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Even with an unforgettable beard, Aaron isn't often recognized in public. But he should be. He's one of the five "Architects" of the Marvel universe, the five comic brains responsible for determining the future editorial calendar of the world's biggest comic-book company (now owned by Disney). Another Architect, Matt Fraction (The Mighty Thor, The Invincible Iron Man), lived in Kansas City until a couple of years ago (he moved to Portland, Oregon). Aaron has worked on Ghost Rider; has released his own creator-owned comic, Scalped; and is the lead writer on Wolverine. He has carved out a career that aspiring comic-book artists point to as one they want.
"Comics is a very difficult business," Aaron says. "It's kind of like breaking out of prison. Once somebody figures out their way into the industry, that way is sealed up forever, and everybody else has to find their own way in."
Aaron's big break was a 2001 Marvel talent search. His pitch won him a contract to pen an eight-page Wolverine comic. His next project wouldn't come for five years, and he wouldn't work for Marvel for six years. During that time, he spent many hours at Elite, shopping for comics and looking for an escape from his job as a warehouse manager for Priscilla's.
"There's no union for comic-book guys," Aaron says. "We're spread all over the place. It's hard to get that insight from other creators."
Aaron still gets his books at Elite on Wednesday nights, when Binderup orders pizza to celebrate the weekly release of comics. (Binderup has made cameos in several of Aaron's comics as an injured or dying soldier.) Diamond, the distributor with a near monopoly on book distribution, delivers new issues to stores on Tuesdays, giving the staff a day to catalog and stock the latest stories. The names of Binderup's most loyal customers are on tabs behind his cash register, arranged like CDs in a record store. Many receive issues that emerge from collaborations forged over Wednesday-night pizza.
"It's like Love Connection," Binderup says. "I'm Chuck Woolery, and I tell everyone that gets work that the house gets 20 percent. I'm still waiting for my cut."
Jai Nitz, 36, is also an Elite regular. A graduate of the University of Kansas' screenwriting program, Nitz teaches a class called Comics & Film at KU. But as a high school student in the 1990s, he had hoped to find someone who shared his love of comics.
"I was the comic-book guy in my school," Nitz says. "There was nobody a year older or younger. There was just me. Today, a savvy 10-year-old could find out as much about comic-book creation in an hour as I could in years."
Like so many in Kansas City, Nitz owes his career to Disney. After writing Batman, Nitz was given a chance to write a graphic novel, Tron: The Betrayal, which he calls an "in-betweenquel." (The story was meant to bridge the 1982 Tron film and the 2010 sequel.)
Nitz's contract with Disney allowed him to leave his job at a payroll company. Today, he's a full-time writer at Dynamite, alongside Ande Parks, a native of Baldwin City, Kansas, who was an inker on Green Arrow and wrote Union Station, a graphic novel about the 1933 massacre of four federal agents and a prisoner at the Kansas City landmark.
Nitz is also the de facto organizer of a monthly lunch meeting of local comic-book creators. The lunches are designed to get them away from their keyboards and in front of other people.
"There are fewer professional comic-book writers than there are starters in the NBA," Nitz says, "and five of us got together for lunch the other day."