By Tom Shapira
I think it is fair to say the comics industry has failed Larry Hama. In his long career the man has done seemingly everything – he wrote and drew and inked and edited. He’s been with Marvel and DC, sure, but that’s not the limit of it. In the 1960’s, as a teen, he worked on the horror magazine Castle of Frankenstein. In the 1970’s he was part of the alternative movement with Flo Steinberg’s Big Apple Comix. In the 1980’s he worked right next to Neal Adams’ desk in Continuity Comics, a major part of the pre-Image independent publishing world. He’s done it all. Heck, he’s still doing it all to this very day.
But all this time, the one thing the man wanted to do was to work on some Disney Ducks:
“what I really wanted to do from the beginning was funny animals. I’m a duck man, like Carl Barks, but nobody was buying”.
It’s pretty obvious in retrospect: one of the major characters in the G.I.Joe cannon is a Scottish millionaire operating within the United States. If you read enough Larry Hama comics, whether they feature short grumpy Canadians with knife-hands or America’s daring, highly-trained, special mission forces, you can see how he’ll fit right in the Carl Barks mold. He likes high-concept adventures that take the characters all over the world; he likes to anchor these adventures in strong recognizable characters; he likes technical gadgets. And – this is the most important thing – he likes a good gag. Larry Hama is a very funny writer that often gets pigeonholed as ‘only’ an action writer.
And so, after all this time, they still don’t let him near those damned ducks. It appears that Scrooge McDuck would have to be ‘the one that got away’ – forever out of reach. A symbol of both inspiration and desperation.
At least he got to make a funny animal story once. Even if only for the briefest of times.
Bucky O’Hare was a six-part story serialized in the anthology Echoes of Future Past published by Continuity Comics, eventually collected into a slim graphic novel. The story offers the basic set-up for more adventures to come, but that story was all that fans got until the release of the short-lived cartoon adaptation. Which, in turn, spawned its own comic book – the comics of the cartoon of the comics.
The plot of Bucky O’Hare involves all the classic ingredients for a successful 1980’s children’s story: we got an evil alien force, The Toad Empire led by an evil A.I called KOMPLEX. The leads are a band of scrappy rebels, S.P.A.C.E. (Sentient Protoplasm Against Colonial Encroachment) that includes the leading one, the strong one, the smart one and… the girl (although at least she has magic powers). There’s even a point of view character the young reader could easily identify with in Willy DuWitt, a pre-teen genius who gets stranded with O’Hare. It all reads rather cynically when viewed from a distance: a pre-packaged story, ready-made for television. Larry Hama was already working on G.I.Joe at the time and certainly knew how the sausage was made.
Still, the fact alone that Larry Hama was writing meant that the story felt like more than a cash grab. For good and bad Hama was always a creator with a clear point of view on the world, matched with the desire to put it through his stories. Thus, the Toad Empire aren’t just bad guys for the sake of evil, like the Empire in Star Wars. Instead they are presented as hyper-capitalists “interested only in acquiring shoddily manufactured material goods for no other reason than to have more than the next toad…” The Toad Empire’s conquest are explicitly in service of consumption. They destroy so they’ll have more resources to buy and sell.
This is the right moment to mention that despite its jingoistic façade Hama’s original G.I.Joe run had some very sharp burbs to throw at American society of the 1980’s, especially at the expense of yuppie culture.
Meanwhile S.P.A.C.E. is a coalition of different types of animal species (and robots), joined together. A bit like the United Nations, which means Hama gets to do some funny bits at the expense of bureaucracy, something he was very familiar with from both his days in the military and from his bunker in the comics bullpen. S.P.A.C.E. is both under-budgeted and extremely rule-happy. At a certain point the Toads attack a planet and Bucky sighs as he explains that they can’t intervene until they get the local rules to sign a permission form. On the other side of Hama’s politics we have Willy’s parents. They are these bizarre post-hippies, who’re seemingly very cross with their son for being more interested in science than in environmental protests. It is a gag that falls flat even if you don’t think it’s a subject worthy of protest (and just to be clear – it is). It’s probably mostly there so the young audience wouldn’t feel too sad that he eventually gets stranded a galaxy away from them.
All of which is to say – this is a book that wants to be more than it appears. Sadly, Bucky O’Hare’s biggest problem isn’t the plot or the politics: it’s Bucky himself. That dude is pretty boring, especially for a space-borne warrior rabbit (he isn’t Space Usagi, he isn’t even Jaxxon). There isn’t much character to this character, which is a very weird failing for Hama, who basically created hundreds of characters for G.I.Joe and could establish what made them unique in a few panels (or even two paragraphs on a file card). After six chapters I’m still not quite sure what Bucky’s deal is – he’s heroic and good and that’s all there is to it.
There’s also the matter of Michael Golden’s art, which is possibly inappropriate to the story. Not ‘bad’ – Michael Golden doesn’t do bad art – but ill-fitting to the type of comics we’re dealing with here. His detail-heavy and overly-ornate pencils clash with the more comedic elements of the plot. It’s a story seemingly made for a Saturday morning cartoon (indeed, if you tried and watched the tv show version you can see they simplified things considerably), but Golden draws the billion dollar movie version. It’s often beautiful to look at – the shot of a giant Toad robot is just awesome for sheer craftsmanship alone – but it changes out the mood of the story. Like listening to a nice pop song played at a Motorhead concert level.
One cannot help but compare to Stan Sakai’s Space Usagi (a constant refrain online is that the failure of the Bucky O’Hare cartoon tanked the lunch of a Space Usagi tv show, though I’ve seen no concrete report on the matter). Drawn with Sakai’s usual cartoony expressiveness, it lends a better visual tone to the story of a rabbit fighting in space. It’s easier to buy what Sakai is selling because he’s further away from realism. Meanwhile, Golden’s style turns out to be better suited for drawing regular humans (or at least humanoids) than the squat funny cartoon animals that seem to populate both Buck O’Hare and Disney Comics. Indeed, Golden and Hama showed much more artistic synergy working together on The ‘Nam (which Hama edited) and G.I.Joe (which Hama wrote).
Bucky O’Hare ended up being neither a fish nor a fowl (of course: he is a rabbit); not quite working as a kiddie cartoon or as more ‘adult’ satirical comics. But that very oddness, the idiosyncrasy of these two creators working on this type of project, is what makes Bucky O’Hare fun to read. The cartoon is the successful version, sure, commodified and corporatized and carefully sheered out of any personality, the kind of Bucky O’Hare you can imagine just from reading the description. The comic is a whole other animal though – and really, it’s all the better for it.
Bucky O’Hare #1
Written by Larry Hama
Drawn by Michael Golden
Coloured by Cory Adams
Tom Shapira’s writing has been featured on many different websites, ranging from PanelXPanel and The MNT right through to The Comics Journal. The best place to find him online is on Twitter, right here!
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