Jason Aaron is the go-to guy of comic book industry. Capable of writing big cross-overs (Original Sin), epic tales of gods and monsters (Thor, Doctor Strange), tiny gritty stories (Southern Bastards, Scalped, Punisher, Wolverine), family dramas and blockbuster comics (Star Wars), Aaron established himself as a “writer of grim”, but in the last five years he proved that he will leave no stone unturned.
Born and raised in Jasper, Alabama, Aaron is everything but a southern bastard. Even if he writes about them, his attitude is plain, his talking is gentle and thoughtful and his Wolverine socks and tartan shirts disguise the fact that the person who’s wearing them does not take nothing for granted. Panini Comics brought him at the last edition of Lucca Comics & Games as a guest and we sat down with him. In the conversation that came out Aaron talked about life, work, comic book and porn.
Let’s start from the most important thing: the one time you sent a pile of porn movies to DC Comics.
[laughs] It happened when I was pitching stuff at Vertigo. I was pitching Scalped and it took a long time to get Scalped approved and I was working in a warehouse full of sex toys and porn. I was the porn guy, so it was me sitting in a office surrounded by stacks of porn and sending e-mail to Will Dennis. So at one point I sent him a big box of porn to DC, which I think Will gave out to people in the office. Next thing I know my book got approved.
In your works you put a lot of yourself. How much can you put in your work-for-hire comics, like Thor?
You always have to put something of yourself, whatever it is, whether you working with aliens or gods and so for me with Thor I was raised religious but I’ve been an atheist for most of my life at this point, since I was about 20 years old. I look at Thor with the idea of him being a god, which is the thing that set him apart from all the other heroes at Marvel. That’s kind the core idea when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created him: this guy is different because is a god. For me it was a crucial element.
The first book I did was Thor, God of Thunder, the first story arc is called the God Butcher. The very first issue we see Thor answering a pray. So for me as an atheist that book was me writing the god I would like to believe in, so I think that’s kind of the core of my run for the last five years, seeing Thor struggles with doubts and with the idea of worthiness, everything is about that struggle of being worthy, a good guy, like he’s trying to impress me, the atheist guy who put him through all this stuff. So, yeah, I think whatever it is, you gotta put something you respond emotionally, so hopefully readers will respond emotionally, otherwise you have people in funny costumes punching each other.
So you don’t really like the Marvel cinematic version of Thor.
Well, I do, I enjoy the movies and the portrait of Thor, I just don’t wanna do the same thing. They lean away from the idea of Thor being a god, the Asgardian are more being that are perceived as gods by us, I wanna go the opposite direction. These are gods.
Religion is a very big component of your work. I don’t know if I’m reading too much into it, but even stuff like From the Journals of Old Ben Kenobi has a very spiritual approach (the gospel quality of the writing, the story that takes place in the desert).
Everything you’re saying make sense. I don’t know if I ever sat down and thought of it, but certainly the idea of faith and religion are played out in most of the things that I’ve done, going back to the very first comic script I ever wrote for the Marvel Contest, back in 2001. It was a short story where Wolverine encounters a woman in the woods and they talk about faith. Then everything I did with the Wolverine across multiple titles was about faith, what Wolverine believes in. So you can see that theme in a lot of my works, struggles between kids and their parents is another theme, which is of course a big part of Star Wars and Thor. You look at some of the creator-owned stuff I’ve done. For whatever reason these themes run through my works.
Even something very little and visual like the eye, which is present in a lot of your works (Original Sin, Doctor Strange, Southern Bastards).
[Shows the left arm, covered with tattoos shaped as eyes]
There you go, I didn’t even know you had them, but I think it speaks loudly about this obsession.
Yes. For whatever reason, again, there are themes I’m naturally attracted to. As to why that is that would take some psychoanalysis to figure out all these things. I think I’ve done enough stuff now and across different genres I think you can see a lot of those themes played out. I don’t like to sit around going “Allright where am I gonna put this theme and that theme”, it’s just I’m interested in, let for somebody else recognize and try to figure it out what that means.
My job is a very selfish job, I sit down and write stories for myself, I don’t how to write stories for you. I know the stories that I like, that’s all I do everyday, I sit down and write stories that I’d like to read. That’s why I think is important to be a good reader in order to be a good writer, I’m the one reader I’m trying to please. I get to write crazy stories and they are drawn by the most amazing artists in the world. It all boils down, as a writer to this: doing stuff that you wanna read. That’s why you see all these common themes popping up in my works.
How many hours do you work in a day?
It depends. I try to write while my youngest son is at school. I sleep, get up, work through the day and then late at night while everybody is asleep. I work from home, upstair in my office, so I don’t work 9 to 5. It also depends on how much work I have to do in that week. I’m in a really good place right now, I’m actually getting ahead of stuff.
Right. You write a lot, so I was wondering if it wasn’t too much.
To me is never too much. There’s been time when it was too much, but I don’t feel like I’m working all the time, especially right now, I’m in a really good place. I’m still working of five different books, but the difference is not so much the hours, it’s the head space. It’s kinda like cooking: I gotta cook five-six different meals, you only have so much space on your stove, you only have so many eyes to cook stuff and let stuff simmer, to me that’s the hard part, I need the space for that.
When I sit down and tipe that’s usually the easiest part because I figured the thing out. You can rush troughs that part and you can write the thing but you’ll get the easiest version of that, which is the worst when six months after you look at what you did six months ago and you go “Oh, why didn’t I think about that part five more minutes and figure out a better solution”.
It’s always the same for every work. Do you feel more pressure to work in a more rules-driven space like Star Wars? Is it like using different muscles?
Yeah, it is. I don’t wanna do the same thing over and over again. When I first started I was the grim guy, the guy that wrote people that shot each other and stab each other and that was mostly what I did. That’s why I loved Wolverine and the X-Men, very different tone from what I’ve done before. I don’t wanna all my books sound the same. As a reader I wanna read all kind of stuff and it keeps me from getting bored.
Each book has its own pressure. Everybody knows Star Wars and Thor so well, but it also gives you a lot of different toys to work with, toys that were created by other artists. With Southern Bastards nothing exists if we don’t come up with it, we don’t have anything to lean on or fall back on. Yeah you don’t have to worry from what somebody else is doing, but there’s more pressure on you: nothing is on the page unless you write it. I just like being able to do both.
On Star Wars we were always told if things were too close to what they were doing in the movies. The movies drive everything, so it’s a difference situation for Marvel because we are aware of the movies and that’s it. I’m at Marvel long enough that they trust me and let me do my thing, but they are very open to just tell a good story.
Even if that story is about a female Thor, right? How did you react to the fandom rage?
Even among people that were angry, there were different reason for them to be angry. When you have a character that has been around that long of course there’s gonna be big responds when you change that character so I understand that. In my mind we weren’t changing what made a good Thor story. Everything that has to do with the Jane Foster story has roots that go back to the very beginning of Thor. That idea of the enchantment on the hammer, the promise of transformation, Jane Foster herself.
The other backlash is concerning the fact that Thor was a woman. Fine, they can say whatever they want. I can instantly tell right away when somebody is yelling at me on twitter if they ever actually read the book or if they’ve seen a panel online. So, if you haven’t ever read Thor, why do you care? You are not reading anyway, so why bother.
We were just talking about the fact that Walt Simonson made Thor a frog and nobody went mad that time.
Well, the nicest thing Walt Simonson did for me was, when we first announced Jane Foster as the new Thor, ever before the book was coming out, people were freaking out, Walt had seen somebody ranting about it on a Thor message board and we never talked before, we just kinda met briefly but he emailed me out of the blue just to say that he had seen this person ranting about it and he laughed because he said he got the same letters when they did Beta Ray Bill, so I thought it was really sweet of him. He didn’t know me, he didn’t have to do that.
Do you care about reviews?
No, of course is gratifying, I like being able to do it as a job and make a living out of it. I don’t take it for granted and I appreciate it but, again, my job is doing stories I wanna read so, no, it doesn’t affect me if the people are saying that it was the greatest story ever or the worst thing ever, it doesn’t change me and my work. I don’t how to write for the people. It’s always funny when people are yelling at me that they don’t like the story and they exasperate “Everybody on my Facebook hates it, so the whole world hates it”. No, it means you and your friends don’t like it but that doesn’t speak to everyone.
The stuff I do at Marvel has a very wide audience, we want to be inclusive and have the audience be as diverse as possible. That being said, you can’t please everybody and certainly you can’t do it in a premeditated fashion. You just put out the work, hoping for the best. Sometime you’ll be surprised by how many people liked it, sometime not. But, no, nothing will change what I’m doing in the next issue. The story has to be the story.
One of your influence was your cousin, Gustav Hasford, because it was one of the first people you knew that was living as a writer.
That’s a good question. I was a kid, so is not like me and him had a lot of deep discussions. He was really eccentric and interesting guy. I already knew that I wanted be a writer when I was a kid. Meeting Gus for the first time just seemed very magical to me, he was a guy who made his living writing stories, so I always in rapture just hanging out with him. I guess one of the lesson was… You know, he passed away before I was old enough to have an intelligent discussion, but I spent lot of time researching his life and I met lot of his friends and fellow war correspondents.
He was a guy I idolized in a lot of ways but also a guy who went off the rails a bit and didn’t take care of himself physically and traveled the world and had a massive book collection but died too young, didn’t produce enough stuff, you know as much stuff as you’d like to leave behind.
There’s the idea of what it means to be a writer and an artist, but then there’s also having to be a job. I have wife and kids, so there is that balance between the two things. I love doing and I would do it for free. I did do it for free years before I broke in, but also my kids get hungry if you don’t feed them, they grow out of their clothes, so it’s also my job. You have to treat it like a job, if you want to have a career. Comics is an unforgiven industry and those books gotta come out, if I’m not turning in Thor scripts Marvel will find somebody else to write them, and even if I write Thor for ten years, someday I’m gonna leave and somebody else will come along and take the character somewhere else, which is great.
I just saw a tattoo on your arm that says “Work in progress”. Do you ever think about you place in the industry?
I don’t take the time to sit down and read things that I wrote. I’m always focus on what I’m doing now and I think my favorite thing should be the thing I’m gonna write next week, the thing in front of me. I’m excited about the stuff I’m working on right now, I feel like I’m in a very fortunate position, being able to do what I want. I always try to stay focus on that and not sitting around thinking «Well, I was much better five years ago», I also feel like I’m constantly trying to get better.
I look a lot at the other writers I know who have been in comics way longer than I am, they’ve done so much stuff and I feel like I’m still pretty new compared to a lot of other guys, I’m still trying to figure out how to do the best job and get better. I think that what this means is that I never wanna get to the point where I feel I’m like «Okay, I got this, I think I know what I’m doing, I did this and people like it so I’ll just keep doing that». I don’t wanna get to the point. I wanna feel like I can do something different, something I’ve never done before, a new challenge. It’s the only way to stay fresh and interesting and creative.
You seem to really love your job, so I assume there’s no comics you wouldn’t write. We bet on this question.
Well, now I wanna know what you bet.
We bet that you would write anything. In a good way, because you love so much this job.
Yeah, I’m mean, I’m sure there are things I would not write. Nothing jumps to mind immediately… There are still a lot of stuff I’d like to do. As a reader, I love kaiju and Godzilla. I would love to write a Godzilla comic book. I love Conan, Conan was a big influence on me as a kid. Uncle Scrooge.
I would love to write an Uncle Scrooge story.
I think Conan would be perfect for you. It’s a little bit typecasting, you writing Conan.
[laughs] Yeah, but I’d also love to do a kids book. I have a lot of ideas for creator-owned stuff in different genres. I’ve spent almost all of my career in Marvel, which made me very happy, but there’s a lot of other stuff out there that I’d like to think I’ll be able to do someday.