not everything I know.” Because he started as a letterer. You had to respect what he did. He worked himself up and learned how to do all this stuff until he got really good at what he was doing, [from letterer to writer to editor to producer]. It was really a pleasure working with him on the TV stuff. But I was flat worn out. But it all played out, just like he said. The very first script that they gave me was a Street Fighter that was just a disaster. Capcom in Japan hated it so much. You couldn’t hate anything more than that, they hated it more than I hated animation itself. [CHUCKLES] I had forgotten all the camera moves and [format expectations] from when I worked on Jem. And I kinda had to learn it on the fly, and I kind of had to stay up all weekend to rewrite all three acts.
DAK’S RESEARCH BEFORE SEASON 2
TF: In joining GI Joe Extreme for Season 2, did you watch Season 1?
DAK: Oh yeah, of course. I was always big on research, which also slowed me down. When I got the Man-Wolf book at Marvel, because Man-Wolf was a Spidey villain and spun off from that. I don’t know if you remember those days, but when Stan was writing those characters, and the first wave of writers understand this stuff. Gerber used to always say this. You could take a DC comic, say a JLA, and you could take Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman’s pointers, and you could change them to each other, interchangeably. It made no difference. They were just ciphers that talked to advance the plot. And at Marvel you couldn’t do that. You could not take the Thing’s balloon and point it at Spider-Man. The Marvel characters all had voices of their own. And so I researched very thoroughly, I read the first, like, 100 issues of [Amazing] Spider-Man to get the speech patterns of J. Jonah Jameson. And he only appeared here and there in Man-Wolf. But I’m very thorough that way. So when I got on GI Joe, naturally I watched the first season and read the bible and I did all that stuff, too. How do you story edit something or script for it if you don’t have the background to it?
TF: What was your reaction to season 1?
DAK: I think that those [episodes] sort of got lost.
Kraft liked the art style for the show, but story-wise, “some of it made sense to me and some of it didn’t, but it was canon, so I learned the canon.”
You can’t help but getting involved in what you’re working on. Well, I should speak for myself. Unless you’re just a gun for hire. Well, it’s like, I don’t care, the product is the thing. But that’s never been me and it’s never been Roger. So naturally my antipathy to animation, once I got involved in this thing, I was involved with it full tilt, completely. So naturally, I’m going to say obviously, I liked it. I’m not coming at it from a fan perspective. And certainly I paid no attention to the really long G.I. Joe series that proceeded it. I know a lot of people thought [Extreme] was an abomination, like it was such a switch up from what had gone before.
STORY ARC and STEVE ENGLEHART
TF: [Roger] Slifer wrote the first episode of season two, and the third. Marv Wolfman wrote the second, you wrote the fourth and fifth.
DAK: It’s all kind of one story if you look at it.
TF: Yes. George Arthur Bloom wrote the sixth. Jay Bacal and Lloyd Goldfine #7. You wrote 8, Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, 9 and 10. You did 11 and then Roger did the final two.
DAK: And you can see me and Roger trying to pull our old Marvel guys in. [LAUGHS] Englehart was looking for work, then. You’re probably familiar with his comics stuff. He was always pretty off the wall. The only thing about it is, it came out really good, and not telling off on the script of anything, but I’m not sure how much experience he had had writing for animation. So we had to wrestle a little bit with the higher ups on the plot. Because it didn’t look like there was a lot of plot. It was a lot of talk, and cosmic jive. Let’s say that you’re corporate in any of the other inputs, whether it was Hasbro — Also, there was another [company] in California that had input.
TF: Gunther-Wahl, The animation studio.
DAK: Gunther-Wahl, yeah, thank you. Sometimes they would look at it and go “oh, this is a friggin’ martial arts thing, but these people are sitting around and talking cosmic jive.” So we kind of had to finagle a bit. What was interesting is, you never know what’s going to come out in the actual animation. They have what they call the A-Team and the B-Team. It’s like comics only worse. Everything is done on such tight deadlines. And they’ll have someone like Will Meugniot. And he’ll be doing storyboards or having people like Dave Simon do storyboards under him. So he’ll be riding herd on that, but then it goes off to Korea or wherever. And sometimes when you’re hoping or expecting for the A team you get the B team or the C team. And you cannot always be sure what’s going to come back, even if the storyboards are good. But that Englehart episode, for some reason, it got really good animation. It really comes across great as an episode.
Will in my limited experience of working with him, because he was contributing ideas and stuff to both [those shows], he was kind of on the scenes and behind the scenes. He has the ability to think like a writer as well as an artist. And that’s pretty rare. It was a pleasure working with him because there would be scenes — and see, he knew those Street Fighter characters, they meant something to him. And ditto GI Joe. The whole point was, if they were out of character, or if there was a better way to do it, he would come back and go “This scene, that so-and-so, who shall remain unnamed, it really sucks. And what if we did this, this, and this?” And it would be like “Yes, that’s what to do with it!” So he was a pleasure. And he was always overworked.
WRAPPING UP SEASON 2 AND AFTER
We briefly talked about Kenner and the GI Joe Extreme toy line. While Slifer spoke with contacts at Kenner as well as the studio producers, Kraft was focused instead solely on character and story in animation.
DAK, CONT’D: I never saw the toys. I know this is part of a vast merchandising movement. But as always, I was into the creative aspect, and screw the merchandizing aspect. So I never saw the toys.
But obviously it didn’t succeed. And it wasn’t just GI Joe Extreme that went away. Pretty much the legs got knocked out from under the entire animation field after than year. Everything just went [STICKING OUT TONGUE NOISE]. People were scrambling, people who had been getting lots of work and had been doing great were suddenly without. This is why I was glad, looking back on it, that I did not stand my ground, because I resisted getting involved in working on GI Joe or Street Fighter, for probably weeks, as Roger grew more and more desperate and couldn’t let go of both jobs. [LAUGHS]
TF: Remind me, what is it about roughly 1997 that so much of the animation work is going away?
DAK: I don’t know because I was a guest star. I was pulled in from here, and the whole time I was going “I could work from home.” I’ve got a gazebo that’s nice to work in in the summer. And it was felt that I should be out there [in Los Angeles], not just by Roger, but like if they need you or we have to do X. In point of fact, I never had to do anything [there in the location] – I was basically a captive of Roger’s apartment compound. But I did write the last episode that I wrote from here [in Georgia]. I came home and I wrote my final GI Joe Extreme actually in the gazebo [Ep 24 of 26, “Fear at Fifty Fathoms”], and I was like “shit, I could’ve done this from here.” [TIM LAUGHS] But honestly, I probably couldn’t have, because I could’ve never meshed with Roger 24/7 the way that we did. You wake up and you’re like “While I was asleep, I had this idea, it would solve that thing.” You can’t capture that even if you’re on the phone all the time. So probably I really did need to be out there. And Santa Monica isn’t such a bad place.
RESTRICTIONS and A HEROIC MOMENT
DAK, CONT’D: I remember sitting upstairs at Roger’s apartment, and staring at one of the stories I had scripted. But I had a problem. I wanted to have the GI Joes do something heroic and in the rough couple lines for the plot it wasn’t there. I wanted them to rescue all these people on the ships. I kept thinking “how do they do [it?]” in the context of what you can do in the couple of minutes you have on-screen. It’s like writing comics, there’s so many invisible restrictions that if you’re not doing it, you don’t even see. If you’re doing a super-hero team book and you’ve got 18 pages, you’ve got your work cut out for you. You’ve got to introduce those characters, set up their powers, actually characterize them, have some kind of a conflict, introduce a football teams’ full of enemies. It’s tough, it’s like shorthand.
I was wrestling with this problem. And then I thought waitaminute, they could string ropes or chains to the shore, and then hand over hand save those people. And I got a heroic bit for the GI Joes into it. I was so happy with that. You’re worked under such intense fucking pressure. It’s like what can I do over the next hour? And how can I fit it into the two minutes that I can allocate into the script? And what can they draw [and animate] that’s reasonable to ask for? There were a lot of challenges to solve. And Roger, because he’d been in animation a long time, like I said, I was used to him from the Marvel days when he was first starting writing and I was browbeating him and going “no, no, no, do it like this.” And then to come back and work with him was like, wow, he had so improved himself and how to think about story, plot, and everything. It was such a pleasure, it was great. Not that we didn’t enjoy working with each other all that time. But by that time he’d been in animation a long time. If there was a problem with GI Joe Extreme, it wasn’t because he or I were slacking. We were giving it everything we could. But there sure were a lot of people to please.
—[End interview excerpt]
Back to Tim blogging in the first person:
I never met David Anthony Kraft in person, and I was sad to learn of his passing in April. Our phone conversation in June 2019 was wonderful. He was enthusiastic and generous with our interview, which made for a great contribution to Chapter 19 of my book. It was a bit of a bookend, too, as I had met Roger Slifer in L.A. in 2004 and visited him again in 2009, but he died in 2015, so it was lovely to speak with his longtime friend and creative partner. Connecting with DAK also led back to the topic of Marvel Books, which it turned out needed a mention in my writing. In chatting with DAK, I’ve got a tiny mystery I’d like to solve, as he recalled unabashedly recycling the plot of one of his G.I. Joe coloring books (which may or may not have credits) for one of his episodes of Extreme. I’d sure like to comb through all that to match up those two stories.
Once again I find myself posting an interview with a G.I. Joe alum after their passing, which is both sad, but also satisfying. I know Extreme isn’t most peoples’ favorite, but I find it fascinating, and DAK worked hard on his part of it.
-Tim Finn, July 2021