Jason Aaron: The ‘Wolverine And The X-Men’ Exit Interview
Since Wolverine and the X-Men first launched back in 2011, it's been one of the most consistently entertaining books on the stands, and easily one of my picks for a high point in the entire history of the franchise. The idea of Wolverine taking over the school and teaching a gaggle of misfit kids might seem like it's ripped from a sitcom, but the character driven action of this book has been second to none. Now, after 43 issues (and several years writing Wolverine in one form or another), writer Jason Aaron has brought his run alongside artists Nick Bradshaw, Ramon Perez, Pepe Larraz and Chris Bachalo to an end.
To mark the occasion, I spoke to Aaron about the foundation of his take on Wolverine, how he wanted to develop the character over the years, and how his ideas changed to reflect the changes in his own life -- which, sadly, did not involve adamantium claws.
ComicsAlliance: You first got the job writing Wolverine as an ongoing series with Weapon X, right?
Jason Aaron: Yeah, that was my first ongoing gig writing Wolverine, but before that, I'd won a Wolverine talent search contest, the first full thing I wrote at Marvel was an issue of Wolverine with Howard Chaykin, I did four more issues with Ron Garney, I did the Manifest Destiny mini-series. I'd done a lot of Wolverine stuff here and there before Weapon X. I was kind of writing Wolverine full time, it just wasn't all published in sequence.
CA: Obviously you have an affinity for the character if you're winning contests with him.
JA: Nah, I can't stand him.
CA: Did you go into that ongoing series with a plan, hoping you were going to be on it for a while and having definite, long-term ideas about what you wanted to do with the character?
JA: Yeah, I certainly hoped. Especially those first few years of my comic book career, I had no idea what was going to happen the next day. All that Wolverine stuff I was doing coincided with me breaking into comics and going from working at a s**tty day job to writing comics full time. I never knew when I got a job if this was the last one, if they'd figure out that I don't know what the hell I'm doing. I never really knew, so getting the Weapon X gig was big.
I think if you look at everything I've done with the character, I think it all fits together in one character arc, but I can't really say that I had some grand plan from the get-go. I just had things I was interested in, and those all popped up again and again in different stories.
CA: I think there is a unifying theme that runs through all the Wolverine stuff you've written. As a fan of those books, they seem to me to be largely about Wolverine's evolution as a person.
JA: I always tought it was about the stabbing, but go on.
CA: You start him off in a story in Weapon X with a story that's about Wolverine fighting bad guys who are the next version of himself. They're the guys with the laser claws and the guns that shoot cancer, which are some of my favorite things, but they don't have that morality that we've seen at the core of Wolverine over the past thirty years. From that starting point, he keeps having to confront things and try to make a world where people like that, and like him, don't have to exist.
JA: That all makes sense. I could lie and say that was my plan all along, but yeah. Obviously with Wolverine, I've been writing the guy for seven years now. You're restricted in how you can change the character, the places you can take them to, but I'd like to think that over the course of those years and all those different stories that I did evolve the character in some sense. Not in the sense that there are stories you could do with Wolverine six years ago that you can't do now, I think you can still do all those stories, but I think we've gotten to some new stories that you can do now that you couldn't before.
Everything was about exploring that character, having him grow up and evolve in some sense. I suppose part of it is that, with that Adamantium Men story, that was him face to face with guys just like him, a world populated with different versions of Wolverine, which of course was a world that horrified him. Wolverine feels bad enough that there's one of him, he certainly doesn't want more people out there like him.
CA: Something that you do a lot in your work -- and I'm a big fan of Ghost Rider as well -- is that you have these huge, over-the-top action set pieces that are going on. You mentioned the Manifest Destiny miniseries that had all the kung fu stuff, but there was also that arc of Wolverine and the X-Men where they fought an evil circus led by Frankenstein, which I love.
JA: You and I were the only people who liked that.
CA: I'm getting to a point, but now I have to ask: Were there people who didn't like Frankenstein's Circus of Evil Mutants?!
JA: Oh, bless you, Chris. Yes, there were. To me, it was one of my favorite parts of that book, but we had a lot of people who thought that was a step too far.
CA: But while all that's going on, at the same time, characters are coming to these really important realizations about themselves. There's a moment I always come back to in the issue after Nightcrawler died, where his will lays out that Wolverine has to deliver a piano to a monastery at the top of a mountain. I believe you and I have talked about it in other interviews, but that seems like the issue where your mission statement came into focus. It's not really a story about Wolverine becoming a Christian, which I think a lot of people read it as, but that Nightcrawler wants Wolverine to learn a life lesson through this struggle. As someone who was in the middle of what you were doing with the character, with that as a midpoint, was that significant for you in terms of developing Wolverine?
JA: Yeah, most definitely. I think it did set the stage for everything that came after that. Most of the Wolverine stories that I'd done before that issue were all really action heavy, in different genres. Like you said, there's the kung fu story, there's the spy story, the sci-fi story with Deathlok. But that issue was clearly about developing Wolverine's sense of faith and hope.
You can go back to that little eight-page story that I wrote as a talent search winner, when I had no idea what the hell I was doing. Even in that story, it's about Wolverine stumbling out of the woods, and he starts talking to this lady who has a flat tire. He's trying to change her tire and get her out of there, and they're talking about religion and issues of faith. That's clearly something I was interested in exploring, not to turn Wolverine into a Christian. I was raised Christian, I was raised in the South where everybody's raised Christian, but at this point I'm 41 years old, and I've been an atheist, at this point, a little more than half my life. All the time I'm writing these stories, it's not my personal faith. It's not me pushing Christianity on the masses through Wolverine comics. It's not about that, it's just about, to me, a natural development for that character.
In terms of a practical sense, I wrote that issue because, of course, Nightcrawler had just died. I knew there had to be some kind of response to that in the Wolverine solo book, but I also knew we were about to do "Wolverine Goes To Hell." I figured that once I send Wolverine to Hell, I can't really do stories about faith. He's been there, why does he need to have faith? He's literally been to Hell. I wanted to get that story done before we did that.
CA: What is it about Wolverine that made you want to explore those ideas, as opposed to more straight-up action stories?
JA: I've certainly done plenty of that, too, but to me, the idea is that Wolverine is the guy who will do the dirtiest job you've got, he'll get as bloody as he needs to get to save the day and to do what he believes is the right thing, but he's still that samurai. He's a guy with a code of honor who's fighting with a bigger idea. He has to have something that he's fighting for, some sense of hope. Not hope for himself, but whether it's looking at the younger generation of X-Men that he'd adopt or whatever, he has to feel like he's making a sacrifice, that a person like him exists in the first place, so that things can be better for someone else.
He has no illusions about where his life is headed and how he's going to end up, he knows it's going to be tragedy after tragedy like it's always been, but to keep him from becoming Sabretooth and getting to the point where he just goes insane after all he's been through, he's got to believe that for somebody else out there, what he's doing will make a difference. So it became about developing that sense of hope.
Nightcrawler's death and his influence over him in their life together was a good way to introduce that and further things along. It's one issue, but if you read X-Men comics, you know what Nightcrawler meant to Wolverine, you know the effect his death would have on him. To use that death to get Wolverine to take that next step, to me, just seemed like the natural thing to do. The Wolverine from Giant-Size X-Men #1 would not do or say the things that Wolverine does in that last issue of Weapon X, but if you follow him over time, it feels like a natural progression.
CA: So how did Wolverine and the X-Men come about?
JA: I was asked to do Schism, which was the series that split the X-Men apart into two camps, so out of that, I got the job of writing the Wolverine camp. All we knew was that Wolverine leaves and goes back to Westchester, so I was given the job to figure out what he'd do, where the book would go, and what it would become, which was awesome. I got to sit down and pick my favorite characters and bits of X-Men history, and the most fun was getting to build a new school to replace the old Xavier School.
CA: Was there a draft at the retreats to see who got what characters?
JA: Kind of. We had a couple of X-retreats around that time, so at some point we really did sit down and talk about who would go where. Of course, most of it was just from a character standpoint, you sit down and go "Who would Kitty Pryde go with if she had to choose? Who would Emma Frost go with?" A lot of them are obvious, and then there are the ones you can argue over, but it was all pretty peaceful. Kieron Gillen and I never came to blows over any characters.
CA: Do you think that's because you intimidate him?
JA: No, I'm intimidated by anyone with a British accent. He's definitely got the upper hand on me. If my memory serves, we both wanted Magik. That was the only character that we both wanted, but it made more sense for her to go into his book. And I got Toad, so I couldn't be too picky.
CA: Did you lobby to get Toad? You really devoted a lot of story time to him that, as a reader, I certainly wasn't expecting but definitely enjoyed.
JA: I didn't exactly have to lobby for Toad, it's not exactly like anyone else was fighting me. [Laughs] I just said "and Toad is the janitor," and everyone said "oh, okay."
I knew from the start that I was going to kick him and beat him up a little bit and have him be the butt of a bunch of jokes, but it wasn't always about that. I had a general idea of where things were heading for him from the start.
CA: Were there any characters that you put into the school that you were surprised about? That you ended up liking to write about more than you thought you would?
JA: Probably Iceman. I mean, I wrote Iceman for the first time in Schism, and it was a joke. He gets his ass kicked. It's even a joke that the X-Men show up to this museum opening and they've got all their heavy hitters, Magneto, Emma Frost... and also Iceman. Maybe it was because of that, because I beat him up a little bit that I felt bad. I liked the idea of having some of the original X-Men in here, so I thought I'd use Iceman, but I really had a lot of fun with him. I liked exploring his powers, making him a little more powerful, having him step up to the plate in a big way.
Wolverine calls him out and says "we need you to be more than you have been," because he was one of those characters who had been bounced from one X-book to the other, and he's one of those guys where they always tease "oh, he's an Omega Level mutant!" but we never really see it. Someone else would steal his powers and use them better than he could. It was time to stop teasing him having these big, crazy powers and show him doing big, crazy stuff.
CA: Among the kids, the focus of the book really ended up centering on Quentin Quire and Idie. They're both really compelling characters in the same sort of way, because you've got Idie, who believes that she's a monster in this heartbreaking way that I don't think the X-Men have really done in a long time, and then you've got Quentin Quire, who's a kid who wants to be a monster.
CA: Was that connection something that interested you from how those characters were introduced? Did it come as time went on, or was it more of knowing how they'd end up from day one?
JA: I certainly had ideas from day one of where everything could go. I don't know if I knew exactly where it could go, but I certainly liked that contrast between those characters. Idie really went through some horrible stuff, and with Quentin, you get the impression that he's a kid of the suburbs who really never had much time on the streets or hardship in his life.
CA: He can afford a lot of custom t-shirts.
JA: [Laughs] Exactly, and a lot of pink hair dye. I always liked them as a couple, that contrast. Quentin's in the book just because I love Grant Morrison's New X-Men run, and his character had unfortunately been kind of lost and cast aside since then. I like the idea of brushing aside some of the stuff that had popped up post-Morrison and getting back to the kid we all liked so much to begin with.
CA: It's interesting that you bring up the Morrison run, because that's obviously a big influence. It's the last time, along with when New X-Men: Academy X was coming out, that we saw the X-Men as a school, and they're all thematically linked as runs that are about the future, in a literal and figurative sense. Wolverine has his idea of an idyllic future that he's trying to create with these kids, where they won't have to be part of this paramilitary strike force like the X-Men, and they end up fighting against the Hellfire Club, which is this terrifying group of children trying to make their own future. When you're doing what's essentially a war between two futures, how do you manage the scale of that while keeping the focus on the individual characters?
JA: How do you manage the scale of any of this? That's the challenge. This book had a huge cast of characters, and we did 43 issues in just over two years. That's a madhouse, breakneck run. It feels like I wrote that book for a long time, but it was about two years.
The Hellfire Kids popped up in Schism, and I always liked the idea of bad guy kids as the main opposition to Wolverine's new school. I had some plans for them that I wasn't able to get to. Again, even though we did 43 issues, I had stuff that I didn't have time to get to and couldn't fit, so I wish I could've done more with them. That said, of course, they're still going to be around, so there's always a chance you'll see more of them down the road in other stuff that I work on.
I really liked exploring those kids, especially Kade. I loved his origin, and yeah, the symbolism there is pretty obvious. This is the worst-case scenario. This is what happens when there's not somebody like Wolverine looking after Quentin Quire. This is what he could grow up and become. Idie and a lot of these characters could become a worst-case scenario if the X-Men aren't around to look after them and keep them from having to become an X-Force strike team.
Having hope, growing up to be parents, in a sense, and teachers. I think that of all the things I've written, it's the most that I was writing as a father. Over the course of my entire Wolverine career, I went from being a single guy to getting married and having kids, and I think you can see that progression in the way that I treated Wolverine.
CA: Looking back at Wolverine and the X-Men, is there a high point for you? A particular moment where everything came together perfectly?
JA: I really liked the first issue. I was really happy with the first issue. I think the first Nick Bradshaw arc was really solid, with Kitty Pryde and the Brood, and Wolverine and Quentin Quire off at the casino.
I think that was a good balance between stories with the kids, stories with the major X-Men, stories inside the school and outside the school. That's what I was always going for, that balance. It was hard to juggle all that.
Of course, the Doop issue was a huge thrill. I think once I got to that, I knew there was no turning back in terms of how silly this book could become. I didn't even really know when I sat down to write that issue how silly it was going to be, but I got to that page where they introduced the League of Nazi Bowlers, and I thought "well, f**k it, there's no turning back now."
Then Howard the Duck shows up a few pages later.
I was really happy with the Warbird issue, which was one of the AvX tie-in issues that Nick drew, where we gave the origin of Warbird. But I mean, there was never a story where I was phoning it in. I'm really happy with a lot of the character stuff, and there was great art throughout the course of the run. Bachalo, Nick, Ramon Perez, Pepe Larraz at the end, I'm really happy as a total package, even though it's hard. It's hard to do 43 issues of a book in two years. I don't know how Dan Slott does it. It's hard to balance all that and write for so many different artists. It's not an easy way to make comics, I think, but I'm happy with the series that we put out.
CA: What do you think you accomplished in terms of changing Wolverine as a character?
JA: I try not to look at is as "changing." I think it's just evolving, a little bit, maybe sounds better. Fans get weirded out if you say you changed the character. To me, it was just a natural evolution, it makes sense in terms of the bigger picture of that character. Just the fact that I got Wolverine to a place where he was the headmaster of a school, I was really happy with that. That's a fun idea that sets up a lot of cool stories. It doesn't mean he's a pacifist, it doesn't mean I've made him a full-on Christian, but I've made him maybe a little more hopeful, a little more grown up than he was.
Of course, I always found it amusing when people would criticize the idea of Wolverine running the school and say "Well that doesn't make any sense! He's killed all these people, why would he run a school? Why would you trust him with your kids?" And I would just say "well, obviously you've never read the book." That's the main point throughout those entire 43 issues, whether it's other people or Wolverine himself saying "What the hell am I doing? I have no idea what I'm doing." Which, if you have kids, is what it's like when you become a parent. You just jump in and get on with it. You have no idea what's going on, "Oh my God, am I scarring these children for life? I have no business doing this!" That is the core of the series. That's Wolverine. That's the good stuff, and that's the stuff that was so fun to write.
CA: The last thing that happens in your run, and spoiler warning for anyone who hasn't read it, is that Wolverine realizes that he went an entire day without popping his claws. I read that, and I see it as this monument to what you've accomplished, that you have a Wolverine story that's compelling and character driven, that has Master Pandemonium and Swarm show up, that you can tell this kind of superhero story that you can be emotionally invested in, that touches on the themes of the X-Men, and never once have Wolverine pop his claws. Is that your statement, showing what you can do when you move these characters forward and have them achieving their goals in different ways, or am I reading way too much into this?
JA: [Laughs] Well, no. I don't really like stuff that makes statements, it should always be about telling a story, but yeah, if you want to talk about making a statement, sure. I'll stand behind that. I like the idea of ending the series on a quiet moment instead of that last page being something big, and when I initially sat down to write it, I had Wolverine talking a lot more about what the school meant to him, summing up the series. I wrote just a little bit and then went "Ah, this sucks, I don't want to have him saying all this crap, it's too on the nose." So just that idea of him waking up and realizing "Wow, I went through yesterday and didn't do that one time," and the curtains close.
That was enough of a character beat to sum everything up without putting too fine a point on it.