Please enjoy our extended interview with Aaron D'Errico.
Hi, Aaron! How are you today?
I'm great! Thank you!
Where is home for you, Aaron?
Friday Harbor, Washington State, in the Puget Sound.
And how old are you?
Aaron, you have cerebral palsy, which is something we've talked about on the show before. Can you talk a little bit about what that is?
Thank you for helping to bring awareness to cerebral palsy. Highlighting awareness of CP and improving ability is something I strive to do as an ability advocate, through my life and also with my superheroes. Since I live with mild CP, I can explain my experience with that. Simply put, it's the brain sending altered electrical signals to the nerves that cause some muscles to be too tight, while others are too loose.
How old were you when you were diagnosed?
Right around my first birthday.
How did that affect you as a child?
I felt different, separate in some ways. Luckily, seeking the positive in that situation started early though. The feeling of separation made me champion and appreciate inclusion and empowerment even more in life and with the superheroes I create. They each do everything I've ever wanted, as a blend of wish fulfillment, catharsis, and goal setting.
I know that your family has been very inspirational to you. Can you tell me a little about how they shaped your journey?
Gladly, my Mom's altruism makes her a personal super heroine, inspiring me to this day and she always will because of her history of helping family, people and animals in need, including people living with disabilities, something she began long before my twin Brother, Adam, and I were born.
She set the example that made me want to be an ability advocate, championing accessibility, empathy, and improved ability, cognitively, emotionally, and physically.
Equally important is my Brother, Adam, and his honorable character. He helped me to have a better quality of life, and because of that I made progress towards my goals that I wouldn't have been able to otherwise.
Also, my Father transcended poverty, foregoing negative shortcuts to become a champion as a NASL USMNT Captain, later playing for the MISL Champion New York Arrows pro indoor soccer team.
Though my Mom raised my Brother and me herself since we were 5, my Dad also set a standard that I found noble, that was his choice to make the most of what he had and inspire people.
Dad reaching his goals continuously reminds me I can be a champion in my own way, rather than letting any situation dictate my outlook and drive. I hope to remind people of that in their own lives.
When you were 5, you told your Mom something about why you thought you had CP. What did you tell her?
It was an awareness based on her kind service. I said I knew why I had cerebral palsy, to heal myself and teach others how to heal. It's a life-long goal that I still strive for, inspired by her caring example. Her loving reaction of approval and support constantly reinforces that objective.
You also had a learning disability that made school difficult for you. How did that affect you?
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about this. If it starts a helpful enlightening dialogue, it's worth sharing.
It was challenging for me as well as those trying their best to help me because some things I understood very well, while others were difficult. While I've improved learning since I was in school, learning, attention, and expression challenges still happen, mostly in conversation and creatively, sometimes taking several tries to clearly express myself to my standards.
The reason for those standards is to positively redefine the impression that people have of someone currently living with disability, transcending any stereotypical expectation, hopefully setting a positive example.
Trouble communicating my experiences and ideas while wanting so much to excel created frequent misunderstandings that persist because family, loved ones, friends, partners, teachers, bosses, mentors, and strangers who justifiably think, if he's very good at grasping and communicating certain things, then why not other things?
It was strange going from staff at Duke University praising my therapy ideas and heroes like DJ Pat O'Day (who discovered Jimi Hendrix), calling my ideas genius, then sometimes having trouble talking about basic things with clarity and ease, a skill that many take for granted.
This feeling of misunderstanding became fuel to do things better, turning limitation to inspiration because it gave me reason to make stories that increase empathy and awareness that serves as a tool for education, learning and understanding for all.
Similar to how I can sometimes express myself well, sometimes I can draw well and other times it's frustratingly difficult to do basic things that peers do easily, and I've got to do well, even great and consistently so, because that's what I expect of myself.
Longtime challenges with sequencing and spatial relations because of traumatic brain injuries made it hard to get my story ideas in the right order, and the spatial challenges made it difficult to draw things in proportion, looking the same consistently, though I keep at it with an objective to draw well without assistance.
Always learning and applying, I've been working toward that, teaching myself and with help from a great mentor, as well as lessons I won in a contest hosted by Luis Escobar, a veteran storyboard artist for The Simpsons.
Recently I figured out how to overcome that and streamline my creative workflow, but that's going to take more work to implement. It'll be more than worth it though, allowing my ideas to be created almost as fast as I can think of them, making me a comic book writer/artist one-man-band of sorts.
My mentor recently praised the idea and its validity and also said my goal to express my experiences with cognitive, physical, and personal challenges through each of my superheroes could make them more than superheroes, instead making them teaching tools, exactly why I do what I do, because these stories could also give a voice to those who haven't had one and have gone through similar things.
Improved understanding is something I keep working to realize myself, continually seeking and applying awareness of how I learn.
That determination helped me eventually go from C and D grades to earning almost all A's by my senior year, inspired by frequent comparisons to the super-bright alter-ego of Spider-Man, Peter Parker, because of a visual similarity to the character as drawn by one of my favorite renowned Marvel Comics artists, John Romita Sr.
Personally, superhero comic books were vacation from limitation and a gateway to literacy. Because of that, the ability to read gave me the power to learn, voraciously researching leading edge healing technologies, working to be part of a cure with an idea that I sent to my doctor at Seattle Children's Hospital in 1996 and have been developing ever since.
Initially my doctor said it was impossible, yet a crucial part of that same idea that I had as a kid was proven on the world's stage by a top doctor, Miguel Nicolelis, of Duke University in 2014. All the technology for my idea exists, though it has yet to be applied in the way I envision.
Dr. Nicolelis's pioneering work reinforced a drive to get my similar idea with other additions from my mind to the pages of my comics, then into the real world for many, as well as seeking to work with Doctor Nicolelis to realize my work and walk correctly, helping others do that too.
Currently the initial ambition is making the comics and by their doing well, funding the technology with revenue from comics, games, action figures, etc. Ultimately I'm out to make sure my healing tech and game replaces the stigma and pain of the therapy I went through with fun empowerment, also insuring that the game and technology is both high quality and affordable.
The affordability part is key. That's something that affects me now, because I want so much to have stem cell therapy, yet can't afford it, and the same unjust fate has recently happened to friends who have children with CP who were denied the therapy and a chance at a better life because of the high costs.
I wish I could help them, because I know how CP can take a toll, emotionally, and financially. Thinking of it reminds me of growing up seeing my Mom working so hard at multiple jobs to provide and care for my twin Brother and me, still needing SSI while doing her best for us despite daunting debt of hospital bills stemming from CP.
Those bills almost caused us to lose our house. It was hard growing up thinking that CP is what broke up my family. No one should ever have to go through that. At first I thought the split was because I couldn't play soccer, like my Dad, then I learned of the hospital debt, feeling responsible for that.
Taking my own advice to look for the good, doing another course correction, rather than letting the fear of being a burden define me, inspired by the resiliency of my family and both my real-life and favorite comic book heroes, I decided to define myself in a great way with my mindset and creative abilities.
Long story short, I want people to have it better than me, inspiring them to help make things better for others.
And then in 2011, you were hit by a truck in your wheelchair. What happened, and how did you bounce back from that?
It's funny you say that, I did bounce out of my chair and later a nurse nicked named me "Unbreakable," after the Bruce Willis superhero movie, something that drives me to this day.
After that, Superman director Richard "Dick" Donner wrote to me: "Sorry to hear about your run-in with the truck. Did the truck make it? Best, Dick." That made me laugh!
As for the accident, I'd like to take this opportunity to correct a misconception.
After doing interviews about Ammon and me, including an Emmy-winning segment shared by USA Today Sports "For The W!n," many understandably assume that I'm "rolling in the money," unaware that each week I'm rolling on a community donated mobility scooter to the Food Bank for groceries, since I was hit.
That's due to complications from the accident, and refusing to go for the "big money" of the businesses owned by the honorable service person that accidentally hit me, something many told me to do to cover the long-term costs of care and recovery.
Believing in the Golden Rule of treating others as you want to be treated, I decided to forgive, declining the shortcut that would've meant tainted funds from the life's work of a hero to make stories of my own heroes.
Despite being terminated and coping with the new symptoms of PTSD after the accident, I consciously decided I'll make it by tenacity and positive means, because success is sweeter when it's earned, reminding myself of that often.
Even in my small town, many don't know that the accident caused termination from my job answering phones at a hardware store because of a fourth head injury, unable to work since 2011, getting by on Social Security Disability Income that fails to cover daily living expenses and rent.
Regardless of a diagnosis that I couldn't work any more, I know I could work on improving myself, so I've been working even harder to overcome physical, cognitive, personal, and financial challenges from the accident, staying with the objective of getting my comics made.
With my longtime computer on it's last legs, recently I launched a Gofundme page in order to get a new Mac Book Pro with Apple Care, so I can finish a thank-you comic to give to Marvel Comics legend, Stan Lee, in time for his last-ever appearance at Emerald City Comicon in March of 2017, after being selected as a Stan Lee Foundation Artist in 2015.
If somehow the funding goal for the computer is met or exceeded, anything above that will go to the $11,000 production cost of making a comic with a creative team, rather than trying yet again to do the work of a team myself.
The comic is an origin story and blueprint for an empowering mythology I've been creating and developing since high school, encouraged by my Mom and Mark Marshall to tell my own story and make my own characters.
They are characters I hope will make a positive difference to others while striving to earn the name "The Unrelenting Aaron D'Errico" given to me by Stan Lee and Talenthouse.
That's a badge of honor in today's world of shortcuts and easy outs.
Thankfully, while in the hospital during recovery that unrelenting drive was encouraged by my Brother. He said after so many close calls, I must be here for a reason. I'm here to make that reason a worthy one, like another legendary Lee, Bruce Lee, who revolutionized martial arts with a book he wrote while recovering from a nerve injury.
Knowing that Bruce wrote his book during his unlikely recovery proved to me that I could write my stories during my own continuing recovery, then get them to the world, something I'm still working on, hopefully making things better, like Bruce's work does.
You grew up in New York, but now you live in Washington State. What brought you to the West Coast?
My Mom grew up in Washington State and my Father, David, played pro soccer for the NASL Seattle Sounders pro soccer team, so Washington has always been an important part of my family's life.
Every Hero has obstacles to overcome, and all the best Hero stories involve amazing mentors. One of yours is Paul Chadwick, who created the Dark Horse Comics series CONCRETE. How did you meet Paul?
When my Mom worked in the same building as Paul, and that eventually led to an introduction.
And what kind of guidance did he give you?
He gave me helpful feedback that I utilize to this day, teaching me about story structure development, and humanizing characters, along with their adventures.
Are you still in touch with him?
Thankfully, yes, I had a great meeting with him a few weeks back, going over what he calls my 30-year story-arc writing plan for one of my superheroes. A few years ago, I shared a quick concept for an origin story I was writing, and he said it was as "interconnected as WATCHMEN," a lauded comics series. Paul's feedback and praise always encourages and motivate me to be and do better.
After explaining an overview of a story arc for my flagship hero, later, Paul, an Eisner Award-winning writer, also told me that one day, "You'll have your own Marvel Universe." Months later, I explained more of my ideas in more detail, and he said, "You have your own Marvel Universe."
That means a lot coming from him. Now I'm setting out to fund and assemble a creative team and get the world of my superheroes and their stories to the world, especially my healing technology after Mark Marshall called it a game changer and my mentor, Paul, who wrote the Matrix online game, said, "This really could be the serendipitous benefit that justifies all this money poured into gaming over the last three decades; A healing technology."
That's my calling, making heroes that make a worthy, practical difference, like Stan Lee and his heroes have for me, as I wrote to him in my 2014 Stan Lee's Biggest Fan entry.
And, of course, you had an incredible meeting with Marvel Comics mastermind, Stan Lee, whose creations are still wowing new generations of kids every day. How did you meet Stan Lee?
After taking an online writing workshop from Stan Lee in 2008, I wanted to thank him for sharing his wisdom with me, because it led to mentorship from Paul Chadwick, who graciously took me to Emerald City Comicon in 2010, where Stan Lee was the Guest of Honor.
Stan said in a speech that if you want to get into comics, you have to learn from someone in the business. Since Stan's advice led to that very thing, I wanted to thank Stan even more. A series of mishaps prevented that, ending in Paul and me being turned away.
Just as I had so many times before, I chose to see the positive in the situation, grateful to be living Stan Lee's advice. That's when Stan appeared seemingly out of nowhere in true super-heroic style.
Stan's kind assistant, Max Anderson, somehow heard me eke out Stan's name, amazed.
Max then pointed me out to Stan, who proceeded to go above and beyond, taking pictures with me, signing my copy of Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man, all for free, changing the course of my life, even though he was late for seeing thousands of fans.
And what did he say to you?
I told him that his workshop helped me find a mentor and live his advice. Stan then told me that he'd be looking for my work, and that he expects "Great Things!" from me.
That spark further ignited my imagination and its creative output, that I look forward to sharing as I continue seeking the resources to form a creative team, like Stan did with Marvel Comics.
Five years later, in another synchronicity, I was at Emerald City Comicon again, telling my friend, Renn, about meeting Stan, when at that moment I saw Stan's assistant, Max, again, and he remembered me. His reaction was humbling, so was Stan remembering me after years of hearing thousands of fans' stories of gratitude.
That again fortified a determination to stay positive and do "Great Things!" worth remembering.
You've created your own comic book hero. What is his name?
Yes, one of my first superheroes, Ammon Walker.
What are his abilities?
Not to give away too much, but he's powered by positive actions that build strength of character.
After healing his body through scientific methods, he later gains powerful abilities by other means, including superpowers of perception and athleticism, perfect for soccer, yet his greatest power is will.
The source of his abilities went from being more sci-fi-based to later resulting from current science, based on years of research to create a real-world healing technology. The concept for the healing technology has been praised by staff at Duke University.
Ammon's abilities also combine the culture, spirit, history, and folklore of Washington State.
Ammon's story is partly inspired by a 2009 Disney-sponsored Seattle Sounders FC pro soccer team tryout that I wanted so much to attend and win, despite CP currently effecting my legs, because my Dad was the first-round draft pick for the original NASL Seattle Sounders team.
That's so he can play soccer for the same Seattle team that his Dad played for, using my real-world-science-inspired healing technology. Later in his journey, he gains never-before-seen superpowers, perfect for a new breed of soccer, making him a game changer in many ways.
After becoming a star, he uses his fame, drive, and powers to help others, including sharing the aforementioned healing technology I'm working to get from the comics page to the real world.
Why is it important to have a hero like this?
His story will give people a behind the scenes view of what it takes to achieve goals, written from experience.
That could give people hope, a key to faith, something that's so important to actions, actions that result in virtuous personal character, something that benefits everyone.
And what can kids learn from him?
People of all ages, and abilities can learn from Ammon's and my motto to "Turn Challenges Into Triumphs," starting with outlook. I've found that outlook is a source of true power that when put into positive action enables the realization of laudable goals.
What's the current status of Ammon Walker?
I'm continuing writing what Paul called a 30-year story arc of Ammon that's also connected to a larger arc with my other characters, after learning Paul wished that he'd done something similar with his superhero, Concrete.
What is your ultimate goal for Ammon?
To be part of improving and redefining how people living with disabilities are perceived and portrayed, inspired by the poem, The Crooked Prince, by Actor, Michael Madsen, who saw my love for life above all else.
What is the state of CP research today?
There have been some important advances like umbilical cord stem cell therapy that has healed kids living with CP. Cord blood stem cells are something I encourage people to research, as that could lead to more research, more demand, making it more affordable and available, too.
That's so much better than the wasteful trend of letting nearly 99 percent of stem-cell-packed umbilical cords be thrown away when they could help so many, as documented by Time Magazine.
What advice would you give to all the kids who are listening to our show today?
Find a mentor and do what you love, something where the action is the reward, then pay it forward, helping others.
By focusing on what you do well and building on that confidence, it crosses over to other things as you keep improving.
Having heroes and standards to aspire to is great, comparing yourself or your progress to others is a waste of time.
This helps me: Define yourself, be kind to yourself, and remind yourself.
Decide who you are and what your capable of, if it gets challenging remember to be kind to yourself and remind yourself what inspired you in the first place, keeping with it.
I often remind myself, there's always a reason to smile, and I strive to be an example of that like, hey, if he can do it, I can, too!
And what's next for you, Aaron?
Along with fundraising for the new computer, hopefully I'll be putting it to great use, for starters by getting my thank you comic for Stan in 2017.
Next, I'll be making three-panel comic strips, and t-shirts of one of my earliest characters, previously published as a one-panel comic in my local paper. That'll be part of an upcoming documentary that a friend recently started.
Other long-term goals include continuing with Draw Attention To Cerebral Palsy, as well as making narrated motion comics, in hopes of promoting literacy for people of all ages, like Stan Lee does with The Stan Lee Foundation.
Over the years I've compiled a portfolio of sorts while looking to get into movie casting, creating a portfolio of ideas at the urging of family and friends who often say I have a good eye for it after Superman director Richard "Dick" Donner and his wife, Lauren, asked me years ago who I'd cast in the X-Men movies.
Dick also told me that if I ever wrote a screenplay that people loved, that he would be honored to direct it, so that's a another goal.
Whatever form their adventures take, I'll be using Ammon and my heroes to bring awareness and teach how to become your own hero, because you never know who you might inspire!