James Asmus and Jim Festante met through comedy. Having both done their own respective work in sketch and stand-up, Asmus and Festante later found themselves working together in Las Vegas for a friend. That act not only led to them meeting very special guest Neil Gaiman, but also a realization between the two funny men that they both had an affection for the offbeat film subgenre of apocalyptic Christian End Times films. Both noted the ridiculous nature of such things and decided to put their own spin on it.
Thus "The End Times of Bram & Ben" was born. The December-shipping first issue from Image Comics introduces readers to the title characters who experience the Rapture and have opposite reactions to this version of the end of the world. Asmus and Festante utilized DeviantArt to find artist Rem Broo as well as Kickstarter to get the book funded -- all of which led to Image actually publishing the comic with covers by people like Jim Mahfood. Hot on the heels of the book's announcement at New York Comic-Con, CBR News talked with Asmus and Festante about what the Rapture is, who Bram and Ben are as characters and what it was like working with Neil Gaiman.
CBR News: How did you guys meet up and decide to write a comic book together?
James Asmus: Jim and I met through mutual comedy friends back when he was in New York and I was in Chicago.
Jim Festante: A couple years ago, we were working with Neil Gaiman on a one-night comedy show in Vegas -- it's true, but we just had to work that in somewhere -- and James and I realized we'd like to work on something together.
Wait, I have to ask, how did you get the gig working with Neil Gaiman?
Festante: Our mutual friend Matt Donnelly created an improv show James and I used to do in Vegas. He'd have guest celebrities and conduct a comedic Tarot reading and interview as an inspiration for the scenes. Neil Gaiman was kind enough to do a night with us, and he was absolutely charming and witty.
Asmus: We had other great guests like Teller of Penn &..., UFC Champ and "Expendable" Randy Couture; it was a nice mix. But I was probably the most excited for Neil.
What was the genesis of "End Times" specifically? Was it born from a long running conversation?
Festante: We ended up talking about our shared love of Christian End Times entertainment.
Asmus: I had a stage comedy bit I used to do, sort of like a game show, where I'd pull someone up from the audience and play them ten seconds of weird, stilted acting from a movie and they would have to guess if it was from a Christian End Times movie or from soft core porn. It was a lot harder for audiences than you might guess. Both have terrible acting, writing, sloppy direction, boring camera work, etc.
Festante: Having seen it, the most confusing element was that there were some actors who appeared in both genres!
Asmus: That's true! And after the person guessed, we'd play a clip of soft core porn sex or someone quoting the Bible.
Festante: But this led us into realizing that all the stories like "Left Behind" and the TONS of knock-offs all depicted characters who were either essentially devout Christians who just had one flaw that kept them from getting Raptured or people who were basically happy to follow the Antichrist! We got really excited thinking about what it would be to see people we know -- religiously disinterested, drinking, pot smoking, but still good-hearted folks -- experience the sudden revelation of a Christian apocalypse.
Asmus: Basically, how do you think all your friends would react if fiery angels appeared in the middle of you booze-fueled gaming night?
It sounds like you guys went with a more comedic or satiric tone when it comes to the story.
Asmus: I've been explaining the book as "Preacher" done with the sensibilities of "Chew."
Festante: I don't want to use the word "irreverent" because it's been worn out in describing comedy, but it's literally the right word here. "End Times" is irreverent in the vein of [Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's novel] "Good Omens," if you've ever read that book.
Asmus: There's Neil Gaiman again!
Festante: Yeah, I'm not really trying to compare us to him.
Asmus: Well... a little.
On to the story itself, we know Bram and Ben are dealing with the Rapture, but can you explain what that means for the readers who might not be familiar with the concept?
Asmus: The basic idea is that at the beginning of the Biblical End Times, angels will suck all the "good" people into Heaven, body and soul. The rest of us will then be stuck on Earth for seven years as Heaven and Hell build toward an all-out war and judgement that we think of as the Apocalypse.
Festante: Why Heaven would plan to take its best pieces off the board before the showdown is just one of many good questions you might still be asking. So we made up answers.
Asmus: And we made up our own ideas about who's going to be the Antichrist(s).
What can you tell us about Bram and Ben and how the events of the rapture change their outlook on life?
Festante: Bram and Ben's reactions pretty much encapsulate the two contrasting views. Ben immediately feels regret about not being Raptured.
Asmus: There's a running joke about how everyone thinks they're a "good person."
Festante: Yes! And Bram, on the other hand, once he sees the intense Old Testament rules people had to follow to be considered worthy, he knows he doesn't want to hang out with those people for all of Eternity.
Asmus: Basically, if you suddenly found out a religion you didn't believe in was true, would you suddenly change everything to fit in with them, to save your own skin? Answering that question pulls these two life-long friends in opposite directions. Hilarity, sex, and violence ensues!
Based on their different reactions to the Rapture, where does the story take Bram and Ben from there?
Asmus: Bram goes all-in on every vice and impulse he has. In his mind, the world is ending in seven years -- or less -- so he may as well plan to burn out rather than fade away. Ben takes the path I think a lot more folks would and he tries to learn what the rules are and how to play by them, especially out of fear of going to Hell.
Festante: Bram is on a tear and he makes a pretty bold, somewhat crazy choice [between] "Good" and "Evil." Poor Ben, meanwhile, just wants reassurance that he's really not a bad person, and will go to some pretty great lengths to get it.
How did you guys hook up with Rem Broo on art? What was it about his style that spoke to the story so well?
Asmus: DeviantArt! We put up a call for artists almost two years ago, and his work blew us away in terms of the humor and humanity of his characters. His style isn't what I went into the project expecting, but now I think he's the perfect fit for the book.
Festante: And I have to say, it was always an awesome surprise to get pages back from him. He has an amazing sense of humor, and added all kinds of great bits, details, and reactions throughout.
On a similar note, how did Jim Mahfood get involved drawing the cover?
Asmus: I've been a big fan of his stuff for years. In talking with some folks at Image, it came up that since most of the team on the book was unknown, it might help readers and retailers get a better sense of it if we pick a smart cover artist. Mahfood sprang to mind as someone whose comics have a similar energy and bite to what we're going for. Luckily for us, he was totally game to jump on board! The style of his work fits well with what Rem creates, too. That's always important to me, as I hate when the transition from cover to interior art is jarring or disappointing.
Festante: Our second cover is from a fantastic artist and painter James came across in the contemporary art world, JAW Cooper. Her style fits in a different way, but the piece she created is beautiful and, frankly, awesome.
How do you actually handle the writing between the two of you? Does one do a draft and the other takes a pass, that kind of thing?
Asmus: We wrote almost the entire book together, bit by bit, meeting up twice a week. We tossed around ideas, broke the story, and scripted the first ten pages as a pitch last year. After we got it funded through Kickstarter, we went back to those meetings and worked through it all trying to create the best character moments and fun visuals we could. Everything else was about trying to make each other laugh.
Festante: I tend to follow James' lead on the page break downs, and stuff like that. Just because he has the experience. Coming from a sketch comedy background, I've written with other people before, but writing for comics has been a whole new learning experience. I hope to do more soon.
What was your experience with Kickstarter like? Now that you've used the platform, are there changes you'd make next time?
Festante: A little scary. You have faith in the project you're putting forth, you just hope you're able to express why it will work to your audience before you're able to put any real product in front of them. It's one thing to buy a finished idea, but you're asking for people to support something sight unseen that exists as an idea but there's not much to show yet as far as execution.
Asmus: We ran our campaign a year ago. If/when I do it again, I'll probably run a campaign after a full first issue is actually finished. I've had the most dread over how much longer it took us to get a finished issue due to a million different hang-ups. I also think we could have gotten more support if we had been able to show a more finished sample of the project.
Still, I'm incredibly happy with the result. We exceeded our modest goal, and in the end it funded about half of what we've needed to pay our team. And with a book that's as atypical of a comic as "End Times," it's a huge relief to already have some audience enthusiastically on board. And to not be as financially vulnerable as we try to reach more folks.
"The End Times of Bram & Ben" from James Asmus, Jim Festante and Rem Broo debuts from Image Comics on December 12th.