When you think of the entertainment industry, Los Angeles or New York probably come to mind. But Kansas City?
As it turns out, the City of Fountains is home to two science fiction storytellers who are at the top of their game. Jason Aaron writes comics for Marvel, and Bruce Branit creates visual effects for several popular television shows.
Why Kansas City?
Banit was born here, graduated here and wanted to raise a family here.
But first he had to go to L.A. to achieve his career goals. He worked on various shows for years before making a name for himself as a filmmaker.
When he met his wife, they made the move back to the Midwest for a simple reason.
“Here in Kansas City you see kids walking to school and I always thought in Los Angeles there must have been some underground tunnel because you never see them anywhere,” Branit says. He and Aaron spoke with KCUR’s Up To Date host, Steve Kraske, in February.
Branit says that managing BranitFX, his visual effects company, is far more challenging here than if he were still in Los Angeles, but he’s found a way to make it work.
“I work on the Flash right now. And I can do that remotely through Google Fiber," Branit says. "It’s a little harder to do here, you have to have a little bit more of a foothold in Los Angeles to be available for a meeting."
Branit says premonition plays a key role in working long distance.
“You have to work ahead," he says. "You have to know when problems are coming before they happen.”
While Branit started his career in Los Angeles and moved back to Kansas City, Aaron was brought here by chance.
“At the time, I didn’t really know anything about the comics industry here,” he says. “I kind of moved here because a family member had moved here … and after college I just kind of wanted to go somewhere.”
Unexpectedly, Aaron found himself surrounded by a community of comic book writers and artists, something he believes wouldn’t have been possible forty years ago.
“That’s the great thing about working in comics these days," says Aaron. "Back then, you pretty much had to live in New York, where the publishing part of Marvel is concentrated.”
Marvel doesn’t find it a nuisance that he lives in the Midwest. For them, it's an advantage.
“It doesn’t matter where you live anymore,” Aaron says. “If anything, it’s better to have a different voice, to be from somewhere unusual, somewhere different.”
Networking from afar is an experience Branit knows all too well. He is still in contact with producers and supervisors he worked with on shows like Star Trek Enterprise, which aired decades ago. Relationships that have him engaged with filmmakers from all over the world.
“I’ve worked with a modeler and animator that’s in Florida that I’ve never met in person, and it works okay,” Branit says.
After he moved back to Missouri, Branit’s close ties to the show biz out west brought him work on Star Trek, X-Files, and Pushing Daisies. His work on AMC's Breaking Bad was nominated for an Emmy in 2012.
“But you have to be good at the work, too," he says, "because if you're not good at it, it doesn't matter who you know.”
Aaron says breaking into the entertainment industry isn’t really the hard part.
“Being a good enough writer is the hard part,” Aaron says. “If I could just do that, the breaking-in [to the entertainment industry] thing … I can figure that out. People do that all the time.”
Aaron’s fascination with comic books started when he was in fifth grade, a fervor that would decide his career.
“I wanted to do it from when I was a kid,” says Aaron. “I remember telling my dad that’s what I’m going to do when I grew up, even though I had no idea how to go about doing that.”
It would be several years before Aaron finally got his first big break in the form of Marvel Comic’s talent search contest.
“It was a very rare opportunity,” he says. “So I entered that. I typed up a one page synopsis of a Wolverine story idea and dropped it on a big pile of them at a convention in Chicago and kind of forgot about it.”
Then, one day at work, Aaron got a phone call from an editor at Marvel.
“My first thought was, ‘Wow, that's really cruel of him to call to tell me I didn't win,’” he says. “But I did win, and I got to do just an eight page Wolverine story. [It] was my first published work.”
Aaron didn’t reach comic book super-stardom overnight. It took five long years until his next publication came out.
“That's probably the five years I've worked the hardest of all the time I've been in comics, because I was writing and pitching the entire time,” says Aaron. “Working on what would eventually be my next book … five years of waiting and working.”
Still, Aaron was confident he would make it.
“I think any industry like this, where it's hard to break in, you have to get lucky in some sense,” he says. “I think you also have to make your own luck.”
For Aaron, improving as a wordsmith didn't stop when he broke into the industry. It's work that continues to this day.
“It’s being good enough that you actually warrant somebody paying money to read what you wrote,” he says. “That’s what I always strive for.”
He’s careful not to step into the trappings of the comic book genre, though. After all, telling sci-fi stories is, well, still just storytelling.
“Superhero stories — whether I'm writing about Wolverine or I'm writing about Thor, who's literally a god, or I'm writing about aliens or whatever — there's got to be something relatable,” Aaron says.
Writing stories comes at a cost, and for Aaron, sometimes that means paying the price himself.
“There's got to be a piece of me in it. There's got to be something that whoever's reading it responds to,” he says. “It can't just be people in funny costumes punching each other over and over again.”
His experience as a dad influenced him to transform the oft-rugged Wolverine into a father figure. Now he’s making another drastic change: Marvel’s Thor switching to a female protagonist.
“It was something that grew out of the story I was already telling,” says Aaron. “I've been on Thor for, I think, four years now and we were always dealing with the idea of worthiness.”
But how do you define worthiness? For Aaron, becoming a worthy writer means engrossing oneself in the craft.
“I think if you want to write comics then the important thing is to devour stories,” says Aaron. “Read voraciously and create stories however you can.”
Branit says diligence is what determines a successful filmmaker, too.
“Just make stuff. And continue to make stuff,” he says. “There's a fire hose of entertainment out there, but you've got to get in that stream and keep swimming and keep making stuff. You can't just think about it.”
Coy Dugger is an assistant producer for KCUR's 'Up To Date.' Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.