Comics Vanguard Talks To JAMES ASMUS!

James Asmus is a writer most associated with the X-Men, although he also currently co-writes Captain America and Bucky with Ed Brubaker. Over the past few years, he’s written short stories for characters like Nightcrawler, Boom Boom, Husk and Psylocke, giving them fun things to do like fight villains with coffee, go on a vampire rampage, and, uh, listen to ‘This American Life’. On the back of these fun stories, he was given his first ongoing series for Marvel earlier this year, Generation Hope. And if that wasn’t exciting enough for him, he’s also now been targeted by Comics Vanguard for interview! We pelted him with questions, and he pelted us right back with more answers than we could ever have dreamed for.

Your background is as a theatrical actor/comedian/playwright – how did you first get into writing comics for Marvel?

I wrote a show that got good traction in Chicago and we took it to a festival in New York. I reached out to a friend working at Marvel, and he brought a bunch of the editors out to check out the show. They liked it enough to give me eight pages in X-Men: Manifest Destiny anthology to fly or die. Amazingly, the first script I wrote (a Nextwave-voiced Boom-Boom story) is the one and only Marvel script that I didn’t get any rewrite notes on from my editors!

A couple of questions about your plays, to begin with. Both “Love is Dead” and “Hearts Full of Blood” could be described as having a ‘pulpy’ styling to them – definitely one of the more interesting strands of theatre coming out of New York at the moment. Is this something your next works are going to continue with? Or are we going to see a stylistic divergence?

The next play I’m working on has TOTAL pulp style to it. It’s a personal drama with a sci-fi, world-saving mythology laid on top of it. And to guarantee its awesomeness, I’m actually co-writing the piece with New York’s action-theater queen (and wife of comic scribe Fred Van Lente) – Crystal Skillman!

Do you approach comic books in a similar way to your playwriting?

Yes, in two particular steps in the writing process: the brainstorming stages and when I’m scripting an individual scene. Any kind of script requires you to find the story and the truth of the characters. The brainstorming and scene-writing are always about finding the best ways to play character and story into each other for harmony or contrast. Where the process differs is the middle steps – mostly because of how the two mediums differ in their structural demands and expectations. The simplest example being that plays can be however long you need them to be, whereas comics have to hit a very specific page count, and therefore, rhythm.

Do you think working in sketch comedy has affected the way you pace a story sequence or gag within one of your comics?

I think it’s definitely helped me known how to introduce a concept or character quickly. In sketch, the whole thing is so fast, that you need to learn how to use short-hand to cue the audience into who we should like, hate, pity, etc. – as well as what ideas we need to key into for the story. As for gags, it’s been interesting learning to translate comedic timing into a reading experience – choosing panel breaks, reaction shots, and dialogue balloon placement very consciously.

You’ve worked most often with the X-Men comics, as part of Nick Lowe’s unrelenting X-Franchise dictatorship. What draws you to the X-Men as a concept, and as characters?

The cold caress of Nick’s iron-fisted rule. That, and the fact that the X-Men were the first and foremost comics that I responded to in my youth. The idea of their experience as outsiders is one that is so much more emotionally driven, but without getting bogged down in the gritty angst of something like Punisher or Spawn or something like that. Which is not to crap on those books, they just don’t speak to anything in me, personally, whereas I’ve felt like an outsider so many times and places in my life that it just resonates.

Plus, with X-Men, you have 40 years of great characters to play with. So many of them have rich and pertinent stories waiting to be told. You can mix and match almost any of the hundreds of characters and get a new, inspiring dynamic while still telling “an X-Men story”. Think about that in contrast to writing for someone like Superman who has starred in multiple comics every month for sixty-whatever years! It takes a savant like Grant Morrison for Superman stories to be anything but a complete rehash of something already done with the character. X-Men, meanwhile, certainly has its repetitions – but you can pull up characters with fresh perspectives to constantly reinvent the kinds of stories you want to tell under the X- banner.

You’ve written for several characters now – Psylocke, Boom Boom, Nightcrawler, Husk, to name a few – as part of anthology stories, which suggests you pitched for the characters specifically. What about these characters made you want to pitch stories for them?

Those are all characters who I’ve gravitated towards or found compelling in earlier comics I’ve read. I just have a little index in my heart of the different characters that I want to see more from, or who I feel like I understand something about them. Whenever the anthology stuff comes up, there’s usually a purpose to the book – something that they want to unify the stories. So sometimes, I start brainstorming off of that concept – but other times, I just think about those characters I like and wonder what their response to all this would be.

Were there any other short stories you’ve pitched which didn’t make it to print? Are you prepared to EXCLUSIVELY REVEAL them for us right now?

Ultimately, I pitch probably four to seven different ideas for different short stories and then they pick their favorite. So, I’ve pitched at least that many more stories than have seen the light of day. Amazingly, though, the only one I can remember now was one about Nightcrawler and Anole crawling into an exhaust vent on Utopia’s waterline because it was flooding – only to find the dead body of an Acolyte stuck in the grate door, propping it open. Their conversation was basically calling the whole move onto the island into question – but the part I really wanted to do was have Anole try to bond with Nightcrawler because he thought Kurt was gay. He’s not, of course, and that would be the joy of watching his reaction. But I can only imagine what the kids thought of a flamboyant, chronically single, ex-priest, who loves Errol Flynn.

In hindsight, though, Nick Lowe was right to go with the Nightcrawler/Wolverine roadtrip story instead. It gave me a chance to work with Mike Allred (whose work is incredible) and a panel got turned into a fundraising poster for This American Life (netting me contact with the show and Ira Glass) so I couldn’t have been happier.

Your biggest work for Marvel to date is taking over on Generation Hope, your first ongoing series. Would you say that the Blue Side of the X-Men’s Schism is morally right and that Wolverine’s Gold Team are all doomed to hell for being non-believers?

Wolverine already went to Hell. So everyone already knows that’s the kind of guy he is, and where he’s going. But they STILL CHOSE TO GET BEHIND HIM! Madness! In truth, I suspect that the people who went with Wolverine just missed the look and feel of all that nice woodwork that comes with a Westchester school.

GH features a central team of five, with Pixie and Martha joining as late additions. Why those two in particular? Would you say that Pixie is SPECTACULAR? How spectacular?

Well, Kieron included Pixie before I took over, but I was more than happy to keep her on board. In her case, I think she is one of the few new mutant characters in the last twenty years to really catch hold. Several writers have chosen to play with her character and plug her into some meaty scenes. As much as I love some other New X-Men/Academy/Young X-Men characters, most of them got the shaft the minute their creators weren’t writing them anymore. Something about the combination of Pixie’s powers and her look makes her feel more genuinely distinct amongst many other mutants who feel like variations on a familiar theme.

And as for Martha Johansson – I have simply been fascinated by the idea of her character for a long time. I think she, too, is particularly interesting but is hard to tell a story for. I cooked up my five issues of Generation Hope all at the same time, with a lot of thought being put into the culmination of Kenji’s ongoing threats of revolt against Hope. I don’t want to give away anything, but as I started thinking of ways and schemes Kenji might use, I had a lightning-fast train of thought that delivered a ton my ideas the arc all at once. But the real joy of writing her comes not from using her as a plot device, but in playing around with the wants of a disembodied brain – and treating her just like any other character. That’s what’s amazing about the X-Men. We can make the freakiest freaks a leading character in a romance story!

Future solicitations suggest that Kenji is going to be taking the spotlight in your next arc, which also looks like it will have long-term ramifications for the team. Can you tease us on some of the details, at all?

Sure. I was happy to tip my hand about Kenji finally trying to break from Hope – because he won’t be alone! (And I’m not talking about his scheming with Laurie AKA Transonic). Beyond that, I don’t want to spoil too much. But I will say that the climax of the last issue is probably the single page of comics I’m most proud of how it turned out. It’s probably one of my favorite pay-offs I’ve written, and Takeshi Miyazawa KILLED IT in the art!

There are also several different romantic subplots running at the moment – Kenji/Laurie/Martha and Hope/Gabriel/Pixie in particular. Was this a conscious choice on your part?

YES. These are hormonal teenagers who might die at any moment, and are otherwise stuck on an ugly rock with little in the way of entertainment. They are GOING TO MAKE OUT WITH SOMEONE. Plus, it makes them all more relatable than just focusing on the subplots about having powers that are killing you, or whether your new brain-erased friend is going to eventually kill you all.

Does nobody love Teon?

I think a lot of people don’t know how to relate to Teon, what with his limited verbal skills. If I get to write the character again, I have a story I want to tell about too many people loving Teon… but let’s not spoil anything.

Marvel gave us the news last week that Generation Hope would be ending with issue #17. How has it been to write your first ongoing series with Marvel?

It’s been fantastic! I loved the characters before I even took over the title. Plus, Generation Hope in particular, offered a lot of the things I would look for in a book. The emotions, the internal conflict, and the freedom to really make choices in who these characters are and what they want – all of these let me tell stories that were more about characters than about the fights. (Though, I had fun with a bunch of the fights, too.) Plus, Jordan White and His Royal Highness Nick Lowe have been ideal editors. They’ve been really excited and supportive about the stories I wanted to tell, and worked to help me maximize their impact.

You’ve said in interviews that you were able to wrap up most of the dangling plot points. What kind of future can we expect for the lights? X-Men Legacy? Uncanny X-Men? Avengers Academy? Coffins?

I know that Christos Gage is writing their exploits during Avengers vs. X-Men! I’m not sure exactly which threads he’s running with, but we talked about where all of their personal storylines leave off so that he could carry it forward. I do know he’s one plot he’ll be continuing, but if I told you who or what, then you’d know who survives Gen Hope #17! And while we’re talking death, I honestly have no idea yet if any the Gen Hope characters get axed in AvX. So I’ll be just as nervous reading it as the rest of you.

Final question – is Laurie secretly a mermaid?

She’s been keeping secrets even from me – so I can’t say for sure. But I do know that her form has shifted a few times now, and we really can’t be sure what her true form may be…

Seems like confirmation to me! Many thanks to James for his time, answers, and Mermaid confirmation. Do YOU want to read more of his work? Then you can pick up the current arc of Captain America & Bucky, which he co-writes with Ed Brubaker; Generation Hope, which closes its doors with issue #17; or AMELIA EARHART: JUNGLE PRINCESS, which is out now.

Wait. Amelia Earhart… Jungle Princess? What is this? It’s an eight-page comic presented by Double Feature Comics, you lot. A new attempt at digital publishing, the basic idea is that creators Tim Seeley and Mike Norton gather together writers and artists to release individual sixteen-page, two-story comics based around a genre. You can download these comics online for under a dollar, and keep them forever. Sixteen pages, one dollar. Each issue also allows you to fiddle around and explore the comics themselves – you can look at the inked pages, coloured pages, and lettered pages, and also read commentary from the writers and artists. Worth having a look at!

Finally, you can find more from James on his blog, and on his twitter. Also, if you are so inclined, a google image search for his name will lead you to a photo where he is wearing nothing but an American flag. True!


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