Sometimes the overnight successes take the longest.
Jason Aaron seemed to come out of nowhere three years ago. Once the critics started talking about his 2006 Vertigo mini-series, The Other Side, his name started showing up everywhere. In three years, he's gone from a relatively unknown writer to becoming the creator trusted with one of Marvel's most high-profile heroes as he launches a new Wolverine ongoing series this week.
That didn't exactly happen overnight. While it's true that Aaron won Marvel's talent search contest, giving him a break into the industry, that was in 2001. After his prize – having his eight-page story published in Wolverine – the writer didn't have another thing published for five years.
That all changed with the publication of The Other Side and, soon after, his ongoing Scalped title at Vertigo. Now even Aaron admits the last three years since then have been a whirlwind for him. In a little over a year's time, he was given an exclusive contract at Marvel and a series of gigs on characters like Black Panther, Punisher, and Ghost Rider. But it was his four-issue story with artist Ron Garney last year that got the attention of Marvel fans, leading to the creative team being reunited for the publisher's new Wolverine: Weapon X series.
Newsarama sat down with the soft-spoken writer at the end of a busy day at a recent comic book convention, reminiscing about his past and looking toward his future as we take a closer look at the person 'Behind the Page'.
Newsarama: Let's just start with Jason Aaron's "origin story." You were born in Alabama, right?
Jason Aaron: Yep, I'm from Alabama. I think Mark Waid and I are the only two comic creators from Alabama, or at least the only two I know of who are from Alabama.
NRAMA: Well, that's not too bad of a person to share a home state with.
JA: Yeah, that's pretty good company.
I was born in Jasper, Alabama. The most famous people from Jasper were George Lindsey, who played Goober on the Andy Griffith Show. And Butterbean, who is this huge, bald guy who started as an Ultimate fighter, but then he went on to do some boxing. People who know about fighting will know Butterbean.
NRAMA: At what point did you know you wanted to be a writer. Did that start at a young age? Or did it come later? And did it have anything to do with comic books?
JA: I remember when I was in, I think 6th grade, and I wrote a story that was called – I sh*t you not – it was called "Charlie Brown and the Chainsaw". I think I wrote the kind of things that, had I been in a post-Columbine school, I would have been expelled for. So from a young age, I was interested in writing. And I had a cousin who was a novelist. He wrote the book that Full Metal Jacket was based on. But I was a big comic reader. I loved comics.
NRAMA: What kind of comics did you read when you were young?
JA: New Teen Titans was probably the first book that got me hooked – the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans. I was mainly a DC guy from that era, so Atari Force and Blue Devil. And then Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, and later Grant Morrison's Animal Man and Doom Patrol.
[the image at top of this page is Aaron hanging out with Morrison at this year's
NY Comic Con - editor]
I knew I wanted to write, and I loved comics. But being in the middle of nowhere, I had no idea how to go about breaking into comics. Of course, in the era before the Internet, I had no clue. I had never met anyone who worked in comics except, like, at Dragon Con, the convention I'd been to.
So I went and got an English degree at University of Alabama, Birmingham, and I worked sh*tty day jobs and wrote some film reviews and DVD reviews and just kind of lucked into comics really. I won that first talent search, and that was my first break. And it didn't lead to anything, but it encouraged me to pursue this. I thought, hey, maybe I'm good enough that I could actually try to do this. I had a couple of contacts, so I could send pitches in.
NRAMA: That talent search win took place in 2001, but The Other Side didn't get published until 2006. Did you pitch a lot of stuff in that time that never made it?
Cover to the 'The Other Side' trade paperback
JA: Oh, yeah. I pitched a lot of stuff to Marvel back then. I pitched Punisher stuff and Daredevil stuff. I pitched what eventually became The Other Side as a relaunch of The 'Nam. I pitched a lot of stuff to Axel [Alonso, Marvel editor], which he doesn't even remember. I was exchanging emails with him, pitching him stuff and going nowhere. And then I got this pitch in at Vertigo and went and did a couple Vertigo books. And I sent copies to him and he loved them and called me up and offered me stuff. He had no recollection that it was just a year before that I was pitching him stuff. But you know, those guys get so much stuff thrown at them just every day. And I was a guy who had only done eight pages.
NRAMA: What were you doing to make a living during all this?
JA: Just the kind of thing that you can do when you have an English degree, which is not much. The jobs were nothing too memorable. I managed a video store and wrote movie reviews. I don't know if you can put this one on Newsarama, but I worked in a factory of adult novelty items where I was the guy in charge of the porn, basically. [laughs] Millions of dollars worth of porn – huge stacks of porn.
NRAMA: You just became an even bigger hero to our readers with that one.
JA: [laughs] That probably sounds a lot more glamorous than it was.
NRAMA: Hearing how it took you five years of pitches to get any attention from the industry, why did you stick with it? You could have followed in your cousin's footsteps and written a book, or tried to write for some other medium. Why did you stick with comics all that time?
JA: Well, I wrote a couple of really horrible novels that hopefully nobody will ever read. But I guess I just never stopped thinking about comics because I never stopped reading comics. I wasn't one of those guys that fell out of it once they got to college, or once the bottom fell out after the big boom. I've had a pull list at different stores as long as I can remember. I never stopped reading comics, and I never stopped loving comics. There are times I can remember where I was reading a lot more than others, but I always stuck with it. I guess I never gave up wanting to break into comics. It's just that I didn't know how.
It's still hard these days, even though I think it's a lot easier in a post-Internet world where you can break in from anywhere in the world. I work with guys who are from all over. It's still hard, especially for a writer, to get somebody's attention and to get someone to pay attention to what you're sending them. Obviously it's possible. The pitch I sent to Vertigo was basically a blind submission that got turned down a couple of times. I had the full first script for The Other Side #1 because I had submitted it to Epic, back when Marvel was doing Epic Comics. You had to have the pitch, plus you had to have the first full script written. So I already had that script. And I eventually set it in to Will Dennis and somehow convinced him to read it.
But for me, the formula was just spending a lot of time working on one idea that I thought was different enough, that this is not like anything else on the stands right now and this is something I can honestly say, that if I did see this on the stands as a reader, I would pay money to pick it up. I would buy this. And I just funneled all my energy into that.
I had always thought, as a writer, that if I just got to the point where I was good enough – whether writing short stories or novels or comics or whatever – that if I just got good enough, eventually, the rest of that sh*t would just take care of itself. It's got to be easier to "break in" than it is to become a good writer. You know? So that was my main focus, through college and everything else. I never felt like I was good enough to call myself, like, a "misunderstood genius." That the world just doesn't appreciate me. I didn't know much, but I realized that I wasn't good enough that somebody should fork out actual money to read what I've written. So I just always wanted to get to that point where I did feel good enough.
NRAMA: Do you feel that way now?
JA: Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes. I guess if I don't feel like my writing is worth the money people are paying to read it, then I need to stop and do something about it. I mean, there are things I've done that are closer to my heart than others, but I can honestly say that everything I've done, I'm proud of and I'm happy with, and as a reader I would pick up and read if I saw it on the shelf.
NRAMA: As a writer, what do you think your strengths are? I know you're doing a lot of different types of comics, but are there certain things that you think are your strengths?
JA: I don't know. I try not to analyze those things. Even though most of the stuff I've done is gritty, street-level stuff – a lot of violent, maybe even "macho" stuff – I don't want to be pigeon-holed. That's not all I can do. But I don't know. I guess I gravitate toward things that are a little violent. Things that are a little darker and have more of an edge to them. But at the same time, I'd really love to write something that my son could read in a couple years. He's three years old now, and obviously, the stuff I've done, it's going to be a long time before he can read any of that stuff. I would love to do a straight-up kids book. I'm determined to do it sooner rather than later. And not as just a lark, not as just, "the kid that does Scalped is doing a kids book." But I don't want to be typecast. I don't want to be pigeon-holed.
NRAMA: I know we've talked about it before, but let's just talk briefly about where the idea came from to do The Other Side, since that's the one story that you kept pitching until it was the one that was published. You mentioned your cousin – he's the one that inspired you to pursue that story, right?
JA: Yeah, he died in 1993, so I only met him maybe two or three times in my life. But after he died, I put together everything I knew about him and started a website, 'cause he's got a lot of fans out there. His books are all out of print, but a lot of people out there remember his work and really love it. If you can track down copies of his books, they're well worth the effort. But through that website, I met his group of fellow combat correspondents. They still get together every other year or so, and I got invited to their reunion and got to hang out with those guys. And one of them is Dale Dye, who's the pre-eminent Hollywood technical adviser. He was the technical adviser on Platoon and Saving Private Ryan and a lot of the best war movies of the last several years. So hanging out with those guys and talking to them, along with all the research I'd done on my cousin's life, I plan on writing a full biography of him in the next couple of years.
That was a couple years of my life – that's all I was doing – so that led me to do The Other Side.
NRAMA: Were you surprised by the response by fans and critics to The Other Side? Or did you know that was something special?
JA: I was really happy with the way it turned out. But I got that book turned down by a lot of people – everybody I pitched it to. I pitched it all over. Anybody I could find contact info for, I got it turned down. It was just a matter of finding the right guy – which was Will Dennis at Vertigo. And Vertigo's the place I would have wanted it published to begin with. That would have been my ultimate choice. So yeah, I was really proud of it. I spent a lot of time working on it. That's without a doubt the most time I ever spent working on a script.
NRAMA: And your artist, Cameron Stewart, was pretty dedicated to this story, wasn't he?
JA: Yeah! The very first time I met him was in San Diego. And he left from there to fly to Vietnam. I was coming from being a guy who was sitting alone at my desk, typing up a bunch of words. And now, here was this dude who was physically departing to Vietnam. Just because of sh*t I wrote at my computer. So that was wild. I felt a little like Robert McNamara, sending the boys off, like, you know, "Keep your head down over there."
But yeah, Cameron was great. It was Karen Berger's idea to bring Cameron in. He was just coming off Seaguy at the time. And you knew instantly. I mean, he wasn't the first person you'd think of to draw a Vietnam War book. Even Cameron, when she first approached him, didn't think he was right for the book. But his enthusiasm from the get-go won everybody over. Then once you saw the pages, I think that's some of, if not the, best stuff he's ever done.
I'm super proud of that book from top to bottom. I haven't read it recently. I'm sure if I went back and read it now, there would be things I'd want to change. The first issue of that was the first script I'd ever written, besides those eight pages. But I think that issue still holds up.
Cover to 'Scalped #28'
NRAMA: Where did the idea come from to do Scalped? You told me once that you were always interested in Native Americans. Was this another case where your interest led to your subject?
JA: Yeah, I had always been interested in Native American history, and I'd been interested in the Leonard Peltier story and the story of the American Indian movement. Even before I'd thought about putting it in a book. So when I started working on The Other Side, Will Dennis told me to send some more pitches in. And one of the first things I mentioned was just the idea of doing a crime book on a modern-day Indian reservation.
NRAMA: Had you thought about that before?
JA: Well, Will's a big crime guy, and we had talked about our favorite crime novels and shows and films and stuff. So I knew I wanted to send him a crime pitch. So I don't remember when it first clicked, but just the idea of setting it on an Indian reservation seemed to work.
NRAMA: But Scalped is – well, it's a crime book, but it's really personal. When you were fleshing out these characters, did you know it would go into this kind of detailed, close-up portraiture of these scarred characters? Did you know you would do something like that, or did that kind of evolve as you wrote about these characters?
JA: A little of both. I still have a document I wrote, I think, three years ago that fleshes out the first 30 issues or so. And I've stuck almost exactly to that, plot wise. A lot of the character stuff is stuff that's come up along the way. I think the book has gotten a lot better as we've gone along. I think I have gotten a lot better as we've gone along. I think at first I was a little overwhelmed, just the idea of writing an ongoing series.
When I wrote Scalped #1, I think I had only written the first two or three issues of The Other Side. So I think I was a little over my head at first. It took me a little while to figure everything out, and for [artist R.M.] Guera and I to connect. But I think once we hit our groove, maybe around issues #4 and #5, or definitely by the second arc, I think we hit our groove. From then, I think it's been great. He and I are really on the same page on everything. He brings so much passion and energy to all the pages. I've fallen in love with the characters, and I love exploring each one of them.
NRAMA: What did your wife think of all these years of waiting for something to happen with comics?
Cover to Scalped #27
JA: The whole comics world was alien to her when we first met. It took her awhile to realize this was a real job and that somebody could actually make pretty good money doing this. But this all happened right around the time we got married. The day I got the call from Will that Scalped had been green-lighted was actually the day before I got married. And I had wrecked my car the day before. So I was waiting at the bus stop when he called me. So in the course of, like, two days, I got Scalped, I got a new car, and I got married. So that was a pretty big weekend.
NRAMA: Which came first, your son being named Dashiell, or the main character in Scalped being named Dashiell?
JA: It was around the same time, actually. I knew the name from Dashiell Hammett. I think my wife heard it somewhere else and really liked it. And then Bad Horse comes from my cousin. I have a cousin who lives and works on a Cheyenne reservation in Montana. She married a native man there. And her name is Gina Badhorse, and I ended up using that for Gina Bad Horse, Dash's mother in Scalped.
NRAMA: Let's talk about getting the opportunity to become an exclusive Marvel writer. Was Wolverine the first thing they talked to you about?
JA: Yeah, the first thing I did was Wolverine #56 with Howard Chaykin. When Axel first called me, we started talking, and I think somebody coming into his office, that's how you cut your teeth – you do a Wolverine story. So that was my try-out, I guess. I was really proud of how that issue turned out. That's one of my favorite single issues I've done. And it was great working with Howard Chaykin, who I've loved since American Flagg and Shadow, and Blackhawk and everything he's done.
So yeah, it was very surreal. Over the course of that one year, I went from doing nothing for so long and trying to hard to have nothing happen, to having two books with Vertigo, to working with Marvel, and then they offer me an exclusive. So the last two years have really been like a real roller coaster of just... from nothing to having as much work as I can handle.
Check back on Newsarama tomorrow as we talk more with Jason Aaron about his work at Marvel and his upcoming run on Wolverine: Weapon X.