Marvel A-Z: Jason Aaron

Before we start on the actual comics, I’d like dwell on just how long Aaron’s been working for Marvel, and how many comics he’s written. He started writing Wolverine in 2007, and started a Ghost Rider run in 2008—that’s twelve years of comics, including his current Thor run which started six years ago. (Has anyone had a longer run on Thor? Has Aaron had more influence on Thor as a character than… anyone? I don’t think so, but… well, it’s a lot of comics.)

And from my point of view, that’s a lot of comics to read. Let’s take a full list, up to the point where I temporarily caught up to his output (shortly before his Avengers launch).

Here’s all the major series Aaron’s worked on, if we define a run as at least six issues (in more or less chronological order):

  • Wolverine
  • Ghost Rider
  • Wolverine & the X-Men
  • Incredible Hulk
  • Thor
  • Amazing X-Men
  • Star Wars
  • Doctor Strange
  • Avengers 

Here’s the limited series:

  • Wolverine: Manifest Destiny
  • Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine
  • X-Men : Schism
  • Thanos: Rising
  • Original Sin
  • Weirdworld
  • Thors
  • The Unworthy Thor

And here’s the random one-offs:

  • X-Force Special: Ain’t No Dog
  • American Eagle: Just a Little Old-Fashioned Justice
  • Dark Reign: The List – Wolverine
  • Generations: the Unworthy Thor and the Mighty Thor
  • Mighty Thor: At the Gates of Valhalla

And that’s by no means everything. I’ve left off a lot of jointly authored series, or single stories in anthologies, or annuals for the main series. There’s also 60 issues of Scalped at Vertigo that started just before his time at Marvel, and the more recent 20 issues of Southern Bastard at Image. The point is, he is prolific. Perhaps more significantly, he’s touched on pretty much every major Marvel property, with the possible exception of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and whether or not that counts as major now is debatable. (Plus, in terms of space opera, they’re beaten out in the category of significance by Star Wars anyway.) Marvel is increasingly short on “architects” (so much so they had to get Hickman back to make anything out the X-Men), but whatever that term means, Aaron almost certainly qualifies.

If we were handling Aaron the way I eventually want to frame this blog, we’d be going over the issues he’d written that I’d read in a single week, until we got through them all.  Instead, this is a point where I wasn’t marking things out weekly, and I wasn’t taking screenshots–thank goodness for that, or we’d be here a while.

Before I started this reread, my general impression of Jason Aaron was that he was a writer who could adapt himself to a wide variety of tones–the original Wolverine and Ghost Rider work was very gritty pulp action, Wolverine & the X-Men is light-hearted comedy, and Thor is sweeping fantasy epic. When I re-read everything in one go, I realized it’s a little more uniform than I thought. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s pretty much a result of my approach as much as anything inherent to Aaron. It’s probably better to think of his body of work less in terms of distinct genres, and more that each contains differing ratios of pulp action, comedy, and epic fantasy. Let’s touch on each of the major runs, briefly.

  • I remember how fresh Aaron’s Wolverine felt at the beginning; he wrote what is still one of my favorite stories, which offered snapshots of a week of his life, constantly doing team-ups, and missions with the Avengers, X-Men, and X-Force. It was a nice little meta-way of acknowledging his infinite number of guest appearances and considering why he kept himself so busy. I’m not a big fan of Wolverine as a character, but Aaron’s take was generally that of a man who had made a lot of mistakes and clinged to what ideals were left, and that generally worked–it certainly made the transition from here to the other side of X-Men: Schism, where he broke away from Cyclops over their disagreement over how to handle the teen mutants.
  • The Ghost Rider series was pulpy high octane nonsense, and how tolerant you are of that I think determines how well the series hangs together for you. I recall the plot being something about an angel making a hostile takeover of Heaven, and nuns with machine guns and pointlessly sexualized outfits. Kind of fun at times, but very reminiscent of an 80s action flick, for better or worse.
  • Wolverine and the X-Men was the first time Aaron kind of softened the action edge and went full throttle with the comedy. There are some misses here; an iteration of the Hellfire Club run by psychotic children doesn’t work because they never really seem like a real threat, and for someone who re-opened the school based on the idea that children shouldn’t be trained as soldiers, Wolverine sure puts them in combat situations a lot. On the other hand, the characters are all generally really likeable; he basically redeemed Quentin Quire as a usable character, keeping his attitude by softening his edges, and Broo, Kid Gladiator, Oya, are all fun to see interact.
  • Incredible Hulk was based around the idea that Hulk had found a way to remove Banner into a seperate person, and Banner responded especially by becoming maniacal and obsessed. It’s an interesting reversal, but even by the end of it, they were putting into motion the means to soften Banner’s edges; it’s not a status quo that’s really sustainable.
  • I’m going to save Thor till the end, since it’s still ongoing, and so long. Amazing X-Men is basically a false start, and Aaron is only on it for the first arc anyway. It brings back Nightcrawler, which is a plus, but also acknowledges that his demon dad exists, which is not. And I don’t think anyone ever made anything interesting out of Firestar being an X-Man. Theoretically, it should have been interesting to see Aaron write an X-Men team that was less focused on the students, but that doesn’t really happen here.
  • Aaron’s Star Wars series is pretty good; he captures the voice of the characters well, and makes good use of the period between the first and second films of the original trilogy. It’s hard to do an ongoing series in such a set point in continuity, since you can never develop the characters beyond where they’re at at the start of The Empire Strikes Back.  Aaron does well, given those constraints, and he really captures the voice of the main characters. Admittedly, the run suffers a bit in my estimation by going on during the Vader series by Kieron Gillen and Larocca and Yu, which is a personal favorite.
  • I hate to go from negative note to negative note, but I wasn’t a fan of Aaron’s Dr Strange run. The concept is good, and well-executed: a being that hates magic has created an organization dedicated to destroying the multiverse’s magic, and in the process of fighting him, Strange is stripped of almost all his spells and forced to start over. (Granted, it’s very, very similar to how his Thor run starts off, with the Godkiller, replacing gods with magic.) That gives justification for re-establishing Strange’s rogue gallery, including Baron Mordo, Dormammu, Nightmare, Mister Misery (the castoff of the negative effects of Strange’s magic, previously kept locked in the basement), Satana, and the Orb (longtime Aaron favorite minor villain). All of that is pretty good, and did well to re-establish Strange after a long period where he couldn’t sustain a title. My issue is with the way Aaron writes Strange–he’s quippy, to the point of wise-cracking. It’s perhaps a necessary step to keep him in an ongoing series in today’s comics, but I much prefer Stephen Strange as a kind of pompous jerk, whose entourage serve up the comedic relief.
  • And then there’s Thor. I think when all’s said and done, Thor will be the Marvel comic Aaron will be best known for, and rightfully so–he’s done an amazing amount of world-building over years to establish and re-establish the nine (well, ten now) realms and populate them with a cast of characters that make the War of the Realms event (and all the moves that led up to it) feel truly epic–and doing so in a way that builds on established mythology without overrelying on it.

    I think you can divide Aaron’s Thor run into three main parts, at least as it stands now–before Jane, Jane, and after Jane. We’ll dismiss after Jane, as it’s outside my original reading scope. The original run, as I mentioned earlier, started off with the Godkiller plotline, and introduced Aaron’s three timeline approach. That is, each issue featured Thor in three time periods: present day Thor, past Thor who was more of a violent oaf and kid (unworthy of lifting Mjolnir) and future Thor, who had taken over from Odin and ruled a twilight realm in decline. Past Thor, by virtue of being set in the days of ancient Norsemen, becomes kind of a commentary on the gap between Thor the God and Thor the superhero. Present day Thor is plagued by doubts about that past, and about his present action–the Godkiller has him questioning whether gods are necessary, and whether he is living up to his responsibility as a god. Future Thor is… Scrooge McDuck. I’ll unpack that one. Scrooge’s “origin” in the comics is that he’s a bitter old recluse; future Thor is bitter as well, trying to die fighting after all else has fallen. Scrooge is rejuvenated by his nephews; Thor is rejuvenated by a trio of granddaughters. (Okay, it’s more complicated than that–Thor gets his groove back in part also because of his past selves, thanks to time travel shenanigans.) Essentially, Aaron positions current day Thor as living in a kind of golden age, compared to the still-developing past version, and the future trying to rebuild after mistakes. There’s other arcs featuring the return of Malekith, and the start of whole War of the Realms, and evil anti-environmentalism from Roxxon.

    Then there’s the Original Sin miniseries, where Thor Odinson realizes he’s unworthy, and can no longer wield the hammer. And then there’s Jane Foster, Thor.

    Of course, we don’t know that, at first. For the first full arc or so, it’s presented as a mystery—the new Thor is a woman, but we don’t know any more than that. I like this mini-run a lot–Aaron does great things in it, along with Dauterman on regular art–but I hate how it starts, and I have strong reservations about how it ends. I ‘ll admit, I had reservations about about the announcement of the female Thor comic, that it would be a token stunt. And while it was temporary, I’m very glad to have been proven wrong about the token part. However, starting the story with her identity a mystery started it on the wrong foot for me; if so many different women could plausibly be the character, it suggests the character herself is pretty indistinguishable aside from her gender.

    But after that first arc, it’s revealed that Foster is Thor, and the tension of the series comes out: Jane has cancer, and the more time she spends as Thor, the less time she spends in chemotherapy. I’m not sure what the message is in terms of an illness narrative, but honestly, I found it a much more compelling core than Odinson Thor wondering what the nature of godhood was. (I suspect Aaron’s larger statement on the subject is that Jane’s actions ARE what makes a true god, someone who sacrifices themselves to help their people. If I remember the reveal of Jane correctly, that’s not even subtext.) There’s also a clear choice made to keep this Thor with the regular Asgardian supporting cast rather than establish Jane’s own (with some exceptions); it emphasizes the other tension at play, that many of the Asgardians resent her, for being a woman, for defying them where Odinson would have thought twice, for being worthy of the hammer when Odinson isn’t. On that level, they actually make a nice stand-in for a lot of the online criticism against her. Not My Thor, etc.

    That part aside, the story continues more or less apace. Roxxon solidifies their contract with Malekith, Malekith makes new allies across the nine realms. Loki, after a period of being good-ish becomes more and more dodgy, making desperate decisions for what might be the greater good, but appearing tormented over it. This feels as good a time as any to say that I love Dauterman’s panelling motif for the series, where during fights and Thor moments, panel shapes echo the sides of Mjolnir. The Shi’Ar are directed to engage the Asgardians by their gods, in another example of “gods behaving badly”; it gives Aaron a chance to bring back some favorites from the X-Men run. And then we have the wrap-up, where a dying Foster takes a last stand against Thor villain Mangog. Mangog is basically a ploy by Malekith here to take out a Thor or two; this is where my feeling about the end of the series comes in,  because I really hoped Jane’s stand would be against Malekith himself, since her entire run took place during the war of the realms. But I guess that was being saved for bigger crossovers. At any rate, the end of the story is truly moving, and it’s a great character piece from Aaron.

What seems like a very long time ago, I argued that Aaron’s approach is a ratio of pulp, comedy, and epic in varying proportions. I think what’s interesting about the Thor run thus far is that it shifts; as he moves from Odinson to Jane, the pulp and comedy diminish somewhat and the high fantasy increases. It worked for me, and in general I think Aaron is a pretty consistent high quality writer for Marvel.

Boy, those were a lot of comics. Thankfully, there won’t be quite that many again, at least not until I hit the B for Bendis or so.

Next time: Abell, Abnett, and some purty pictures.

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