While the X-Men have been to some of the Marvel Universe’s weirdest locales in their time, nothing could have prepared them for their current and unexpected trip to strange dimension known as the Negative Zone.
The trip kicked off in “Uncanny X-Men Annual” #3, the first chapter of a three part storyline by writer James Asmus titled, “Escape from the Negative Zone.” The issue, featuring art by Nick Bradshaw, told the story of how Cyclops, Namor, Doctor Nemesis and reputed mutant messiah Hope Summers were inadvertently transported to the mysterious and dangerous dimension. Upon their arrival, Hope and Cyclops were captured by the alien warlord known as Blastaar, who sought to use them as pawns against the “Fantastic Four.” The story continued in “Steve Rogers: Super Soldier Annual” #1 by Asmus and artist Ibraim Roberson, which chronicled the title character’s attempt to rescue the captive X-Men.
On May 18, “Escape From the Negative Zone” reaches its conclusion in “Namor: The First Mutant Annual” #1 by Asmus and artist Max Fiumara. In the issue, Steve Rogers and the X-Men are ready to affect their escape from the Negative Zone, but their way is blocked by Namor whose been driven into a berserk, homicidal fury by his experiences in the Negative Zone. We spoke with Asmus about the issue and the overall experience of writing “Escape From the Negative Zone.”
CBR News: James, with each chapter of “Escape From the Negative Zone” the tone of the story has changed. The “Uncanny X-Men Annual,” where the title characters arrived in the Negative Zone, felt like a weird sci-fi tale and the “Steve Rogers: Super Soldier Annual” really felt like a blockbuster action movie. With the “Namor” annual, will the tone of the story change again?
James Asmus: I tried to shift what we emphasize in each of the different issues to better reflect each chapter’s dominant character and their title. So certainly, with “Uncanny X-Men” you go into the sci-fi that’s at the root of a title focused on genetics in a very fictional context. The X-Men have plenty of adventures in space and places like the Mojoverse, so riffing on that style of sci-fi adventure still felt pretty simpatico to the title. Then, of course, “Steve Rogers” is very much skull-busting, face-kicking espionage action — so those elements took focus for the second issue. As for “Namor,” much of his current title plays with horror undertones. And since his issue is about his own violent loss of control, that same dread and horror easily underpinned the final chapter.
In the first two installments of “Escape From the Negative Zone,” you seemed to be having a lot of fun and were incredibly comfortable with your cast of characters, especially Cyclops and Steve Rogers.
The thing I really relished with those characters is that both Cyclops and Steve Rogers are so often put in a position where they have to be the stiff upper lip, dry kind of leader. That certainly speaks to their strength and their confidence, but I wanted to take away the responsibility of leadership for once and put them in a position where they can unwind a different side of themselves. And, yeah, I’ve had a real blast with them.
You also seemed to really enjoy playing with Steve Rogers’ bad-ass side in his annual.
Absolutely! The moment I kept tucked in the back of my is from the beginning of “Civil War,” where Steve is on the Helicarrier and all these S.H.I.E.L.D. agents hold him at gunpoint. He roughs up a couple of them and dives out of the Helicarrier from a mile or two in the air — like it’s nothing. When 40 people have guns pointed at him, instead of flinching — he actually feels sorry for them because of what he’s about to unleash. I think that really tells you what kind of character you’re dealing with. I tried to find a few different ways to manifest that particular bad-assery.
There’s no questioning Steve Rogers’ capabilities, but going into “Namor: The First Mutant Annual” #1, he and the X-Men are up against a Namor who has been driven berserk by the physics of the Negative Zone and its lack of water. How big of a threat is Namor at the beginning of this final chapter?
Marvel has continued to make Namor stronger and fiercer over the last couple years, which I’m certainly happy to see. I like this version instead of him turning him into some sort of sad Aquaman. What that means is other guys are all pretty much outgunned in terms of strength.
Steve Rogers is an unbelievable tactician, but going up against a crazed Namor’s brute force is well beyond him. That pretty much stays true for all the other characters. At the same time, Namor may have knocked him down in the last annual, but Blastaar is not out of the fight. There’re a bunch of moving pieces that Steve and the X-Men are going to have to contend with. Things are not going to be easy next issue.
With Namor going up against his current and World War II era teammates, this next chapter will obviously be tackling the concepts of teams and teamwork as studied through the lens of the Marvel Universe.
Absolutely. The idea of the tenuous nature of these kinds of alliances between heroes is totally central to the whole story, even going back to the X-Men characters I chose to kick off the story in chapter one. I deliberately wanted to surround Cyclops with three X-Men who do not respect him or really listen to him. I wanted to yank him out of the role of armchair general that he’s held for the last few years and really throw mud in his eye. Plus, I wanted to drag all these characters through the trenches and see how that affects different people’s dynamics with each other.
Obviously, the connections were very deliberate in terms of Namor being there and having him be the common historical and emotional link to Steve Rogers. I wanted to put five alpha personalities together and see how that shakes out.
These are people who are not necessarily inclined to be affectionate or friendly. If there were world peace tomorrow, I don’t think any of these people would choose to spend time together. [Laughs] These are truly alliances based out of the need to accomplish their goals. Once you start altering things to set them up against each other, it becomes very interesting to see what lines they’re willing to draw and when they will totally commit to taking down their fellow hero.
At the end of the “Steve Rogers” annual, Steve, Hope and Cyclops had come face to face with Namor, but Doctor Nemesis was off on his own putting into motion what appears to be a plan to escape the Negative Zone.
My goal with the story is to have him zig while the rest of the story zags. That will continue. Yes, he’s coming back with his plan, but I can already tell you that forces will thwart his intentions.
Which is probably another theme I was committing to in this. Everyone stuck in the Negative Zone right now thinks they’re a leader, and each and every one of them has their plans completely upended.
What kind of kicked off these annuals was that I was talking with Nick Lowe about the old Art Adams annuals with the New Mutants and the Uncanny X-Men. One of the things I really loved about those stories was, they would send their characters off in a couple different directions, letting you do a bit more and see different types of tones and stories within whatever sort of setting. That was something I knew I wanted to do right away with Doctor Nemesis. He definitely has his own unique reactions to the behaviors and cultures of other people, so I knew I could get a lot of mileage out of making him the worst ambassador possible. With a gun.
Emma Frost isn’t trapped in the Negative Zone, but she’s been present throughout the sotyline, acting in a supporting role in the previous two annuals. Will Emma also be a supporting player in the “Namor” annual?
She’s definitely bookending and threading through this story. I originally thought I was just going to use Emma at the beginning, but I had so much fun writing her character that I reorganized things to keep playing with her and her voice. Selfishly, I couldn’t let go of her biting commentary. I think that’s something that’s always been whispering in the back of my head for as long as I’ve been writing and reading comics; an undercutting counterpoint to things that are happening. To actually be allowed to throw that voice of discontent into the story was really gratifying for me.
The opportunity to work with three different, but equally exciting artists would have to be another perk of this assignment.
Oh my God, yes! There have been many thrills with this assignment, but the biggest has just been getting pages back from these guys over the last five months. This project was designed to indulge both the artists and the audience. Our artists had months to work on their books as opposed to 22 days or whatever usual deadlines they might have. We really let them take their time and I tried to give them some visuals they could really sprawl out and play around with. These guys turned out work that has continued to melt my face off.
Their art really is different from each other, too, so it will certainly be interesting to see everything collected together in the trade. Both Marvel and I were into the idea of really trying to make each chapter shift and be distinct while continuing to tell one story. The art that these guys are doing definitely echoes and emphasizes a lot of the qualities that we were trying to get out of these stories. They just put their hearts and souls into it, so it’s been pretty gorgeous.
Plus, not one of these guys has a stereotypical style. They all very much have something of their own that you’re not seeing other people do. Obviously, that’s part of what got them the job. I just really find what they do to be so excellent. They are so controlled and skilled and deliberate in their own style. It’s really something fantastic to behold. And all three of these guys haven’t gotten the attention equal to the level of their skill. I’m certainly hoping that these books garner them their much deserved attention.
Having said all that, what can readers expect from Max Fiumara’s work on the “Namor: The First Mutant Annual?”
He’s done a few pieces of work for Marvel, but I would say his most representative work that he has out right now is “Four Eyes” from Image. His pages are really raw — in the best way. There’s a vicious energy to them in a way that’s absolutely perfect for letting a rabid Namor off of his leash. His art has a real force and energy behind it. I’m hard pressed to remember the last time I saw a comic fight sequence where I felt the force and violence behind the hits. [Laughs] He’s really done some great, great sequences for us.
Any final thoughts you would like to share about “Escape from the Negative Zone” as a whole or its concluding chapter in “Namor: The First Mutant Annual?”
I think “Namor” readers are going to get a lot of the tension and horror undertones that they enjoy in that book. I’ve certainly enjoyed “Namor: The First Mutant,” and I’ve been disappointed that it didn’t quite get the full response [from the market] it deserves. So I tried to pay off what I think made that series distinct and great. Hopefully fans of that series will be equally gratified by what we’re doing, especially in his chapter of this story.
Also, I would say this book was designed to be a complete blast of fun action and gorgeous visuals. If people haven’t picked it up I certainly hope they would consider doing so, even if it’s just when the collection rolls out in August I believe. Or just pick up the back issues. I’m as proud of this as I am of any of my comic book work. I can say if you’re ever going to like my voice as a writer this is probably the story worth reading. [Laughs] This story gives you a pretty clear and refined sense of what I’m interested in doing as a writer.
“Namor: The First Mutant Annual” #1 hits stores May 18