PopLurker Interviews: Cartoon Writer Buzz Dixon at the SoCal Joe Show

On December 2nd, 2018 I attended the SoCal Joe Show and Toy Convention, a small toy expo that occurs twice annually in Temecula, California. While the show focuses on toys, collectibles, and even boasts some show exclusives, art and comic books are never discounted. Among the three special guests at the show was writer Buzz Dixon who has written for a whole host of different cartoons including many episodes of G.I. Joe, the G.I. Joe movie from 1987.

Buzz, whose work has defined the childhood of many 80s cartoon fans, is a fascinating gentleman whose life-long devotion to science fiction stories and fandom runs deep. He was kind enough to sit down with me for a PopLurker exclusive interview where I got to learn all about his early writing influences and hobbies!

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Buzz Dixon at the SoCal Joe Show and Toy Convention

Hey Buzz! Thank you so much for giving PopLurker this interview! I’m so happy to grab some time from you today at the SoCal Joe Show. All right—let’s start from the beginning and work our way forward. What were some of your earliest fandoms and how were you inspired to start writing?

When I was a young child, I moved a lot. As a result, I gravitated toward Science Fiction fandom because then your friends were never further away than the mailbox. You know, because you change your address and they’re waiting for you when you get there. And because I was involved in fandom, I became aware of the EC Comics bullpen from the early 1950s. Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science Fantasy, Two-Fisted Tales, and eventually that became MAD magazine. Even as a kid I knew that one day I wanted to be involved with a bunch of really cool people, like them, on a really cool project, like the ones that they worked on, and have people remember it years later. And I tell people; I got my wish.

I worked on the original G.I. Joe years later and Transformers. I worked on all of the Hasbro Sunbow shows, with the exception of one, Air Defenders. It was the one show I didn’t work on. I had a blast doing it. I worked with some of the best people I ever worked with. It was the best writing experience of my life and when I encounter fans decades later who fondly remember the shows and tell me how much they enjoyed them, and the impact it made on their lives, it’s very touching to me and also very gratifying.

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And just hearing that is so wonderful and amazing. You’ve had a great career. Let’s take a step back and revisit that child who was a big Science Fiction and fantasy comic book fan. When did you start writing your own material and what made you take the leap into trying to become a published writer?

Virtually every science fiction fan eventually takes their hand at writing it. When I was about twelve or thirteen years old, I started seriously submitting stories to magazines. And I was getting rejected because at that age I didn’t have the chops yet to do that. But I kept writing and pitching ideas, sending stories in. I was drafted in 1972 and while I was in the army, I was writing short stories on the side. I wrote one novel that I tried to sell during my six years in the military. I would send these things out and they would be summarily rejected.

When I got out of the army, I was accepted into USC Film school on the G.I. Bill in February of 1978. But school didn’t start until October. So, with my wife and four-year-old daughter, we came to Los Angeles. I figured I’d get a job as a driver or a mail clerk at one of the studios just to get my feet wet until school starts, then go to school full time. So, I started at Universal Studios and worked my way down until I was in Filmation Studios. Literally, Filmation was like one hundred on the list. Way down.

I show up there, go through the front door where there’s a receptionist sitting there, and I told her I wanted to submit my resume. She asked if it was for live action or animation. I told her I knew nothing about animation, so live action, I guess. She told me to wait a minute, and went into the back room with my resume. She eventually comes out and say ‘Arthur will see you now.’ And Arthur was Arthur Nadel, their live action producer. What I didn’t know, but what was very lucky for me, is that I arrived during hiatus season, which is when they’ve completed one season and take a break before pitching the next season. It’s about a one to three month time frame. Arthur was sitting in the back, bored out of his mind, and told the receptionist ‘Send him to me, give me something to break up my day.’

I go back, and I’m talking to Arthur. We hit it off rather well and I mentioned that I was a military journalist and I’d written short stories and he said he wanted to see some of that work. I happened to have them, not on me, but in my car where my family and I were staying at the time. I told him I could bring them, and he told me ‘please do so’. I came back a week later with some of my stories, ones that I had written but hadn’t sold. He read them and told me they had an animated series they were working on where they were having trouble coming up with stories for it. He said he couldn’t outright ask me to write anything. But if I on my owner happened to want to pitch some stories, he would be willing to listen to them.

Well, you don’t have to hit me over the head with a bat, so I went back and wrote up some story ideas for the show. A week later, I bring them back to Arthur and leave them with him. I went on with whatever I was doing at the time. What I didn’t know was that Lou Scheimer, one of the creators of Filmation Studios, was vacationing in Hawaii at the time. After Arthur read my stories, he sent them to Lou via Fed-Ex. You’ve got to understand that in 1978, sending something to Hawaii via Fed-Ex was a really big deal. He sent the stories to Lou, and when he came back from his trip, Arthur left my pitches for the show on his desk. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were in desperate need for a new writer on their writing staff. Lou said to Arthur, ‘I don’t know who we should hire; the guy who wrote the short stories, or the guy who wrote the pitches.’ Arthur said, ‘They’re the same guy’ and Lou said, ‘Get him.’

Arthur called me and asked to write a script, which led to me becoming a staff writer. When October rolled around and I was gainfully employed, I figured I could hold off on going to school for one year because I was on staff, could make some money, and have a cushion. Well, ‘next year’ never came. I just kept writing and that’s how my career happened.

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Which I personally think is really smart. Most people go to college to learn to ‘do the thing’. But if you’re already ‘doing the thing’, why would you give that up?

Exactly, and that was my thinking at the time too. Why go to college for four years just to be in the position that I’m in right now? What can be taught in the school isn’t even as important as the connections you make. College gets you to meet likeminded people who will be in the same career as you. You meet someone who knows someone and you can work your way into writing a script or a novelization of a movie.

 

How active are you on the convention scene right now and where do you make appearances?

I’ll go wherever they’ll have me! I average anywhere from three to six shows per year depending upon circumstances. I’m typically at WonderCon, San Diego Comic Con, and Alpha-Megacon in Southern California. I’m on and off at LasCon; many shows will cycle through people and I’m on the down cycle right now. I’m at a number of the Joe Shows, the Joe and Transformers shows in Wichita, in New Hampshire. So, like I said, if you buy me a plane ticket and feed me, I’ll show up!

 

I know you said earlier than you love when people tell you your work impacted them. How do you feel about the nostalgic resurgence of your work in settings like these for a new generation of fans?

I’m very gratified by it. It’s a double-edged sword in this. I’ve had people who are active duty military tell me that they watched G.I. Joe and were inspired to join the military. It gets me thinking ‘Holy cow, these people have put themselves in harm’s way in no small part because of something I did’. And it really preyed on my mind because I felt a certain amount of responsibility that someone made a very dangerous career choice based on something I had done.

A friend of mine who is a counselor and has a podcast gave me some great insight. He said ‘You inspired people to be heroic. You inspired people to do something noble with their lives.’ So, I accept that and tell myself that’s what I did and didn’t mislead anyone into rushing off into harm’s way. But I have to be honest that I do feel that sense of responsibility. That some people saw something I wrote and rushed off to join the military, and God bless them for doing that. I’m glad we have those volunteers! But I would hate if seeing G.I. Joe was the only reason they were doing that.

That’s one of the reasons I got hired for G.I. Joe. I was in the army for six years and when my friend Steve Gerber was brought on as the story editor, he sent me a couple of the scripts because he wanted to use my military experience and get feedback. I told him the characters weren’t acting like people in the military do. There was no sense of chain of command. The stories didn’t reflect how a military unit operates. The weaponry and tactics were just ridiculous. In the first mini-series, they had jets flying down and slicing tanks in half with their wingtips! I said, ‘Eh, that’s not going to happen.’

Steve contacted Sunbow and told them I should come in as an assistant story editor because of my experience in the military so that it looks and sounds authentic. So, other than writing the stories, my primary responsibility was looking over everything and making sure that the military experience sounded authentic. Or at least it was a wave in the direction of what the military was like. One trend with every story I wrote or every script that I edited was to make sure that someone got seriously hurt. We weren’t allowed to kill anyone, but I said ‘I’m not going to let this be fun and games where no one gets hurt. Someone will get hurt.’ The kids had to know that there were consequences to this.

When the G.I. Joe movie came out, they were getting ready to phase Duke out of the toy line. I’d said ‘Hey, we’ve been doing this for two years and we’ve never killed anybody. We’re getting rid of Duke anyway—let’s kill him off!’ And led to a debacle where they said ‘Wow, that’s really dramatic to kill Duke. Let’s kill Optimus Prime as well!’ So, they did that and there were a couple of problems with that. The first being that with a robot, you can smash him or roll him flat with a steamroller and then just fix him and he’s back in the show. You smash a human being with a steamroller, they’re gone for good. The median age for the Transformers audience was about ten, while the age of the Joe audience was twelve and above. At age twelve, you’re intellectually aware that people get killed in war. At ten, it’s devastating if your favorite character is killed.

So, when the Transformers movie came out, there was a very bad reaction to it. The kids that would have gone to the Joe movie were old enough to buy their own tickets. The kids going to the Transformers movie had to go with their parents and now those parents are dealing with the kids who are sobbing over the death of Optimus Prime. We had one kid actually lock himself in the closet for a couple of days after seeing that. So, they came back to us and said we couldn’t kill Duke. Instead they inserted this kind of clumsy dialogue that he was just in a coma. No, he’s not in a coma! He’s dead. I killed that sucker as dead as I possibly could. But they dubbed in the line and that was the end of that.

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Before we wrap up can you tell me what you’re working on, what’s in your pipeline, and where can PopLurker readers find you?

You can find me in a lot of magazines and anthologies recently. I will be appearing in a weekly mystery magazine. I will appear in Test Patterns Creature Features, which is an anthology based on 1950s B-movies.  I have a story coming out in Analogue, my second Analogue story. I have a young adult novel coming out soon called Poor Banished Children of Eve which I describe as a World War II Lord of the Flies with Catholic school girls. I have another book that I’m doing the polish on called The Rustlers of Rimrock which is about four teenage girls who save a herd of wild horses. And I have many other projects that are in various stages of development, from crude pencil sketches to full-fledged outlines. So, I’ll be making a pest of myself for years to come.

 

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