It felt good, a year ago, to put into words all that went into writing this G.I. Joe book, so I’m doing it again. Many things repeat from last year, and a few things are new. And there is — good news — some progress.
Category Archives: Book Behind the Scenes
Sorry for no blog posts these last 6 weeks — busy with school and store, and, best of all, writing the book! Lots of good progress on chapters 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and chapter x, which I don’t know how to fit in yet.
I’ll get back to blog posting soon, probably this week.
I’m pretty sure this hasn’t surfaced previously. Commonplace is Cobra Commander’s weird blow dryer/flashlight/laser pistol-thing.
It came with his 1982 straight-arm figure, and the 1983 swivel-arm retool, and the 1984 mail-in hooded version of the character. (Embarrassing trivia: My brother and I never knew the gun fit into CC’s back! I figured this out in 2008, meaning I should probably call off this whole book thing.)
From 1981, here’s Greg Berndtson’s control art for the weapon in question. This was drawn concurrently with Ron Rudat’s figure turnaround.
And here’s Cobra Commander’s other weapon, the one that wasn’t ever produced and did not come packed with the Cobra Commander action figures!
Know of any other designed-but-scrapped weapons?
Ace lensman Andre Blais came on board just a few weeks after I signed the contract for Gladworks to design my book, and part of the appeal was that he was (and is) in-house there. So in one room there’s designer Liz Sousa at a Mac, and in another is Andre, with a cyc, pro lights and diffusion, tripods, and more. (And a Mac.) I’ll interview him soon for a future blog post.
The general idea for these photos came from the toy photography of Brian Malloy and Erik Hildebrandt in John Michlig‘s G.I. Joe: The Complete Story of America’s Favorite Man of Action. (Regular readers will recognize that book as one of the two main inspirations for A Real American Book.) There are only four “fantasy” shots in Michlig, where the reader point of view is in scale with the 12-inch Joes, but the toys themselves are set against the scale of the man-made world. Rather than product shots, like a catalog displaying toys on a table top (even if the table top is a dressed set), I wanted story moments, like movie stills.
This was also practical. I don’t want to reproduce too many visuals that are commonly available. My book aims to continually show and tell unrevealed facts, anecdotes, and imagery. But whole sections tell the history of people talking and making decisions, but people weren’t taking candid photos of co-workers at the office in 1982. (Which may seem odd compared to today when every cell phone and music player is also a high resolution camera.) If an interviewee recalls making the Snake-Eyes figure, an obvious pairing would be a photo of that figure, or a scan of a concept sketch. But what if there’s no obvious pairing? To break up stretches of history that have no clearly analogous visuals, the solution was to sprinkle in dramatic diorama-style toy photos.
For this photoshoot, I had only a vague idea of where (or why) an image of Duke and Spirit would go. Maybe Chapter 4, when the narrative gets to the second and third waves of toys? Sadly, nothing from this shoot made the final cut. There are two reasons for that: First, I had forgotten to bring Spirit’s belt. I was worried that hardcore fans would dismiss the photo for not being fully accessorized, so I asked Andre to crop above Spirit’s waist, which really limited the composition. Second, the chapter where this photo would go ultimately didn’t need a photo of two action figures in a “fantasy” setting, even if it’s a great photo.
Note the difference in these two — how the golden light from the left adds dimension and warmth to Spirit’s hair, gun-holding arm, and torso. It’s not in the first shot. Here they are together for comparison:
A few weeks later we tried this shoot again, this time with the belt, but the magic was too difficult to recapture.
Dramatic lighting separates Cobra Commander from his two guards. But CC’s pose doesn’t work — he’s too casually holding his pistol. If this is HQ, it doesn’t make sense, if it’s going into battle, why the fancy backdrop?
Change in angle adds drama, and more space between CC and his guards, but now his sigil is in shadow and the right guard’s helmet is clipped.
The vertical here accentuates the proportions of the figures, and by cropping out one guard we’ve honed in. There’s movement, like the two are walking toward us, so CC’s weapon now makes sense. But in general I don’t want vertical shots in my book — just a personal preference — so a choice horizontal one is beat out by this one.
Here we’re trying underlighting, but since we don’t have a proper set-up, with the figures on a grid or a transparent floor, the underlighting is more frontal low-angle. This, combined with the down angle POV, makes the figures look like toys rather than living characters in a fantasy story moment, the kind of photo I’m avoiding.
But to repeat from last week, none of these shots — even the best ones (and these four are just a sample) — made the cut since the slot for a photo of Cobra Commander and two Cobra Soldiers never materialized. But that’s fine, since the writing process is really rewriting, so I along with my editor and designer and photographer Wes and Andre are collectively keeping what works, trimming what doesn’t, and then trimming some of what does for considerations of space.
More photos from both Wes and Andre here soon!
Up until now I’ve only shown artwork here at A Real American Book — pencil drawings, ink designs, offset printed four color paperboard, and such. But no photography. I’d have to get a few clearances to show some of the vintage G.I. Joe-related photos I’ve cataloged while researching, but what is free to show are the original photographs we’ve taken specifically for the book. Or at least, a few that haven’t made the cut. And so here, debuting in public for the first time ever, a couple pictures posed, lit, and shot at Glad Works’ studio in Pawtucket, RI.
The ink on the contract for graphic design services was still drying in March 2008 when we had our first photoshoot. I posed a batch of 1983 Swivel-Arm G.I. Joe figures and photographer Wes Rollend shot for three hours, racking up 250 pictures. At the time I wrote “I’m sure when all is said and done, only nine or ten will make the cut.” With almost half the book laid out, that number has declined, mostly for space reasons, but also because a few shots have replaced those early ones. All I knew then was that a) I had an entire chapter devoted to people at Hasbro making decisions — not product — and no firsthand photos or memos to go with it, and b) sooner or later amidst all the pre-production materials I’d have to show some actual production, mass-produced action figures and vehicles. So I started with some 1982 toys, guessing at what photos we might need later on in Chapters 2 and/or 3.
The photo studio at Glad Works, a room next to the main one where designers click away on Macs, has what you’d expect: a tall ceiling, a makeshift cyc, lights and diffusion, bricks and cinder blocks for making flat surfaces taller or shorter (like a tabletop), fabric for backdrops, and more. Wes played around with lighting (from the side, above, below), and camera angles (low, eye-level), and backdrops. Plus we had two Cobra Commanders to choose from.
This first one above has a great composition, depth, and a bit of menace from the foreground soldier. The backdrop maroon nicely echoes the Cobra sigil. But we’re cropped in too closely, so we lose the sense that the Soldier is holding a rifle. But this does manage to be both about product — you can tell they’re plastic toys — as well as fantasy — this is a story moment during some kind of speech. So I still like it very much.
This second one tries the other end of the rack focus from the previous shot. But it doesn’t work much better — there’s a clearer sense of the Cobra Soldier holding his rifle, but he’s too out of focus, and therefore too ambiguous. The background isn’t distracting, but it’s also not adding anything. Maybe if I’d built a little throne?
This third one introduces the second soldier, and in a way I’m channeling the bit from 1987’s G.I. Joe: The Movie where two Crimson Guards stand in front of Serpentor. But the composition flattens out — the distance between the two guards and the Commander is uninteresting — they’re about the same size, and they’re all in about the same pose. And the added gap between CC and the second guard doesn’t do anything.
Now we’re getting somewhere. The two guards are cropped too much, as is CC’s hand, but I like this one as a balance between the dynamism of the first two and the concept of the third.
Again, none of these above made the cut, and this does not take away anything from Wes’ fine skills. He took 35 photos of this trio, knowing I would file down the selection to one, so of course there would be some duds. In this first attempt we were figuring out what was possible, and getting a sense of what I wanted. Ultimately the book has little need for a toy photo of Cobra Commander and two Cobra Soldiers, as nice as these are and as majestic as that background is.
The book project seemed to suffer a setback when just after this shoot, Wes moved on to another company. But things worked out, as photographer Andre Blais joined Glad Works soon after and has handled photoshoots 2 through 9. More outtakes from both Wes and Andre here soon!
Regular readers: Sorry for posting a day late!
In our last episode, Tim sat down to interview Larry Hama, either the best person to start with or the worst…
“Best” because Hama never answered a question with “I don’t remember.” He recalled stuff from the beginning of G.I. Joe as well as the end. He talked for two hours. And he dropped several helpful names, good people to track down next. He was candid, funny, and not severe.
So why was this the worst interview to start with?
One, because I was starstruck. Could I even ask the questions without stuttering?
Two, would Hama call my bluff? I wasn’t a writer, and what research project was I researching anyway? But this was a writer. Sitting in front of me, humoring me, was a major reason why I was a comics reader, a Wednesday regular wherever my local store was – Bethesda, Providence, Cambridge. Here was this famous guy whose name was credited first in almost 200 comic books I kept in my closet at home. The writer of my “desert island” comics. I worried my questions were too fannish, that I was bothering Hama and wasting his time.
Three, some of his answers were short, not because he was cutting me off, but because that’s just the way he answers some questions. To the point. I didn’t know Hama or his conversational cadence, so in the short term I thought my inquiry was lacking if I wasn’t teasing out bigger answers. I didn’t feel like I had gotten much of the information I had gone looking for.
Two hours in, Hama suggested we break, and offered up some snacks from his pantry. As I had stupidly skipped lunch, but hadn’t wanted to impose by asking for food, my relief was palpable. Those cheese slices, crackers, and salami were a relief, and in the times I’ve visited Larry since ’01 I always smile when I see his kitchen. Years later I would realize in fact it was a great interview, and that much of the work philosophy and analytical introspection was better than nuts and bolts like “favorite character.”
We talked for a little while longer, bouncing around non-Joe topics like Nth Man, an underappreciated Marvel gem, and the K-Otics, the blues band Hama played in for years. When we were done, Hama walked me out. Heading toward the elevator I sort of mumbled that I was writing a book, which codified it for me. If I hadn’t been writing a book before, I certainly was now, even if I didn’t know what that meant. Off the cuff Hama mentioned one Susan Faludi, a writer for Esquire Magazine. I didn’t know who this was. Larry explained that she had previously interviewed him by phone for 45 minutes, and that she had interviewed “everyone” regarding G.I. Joe. Everyone. It ricocheted around in my head like a lightning bolt. My heart sank. Already my project had competition! Someone had tracked down all the people I didn’t even yet know I needed to track down! I would later learn that Faludi had won a Pulitzer Prize, and that any article or book of hers on society, the male, and/or G.I. Joe would in no way compete with mine. But that word “everyone,” as frightening as it was because I was now behind in the race, was vital. As the elevator doors closed I promised myself that I would interview “everyone” and more, that I would find obscure contributors to G.I. Joe comic books, toys, and animation. That I would track down people until I had an unreasonably large number of interviews.
So I did.
In our last episode, Tim secured an interview with Larry Hama and took a train to New York…
In my backpack were a marble journal for taking notes, a video camera for recording audio (I’d keep the lens cap on), and a back-up microcassette recorder. Even though we hadn’t agreed on an exact time, I worried that I had no time for lunch, so I called from a payphone at Penn Station and immediately hopped a subway. When I got to Hama’s place, I was struck by how open it was, a two floor studio apartment with lots of light and a high ceiling. My experiences with New York living spaces were all dark and narrow — whatever college dorms and apartments friend (and future book editor) Nick Nadel had been squeezed into. Years later Larry would tell me about how his building used to have a view all the way to New Jersey, but by the time I got there in 2001, the whole street was built up with shops and tall apartment buildings.
I was also struck by the decorations. On the left wall was a Gary Hallgren post-modern painting of Dick Tracy. Across from it was another Halgren of Blondie, Dagwood, and Krazy Kat. Next to the kitchen was a 1976 ink drawing of Bilbo Baggins and 12 dwarves by a young Michael Golden. Up the steps to a narrow passageway filled with books and packaged G.I. Joe toys (and Golden’s original cover artwork to The ‘Nam #12) was a tiny room – Hama’s office. Art, photos, memos, and an old paycheck covered the right wall. Straight ahead was a computer, to the left were windows and an A/C unit. A second PC, papers and books, and a flight simulator joystick covered the spare table, smaller than a chess board. The whole space must have been six feet by fifteen feet, a sliver of a room you’d give to your drunk friend who’s crashing after the party ends. A glorified closet, and yet so out of the way and with such an interesting view of the street it made perfect sense as a writer’s room. And this is where scripts and cover layouts for my favorite comic books had been typed and drawn.
Leaning against the left wall and below the windows was Hama’s guitar. (Years later on a subsequent visit there was a guitar and a metal 1:1 scale working model of a machine gun, which made me think of the Warren Ellis quote “Larry Hama, perhaps unsurprisingly, knows a lot of people with guns, and so has marvelous stories to tell about stone lunatics with too much artillery who also happen to be comic artists.”) (And it’s telling that the one time Larry appeared on the cover to a Marvel comic book, he’s holding a machine gun.)
There was just enough space for the two of us to sit down, me in the spare seat. I turned on my gear, and started asking questions. Mel, Larry’s pug, joined us halfway through. I will never stop smiling at the seeming incongruity of it: The famous Larry Hama, who had written a light “war” comic for 12 years, and who guided Wolverine’s solo adventures through a swath of Yakuza and evil mutants for another seven, who bridged the ninja craze at Marvel Comics after Frank Miller left Daredevil for DC, thoughtfully and quietly reminiscing with a pug in his lap. What did I expect? A chat at a shooting range? With no plan besides “get the interview,” I didn’t know what to expect, but it turns out that the man I met was the real Larry Hama: a reserved and modest guy, a thoughtful and learned reader and writer.
In some ways, this was the best interview to start with, and the worst.
Why? Find out next week…
The idea of me writing a book had not coalesced, despite the revelation that John Michlig and Paul Dini would likely never write my ideal G.I. Joe history. It was still a vague notion. But one day while wasting time on the internet at work, I stumbled across Larry Hama’s e-mail address. I frequented toy and comic book news sites, and someone was announcing Hama’s birthday, or the completion of an interview. Hama wasn’t doing much in comics in the spring of 2001. His brief term as writer of the flagship Batman book the previous year was over, his seven-year Wolverine run had ended in ’97, and G.I. Joe’s 1994 finale was a distant memory. Finding this address was dumb luck, and felt like I was breaking some unspoken rule. This was a famous person, and I was not. Whatever kind of opportunity this was, I had to take it, and I had to ask for an interview, even if I didn’t know what for. I recall mentioning a “research project,” as if I was still somewhere in the limbo between my G.I. Joe Mixed Media issue and this as yet non-existent book. Surely the fan or webmaster who had included this address had done so by accident! I couldn’t just copy and paste it into a new e-mail message and bother the man, could I?
I could and did. Hama responded, which was a surprise. I had only corresponded with two famous people at the time, and the instantaneity of e-mail was still shocking. Moreso how it broke down barriers between fans and pros. A celebrity would not call back by telephone, and paper mail was iffy, but e-mail was somehow different. Hama provided a phone number and asked if I would need his fax, or if this would be an e-mail interview. I suggested in-person. New York wasn’t far and I knew that any interview would come out better if conducted face to face. To my surprise, Hama said yes. It was generous and trusting of him. What if I turned out to be an axe murderer? Or the worst kind of fanboy, digging for dirt and begging for autographs?
Hama had a few trips in the near future, and we settled on a tentative date in June. I sent him links to various toy photos and catalog scans at yojoe.com, thinking that he might need a memory jog. (He didn’t.) And then I asked my friend and future editor Nick Nadel if he could help me come up with questions.
I didn’t want to ask noodley fan questions. The problem was that I wasn’t a writer and didn’t know what made for good questions and what made for bad. All I knew was that the interviews I read in Wizard Magazine were fluffy, while those in The Comics Journal were smart and long, and I needed to somehow keep Hama talking. If he ended up terse or forgetful, the trip would be wasted, and whatever this “research project” was would now lack a necessary lynchpin. Nick looked over my list and suggested fewer specifics like “Favorite issue?” and more process ones, like “Who do you write for?” The day came and I hopped an Amtrak bound for Manhattan.