Journalist Colin Woodard has suggested that American is not one country, but instead 11 different nations.
Americans are one people separated by disagreements about how cosmopolitan and global the country should be, the role of religion in public life and the idea of who counts as a "real American." As is the case with every aspect of American culture and life from before the country's founding through to the present, the color line intersects all these fundamental questions.
These questions of race and regional identity resonate in some very unique ways in the American South. While black people were slaves in America before the country's founding, the South was actually a slave society. This distinction is a subtle but important one that helps to explains why the South, under the banner of the Confederacy, would engage in traitorous rebellion against the United States government and sacrifice hundreds of thousands of its sons (and daughters) to protect the evil institution of white-on-black chattel slavery.
The ghosts and demons of that Civil War still linger today.
As a literary form, how can comic books and graphic novels reflect these tensions? How is the South a type of character and also a motif? Is there a way to be a proud Southerner while refusing to embrace hateful symbols like the Confederate flag? Should comic books and graphic novels reflect concerns and anxieties about politics and current events? What about "diversity" in terms of race and gender and the kinds of characters and stories that are told in comic books and graphic novels?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Jason Aaron, the writer of such comic books as Marvel's "Star Wars," "The Mighty Thor," "The Punisher," "Wolverine" and "Doctor Strange." Aaron is also the creator and owner of "The Goddamned" and "Southern Bastards," which are available from Image. Another title he created and owns, "Scalped," is available from Vertigo Comics and will be the basis of an upcoming TV series on WGN America.
What was it like when you found out that you would be writing the "Star Wars" series for Marvel Comics?
It’s been a really wonderful experience. We work with Lucasfilm's story group and they’re coordinating all the movies, cartoons and novels. The coolest part of that is our book was really one of the first to be a part of the new canon and we helped to jump-start the year that led to "The Force Awakens."
There really is a wealth of riches right now in terms of "Star Wars" material. As someone who grew up with the original films this is very exciting, but I worry that "Star Wars" will not feel as special and anticipated given all of the new movies, TV shows, comic books and the like. How do you feel about it?
You know, you can say that about a lot of things these days, right?
The idea that not too long ago if you wanted to watch your favorite TV show you had to be home that night and at that time and sit in front of the TV and then you wouldn’t see it again until the next week is unbelievable. Now you can just binge on stuff. For my son, the idea that he would have to wake up on Saturday morning to watch cartoons seems ridiculous to him. He can watch those 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I am excited about the new "Star Wars" stories and the potential for what that could mean in terms of the different kinds of narratives we could get.
When did you fall in love with graphic novels and comic books? Was it the spinner racks at the corner drugstore? Or did your love grow over time?
Yeah, it was the spinner rack. It was my mom buying me comics when I was really little and then me tagging along with her to the local drugstore. The "New Teen Titans" was the first book that really grabbed me where I started wanting every issue. I was a teenager before I went to a comic book store for the first time. Since I was probably 15 years old, I had a "pull list" at the comic shop.
How did you go from being a reader of comic books and graphic novels to deciding that you wanted to write those stories?
I don’t know if it was one issue. I always liked to write even while I was in grade school. Then there was a point where I realized that I wanted to write comics. I had no idea at all how to go about doing that. I’d never met anybody who worked in comics. I lived in a small town in Alabama. I mean it took until I was almost 30 before I was able to even begin to get my foot in the door.
What is your take on this bizarre political moment? What do think the role of writers and other artists should be at this time?
I don’t know. That’s a huge question. As a comic book writer and creator, that’s a hard line to walk. One, you know, whatever I’m writing is about the story I’m writing, right? I don’t ever try to write stuff with an agenda in mind or try to preach to somebody or try to beat somebody over the head with my personal political leanings and opinions. I pride myself on the fact that I do a lot of different kinds of stories and that I want the voices of those characters to sound like those characters and not my voice speaking through them.
That said, when I’m doing "Southern Bastards" or even with Marvel stuff, you want people to be emotionally invested in those characters. I think to me now it seems more important than ever to do stories about hope, where we do see that the good guys can still win in the end.
Speaking of characters, the Punisher is one of these characters that for whatever reason many writers have a hard time getting right. You wrote the "Punisher" series for a while. What do you think about the character and why do you think some writers have had such a hard time with him?
I hadn’t thought of it as a character that folks have a hard time with — maybe just because I’m such a big fan of Garth Ennis' definitive take on the character, that I view his work as the be-all and end-all of "The Punisher." When someone asks, “Who’s the Punisher?" I give them Garth Ennis' stories. The Punisher is not a character I agree with in any way or that I support. The one time I’ve been called for jury duty was for a serial murder trial. I didn’t make the cut because I oppose the death penalty. The Punisher and I would disagree on a lot of stuff. I always think it’s funny when you get criticized online by someone who assumes that a character’s viewpoints are the writer’s viewpoints.
Does that happen often?
Probably a lot more than you’d think. I had somebody say something one time about the Christian agenda that I put into a lot of my work. I thought that was pretty funny because I’m an atheist, but I do write a lot about religion and faith because it is something that still fascinates me.
I can only imagine the type of emails you receive about "The Goddamned." What has that been like?
They’d probably surprise you. They’re way more of the positive variety than they're the opposite. The emails have been surprisingly positive, even from people whose beliefs are very different than mine. Despite my personal beliefs and being an atheist I’m still very fascinated by and interested in the stories of the Bible. Those are the stories I grew up with. With "The Goddamned" I am trying to tell a story about the pre-Flood world, the idea that fledgling humanity had already gone so far off track that God was ready to just fucking kill everybody. I’m fascinated by that world. There are no limits in terms of how awful and out of control that sort of world could be, right?
What’s your favorite biblical story? I love the Book of Job. It has gotten me through some hard times.
I don’t know if I have a favorite story. I’ve always been attracted to those stories and kind of the beginning, the genesis, you might say, of "The Goddamned" was as old as my comic career. I first pitched that book the same time I pitched "Scalped," which was 14 years ago. It’s also an end-of-the-world story, like "Mad Max." It’s just the very first end-of-the-world story. It’s a world on the brink of annihilation. It's also has elements of Westerns and Japanese manga such as "Lone Wolf and Cub" and "Blade of the Immortal." I think we’re just scratching the surface in terms of "The Goddamned." I’m really excited for this next arc because it’s so radically different from the first.
"Southern Bastards" is a crime noir story that does not flinch in terms of questions about race, gender, violence and the history of this country. With the resurgence of white supremacist groups in this country and debates about "Southern heritage," what are your thoughts on the Confederate flag, monuments and the like?
Growing up in the South, you buy into this idea of being the rebels. It feels like part of your identity. There’s something where you're always kind of thumbing your nose at those city folk up north. I think I can understand in one respect how you can grow up in the South and you can look at the Stars and Bars as a white person and feel it represents that idea of being a rebel. Maybe you feel it does not represent a history of hate and violence. But you cannot have it both ways. You can’t wash that part away and embrace that symbol without acknowledging what it really means. The Confederate flag has no place flying over the state capital. It’s just time to let it go.
As with "Scalped," "Southern Bastards" has such a sense of reality and authenticity to its characters. The writing almost seems autobiographical in places. What is your inspiration?
I think stuff here and there was influenced by real people and real events just like with anything I do, but it’s not that directly autobiographical. Certainly "Southern Bastards" is influenced in large part by where I grew up and the school I went to. We were never that good at football so there was no way a football coach would be able to get away with murder. Jason Latour and I both wrote about that in the first issue of "Southern Bastards." It’s a book about our love-hate relationship with the South. We do have to remind ourselves at times to put in a little more of the love! But of course it is called "Southern Bastards." It’s a story where the good guy doesn’t make it very far.
Right. It’s not called “Southern Nice People”!
Again, that’s not to say there’s not hope. As soon as we take out the initial hero, we turn around and introduce a possible new hero in the form of Hill’s daughter Roberta. She’s finally in Pearl County. We have seen her on the periphery, just trying to get the lay of the land and figure out what happened to her dad. She’s still in the information-gathering phase at this point. But that continues to pick up steam as this story arc develops.
There’s something else wonderful about the story, too. The fact that she is a black woman and her father is a white man is just so matter of fact. If it was poor writing, the reveal would be like "Aha, his daughter is a black woman!” This is just the world as it exists.
I go to many comic book conventions where there are all these panels on "diversity" and "writing diverse characters." I ultimately come back to saying, “Write good characters and live a good life and know a range of people and it’ll take care of itself.” But our society is very segregated and I wonder, Do you get any pushback as a white brother? Are there folks saying, “You have written about First Nations people in the past. Now you’re writing this book with all these black characters. Why are you doing this?"
I get questions like that — not just about writing about black characters or Native American characters but even just writing about prominent female characters. The idea that I have to stop what I’m doing and dramatically change gears because I’m writing about a woman is kind of offensive and ridiculous.
As though you should call up all the women you know and ask them, “What would you think about this character as a woman?” and make it writing by committee.
I think you write characters. And you create well-rounded characters, no matter who those characters are or where they’re from. Now, certainly if I’m dealing with something very specific, like writing about a modern Native American reservation in South Dakota, that is a very specific setting and a very specific time period. So you want to try to do justice to the people who actually live there.
For me, of course, I’m not that person. I don’t live on a reservation in South Dakota. You have to do your research. But again, while creating and writing, you choose to either tell your story or not to tell your story. I think for me, whether in "Scalped" or "Southern Bastards," everything we’re doing is trying to craft characters who are real in some sense, who live on the page, and to do justice by them.