Metropolis Ain't Big Enough: Chuck Austen Exclusively talks 'Action Comics'

Wed, July 30th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

[Chuck Austen]
Chuck Austen
If you haven't heard, DC Comics is taking their Superman comic book line to the next level and one of the key architects of that line is Chuck Austen, writer of Marvel Comics' "Uncanny X-Men," "The Eternal" and DC's own "Superman: Metropolis." He's also previously tackled "War Machine" and "Captain America" for Marvel Comics, as well as the Superman monthly books last year with some fill-in work. And now, as CBR News has learned, Austen will be writing one of the core Superman comics next year.

You could say he has some experience with iconic characters.

Along with the crme de la crme of DC's talent, Austen is going to present a new spin on the world's greatest superhero and he explains, there's a simple reason why Superman is the world's finest. "He's the original. The icon. The first Superhero. In a lot of respects, the only superhero. I put a joke in one of my Superman scripts where Lois is talking on the phone to a friend about how similar another movie seemed to 'Superman's' story. And she's talking about 'Spider-Man.' All these other characters owe their lives and existence to Superman. Without Superman, there would be no 'industry' for good or bad.

"I own one autograph that I display. One. It's Jerry Siegel's autograph, and a sketch of Superman. I'm very proud of it."

A lot of writers and artists would undoubtedly love to work on Superman, and with Batman, he's arguably number one on most creator's list of dream projects. But Austen didn't need to make any phone calls- DC Comics called him. "Eddie Berganza [Superman Editor] asked me. He asked me a lot. I kept saying no, and he kept sweetening the deal. Not financially, but from the standpoint that I could make fundamental changes to the character to make him more interesting to me. Of course, maybe I should have been thinking financially (laughs)."

And which series will Chuck Austen be writing? "Action Comics. The original book," says the scribe with unbridled enthusiasm. "So cool. I believe they all [the Superman comics with new creative teams] debut in March, but Eddie can give you more specific dates."

Like he revealed above, Austen wasn't interested in working on the Superman titles till he was able to makes some changes and flex his creative muscles. This didn't mean getting rid of Superman's powers and giving him shoulder pads to match his spanking new vacuum guns, but simply the chance to move the mythos forwards. So what attracted Austen to the Superman comics? "Initially? Nothing," admits Austen. "Superman is such an icon, you can't really do anything with him for fear of screwing up some licensing deal or other. Therefore, his sales are less important to the company than maintaining his 'status quo.' That can make for some pretty dull stories. You literally can't do anything to surprise people because you can't screw up what people paid lots of money for as a property outside comics.

"Superman's been like that a long time. And he's the original, so he's the oldest, he's almost 70 now, isn't he? So most of the interesting stories have been done, and had been for a long time. I thought he was fairly boring when I was a kid, so I never read them then. I was a character guy, so I loved Marvel stuff. Superman was plot driven. Didn't interest me.

"But I wrote a couple stories that were pretty much 'out of the box' as far as DC thinking was concerned, and it invigorated Eddie. He liked the fresh approach, and got very enthusiastic about my ideas. So he asked me 'If you were to write Superman, how would you handle it?' and I did some research. I read tons of Superman stuff, and the only work that grabbed me was the original Siegel and Schuster material. Brilliant in its charm and simplicity. I loved it.

"But it also made me hate Lois. She was a horrid bitch! She was outright cruel to Clark and never gave him the time of day until she learned he was Superman. Talk about your original gold-digger! (laughs) Jeez.

"But what charmed me about the original was Superman's sense of humor. He was light, funny, charming, and violated civil rights left and right. He was no boy scout. He carries the bad guy along power lines at one point to scare information out of him! Great stuff. So amazingly fun. As I said before, it was the original in so many ways, and one of those ways was adolescent gratification through power fantasy.

"So I told Eddie. Look. If you want me to write Superman, that's the Superman I want to write. He's got to be funny, charming, intelligent, and not a mouthpiece for America. He's the champion of the little guy. The hero for the common man. Righting wrongs and kicking ass, and shlubbing through life as Clark Kent.

"For a long time, Eddie couldn't give me that. Now he can, and he's going to. Look out die-hards. With me and Greg and Brian, Superman's about to get interesting. (laughs). Now I can have both X-fans AND Superman fans hating my guts and shredding me online. Can't wait. (laughs)."

Before fans tear Austen apart, CBR News asked what he believes mas made Superman such an eternal character for so many year. "Marketing," laughs Austen. "Licensing. Underoos. No, honestly. It's, to me, the themes I hit on earlier. He's the common man hero. Regular Joe who's tougher than anybody. And yet he's the schlub who can't get the girl in real life. But if she only knew the REAL me ..."

But in the case of Clark Kent, Austen believes the character isn't so unique and one of his main tasks as a writer of the original Superman comic will be to make Clark Kent, well, interesting. "Well, he's not so unique anymore, is he?" asks the writer of "Uncanny X-Men." "He's, what, a Pulitzer Prize winner? Star reporter of the Daily Planet? Lives in a Penthouse? Just as popular as Clark as he is as Superman? Bleh. How can anyone relate to this guy? No wonder X-Men outsells these books.

"If Clark is like that, how can normal people understand him? And what's his motivation for being Superman? He can be just as powerful as a reporter. There's no motivation other than total, magnanimous purity. I don't like that. I don't understand that, especially as a guy who works very hard for a living and has all these jealous trolls screaming for my blood online (laughs). Creating petitions to have me removed from the books I write. Perfect people are beyond me. Beyond anyone. Everyone has a bad day. Everyone has their awkward, painful moment. And we relate to and understand and like characters who experience those bad times, and then still succeed. That's life.

"I think being sanctimoniously magnanimous can be a part of someone's character. But it's more interesting, and more understandable, and more something the real world can relate to if Clark is a schlub, a loser, a guy who can't get a break like the rest of us, but he can put on the suit and go out and kick Braniac's ass across town and through buildings.

"That's human. That's interesting to regular people. That's something we can all understand. Not this perfect boy scout who doesn't show an emotion when he thinks his wife has been killed. That's beyond human, and not someone who interests me as a character. And I'd argue, not something regular readers off the street are interested in, either. And my job, as I understand it, is to find those regular readers and bring them into comics shops and back to Superman. And I plan to.

"So Clark Kent will begin having some very bad days the minute I take over for my run. I spoke to a friend of mine who works at the LA Times, and he gave me some fantastic inside information on the running of a 'great metropolitan newspaper' and he told me, 'Hey, if these characters were real, this is how their lives would go.' And he unloaded info. Great, great stuff, and just what I needed to humanize Clark and Superman.

"Clark will no longer be the star reporter. Someone is hired in his place to bring in a 'younger demographic' and Clark is shunted off to one side doing shmoe work. And the guy who replaces him is a jerk who he hates, and Clark can't understand. This makes no sense. He's a great writer, blah, blah, blah. Just like you and I feel when someone doesn't give us our due. When someone else is given the promotion we deserved.

"And that's just the beginning."

Some readers might already be fuming- "what, you're not going to keep things the way they are?"- or you might be wondering who exactly Austen plans to use to replace Clark Kent. Two things are for sure- it's not a temporary change and two, as Austen says, "When do I ever do 'business as usual?' I told Eddie when I came on that I couldn't do 'business as usual.' There are some restrictions on things I can and can't do, of course. Licensing still reigns supreme. But they've given me a lot of freedom. Way more than I ever expected, and I told Eddie if they did, I'd do the book. They did, so I am.

"And in a lot of ways, my take won't be that unique. It will absolutely hearken back to the old Siegel and Schuster days, with a modern spin. I, and anyone who works on these books owes their all to those two. This concept was brilliant and has only weakened as time has gone on.

"What will make it unique, I guess, is that, hopefully, it will all be unexpected. Everything will be fresh and surprising, and human. I don't see Clark as an alien, at all. I see him as an average Joe farmboy with incredible powers. The alien thing was just an excuse to give him powers. If we can't relate to him on any level, if he's alien and rich, and successful, and happily married-oops, did I say that out loud-then there's nothing for readers to hang onto. I already told you Clark won't be the star reporter. That's somewhat new. And that's the smallest change I asked for. Wait until you see what I do with Bizarro. And Gog is back. Woof. I'm having fun."

Approaching characters like Superman and his supporting cast has to be a daunting task and while there's a lot of fun to be had, a writer (and artist) is left with a lot of choices- do you approach them as icons? Do you bring them down to Earth and expose their frailties? With a character so iconic as Superman and fans so rabidly dogmatic, the creative forces behind the comic must struggle with this decision, but for Austen, there's only one answer. "Absolutely bring them down to Earth," he states confidently. "You can't approach them as icons. Anything that distances them from the reader, will distance that reader from the book and from caring. You have to involve the reader. You have to draw them in. Making them icons won't allow that. People relate to other people, not icons."

The first Chuck Austen storyline in "Action Comics" will set the tone for his run on the series, but he isn't set to reveal much, with the work about 8 months away from publication. "Well, I hate giving stuff away, and I already have. Let me just say, Superman will bleed, he will fail, he will lose his job, he will face his two greatest challenges, one with punching, the other with words and heart.

"And he will face it all with charm, a sense of humor, and commanding presence. People will like this guy, and admire this guy, and he won't be the boy scout that even other superheroes in the DCU make fun of. And that's just in the first issue."

For whatever reason, it seems that the Superman comics haven't seem to connect as deeply with fans (or is it readers?) as some might have expected they would in recent years, and while Austen isn't pointing fingers at any creators, he does present his own possible explanation. "Well, fans or readers? I have to make a distinction. Fans are still here. All forty thousand of them. But readers ... they're gone because of, I think, the lack of humanity. The overblown 'boy scout' side. There's a level of perfection to Superman that's irritating and dull as hell, largely, I think, as a result of the licensing. But look how interesting 'Smallville' is, and they screw with the canon all the time. 'Rule them wisely' made me stand up and cheer. My wife, who doesn't much get into comics even got excited over that. What great potential conflict!

"But Superman now, as he is, is like hanging around with that neighborhood 'happy' guy who's always smiling, never swears, and always has time to lend a hand and help small dogs across the street. They're great to have around, but after a while, you can't help but believe they're soaking babies in barrels of acid in their basement. They're too good to be true, and they annoy the hell out of you, because they make you look like crap by comparison.

"Superman was much more interesting in his original inception. He was a wise-ass, funny-as-hell fighter who kicked ass first and asked questions later. He was what I'd be if I had all the power in the universe. (laughs)"

As far as how his other cohorts on the Superman comics will offer new perspectives, Austen isn't sure, but is optimistic because of the sheer talent involved. "I don't know about those guys. We're working pretty separately. It's a fight to the death, winner take all. These are going to be some awesome Superman stories, is all I can say."

[Superman: Man of Steel #129]As previously mentioned, Austen did fill in work on the Superman comics last year and reaction to the two pieces was quite different. The first issue focused on a cop whose friendship with Superman touched readers and the second focused on Superman's rage over losing a child, a story that outraged many readers. Austen isn't oblivious to the disparity in reactions and says that he says part of it was timing. "The first issue was 'Superman as he is.' And the regular fans liked it because he was the boy scout I mentioned, and the story was touching. Good characters and humanity. It went over quite well, and I was very proud of it.

"The second story had two problems. It was a story where Superman 'loses it' over the death of a child who died of cancer. It had the misfortune of being placed after the Manchester Black story where Superman doesn't lose it, even though he's convinced that his own wife has been murdered by Black. Again, that ultra-cool, unruffable guy. Nothing against Joe Kelly. I love the guy and think he's a great writer. But that's the Superman he was given, and not the one I'd write, which brings us to problem number 2.

"The second problem was, I wrote that story as a 'How would I handle the character' which is now going to set Superman fandom aflame (laughs). 'If that's what he's going to do, then I'm out! I'll only buy two and burn one but keep the other in mint condition just in case. And complain online! A lot!'

"That Superman story was about a Superman who is human. A Superman who has emotions that can be tested. That has relationships he needs and relies on. That makes jokes, not by accident, but because he's a witty, fun, energetic guy who loves what he does. Who thrives on what he does. That's how I will write my version of Superman, so prepare the follow-up thread, Arune. It's going to explode with bile in mere moments.

"But I defend my approach in that story. As a fairly unflappable guy with intense emotions, some wit and charm, and a 2 year old niece who is currently undergoing chemo for cancer, I defy anybody to tell me I got it wrong. Fuck them. They have no clue. And that story was originally written as a 'Superman and Lois have a miscarriage.' But it was deemed too intense for the series, so I went with the other pain in my life. The fans who complained that Superman wouldn't react that way have never held a vibrant child dying in their arms, and until they do, they need to shut the hell up.

"But as an aspirin to those same fans, a lot of people at DC hated that story, too. And Eddie still fought for me (thank you Eddie, I truly love you). So I'm living on the edge, here. There's not much room for me if sales don't go up fast and stay up, I'm thinking, no matter how much people at DC liked 'Metropolis.'"

If there's one thing Austen wants fans to know he'll be stressing, it's "His humanity. Making him someone readers can relate to, and not feel preached down to, or distanced from. Making him fun and entertaining. Making his comics worth reading."

And as with every Superman writer, CBR News has to ask- how do you feel about the marriage of Lois and Clark? Of course, when you ask Chuck Austen loaded questions like that, you get to know a bit more about what's coming up in the series too. "I'm very public in my dislike of Lois. She's the original gold-digger. Clark meant nothing until he was Superman. She was horrible to him, and he chased her like a whipped puppy. Any therapist would tell you, this is not a romance made in heaven.

"So to all that, let me just say ... Lana's single again. And she liked Clark as Clark first, and then also as Superman. Much healthier.

"And, of course, Wonder Woman's still out there. But Rucka says, 'over my dead body,' and he's tough. Used to be an EMT. I respect his toughness."

Superman's rogues gallery seems to be a love or hate affair for most, save Lex Luthor, and Austen reveals which classic foes he'll be bringing back. "A few. They've asked me to come up with some new ones. I mentioned Gog, and Bizarro. There's also Killgrave, from Metropolis, who will be something new and different by the end of that maxi-series. I keep teasing Eddie about Mxyzptlk. A few others, but nothing to talk about, yet."

In his "War Machine" work and the recent "Eternal" series, Austen's shown a darker side in his writing, creating character full of complexities and shades of grey, which may lead some Superman purists to worry that their boy in blue may become very grim and gritty. "He will be bright and fun," assures Austen. "I love that about the character. But it will seem brighter and sharper in contrast to his problems. Yin and yang. Dark and light. And shades of grey in between. I can't write flat characters. Everyone has many dimensions."

While sales are up on "Uncanny X-Men," it'd be fair to say that his work on the series is controversial and it would seem that on the Internet some fans are less that happy with his work, while others seem to love it. Casual observers have to wonder how Austen expects many of these same fans- and Superman fans- to react to his "Action Comics" work. "Oh, it's not really that much controversy. It's the same twelve trolls all over the net. Most of the X-Fans are nice people, who are enjoying what I'm doing on 'Uncanny,' and mostly keep quiet so the twelve angry trolls don't molest them.

"But, honestly, it'll be worse than the X-Fans. Superman's older, and has more long term fans. I did one story in line with the direction I'll be taking, and the Internet exploded with rage and hatred. But honestly, it doesn't worry me. Some X-Fans complain loudly, but they are few. Sales are waaaaay up since I took over. If people were hating my work as much as those trolls claimed, sales would be tanking. These are just jealous people who want my job and think they're smarter than me. I can't be good, because they have different ideas. BZZZZT! Wrong answer. Thanks for playing our game. Here's your consolation prize.

"The thing about the complainers, is that they tend to be the 'comfort food' readers, and wanna-be creators. These are people who don't want to be challenged, who don't want anything to change, ever, and whose story ideas tend to be about plugging holes in continuity, not about telling actual 'stories,' if they even know what those are. These people always want the same story with the same characters, who are all good and friendly and loving, and are basically a bunch of Smurfs in New York. There's a book out right now called - I can't remember the name right now - bit it deals with a Jungian analysis of myth and points out how people become comfortable with a myth become very possessive of the telling of that myth, that it has to conform to the way they heard it and enjoyed it most, and they become angry when character and personality and plot are changed from what they love and remember fondly. Like how children get when you tell the bedtime story different the second night, or the third night. They want the way they heard it first.

"But that's anathema to story in the long term. Story is about conflict. Story is about arcs of emotion as people go through personal and spiritual changes. Story is about growth, and ideas-and in this field-entertainment. And nothing is more entertaining than surprise. Certainly not 'comfort food' writing, and nice characters.

"So I surprise people, and they complain.

"Let 'em complain. If it's anything like on 'Uncanny,' it just means I'm getting sales up and I've got job security."

There's been a lot of talk of DC's refocused energies and Dan DiDio working on making all the series top tier comics. "Well, I can't speak to the whole line, but Dan has me energized," says Austen. "I like him a lot. He's fun, he loves the business, he's a long time comics fan with a tremendous respect for the medium, and at the same time, the honest eyes to see what is necessary to make this medium contemporary. I believe he wants the books to be top tier, definitely. And it makes me feel quite proud to be included in this major relaunch. It's quite a vote of confidence on Dan's and Paul's and Eddie's and Tom Palmer Jr.'s parts. There's a lot of other writer's they could have given this slot to, and they picked me. Feels good, and I have to think it's because they only wanted the best (laughs)."

Last time CBR News spoke with Austen, he made some comments about manga and his feelings towards those Japanese comics that some fans interpreted as indicating a hatred towards superheroes. "Really? How funny," says a surprised Austen. "Sure. I don't hate superheroes at all. I love them. Especially the X-Men and Hawkman, and Power Man and Iron Fist, and Captain America, and Iron Man, and Green Lantern, and jeez, so many. Sooo many. I've always been outspoken about my love of specific superheroes, and the medium.

"But I've also been outspoken about my hatred for continuity. And this is making manga more appealing. Do you know how hard it is to write a story with a world threatening menace when everyone knows Thor is floating over New York with all the other Norse Gods? All these books tied together, all these bits of history and minutiae that fans expect you to know every single piece of? Jeez, what a nightmare. And so pointless. Anyone who disagrees does not understand story.

"I think all the books are more interesting separate from one another, not connected. I think characters should have a defined run, and then end. Someone wants to see more of the character, reprint. Or convince the creator to do another one. But make it great, make it finite. End it with a bang.

"People love a satisfying conclusion. No one wants to read or watch the same thing forever and ever, except a dwindling group of hard core fans. 'X-Files' could have stayed on forever with only 15 thousand people watching. But networks have a cutoff. Thankfully, that keeps things fresh. 'X-Files' sucked at the end and needed to conclude. Can you imagine if it hadn't?

"FOX keeps it alive and does spin-offs and keeps them alive? And then tied it into 'CSI' for a couple months, to improve ratings on a dog that used to help improve ratings. And then Mulder and Scully guest star in 'Friends'? And then 'Scrubs'? And then appeared in an episode of 'Power Rangers'? Even though ratings were falling overall? And they found a way to sell the show to the same people four times with different intro music and credit sequence to make up for losing ten times the viewership? And Gillian Anderson and David Duchovney couldn't get a job doing anything else because they had contracts with FOX that wouldn't let them leave the series and work on something else? And those fifteen thousand people kept watching and watching and complaining online because the earlier episodes, especially the ones written by Darrin Morgan, were so much better, but do they stop watching? Some do, but not most, so FOX brings Darrin Morgan back, but only pays him half of what they used to, so he hacks it out and then fans argue over the quality.

"And imagine all FOX ever tried to do was appease those remaining fifteen thousand fans because no one else would watch their network anymore, except those fans? Every show is some spin-off of 'X-Files,' some second rate 'X-Files,' and the ratings on their best show, the 'original' X-Files, has only fifteen-thousand fans? And you can now only get their network on small, black and white sets in dark alleys downtown. And then someone comes in with some fresh ideas to re-tool ten years down the road and manages to get thirty thousand fans hanging out in those alleys watching, but only by referencing all the crappy 'Scrubs' tie-in episodes that happened before, the guest appearance on 'Power Rangers', and they were happy that viewership was up? Sound pathetic? Hey, that's our industry with continuity.

"God, I'm so glad 'X-Files' just ended.

"But comics don't end, anymore. Not really. If this business were run as a real business, comics would cease to be published at DC, and most of Marvel's books would have been gone long ago. These things are kept alive for different reasons, licensing, primarily, and people are complaining? You and me are so damn lucky we're so catered to. If someone who was seriously worried about money had come along recently, superheroes would have been axed in favor of manga and Sci-Fi European graphic novels last year. Direct distribution would have been seen as the dwindling market that it is, not a growing one. From a purely profit standpoint, black and white manga sold through other channels as well as direct distribution, make a LOT more money than color versions of 'Superman: Metropolis.' Than most versions of Superman right now. It's a financial beast, and as we speak, every major publisher is looking to get into it.

"How long do you think you'll have to complain about continuity once Marvel and DC are selling ten times in dollars some new black and white manga material, than they currently sell in color superheroes? I love superheroes, but I'm not stupid people. Money talks. 'X-Files' is gone because other things draw bigger numbers. Superheroes will be gone once the business realities of manga publishing are obvious. Real readers. Bigger numbers. More moolah. Basic math.

"With five Marvel people I can make a dollar. OR with five Marvel people, I can make ten dollars. Which avenue do you think a 'profit making venture' like Marvel and DC are going to take if the people in charge are only worried about money, and not about keeping licenses alive?

"You know why the 'Death Of Superman' sold so well? Because people love a satisfying conclusion to a story, and they thought it was real. The regular world honestly believed Superman was actually going to die. Like the last episode of 'M*A*S*H,' or 'Cheers,' or 'Friends' when that happens, the numbers got bigger, because people wanted to be there for that satisfying conclusion to the story. People saw it as an interest in death, but I saw it as an interest in the finality of a story. It's human nature not to want open ended stories that run forever.

"Manga understands that. They build in obsolescence and let the creators finish when they're through. Some characters continue on and on, but those are the exception. You don't get Booster Gold going on and on and on and making guest appearances and then showing up referencing all those guest appearances for the two fans who bought all his guest appearances, while confusing the ten thousand other readers who really don't give a shit.

"I love superheroes. I hate continuity. I enjoy manga because it understands story has a beginning a middle-and most importantly-an end. It's for real people. People who like something for a while, and then move on to something else. Superheroes are ongoing, and endless, and unchangeable, and every tiny thing that ever happened to them in the last sixty-odd years is important to fans, but not to readers, and so all we have left are fans and no readers.

"Anyone with any sense would know I have to love superheroes, because I could make a lot more money writing somewhere else. And get a lot less grief, too. Comics don't pay all that well, at least not for me. I just think that, for a variety of reasons, Superheroes are dead as a medium to reach a wider audience. Unless we approach them like movies. Beginning, middle and end, and no endless, confusing continuity.

"Continuity and much of the market as it stands are for die-hard fans who have every issue of every comic indexed and categorized, and give me hell every single day of the week online because they have no life, and no one who loves them, or will touch them naked, and they have nothing better to do with their day once they've indexed last Wednesdays shipment. The more we cater to that inbred mindset, the less we will appeal to real readers, or casual fans who enjoy a good story with good characters. Those casual fans will eventually move on as they have been steadily for the last many years, leaving us with only the twelve trolls online, who will have nothing to complain about, because Marvel and DC will be gone."

The creator-owned "Worldwatch," developed with artist Tom Derenick, is also moving along quite well says Austen, but says he doesn't have more news. "Not yet, but soon."

In the end, Austen says there's one reason for everyone to try his "Action Comics:"

"Because they'll enjoy it. Absolutely."

 
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