The X-MEN and STEVE ROGERS 'Escape from the Negative Zone'

In the Zone with X-MEN and STEVE ROGERS

The X-Men are one of the most popular franchises in Marvel Comics history. Steve Rogers — the former Captain America and current "Super Soldier" head of national security — is one of Marvel's most recognizable icons.

Despite that, they don't have much of a shared history together, other than crossovers like 1993's "Bloodties" and appearances during each other's cataclysmic events. That changes in March 2011 with "X-Men/Super Soldier: Escape From the Negative Zone," a three-part story starting in Uncanny X-Men Annual #3, and continuing monthly in Steve Rogers: Super Soldier Annual #1 and wrapping up in Namor: The First Mutant Annual #1

James Asmus (X-Men: Manifest Destiny, Dark X-Men: The Beginning) writes all three parts, with Nick Bradshaw on art for the Uncanny X-Men Annual and Ibraim Roberson illustrating Steve Rogers: Super Soldier Annual. Newsarama chatted up Asmus to find out what villain the X-Men will be encountering for the first time in 40 years, talk the rich history of Marvel annuals, and learn a valuable life lesson from The Vanisher.

Newsarama: You've been steadily rising up the ranks at Marvel lately, especially on the X-Men side, but it's safe to say this is your highest-profile assignment yet. What brought you to this project, and how big of a deal is it for you to work on these huge icons of the Marvel Universe?

James Asmus: This is definitely my biggest project yet for Marvel. (It’s more than one issue long!) But I’ve been writing plays and screenplays for years now, so telling a longer story isn’t a new experience. However, getting a bit more leeway to author some of the most central and iconic Marvel heroes is a total thrill! Don’t get me wrong, I love me some oddball fringe characters. But scripting Steve Rogers and Namor together really feels like writing a new chapter of history. Similarly, there’s a special gratification in knowing that I’m writing an annual for Uncanny X-Men. It’s not a one-off or tie-in, but rather the X-Men book that has (and will) stand the test of time. So basically, yeah. I’m geeking out.

Nrama: You have a background in comedy writing — this seems like a pretty serious story, but in what ways does that inform your approach?

Asmus: Well, I’m afraid I’m a bit more complicated than that. True, I’ve spent a decade performing comedy (sketch, stand-up, and improv), but my script writing has included everything from horror to romance to drama. And you’re right, “Escape From the Negative Zone” draws out the serious side of my storytelling. But I feel like I use the same skill sets no matter what story I’m telling: believable and engaging characters, playing with tension and audience expectation, and emotionally charged situations. The question is whether you use those to work up to a laugh, a gasp, some tears, or a cheer. And usually, my goal is to get in a little of all of those.

Nrama: How has it been working with different artists (Nick Bradshhaw and Ibraim Roberson) on this story? To what degree are you able to cater each issue to the artist's individual strengths?

Asmus: These guys have been re-dic-u-lous! I’ve been lucky to script for some amazing artists already (Mike Allred, David Finch), but Nick and Ibraim are killing with these pages! A big source of inspiration for this cross-over has been the Claremont/Art Adams annuals (a la “”Asgardian Wars”). Those balanced bigger stories with the kind of nuanced character work that often gets lost in big ‘events’. But they also had incredible art. And while these guys have their own unique styles, I sincerely think they deliver to that same level. Trust me, you’ll want to buy two copies of each issue. One to keep, and one to cut up and hang as art around your cubicle. Or as some hip friends of mine did, to decoupage on the surface of coffee tables.

I love nothing more than to write for a particular artist. And in this case, it’s been a breeze. Both of these guys nail every part of their craft in every page of these books. But if I have to pick one thing for each guy? Nick does such amazingly detailed design work, that I’ve tried to give him some large panels in which to run wild. And my favorite thing about Ibraim is that he really really brings his characters to life with emotion and subtlety. When you know you have someone like that, it allows you more nuance with your characters.

Nrama: This story takes place across three annuals — which had kind of become a bit of a lost art in comics, but Marvel seems determined to revive them in 2011, between this and "Game On." Do you have any particular favorite annuals or memories associated with the comics? I remember the year Marvel introduced a new character in each annual, with a card of that character polybagged with the comic.

Asmus: I was so excited that Marvel’s going back to this! I remember the polybagged / all-new characters! annuals, too. But those weren’t the ones I love. Crossovers like “Days of Future Present” got me to branch out beyond X-Men (and get hooked on Fantastic Four. What I loved, though, were the Chris Claremont / Art Adams annuals for Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants. I poured over those again and again as a kid because they just fit everything into them — epic action, strange turns, wry wit, and even some really nice character moments. I might go read them again once I’m done with this interview.

Nrama: The X-Men and Steve Rogers are maybe the most popular Marvel characters with maybe the most iconic. Despite that their relationship isn't too established at this point. What's their dynamic like when the series picks up?

Asmus: While both the X-Men and Steve have been huge parts of the Marvel U, they really don’t have much of a history. One tended to only show up on the fringe of the other’s biggest crises. But at this point, particularly between Steve Rogers and Scott Summers (Cyclops), there’s a mutual respect as colleagues who have both really stuck it out. Still, it takes a lot for the X-Men to reach outside for help (as you’ll see). I think they just can’t help but be wary of anyone working with the government. Even if that person was Captain America.

Nrama: So for this series, can you elaborate about what it is that brings the two forces together? Both the storyline reasons, and, from your perspective as the writer, what makes them an interesting pair?

Asmus: Essentially, a technological mystery sends the X-Men calling for aid. And once they realize they’re caught in an inter-dimensional diplomatic powder keg, what one man would you send? In the Marvel universe - Steve Rogers.

From a creative stand point, the pairing here proved to be fertile ground. First off, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more lauded hero than Steve Rogers, and a more disenfranchised group than the X-Men. But in truth, the way Steve and Cyclops strategize and operate aren’t all that different. Plus with Namor as an adjunct X-Man and one of Steve’s oldest allies, you have a more natural and compelling 3-way dynamic from the beginning. Of course, I can’t promise that whomever survives will still be on good terms…

Nrama: And since this is always a question when talking about the X-Men — which members will we see here?

Asmus: There’s a bit of an experiment going on in this one. Every one of our main characters is an alpha personality. Cyclops, Namor, Doctor Nemesis, and even the newest X-Man, Hope, have are all willful (aka difficult) in their own right. So the question is, can anyone even lead in this group of leaders? Or will it be every (wo)man for themselves? And the same goes for the equally defiant people playing into this situation; Steve Rogers, Emma Frost, and…our villain.

Nrama: We also know that this is the first battle between the X-Men and a villain they haven't faced in more than 40 years. Any hints you can give in that direction? My first thought was Vanisher, who has been in other X-titles, but I don't think in an actual confrontation with the X-Men in years. But, um, Locust? El Tigre?

Asmus: Vanisher got shot chasing whores! (That’s called a morality tale, kids.) And, no, unlike those other guys, our heavy still has a fan base. I’ll let the cat out of the bag. It’s Blastaar. BUT in the end, he’s not the biggest thing our heroes have to worry about.

Nrama: The text released to press says that it's the X-Men's "inaugural" journey to the Negative Zone. Not being distrustful here, but is that correct? Surprising that the X-Men could have gone this long without ending up there at some poin, y'know?

Asmus: I know! But in my extensive research* for this, I never found any. That said, I want to cut the message boards off at the pass and mention that Namor went there briefly (an hour?) in Avengers #309-310. Also, at one point, the Xavier Mansion was attacked from the Negative Zone, but the X-Men didn’t go there.

*At my house, we call reading comic books ‘research’ so that my wife feels better about how much time I spend doing it.

Nrama: How much is the Negative Zone a "character" in the comic? How are you bringing it to life?

Asmus: My scripts started with a preamble about the nature of the Negative Zone! It really is one of those amazingly defined places in the Marvel U (along with Wakanda, Madripoor, and the Savage Land). Its physics, visuals, and political instability all deeply affect the story to where this couldn’t happen anywhere else. And in terms of bringing it to life – part of the fun was just setting Bradshaw loose on the madness of entering the Negative Zone! I think Nick attached his pencil to a Ouija board and asked Kirby for help.

Have you been waiting 40 years for the X-Men vs. Blastaar?

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