Category Archives: Animation

Remembering Denny O’Neil / interview

Denny O’Neil died last week. He’s best known as the writer of important and excellent Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Batman comics. Secondarily, he’s known as Batman editor, a position he held for more than 15 years. The first Batman comic I ever read, O’Neil wrote. And the second one, he edited. But for purposes of this blog, Denny O’Neil edited Marvel’s monthly G.I. Joe for a little over three years, around late 1982 to 1986. Less than a year into the series’ existence it was still establishing itself, and along the way there were some challenges, such as having six artists draw issues #35 and #36 — clearly a deadline problem that needed solving. But O’Neil and writer Larry Hama had a great working relationship, and I get the sense that in terms of plot and character, O’Neil was not a firm, guiding hand as some editors are — that he edited G.I. Joe with a light touch, and I mean that as a compliment.

O’Neil was also one of only a few people to “cross over” and work both on the G.I. Joe comic book as well as the weekday animated series, writing a single 1985 episode, “The Invaders.” If you don’t follow the show, in that half-hour, an alien spaceship kidnaps the Oktober Guard. As with many 1985 episodes, on paper it sounds silly, but its wackiness is mostly explained, and the story, believe it or not, stays pretty grounded. As with the whole Sunbow run, the action and narrative flow are great.

I spoke with O’Neil by phone in 2009. For the first half of the interview, I mistakenly had my recorder off, but I did type up notes right after. I’ve included these paraphrased notes here, in italics. Our interview was short, as neither of us got into specifics.



Q: You edited G.I. Joe from issue 7 to issue 47. Tom DeFalco preceeded you. Is there any story there?

A: [Indicates some kind of office or personality politics in taking the assignment,] but there’s not much of a story there.

Q: And Bob Harras took over after you. Any story there?

A: That was around when I moved to DC, and a lot of people were leaving Marvel then. DC made me a great offer, again, not much story there.

Q: Had you known Larry before working on G.I. Joe?

[O’Neil co-wrote a not very good martial arts novel and since the comics scene in NY was small, knew Hama and knew that he knew martial arts, and ran the book or some scenes by him, mentioned Hama may have suggested/commented on/given him throwing stars? And O’Neil incorporated them?]


–Here’s where the recorder kicks in and the transcript is accurate:


Denny O’Neil: …And I think that [Larry] edited me once or twice [in comics], and I may have edited him once or twice. But we just knew each other because as I said it was a small world back then. But G.I. Joe was the first time we were together for a long time. And I remember the first office I had at Marvel was directly across from his when he was editing the humor magazine. So I saw a lot of him. But G.I Joe was the first sustained editor-to-writer relationship we had.

Tim Finn: You also wrote one episode of the G.I. Joe cartoon and I think that was for Steve Gerber. Can you talk about how you got involved with that?

O’Neil: Again, it wasn’t anything special. Gerber took over the story editing of the cartoon and he was willing to use comic book people and that isn’t always true. And he had a list of people that he knew at Marvel that he would want to work with and my name was on the list. And I had never done a cartoon. So I said sure, I’ll be happy to. Gerber and I had also known each other. We had the same alma mater. He was I think seven years behind me at St. Louis University. And again, that very small world that we inhabited, Steve and I knew each other, and when it came [and there was an] opportunity to do something I had never done before and get paid for it I said “sure.”

Finn: It doesn’t seem that you doing that one freelance animation script immediately led to a lot of freelance animation work, is that true?

O’Neil: No, it was years and years before I did any more television.

Finn: That by choice or by circumstance?

O’Neil: I never went after it, and I think you have to do that. I am not temperamentally suited to being a television or a movie writer. And I think you have to be. I have done the jobs when they’ve been handed to me. Only one have I ever gone after. And that was when a hole suddenly opened up in my schedule so I called Harlan Ellison in L.A. and said “big hole in my schedule,” do you know of anything? And he put me onto a CBS show and I wrote one episode which was never aired. It was the last one and the show was cancelled. The show had “doom” written all over it from the beginning. [CHUCKLES] But that’s the kind of thing I think where you have to spend some time knocking on doors. And I am abysmally bad at selling myself, doing the networking thing.

Which now even seems to be part of the comic book world. So my timing was good for once. I was an active comic book writer when that kind of thing was not an element– you got your foot in the door, and if you got editors who wanted to use you or if you got a reputation for being reliable or whatever, and if you showed up at the comic book offices you usually got work. It was a very informal situation– All those Batman stories I wrote I was never the Batman writer, and I never had a contract, even an informal agreement. It was just that I would show up on Thursday morning and go to Julie Schwartz’s office and he would give me a job that was often Batman.

Finn: [We transitioned a bit and I mentioned Larry Hama.]

O’Neil: Larry is an editor’s dream. He’s focused, professional, and unsentimental. And stubborn when he needs to be.



I never met Denny O’Neil, but he was clearly one of the good guys in comics. His rules for writing became standard for many writers after him, his decade-plus in charge of the Bat-office saw an ideal philosophy for the character carried out across a myriad of titles, and he was a teacher. And he was a small part of the history of G.I. Joe. He will be missed.


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Marty Pasko – interview part 2 of 2

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.


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.




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.


(end excerpt)

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.

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Marty Pasko – interview part 1 of 2

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.


[end excerpt]

Check back in two days for part 2 of my interview with Marty Pasko.

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Remembering Joe Bacal

I missed this news. Joe Bacal died in October. It’s December as I write this.

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Remembering Robert J. Walsh

Robert J. Walsh died last month. This is sad news.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rob for lunch in Los Angeles three years ago, and I’m going to jump to the middle of the story here for some levity and type three important words: Guitar-shaped pool.

But let’s start at the beginning.

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Remembering Russ Heath

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Podcast – Department of Nerdly Affairs

Rob Paterson and Don Chisholm take a biweekly deep dive on their podcast, Department of Nerdly Affairs. Their topics range from Taiwanese comics to Chinese webnovels to hero pulps to indie RPGs. Recently I guested, and we three talked about G.I. Joe history, toys, comics, and animation. Thanks, gents! Listen here.

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G.I. Joe BG key – “Where the Reptiles Roam”

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1988 Repeater turnaround by George Woodbridge

1988 GI Joe Repeater detail

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Cobra Commander and Destro’s Control Device

This is fun.

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