The Scribe of Tomorrow: Austen talks 'Metropolis' & the comic industry

Thu, June 12th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

Send This to a Friend

Separate multiple email address with commas.

You must state your name.

You must enter your email address.

Cover to "Superman: Metropolis #7" by Ashley Wood
A couple of years ago, it seemed as though some joker named Chuck Austen showed up on the comic scene and got some prime jobs- writing one of the inaugural Marvel MAX (their mature imprint) series, "War Machine," and the pencilling duties on red-hot scribe Brian Bendis' "Elektra." The problem is, comic book fans hadn't realized that Austen had been working in the industry for years before these high profile projects and it seemed as though he popped out of nowhere.

Two years later, fans who've blinked might have missed something- Chuck Austen is the man writing icons. From his stint on "Captain America" to his work on "Uncanny X-Men," the trained draftsman is flexing his writing skills on some of the world's most recognized fictional characters.

And then there's Jimmy Olsen.

While it hasn't been a breakout success, "Superman: Metropolis" has essentially replaced the cancelled "Superman: The Man of Steel" series as a 12-issue maxi series and has received a good amount of critical acclaim. With some important events in the series on the horizon, CBR News spoke with Austen about the series and also his views on the industry, being a long time creator.

"'Superman: Metropolis' centers around Jimmy Olsen, primarily, although Superman and other heroes make an occasional appearance," explains Austen. "The basic premise is: The Tech that has altered Metropolis into the 'City Of Tomorrow' has gained sentience, and is looking to evolve itself into a mature being with purpose. Its consciousness is left over from Lena Luthor, Lex's daughter, and it believes itself to be her real mind, and wants to understand consciousness and the purpose of existence.

"She's attached herself to Jimmy's 'Superman Alert Watch' and has made a personal connection with him, to help them both achieve that goal."

Though he's a staple of every Superman incarnation in every medium, save perhaps "Superfriends" and "Smallville," Jimmy Olsen isn't always the most defined or explored character, so Austen offers his take on Superman's pal, as well as "Lena." "Jimmy is based a bit on my brother, who was always scattered and looking for a purpose to his life, through spirituality, through his work, whatever. Jimmy is an unfocused individual with a supreme natural talent in one particular area, photojournalism, and so he's gotten by in life without having to face real adulthood because that talent pays his bills and keeps him going. But like so many of us, even though he's astonishingly talented at what he does, he wants more. He tries writing copy for his pictures, but no one wants to buy it. He feels like something is missing in his life, but doesn't know what that is ... yet.

"'Lena,' the consciousness of the B-13 Tech, begins the series as an almost infantile entity, but rapidly grows into something more as she experiences life in Metropolis through Jimmy and other citizens of the city. She, too, is looking for something, some purpose, and is trying to discover it with Jimmy's help."

Art by Teddy Kristiansen
And while Jimmy Olsen is about as iconic as a supporting cast member can be, one has to ask: why write a series about Jimmy? It's not like he fits the mold of the characters in Austen's other work- he's not a mutant, he has no suit of armor, he's not a god and he's not a ninja with hot… sais. "That makes him more interesting to me," smirks Austen. "People with frailties and emotions and personal traits I can relate to are far more interesting to me than 'perfect heroes.' Jimmy's a little childish, unfocused, intelligent, funny, quirky. He's fun. He'll climb on a podium, all over a politician's speech to photograph the poor man who's just been shot, but he won't say 'bad words.' How fun is that? Writing lots of perfect heroes who all get along can get boring as hell. It's like human Smurfs. 'I love you.' 'No I love you more.' 'You're such a nice person.' 'Oh, you're a nicer person than me.' It's funny when it's the two Warner Brothers chipmunks, but it gets old when it's grown adults wearing spandex."

Some fans have commented that Superman hasn't appeared in the series enough and that his name being in the series' title is either a misnomer or a cheesy marketing ploy. "Not at all," says Austen sternly. "He'll be around. But like I imagine it, in this city, there's bigger stuff he needs to deal with than what Jimmy's running into. Like the story I did Superman, 'You can't be everywhere at once...' sometimes he's busy.

"And sometimes he has some free minutes to stop by and shoot the shit with Jimmy. It's a big city."

If the names "B13" and "Lena Luthor" don't sound familiar, then you might not be alone- many elements in "Metropolis" are derived from Superman crossovers in recent years and Austen admits it's not easy to make it all accessible. "It's hard on me. (laughs). I have to read through a lot of old continuity to understand what the hell is going on. Superman's been around a long time. That's a lot of reading.

"But then, once I do understand it, it's my job to connect the dots for the reader in simple, straightforward terms. Explain it quickly and easily, and move on. If I can't explain it in a few sentences, then I don't understand it well enough to be writing it.

"As far as I can tell, it's working. No one's complained that they don't understand, and I have a lot of readers who have never read Superman before. In fact, most of the readers I have are non-Superman fans, which is funny, to me. Superman fans aren't reading it so much, but a lot of X-Men readers are, and tell me at times they like it better than 'Uncanny.' Go figure."

The positive reader response that Austen has elicited can be attributed to the subtext of "Metropolis" and its use of Jimmy Olsen as a vehicle for exploring the young adult. Austen's explored Jimmy's ambition to be more than just a photographer to Perry, a role model to Lena and perhaps even something more to a rival photographer named Rebecca, three roles that have helped many fans see Jimmy in a new light. "These things develop as you develop the idea," explains Austen. "In a way, the themes emerge as you write the concepts and put things into concrete form. You start with basic premise and the questions they bring, like: 'Okay. We're going to do a story about Jimmy Olsen. What's interesting about Jimmy Olsen? Well, he's a photojournalist for the Daily Planet, Metropolis biggest newspaper, and he's just a kid. And he doesn't swear. And he's 'Superman's pal.' But photojournalists are known for doing, seemingly, thoughtless and horrible things. How do you equate these things? And what makes Jimmy, such a star at the Daily Planet that he's friendly with the publisher and EIC, Perry White? Publishers and EIC's don't usually take the time to become friendly with the staff, like that. Why Jimmy? And what makes him pals with the journalists? Is it just because they work together? I've worked with people who I don't socialize or become pals with. Why is Jimmy 'Superman's Pal?' Is he happy as a photojournalist? Does he want more? As a kid, is he looking to do something 'bigger' with his life, as most kids do? As I did when I was his age?'

"Once you've got those questions, and a whole hell of a lot more, you build the story and deal with those issues, trying to deal with Jimmy's humanity along the way. As you progress, the themes, or subtext, begins to emerge. Lena is a 'child' in the first issues. Jimmy, becomes the mentor to someone more immature than himself, and begins to refine his own maturity through his explanations to Lena, and their shared experiences. Jimmy begins to put across ideas of "right" and "wrong" and "purpose" to her, almost as he does the same to himself, without realizing it. Suddenly, you see the theme emerge. Mentoring. The expression of experience and knowledge to the next generation.

"In issue #1, Superman mentors Jimmy with advice about becoming more 'focused,' a sort of double-entendre for what he does as a profession, in order to get what he wants. Jimmy then becomes the mentor for someone less experienced than him. He speaks to Perry to find out if Superman was correct, and Perry tells him in no uncertain terms, 'yes.' But Perry is a mentor for Jimmy, and a proud father, because Jimmy isn't just a kid photojournalist, he's a brilliant photojournalist. He has talent beyond anything Perry's ever seen, and this is why he 'mentors' the kid, why he gave him the job.

Art by Teddy Kristiansen
"But Perry's relationship with Jimmy is the disapproving dad. That's why the advice comes from Superman, and not Perry. 'Do what you're good at and make money doing, and stop dreaming and wanting more. Be satisfied with what you got.' Forgetting that, in his youth, Perry himself must have wanted more or he never would have become publisher/EIC.

"As you write answering the questions you've asked about the main characters, the themes just emerge, and you hit them harder.

"Stephen King, in his book 'On Writing,' refers to how he'll write a book, then put it away for a while. After a few months, he comes back to it and finds themes, or subtext, he didn't always notice at first. So when he goes back to do the second draft, he hits those themes a little harder, brings them out in appropriate places, adds characters, whatever, to firm up that subtext.

"It's that second draft that makes you look smarter than you are. (laughs)."

Perhaps less subtle, the latest issue of "Metropolis" showed Rebecca, Jimmy's new friend, using some kind of drug to keep herself going and offering the same thing to Jimmy. "This was actually a suggestion of the editors, and I liked it a lot, so we added it in," reveals Austen. "This is where editors are good, and help the process, which I know a lot of people claim they don't. But you need editors. You need people you trust who will tell you the truth about what you're doing.

"This particular subtext is how people often go the other way in maturity and reason. While Lena is growing and maturing, beginning the story very infantile, Rebecca is deteriorating, heading downward in a spiral assisted by her drug use, and other aspects of her personality that are yet to be revealed. At some point the two cross one another, and head again in opposite directions, and plays out even more dramatically as the two change perspectives.

"The idea is that maturity and growth are not always in a forward, or linear direction."

CBR News would be remiss in not mentioning a classic DC Comics character who's getting a lot of exposure in "Metropolis" and in DC/Vertigo's "Beware The Creeper" series (albeit re-imagined)- Jack Ryder, the Creeper! It's obvious from the writing that Austen has a soft spot for this character and the question many ask is… why? "He's an asshole (laughs). I love assholes! (laughs)," then, realizing how that could be taken out of context, "Or at least I love writing them. Plus, he's a horndog, which is always fun.

"Ryder is actually the 'non-linear' aspect of the maturity and mentoring subtext. Sometimes he's rational, and ahead of everyone else, and sometimes he needs Jimmy to help him move along. Sometimes he's mature, and sometimes he's not. Playing him against Jimmy was a natural. The 'angel' and the 'devil.' Dark and unstable to Jimmy's light stability. And their dialogue is just a blast.

Art by Teddy Kristiansen
"For me, this is where Creeper shines. As a secondary character. He's so out there, that you need to play him off of someone else. And he's great fun. Direct, rude, sarcastic, smarmy, but brilliant, in his own way."

In this day and age of comics, fans have raised the bar for what they consider to be "real" enough work and Austen says that he tried to make the series as true to real life journalism as possible, but that fans need to accept that, frankly, this is Superman's Pal we're talking about. "I've tried. I did a lot of research, and I have a friend who's a reporter for the LA Times, who I continue to question. The unfortunate thing is ... well ... it's like Star Trek. It all comes back to 'Star Trek' (laughs). The real Captain of a ship never gets involved in the adventures. Perry White would never socialize with Jimmy. Or it's highly unlikely. Jimmy would deal with a photo-editor. So we introduced Grace. And Perry hanging with beat reporters might happen, but not to the friendly level that Perry and Lois and Clark hang out. But that's the concept, isn't it? You have to go with those rules.

"And a lot of reporting is being on the phone, confirming facts, backing up sources, and not always getting final answers. So things get fudged a bit, but I try my best to keep it close to realistic. Photojournalists are known to have drug problems, etc."

Another industry known to sometimes have problems is the comic industry and sadly, "Metropolis" has not been spared from problems internally. Issue #7 will see a new penciller on the series, Teddy Kristiansen and the departure of Danijel Zezelj was sudden, explains Austen, who when asked by CBR News for the reasons behind the new Penciller answers, "Honestly? I don't know. I think it has something to do with the coloring. He wasn't happy with that, I know. And there were some rumblings of maybe he didn't like the scripts. But I really don't know. He wouldn't talk to Eddie or Tom at the end, there, and he pretty much quit by e-mail. Maybe they know more about it than I do.

"I was really sorry to see him become so unhappy and go. I love his work. He's one of the main reasons I did this book in the first place."

Though Austen may miss his former penciller, he couldn't be happier with the replacement and raves about Kristiansen. "I've only seen a few pages, but they're great. Teddy brings a sense of charm to the characters, as well as the darkness that the ending of the series needs. His first issue is called 'Superman's Pal' and it shows why Superman and Jimmy are friends. Not just because Superman's alter ego works with Jimmy, but because these two men like one another, and enjoy one another's company. And they have a mutually beneficial relationship. Superman is the mature friend who mentors his 'pal' and Jimmy is the guy who can make Superman laugh and forget his troubles."

For better or worse, one of the staples of Superman comics for the past few years has been crossovers and Austen maintains that his series will not be crossing over with the other Superman books, though it will have a big impact on their content. "No, there's no crossover. Metropolis is it's own graphic novel. It will have a huge impact on the Superman series' in general, once it's done, and it has some fun guest stars, but it's stand alone and has no crossovers."

And is there any truth to the rumor that Austen will be taking over one of the Superman comics? CBR's "Lying In The Gutters" ran a rumor recently that Steve Seagle and Joe Kelly may be departing their respective series, "Superman" and "Action Comics" soon, but will Austen join the S-team? "I don't know. Is there any truth to it? (laughs). I rely on the Internet to keep me up to date on what I'm doing."

Chuck Austen has never made any secret of the fact that he's a big fan of manga and that he feels the American comic industry could do a lot better if they learned from the Japanese model. But what many fans may not realize is how strong and how deep his views are, so when CBR News asked him what's wrong with the industry, he responded as only he can. "Well, everyone knows the problem, overall. Fewer fans and readers, with publishers desperately trying to reach a new and bigger audience. Everyone in the industry talks about it and how to 'fix the problem,' so much so that it's referred to now as 'The Talk.' Is it continuity? Retailers? Publishers? Creators? Superhero boredom? Storytelling skills? Color? Art style? What? All of these things have been addressed, in one form or another, with relative success and failure, mostly failure, and 'The Problem' still exists. These were the baby steps to the final, biggest problem.

"'The Biggest Problem' is actually pretty simple now, really, and has been for a while, but it's finally becoming clearer to everyone as to how it can be solved. Three words. Distribution/Accessibility. Price. Content. Well, sort of four words.

"Many creators have kids, and they know those kids will read comics if they can find them. Comics have been off the radar for so long, that now there's not much of a stigma attached to them anymore, so kids'll pick them up and read them because, in their mind, comics are about characters they see in movies, now. Spiderman, Batman, X-Men, Hulk. Super hero comics, anyway.

"Kids come over to our house and dive into the piles of the comics I own. Everything from 'Batman Adventures' to 'Ultimate Spider Man,' to old Archies I keep around for my girls. But my house is the only place these kids see these comics. They know about comic shops, but the nearest one is downtown, is hard to find, and it's not near anything they go to regularly. More importantly, they forget to go there because they're not 'fans' they're kids and 'readers' who only think of comics when they see them. So distribution/accessibility is an issue. Not accessibility from a content standpoint, from a 'where can I buy it?' standpoint.

"On those rare occasions when they wander into a comics shop, they pick up one, maybe two comics, and then it goes off the radar again for a few months, until they happen to be in the neighborhood again and say 'Mommy! Can we go there?'

"They buy one or two comics because the damn things are expensive. I've heard on more than one occasion, a mother saying loudly and with surprise in a comics shop, 'Three bucks! Why so much?! You can have one.' So cost is an issue.

"So cost and distribution are the main things.

"Now. Anyone who has been to a bookstore knows that graphic novels are available there, usually in the science fiction section in one dump at the end of an aisle. Great. There's accessibility in a place where parents don't mind going, and often already go. Bookstores are in malls, shopping centers, and convenient locations around the world. Batman, Superman, Spider Man, all of 'em can be found there. And they sell. The trade business is booming, relatively. But the books are fifteen to twenty bucks, or more. So they sell 'relatively' well.

"But if you take a look, recently, there's a newcomer in those sections, and they're taking over.

"Manga.

"TOKYOPOP, ComicsOne, Viz, Dark Horse, and more coming. The section is growing, to the point where it's pushing the American content off the shelves. At the American Booksellers Association here recently, there was a big discussion about how book sellers wanted to increase this manga section because the stuff was flying off everyone's shelves. These sections regularly have readers four and five deep, browsing, reading, buying, and coming back regularly, because their parents come in regularly, and the stores are conveniently located. TOKYOPOP is doing so well, they recently beat Marvel and DC combined in all GN sales categories, and had a book on the bestseller list. They sell these books at under ten dollars for 200 pages of content, and it appeals to the demographic of today.

"And most of their readers are girls.

"That's the shocking part. This supposed audience that American comics can't reach, the audience one retailer once told me 'has no interest in comics' is the biggest percentage of buyers for these 8, 9, and ten dollar manga paperback books.

"Why is manga doing better than American comics?

"Some people would argue that it's because these fans are anime fans who are picking up the books because they know the anime. Well, Marvel has three hit movies about their properties on the stands right now, and it's not getting people to beat a path to their door. I think anime helps, but it's no longer the real reason. Or rather reasons.

"One. They're cheap. Under ten dollars for a lot of content. Two, they're accessible. You can find them in book stores, video stores, magazine shops ... and in more venues all the time. And three, most importantly, the content speaks to a more contemporary teen and young adult. It's violent, it's intense, it's sexy, and it has heart. The Comics Code would never allow ninety percent of what's in these books, and even Marvel's supposed more 'lenient' codes are still thirty years out of date. Hell, I can't write in 'Uncanny' half the shit that happened in 'X-Men 2.'

"So we have price? Affordable for the amount of content. We have the ease of access? Parents go into bookstores all the time, or teens can reach them more easily than comics shops. And we have content that's varied, and more up to date in it's sensibilities, more in line with what kids can and do see in movies and cable television all the time, these days. There's more that helps, but this is the main stuff.

"And these comics are great. Sorry, but they beat the crap out of American Superhero comics, hands down. I'm an immense manga fan from waaaaaaaaaay back, my favorite comics creator ever is Mitsuru Adachi ('Touch,' 'Rough,' 'H2,' 'Short Program'), and I love this stuff. The stories are terrific, the art interesting and innovative, and the stories are well told.

"'GTO' from TOKYOPOP is currently my favorite manga book. It's harsh, crude, and right up my alley. It's about a 21 year old virgin who decides to teach high school so he can make it with teenage high school girls, and winds up becoming a great teacher in the process. And he never gets laid. It's crass, out there, and hysterical, and neither Marvel nor DC would ever publish it, and I can't wait for each new volume.

"'Love Hina' is TokyoPop's best seller, and it's about a girls dorm, and the boy who runs it. Lots of kids in hot tubs, falling on love, and relationship stuff. Dynamite. 'Inu Yasha,' 'Initial D,' 'Ranma 1/2,' 'Prowling Red Devil,' 'Akira,' 'Battle Royale' ... the list goes on and on. Each and every one of them is more interesting to me than most super hero comics. The stories have a beginning, middle and end, for the most part. Built in obsolescence. The fans follow creators, not concepts and characters that never die and have built up sixty years of convoluted continuity. Just like regular publishing.

"And the fans are young, new, and don't frequent comics shops. They are girls and boys, young men and women, and their sales are bigger in the GN section than either Marvel or DC ... and growing. And not a superhero in sight.

"Now, in my opinion, this is the future of comics. Inexpensive, paperback book comics that reach a contemporary audience, and are not based in a 'common universe.' Marvel made this work for them in the sixties and beyond, but now it's a three hundred pound albatross, this shared universe, endless continuity thing. But everyone knows my position on that subject, so I'll let that go.

"Soon, companies like TOKYOPOP will rule the industry, and the face of the market will change. This is just like the industry when it first began. Comics were primarily reprint material from newspapers, and then someone created Superman, and it all changed. New material sold well, even better than reprint material, and it became a billion dollar industry.

"Right now, this manga paperback book market is in that same stage in this country. It's mostly Japanese reprint material, and soon, someone's going to come along with the 'American manga' that blows the doors off the business, and we have a replay of the early years of four color comics. It will happen, and within the next three years, American manga will have supplanted four color superhero comics as our primary business. It's where I was trying to go with 'War Machine,' and soon, someone will make it a reality and become filthy stinking rich as kids and adults come back to 'comics.'"

"I just hope it's me. (laughs)."

On that note, one superhero related comic that does entice Austen is obviously "Superman: Metropolis" and he teases fans regarding the events of upcoming issues. "the end of the Tech in Metropolis. The deaths of some major characters, and a battle that nearly tears the city apart, with Jimmy right in the middle."

If you haven't picked up "Metropolis" yet, Austen says any issue is the perfect one, adding, "I try to keep each issue accessible, yes. And anyone who doesn't understand, I'll be happy to explain it to them. Just send me an e-mail, care of Arune. (laughs)."

Discuss this story on CBR's Superman Forum.

 
CBR News