On a whim four years ago, Jason Aaron dropped a one-page synopsis for a Wolverine tale into a box at a comic book convention that was sponsoring a national talent search.
Months later, a representative from Marvel Comics called to tell him he had won the contest. The neophyte writer was given the opportunity to pen an eight-page story that would end up in a regular issue of "Wolverine."
"It was kind of like my version of the Flannery O'Connor story 'A Good Man is Hard to Find,'" Aaron recalls. "I'm sure it was offbeat and very different from most of the selections they got, which were more action-driven.
"It didn't lead to anything at Marvel at the time. The main thing it did was encourage me to keep plugging away and gave me the faith that I actually had a shot at doing it for a living."
That faith paid off, as the Kansas City-based Aaron has published two of his original projects through Vertigo, the adult imprint of DC Comics.
The first was "The Other Side," a Vietnam War miniseries told from the perspective of the Viet Cong. This week will see the international release of Aaron's second comic book series, "Scalped."
"It's a crime series set on a modern day Indian reservation, in large part revolving around Indian gaming and a recently opened casino," he explains.
"It's set on a fictional reservation, but one that's obviously inspired by the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, which is the real-life poorest region in the United States. It deals with everything from the rich history of the Plains Indians and the 1970s when you had the American Indian movement, up through today when you have horrible living conditions, alcoholism and loss of cultural identity."
Oddly enough, Aaron had no connection to American Indian culture prior to pitching "Scalped."
"It's just something I've been fascinated with since I was a kid," he says. "I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Alabama where I didn't have any firsthand access to other cultures."
Does his lack of a relationship to the subject make the project less credible?
"It's the same as doing a book set in the Vietnam War. Obviously, since I'm tackling those subjects as someone who is not a Vietnam vet or a Native American, that's going to raise an eyebrow with some people. But I think people who read the book are going to see we've done a lot to capture the mood, look and feel of this reservation. I think we've done a pretty good job," he says.
"I like that Aaron is a sociopolitical voice. There's not a lot of that in the comics industry. I think he does a good job," says Joel Pfannenstiel, owner of Lawrence's Astrokitty Comics & More.
Pfannenstiel has invited Aaron to Astrokitty on Saturday to sign copies of "Scalped." He believes the series will be a big seller. He's also hoping locals from Haskell Indian Nations University will take interest in the event.
"I'm not sure how much the population of Haskell gets into comics. I know I have a few Native American customers. I don't know if that would appeal to them, but I'm thinking it would," Pfannenstiel says.
Aaron moved to Kansas City six years ago after graduating from the University of Alabama at Birmingham because he had a relative who lived in the city. (His wife is also a Kansas University alumna.)
"We have a great community of comic book writers and artists in Kansas City - which I didn't know at the time," the 33-year-old says.
Despite the Midwest connection, Aaron ended up collaborating on "Scalped" with an artist far removed from the area. At DC's suggestion, he was put in touch with R.M. Guera.
"He's a Serbian guy who lives in Spain now. He's worked in Europe for years. But this is his first big American deal," Aaron says.
Although the writer has never met the artist personally, he says they've bonded over their passion for the characters. They also communicate many of their ideas through shared movies - whether it's the ultraviolent films of Sam Peckinpah or the classic adaptations of Elmore Leonard westerns such as "Hombre" and "Valdez Is Coming."
"It's weird that I was doing a book set in Vietnam with a Canadian artist and a book set in South Dakota with a Serbian guy in Spain. And the ('Scalped') covers are by a British guy. It's an international effort."
The Atomic age
Guera won't be making the trek from Europe to join Aaron at the Astrokitty signing. But the scribe is bringing along some other heavy hitters from the industry.
Aaron will be joined by his partners in Atomic Revolver, a virtual studio comprised of Kansas City-based writers and illustrators. His collaborators at the signing include Jeremy Haun ("Casualties of War: Captain America and Iron Man"), B. Clay Moore ("Hawaiian Dick"), Seth Peck ("The Boxer") and Tony Moore ("The Walking Dead"). This will be the first Lawrence appearance by the studio-mates since the formation of the group.
"It's always great to have an artist along when you're doing a signing," Aaron says. "People love to get sketches and stuff. A writer is just kind of sad and pathetic."