It takes a certain kind of character to make a violent, bloodthirsty superhero likable. It certainly isn't an easy task. There are plenty of superheroes with "codes", rules which prohibit them from killing and so forth, these are more enjoyably relatable, we all want to think that, even when pushed to the edge of endurance, we would maintain a certain moral code. It is much harder though, to create an empathic, emotionally attractive character who is totally merciless. How can a man who sees the world in shades only of black and white, of moral extremes be sane? When faced with a difficult decisions, there are certain heroes who make choices we don't always agree with, but on some deep, angry, intolerant, primal level, we do understand. So then the problem for the writer becomes, how to convey the human behind the uncompromising mask of anger.
Jason Aaron seemed to emerge from nowhere as a leader in this arena. I first experienced his work on Scalped, a book about the conflicted life of an FBI agent returning home to the crime ridden Indian reservation he grew up on. So right away he established a man in a very masculine, uncompromising job, living in a place which would continuously remind him of his roots and test his ability to fulfill that role. This conflict creates a messy humanity at the heart of the story, something which always hangs over everything which might otherwise end up as a lot of aggressive male posturing. While I enjoyed this, I had no idea what Aaron would be capable of when he began writing superheroes.
The Punisher which Aaron writes has a very human aspect to him. For me, Ennis' Punisher is probably the closest thing there's been to this, but Aaron's Punisher isn't only human, he's also a little lovable (I hesitate to use this word, but it's all I can see that fits. He's got a warmth.) In addition, Aaron doesn't just reserve this complex portrait for the main character, but also gives his opponents similarly rich, conflicted lives.
Superheroes like the Punisher, the Hulk and Wolverine can be hard to like, almost anti-heroes really. They're very much men in the old-fashioned mold of masculinity; Assertive to point of aggression, uncompromising and extremely confident (at least to all external appearances.) Too many writers have treated these men in exactly this way, with little dimension or difference to them. However, when Aaron writes these (and other similarly masculine characters) he seems to be able to give them a warmth and humanity that make them extremely likable, without creating too many chinks in their armor. It is a strange thing, and I've been trying to figure out how and why he slips so comfortably into this role. I want to understand what it is about Aaron as a man which enables him to write these characters. With that in mind, Jason Aaron kindly agreed to answer a couple of my questions.
Sonia Harris: Does being American give you a better understanding of the kind of classic cowboy machismo embodied by characters like Wolverine? I don't know much about America, but from an outsider perspective, it looks like your upbringing there would have to affect you.
Jason Aaron: I'm actually originally from the deep south, where the idea that "we are rebels who once seceded from the nation and only came back after we'd been beaten into fucking submission" is still very much alive, which I think fits into the mindest you're going for. But just to be clear, I did not have a particularly macho upbringing. I did not ride horses and shoot guns and run around the woods with no shoes on, chasing rattlesnakes. I was a shy, quiet comic nerd. But I certainly grew up around that sort of macho ideal. Going back generations, my family were farmers and laborers. My grandfather was a Baptist preacher and a coal miner. His father died of rabies. HIS father once stabbed a man to death over some sheep. That's on my dad's side of the family. On my mom's side, I have some connections to Winston County, Alabama, which was home to some rough and tumble outlaw sorts back in the 19th century. The folks in Winston were so contrary that during the Civil War they even seceded from the Confederacy and declared themselves their own state. So that sort of stuff is in my blood in some sense, I suppose. But I'm still, at heart, just that same shy, quiet comic nerd. I just happen to love football and stories about guys like Wolverine and Punisher.
SH: Growing up, who were your male role models? Did the men around you influence your ideas of masculinity and adulthood, or were your ideas shaped more by the movies or comics you read?
Jason Aaron: Bear Bryant, I suppose. Just like every other boy my age who grew up in Alabama. He got his nickname, by the way, from once wrestling a bear, and before he became the greatest coach in college football history, he was best known for his time as a player at Alabama, when he once played a game with a broken leg. In terms of movies, I did love the action heroes of the 70s, Bruce Lee in particular. I was a rather gangly, awkward kid, but I did study Yoshukai Karate for several years and ended up as a first degree black belt, which is the lowest of the black belt degrees. That knowledge has greatly dissipated over the years though, so please do not expect me to be much use to you in a fight.
SH: Do you feel any personal affinity to uber macho characters like the Punisher? Can you relate to the way they behave on any level?
Jason Aaron: I was once called for jury duty on a serial murder trial. True story. I did not make the cut because I oppose the death penalty. So no, I can't really relate to the Punisher, other than how I suppose everyone at some point or another has wished they could be that person who's always in charge of the situation no matter what's going on, who always handles their business. But in real life, people who think like the Punisher, and there are a lot of them out there, scare the shit out of me.
SH: We've met, and I experienced you as a relaxed, quiet person. How do you access the part of yourself which can empathize with such aggressive, uncompromising men enough to write them so intricately?
Jason Aaron: That's a good question, and I quite frankly have no idea. It's just what I'm interested in and what I do. It's what I've always done. I've known since I was a kid that I've wanted to be a writer, and the shit I was writing back in grade school would likely get me expelled or at least watched with a very wary eye in a post-Columbine world. The only award for writing I've ever won was in 8th grade, for a hard-boiled detective story about an aging cop bringing down a modern day slavery ring. So I've always been attracted to those sorts of stories and characters, even before I knew what the hell I was doing. I don't know why. James Ellroy can point to his mother's murder and know exactly why he's become the writer he's become. Most of the rest of us don't have any big sign posts like that. We're just a messy sum of our various little parts, cobbled together over the years from books and movies and comics and maybe the occasional murderer in the family.