James Asmus Teaches You How To Rob Banks And Charm Strange WomenA comics interview article by: Steve Morris
James Asmus has written some of the very most fun X-Men stories of the past few years, whether he's interrogating Wolverine in a urinal or exploring Beast’s MySpace page. The positive fan reaction has led him to writing the much-missed Generation Hope series for Marvel, and his newest X-Project -- Gambit. Not only will he be writing about the Cajun thief for Marvel however, because he was also recently announced to be the next writer to step into Robert Kirkman’s Thief of Thieves universe, and will handle the heist series’ second arc.
If you want to know how to crack open a safe or rob a bank, he’s the first man you should turn to. The very first! I spoke to him about both of his new titles and later realised he’d stolen my watch.
Steve Morris for Comics Bulletin: So, hey… why GAMBIT? Of all the Marvel heroes and antiheroes, why do you think Gambit is the one who captured the attention of fans?
James Asmus: I honestly think he’s one of the few truly distinct, original characters to come out of mainstream comics in the last 30-odd years. Chris Claremont really threw in everything for the guy - charm, mystery, criminal tendencies, a unique power, and hallmark accessories like his bo staff, cards, and trench coat. There really is a ton of stuff in his character to draw from (which is a relief as a writer). But my favorite thing about him is that he’s the rare antihero with a sense of humor. So you have all the fun of a morally unpredictable guy without all the ‘grim and gritty’ that so usually and predictably comes with antiheroes.
CB: Gambit is going back to his time as a thief for this series. What does he bring to the table, as a thief, which nobody else can match?
Asmus: Plenty. He was raised as a thief since his infancy - by thieves. His mutations also make him superhumanly agile. But the real ace up his sleeve (pun INTENDED) is that he’s frankly so charming that he can almost get away with whatever he wants.
CB: Will he wear disguises? Adopt accents? How good is he at sneaking?
Asmus: Actually, these questions speak to something that’s really in the forefront of my mind in planning this first year of the series. I believe Gambit is incredibly aware of his personas and is constantly trying to shift these things to his benefit. That’s my take on his accent in general - he dials it up and down to charm people, lower their expectations of his intelligence, etc. And I’ll also be having him use his public identity as “a superhero” as both cover and leverage as he goes about these more personal, and questionable adventures.
CB: Is the book going to be a straight-up caper series, or are you looking to move into different genres as the story progresses? Where do you see the long-term story taking the character?
Asmus: It’s a caper / heist / crime series - as filtered through the Marvel Universe. That last bit is what excites me so much about the possibilities, and I try to declare the scope of what we hope to do in the first arc. By issue 4, we will have introduced pulp adventure, sci-fi, and superhero elements and flavors. This first year is meant to run throughout the Marvel U and mash-up the heist genre with all the crazy elements of these comics to hopefully make each feel fresh and exciting. My hope, in this first year, is to really play with how Gambit is perceived in the larger Marvel Universe given his widespread criminal and superhero connections. Those two personas are going to come into serious conflict.
CB: Gambit never really made any friends in the X-Men. Are they going to keep away, or will they crop up from time to time? Rogue and Storm and Sage are the only three Gambit-fans amongst their number, I’d suggest.
Asmus: You are far from the first to suggest Rogue. I’ve heard a few requests for Storm (and she’s honestly the relationship I think has the more untapped potential). But for this first few arcs, my goal is build out his world and his experience - not simply revisit and rehash old stories. I want to make this book something exciting and fresh for the character in the way that I love Mark Waid’s Daredevil or Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man. (But sexier.)
The plan right now is to build out a new arc in Gambit’s life before bringing in someone like Rogue. Any story I can tell will be much more meaningful for both characters and their relationship if you’ve actually changed something about his status quo. When you revisit someone important from your past - and you find they’ve changed from who you knew (and maybe want) them to be - that’s the much more meaningful and provocative story to tell. Certainly better than – “oh, hey! Just saw you last week. Things still good?”
CB: Are you setting up a supporting cast? There are a few other known super-thieves in the Marvel universe…
Asmus: To start with, I created a new adversary and a new... complicated woman to introduce into Gambit’s life. I know there are infinite number of characters being under-used in the Marvel Universe at any point in time - but we really wanted this book to be a fresh, surprising, and accessable. But after the first arc, we’ll start mixing in established Marvel characters with our new ones. And I’m always open to suggestions - as long as you know the odds are low I’ll get around to it.
CB: How much nudity can we expect in each issue?
Asmus: My editor Daniel [Ketchum] just told me that Gambit is apparently shirtless for exactly 20% of both issues 1 and 2! (Though butt shots are only in #1 so far.) So I have a good sense of what to shoot for in the future. I promise to balance that out with some lady eye candy, too. But for now, we’re doing our part to balance out the other 99% of comics.
CB: You’re also writing a rather different heist series, in the form of Thief of Thieves. What about the form of a heist most appeals to you?
Asmus: My question is - why does everyone think of me as a thief?? (Don’t answer that.)
I can tell you that - while planning and researching the real-world stuff has been really cool reading - what I love about Thief of Thieves is actually the awesomely rich characters and dynamics that Robert Kirkman set up for this series. This book is to crime and heist genres what Walking Dead is to zombie horror. It’s a surprisingly character-driven and infinitely rich approach to a genre that is often formulaic under other people’s approach. Instead, Thieves has been continually exciting and inspiring to write. It’s got probably the best cliffhangers I’ve ever written - every issue - and they’re entirely earned and genuine game-changers. I can’t recommend the book enough - even the bits I don’t write!
CB: Have you ever robbed an art gallery?
Asmus: …No? But I do end up plotting how I’d commit a “perfect robbery” at almost any place I have to wait in line for more than 2 minutes.
CB: How do you structure a heist, both in the unreal Marvel universe and the realistic Thief of Thieves world? Start at the end and work backwards?
Asmus: Much like the real world - it all depends on the job. But you definitely need to plan your exit strategy. I’ve been playing around with my approach. It is starting to seem like the best approach is to treat it like a mystery. I need to know the big payoff, and work backward to build all the clues, steps, and complications that best set that up.
I also believe strongly that almost no heist should go according to plan. Because the magic is in the character’s improvisation.
CB: Thief of Thieves is a little bit like a thief version of Burn Notice, with the little tips it offers about how the trade works and what is required. Did you have to do a lot of research? Were there any tricks you found particularly interesting?
Asmus: I have been doing more research for this series than anything I’ve ever written! And honestly - tons of it is fascinating, but it’s harder than I expected to find the information I’m looking for at any given point. I suppose I should be happy that there isn’t more readily available information on how to disable high-end security systems. (There’s no shortage of videos on how to break open cheap home safes - but that’s not enough of a challenge for our heroes.)
The thing that’s been really illuminating in all the information I’ve gotten is just how often successful thefts are based on people not activating their security measures. It’s something Nick Spencer mentions in the first issue about cars - but it’s true everywhere from home break-ins to jewellery stores. Career crooks (as opposed to desperate robberies) almost always wait around to find the place with little to no security - or just the bad habit of not arming the security / locks / etc. that are in place.
CB: …How much nudity can we expect in each issue?
Asmus: NOT ENOUGH! There really wasn’t any in Nick Spencer’s first arc - so I wasn’t sure what I could get away with.
CB: Is working with Robert Kirkman on this creator-run series piquing any interest in creating a series of your own?
Asmus: YES! I have been wanting do one (or ‘several’, actually) - but I’ve been held back thus far by how many other projects I have going and the up-front cost of paying a professional artist. I do finally have a very different miniseries written and half-drawn that I hope to announce in the next few months. Suffice it to say, it’s a significant departure from what I’ve done in comics before. (And it might end up being a real niche audience thing.)*
CB: What was it like creating Psychonaut Librarians [a play! That’s a thing you go to see in a theatre, fact-fans] with Crystal Skillman? She is completely nuts and amazing, was it basically impossible to keep up with her?
Asmus: Crystal is the best kind of crazy! She’s got a wonderfully wild mind that out races me in a way that was really exciting and inspiring. We’d been talking for a while about the theater company I helped start in Chicago called The New Colony. They do a lot of kinetic, audience-engaging, “pop theatre” that serves as a really good fit with Crystal’s totally modern style of writing. I wholly recommend knowing her - or at least, seeing her plays any chance you get!
And for those of you who never go see theater - you should know that there really are young people creating modern, exciting, and surprising plays in almost every major city. You should try and find out who they are in your town and SIGN UP FOR THEIR EMAIL LIST. The gods of culture and joy will be pleased. Your friends will think you’re impossibly classy and in-the-know.
Oh yeah... but first, please contact your local comic shop about your desire to buy Gambit and Thief of Thieves.
*And no, it’s not porn comix. :P