When Words Collide

Wed, March 11th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

JASON AARON: THE SUPERPRO YEARS

The Other Side #5

Jason Aaron has been building his comic book career incrementally -- with style -- for the past few years. With the 2006 launch of "The Other Side," Aaron's Vietnam war comic with artistic collaborator Cameron Stewart, Aaron planted his flag into the comic book landscape and attentive readers took note.

I was one of those readers in the summer of 2006, but I wasn't attentive enough to realize just how good Aaron was. I thought it was just another war comic, and though I liked Stewart's art, I didn't think the series was anything special. But then Aaron launched "Scalped," a Vertigo ongoing with R. M. Guera on the artistic side. Even with my general annoyance with the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans in television and movies, I picked up the first issue of "Scalped" and found myself immediately won over. And within months, Aaron and Guera's brutal, character-driven crime drama became one of my favorite monthly series.

Then he did a bizarre "Wolverine" stand-alone issue, #56 in which Wolverine spent almost the entire issue in a hole, constantly gunned down by a down-on-his luck ex-cop. Yeah, this Jason Aaron was someone to watch.

Soon, Aaron had signed a Marvel exclusive and we got a chance to see a bit more Wolverine (with a lot more on the way this year), and a surprisingly revitalized (or should I say "vitalized"?) "Ghost Rider."

Aaron's work has been so good that I had to take some time to talk to the man himself, to find out more about his early comic book influences, to find out what he was like back in his student days, and to see how he approaches his craft. Also, to talk "NFL Superpro."

Tim Callahan: We're about the same age and we both read a lot of comics growing up, so I'm going to throw out some titles that were milestones for me, and I'm interested to hear what you thought of these things when you first read them, and what you think of them now:

"Crisis on Infinite Earths"

Jason Aaron: Loved it. I was still pretty new to comics at the time, so it really opened my eyes to the full history of the DC universe. And looking back, I think it's still probably about the best crossover series that anyone's done.

Scalped #18
Steven Grant and Mike Zeck's "Punisher"

Up until Garth Ennis' run on "Punisher MAX," which I practically worship, this mini was still my all-time favorite Punisher story. Mike Zeck at his best.

"Watchmen"

Just blew me away when I read it. I was so excited I got my mom to read it too. I got the original hardcover when it first came out, and the script excerpt in the back was the first comic book script I'd ever seen. I had nothing to compare it to, so I just assumed that Moore's mammoth and insanely detailed scripts were simply the norm.

Denny O'Neil and Denys Cowan's "The Question"

I came to this late, but still think it's a great series.

"Secret Wars II"

I remember buying lots and lots of tie-in issues for this, but I can't recall liking a single one.

Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen's "Legion of Super-Heroes"

I've still never read the whole run. Only pieces here and there. I remember really liking the "Great Darkness Saga" with Darkseid though. And for my money, Giffen's art was at it's best then. I also really dug his stuff on "Omega Men."

Grant Morrison's "Animal Man" and "Doom Patrol"

Both of these books blew my mind like no comic ever before. I felt like the Beatles, when they first discovered acid. And then I went through a period where pretty much everything I wrote was a shitty, awkward version of Morrison's free-flowing style on "Doom Patrol."

Neil Gaiman's "Sandman"

Liked it at the time but haven't re-read any of it in years.

"Youngblood," "Spawn," and the rest of that first Image wave

I remember buying pretty much all of them. That's about all I can recall about them though. I think I've blocked out the rest.

NFL Superpro #11
"NFL Superpro"

Great comic or greatest comic ever? I think you know.

Other books that helped get me into comics include the Wolfman/Perez "New Teen Titans," "Atari Force," "Blue Devil," Alan Moore's "Swamp Thing," the Mike Barr/Alan Davis run on "Detective Comics," "Dark Knight Returns," "Vigilante," the original Ann Nocenti/Art Adams "Longshot" mini, Timothy Truman's "Scout," the Mutant Massacre storyline in "Uncanny X-Men," and John Byrne's run on "Fantastic Four."

We were also both English majors in college, and I'm wondering what kind of student you were. In my experience, there are four dominant types of English majors: The Chatty Philosophizer (the one who dominated class discussions by connecting literature to Noam Chomsky), The Artiste (the one who spends most of his or her free time writing stories and/or poems that nobody truly understands), The Secret Smartypants (the one who barely says anything in class but is actually one of the best writers in the school), and The It's-Easier-Than-Science Type (the one who takes English classes because a college degree is good, but Organic Chemistry is really hard). How would you characterize yourself in your college student days, and what did you actually learn in those English classes that you couldn't have figured out for yourself?

I don't know how much of a Smartypants I was, but I was definitely quiet. I hardly ever spoke in class. I was always a good student though. What I lacked in social skills, I made up for in trivial knowledge. And I always wrote a lot. I started out in college thinking I would go into journalism, but the first year course was enough to scare me away. I just didn't have the fire for it. I dreamed of being a novelist. I started one novel, which was an expansion of a story I wrote for a class. It was the story of a child molester (I know, that would've been a best seller, right?). Eventually it became so ridiculously sprawling that I had to abandon it and move on to something else. The next novel was going to be my sci-fi tour de force. It was titled "a startling look into... THE WORLD THAT'S COMING!" which of course I stole from the cover blurb for Kirby's "OMAC" #1. That novel also became a sprawling, ridiculous mess, and I eventually moved on to something else.

I went through that same cycle three or four times, at least. So I wasn't getting a whole lot finished, but I was always writing, always trying something different. "Hey, what if I stick one chapter of a war story into the middle of this sci-fi novel? That would be awesome!" The writing classes I took really helped me to focus, to write on a deadline and actually be able to finish something that people could read and (hopefully) understand. A couple of the stories from college that I remember most fondly are a western called "Gunfight at Gutrot" and a creative nonfiction piece about how Pittsburgh's loss to Dallas in Super Bowl XXX caused me to lose my faith in God. The first piece of writing I ever sold was a short story called "Floweth with Milk and Honey" that was inspired by me getting a particularly memorable lap dance from a stripper named Peaches.

OMAC #1
Do you think there's a fundamental difference between genre fiction and literature? Do you see yourself as purely a genre writer these days and was that true even in your younger years? Discuss this in a well-written essay of no more than ten pages.

Ha! I always read lots of genre fiction, but as a writer I always aspired to write literature in the grandest, most pretentious sense. I aspired to be Faulkner. These days I don't differentiate. I just love great books, no matter what category the bookstore shelves them in.

How many comic book scripts had you actually written before you wrote "The Other Side" #1? How did you learn how to write comic book scripts? What's your super-secret technique?

"The Other Side" #1 was my first attempt at a full comic script. Before that I'd only written an eight-page Wolverine story for Marvel. I'd spent all my college years trying to learn how to tell stories, not just to write comics. Working with Cameron Stewart on "The Other Side" and R.M. Guera on "Scalped" was my education in writing comics, because those guys are true professionals and both such amazing artists. I still don't think there's any wrong way or right way to write a comic script. If you look at scripts by five different writers today, you'll probably see five very different scripts. I love collecting scripts and looking at how each person does it. At the end of the day, though, I think you just have to figure out what works best for you and for the artists and editors you're writing for.

"The Other Side," throughout all five issues, is very text-heavy and caption-heavy. Your work ever since is much less caption-heavy. Is it purely a case of style-to-suit-the-story, or did you move away from the technique for other reasons?

I think it's about style-to-suit-the-story. There are plenty of issues of "Scalped" that are pretty caption-heavy. I'm not afraid to use lots of narration if I feel its necessary to get into the character's head. With "Scalped" #25, I had to have that running narration so I could point out how the character was constantly lying about everything. I've used thought balloons before too. I don't think any tool should be taboo, just because it's been overused before.

When you get a chance to finally do your long-dreamed-of "NFL Superpro" revamp, will it be your chance to return to "The Other Side" caption-heavy style? I would assume the Superpro himself has some pretty deep thoughts about tackling and/or blocking, most of which probably deal with the legacy of Noam Chomsky on public declarations of intent.

You have an unhealthy obsession with "NFL Superpro," Tim. It was funny for a while, but now it's starting to affect your work.

In the text piece in the back of "The Other Side" trade, you mention that your cousin taught you that a writer is someone who carries a lot of books around so he can have plenty of ideas to steal, and in a Vertigo spotlight text piece, you mention some of the cultural inspirations for "Scalped," but what are some of the books on your shelves right now? If you were stuck for an idea, which books would you turn to?

The Bible is always a good one to steal things from, because nobody's gonna sue you for that. My favorite reference book has always been "The F-Word." I used that a lot when I was writing "The Other Side." Other books that are always on my shelf include "Lord of the Flies," "The Sound and the Fury," "Heart of Darkness," "The Things They Carried," "The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor, and lots of stuff by Cormac McCarthy, James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard.

Why did you decide to do a crime book on a Native American reservation to begin with? It seems like something that would have limited appeal to a lot of readers, many of whom have grown weary of depictions of Native Americans in the media as either mystics or alcoholics. How did you sell Will Dennis on the setting, and what did you do to avoid those cliches?

The Sound snd the Fury by Faulkner

Will seemed sold on the idea from the time I first mentioned it, and it was the setting that sold it. I think we both saw it as a chance to do something different, something with some weight, while still doing the same type of crime story we both loved. And I don't really worry about cliches. I think just crafting well-rounded characters can overcome whatever people see as cliche. Things become cliche because they get overused and used badly, not because they weren't good ideas to begin with and not because there wasn't already something true in there. I'm all for reclaiming ideas that have become cliche.

"Scalped" has always been a kind of ensemble book, but Dash Bad Horse was clearly the protagonist in the opening couple of arcs. Is he still the protagonist, do you think? Is the real story about Red Crow? How do you determine who gets your attention as your writing each arc?

It's still Dash's story. I just wanted him to go away for a little bit. And moving forward, he'll still share the spotlight from time to time. I suppose you could say that the rez itself is really the main character of "Scalped."

What kind of overall structure do you have in mind for "Scalped"? Are there certain key scenes or thematic concerns that you want to get into at some point? Do you have a "Dukes of Hazzard" Trapper Keeper filled with "Scalped" ideas?

I have a file on my laptop packed with "Scalped" ideas. The file started as a document I wrote in June 2006 that laid out the first 30 issues of the series, complete with some titles and scenes and lines of dialogue. Ever since then I've just been adding to it. I think the overall structure of the series will continue to be what it is right now. We'll get big arcs from time to time, with lots of stand-alone issues in between, all focusing on different characters. For the current arc, "High Lonesome," I'm writing stand-alone issues for Diesel and Agent Nitz that I've been planning for a long time. And eventually I want to do issues focusing on Red Crow's right hand man, Shunka, and Wooster Karnow, the sheriff of White Haven, Nebraska. After "High Lonesome" comes a big five-part arc called "The Gnawing," and it's really what everything has been building toward these first few years. It's where my original outline ended. It's the crux of the entire story, I suppose. So here's hoping I don't fuck it up.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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TAGS:  when words collide, jason aaron, scalped, the other side, nfl superpro

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