With the exclusive contract he signed a couple of years back, most of the work Jason Aaron is doing these days is with Marvel Comics, arguably best known for his work with Wolverine, first in Wolverine: Weapon X and more recently in the relaunched Wolverine. But his crowning achievement remains Scalped, the masterful crime comic from Vertigo that I recently declared my top comic of 2010. With all the current discussions circulating about creator-owned comics, it might make for an interesting case study to look at how Jason Aaron handled the transition from creator-owned material to work-for-hire gigs, and how much of his own voice he has been able to bring to the tenured characters of the Marvel Universe.
Before we can examine how much of Jason Aaron’s authorial stamp carries over into his Marvel work, we need to get an idea of what constitutes a Jason Aaron comic in its purest form. As such, the best place to begin is Scalped. In this case, we’re putting a focus on Dead Mothers, the third graphic novel collecting the series thus far. The previous volume, Casino Boogie, saw the series take a shift from noir-tinged crime drama into something deeper and more ambitious, playing with time and perspective as we relived the moments leading up to the finale of opening volume Indian Country over and over, heightening the tragedy of what inevitably approached, and building up tension over what would follow. With Dead Mothers, we at last get to see the aftermath of Gina Bad Horse’s murder, and the narrative steps up to the next level.
Though having said that, the opening chapter of Dead Mothers – “Dreaming Himself into the Real World” – gives us yet more build-up, ending with us revisiting the discovery of Gina Bad Horse’s corpse for a third time. Now, when I first got my hands on this graphic novel, I’ll admit to speeding through this first chapter, eager as I was to finally discover how the other characters would react to Gina’s death. But upon revisiting Dead Mothers, it becomes clear that “Dreaming Himself into the Real World” is one of the most pivotal chapters in the book, if not the series as a whole.
This issue gives us perhaps the most comprehensive insight into Dashiell Bad Horse and the demons driving him that we’ve ever had, though unlocking the enigma that is Bad Horse and his motivations is a topic dense and complicated enough to devote a whole commentary of its own to. But what makes this issue so crucial to the wider tapestry of Scalped and our understanding of what Jason Aaron is trying to say with the series is how it seems to lay the trajectory of the whole series out before us, to an extent that even now isn’t entirely clear. In this chapter, Gina Bad Horse (by this point already dead, which her son doesn’t know about yet) appears to Dashiell in a dream, offering cryptic messages about who he is, where he comes from, and, on page 17, the trials he is yet to face:
It’s going to get very ugly around here, and more people are going to die. And before it’s over, you’ll have done some horrible things. Just remember that this is all happening for a reason… By the time you wake up, it will have already started.
This message, and much of the preceding dream sequence, builds up a sense of crushing inevitability, of each character destined to play a part on a stage grander than their comprehension, with any effort to resist their fate only serving to aid them in sealing it. It’s a concept revisited time and again in Scalped, through the experiences of various characters.
Gina’s forecast of what was to come here has of course turned out to be astute, given the subsequent body count that Scalped has accrued. As such, looking back on this chapter with the experience of what has followed, her warning to Bad Horse on page 18 carries with it an enhanced sense of dread:
You’re gonna want to kill him, when you find out what he did! But you shouldn’t! If you do, you’ll pay for it dearly! And he’s not worth it!
Who is the mysterious “him” that Gina is referring to? Is it Catcher, who we would soon discover was the one who murdered Gina? Is it Wade, Bad Horse’s father, who we learned in issue #38, “Family Tradition”, was an FBI informant like his son? Perhaps it is Diesel, who Bad Horse later murders as an act of revenge for the deeds he commits later in Dead Mothers, in which case it is too late for Bad Horse to heed his mother’s warning. Or Gina could be referring to the transgressions of another character we’re not yet aware of. Whatever the case, you get a sense of just how far ahead this chapter is looking, how much of the overall trajectory of the series is foreshadowed within its pages.
Another interesting thing about this opening chapter of Dead Mothers is that it was the first issue of Scalped not to be penciled by regular artist R.M. Guera, with fill-in artist John Paul Leon bringing his accomplished but distinct visuals to the story. As such, it’s commendable just how consistent with the tone of all that came before this feels, saying a lot for the command Aaron’s writing has over the narrative. One striking element carried over from Guera to Leon is the balance between gritty and ethereal. Much has been said about the former, with Aaron’s hard-hitting dialogue matching up with the claustrophobic panel arrangements and heavy shadows that have come to define the comic’s visual aesthetic to create a stifling sense of decay and despair. But less seems to be said about the latter, perhaps because it’s less constant, drifting in and out of the narrative. But it’s certainly there, in occasional moments of perverse beauty, in elements of old folklore creeping forebodingly into these modern surroundings, or as is the case in “Dreaming Himself into the Real World”, with dreams that may or may not be prophetic visions from the spirit world.
Dead Mothers is bookended by another chapter drawn by a fill-in artist, in this case Davide Furno, who would go on to draw several fill-in issues of the series. In this chapter, “Falls Down”, Furno brings a style that is very much his own, more distinct from Guera’s linework than Leon’s art in “Dreaming Himself into the Real World”. In “Falls Down”, Furno’s work looks fluid and graceful, like brush strokes, and Aaron responds with a story that feels more lyrical and – dare I say it – optimistic than a typical issue of Scalped.
The key phrase of the entire issue comes on page 16, when Franklin Falls Down says in his narration, “Beauty is all around us here. You just have to fight for it.” This is a sentiment expressed in the chapter’s opening pages, with glimpses of brutal crime scenes and traumatic moments in Falls Down’s life juxtaposed against snapshots of the beautiful aspects of his home and his culture. It’s also reflected in the character of Falls Down himself. While Scalped has been criticized by some for its unrelenting bleakness and its cast of largely despicable characters, Falls Down is an example of a truly decent man, an honest cop driven by altruistic motives and a genuine desire to do good, who prefers to resolve issues through non-violent means where possible, and who is proud of his Indian heritage. His story here, coming to terms with his grief and resolving to put it behind him and do more to see all the good in the world, is different to the self-destructive arcs of most of our principle characters, which along with the contrasting art makes this feel like it could almost belong to a different series.
But despite the ostensive differences, the recurring motifs emerge here too. Once more, we get the sense of a crime narrative haunted by the symbolism invoked by its Reservation setting, and with moments of poetry emerging from the grimmest of scenarios. In this chapter this is best illustrated on page 16, which gives us one of the most memorable images of the series: the mangled corpse of Falls Down’s wife transforms into flower petals, which blow away in the wind.
But as fascinating as these two bookends may be, the main meat of Dead Mothers is the five-chapter “Dead Mothers” arc in between them, penciled by regular artist R.M. Guera. One of the most immediately striking elements throughout this arc is just how much control over the storytelling Aaron gives to Guera, most famously in the closing sequence of the graphic novel’s second chapter, where Dashiell Bad Horse is about to tell a group of children their mother is dead, just as he himself learns his own mother is dead:
After months of build-up, all the suspense over how Bad Horse would react upon discovering his mother’s death, all the thoughts that would be rushing through his head… we get silence. Yet those three silent pages tell us so much, in particular how much of himself Bad Horse sees in the oldest child, Shelton. But as acclaimed as this sequence is, it is just one of numerous silent sequences throughout “Dead Mothers”. Amidst the praise for the last 3 pages of the story’s first part being silent, it’s often overlooked that the opening three pages are almost completely silent also, showcasing Red Crow’s reaction to Gina’s death to equally powerful effect. With page 2 in particular, we see Red Crow’s memories of Gina’s life juxtaposed with snapshots of the empty shell that remains: from the special way she brushed her hair to the corpse’s limp hand, from their first kiss to the corpse’s lifeless lips. In part 2 we have Gina’s body being put into storage in the morgue and Bad Horse kicking the hell out of a car in a fit of rage, in part 3 we have Bad Horse revisiting his childhood home, and in part 5 we have Red Crow attending Gina’s funeral service and later agonizing over calling his daughter Carol, all done largely in silence.
With no words to aid us, and the storytelling entirely dependent on the art, the spotlight is on R.M. Guera, and he doesn’t disappoint. He has such an incredible talent for capturing all the subtle nuances of emotion, able to go big and dramatic when required, but mostly working with little facial shifts, doing so much with small beats like the closing of eyes or the casting of features into the shade. It is some of the best “acting” you’ll find in any comic book. Of course, silent panels can take just as much thought and effort to script out for a writer as panels with dialogue, so though a writer may get less recognition for them without their words peppered across the final page, silent sequences are typically a creative decision on their part. Aaron knows that, as a writer, sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all.
With part 2, the third chapter of the Dead Mothers graphic novel, another recurring theme emerges: struggles with faith, and the part faith plays in forming identity. This chapter opens with a flashback of Gina telling a young Dashiell an old Lakota story about how Iktomi the spider trickster brought them from the underground caves where they lived long ago to the land where they live now. Young Dashiell rejects the story as nonsense, but on page 18 we see a grown-up Bad Horse telling the same story to a young Shelton. As mentioned above, in Shelton Bad Horse sees a reflection of his young self: angry, hurt, putting on a show of strength to hide his fear, and a sense of shame of his own culture and heritage (on page 8, Shelton says, “I don’t want be an Indian no more. I just wanna be a regular person.”) And it is only in seeing Shelton and finding himself on the other side that Bad Horse realizes what his mother was trying to do for him.
The opening of the fifth and final part of “Dead Mothers” highlights two more narrative tools Aaron revisits again and again. Part 4 ends with Bad Horse discovering Shelton has set off to try and kill Diesel – who murdered his mother – himself. Reading this, our expectation for the final part would be a race against the clock, with Bad Horse trying to find Diesel and Shelton before it’s too late. Instead, the chapter opens with Shelton already shot dead by Diesel, the confrontation having happened off-panel between issues. This demonstrates how uncompromising Aaron can be, often using the endangerment and even the death of children as an example of how grim the world of the story is, and how nobody is safe. It is also an example of how Aaron likes to deflate expectation, setting up scenarios that could very easily play along established routes before then taking things in a surprisingly different direction, thus making us think more about the way stories are constructed in the first place. Other examples of this in Scalped include the aforementioned silent sequence where Bad Horse learns of his mother’s death, and arguably even the whole set-up of Scalped itself, in which we were originally introduced to a cast of archetypal characters who over time became a lot more multi-faceted and complex.
It can be seen that Dead Mothers is a graphic novel dense with all the central themes that play out in Scalped as a whole, and as such is an ideal showcase for how Scalped represents Jason Aaron’s authorial voice. But if Scalped serves as a kind of control sample for what kind of stories Aaron writes when he’s dealing with his own creations and can write whatever he wants, the real test becomes how much of that is reflected in the work-for-hire jobs he has done for Marvel.
Having recently bought the Ghost Rider Omnibus collecting Jason Aaron’s entire 21-issue run with the character (15 issues of the ongoing Ghost Rider series and then the 6-part Ghost Riders: Heaven’s on Fire mini-series) – a great book, by the way, offering a fantastic story in a high-quality package for a surprisingly cheap price – I think it might be the best place to start. Ghost Rider has never been the most critically-respected character. I’ve been aware of him since the ‘90s, but the characters’ convoluted history and uninteresting cast of supporting characters and villains made him a character I never felt particularly compelled to read more of. But based on all the praise lavished upon Aaron’s run on Ghost Rider, in addition to my already-existing interest in Aaron’s work, I decided to give it a try. I didn’t regret it. Through this run, Aaron crafted an epic narrative that seemed to incorporate a wide range of characters from Ghost Rider’s history in a way that was respectful to the history of the series and respectful to long-time fans, while at the same using them to tell a story that felt complete and accessible to newcomers like me. Indeed, the brief references to the wider Marvel Universe are often played for laughs, whether it be Ghost Rider annoyed at someone confusing him with “some damn superhero”, a one-page montage of Marvel characters reacting to the apocalyptic events of the narrative in a manner that suggests they’d be hopelessly underqualified to deal with it even if they weren’t too busy dealing with their own comparatively minor issues to notice, and some Ghost Riders from the future making a reference to Secret Invasion (“What about the Skrulls? Should we tell her about the Skrulls? Have you been invaded by Skrulls yet?”). Most impressive is the mood of the whole thing, with the continuity-dense trappings of a Marvel superhero comic largely cast aside in favor of crazy, horror-tinged, tongue-ever-so-slightly-in-cheek grindhouse fun.
But I’m not here to just gush about how much I love these comics, much as I’d like to. The relevant issue here is how many of the established recurring themes in Jason Aaron’s creator-owned work are also present here in Ghost Rider? The answer to that would be, “a lot.” The very concept of Ghost Rider is one that feels perfectly suited to Aaron, given how it ties into the idea of fate, and whether or not an individual can successfully fight against the path laid out for them in life. In this run, the idea is explored not just through the obvious avenues of Johnny Blaze and Danny Ketch – the two central Ghost Riders – but in the arc of young nun Sara, who unexpectedly becomes the new Caretaker after her grandfather’s death, and to a lesser degree the heroic character of Daimon Hellstrom, Son of Satan, who dreads becoming like his father. By picking up on a twist introduced by previous writer Daniel Way – that the Ghost Rider was in fact an agent of Heaven rather than Hell, and Johnny Blaze’s predicament was the fault of a rogue angel named Zadkiel – Aaron also has an opportunity to once again look at ideas of faith, with people finding their idea of Heaven challenged by the civil war going on there, with some losing faith completely and others remaining steadfast in their beliefs.
Not everything makes the leap from Scalped, however. For example, Ghost Rider is a much wordier book, with little in the way of extended silent sequences. Ghost Rider is a different type of book, though. Scalped is very character-driven, with the overarching plot slowing or sometimes fading into the background as we dwell on the character’s reactions to it. Ghost Rider, on the other hand, is very plot-driven. Not to say it doesn’t have an interesting cast of characters, but they always act in service of the plot, and we’re always moving forward, allowing for little to time to spend some pages silently reflecting on a quiet moment. This is also a universe that – as much as Aaron has worked to streamline it and make it accessible – is still very continuity-dense, delving into big, reality-spanning concepts, and such constant exposition is often required. But despite the limitations of working in a shared universe, Aaron has the freedom to add plenty of his own concepts and characters to the Ghost Rider universe, and tells a story so distinctive that it almost feels creator-owned.
Aaron’s current tenure as writer of Punishermax has proven to be more challenging. While Ghost Rider was a character lacking much in the way of classic stories or celebrated creative runs, in recent years The Punisher has become defined by the celebrated work on the character done by one writer – Garth Ennis – also under the Punisher MAX label. Though this run exists outside Marvel’s main continuity, it has come to be viewed as the definitive Punisher of the character’s history, and the “real” Punisher within Marvel proper has often been deemed lacking in comparison. When Ennis’ finished his landmark run, it was believed that Punisher MAX was finished too, that no one could touch that version of the character after Ennis. So it was with some surprise, and a certain level of controversy, that the series was relaunched with the slightly altered title of Punishermax and Jason Aaron was tasked with telling his own stories with what many would call “the Garth Ennis Punisher,” even working with regular Ennis collaborator Steve Dillon as the artist.
Given how comprehensively Ennis explored the character of Frank Castle throughout his run, Aaron perhaps wisely sidesteps that with the arc collected in the first graphic novel of his run, Kingpin, instead focusing primarily on Wilson Fisk, and his rise into the eponymous role of The Kingpin of Crime. It made for a clever hook for this relaunch, taking the idea of reimagining The Punisher against the backdrop of a gritty crime saga in a Marvel Universe where there are no superheroes, and applying it to The Kingpin (and in the following arc, Bullseye). So, The Kingpin, a character who, despite not having a costume or superpowers, still always seemed almost as fantastical as your average supervillain, is grounded in this “real-world” tableau, with a new interpretation that the idea of a “Kingpin of Crime” has long been nothing more than a myth, a fictional bogeyman that couldn’t realistically insist, and Fisk creates the persona of this mysterious, all-powerful crime boss who doubles as a “humble dealer in spices” – basically Fisk’s classic persona in the main Marvel Universe – supposedly as a ruse to distract The Punisher, with the five heads of the New York Mafia families bankrolling the operation. And it’s only by degrees, over the course of the five-chapter story, that Fisk turns on his bosses and becomes the Kingpin for real. It’s not until the very end of the story that we see Wilson Fisk in his fortress skyscraper, in his white suit, holding his diamond-tipped cane, as the character is typically portrayed in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man or Daredevil. The whole story, then, serves as a continuance of this idea of fate as an inescapable, even Machiavellian force carrying characters along towards their ultimate purpose. In the case of Kingpin, the effect is heightened by our familiarity with the Kingpin of the Marvel Universe, our acute awareness of what Wilson Fisk will inevitably become by the story’s end.
Aaron’s Wilson Fisk has a lot in common with Lincoln Red Crow, more than the obvious similarity of them both being involved in organized crime. Both had troubled childhoods, each fighting through abuse and emerging hardened as a result of it. Both find themselves alone and estranged from their families as a result of the decisions they’ve made. And both have toughness, determination and a willingness to fight against enemies stronger than them (in terms of influence, manpower and resources, if not physical power) that makes you almost want to cheer for them in spite of their despicable actions. But there is one crucial difference that sets Fisk apart from Red Crow, best illustrated by Fisk’s own narration on pages 19-20 of the story’s final chapter:
I always told myself, everything I did, I did for my son. So he’d never have to suffer like I’ve suffered. He’d never have to be raped by five guys in prison or have to take shit off a man like Don Rigoletto. He’d never have to kill like I’ve killed. I always said, this was all for Richard. But now… now I have to admit to myself… this was never about Richard. It was for me. It was always for me.
However immoral or even reprehensible many of Red Crow’s deeds have been over the course of Scalped, we have learned that everything he does is – in his own mind at least – in service of a greater good, acting in what he believes are the best interests of the Oglala Lakota nation. We have seen that at certain key moments he has been able to act in the interests of others in a manner that could even be called heroic. But everything Fisk does is motivated by self-interest. And while we might find ourselves supporting him in his ruse against Don Rigoletto, the whole last chapter is a clinical exercise in removing any illusions we might have had about Fisk’s human decency, with his final actions to ensure his rise to power resulting in the violent death of his young son. Worst of all is his attempt at reassuring his hysterical wife as she screams for her lost son: “We’ll have another one.”
This scene serves as an example of that recurring theme of even children – or perhaps that should be “especially children” – not being safe in the dark worlds Aaron presents to us. This is an example of how the move from Vertigo to Marvel, in this case at least, doesn’t result in material any less uncompromising from Aaron. The story’s placement within the MAX imprint allows for enough nudity, violence and strong language to make this feel like a largely seamless transition from Scalped. It lets Aaron include content that’s much darker than you would expect to find in a Marvel comic:
Of course, uncompromising adult content is hardly new to Punisher stories. Ennis had been doing it for a long time before Aaron came along, so its presence in Kingpin is hardly a concrete example of Aaron making his own distinct voice heard within his Marvel work. However, when we take a look at what Aaron has Frank Castle doing during Fisk’s rise to power – namely his confrontation with Amish killer The Mennonite – we see Aaron working in one of his most prominent recurring motifs. While Ennis typically treats religion with gleeful contempt, in the character of The Mennonite Aaron once again gives us a measured depiction of a struggle with faith. He is someone trying to bury his old life as a killer (in chapter 3 we see him literally burying his guns), but when his wife is deathly ill and he prays to God for a sign of a way to help her, he receives word that Don Rigoletto is looking to hire him to kill The Punisher. And so he takes the job, attempting to do so in a way that honors the rules of his religion. Hypocritical as this may sound, ironically enough it is when he casts aside the rules of his religion prohibiting the use of guns (with a “To hell with it,” even) that he seals his own fate. Touches like this, as well as the various other recurring motifs noted, not to mention Aaron’s near-peerless knack for hard-hitting dialogue, allow Jason Aaron to step out from the shadow of Garth Ennis and with Punishermax give us a Punisher book that very much feels like its own entity.
So, working with both Ghost Rider and The Punisher, we can see that Jason Aaron is able to bring a lot of the elements that worked so well in Scalped over to his work for Marvel. But in one way or another, both these runs operate on the fringes of Marvel, with mitigating factors allowing for an increased level of control and influence over the characters. How far then does Jason Aaron’s authorship extend over his work with Wolverine, one of the most popular and prolific characters in the Marvel Universe?
Of all the characters in the Marvel Universe, few are more difficult for a writer to make their own than Wolverine. His whole life story spanning back decades has been told and retold and made into its own spinoff ongoing series. He appears in about a dozen comics a month. Just about every writer who has spent any degree of time at Marvel has taken some kind of stab at portraying him. So when Marvel launched a new ongoing – Wolverine: Weapon X – written by Jason Aaron and drawn by Ron Garney, perhaps some questioned what else this series could possibly say about the character that hasn’t been said already. Aaron wryly acknowledges Wolverine’s prominence and the difficulties it can cause at various points throughout Adamantium Men, the first graphic novel collection of the series. On the first page of the second chapter, reporter Melita Garner proposes a news story about Wolverine, to which the editor replies with “forget it, he’s way too overexposed.” The story spanning across the last two chapters, “A Mile in My Moccasins”, attempts to illustrate how ridiculously busy someone who simultaneously works for several different superhero teams while also going on his own solo adventures would actually be. Aaron even attempts to rationalize this in a way that advances Wolverine’s character, suggesting this is all driven by a self-destructive response to the return of all the memories of the awful things he’s done throughout his life.
Looking at Jason Aaron’s run through Wolverine: Weapon X and Wolverine as a whole, it seems the key contribution that Aaron has tried to bring to the table is a new dimension for Wolverine’s character. This has taken the form of Logan gradually finding faith, tying once more into one of Aaron’s favorite themes. It becomes a lot more prominent with Aaron’s subsequent work on the character, but even at the very beginning of the run in Adamantium Men, Wolverine’s closing narration across the last few pages of Chapter 5 alludes to ideas of heaven and hell:
But maybe I’m wrong about hell. Maybe it ain’t down there in the depths after all. Maybe it’s up here with us. Maybe hell is that we have to keep going, keep working… keel killing, keep hating… keep watching everyone around us die. Maybe heaven only comes when we blink out and suddenly it don’t hurt any more and there ain’t nothing left to dwell on or fret over. Nothing at all. I have a hard time believing in heaven, but it’s easy to believe in hell. A place where people are tortured for all eternity because of the sins they committed in life? Judging by what I’ve seen of the world… that sounds about fair.
Oddly prophetic, considering that later Wolverine would literally be sent to hell. But aside from this, reading The Adamantium Men, there is not much to immediately indicate that this comes from the same writer as Scalped. Yes, it’s very well-written, as Aaron’s work tends to be, but quality is not exclusive to Jason Aaron, and can be found in other superhero titles in the Marvel Universe. So, does this mean that there is a limit to authorship in comics, that any sense of creative identity amongst even the best writers is overwhelmed under the constraints of continuity and visibility within a shared universe?
Not necessarily. Speaking on a purely subjective level here, Wolverine is not a character whose comics I’ve ever been particularly interested in. But I’m buying and enjoying Wolverine every month, and if you’d told me I’d be doing that a couple of years ago I probably would have laughed you out of the room. So whether it’s obvious or not, Aaron’s presence as writer does make a difference. Perhaps it does a disservice to a writer to reduce their authorship to a series of easily identifiable recurring motifs, when versatility is as desirable a skill for a creator to have as any. In fact, it could be argued that writing a good run with an established canon character requires the flexing of a whole different set of creative muscles than writing good stories with original characters. In the February 9th edition of Where the Hell Am I, his weekly column for Comic Book Resources, Aaron talks about what he enjoys in particular about working for Marvel:
I like being a part of these things. I like getting to play with Marvel’s biggest toys. I like having a voice in the creative direction of the company. And I like working for a company that wants a diversity of voices in that room and that wants to empower its creators to tell exactly the kinds of stories they want to tell.
In other words, I’m very happy where I’m at in my career right now, as a cog in Marvel’s machine.
For Aaron, writing for Marvel has its own set of perks and benefits, distinct from writing creator-owned work, whose benefits Aaron has also been vocal in declaring. I think an important point to take from this is that the way I originally approached this study was wrong. Maybe it’s inaccurate to view a creator-owned series like Scalped as Jason Aaron in his purest form, with this purity being increasingly watered down the deeper into Marvel Aaron’s projects take him. Adamantium Men is as much a Jason Aaron book as Dead Mothers, just a different kind of Jason Aaron book. One thing I’ve come to appreciate in all Aaron’s Marvel work is how much humor there is, which is a welcome surprise given how dark and joyless Scalped can be. And while Wolverine, Ghost Rider or The Punisher may seem to fit the angry, morally ambiguous badass archetype that doesn’t stray too far from the Dashiell Bad Horse mold, when Aaron gets the opportunity to write a full-blown, cheery, wisecracking superhero such as Spider-Man, he nails the character’s voice perfectly. That’s a virtue for a writer of established superhero franchises: to be able to capture a character’s voice and fit in seamlessly to a character’s mythology, in a way rendering yourself invisible. And if you’re able to do that while at the same time working in the same themes and ideas that interest you in your creator-owned work, as Jason Aaron has done, then you’re a very good writer indeed.
The shadow of Scalped does loom large over Jason Aaron’s Marvel work. But I think that has as much to do with how a reader familiar with Scalped reads books like Ghost Rider, Punishermax or Wolverine as it does with what Aaron himself is writing. Ultimately, I think that rather than making Wolverine more like Scalped (or making Invincible Iron Man more like Casanova, or Detective Comics more like American Vampire), the true benefit of having the writers of celebrated creator-owned projects doing work-for-hire gigs for DC and Marvel is that our perceptions of those books are carried over into these superhero stories. By having a quality creator at the helm, it offers a promise of quality, suggesting that these comics are being taken more seriously than just being exercises in continued licensing. And hopefully, in turn, a reader who enjoys that writer’s Marvel/DC projects will be enticed to try out their creator-owned work. Like how reading Punishermax is what finally prompted me to try Scalped. The realms of creator-owned and work-for-hire don’t need to be at odds: both can coexist, and even assist one another, as Jason Aaron demonstrates with his diverse body of work.