As an intern for Marvel in the late 70’s, racist jokes were routinely, as in every day, thrown my way. By white intellectuals, By people who did not regard themselves as racist and did not regard their remarks as racist simply by virtue of the fact they were the ones making them. Marv Wolfman routinely had me making multiple xeroxes of Gene Colan’s gorgeous pencils for TOMB OF DRACULA, and, after a few passes, the pencil graphite would be all over my hands. Several staffers, some who are still in the Marvel offices today, would pick my hand up and show the graphite-covered hand to the bullpen while exclaiming, “Hey— your hands are black!” (Marv never did this, by the way. In fact, Marv rarely came out of his office. I started to think he WAS, in fact, Dracula).
I was the office mascot. The little black kid. The co-key operator for the Xerox machine (with John Romita, Jr., who enthusiastically relinquished the top slot to me). My how liberal we are. Jim, go grab this, “In a jig.” Staffers, some still in the biz, used to come by and rub my head “for good luck.” One staffer kept little jigaboo figurines on his desk: warped, offensive little gnomes in white face eating watermelon. Denys Cowan stole one off of this guy’s desk and gave it to me as a Christmas present. I keep it on my desk here to remind me some of these people still work there…
I didn’t know Larry Hama when he suddenly became my boss on CRAZY Magazine in 1980, but I had been warned that he was, indeed, the best man for the job because he was thoroughly nuts. “Two-Gun” Hama, as he was called behind his back, arrived at Marvel and, like Denzel Washington in Training Day, immediately went about turning my life upside down. Hama has had the most profound and lasting influence on my life, my sense of self, and my sense of honor and morality. He is the most important father figure in my life, and I am most grateful to God for the years we struggled together in that tiny office at Marvel.
The first thing Hama did was build himself a bunker. Steel flat files cases and a drawing easel were arranged in such a way that people passing by the office could see me but not him, and had to stop and deal with me before they dealt with him. He installed red gels in the overhead light grilles, which gave our office a hellish tint and made the mood even more off-putting and less inviting to the rubes. EPIC ILLUSTRATED’s Peter Ledger painted Larry’s office phone bright red and molded little icons all over it, and Larry played Jefferson Starship and The Ramones as he held court with the likes of Bobby London, Mary Wilshire, Heidi MacDonald, Shari Flannigan and other top artists from NATIONAL LAMPOON and other humor magazines.
First day on the job, Larry took me to lunch to explain the New Deal to me. Before his arrival, I had been paid twenty-five dollars a month (yes, a month) to be Paul Laiken’s assistant on CRAZY. Larry was incensed that Marvel had allowed this, and immediately gave me a raise to a whopping $400 per month, which, for a nineteen year-old, was a good deal. Larry later worked to get me on staff (I was, officially, a freelancer), and soon I was making an actual salary, with benefits and so forth.
At the restaurant, as we waited for an open table, a lovely blonde and her lunch companion stepped past us, and the host appeared and began to seat them. Hama objected, politely— we were here first, and the host quickly sat us instead. Hama sat at the table, removed his mirrored aviators, and said, “Jim— never let the white man take advantage of you.”
And, I guess, that’s when it hit me: Larry was Japanese American. A guy many people sidled up to and spoke loudly and slowly, hoping he could understand them. Larry was a Hollywood actor, having appeared in many films. His diction was perfect, and he spoke English better than I did, and in as many dialects as he wanted to.
Larry suddenly made my world make sense. Suddenly, somebody at Marvel had my back. Staffers were much less likely to rub my head or make the black-hands jokes once Larry arrived.