The Marvel Universe is home to many dangerous locales, but few of them are as bewildering and mysterious as the Negative Zone, an alternate dimension and anti-matter universe first discovered by Reed Richards in “Fantastic Four” #51. It’s a place of twisted physics and savage alien cultures whose representatives include the villainous Blastaar and the psychotic despot known as Annihilus. In the 2006 event storyline, “Annihilation,” Annihilus lead an invasion force into the main dimension of the Marvel Universe, in the process wiping out many of the Marvel U’s prominent intergalactic empires. Since then, the Negative Zone has become a place of increased savagery as several war lords and their forces struggle to take control of it.
Just how dangerous is the dimension, though? Will it be able to trap and break the spirits of the X-Men and former Captain America, Steve Rogers? Or will the heroes be able to fight back and break free from the dangerous dimension? Writer James Asmus will answer these questions and more in “Escape From the Negative Zone,” a crossover storyline that begins in March in “Uncanny X-Men Annual” #3, continues in “Steve Rogers: Super Solider Annual” #1 and concludes in “Namor: The First Mutant Annual” #1. We spoke with Asmus about the project.
An actor and award winning playwright, James Asmus is still relatively new to the world of comics. To date, most of his work has appeared in X-Men anthology books like “Manifest Destiny,” “Dark X-Men: The Beginning,” “Nation X” and the the premier issue of the current anthology miniseries, “X-Men: Curse of the Mutants- X-Men Vs. Vampires.” Asmus began working on X-books thanks to the efforts of editor Nick Lowe who offered him his first comics writing assignment, but it was his love for the characters that has kept him exploring the world of MArvel’s mutants.
“I’ve always been drawn to the X-Men and I imagine a few other comic book fans feel the same. We all have felt a little odd and like outsiders, especially during our youth. It just feels good to know that even within the world of super powers and heroics, there are characters who are sort of social outcasts and struggling with identity. I think there’s something even more relatable about those characters and their positions in the world,” Asmus told CBR News. “I think there are things about that which still resonate with me. I certainly find it a lot easier to relate emotionally to most of the X-Men characters than someone like Superman or someone who’s exalted within society. That certainly doesn’t hit home with me. [Laughs]”
Asmus may be more at home writing outcasts like the X-Men, but he’s been greatly enjoying his chance to pen one of the most exalted characters in the Marvel Universe, Steve Rogers. “To a certain extent, I had some nerves about using the character, because like everyone, I’ve read and loved Ed Brubaker’s handling of Steve Rogers for the last several years in ‘Captain America.’ It’s tough to go and play in his sandbox, but it’s been really fun to escape into the mind and life of someone who is that flawless,” the writer remarked. “It’s been a real stretch of my imagination. [Laughs] He’s someone whose confidence is actually well-deserved. He’s not cocky. He’s actually the guy who can deliver. Since this title is supposed to be branching out of the “Steve Rogers: Super Soldier” book, it takes on a bit more of an espionage tone. So I’ve been looking at the points where Steve Rogers intersects with James Bond. The Daniel Craig one, not the Roger Moore one.
“Writing Steve Rogers has been really great for me and helped me branch out. In general, my ‘in’ for a lot of characters are their flaws, and Steve doesn’t have many! [Laughs] So I had to approach him in a very different way than I do most of my writing, but part of what I love about writing comics is I feel like I’m constantly learning new tools and approaches for my writing,” Asmus continued. “Steve is just such a badass, and getting to sit and brainstorm various ways to exhibit what a badass he is is a great way to spend a day. I think there will definitely be some moments that live up to the iconography and the heroism that is Steve Rogers. I think he gets in some great, epic, cool moments. I think I found a way to write him that is a lot of fun and gets in a lot of his humanity and charm.”
Currently, the cast of “Uncanny X-Men” is quite large, but in “Escape From the Negative Zone” Steve will only really interact with a small portion of the team. “The main characters that get pulled in are all of the alpha dogs who refuse to listen to orders. Cyclops, Namor, Hope and Doctor Nemesis are the ones that get pulled into the main narrative. That’s fun, because all of them are equally strong headed and convinced that they’re constantly right,” Asmus revealed. “So to have a team purely composed of people who would rather be leading than following creates an interesting dynamic, especially for Scott who’s used to leading the way right now. He’s stuck with people who are constantly questioning his orders. Not that there aren’t people who disagree with him, but he doesn’t have anyone to turn to who will just pick up on what he thinks needs to be done.”
In the opening scenes of “Escape From the Negative Zone” Cyclops, Namor, Hope, and Doctor Nemesis are mysteriously pulled into the Negative Zone and the other X-Men aren’t able to mount a rescue mission of their own so they turn to the man in charge of the “Heroic Age” of the Marvel Universe, Steve Rogers, for help. “One of the things that inspired this story is real world abuses of power by these rogue nation states that try to leverage threats in order to get more respect and recognition on a global stage. Things like Iran keeping three hikers in prison for a year in order to essentially try and leverage global negotiations. Or with North Korea sinking a South Korean sub and then saying, ‘If anyone does anything to retaliate, it would be considered a declaration of war,'” Asmus explained. “Basically, the X-Men become kind of the bait and the pawns for the powers ruling the Negative Zone to get attention, respect and revenge. That sort of hostage situation is what pulls in Steve Rogers. What happens after that doesn’t go the way anyone planned.”
The X-Men reach out to Rogers because of the efforts he’s made to include them in the Marvel Universe’s new Heroic Age. “The X-Men have experienced decades of persecution and have been operating on the fringes. They don’t expect that to suddenly turn over. There definitely is an effort being made though by people like Steve Rogers and the Avengers to paint the members of the X-Men in a more heroic light. There was even a story point in the comics where the president went out of his way to commend the X-Men and the mutant community for their service and give them a medal,” Asmus stated. “Steve is trying to bring them all on board and treat them like fellow heroes and equals, and I think they only trust that to varying degrees. You do see someone like Scott, though, who certainly respects him, and in the first part of this story, certain members of the X-Men make reference to reaching out to Steve for help. That’s the sort of thing that would not have occurred to them several years ago. So I think you are starting to see some people participate in the world around them, beyond the mutant community.”
Steve Rogers agrees to help liberate the X-Men trapped in the Negative Zone for two reasons. The first is because he considers them comrades and would never let fellow heroes stay imprisoned without trying to do something about it. The second is that Namor is among the X-Men trapped in the dangerous dimension. “That’s another thing that invests Steve more in this story; the history that he has with Namor dates as far back as his history with anyone. That’s just one of the ways I feel that this story works to try and integrate the X-Men into the larger Marvel U. For like the last 10 years, it seemed like the whole Marvel Universe was connected together and the X-Men would show up every once in a while. The truth is, they have very deep connections with all those other people,” Asmus remarked. “You see it now, not just with Namor being on the team and his years with groups like the Invaders and the Defenders. The villain of this story has fought everyone, and there’s sort of an ancient chapter with the X-Men that this ties back into. It’s just sort of another reminder of how this stuff is all interrelated even though the X-Men have spent a long time thinking of themselves as isolated.”
Asmus couldn’t reveal the identity of the main villain in “Escape From the Negative Zone,” but hinted that readers shouldn’t expect it to be one of the dimension’s usual malcontents. “Control and power is a difficult thing for any one individual to hold onto in the Negative Zone. Also, the real villain of the piece ends up being someone they didn’t think they’d have to fight when they went in,” the writer revealed. “So fans of characters like Blastaar will certainly get to see him in action, but I promise things aren’t going to be as simple as that.”
The specific area of the Negative Zone involved in Asmus’ story is one that Steve Rogers has the misfortune of being acquainted with. Much of the action in “Escape From the Negative Zone” revolves around 42, the prison built by the Pro-Registration side of the superhero “Civil War” to hold those who defied the Superhuman Registration Act.
“Forces are trying to hold  and gain their own strength and leverage from that point. The Negative Zone as a whole, though, has essentially become militarized,” Asmus explained. “Basically, you’ve got heavily armed, very brutal, militarized forces operating out of a stronghold that was actually built by heroes from Earth. So there’s certainly a bitter taste in Steve’s mouth as he ends up back in a building that represents so much negative recent history.”
While only a handful of the X-Men are involved in the main story of “Escape From the Negative Zone,” Asmus was able to utilize several others in supporting and smaller roles. ” I’ve been working to squeeze in glimpses of other characters that I’ve been really wanting to play with but haven’t got a chance to yet. I’ve been having a blast writing a few Emma Frost scenes, just because her voice is so biting. I’ve got a background in comedy and I think her voice is so perfect for commenting on the scenarios at hand, the writer said. “Pixie and Madison Jeffries get some nice moments as well.”
Telling crossover stories was common practice for the Marvel Annuals of the ’90s, but Asmus and his collaborators on “Escape From the Negative Zone” were inspired by one crossover in particular. 1985’s “Asgardian Wars,” a storyline that ran through the two issue “X-Men and Alpha Flight” miniseries, that year’s “Uncanny X-Men Annual” and “New Mutants: Special Edition” #1. “Those issues were simultaneously focused and epic,” Asmus stated. “Similar to those works, these issues will really let some fantastic artists run wild and bust out some phenomenal sequences.”
Nick Bradshaw (“Army of Darkness”) is penciling the “Uncanny X-Men Annual” and Ibraim Roberson (“New Mutants”) is providing interior art for the “Steve Rogers: Super Soldier Annual.” Asmus has been immensely pleased by the work of both artists.
“There is some really, really great creature work that Nick Bradshaw has done with the first issue. He introduces us to some of the residents of the Negative Zone. There are some pretty phenomenal designs and artwork that he did for those sequences,” the writer remarked “I’ve become a big fan of Ibraim’s art thanks to the work he’s been doing on ‘New Mutants.’ When I saw some of the initial character drawings that he had done, I got really excited. There’s such weight and a genuine threat in the way he draws some villains. I knew his work was going to have really phenomenal characters, a sense of danger and some good old fashioned violence.”
At press time, the artist for the “Namor: The First Mutant Annual” was unable to be revealed, though Asmus did have this to say. “My understanding is that we will know in the next couple of days. They have someone tentatively lined up. They’re just making sure they can lock this person into the exact production schedule,” Asmus explained. “I will say this. The name that I was given is one that I personally was excited about. I’ve been a fan of this creator for about 10 years.”
With a diverse cast of characters, and an otherworldly setting to play with, Asmus has crafted a story that draws its tone from several different genres. “We’re working hard to deliver a pretty epic three-part story,” Asmus stated. “A large part of it is trying to bring everything that you as an audience or fans would want from the “Namor,” “Uncanny X-Men” and “Super Soldier” books, plus capitalizing on the setting of the Negative Zone, which is a character all in itself, in terms of how it’s been developed, it’s own crazy physics and monsters and it’s history up until this point. We’re marrying sci-fi, espionage and superhero action. I think the stuff that’s coming out of it is pretty epic.”