James Asmus, award-winning playwright and Marvel writer, stops by the Outhouse to discuss his upcoming crossover, Escape from the Negative Zone, as well as his origins, upcoming works and the funniest creator haiku ever!
James Asmus is an award-winning playwright and actor who occasionally dabbles in writing comic books for Marvel Comics. Asmus sat down with the Outhouse to discuss his upcoming Annuals crossover, Escape from the Negative Zone.
OH: You're known primarily as a playwright and actor. How did you get your starts in comics?
James Asmus: I wrote and performed a musical that made its way from Chicago to the New York International Fringe Fest. It was a musical called Love Is Dead about a necrophiliac mortician who falls in love with his first living girl. It had a mystery, romance, and some horror. And somehow that made (editor) Nick Lowe think that I could write a decent comic book. Which, of course, I was thrilled to do. I've been collecting comics since I was 8. I actually took community college art classes in high school because I originally wanted to be a comic book artist. But that's a whole other story.
OH: Do you try to incorporate anything from your acting and stage work into your comic writing?
JA: I think my background mostly affects my writing in two ways. First, I approach any story I want to tell from my understanding of the characters. My interest is in their 'voice', their flaws, and finding an emotional understanding of the character. Then I worry about the laser beams and karate. Because, personally, I've only ever loved comics that make me believe in the humanity of the characters.
And I would say the second influence is that I really don't like writing internal monologue. I try to make myself do it for stories that seem to cry out for it. But otherwise, I would rather just present it as if you are in the middle of the action. And hopefully the artist and the dialogue can still communicate any of that crazy 'subtext'.
OH: A lot of your past work with Marvel has been with the X-Men. Why that particular group of characters?
JA: Because I love them. Seriously. That weird one-episode X-Men cartoon ("Pryde of the X-Men") would pop up on tv every once in a while. Then, when my dad took me to a baseball card shop I noticed Nightcrawler on an issue of Excalibur in the 25 cent bin. I bought it, and kicked open the flood gates. All my childhood money from then on went to collecting the entire Excalibur run, and branching out to X-Men just in time for Jim Lee to blow our collective childhood minds. (And convince me to be an artist! Ha!) So while I branched out in my teenage years, I never really stopped checking in with the X-Men.
As for why they resonate with me? I think it's a mix of the sheer number of great characters, and the depiction of mutants as outsiders. In my childhood (like a lot of comic fans?) I wasn't exactly sitting at the cool table. So I found it easier to relate to X-Men over someone like Superman.
OH: Who's your favorite X-Man?
JA: Nightcrawler. And if I have to pick one who's living? Kitty Pryde. You never forget your first loves, guys. Plus they both have a lot going on as characters.
OH: Could you tell readers about your upcoming Annuals crossover: Escape from the Negative Zone?
JA: Yes! Some of the X-Men are going to get hijacked into the Negative Zone against their will, and the lucky ones will get held captive as political leverage. Inside 42 (the secret prison from Civil War) there are some forces who've been looking for how to demand the respect and attention of Earth's leaders. The situation being similar to say, Iran holding American hikers as captive 'spies' or North Korea sinking the South Korean submarine unprovoked. So, when Earth 616 is faced with a situation like this – they send in Steve Rogers. But I promise you, it doesn't unfold the way any of them planned.
From the behind-the-scenes angle, I can tell you that it's three-parts of awesome crossing the annuals for Uncanny X-Men, Steve Rogers: Super Soldier, and Namor: The First Mutant. And the art is ridiculous! I have been flipping out for these pages.
OH: How did you get the oppurtunity to write Escape from the Negative Zone?
JA: I wish I knew. I would do it all the time. A few months ago, Nick Lowe called me and asked me to pitch on the basic idea of X-Men in the Negative Zone. At that point, they knew it would be this cross-over model, but the other titles weren't nailed down. I brainstormed until something really hooked me, and then started building it around titles that made sense to work off of.
There's a great compliment/contrast to using Steve Rogers for a political mission - but in an alien dimension. And from there, Namor was an easy choice. He has preexisting relationships with Steve and the X-Men that unite the whole story. Plus, I was more interested in using my pages to dig into the characters and situations rather than work to justify random combinations of characters.
OH: Which X-Men will you be focusing on in the crossover?
JA: Heh. Cyclops, Hope, Namor, and Doctor Nemesis are our main players in the Negative Zone. You may notice, those are all people who would rather lead than follow. I was particularly interested in creating a situation that negates the chain of command, and puts a bunch of volatile personalities through the wringer together. These people are not all fans of each other – and that can have as much of an effect on things as our villain will...
(PS, I've also been finding spots to write characters I've wanted to play around with like Emma Frost, Pixie, Cypher, and Madison Jefferies.)
OH: You're going to be writing both the X-Men and former Invaders Steve Rogers and Namor. How do Steve Rogers and Namor affect the X-Men's team dynamic?
JA: Well Namor's rocky tenure as an X-Man gets tested here for sure. Possibly to the breaking point(?!). But Steve Rogers is one of the only people Namor considers an equal. So he definitely works to buffer that particular...strong personality. The truth is, though, that while Scott Summers (Cyclops) and Steve Rogers have both been fighting the good fight for ages, they haven't spent much time together. You tend to see them on the fringes of the other one's biggest crises. But this is an odd occasion to really have them side-by-side for about half the arc.
OH: What sort of research have you done to prepare for this story? Will there be any follow-up on the Guardians of the Galaxy's recent foray into the Negative Zone?
JA: I tried to read everything Negative Zone before I even starting fleshing out my pitch, starting with the 60s stuff. I did read the GotG arc, and it definitely informs the Annuals.
I don't remember if this made it into the final script, but there were explicit references to that plot in my original draft. And while Guardians of the Galaxy is by no means required reading to understand this arc – I really recommend it to anyone who likes great comics. I dabbled in the Silver Surfer years ago, but never got into the 'cosmic' side. That said, I loved DnA's story enough to track down the other arcs they've been doing.
OH: You're going to be working with multiple artists for Escape From the Negative Zone. Does that affect how you write at all?
JA: To an extent, it does. I actually love to write for specific artists. Much in the way that it was always easier to write for specific actors. You know their voice (style), so you can make choices with a better understanding of how it will be delivered. I'll always tell the story I want to tell, but knowing the artist lets me shift how I go about a particular moment, or what I emphasize.
In this case, Nicholas Bradshaw came out of the gate with concept art for these ridiculously awesome creatures and complex Kirby-esque machines. A lot of people have compared his work to Art Adams, and I definitely get the comparison. So I've been making sure to give him plenty of room to sprawls out with his designs and details. Now, Ibraim Roberson has a very different style – but one that I fell for when I saw his work in New Mutants. He adds such nuance and reality to his characters that I made sure to work in the more grounded action and some great character moments. In other words, he's really a perfect fit for the Steve Rogers: Super Soldier title.
And I can't yet reveal our third artist...but I'll rave about him as soon as I'm allowed. :)
OH: What are your thoughts on Marvel's recent return to Annuals crossovers, which was a mainstay of the company during the nineties? Did it give you more freedom to write your story?
JA: I was really excited when I heard they were doing these! I should also mention, that I take issue with everyone saying 'return of the 90s'. The thing that Nick (Lowe) mentioned was Chris Claremont & Art Adams' annuals that eventually were called the Asgardian Wars. And that's from 1986! And it's great!
(I may be biased, though, because those annuals were my introduction to Art Adams. He's still one of my favorites and I read those issues again and again as a kid.)
But I will say, I love this model anyway. Selfishly, I get to jump into the deep end of the pool and work in the actual continuity for Uncanny X-Men, Namor, and Steve Rogers! But from a reader's perspective, I think they're great too. Unlike an ongoing title, these are designed to make sense to any reader interested in what we're doing. But unlike the last decade's cross-over events, the story (and price tag) is much more controlled. Still, you get all the big moments and mash-ups that make the most out of a shared universe!
OH: Do you have any other upcoming comic work?
JA: Yes, thank you for asking. Escape From the Negative Zone is definitely the biggest project. But I have a bunch of other stuff coming down the pipe. I think the things I can mention are X-Men: Serve and Protect #1 and a completely insane Dogpool story that I think will be in an anthology this January. Everything else is under wraps for the moment. But I'll add that I'm also finally about to pitch around my first creator-owned projects, so please keep an eye out. (And if you're Vertigo – call me.)
OH: If you had to convince readers to pick up Escape from the Negative Zone in twenty words or less, what would you say? Bonus points if you do it as a haiku!
JA: So insanely good
Trees committed suicide
To become this book
Escape from the Negative Zone will begin in Uncanny X-Men Annual #3, and run through Steve Rogers: Super Soldier #1 and Namor: The First Mutant Annual #1. The three books will be released in March.
Written or Contributed by: Christian Hoffer