Write about characters no one else knows about.
Unpredictability has become the buzzword surrounding writer Chuck Austen and with his two newest series from Marvel Comics, the red-hot scribe means to keep that reputation alive. Talking extensively with CBR News Austen explained the genesis behind each of these projects, both of which will be launched through the MAX mature imprint in June, and provided a clear look at the message behind each series.
The first of these series is "War Machine 2.0," a sequel to the original MAX maxi-series "U.S. War Machine," an alternate universe series focusing on Tony Stark and James Rhodes, known better to fans as Iron Man and War Machine in the real Marvel Universe (the "616" universe as some fans call it) and which also broke convention by shipping weekly in black & white. It was written and illustrated by Austen, proving to be quite a different series than many expected by tackling issues from racism to the use of excessive force. "US War Machine was an alternate reality, or 'What If' version of the Iron Man myth," adds Austen to CBR News' explanation of the series. "In that reality, Iron Man actually WAS Tony Stark's personal bodyguard, and was the armor around five main people. Parnell, Rhodey, or Jim Rhodes, our main character, Beverly, Eddie, and Happy Hogan.
"For varying reasons, Rhodey takes a suit out for a spin, gets involved in an unfortunate situation that results in several deaths, and winds up getting fired by Stark. Rhodey was then hired immediately by Nick Fury, who has reverse engineered the Iron Man armor and made several suits and wants Rhodey to begin an armored unit for SHIELD.
"One thing leads to another, and before long, Rhodey's out running missions for SHIELD, not all of them very successfully. By the end of the maxi-series, or graphic novel, Rhodey has stopped an international terrorist organization bent on destroying all 'lower forms of humanity' through genetic manipulation of viruses that target the genetic differences in races."
|Scenes from "War Machine 2.0"|
"Parnell is one of his former co-workers, who, before the series began, had tried to steal one of Stark's suits and sell it to a competitor. But Rhodey, Beverly and Happy all suited up in Iron wear and kicked his ass all over town, leaving him broken and lost somewhere in Mexico.
"He turns up in the second issue, trying to steal Rhodey's suit so he can get his wife back from some kidnappers who have taken her. Fury offers them both the chance to go and get her back as their first mission ... if they'll take the job regularly.
"Tony Stark is basically the same billionaire, inventor playboy from the regular universe, except that he doesn't wear the suit himself, other than for testing. He spends most of his time running his companies.
"This series is also about heroism, and the necessity for violence in this world. It takes Stark's anti-war, anti-killing stance and puts it to the test in a real world, all-or-nothing situation. How do you keep your ideals when the stakes have been upped by a madman who won't see reason?"
With the first "War Machine" series acting as comic book fans' big introduction to the talents of Chuck Austen, it'd be reasonable to surmise that a sequel to that project would come with a lot of pressure and when asked about that, the writer answers bluntly, "God, yes. That series was really well received and still sells well in trade form, so I feel I have a lot to live up to. It also got me all the work I have now, 'Uncanny X-Men,' 'The Call,' so it has a favored spot in my heart. I'm very proud of the work done on that book, and look back on its creation fondly."
The debut of the violent "U.S War Machine," controversial enough for it's subject matter and the way Austen handled it, became infamous for another reason- it debuted only a mere day after 9/11. This new series, once again violent and dealing with espionage and weapons of mass destruction, is being highly publicized right after the beginning of Operation: Iraq Freedom, a military effort to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. "I know, scary, isn't it?" says Austen of the series' timing. "Issue one of the first series came out September 12th, the day after. Now, the second series is announced the day after Bush gives Saddam his ultimatum. I feel like I should stop doing this book so the world will stay at peace (laughs).
"Oddly enough, the first series was somewhat cathartic for people when it came out. One store owner said people were picking it up because of the American flag on the cover, and because terrorists were getting their heads blown off in the first issue. It made me feel a little strange, overall. Oddly prescient, and creeped out by what I had created. We had promoted it saying "ripped from today's headlines" because I based so much of it on experimental research and violent situations that had actually occurred near me, but I never expected to hit things so closely with such timing. Eerie.
"I didn't handle the situation at the time well, at all. It was chaotic and confusing and emotionally charged in positive and negative ways. I was proud to have the flag on the cover the day it most seemed needed in the country, but I was so disheartened because I had worked so hard to get that book out and on time on a weekly schedule, lots of late nights and all-nighters, not seeing my family for days on end, because remember, at the time I was still drawing Elektra, too.
"Then 9-11 happens and War Machine gets so overshadowed. Marvel's first weekly comic, black and white, a dollar fifty, all this experimental stuff, and it just got lost in the tragedy. I felt incredibly selfish about my feelings, believe me, I'm not unaware that there were other more important things for people to worry about during those days, lost family members and loved ones, friends. All I'd lost was a career moment. But I can't deny being affected negatively, on top of all the other stuff I was feeling at the time.
"There are a lot of mixed emotions tied up in this series."
There's also a lot of mixed messages when it comes to the mixed marketing of the series- on one hand, Marvel Comics does want it to be a success, but on the other hand, Austen says that they readily admit they have grander plans for the scribe with the Midas touch. "I was all ready to run off on a three year stint with this concept, but Marvel had other plans for me, and still does. They'd rather see me working on their upper tier books right now, than spending time on 'War Machine,' which is still considered a lesser property. I can understand that, and God knows I'm happy to be wanted on the bigger books, but I do miss this concept, and in my heart believe it could be an upper tier property if given a chance. I loved it enough to pitch it cold, and it got me my job at Marvel in the first place, so there's a sentimental attachment to it, and lots of ideas left unexpressed.
"Of course, if it IS all tied together and it means the war will end sooner, maybe it's for the best that I never do another issue (laughs)."
One look at Austen's other work, like "Uncanny X-Men," "The Call" or "Captain America," will reveal a commitment to thematic exploration on a consistent basis- anything from love to personal responsibility to maturity is fair game. But one look at "U.S War Machine" will reveal that Austen's doing that all with the characters in that series…and more. "Man, you're good," smiles Austen when asked about the themes in "War Machine 2.0" "Most people don't pick up on that subtler context stuff. Most people see the quippy dialogue and action stories and don't look any deeper. Which is fine. Shakespeare worked on multiple levels, if I can take a moment to compare myself to him (laughs).
"The themes in 'War Machine 2.0' are primarily friendship and commitment to ideals. Heroism in the face of looming tragedy. What makes a hero and why, and does changing your ideals make you a lesser person, or a greater one, given certain circumstances? And is a hero necessarily a good person other than when they do something heroic? Are 'good' and 'modern heroism' compatible or mutually exclusive?
"But love is always core to what I do. Love of family, love of friends, love of humanity. I believe very strongly in the concept of love.
|Scenes from "War Machine 2.0"|
"It's a combination of both. In Stephen King's 'On Writing' he talks about the difference between the first draft and the second. He says once you've finished the first draft and let it simmer for a while, then you come back to it, you'll see themes emerging that you were unaware of, and you find ways to strengthen, or jettison them. I find that to be very true.
"But I also begin with concepts. In the first 'War Machine' I went in knowing I wanted to do a story about friendship, racism (both self hatred and hatred of others), and the ways in which those can both bind and separate individuals, often the same individuals with both tendencies. I wanted Rhodey to come from a position of not worrying or caring about his 'blackness' to finding it an undeniable and important aspect of himself. It was based on conversations I had had with my roommate, and her friends over the course of a couple of years.
"From there, things began to emerge that I didn't expect. One of my favorite scenes in the first series is the scene in the second issue with Rhodey and the guard who works in his building. The guard is without a doubt, a racist, but he's trying, he's making the effort in his own, unintelligent, fumbling, non-intellectual way. Rhodey is aware of it, and amused by it, and appreciates the attempt.
"That scene came after I had written the ending and wanted to put something in to counterpoint the intellectual discussion of racial inferiority between Rhodey and the head AIM scientist at the end of the book. I just thought it would be a nice book-end to show that not all ignorant people are racists, and not all intelligent people are fair-minded.
"So the ending scene was set, and I knew it was there, but the earlier scene emerged as a result of the theme coming more completely into focus and needing that element in the beginning."
There's always a question of whether a Caucasian writer can "accurately" write characters of color and Austen is one of those writers who's received praise for doing so. He admits to not worrying much about writing a black character like Rhodey because it's Austen's belief that, frankly the character comes first. "I ran every script through my ex-roommate, who is black, just to be safe, and she pointed out a few things to me, but on the whole, she thought I'd done a great job just using the stuff that had come from our conversations, or just writing myself in that place. She was pretty impressed, and even added a few nice touches, like Rhodey's being Creole.
"The best compliments I've ever gotten on this book were on two separate occasions, African American men came up to me at the Marvel table in San Diego and said, 'Damn. I was sure you'd be black.' (laughs) Really. I couldn't ask for a better compliment.
"Geoff Johns wife is black and he used to bug her about how to write black characters, and her answer was always, just write characters. Period. Let the black part come out on it's own. And he says she's right. Every time. So who are we to argue?
"I tend to have a good ear for dialect. Maybe it comes from a few years of acting I did, or maybe all the traveling I did growing up, hearing a lot of different accents and languages, or maybe I'm just lucky that way. The Gambit dialogue is the same thing. I know Cajun from hearing it a lot when I lived in the south.
"I write them as characters, first. Then I add the separate touches, if it's called for. I never set out to have Rhodey and Parnell discuss their 'blackness,' sometimes it just happened. If it did, I let it and I just recalled conversations I'd had or overheard with my roommate or other friends. The same with the cop in Superman [Austen had a fill-in on 'Man of Steel']. I don't think the question of his race ever came up, so I never dealt with it. Did I miss an opportunity? Possibly. I missed a couple nice scenes that were edited out for length that had nothing to do with race, a scene in particular where he talks to a picture of his dead wife about how he worries for Superman, so there's always more you can add. But in a medium like this where you can't just put in another page, like with television, you can't just add more minutes, you have to choose what's important to the story and trim the rest. Often some of the best stuff has to go.
"It's actually the downside of this business in general. Aspects of color, religion, background-these things are often lost in a medium that has to get to the point. I do waaaaaay more research than ever ends up on the page, but sometimes you have to let that go, and know that it influenced what you did, if nothing else. It guided you in a better direction and gave you a confident voice.
"This reminds me, actually, that there was a scene in the first 'US War Machine' that I had to cut for length. It was a discussion between Parnell and Sheva where she challenges him on his level of attitude over race and mistreatment, and he asks what she knows about oppression and persecution, and she says 'Duh. I'm Jewish. The words were invented for us.'
"It never made it in, and it could have added another layer, another slice of meaning to the overall piece, especially when she finds the vials of Jewish death in the cabinet. But sometimes you just have to trim."
|Scenes from "War Machine 2.0"|
"They're more interesting and real. More believable. As I said earlier, I had some not too proud thoughts and feelings post 9-11. I'm basically a good guy, but I have my flaws and weaknesses. Characters are more interesting when they do. We relate to them more strongly.
"It was an odd choice for iconic company characters, but it somehow still worked for me. It was an Iron Man series for grown-ups. It's an interesting aspect of fantasy right now, that it isn't just for kids, anymore. It's a genre that has grown with its audience. You can take fantasy themes and make them more complex, more mature, more 'gray' and they work. It's certainly fun to take icons and fantasy and work within that realm in a mature fashion. More interesting than writing a story about racism from the perspective of LA gardeners. At least, for me."
Giving readers a bit of a change for "War Machine 2.0," Austen and co. have brought artist Christian Moore onboard for this outing. "He showed samples to Bill Jemas at Chicago Con and Bill had him get in touch with a couple of the editors," says Austen of how Moore got attached to the project. "He's a fairly skilled 3D guy."
If your interest is piqued in "War Machine 2.0" and you're not quite sure about picking it up, Austen has a few more words of advice to draw you in. "Well, it's goal isn't quite as lofty as the first series, but I think those same fans will enjoy it, and more. 3 issues, you can't get as richly detailed as you could in 10, or in 12. But it's got the same writer, and I think, a good strong story."
The scribe also notes that readers need not have read the previous maxi-series and can enter this series fresh, without worrying about being lost. "This one is intended to be self-contained and it explains everything you need to know within it, although it can't hurt to pick up the first trade. But I tend to be pretty good about making things accessible."
"It's based on Kirby's original 'Eternals' series, though this one is called 'The Eternal,' singular," explains Austen. "'The Eternals' was a comic book Jack Kirby created for Marvel during his second run-through with the company, after he left DC and came back. The core concept was that we humans and two other races had been evolved by a space-faring group of aliens known as the Celestials.
"In the original series, the Eternals show up out of nowhere in anticipation of the Celestials returning to judge Earth. The Celestials have come back to see if we, as a species, have developed in a way that is suitable to a race on the verge of interstellar space-travel. In this version, we take some of the concepts from that original series and build around them, tossing some junk and keeping the gold."
"Next there is Jeska, an evolved human slave-girl, who falls in love with Ikaeden, and whom he begins to love in return, against the Celestial edicts forbidding Eternals mating with women, or especially what they call 'deviants,' the evolved species from the planets they conquer. Together these two will give birth to Ikaris, Kirby's original Eternal character.
"That's mostly it for the first few issues, although the Celestials are a constant 'presence' even if they never appear on camera.
"There's also the true 'deviants' the evolved races from other worlds that the Eternals have brought with them in case there is no workable genetic material for evolving into slaves on each, new world."
Unlike many MAX series, this is an ongoing series, but one thing "The Eternal" does have in common with other MAX series is that it does feature a second-tier Marvel concept, which left CBR News asking Austen what the hook was for new readers or those on a limited budget. "Back to themes again, eh?" laughs Austen. "The hook for me on this one is the idea of whether or not man is worthy of existence. Worthy of evolving and growing, or whether we are a doomed branch of an evolutionary tree bent on self-destruction, incapable of rising above basic barabarism.
"Would they, like Bush, determine that we are all unworthy of existence and wipe us out before our evil might spread to the stars and potentially threaten them as Hussein seems to threaten us? And would they be right? What do we have to say for ourselves as a species about understanding, love and cooperation? Do we deserve this planet? Do we deserve life?
"That will be Ikaeden, Jeska and Ikaris question, and their quest. To find what is worthy and good about us to prove to the Celestials we deserve existence, or failing that, just stopping them before they destroy us and our world.
"So the short answer for the hook is, life or death, and can the Eternal save us from ourselves before it's too late."
One thing Austen doesn't want is "The Eternal" compared to Kirby's classic DC series, "New Gods." "'The Eternal' is nothing like New Gods -- unfortunately," laughs Austen. "This is one of Kirby's weakest projects. He was at a stage in his career where he felt he needed to prove himself as a viable creator, not some over the hill relic, and he lost focus on the core themes of this series. He just ran a hundred miles an hour with hundreds of new characters and concepts, and the story got hazed behind a whirlwind of untethered creativity. There are several issues where the main character is gone, locked in a cocoon at the bottom of the ocean for no apparent reason, and we don' even see him.
"This is not about an alternate dimension where 'Gods' exist, and another where "devils" exist. This is about Earth, and evolution, missing-links, and 'Chariots of the Gods' and all the other metaphysical reinterpretations of history. It's nothing like 'New Gods.'"
The process to publishing for "The Eternal" was also an uphill battle so Austen isn't worried about a few hills to climb along the way. "I pitched this back when I first started working at Marvel, but Joe Quesada was against doing it," he admits. "He saw no future in this particular old Kirby concept, and I can understand his point. As I said, it wasn't one of Kirby's high points, and if it ain't Batman, X-Men, Spiderman, the Avengers, or 'Ultimate' variations on those themes, it doesn't seem like it has much chance. But like all things with Kirby, there was a shining gem of genius in the center, and I saw a way to make it work, and make it work well, I thought. I just believed in this concept. So I kept at Joe and kept at him, and every time he asked me to do a project, or not do a project for DC (laughs) I asked him to do the Eternal. It got to be kind of a joke.
"Finally, after several pitches, I let it drop and relegated it to the backbin of my mind. I had enough work to keep me busy, so it's not like I needed to push this thing to pay the bills.
"Then one day Joe relented and gave it the green light. I wasn't even involved, just a few of the editors who had liked the idea from the beginning had kept pushing it in Marvel's offices, including Mike Raicht, who wound up as my editor, which I'm very happy about. I'm not sure if Joe feels any more confident in it, or if he thinks it'll die in four, but I've got my shot and I'm going to make the most of it. Hey, I made Jimmy Olsen interesting, or so people keep telling me, so why not this?"
Whether it be the Eternals, Captain America or Superman, these are all icons that Jack Kirby touched in some way…and Chuck Austen is nurturing in the present. While Kirby is remembered as the "King," sometimes people don't know quite how to say why his work is so eternal (no pun intended) and Austen sums it up pretty well. "Kirby was brilliant. He knew how to tap into the iconic power of the adventurous child in all of us. His imagery and his viewpoint were unique and direct and hit you on a gut level that made you think about what he'd created long after you'd put it away. We should all be so lucky to have that kind of juice."
When fans take a look at the racks and see 25 new Marvel Comics over the next few months, Austen knows he has to make a series like "The Eternal" stand out since it begs a long term commitment from readers. How will he do that? "Nudity and bloody violence," he laughs. "That jokes gonna get old quick. Maybe it already has.
"Seriously, I'm out to entertain and reach more than one level. It's got some political statements to make, particularly as it deals with the inherent violent nature of man, and man's need to war and kill for no definable reason (I'm awfully current here again, aren't I?).
"As you said, I strike certain themes in my work that underlie the obvious smart-alecky dialogue and adventure situations. This will be no different. If I can't find something that hits on both levels, I can't maintain my interest. It's just eye-candy. Mark Twain is my favorite author, and I aspire to that level of sophisticated social commentary while at the same time writing solid entertainment.
"What's going to make it unique? God, I don't know. Kev Walker."
The name Kev Walker may be new to some, but his profile is increasing thanks to work on DC Comics' "Legion" and Marvel's "Exiles," and "The Eternal" represents his first major monthly work. "He'd been working with Mike Raicht on several things, notably an 'Exiles' arc, and he was interested in doing a sci-fi type thing, something cosmic with humanity and personal character interactions. Mike just sent him the proposal and he was into it. He's already brought a ton to the material, adding concepts and ideas, revising layouts for maximum effect, adding panels, if you can believe it, and designing a unique look for all the characters, and their environments. He's really into it, and it looks amazing. I'm so excited to be working with him on this, I can't tell you."
As one of the key people involved in the initial launch of the MAX line, Austen's been there for all the breasts, swearing and drinking, so he's got a pretty good perspective on how far the imprint has come in the past couple of years. "Um, I think it's still in it's infancy," he concedes. "It needs something strong and steady that hits the audience and makes it viable, the way 'Sandman' did in the, what was that, the late eighties and early nineties at Vertigo? Right now it's had some good successes, but not nearly enough and nothing steady. I'm actually enjoying 'Rawhide Kid' more than I ever thought I would, and 'Alias' rocks. Anything Bendis does rocks. But there's nothing that defines the line, yet, and it needs something.
"I think it needs vision, really. MAX needs an Archie Goodwin overseeing it and developing concepts and ideas that push the limits of the marketplace, the medium and make it really edgy and interesting. They should do a good horror book, maybe a romance. Yeah, a nice romance. Something heartfelt with wit, passion, bloody violence and nudity (laughs)."
Whenever the question of "what's next?" comes to Chuck Austen, there's almost a running joke among fans that the answer will be "everything." Along with "Incredible Hulk" writer Bruce Jones, Austen has been involved in every area of Marvel Comics and while some might call him one of the "go to guys," he has a different way of phrasing his role. "(Laughs) Yeah, that's the nice way they put it. 'Marvel's bitch' is the way I usually hear it (laughs). It cracks me up that people think there should be a limit to creativity, or the speed of creative delivery, as if 'more' equals 'worse.' Or the amount of money I should be allowed to earn. Bruce and I are pros. We've been working in this and other writing industries for a long time. We know how to turn it on. Someone asks us to do something and we do it, man. It's the job. You deliver when you're hot, because you won't be for long. Guaranteed. Get it while you can.
"You try to take advantage of those hot times to do something fun, like 'The Eternal,' or 'Metropolis,' or 'World Watch,' which I'll talk about in a minute. You want to do something you know is never going to unseat Jim Lee's 'Batman,' but something people will talk about and remember, and feel on another, deeper level, something you'll always be proud of. I know except for certain aspects, Bruce and I had a hell of a time on the various 'Call' books, the 'Wagon,' 'Precinct' and 'Brotherhood.' Those were dream books. They didn't sell terribly well, but hell. What a ride. And working with him is a joy. What a great guy. I love Bruce.
"I also love the regular gigs, like 'Uncanny X-Men.' That book is pure pleasure.
"And then, of course, there are the things that are just work. Things you do to pay the bills, or do because you want to bail out a friend. But the bottom line is, your approach them all the same way. Creatively and professionally. Give them your best, and enjoy them all, even if they're just a job. I have turned down things, you know.
"But as far as your real question, other things I'm working on, there's a couple things I'm playing around with that can't be discussed yet, one at Marvel.
"But there's also a project I'm working on with Tom Derenick, a mature superhero team book called 'World Watch' that I've been paying Tom to draw out of my own pocket, something I'm really excited about. It's been a blast to work on, and even if it never makes a dime, I'm glad I got the chance to do it, and Tom's work has been amazing, both art and conceptual. It's a 'Justice Legion of Avengers' for adults. The tag line is 'They fight. They cheat. They love. And sometimes they save the world.'
"We're moving into our third issue, now. Tom's finishing the pencils on issue #2, and I'm finishing the script on issue #4. The first two issues are stunning. The best work I've ever seen Tom do, and I'm a big fan of his, already, so you can just imagine. I suppose I could provide you with some artwork. Hey, it is mine (laughs). This could be the project that, finally makes people sit up and take notice of the incredible talent is Tom. And the story is fun. It's a slight satire with some powerful content, and it's going to be a ton-o-fun getting it out there and getting all the angry reactions (laughs). 'My child saw this and it burned their eyes out!' Tom's also contributing to the concepts and characters, and his ideas are exciting and fresh. It's different, that's for sure. Not your typical superhero book by a long shot. Plus it has bloody violence and nudity.
"I don't know what I'm going to do with it yet. Joe Q. has requested I run any creator-owned ideas past him, but I'm more than likely going to do this myself, through my own imprint."
On a different note, Crossgen President and Founder Mark Alessi recently made comments about Marvel Comics that included the insinuation that the company had used the 9/11 tragedy to profit through projects like "The Call." And while he did note the positive efforts of their successful "Heroes" production, he berated the company for trying to cash in on a concept that was inappropriate. "I knew you'd go here," laughs Austen. "Mark needs to keep his mouth shut, especially if he's got people calling me to come work for him (laughs). He's like the surly online fanboy who can't make people pay attention to him unless he's dragging someone else down, and it makes him look worse by comparison. Let his work speak and let him be silent. How's that for a zen comment? He knows nothing about the genesis of 'The Call,' or what kind of work we put into that. He can bitch and complain all he wants that it's taking advantage, or that we're being vultures, but I spent the time in the firehouse with firemen who lost their buddies and then gave their approval to the concept and execution of this book, both before and after the fact. Firemen who were proud and excited to get the recognition and attention after so long being ignored and taken for granted.
"Actually, I'm just being inflammatory, Mark's entitled to his opinion, and he can say whatever he wants, and I don't really care what he says about 'The Call,' because I'm damn proud of it. I went in with my eyes wide open on that book, and checked every step of the way with the firemen and cops and EMS workers we interviewed to keep the material real. They loved it, and were so excited about it, and glad we were working hard to get it right.
"I've said it before, and I'll say it again, if Marvel wanted to capitalize on a concept, Spider-man would have made them a whole hell of a lot more money at the time than 'The Call' did, so what's he talking about capitalizing? Capitalizing is another X-Book. 'The Call' was a risk all the way, and the sales reflected that risk. Mark's just mad 'cause I was on CNN and he wasn't (laughs).
"Mark should keep in mind that what one says is often more a comment on oneself than on those one wishes to comment upon."