NEW YORK - Leaping over tall buildings in a single bound is old hat in the comic book industry. A fan off the street with almost no experience getting a gig writing for the publisher of Superman through an unsolicited email? Now, that’s a impressive feat.
But that’s just what writer Jason Aaron has done, first with his critically acclaimed Vietnam War mini-series, “The Other Side,” and now with “Scalped,” an ongoing series about a crime-ridden Indian reservation - both published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint.
“I’ve read comics since I was a kid, I knew for a long time that I wanted to be a writer, but I had no idea about how to even go about trying to break into the comic industry,” says Aaron, 34.
So Aaron listened to his parents and went to college, where he majored in journalism, only to discover he hated the field. He wrote movie reviews; waited tables at a barbecue restaurant; worked in a warehouse that stocked adult novelty items; managed a shift at a video rental store. At nights, he kept dreaming in four-color panels.
“I just had a lot of bad crappy day jobs,” says Aaron. “Jobs that were low on stress, I could daydream at work. And once I walked out the door, I was done, I could go home and work on things I really wanted to.”
What Aaron really wanted to do was write a biography of a cousin on his mother’s side, Gustav Hasford, who wrote the novel, “The Short Timers,” that was made into the movie “Full Metal Jacket.” Hasford had died in 1993, but Aaron poured through his relative’s journals and got in touch with other members of Hasford’s old unit of Marine combat correspondents, including Captain Dale Dye, the technical advisor on “Platoon” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Several years of research on Vietnam yielded the idea that would ultimately become “The Other Side,” which tells parallel tales through the eyes of an American Marine and a Viet Cong.
In 2002, Aaron made a side trip from his home in Kansas City to the Wizard World Comic Convention. On a whim, Aaron stuffed a script for an eight-page Wolverine story into a ballot box full of submissions for a talent contest being held by Marvel Comics, the publisher of Spider-Man. After a few months, Aaron forgot all about the contest - then received a call out of the blue from an editor at Marvel saying he’d won.
If Aaron thought the eight-pages published in Wolverine No. 175 would propel him into a job in the business, he would be disappointed.
Marvel rejected his pitch for “The Other Side,” and Aaron quickly went back to re-stocking shelves with DVDs. Taking another flier, Aaron emailed Vertigo editor Will Dennis with his idea for the Vietnam mini-series, to which he received a polite response of, “no thank you.”
“It’s much harder for writers to break in than artists,” says Peter David, the writer of “Fallen Angel” and a veteran of more than 20 years in the business. “An editor can flip through a few pages of artwork and determine very quickly whether the artist has potential. With a writer trying to break in, anything you submit really has to blow the editor’s socks off in order for him to decide that you’re worth committing a book to.”
So Aaron sent a full script for the first issue of “The Other Side” - and Dennis’ socks were knocked off.
“No editor in their sane mind could’ve turned down the first issue script that Jason sent over even though it was unsolicited,” says Karen Berger, senior vice president of DC Comics, via email. “Taking a chance on a new writer who’s as skillful and compelling as Jason, is what the heart of publishing is all about.”
Aaron quit the video store and followed up with “Scalped,” an ongoing crime series that has been dubbed “The Sopranos on a reservation.” The gritty setting is loosely based on Pine Ridge in South Dakota; though the major plotline involving corruption and murder around the opening of an Indian casino is mostly fictional. He named the protagonist, undercover FBI agent Dashiel Bad Horse, after his own son, Dash, now 2.
“Like all great crime fiction, the characters you love have some pretty unredeeming qualities and you can’t completely write off the characters you hate because they sometimes surprise you with a bit of kindness or nobleness,” says Dave Richards, news editor at comicbookresources.com, via email.
Even though Aaron has never set foot on a real reservation - and artist R.M. Guera lives in Spain - he pored over every scrap of research material he could find. Most of the email he receives from native readers has been positive, but there has been some criticism, the most vocal from non-native writer Rob Schmidt, who publishes his own line of native-themed comic books. Schmidt accuses the series of being an “ultra-negative” portrayal of life on a reservation.
“There are a lot of people who are just excited to see their neighborhood in a comic book, which is a setting that’s been ignored,” says Aaron. He received an email from a “guy who grew up on the Rosebud reservation who’s a rap artist who sent me his CD.
“He was hoping we could put him in the book and kill him off,” says Aaron, laughing.
“I think it just flows down to creating well-rounded characters, no matter what race or country they hail from,” says Aaron. “If you just create a character with depth and background, you can get into the character ... as long as you understand the setting and cultural heritage.”
Not bad for a boy who originally hails from Jasper, Alabama - population 14,000 and not exactly a locus of cultural diversity. While Aaron grew up doodling sketches of his own super hero characters, getting them published seemed a lot further away than the 950 miles to the major publishers in New York City. The town is best known as the birthplace of actor George Lindsay of “The Andy Griffith Show” fame.
“I would drive down the George Lindsey Highway every time I’d go home,” says Aaron. He quickly added that no matter how well the comics gig works out, he’s not expecting a roadway named in his honor anytime soon.
“There are only so many highways in Jasper - there are not enough to go around.”