Marvel at the plots Jason Aaron crafts for Wolverine, X-Men

05/15/2014 2:03 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

At least twice a year, writer Jason Aaron leaves his Prairie Village home for a weekend trip to New York to discuss the fate of the universe.

The Marvel universe, that is.

This fictional domain is forever expanding for Marvel Comics, which is not only responsible for the biggest-selling comic book line but also the highest-grossing films in each of the past three years. The company’s iconic team of mutant heroes returns to theaters Friday when “X-Men: Days of Future Past” opens.

“You can imagine sitting in a room for three days talking about comic books, eight hours a day. It gets wacky and very nerdy. It also gets contentious at times,” Aaron says.

Marvel selects a handful of its best writers and partners them with the editorial staff during these creative retreats. Together they map the story lines and connecting themes to be tackled by the dozens of titles the company publishes over the course of the next few years.

“We’re very different. We don’t all write the same or tell the same kinds of stories,” says Aaron, known for handling not just Wolverine and the X-Men, but Thor, the Punisher and Ghost Rider. “If you can go into that room and run that gauntlet, defend your ideas, and get out of it with your story relatively intact, you feel emboldened.”

Back in 2010, Marvel christened Aaron one of the Architects: five of the company’s top writers tasked with designing and orchestrating the Marvel Universe. He joined Brian Michael Bendis (“The Avengers”), Ed Brubaker (“Captain America”), Jonathan Hickman (“Fantastic Four”) and Matt Fraction (“Invincible Iron Man”) — a former Kansas City resident who recently relocated to Portland, Ore. Brubaker has since departed to join Image Comics, leaving the Architects a quartet.

“I look at Jason as being the Hemingway of comic book writers,” says Axel Alonso, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. “I consider him to be a true writer. He writes stories that resonate. He’s very adept at going into uncomfortable places. I’d venture to say that his run on ‘PunisherMAX’ was profound — the way he was able to tell a Shakespearean tragedy with a character who is a deep, dark hole in the center and inspire such emotions.”

Alonso recruited Aaron to Marvel after being impressed with the fledgling work he did for a rival publisher. The editor pitched the writer an idea of following a blue-collar worker whose job it was to spend his entire day shooting captured X-Men anti-hero Wolverine with a Gatling gun, the ultimate torture for a mutant whose power bestows him immediate healing.

Aaron’s story, “The Man in the Pit” (“Wolverine” issue 56), proved unique in that it was told from the worker’s perspective, what led him to that point in his life and how Wolverine eventually offers him a chance to escape.

“Jason has a deep reverence for superheroes. Yet that reverence doesn’t get in the way of telling the story that takes the reader into dark places,” Alonso says. “It’s not just to be gratuitous; it’s because he has something to say about human nature.”

That human-nature approach was first put to the test in 2006’s “The Other Side.” Aaron’s debut miniseries for the DC Comics’ imprint Vertigo explored the Vietnam War from the perspective of the enemy Viet Cong. He followed that a year later with “Scalped,” a crime tale set on a modern Indian reservation.

“It’s got some of the familiar trappings of a crime story: There’s an undercover FBI agent, a crime boss struggling to keep control of his territory. This is all in the backdrop of one of the poorest regions of the United States, the fictional reservation in South Dakota that is clearly modeled on Pine Ridge,” he says of the 60-issue series that concluded in 2012.

With its themes of tribal identity and struggles with tradition, the book became more of a critical than commercial success. But it certainly made an impression. WGN America announced this month it is developing “Scalped” into a TV series. The network recently waded into the original programming pool with the witch trials drama “Salem.”

“WGN has optioned the rights. They have somebody working on the pilot. From there they’ll determine after the pilot script whether they’ll order a whole season,” he says.

It’s early enough in the process for Aaron to predict what his involvement in the show will be. (“With the Hollywood part of things, you just wait and see what happens. I never get my hopes up,” he admits.)

Regardless of courting possible “The Walking Dead”-like success of these adaptations, Aaron views the deal as a byproduct of his ultimate goal.

“I didn’t get into comics as a stepping stone,” he says. “I’m happy I can sit home in my office and make up stories about superheroes. And I only have to deal with a pretty limited amount of people to get those comics produced.”

It wasn’t always that easy for Aaron, a burly man with a shaved head, tattoos and Appalachian-length beard. (About the beard he says, “I had an epiphany that if I have to go in for a job interview, I’ve really screwed up. Thankfully, I have a job where it does not matter in the least what I look like.”)

His immersion into the industry began with a fluky break a decade ago while toiling at a thankless warehouse job. When attending a comic book convention, he dropped a one-page Wolverine synopsis into a box as part of a national talent contest.

Instead of the cliche bar fight or ninja battle that characterized most of the novice submissions, Aaron delivered a simple tale inspired by a Flannery O’Connor story where Wolverine stops to help a woman with a flat tire on a dirt road in the rural South. They discuss religion.

A few months later, Aaron got the word from Marvel he had won, earning an opportunity to craft that story for print. It took another five years before Aaron would return to writing the popular mutant, but this time he had full reign over the clawed character in “Wolverine: Weapon X.”

“Wolverine has as complicated a backstory as anybody. He’s been a lot of different kinds of guys: He’s been a loner but he’s also been a part of two dozen different superhero teams. He’s been an assassin and a noble samurai and a man-with-no-name cowboy figure. I got to turn him into the headmaster of a school,” he says.

“I was really pleased that through the seven years of writing the character that I took him from very dark places to a more lighthearted, hopeful place.”

A native of Jasper, Ala., Aaron moved to Kansas City in 2000, coincidentally the day after the first “X-Men” movie was released. He had recently graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and a KC relative convinced him to head to the Midwest. (He would meet future wife Kelly, a KU graduate, in Kansas City.)

“People always seem surprised when I tell them I write comics and I live here,” he says. “There are all sorts of others who work in comics who are here. We exist below the radar. But people in comics know there are a bunch of creators here. Portland is the main hotbed these days. New York. Chicago. Then Kansas City is right there.”

He says the industry continues to make it easier for those based outside the marquee cities to pursue a career.

“As a kid I didn’t know how to go about breaking into comics because I assumed you had to live in New York. Back then, you pretty much did. But these days I work with people all over the world.

“With ‘Scalped,’ I was writing it here. Artist R.M. Guera was a Serbian living in Barcelona. Jock (pen name of Mark Simpson), who did the covers, was Scottish. Giulia (Brusco), who colored it, was Italian and lived in London. All the editorial was in New York. We’ve still never all been in the same room at the same time,” he says.

Aaron considers himself both a Southern and Midwestern writer. He thinks that writers who sound different “stand out from the pack.”

He further explores his Alabama voice with a new creation called “Southern Bastards,” which hits shelves April 30. The Image Comics release teams Aaron with artist Jason Latour for a crime epic set in fictional Craw County, Ala.

“It opens with a grizzled old man who comes back to the county where he grew up to settle some family business. Even though he’s an old guy, he’s still living in the shadow of his dad, who was a famous sheriff in the county,” he says.

The cover of the first issue renders the low-angle image of a man clutching a baseball bat while facing an angry mob decked in high-school sports gear.

This isn’t his first time Aaron brings his native state into the mix. He’s set a few Wolverine encounters in Alabama, and he retooled the snake-themed villain Cottonmouth as hailing from Mobile. He set a Wolverine story in the Kansas City of the 1920s, but he has yet to incorporate KC into a character.

“I don’t know that there is a Marvel character from Kansas City,” he ponders. “I guess that’s a (future) challenge.”

His superhero work also has included stories for Ghost Rider, Black Panther and the Hulk, yet there are still characters he wants to explore.

“I’ve always loved the Fantastic Four. I’d enjoy getting a shot at them some day,” the 41-year-old says.

Even though he just signed another two-year exclusive contract at Marvel, he eventually hopes to take a stab at the DC universe. Perhaps with personal favorites such as Hawkman or Teen Titans. His only brush with the competitor came in 2008 on “The Joker’s Asylum.”

“I wrote a Penguin one-shot. I got to write Batman for one panel,” he says. “But I figured out early in my career it’s a good idea to not chase after characters. Even if you grew up the world’s biggest Spider-Man fan, it could go really well or really bad if you got in that situation as a writer.

“I’m more interested in working with editors I really have a connection with. Will Dennis at Vertigo and Axel Alonso at Marvel — it’s not coincidence that those two guys are who built my entire career. I consciously sat down and looked at the comics I liked to read, and I determined those were the guys I needed to work with,” he says.

Currently, Aaron is writing “Thor: God of Thunder.” It put his editor concept into practice again.

“Thor was not a character I was originally a huge fan of — I wasn’t walking around with a bag full of Thor stories,” he says. “But when the situation came up, it turned out to be a great fit.”

Like Iron Man and Captain America, Thor has turned into a key franchise for Marvel Studios blockbusters. (Sony owns film rights to Spider-Man and Fox controls the X-Men.) Marvel continues to plug top-tier writers into books that have current movie tie-ins.

“What sets the Marvel movies apart from a lot of the other superhero movies is they start with the comics. They don’t thumb their nose at the source material. They’ve effectively mined everything there is to mine from the comics,” he says.

Despite his burgeoning foray into TV and his influence within the Marvel Universe, Aaron has almost no input on the movies themselves. Not even “Thor,” which is slated for a second sequel in addition to the hero’s inclusion in “The Avengers” series.

“I was hoping for a cameo in the movie as a Viking or something,” Aaron jokes about the Asgardian’s recent big-screen adventure. “Maybe they’ll save that for ‘Thor 3.’”

On the big screen

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” opens Friday in local theaters.

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is in local theaters.

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