As Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso took to the stage at WonderCon Friday, he announced the “Bald Guys with Beards” panel was about to begin. Of course, the real reason fans — and CBR News — were there was for an afternoon discussion with writer (and CBR columnist) Jason Aaron. As he sat down, he pointed out a fan in the audience named James, an uncanny look-alike with a matching beard. Another fan even mistook James for the writer a few minutes earlier. After a little back and forth between the two, the panel began.
Aaron and Alonso’s relationship dates back to 2001, when the writer won a Marvel talent search. “It was the first time Marvel did that and the last. It was a total fluke,” Aaron said. “I always loved comics, but I lived in the Deep South. I assumed you needed to live in New York and meet the right people. I wrote this eight-page ‘Wolverine’ story [‘A Good Man’], dropped it in the mailbox and I won.”
The writer believed the contest was the beginning of a bright future. “I met Joe Quesada at a convention and told him ‘I’ll be working for you big time someday’ and he was like ‘Who are you?'” the writer recalled. Alonso voted for Aaron’s eight-page story and soon, the writer was pitching stuff directly to him; something Alonso says he has no memory of now.
“The first thing I pitched was a Vietnam War comic,” Aaron said. At the time, Marvel was planning to restart its Epic line from the 1980s. “To pitch something to Epic, you needed to write the whole first issue. I had a crappy day job and I just worked on the script.”
When the plans for Epic fell through, Aaron sent the script to Will Dennis, an editor at Vertigo. Dennis worked with Garth Ennis on his “War Story” books and told the young writer that even war comics from the acclaimed author of “Preacher” had trouble in the marketplace. Aaron had an even bigger problem. “I’ve never heard of you,” Dennis told him. The writer persisted and asked him to take a look at the script. Four months went by and it traveled up the Vertigo food chain.
The book, “The Other Side,” became the second title in the line’s history to come from a blind submission — that is, a project they did not look for themselves.
Aaron also continued to send pitches to Alonso at Marvel. While the editor admits he forgot that Aaron wrote the story he voted for, he said, “You can’t lie with writing.” Aaron’s raw talent impressed him. “If I’m not interested by the second or third page, I stop reading,” he explained. While the writing ability was there, he needed to know if Aaron could write superheroes. The two talked and Alonso recalled, “It became clear right out of the gate that he had familiarity with the characters.”
The first project was a one-issue ‘Wolverine’ story. Alonso had the premise: “How does Wolverine get out of a trap where he’s being constantly machine-gunned?” Aaron thought about the scene in ‘Silence of the Lambs” where Hannibal Lecter convinced a fellow inmate to swallow his own tongue. The writer found his answer and the finished story, “The Man in the Pit,” illustrated that Wolverine could get into people’s heads both with his wits and his claws.
“It was pretty much on the strength of that that we hired you to do the ‘Get Mystique’ arc,” Alonso said to his writer. He noted one quality in Aaron’s pitches was his inability to write them. Instead of using descriptive adjectives or adverbs, the writer just told him what he planned to do with the story. It was a method Alonso appreciated.
Asked if he had any frustrations at Marvel, the writer joked, “Like I’m going to tell my boss?” When the laughter died down, Aaron admitted to a different kind of frustration. “I could do a ‘Wolverine’ book and regardless of what it is, it’ll sell to a certain level and ‘Scalped’ will never get there.” Calling his Vertigo title his “baby,” he added, “I’d like to someday be remembered for good ‘Wolverine’ stories, but also for adding something new [to comics as a whole].”
Alonso called Aaron’s career an “interesting case study” because he easily navigates the independent and mainstream worlds within comics.
Returning to the topic of breaking in, Aaron recalled that his faith in “The Other Side” kept him going; he simply had to see how it ended. That need to complete the project got him through plenty of people telling him no. “It got rejected a lot before it found the right editor and the right company,” he said. Once it found the right people, “it was just like dominoes.”
“I worked crappy day jobs where I could sit at my desk and type out issues of ‘Scalped’ and pitches for other things,” Aaron recalled. “These are not good career choices, but this is the life I chose.”
When “Scalped” started coming together, his son was born and he chose to quit the desk job, stay with the newborn, and write full-time. While it sounds like a dream, the pay was lousy. “My first year, I got paid $5,000,” he said; a small sum for a guy with a new family. “I have a very patient wife who was willing to pay the bills,” Aaron admitted. “She saw that this was an actual adult pursuit and I couldn’t have done it without her.”
After applause for Aaron’s wife, the audience Q&A began. The first fan wondered if “Scalped” has an end plan? Aaron replied, “I had the ending from the get-go. [It] was in the pitch to Karen Berger.” While there is no specific issue number planned for the end, he said, “When we get to sixty, we’ll be pretty close. Sixty sounds like a nice, solid run.”
Asked about his process, Aaron began, “I never know how to answer that. I work 9-5. If you are in need in of a schedule in your life, just have a kid.” With his son now five years old, the writer has to get his work done during school hours, otherwise he risks “half-assing” the major roles in his life. “You have to treat it like a job,” he said. “Some people want to be James Joyce. The rest of us have bills to pay. It’s a career.”
As for the actual way he conveys his stories to the artist, he starts by breaking down each page with the dialogue first. “The hard stuff is finding the voices,” he explained. From there he builds up the setting, shots, layout, and other information. It allows him to jump around in the script until he has a cohesive whole.
Discussing the “Manifest Destiny” series with a fan, Aaron revealed a follow up to that story appears in the fall issues of “Wolverine,” saying, “It’ll be like ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ kind of awesome.”
Aaron told a fan how he first sold “Scalped” to Vertigo. “I was working on ‘The Other Side’ and they asked me to pitch something. I sent them a lot of stuff; there was a zombie story in there,” he recalled. Always uneasy about the pitch document, he sent Will Dennis a list entitled “Thirty-Five Reasons Why You Should Do ‘Scalped.'” He got the greenlight in the middle of an eventful week that saw him crashing his car, replacing it, and getting married.
“I wrote some novels I hope that nobody ever reads,” the writer said when asked about his earliest days as a writer. “I wasn’t ready to break into comics when I was twenty-one years old. I had to learn a lot of craft.”
When a fan expressed disappointment in the marketing of Aaron’s run on the Marvel Max “Punisher” title, Alonso explained, “‘Punisher’ is a Max book and Max books won’t sell [like the mainstream titles]. There are some people who believe there should not be R-rated comics. I’ll never understand that logic.” He added, “There was definitely marketing… but not as much as you put behind ‘Civil War.'”
Finally, Aaron told a fan that he has other “babies” in his head besides “Scalped,” though nothing is ready to be announced. “That’s still in the talking stages, the planning stages,” he said. “If ‘Scalped’ ends around issue sixty, you’ll hear about it. I’d love to do an original graphic novel at some point. It’s just a matter of when and Marvel keeps me busy.”
Looking over at Alonso, he added, “Not that I’m complaining.”