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Eleven years after winning a 2001 Marvel talent search contest, Jason Aaron has become one of the most versatile, consistent writers in comic books. After breaking out with the gritty Vertigo titles The Other Side and the creator-owned Scalped, Aaron became a Marvel exclusive, where memorable runs on Ghost Rider, Wolverine, and PunisherMAX earned him recognition as one of five “Architects” of the company’s superhero line. This summer, Aaron tackles his first large-scale crossover event, Avengers Vs. X-Men, sharing writing duties with the other four Architects—Brian Michael Bendis, Jonathan Hickman, Ed Brubaker, and Matt Fraction—while he continues to script The Incredible Hulk and Wolverine And The X-Men. The A.V. Club spoke to Aaron about shifting allegiances from DC to Marvel, the importance of creator-owned comics in a superhero-saturated industry, and how he’s adjusting to his co-writing responsibilities on this summer’s epic event.
The A.V. Club: What were some of your favorite comics growing up? Were you more of a DC or Marvel guy?
Jason Aaron: As a kid, I was definitely a DC guy. I started reading big time in the ’80s at the height of the Wolfman/Pérez New Teen Titans. That was definitely the book that hooked me. It was the first superhero book that I had to buy every issue of. Before that, I would kind of buy what was on the rack at the drugstore, but that was the first book where I had to get all of them. I would buy everything that Marv Wolfman wrote. He was the first writer whose name I recognized. [George] Pérez was the first artist whose art I could recognize. All that great ’80s DC stuff like Atari Force with Jose Luis García-López and Blue Devil I really liked. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, and then from that, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns and later Grant Morrison’s stuff—that was a big touchstone. I love working at Marvel, but it was definitely DC that got me hooked as a reader.
AVC: Do you still consider yourself identifying more with DC books, or was there a time when your allegiance shifted over to Marvel before you became an exclusive over there?
JA: Yeah, I think things changed for me when Axel Alonso came over to Marvel. Even before that, when Joe Quesada took over and the stuff that they had been doing at Marvel Knights kind of became the norm. I became a huge Marvel fan. I just remember how cool and exciting and crazy it seemed when Marvel was giving this new Ultimate Spider-Man title to this crime writer Brian Michael Bendis who had never really done any superhero stuff before. The guy who had been writing The Authority taking over The Ultimates seemed like crazy decisions to make. That made me a Marvel fan. I’d been a fan of most all the stuff Axel had done at Vertigo, so when he came over to Marvel, that was just more and more Marvel books that I was buying. I had certainly become more of a Marvel fan even before I started actually working for them.
AVC: With your X-Men books, a lot of it is inspired by Grant Morrison and those early aughts X-titles. You even had Doop from X-Statix in there. What is it about that era of X-Men that appeals to you?
JS: Well part of the reason was that it was easy to jump into. I started reading X-Men in the late ’80s, I guess, when John Romita Jr. was drawing the books. The “Mutant Massacre” storyline was my first X-Men event. I’ve been reading X-Men through most of the ’90s onward, but it gets very complicated. At times it gets hard to keep up with who’s who, who’s related to who, and who’s screwing who and who hates who. So, the Morrison stuff was a great entry point; even if you hadn’t been reading X-Men for years, you could still jump in. You still played with a lot of those stories that had been around for a while, but brought a lot of new stuff as well. That’s certainly one of my favorites, if not the favorite, X-run anybody’s done.
AVC: For the Marvel talent contest, what did you have to send in?
JA: I had to submit a synopsis for an 8-page Wolverine story. I just typed up three, four paragraphs of an idea and dropped it in a box at the Chicago Comic Con in the summer of 2000, I guess, or 2001, I forget. I just dropped it on a stack of a giant pile of dozens of other entries. Months later, I was thrilled to get a call from a Marvel editor while I was working my crappy day-job.
AVC: After that, how long was it until you started working on The Other Side?
JA: Well, I started pitching pretty soon after that. I pitched it to Marvel first as a relaunch of the The ’Nam. I pitched it around for a couple of years, really, before I got Vertigo to say yes. Then it was a while I spent working on that. There’s a five-year gap between when I won that talent search contest and when The Other Side #1 came out, which was my first book, but it’s not like I was just sitting around playing videogames for five years. I was working constantly. That’s probably the hardest I’ve ever worked in my entire comic career, because that’s the hardest part: the pitching, the waiting, the hustling. With The Other Side, it was my first time actually writing a full 22-page comic strip. There was a lot of work to be done there, even though there was nothing actually coming out.
AVC: In the early days of your Comic Book Resources column, you said that your writing process was still a work in progress. Has that changed?
JA: I think it’s still probably evolving, especially because my son is 6 years old. His schedule always changes; mine changes too. It’s a big change when he starts daycare, and then a big change when he starts kindergarten, and then it’ll be a big change once he’s in elementary school and home for the summer. So that stuff always plays into the development of my schedule. But just in terms of the process, I think I’ve got my process down. I’m comfortable with the speed at which I write. It’ll always be an ongoing thing and I don’t ever want to feel too good about where I’m at, and feel too confident. I don’t think you ever want to look around and say, “Hey, I’m pretty good at this,” and just feel like you can coast. So I think I still have a lot of room to grow and get better as a writer and hopefully the next book I do will always be better than the one before.
AVC: When did the idea for Scalped come to mind? Was that while you were working on The Other Side, or was it an idea that had been gestating for a while?
JA: No, it kind of came out as I was working on The Other Side, talking with Will Dennis, who was my editor on that. At one point he said that they were really happy with what I was doing with The Other Side and asked me to pitch more stuff. So I sent in a few pitches and Scalped was one of them. It kind of grew from Will and I talking. We both loved crime novels, loved crime TV shows. Some of the things we were talking about just sort of meshed together to become Scalped: State Of Grace, which is a great ’90s crime movie set in Boston, Michael Mann’s Crime Story, James Ellroy. It all mixed together and became Scalped.
AVC: How much of that was planned out beforehand? Did the story end up changing in ways that you didn’t expect it to?
JA: Yeah, it certainly changed a lot from the original pitch. We had to write a few different pitches and a long proposal. But by the end of all that, by the end of the pitch process, once the book was green-lit, everything was pretty set. I think I stuck pretty close to the original outlines and ideas. You know, some things certainly had grown and changed along the way, but that was really most of the heavy lifting—the early part of the process where we were really hammering stuff out. It’s been kind of a breeze. It’s good to hammer that stuff beforehand. You wanna address those problems right away instead of waiting until #30 to figure out where everything’s going.
AVC: Scalped is coming to an end, along with Wolverine and PunisherMAX, which are your three longest runs of any books. What did those projects teach you?
JS: Well, they show me learning—figuring out what the hell I’m doing from the beginning to the end. I’m proud of the stuff I’ve done. I wish I could go back and re-tinker and change them a little bit, but you don’t get to do that. It’s a serial medium, they’re not all going to be diamonds. You do the best you can and you move on to the next project. Especially with Scalped. That book represents, to me, the last six or so years of my life, when I went from being a single guy, working shitty day-jobs, to now. I’m married, I have kids, and make comic books for a living. For me, personally, there are a lot of profound changes wrapped up in those years, and Scalped has kind of been that one constant through all of that. That book launched my comic career in a big way. It’ll be strange to move past that, to wrap it up and keep going. But I’m excited to finish this story that’s been in the works for so many years. I haven’t felt sad or regretful about that. At this point, I’m still just really excited to bring it to a close.
AVC: Have you thought about doing any more creator-owned work, or are you just focused on your superhero books for now?
JA: Yeah, I always want to do creator-owned stuff, as long as I’m working in comics. From a creative, as well as a business standpoint, it just makes sense. I love superheroes. I love working at Marvel. I’m very happy there. I hope I can continue to write crazy superhero stories for the foreseeable future, but I don’t think I would ever want to do just that. I like having the outlet of doing my own stories, and just from an overall industry perspective, I like to see everybody doing their own stories. I think it’s to our detriment that comics are, in the public sight, so closely associated with just superheroes. That’s obviously the bulk of what sells month in and month out, but there’s so much great stuff beyond that. It would be a shame to just sit and do your superhero comics all day. As long as I’m in comics, I’ll be trying to do creator-owned projects. You won’t see me launch into another ongoing series right after Scalped wraps, but my next thing is already in the works.
AVC: You’ve worked on a lot of characters that have had movies. While you were working on the book, was there ever any pressure for you to negotiate what was happening in the comic with any image that was in the movie? How do you feel about the rise of superhero films? Do you think it’s a good thing for the industry?
JA: At least in terms of the characters I’ve worked on… I’ve written Wolverine in the midst of the Wolverine movie, but the X-Men movies are done by Fox and there’s not really any collaboration with Marvel. I had no say or involvement, or really influence at all from any of those. But as a guy who writes for Marvel, it’s great to see Marvel making their own movies—with [Captain America] and Thor and Iron Man and The Avengers. I think you get better movies when you have the involvement of the comic department that generated all of these ideas in the first place. So, that’s great and I’m excited for that, and I haven’t really worked on any of those Marvel movie projects yet, but certainly I would love to. But just in terms of superhero films, it’s great if they’re great; it sucks if they’re bad. Again, it gets people excited to read comics and go into comic book stories they’ve never been to, or pull up the Marvel Comics app. That’s great.
I think that the collapse of the newsstand—I think comics has always been looking for that next newsstand, you know, that gateway drug. Like I said, I got into comics at the drugstore, at the spinner rack. I was a comics fan before I ever saw a comic-book store… I was probably 15 before I went. We’ve never been able to replace that. I love comic stores, there are a lot of awesome comic-book stores around the country, but we need to figure out ways to funnel more people to them, and more people into the industry. A great superhero movie coming out? Awesome. But again, if we’re just giving the audience the impression that comics are nothing but men and women in tight spandex punching each other, then we’ve failed. We also have to show them that it’s merely one genre within a thriving creative industry.
AVC: It’s interesting how with modern superhero comics, you write out of order to accommodate different artists. Do you adjust your scripts for certain artists as you find out whom you’re working with?
JA: I usually just write the way I write. For whoever I’m writing for, I try to leave my script open enough that they have flexibility to be creative themselves. My scripts aren’t everything set in stone, or “draw it from this camera angle” and such. I think that often you get the best work when the artists are given the most freedom to bring something of their own to the table instead of just dictating everything. So no, I don’t think I really change depending on who I am writing for. I mean, it might be different with [R.M.] Guera who draws Scalped, because we’ve worked together for so long. I’ve worked with him more than I have any other artist.
In general, I just write and then sit back to see what they do with it. Writing out of sequence just happens when you’re doing an ongoing book that’s got to come out every month, or even more than once a month. You really need to have two or three artists working on it at the same time. If I was far enough ahead, it wouldn’t matter, but I’ve never had the luxury of being that far ahead, so you really do have to write out of sequence. It hasn’t been a problem to me. Obviously, you’ve just got to know where you’re going and where you’re going to land, and have an outline of some sort on paper or in your head, so you aren’t stepping all over your own feet. You should have one anyway, even when you aren’t writing out of sequence. I couldn’t start a story without knowing how it’s going to end. So when you’re writing out of sequence you have no choice; you have to know how it’s going to end.
AVC: And what is it like sharing writing responsibilities for the upcoming Avengers Vs. X-Men?
JA: It’s been crazy. I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve been to the Marvel retreats, which were weird the first time I went. For me, the writing has always been me, sitting at my desk alone, making shit up. Then at one of these retreats, you put 30 people in a room and we’re all making shit up together. It takes some getting used to. If you work in Hollywood and you’re used to a writers’ room, it’s no big deal, but for me it was kind of a mind-blowing experience. I’m glad I’d been to a bunch of those before we started doing Avengers Vs. X-Men. It makes it easier when you’ve got five very different writers; Matt Fraction doesn’t write stories like Brian Michael Bendis does, and those guys don’t write stories like Ed [Brubaker] or [Jonathan] Hickman. I think we’re all very different and have unique flavors. So yeah, it’s wild to put the five of us in a room and say, “Come up with a story.” But thankfully, everybody has been pulling together, nobody wants to be the weak link in the chain.
If anything, you want to one-up the guy who’s writing the issue after you. I think we’ve got an interesting story. Any of the five of us could’ve taken the story and written it themselves, and you would have presumably gotten a solid Avengers Vs. X-Men story. But when you put the five of us together, I think you get something really interesting. We’ve got guys writing characters that they’ve had long relationships with, but we’ve also got things being completely mixed up. Somebody like Jonathan, who’s never written Avengers or X-Men before, or Bendis is so commonly associated with Avengers but he’s never written for X-Men before, so we’ve got things all mixed up like that. The guys are getting to play with toys they’ve never played with before, on a huge, grand scale.
AVC: In your column you said you hadn’t written a book that your son could enjoy. Was that the impetus for the lighter tone of Wolverine And The X-Men compared to your other work?
JA: Yeah, that was certainly part of it. It was a combination of things. I’d come off writing the story in Wolverine which was certainly one of the most grim stories I’d ever done for Marvel outside of the Punisher stuff, but that’s mature readers. A very dark, grim Wolverine story had been in the works for a long time. I’d talked about that story at the first Marvel retreat I ever went to. So things were building toward that for quite a while. I’m happy with how it turned out, but by the end of it, I remember thinking, “Man, this is really fucking grim and depressing.” It was kind of a happy accident that I was able to use that grim storyline that had been in the works for a while to lead into one of the most fun and—I don’t want to say all-ages, but certainly brightest, happiest Wolverine stories that you’ve ever read in terms of Wolverine And The X-Men. My “Red Right Hand” Wolverine story had been in the works a lot longer than we’d been talking about Schism or Wolverine And The X-Men, but it kind of dovetails, and I like the idea that this super-grim story gets to lead to this bright, fun, more jovial story.
I jumped at the chance to do Wolverine And The X-Men coming out of Schism. I saw the opportunity of getting to build a brand new school, getting to assemble my own cast. I saw the chance to do something different, something that pays honor to a lot of different aspects of X-Men history and gets back to that traditional school dynamic that grew in the books for so long. Hopefully, it still is something different from what we’ve seen from the X-Men in quite a while. I did want to write something that was fun, something that was a bit more zany without being goofy and ridiculous. It’s not a humor book, and I certainly don’t see it as a humor book. I love the Keith Giffen/Kevin Maguire Justice League comics from way back. But this, to me, is not the same as that. This book is crazy and ridiculous and funny at times, but I think it’s still got a sense of danger and an emotional core to it. Like most of the stuff I write, it’ll veer sharply from being funny and ridiculous to being dark and emotional. It’s a book I’ve been wanting to write for a while now. I’m having probably having the most fun I’ve ever had at Marvel, and I’m putting down roots; I’m hoping to stay here for a very long time.
AVC: In both Wolverine And The X-Men and The Incredible Hulk, you have Frankenstein characters. Frankenstein is a big character in comics right now, and “Man vs. Monster” is a common theme in your work. What is it that draws you to those types of stories?
JA: I have no idea, that’s a good question. I’m obviously attracted to tortured characters, and Frankenstein certainly fits right in to that. Hulk has always kind of been a monster story at its heart. At sometimes it’s been more of a superhero story than others, but I was interested in taking away most of those superhero trappings and playing up the monster aspects, really flipping the dynamic and looking at things from the Hulk’s perspective. Just assuming that Hulk is Banner’s burden, Hulk is Banner’s monster, but maybe it’s the other way around—that’s what I’ve been playing with there in terms of Frankenstein. I’m friends with Jeff Lemire, who’s been writing the Frankenstein book at DC, so I remember chatting with him and him telling me all the stuff he was going to do, and I knew I wanted to use Frankenstein in some way with X-Men. I love what Jeff is doing, so I figure if I want to do something, it has to be completely different and go the exact opposite direction that Jeff has gone. That’s what you’ll eventually see when Frankenstein makes his full debut in the pages of X-Men.
AVC: What are some of the books you are really enjoying right now? Did you pick up any of the DC relaunch titles?
JA: Yeah, I still write Scalped so I still get the comp box. Scott Snyder’s Batman is awesome, I love everything Scott’s done. And Jeff Lemire, like I’ve mentioned, his Frankenstein has been great, and Animal Man. And Scott’s Swamp Thing, too; I think those four have been my favorite books from the relaunch. Also Heart is a book from Image that’s really good. I know nothing about [mixed martial arts], but I’ve been able to jump into that and I’ve loved it the whole way. Kevin Mellon, who draws that, is a Kansas City guy, so I know him. It’s some of the best stuff he’s ever done, it looks great. [Boom Studio’s] Planet Of The Apes books, too, have been really, really good. I’ve always loved Planet Of The Apes; I’m sort of a Planet Of The Apes nerd. Some of the movies are just awful, but for whatever reason, I’ve always liked that concept and the look of it and everything. I think those books have done a great job of playing with that mythology and tying into the films in little ways without being beholden to them. You know, not just replaying the movies, but doing some cool, original stuff. I’ve been really impressed with it.
From Marvel, currently my favorite Marvel book of the last year has been Rick Remender’s [Uncanny] X-Force. That has been a blast. It always sucks a little bit when you go to these retreats and you get to hear what everybody else is doing, which is always exciting at the time, listening to a whole room full of people telling you what’s going to be going on in Marvel for the next 18 months, but then later you realize that all the stories have kind of been spoiled for you. But still, even knowing what’s going to happen and where things are going, Rick’s X-Force has been a blast. I think he’s done the best work of his career on that book.
AVC: What can you tell us about what’s coming up in The Incredible Hulk, Wolverine And The X-Men, and Avengers Vs. X-Men?
JA: Well, in The Incredible Hulk, the next cycle will be called “Stay Angry.” The first issue is drawn by Steve Dillon. It’s a five-issue arc of five stand-alone issues that are loosely connected. Each is drawn by a different artist. I’m trying to make it the most frantic and kinetic thing I’ve ever written—sort of like if you took one of the Crank movies and stuck the Hulk in it. That’s what I wanted it to be. So that’s coming out, then Wolverine and The X-Men: more craziness. We’re building toward Avengers Vs. X-Men, so before we get there, there’s still lots of character moments to explore. I’m just kind of introducing the whole cast because it’s such a big cast. By the time we dive into Avengers Vs. X-Men, everybody will be on the table and pretty firmly established. Then Avengers Vs. X-Men will wreck a big part of that and tear some of that apart. I’m real conscious with my timing of issues, of not having Wolverine And The X-Men just suddenly stop for six months and become about something else. It’s still the same book—all the same character arcs will go through those tie-in issues, and there’ll be some big profound moment that’ll happen in the midst of that that will affect the book for months to come.
And then there’s Avengers Vs. X-Men, which is moving right along. I’ve still got a little more to write on it. We’re still swapping off issues. We’ve got fives different guys writing and three different guys drawing. It’s been a crazy mad dash of a comic, but I’m excited to see what people think of it. I’ve obviously never done anything like this, never written a lot of these characters. So it’s just exciting for me to get to play on a stage with this. I think that everybody’s bringing their A-game in terms of all five writers and all three artists. I’m really proud of how things are turning out with this book. I think it’s going to surprise people with the places that it goes and the routes we take with the conflict.