Justice League of Austen: Chuck Austen talks "Worldwatch," Superman & leaving "X-Men"

Fri, July 2nd, 2004 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

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[Chuck Austen]
Chuck Austen
He's hated and feared by some of a fan base that he's sworn to entertain.

Since his photo from a Los Angeles comic convention was released on CBR, he's become a sex symbol for many comic book readers.

His work at DC Comics is generally acclaimed and his work at Marvel Comics has met with criticism. But almost all his work constitutes some of the best selling and most consistent comics of the last few years.

His name is Chuck Austen and this is his CBR News interview where he speaks on "Worldwatch," his new creator owned superhero series hitting shelves in a few weeks.

"The high concept is: Superheroes meets 'The Shield," explains Austen. "What if the premiere group of superheroes were real people, some corrupt and some not, rather than perfect individuals who always made the 'right' or 'ethical' or 'heroic' choice, and they were co-existing in a difficult situation. Whose definition of 'right,' or 'ethical,' or 'moral' do these heroes adhere to?

"Worldwatch" #1
"So 'WorldWatch' is dealing with the question of what it would be like to be a super hero in an "office" or police station type environment, where all the people you work with are not people you necessarily like, but still need to get the job done, and sometimes you can't because you so vehemently disagree.

"If you've ever worked in an environment (and who hasn't?) where you do like some people, don't like others, there's office politics, interoffice affairs, and backstabbing, you'll see where this is going. But now imagine if everyone has powers and secret identities? And all the while you're dealing with incredibly powerful world stopping villains who really want to destroy the world, or take it over, and kill lots of people in the effort, and you can't agree with your co-workers on what's the best approach? How do you come through that and maintain your humanity?"

Most readers are familiar with Austen's high profile work on "Uncanny X-Men" and his acclaimed work on "Action Comics," where he doubled the sales of the series in only a month. But those series have existing parameters, established over decades and one has to wonder if Austen feels some trepidation with these new characters that he's created. "Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I'm out there on my own, a hundred feet above a flaming pit with no continuity to help me out, no pre-established characters, no built in audience, and living and dying on my own dime, entirely. Sure, that's scary. But it's also exciting. Very, very exciting. Because I'm really, really relying on myself, and of course, Tom's [Derenick, artist on the series] brilliance, and enjoying every decision, and if it works, it could pay terrific creative dividends. I just don't think about the possibility that it could not work out [laughs]."

Looking at the preview art, included with this article, many fans will notice that the characters resemble heroes from "Avengers" and "JLA," the former of which Austen has concluded his work on and the latter on which he will be showcasing his talents this summer. So who are these somewhat familiar heroes? "The cast of characters are primarily those set up on the first page of the first issue. War Woman, Doc Gulliver, Sgt. Mercury, Intercessor, and Tiger Princess. They're the most prominent members of WorldWatch, and they have tense, interpersonal relationships. It says on the first page, but some of the members lead to the downfall of WorldWatch--this is essentially the last story of the team, how it was destroyed, and those five are the major players.

"There are other secondary characters, Omnia, Satyr, Fastball, Regulator, Pharaoh, Qaballa, and some other villains, but the five above are the focus, and core of the story."

"Worldwatch" #2
Austen is aware of the similarities, at least visually, to established characters and if he does proceed to create similar characters, it's interesting to wonder what he'll say about these characters that he couldn't say about the characters in their "real" series. "The archetypes seem similar, because of the look and some similarities in background, or what have you," says Austen, refuting claims that he's lampooning the JLA or Avengers for his own creations. "But only if the powers define the hero. These characters are not copies of any JLA or Avenger archetypes. In fact, the powers are secondary to who these people are.

"WorldWatch is about people. People who just happen to have powers, and most of the time use them to save the world. But they're not all magnanimous or heroic. Some are, to a degree, but even the most heroic ones have their flaws. There are some you will like, some you will despise, and some you will love to hate.

"In the JLA or Avengers, you have characters with similar personalities, for the most part, and you pretty much like everyone even if you have favorites. In fact, some fans complain when you add that one character they don't like who causes problems, but that's what makes 'story' interesting. It's where the idea of 'franchise' versus 'story' comes in. It's very, very hard to do both. In WorldWatch, there is no franchise. It's all story.

"In mainstream, JLA or Avengers, the heroes are all heroic, all left wing leaning, more or less. All use their powers in non-fascistic ways, ultimately, to 'stop bad guys' and for 'the betterment of mankind.'

"In WorldWatch, it's more a 'what if the survivalist down the road got super powers and joined your team?' How do you compete when your husband's cheating on you with Super Woman? How many guys would use the powers and spandex to get laid? How many women would? And when they had the chance, would they go out and save the world, or stay in bed? And whose definition of 'right' and 'wrong' are they using? Who would be in charge? How would they get along long enough to do the job? How does the in-fighting affect the outcome of world-ending battles?

"Worldwatch" #4
"It's a much grayer world than either JLA or Avengers, and more fun to write about, honestly, because the stakes are higher. Not that JLA and Avengers aren't a ton of fun from a childhood memory point of view. But this is more about how the characters make the story, rather than how the story involves the characters, which is a subtle but important distinction, to me.

The series is scheduled as a six issue mini series, but that's not because Austen is testing waters- this series is all he has to say about the characters… for now. "Originally, it was just this and then over. One arc, one trade. But as you play with the characters, more possibilities come to mind.

"I'm saying a lot in the first arc, but there's turned out to be more to say. If it sells, it's entirely open to expansion. I have a second arc ready to go, if this one succeeds at all. But right now, it's a labor of love. There's no money in it. So it'll go to the first seven issues and a trade, and I'll gauge it from there. If it ends, it will wrap up nicely, as a package. If it continues, it will leave things open for that, just a bit. Very different, with some characters gone, but possible."

If you ever have the opportunity to speak to Austen, there's one thing you'll definitely learn: the man is never going to be happy with his work, no matter the acclaim and he aims to push his craft even further. "Worldwatch" is no exception and Austen says, "First, there are no predetermined outcomes. The screen is blank, and I can throw anything I want up there. Some characters will live, and some will die. Some will betray, and others will rise heroically to help others. Heroes will fly and heroes will fall. Nothing will be expected, or predictable. Anything is possible. There are no preconceived notions or pre-existing fan-base with these characters, so I can ruin them in any way I see fit [laughs]. In any way that serves the story, which means the story takes precedence over anything else.

"My goal was to take the super hero concept and play with it in a more mature, adult context, and tell some interesting stories that catch people off-guard. Because, like so many of us, I enjoy the super hero idea, but I'm bored with the middle of the roadness of it. I loved 'Watchmen.' 'Dark Knight.' 'The Authority.' 'Planetary.' All pushed this concept further, and in more interesting directions. I wanted to do that, but with a wider tableau of characters who are more like people I've known in my life.

"Worldwatch" #1, Page 4
"So this is a series for people who are bored with the obvious outcome, and want something unexpected and out-of-the-box. To that end, I'm utilizing my storytelling skills to their maximum by unleashing them with no holds barred, like I did in 'War Machine' and 'Eternal,' to go places people will not expect, and hopefully, entertain them with that unexpected.

With the personal nature of this project, it's reasonable to assume that Austen would be facing a tough decision with choosing a penciller (a job in which Austen is skilled, but has been prevented from doing due to injury), but a one issue gig on "Superman" brought him a kindred soul- Tom Derenick. "We worked together on a Superman story, 'Superman' 188, and Tom did an amazing job following my scripts, putting in all the detail and work that made the story come alive in a big, grand way. But he also did the small things so damn well -- expressions, subtlety, humor, emotion. He was the perfect choice for something like this, and like me, he loves superheroes, and wanted to do something big and surprising. I can't imagine a better collaborator. He's the best.

"He has also brought in some characters of his own, or of his own design, that I built personalities around. So he has a strong creative voice in this project, as well. He designed all the characters looks, and costumes, and had a lot of ideas for specific scenes and interaction. A lot of the characters themselves were designs and names that Allan Jacobsen [writer of Marvel Comics' 'Invaders'] came up with, but Tom made them his own.

"[What makes Tom so strong is] His attention to detail, and his sensitivity as a person. He brings out the soft side in every situation, the heart, and then he'll bust someone's head open, and explode them through a wall. He's got it all, for exactly this kind of series. Plus his work is just nice to look at. Attractive people, well-drawn, powerful and stylish. He's also got a little of that John Buscema retro feel that makes it feel grander and bigger than life. Tom's awesome. I'm so pleased with this book, and how it looks. And Norm Rapmund's inks are just bringing his pencils to life."

There's a certain malaise among comic book fans these days, with many feeling frustrated by the dominating super hero genre and while Austen, as he mentioned, loves superheroes, he feels the genre needs a boost. "I agree, the genre is getting stale. Sixty years of stories, intricate and involved continuity, and repeating villains who never give up or get a clue. Keeping it fresh means looking at it from new angles. This ['Worldwatch'] has violence, nudity, strong language, strong characters. This book is to Super Heroes what 'Deadwood' is to westerns. It's edgy, dark, but with strong characters you can relate to and understand. You even wind up liking the bad guys, and want to see more of them all. At least it feels that way to me. I'm hoping the audience finds that, as well."

Worldwatch" #1, Page 5
There's been a lot of acclaim and excitement surrounding the work that Austen's done thus far on the Superman series "Action Comics" and he's honestly not sure why people are responding so positively to this series and not his other work. "Got me," laughs Austen. "Because he's happy? Because he's funny and entertaining? Because he's bad-ass? Because it's just a fun, summer read? I don't know, but I'm glad. It's surprising, even to me. I hoped people would like it, and I know I did, but it was a tremendous gamble. I enjoyed working on it, and I know Eddie and Tom did, as well, and hoped it would be a breakout hit. But who honestly knew for sure?"

Even more surprising, his work on "X-Men," done much in the style of Austen's work on "Uncanny X-Men," has received much more positive reviews from critics and fans, a fact which floors Austen. It also raises a bigger question: if some readers, who have seemingly made hating Chuck Austen a passionate hobby, begin to like his work, who will fans blindly hate instead? "You're kidding me! That can't be true!" laughs Austen when told of reviews that weren't a 1/10. "If it is, God only knows, but I'll take it. [If you can't hate me anymore] So find a life, Arune! I can't keep providing one for you! [laughs] There are other people out there to hate!

"I don't know, maybe I woke up on the right side of the bed, this morning. Someone did a voodoo spell to break my curse. I'm not doing anything that differently. I looked at the concept and did what I thought made it unique and special and fun. I got great support from editorial, and that helped. But who knows? Maybe people have just given up. 'He won't leave, we may as well start liking him [Laughs]."

But, if the rumors in Rich Johston's "Lying In The Gutters" are true, as they often are, Austen is leaving "X-Men" pretty soon. So is it true? "Yep. The press release should be out by the time you read this. It's scheduled for Friday. It all has to do with that desire to do edgier material, like in manga, or in independent publishing. Marvel's new internal policies are heading the other way, and it was too difficult for me to write that way. I felt they would be better served by a different writer, and while they didn't agree at first and thought I could work with the changes, they eventually understood, and we agreed to part ways. I stayed long enough for them to find a suitable replacement."

Worldwatch" #1, Page 6
Not limiting his creative palette to superheroes, Austen has been talking to the arguably biggest manga provider in America, namely TokyoPop, about a sports series. "I've got a baseball comic pitch in at TokyoPop, right now," he reveals. "I've got my fingers crossed. It's moving forward. It's a romance comic about a guy who's given up on baseball, and is talked back into joining his college team because the coach is desperate for talent. This guy initially says 'no' and then finds out a girl he likes also plays on the team, so he changes his mind.

"Pat Olliffe and I are working on one in our spare time, that I like a lot. It's a fantasy, murder-mystery, romance. I'm beginning drawing again, and have started working on something new that's geared in that manga direction. Or maybe it'll be a Vertigo pitch. I don't know, yet.

"I like the manga market because it's new, young readers and it's growing faster every day. The trade numbers are beating out Marvel and DC on a regular basis, and the manga market is more skewed towards women, but with a pretty good split between boys and girls, men and women. I tend to have a strong, female readership, especially new readers, so I think I'm very geared toward that market. The material is also more edgy, and shall we say, risque? Sexy? It calls to me [laughs]."

Worldwatch" #1, Page 21
If nothing else, Austen is ambitious and when asked what other projects fans can expect to see from him, he hints at even more than you might expect. "All of the above, hopefully. I like all the projects I've mentioned, and I want to see them all in print and finding an audience. Then there's 'Flywires,' and some other pitches I'm preparing for Humanoids."

It's been some time since Austen has been seen penciling- it was years ago that his collaboration with Brian Bendis on "Elektra" was released- and fans of his art may have to wait a bit longer to see more visual art from him. "I'm working on it, now. I had a long period off, because of the severed rotator cuff tendon, but now I'm almost back to full use of the arm, and I've been practicing drawing, again. But I want it to be a slow return. Nothing with a tight deadline again, for a while. So, eventually, yeah. And probably on something of my own."

Love him or hate him, you'll have your own chance to meet Chuck Austen this July at the Comic-Con International in San Diego. "I'll be at the DC booth, hanging with Eddie, Fletch and Matt. But not much else. I want to be close to home and hang with my new son, so I'm curtailing the travel, this year, to just local stuff."

 
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