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Asmus and Crew Take Readers to the ‘End Times’ [Interview]

Over the past few years, there hasn’t been a dearth of fiction, particularly of the variety you might find in your local Christian bookstore, about what might happen if the Rapture, an event during which believers think God will call the righteous up to heaven in an instant, took place right now. The End Times of Bram and Ben, the new Image title from writers James Asmus and Jim Festante, along with artist Rem Broo, wonders the same thing, but with a twist. It doesn’t just examine what happens to the people who get left behind. It also asks, “What if a jerk accidentally got called up?”

In advance of the first issue’s Image release January 9 — contributors to a 2011 Kickstarter got their hands on a self-published version of the issue a few months ago — ComicsAlliance caught up with Asmus, who also writes Marvel’s Gambit and co-writes Image’s Thief of Thieves with Robert Kirkman, to ask about the book’s satirical tone, whether church-going folks will be offended, how his and Festante’s improv and theater backgrounds have influenced the comic, and whether his Kickstarter fans approve of his move to a big-name publisher.

ComicsAlliance: So why the Rapture? It’s certainly been fertile ground for books and movies and such over the past decade or so. Did this start as an out-and-out parody of Left Behind, or was there something else behind it?

James Asmus: I got on a kick several years ago, ordering every Christian end-times movie Netflix had. It started with just wanting to know what Left Behind was, as it was huge at the time, but I got hooked on this genre. All the characters were either essentially perfect Christians with one tiny flaw — divorced, had doubts about the Bible, etc. — or they were eeeeviiiil. Around that time, I did some comedy shows in Las Vegas with, among other people, my friend Jim Festante. We really went far down the rabbit hole as I told him about the movies and ended up obsessing over the question of, “What would we do if the Rapture happened? If you suddenly, finally, had proof that one religion got it right, but that proof wasn’t shown until you were being told it’s too late, how do you deal with that?” Hilarious responses came quick and easily, but we quickly realized the genuine fear and uncertainty under that idea. And my favorite stories to write are the ones that inspire that mixture of humor and gut-dread. Jim and I had wanted to write together, so we started developing a story about deeply flawed but relatable screw-ups caught in the Biblical apocalypse. It turned into a book that I like to think of as The Stand with a tighter cast of characters and a lot more sex jokes. Or a Preacher that tells its story a hell of a lot faster.

CA: In the text piece in the back of the first issue, you and Jim say people who “have lived with religion, but can still laugh about it” are the target audience here. Would that be a pretty fair description of your religious background?

JA: I guess so. But moreover, we were trying to explain that this isn’t meant to be a raspberry from non-believers. It’s meant to be a work of creative storytelling set in this mythos that’s been rising in our culture over the last decades. Plus, there’s plenty of grim post-apocalyptic stories, and angsty isn’t my style. So we wanted to do a more wild, irreverent, mid-apocalyptic tale. I know there are plenty of folks who can’t find humor in religion. Those people probably won’t dig our book. But the truth is, our story is far more about our characters than any particular theology. It keeps coming back to what excited us in the first place; seeing how people like us and our friends might deal with this huge life-and-death shift to their world.

CA: Bram, the character who is accidentally Raptured at the beginning of the series, is pretty far from a saint, but he’s not exactly a mass-murderer either. How did you guys decide exactly how much of a sinner to make him?

JA: The phrase we kept coming back to is, “lovable bastard.” We all have friends that we love to get into trouble with, that we can’t believe the sh*t they get away with, but whom we would rather kill than see date our sisters. The truth is, most people love characters who are having fun, who carry joy with them as they enter the room. Even The Joker! We love to watch his joy even as he’s being sadistic! Bram’s not even killing anyone. He’s just happy to steal a guy’s car and maybe his girlfriend mere minutes after Heaven kills the poor sucker.

CA: One thing I found really interesting is how a lot of the characters continued on with a form of everyday life after the Rapture — the other lead character, Ben, goes to work at the school where he teaches, even though almost no kids are there. That makes this pretty different from other life-after-catastrophe stories like Y: The Last Man, where the big event leads to a big journey and changes everything. How important was it to showcase a form of post-Rapture mundanity?

JA: Well, I think it really helps maintain our ability to keep their experience funny and relatable. But also – it just felt true. Especially in this case, it’s not a global shut-down or anything. It’s something like 8 to 12 percent of the population, tops, disappears overnight. We’d all freak out, sure. But it won’t take long till our bosses want to go back to making money, and we complain again about our cell phone reception.

CA: This started as a Kickstarter project you self-published and now it’s an Image comic. How did that all come about?

JA: The truth is that this book has been long gestating. When Jim and I decided to do the comic, neither of us could have paid our art team wholly out of pocket. And I still hadn’t written a monthly comic, so it’s not like my name in the industry was enough to inspire folks to work for back-end. Besides, I had tried about a year earlier to pitch a creator-owned concept around and no one went for it, and I thought the concept for End Times probably seems ten times harder to pull off properly. So I figured self-publishing was going to be our only option, and Kickstarter was the only hope to pay for that.

We were fortunate to find an absolutely perfect artist for the project in Rem Broo. His emotion, humor, and incredible skill as an artist was beyond what I had hoped for. He had just started doing some webcomic work and a few anthologies in Germany, his homeland, so Jim and I were lucky to catch him. We only ever tried to raise enough to pay Rem, but Kickstarter delivered for us. It was the first real wind of encouragement on our backs, and it definitely helped me stay passionate about doing this book right.

A few months after our campaign wrapped, Robert Kirkman hired me on to Thief of Thieves. In the process, he was really encouraging me to pitch Image whatever story I was passionate about. Guys like Dennis Hopeless and Tim Seeley encouraged me, too. And to my utter shock and joy, Eric Stephenson invited us to publish it with Image!

CA: Are you worried your Kickstarter backers will suddenly turn on you because you’ve gone too mainstream and they only read small-print-run comics where people can pay to be characters in them?

JA: Ha! I sure hope not. The only thing it changed in terms of the book’s content is that we felt confident enough to go get covers by some amazing artists who we love and think fit the spirit of the book — Jim Mahfood, J.A.W. Cooper, Juan Doe, and Ben Templesmith!

CA: You’ve got a background in improv and sketch comedy. How did that influence this book?

JA: Well, Jim Festante and I met and forged our relationship performing improv together. So that same give-and-take riffing carried over to our writing process. Unlike most other co-writing jobs I’ve done, we wrote this entire series line-by-line together, meeting up a few times a week. And, not to comedy-geek-out too much, but both of us really come from long-form improv. That’s built much more on character, emotional, and relationship comedy than the kind of improv done on Whose Line Is It Anyway?. So we both came into this intent on telling a real story with depth and texture to the characters. And I genuinely think we succeeded in that. My heart still goes out to Bram, Ben, and the rest of our cast, even as I’m laughing at their world coming down around them.

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