Interview with James Hill
Were there any characters you particularly liked, and did you prefer writing for the She-Ra or He-Man comics?
I think you can tell that I had a particular fondness for Snout Spout (I think he was one of the current toy releases when we were working on the comics). With him, I think I learned to fully embrace the more bizarre elements of the concept. Here’s a guy with a robotic head and snout and, of course, he was an ex-fire fighter! What’s not to love? You could fight against the silliness of it all – or just go with the flow…
So, I played up Snout Spout’s inferiority complex. I’m not sure whether I made it explicit in any of my stories, but I always thought he felt trapped in his new form – kind of like a Ben Grimm/Thing scenario. Someone, somewhere, must have written a story about him trying to regain his humanity… (They have! - "The Greatest Sacrifice" in MOTU Issue #41 - Ed.)
As the Rio Blast toy came out at the same time as Snout Spout, I always put those two together in my mind. I liked the contrast between the diffident Snout Spout and the ultra-macho ‘space cowboy.’ I think they’d clash a lot – but deep-down Snout Spout would want to impress Rio. Of course, that might not be a good thing for Snout Spout… or necessarily the right path for him to follow.
At the time, I would definitely have said I preferred MOTU over She-Ra. But looking back, I think I was much more suited to the latter – which had more of an emotional, character-driven focus and drive. I think Brian must have realised this, which is why he had me write more She-Ra than MOTU.
You wrote the whole of the 1989 MOTU Annual by World (which shared office premises with London Editions). This annual was notable for showcasing a lot of the later toy releases like Rio Blast, Snout Spout and King Hiss, and you gave some interesting developments to these characters, for instance the tension and bickering between the characters of Rio Blast and Snout Spout – and a lot of the continuity from the London Editions comics was referenced in this annual too. What are your general recollections of this project and your inspirations when working on it?
I think Brian must have recommended me to the editorial team at World as a possible writer for the Annual. I remember being given the newest style guide – and told that Mattel were keen to promote the latest toy releases – which is why Rio Blast and the Snake Men are featured so prominently. I’ve a vague recollection that a lot of the info in the Fact File pages came from that Style Guide, as did the artwork.
I was mad keen to feature King Hiss and the Snake Men – another set of favourites, and characters I’d not used in any of my comic stories. I think they added tremendously to the mythology – making Eternia’s pre-history even more epic and involved. Weaving in references to the Elders and their ancient battles with the Snake Men made sense to me, and it's only recently that I realise that the Elders were largely a comic creation and not part of the core concept. Hordak, of course, had to be featured in a number of the annual’s stories because we wanted to promote the likes of Extendar and Dragstor. But, having a soft spot for him, I also wanted to include Skeletor – so I guess that might have led to quite a crowded book. However, given all that, I know I was very keen on Eternia having multiple threats – and multiple factions that usually fought each other but sometimes came together as allies. I liked this idea of an all-encompassing conflict, fought on many fronts (like the Allies working with Stalinist Russia before going on to oppose it during the Cold War). I figured that Eternia would always be the hot spot for any universal threat – after all, it was Masters of the Universe not Masters of Eternia.
The book itself was a lot of work for a novice writer – I had, I think, a four-week deadline on it. The editors were also not that familiar with the concept or with pop fiction and comics – so there was a lot of second-guessing (“Do the giant robots have to have metallic bones and electrical wire veins?” “Well, no, but it’ll look cool!”). They were also very nervous about including any real jeopardy or menace.
I think the intention was to go for a younger audience and I think, given my inclinations as a writer at the time, some of the stories feel a bit ‘empty’. There are some nice scenes and passages – but I think the plots are a bit weak. (You can see where I cheated and made Bat Attack a two parter!) Having said all that, I do still think Fisto giving Queen Marlena a battle axe for her birthday is still comedy gold. (“You always know where you are with a good axe.”)
One thing that is particularly notable about your She-Ra stories is that they have a rather dark, sombre feel to them which contrasted heavily with the more fairytale-like tone of a lot of the stories in the She-Ra comic. They also often play up the themes of the tragedy of war, and the planet of Etheria’s oppression by a tyrannical regime. Can you tell us a little about where you drew your general inspiration from for She-Ra?
It’s funny, when I scanned this question upon receiving it, my initial response was that my She-Ra stories weren’t that dark. However, as a couple of weeks have gone by and I’ve had time to consider things a bit more deeply, I think you might be right. Your description of sombre is perhaps more accurate – dark to me suggests a sort of hopelessness and nihilism. I think what I was going for was a sense of melancholy. After all, even a good day for the Great Rebellion was never going to be a GREAT day. They may win the battles but they will probably never win the war. Hordak’s always going to be in power (otherwise there’s no story). But having said all that, She-Ra’s never going to give up resisting – the rebellion is in the act of making a stand not necessarily the victory. It’s hope in the face of adversity.
I think that sense of melancholy still has a fairy-tale quality (Snow White abandoned, Rapunzel imprisoned etc) – but once again, I think that comes from emotion rather than some external threat or plot device. Very deliberately, I approached She-Ra from that perspective. Mermista lost her friends, the Siren Fish, because they couldn’t commit fully to the rebellion. And in ‘Future Visions’ I wanted to give a sense that Catra wasn’t irredeemably evil (unlike Evil-Lyn) and that she acted largely out of fear.
The story “Freedom Castle” in She-Ra Issue #7 bears a striking resemblance to a classic paranormal BBC2 TV drama from the 70s called “The Stone Tape” with its premise of a haunted building in which the ‘ghosts’ are revealed to be recordings of the past rather than sentient beings. Was this the inspiration for this story?
Freedom Castle started life as an experiment. Brian was keen to use the old DC Comics trick of concocting a cover first and then writing a story around a striking image. So he gave me a short paragraph describing She-Ra and Madame Razz fighting outside a derelict castle. I went away and came up with a plot. We didn’t do another story like that and now I wonder why not? It was a fun way to approach things – and helped kick-start the old grey cells and saved plotting time.
I’m afraid I’ve not heard of The Stone Tape – but the idea that ghosts are temporal recordings was something that was in the zeitgeist in the 1970s (when I was growing up) so I must have picked it up from somewhere. Didn’t an episode of Sapphire and Steel have a similar concept?
How about the story “The Spy Screen” (She-Ra Issue #13) in which Hordak becomes able to see all action taking place on Etheria with the Spell of Omnipresence? An obvious comparison here is to George Orwell’s “1984”…
You know, I don’t think I made the Orwell connection until the story was printed and Brian added the “Big Hordak is Watching You” caption to the cover. Of course, it’s obvious now – but again, I think it’s a concept that has been used and reused so many times that it’s almost part of the cultural ether.
Looking back, I think Spy Screen would probably have worked better as a MOTU story – it has an action-based plot rather than an emotional conflict. Similarly, the “Last Unicorn” strip in the MOTU Annual might have been more appropriate for She-Ra – perhaps tying in to Swift Wind in some way. That story – which featured a tiny unicorn trapped in a glass bottle like a model ship in a bottle – was inspired by the image on a birthday card that I’d seen. I suspect now that I always intended that story for She-Ra but the comic was cancelled, and so I recycled the idea for the Annual.
One notable addition of yours to the MOTU universe is the realm of Nega-Space, from where the ‘Reality Shaper’ creature of the story of that name comes – and this dimension is later referenced in the She-Ra story “Future Visions” in which Evil-Lyn (in her only appearance in a She-Ra story!) teleports the whole of Etheria to Nega-Space. Where did the idea of Nega-Space come from?
Nega Space was definitely inspired by Superman’s Phantom Zone (and possibly the Fantastic Four’s Negative Zone). I’m not 100% sure but I think the name was probably something Brian and I came up with together in the pitch meeting. I do remember having written something generic like ‘otherworldly realm’ and Bri suggested it was always better to give a place its own name – to fix the locale in the mind of the readers, to make it seem more real. I’m sure had things continued I’d have revisited Nega-Space again. Did any other writers reference it? (Unfortunately not , although later issues did state that King Hiss and the Snake Men had been banished to a timeless realm called the 'Nega-Dimension' which could be another name for the same place - Ed.)
Speaking of "Future Visions", this story is notable for its guest appearance by Evil-Lyn. A She-Ra story featuring Evil-Lyn seemed like a massive piece of fan service, since many fans wanted to see the two of them go head-to-head but strangely this idea was never used in the Filmation cartoon series... so I wondered what inspired you to do a crossover with Evil-Lyn?
I can't remember thinking of it as a big deal at the time. Obviously, as a comics fan, crossovers and tie-ins were in my blood and so I was probably looking for any link to tie She-Ra back to MOTU. (And, as I think I said, back in the day I preferred MOTU to She-Ra - so this was probably my way to sneak in a MOTU-style story.) I do remember thinking that Evil-Lyn was up there in the hierarchy of evil - second only to Skeletor. So if this was to be a 'testing of the soul' moment for She-Ra, who was more suited to the task than the ultimate sorceress, Evil-Lyn? (Shadow Weaver was too small, too insignificant - a common adversary, and I think I imagined this as an epic confrontation/moment - something extraordinary.)
Do you have any particularly memorable anecdotes from your time working on the MOTU and POP comics?
Nothing particular comes to mind on MOTU and She-Ra – but I had tremendous fun on the comics and learned tons of stuff while writing for them. And, of course, Brian and I continued to work with each other for many years at London Editions and later Newsstand/Just Publishing.
A sales guy once said I was the Sorcerer’s Apprentice to Brian’s Wizard. I think he meant it as a dig, but I took it as an enormous compliment!
One time at Newsstand, when things were going particularly badly – either a deadline had been blown or a licensor had rejected the latest issue – I had my head (metaphorically) in my hands. Brian came up, put his hand on my shoulder and whispered: “Cheer up, this was your dream job when you were seven.” And, of course, he was right! That joke was typical of Brian. I think we all realised how privileged we were to be making a living making comics.