Many comic fans dream of breaking into the field themselves. The fact of the matter is it’s no easy task, especially for writers. The first step is getting your foot in the door and proving to someone you’ve got a story worth telling. Then, if you’re lucky, readers and other publishers will start to respond to all your hard work.
So far CBR’s ONE TO WATCH feature has profiled several writers who, thanks to a combination of talent, hard work, style and luck, have gone on to high profile assignments at Marvel, Image, and DC Comics including Joshua Hale Fialkov, Chris Roberson and Jim Zubkavich, and most recently we began a chat with writer James Asmus. In part one of our talk CBR News spoke in depth with Asmus about his plans for Marvel’s “Generation Hope” series. In part two of our discussion the writer joins us again to discuss his background in theater and comedy, how that paved the way for his entrance into comics and his next ongoing gig as the co-writer of Marvel’s “Captain America & Bucky” series along with Ed Brubaker in December with #625.
CBR News: James, you earned your “Generation Hope” assignment thanks to several years of doing one-shots, one-offs, and special stories on a variety of X-Men related titles. Were you a big X-Men fan growing up?
James Asmus: It is. The first series that I started buying regularly was the original run of “Excalibur” because I recognized Nightcrawler and Kitty off of the one half hour X-Men cartoon they had done in the ’80s called “Pryde of the X-Men.” I found it in a 25 cent bin at the baseball card shop my dad used to take me to. I had read a few comics previously, but that hooked me more than anything I had ever read. And it quickly served as a gateway-drug into all the X-Men books.
â€¨Even as my comic book tastes expanded and changed from there, the X-Men are the comics I keep coming back to and have never totally lost touch with. They’re the characters I feel the most emotional attachment to and that I’m most drawn to as a creator.
We also know that another one of your early loves was the theater. When did you discover the stage?
I have older sisters who were doing theater as an extracurricular. When I saw them in a play — I was in second grade, I think — it just really affected me. As a kid I got completely lost in the world of whatever fairy tale play they were doing. When I snapped out of it at the end of the show I realized that I wanted to do that to people. I want to take them somewhere else and give them a wonderful experience. Of course, I’m sure I wasn’t that quite articulate because I was in second grade [Laughs], but there was something about it.
I stuck with it, eventually going to college to get my degree in acting and writing for theater at Loyola University New Orleans. After college I moved to Chicago, which is a place I recommend for anybody starting out as a playwright. You can easily find folks to produce your script, you’ll get reviewed and learn how people are feeling about your work.
So the work you did in Chicago led to you getting noticed by Marvel?
Yes. I basically spent about six years hunkered down writing comedy, improv, and creating plays and musicals in Chicago. In 2008, my sketch comedy trio ended up going to New York for the New York Sketch Fest, and a musical that I wrote went to New York Fringe Fest. I got ahold of some folks at Marvel and talked them into coming down to see the show. They liked it, and that led to Nick Lowe giving me a chance to write an eight-page short for the “X-Men: Manifest Destiny” anthology.
I could not have been more nervously excited! Even if my comics career had ended there, I wrote something X-Men! I felt like I already won. (But luckily, it went well enough that I’ve been getting to write even more.)
So that whole time you were working in theater you were also thinking about breaking into comics?
Yeah, though it was also because we were trying to get as many people to see the play as we could. It certainly did occur to me that showing off my writing to an editor for Marvel Comics would potentially let me live another child hood dream, to write comics. But even if that didn’t pan out, it would be more butts in seats for the show!
What can you tell us about the play that Nick saw?
It’s called “Love is Dead: A Necromantic Musical Comedy.” I created it along with the director Andrew Hobgood and our composer Julie Nichols (as well as an amazing cast of comedians). It’s about a shy, sweet, necrophiliac mortician who falls in love with his first living girl. So it’s a romantic comedy about him trying to win her over. Meanwhile, though, their small town is in the midst of mystery where unsolved murders have piled-up so the sheriff plans to bring in a specialist to do DNA testing. Of course our hero realizes they’re going to find his DNA on these bodies that he didn’t kill. So he has to figure out who the killer is, or at least figure out a way to avoid being falsely implicated for the murders. Our hero juggles all this while trying to figure out how to finally have a normal relationship. Plus, it’s a musical! [Laughs]
The musical was originally written for a theater in Chicago called The Annoyance. They’re a fantastic, raucous, comedy theater that does a lot of gonzo-musicals including “Co-Ed Prison Sluts” and “That Darn Anti-Christ.” So the concept sounds a little less askew when you understand where it’s coming from. “Love Is Dead” was designed to have a genuine heart and vulnerability to it despite its “shock” premise, though. And it played with elements of horror and mystery in service of, and in contrast to its comedy. I like to think it was the balance of genre and character-investment in a high concept that convinced Nick I could write comics.
It’s interesting, plenty of novelists and screenwriters have worked in comics, but the only other playwright I can think of besides you is Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. How has your background in writing for theater helped you with your comics writing?
You’re right, he’s the only comic writer that I can think of that’s actively working as a playwright. Honestly, I think there just aren’t a lot of playwrights, period. [Laughs] A lot of people who would have been playwrights 80 years ago are now writing a web series instead.
But the basic principles of writing theater are the same as comics, in that you’re writing dialogue and action. Certainly, it seems like a closer jump than for novelists who use a wealth of different language than what’s required in comics. And I would say that theater, more so than screenwriting, concerns itself [with] exploring our understanding of characters’ motivations and viewpoints. I would say that and dialogue are my top two strengths, and they completely come from my work as a playwright.
Which is also to say that, when it comes to comics, I trust my artist to help me perfect a fight scene. That’s not a skill I learned during my days writing romantic comedy for theater. [Laughs]
Has your comedy writing background also been helpful in writing comics?
Definitely with the kind of comics I like. Like I said, one of my biggest influences was early issues of “Excalibur” and there’s definitely a sense of humor and absurdity and joy to them. I really prefer having some element of humor in any comics I’m writing. Comics are colorful and they’re big and, for my money, the best ones are always at least a little fun. Even if the stakes are big and the characters are in dire straits, I certainly think an injection of humor somewhere in there only makes a story better. I guess I’ve never been a fan of anything that’s super dark and gritty without a streak of humor, unless it’s masterfully done. Even “Watchmen” has a few jokes in it.
I should say, conversely, even my comedy has things in it that are designed to be uncomfortable or very emotional. So I guess I never really like to have it purely one way or the other.
Humor is also a big part of your career outside of comics. You perform regularly with a comedy troupe called Hey You Millionaires! What can you tell us about the group?
We’ve been doing stuff together off and on for about six years now. One of my partners in that group just moved out here to Los Angeles so we are picking things up again and starting to perform around town and we’re working on a screenplay together. Plus we just teamed up with a video director so we’re about to start creating some new web videos.
We watched a couple before this interview, “Hate Fucking” and “Taste Explosion.”
What?! Amazing! Those were both things we shot with a different film making friends of mine. And, I’m to blame for both of those scripts. [Laughs]
Most of the stuff we do, though, is built for a live audience and a lot of that material is sort of un-filmable because of how dependent it is on audience reaction. We have a running gag about experimenting on the audience to determine what’s funny. Essentially, we approaching comedy through the scientific method, testing out supposedly funny items — like a rubber chicken. No one actually knows what’s supposed to be funny about a rubber chicken. But somehow it “represents” comedy. It snowballs to become esoteric and totally ridiculous at the same time.
We’ve talked quite a bit about your theater and comedy background. Now let’s shift to the comic stories you’ve written in the past and the one’s you’re currently writing now. You began your comics writing career by writing for a couple X-Men anthologies. What was it like writing those first couple of stories?
Writing for anthologies is a lot harder, which is an irony I’m really coming to appreciate now that I’m writing full story arcs. To feel like you sufficiently delivered action, character and a full exploration of an idea in eight pages is insanely hard. You not only have to introduce a concept, but take it to a surprising and satisfying place while still giving everyone all those splashy visuals, emotions and at least a little bit of punching.
It sounds like you’re enjoying the chance to tell some longer stories on books like “Generation Hope.” You’re also working in a different corner of the Marvel Universe when you begin co-writing “Captain America & Bucky” with Ed Brubaker in December. How did this project come about for you?
Out of the blue! I simply got a surprise phone call from Editor extraordinaire Lauren Sankovitch asking if I’d like to work on an arc with Ed Brubaker. Of course I said “Yes!” and tried not to hyperventilate.
“Captain America & Bucky” is the first time you’ve co-written a comic story with another creator, correct? What has the process been like, and especially working with someone as accomplished as Brubaker?
This is my first co-writing go-round in comics! First, they came with several elements they were interested in seeing explored in whatever story we chose. I pitched a few raw concepts and Ed dove in to help hammer out the details and add some fantastic elements of his own. From there, I’ve been drafting scripts and turning them in for Ed and Lauren (and Assistant Editor John Denning) to weigh-in on and improve with their brilliance.
I’ll admit, I was particularly intimidated to work on a Captain America title with Ed Brubaker. I have been a devoted fan of his stellar run with both Caps [Steve Rogers and Bucky], so the idea of coming in and telling him what I think should happen felt completely absurd. But he’s such a fantastically intelligent and pragmatic writer. His insights are always dead-on. I wish I could have him as a resource every time I write.
What can you tell us about the plot and themes of your first “Captain America & Bucky” story? Where and when is it set?
First off, unlike the current arc, my issues are unfolding in the present. There are some important and emotional flashbacks to the end of World War II, but the real threat — and its consequences — weigh completely in the modern Marvel Universe!
This story digs into the what really becomes the legacy of these characters. What happens when someone else tries to take up the identity of Bucky after a Bucky “dies?” What’s it like to try to live up to an impossible standard you set for yourself? Every character in the arc wrestles with the idea of their legacy in a different way. We even introduce a new villain who resurrects the mantle of an old foe — and he’s one that cuts emotionally deep for our Bucky, Cap, and for our guest-star, Jim Hammond (AKA The Original Human Torch).
Are you on “Captain America & Bucky” for just one arc? If fans enjoy your work are you possible on the book for the long haul?
I’m just working on this arc. I say “just,” but honestly I still can’t get over how surprised and lucky I feel to get to do it all. But if fans do really enjoy it, I encourage a letter-writing campaign to trap Ed into writing a different character with me! Ideally, a female character so the women of the Marvel Universe can claim a little more territory. Ms. Marvel? I encourage suggestions in the comments!
Finally, you began your Marvel work with the X-Men and are starting to venture out into other areas with “Captain America & Bucky.” Are there any other corners of the Marvel Universe that you’re dying to explore?
I’m interested in the magic-wielding characters because they are so different from my world view. I’m a science reader in my free time, and not really a believer in the supernatural. So much of the Marvel Universe, too, uses a semi-real-world justification of things. I see magic as a chance to tell more poetic (and less representational) stories of what life and our experiences are.
And, of course, my humor instincts really make me want to write Spider-Man. I am genuinely loving Dan Slott’s run on “Amazing Spider-Man”, but there are always other places for him to appear, right Stephen Wacker? (I know you read CBR…)
“Captain America & Bucky” #625 goes on sale in December.