In Depth With Chuck Austen (Part 2)

Wed, February 15th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

That sound you hear? It's the Internet cracking in half. Or perhaps it's the fact that yesterday's Chuck Austen interview has sparked a lot of reaction all over the web. Today, CBR News continues our in-depth interview with Austen, as he discusses his new projects and if you'll see him returns to comic books full time.

"Boys of Summer" #1 Page 1
CBR: Well, it's been some time, but fans are going to see a new comic book project out of you called "Boys Of Summer" this spring from Tokyopop. Let's talk about that.

Austen: Yeah, let's: I love "Boys Of Summer." I just sent a script to the editor and said, "Wow, I really like this script," just like when I sent Eddie the first few "Action" scripts at DC. He always thought there was something weird with that, liking your own work, and I'm thinking, if I'm not enjoying this, why am I doing it? I've got to like my own work or I should be a janitor. I really like "Boys of Summer" and I don't mind saying that. I just got finished looking at Hiroki [Otsuka, artist on the series]'s art for the first volume, reading the adjusted script, and found myself chuckling along. I really am proud of what I've done on that book and I'm looking forward to it coming out this spring: end of April, early May.

So, the book is a romantic comedy drama about a guy named Bud who goes to college and the coach wants him to pitch for his crappy baseball team and Bud initially doesn't want to, for various reasons, till he meets the coach's hot daughter. He starts to like her, joins the team and we go from there.

CBR: So, this is your life story, right?

Austen: My life is just one, big, romantic comedy [laughs].

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CBR: It's just like "Ranma," right?

Austen: Every time I fall into water, I change into a giant panda [laughs]. And grow boobs. [laughs]

CBR: I remember reading an interview you did with another site and someone charged that you were jumping on the manga bandwagon.

Austen: I'm jumping on any bandwagon I can find. In fact, I'm going to start flights out of the country to torture people because I think that's the next big thing [laughs]. I hear you can get lots of government funding, as long as Bush stays in office.

You just search endlessly for the bad things people say about me, don't you, Arune? But seriously, no, if you read old interviews, I started working in comics because of manga and manga is in my heart, it's a big part of where I've been, and I'm not doing it for money. I'm doing it for love. So no, there's no bandwagon to jump on. Other people are jumping on my bandwagon [laughs]. You and I have talked about this before, I think I've even said this before in other interviews, before manga was a bandwagon.

CBR: Yeah, I think I remember that.

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Austen: So you can back me up on this.

CBR: I don't want to back you up on this! The fans will come after me too, then! You're on your own.

Austen: [laughs] I'm a visionary man, who sees things coming before they happen. Like me or not, I'm the future.

CBR: [laughs] Ok, now that we know that you're really Chuck Awesome, tell us about the main characters in "Boys Of Summer."

Austen: The main character is this guy named Bud, a phenomenal pitcher, who for some reason doesn't want to pitch for the team and the first volume is about that, which has something to do with his father and how their relationship has changed his whole viewpoint on life. The other main character is Chrissie, the coach's daughter, who also plays on the team and happens to be an excellent baseball player, herself. There's Bud's best friend Manny, who has separation anxiety issues and has been spending most of his time in college cel-phoning or e-mailing his mom, since he can't break the connection. There's Boyl, the other pitcher on the team; there's a Swedish baseball player who learned how to play with sticks and rocks in his own country, and then came to the United States to play real baseball. It's a weird collection of characters and not like anything else I've written before. There's a basic romance at the center of it all, but that means it's misogynistic and offensive at it's core. [laughs]

CBR: Naturally.

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Austen: People falling in love, romance, that's the woman hating part of me [laughs]. So that's basically it, and I don't want to give too much away since the book comes out at the end of April. I'm working on the second volume right now.

CBR: So, how long do you plan to do the book?

Austen: My original plan was for six volumes. When Tokyopop first asked me to pitch, they asked for between three and six volumes. I made it so it could end in 3, 6 or continue to volume 10 if they want. It all depends on sales. They've approved the second one simply based on people around the office liking the first one, so we have to see what the sales are like for both volumes.

CBR: I was just thinking that with everything you've written, including "Boys Of Summer," your stories seem to predominantly revolve around family. I know your family is important to you, especially coming from a broken family, but what makes it so important to write about family?

Austen: Because family is the most important thing to me. Family is love and acceptance, and comfort. I have a wonderful wife, two wonderful step-daughters and a wonderful son of my own. I do come from a broken home. My dad was a Navy man, overseas all the time, my parents divorced when I was young. I wound up being raised by my mom and lived with various people when we couldn't afford to be on our own, so I've had what you've called a non-traditional upbringing. I've sometimes lived with people other than my parents, like when I lived with my grandmother for a year right after my parents divorced and money was tight, while my mother worked during the nights and slept during the days. I spent a lot of time with my cousins and became surrogate brother to one of them, for a time.

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I'm a firm believer in loving bonds between people who aren't family, but become family by connections or necessity. That's one of the reasons I was attracted to the X-Men, because it's about a non-traditional family, and Xavier represents the perfect father who offers safety, acceptance, and unconditional love. And then he dresses you in spandex and parades you around his house [laughs]. I know the other X-Men are in mortal peril and we really have to run. But Ororo? Peter? Could you put on these tight, little costumes for me, first? [breathes heavily] Yeeees. Thaaaaat's it. Oh, they fit so nice [laughs]. Other than being a bit of a perv, Xavier's the perfect dad, and brings diverse people together in family unity. Just like me.

CBR: And think about the fans: you helped create a loving bond between strangers who have come together to hate you! That's a non-traditional family!

Austen: [laughs] And I'm proud of that. Not all families love their parents, or each other and that's ok.

CBR: They're just your rebellious teenage children.

Austen: [laughs] And children have to grow up and break the bonds with their parents so they can go write their own comics. If you don't think you're better than the previous writer, there's no motivation to try for yourself.

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CBR: Do you have any more manga planned for Tokyopop? Or was this the one big story you have to tell?

Austen: I've got tons of ideas. I've got pitches in and I love talking with Rob [Valois]- he's a great editor and lots of fun. We have lunches together, talk a lot and he's considering other projects. They're probably hanging in there and hedging their bets on "Boys Of Summer Vol.1," so that'll be a deciding factor.

CBR: You've got a hentai artist, Hiroki, on the book, which proves you're a sex addict right? The fans are right about you.

Austen: I am a sex addict. I have sex online. I'm having sex right now, but I'm thinking about you, so I hope that's ok.

CBR: Yeah, I think I better talk to your wife about that [laughs].

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Austen: [laughs] I can't help it man, it's all your blogging and writing about being strip searched in airports. That just turns me on [laughs]. So, I've totally lost the point. What were we talking about? Oh, yeah. Hiroki is a former porn guy, I'm a former porn guy, and together we've come up with this very sweet, touching and romantic story about these characters. We're having a fabulous time. It just goes to show that you can find talent anywhere, even if you think it's in an area that's less meaningful. There's a weird attitude about sex in this country, particularly, and I've had far more sex than I've had fights on water towers against guys with super powers, so why people should be freaked out by the fact that I write about characters with sex lives or that I enjoy sex, is something I'll never understand.

CBR: Isn't it funny that "Strips" is the one comic you did that no one complains about?

Austen: Isn't that bizarre? I think you once mentioned that even Rich Johnston liked it or at least wrote about it positively some time back. That's so funny to me. And he probably doesn't like any of my other writing, but he liked that [laughs].

CBR: I think he mentioned that it was something seen heavily sought after in the Bristol-Con that year or something.

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Austen: I think that people respond more to your personal stuff. One of the big problems in this business, and I think I mentioned this before, is this sense of entitlement by fans and in some ways, rightly so. They feel they have more ownership of these characters than the publishers do and that's largely because some of these fans have been around longer than Joe [Quesada], Axel [Alonso], Tom [Brevoort] or even me. Chris Claremont is probably the only one whose been around longer than most fans and certainly is part of the reason why he's still so revered, because he still has a rightful claim as the originator of a lot of these popular characters. When the "X2" movie was being premiered at San Diego Con before it came out, Chris and I were there together at the Bryan Singer panel, off to one side, and Chris was just glowing. I patted his shoulder and said, "Congratulations. How does it feel to see characters you created coming to life, this way?" And he was so proud, visibly, even a little overwhelmed, I think, to see these characters that he'd had a hand in making, in a film that treated his work with such respect and dignity. Whatever anyone may think of Chris' writing, positive or negative, he made the X-Men what they've become. He "owns" them, more than any other creator out there by virtue of his longevity and creative input, and he still gets treated badly by fans who feel more connected to these characters than they think he is. That sense of ownership, of "I've been reading since I was two. These are my characters," is what fans have about the X-Men, and even Thor, Iron Man, Harry Potter and others, and when you come and fuck around with what they're used to, they take it personally and there's nothing you can do about it. They've been there longer than you, they know the characters better than you, how they should react, etc., and you screwed it up. It doesn't matter what you did, it isn't whether yours is "good" or not, it's how they saw the character or situation, which will invariably be different from your perspective, and so it's wrong. It's really a "no-win" scenario. People can only put that aside when you work on a project of your own and then there isn't a sense of entitlement and investment, although, as I mentioned, even JK Rowling has troubles, so it doesn't surprise me that people like my own, personal stuff more than they like my X-Men or Superman or JLA or whatever.

CBR: Why come back to comics then? Some people might think you want pity, or you're a jerk and someone's going to say something. So why come back?

Austen: You're reading this stuff online aren't you? [laughs] And you wonder why I don't go online.

CBR: I'm actually all 800 people who hate you. I just have different user names and no life.

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Austen: [laughs hysterically] I knew it was you! [laughs] I knew it! But the fact is: I'm not coming back to "comics." You have to distinguish. There are several different comic markets: the superhero or "mainstream" market, that goes through comic shops; there's manga in English, which is primarily sold through bookstores and doesn't rely on comic shops much at all; there's Humanoids, whose stuff is big in Europe; there's manga sold only in Japan. There are so many markets open to me that aren't "comics" as the fans think of it, and unless someone backs up the money truck to my house and showers me in hundred dollar bills all day long, I can't imagine coming back. Axel and I have discussed it a number of times because we like each other, but he knows the fans would never tolerate it. Perhaps sometime in the future when people hate me less, like, say, the year 3024, then I could look at it. But I really don't even want to. I'm absolutely serious when I say super heroes are not the direction for me. I'm not coming back. For all the people nervously sweating out there, don't worry, it ain't happenin' [laughs]. I will never, willingly, write another superhero comic book.

CBR: But what if you and Rob Liefeld worked on a comic book together? Would the universe implode?

Austen: It would. Wouldn't that be great? [laughs] It would be like the end of "Poltergeist" when the house gets sucked into the black hole, except it would keep going and going like the Energizer bunny, and everything would keep getting sucked in, except me and Rob.

CBR: He's someone who's been hated and vilified for many years and it makes you wonder if the hate ever ends.

Austen: I don't know and I don't care. The hate affects me not at all, anymore. My career is completely separate from that, and when I run into people who cross from that world into the world I write in now, they always say how much they liked my work in comics, how the inventiveness and the heart I brought to my super hero projects make me very desirable in this world, moreso than in that one. That's why I don't plan to come back. Really, what's the point? People don't want me writing superhero comics, people do want me writing novels and screenplays, and I'd rather be writing this stuff anyway, so why can't we all just be happy for each other?

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CBR: In the most skillful segue way ever, you've got a book from Humanoids, "Flywires," which is doing quite well in Europe.

Austen: Yeah, it's gotten great reviews and great sales for someone who has never sold anything in Europe, to a market that doesn't care about superheroes or the American marketplace. It's also got some buzz here in Hollywood, which is nice. In Europe, they make their judgments on each project's merits and go from there. I'm happy with the fact that it's selling so much and we're talking about other projects. It's another book I'm having a lot of fun with. It's sci-fi, set aboard an Aeon ship. It's a hard boiled detective story in space based around this environment that has very specific rules about how they can live, how they can behave, how they can communicate with each other, how many people can live and survive, to keep the ecological balance.

For those who don't know what an Aeon ship is, the concept is to take a bunch of people and put them on a ship, expecting that they will never see their destination, but their great, great, great grancdhildren will see the final destination. I always wondered what it'd be like for the people in the middle, who don't feel any connection to the past or future and for them, this is it. They don't really give a shit about the mission or getting there. It's a great metaphor for life: taking care of supplies, being aware of the environment, since any bad change affects everyone. It's an issue that affects us greatly these days, since we're living in an oil age, global warming, and all that. I'm proud of it, and the response has been tremendous. European fans are more discerning [laughs].

CBR: It's a three volume series, with the last volume out in the summer, so when do we see it over here?

Austen: All three volumes will be combined into one volume for distribution in the United States and it'll be in English. I think it's only in French right now.

CBR: So, might there be some spin-offs from the book? Like "Flywires: Voyager" or something?

Austen: [laughs] Yeah, and then only if I can use Jeri Ryan. I actually met her many years ago when I first moved to L.A and she was with her kid at this children's museum, and this was near the end of "Voyager," and I was with my stepdaughter, and we briefly talked. She was a real nice lady, very sweet and I don't want to say anything disparaging about her, but I admire her talents immensely [laughs]. Now I've ruined her career [laughs].

"Flywires" #1 An unused cover to "Flywires"
CBR: Let's talk about the other work you've been doing. You had a series on the SciFi channel, right?

Austen: Yeah, "Tripping The Rift" was on Sci-Fi for a couple of years. Chris Moeller and I created that long ago, far away, so long ago it's hard to remember. It wound up being put on SciFi and we created all the concepts and ideas, the clowns, the Confederation, all that. Some story ideas. But we didn't have much input on the series, itself, as they refused to pay us so we walked. But it did well on the air, in its first season, and then on DVD. Which is great, because now Hollywood calls for other things, but as is typical, they tell you they want something and want to sell it right away, but two years later you've jumped through 150 hoops, part of a script and you're waiting on development. But I'm still writing for a living and haven't had to go back to animation, and I'm having a great time. I've just finished my first novel, that will hopefully be out early next year. It's based on a joke I did in the second issue of "WorldWatch," and it's called "I Love Nekkid Bottumz." I started writing it just because it made me laugh, and now it's getting some real interest. I'm always having fun, so I can't complain.

CBR: Anything going on with "Worldwatch?" You've mentioned the possibility of a television version.

Austen: You tell me? You read it, right?

CBR: Yeah, all 3 issues.

Austen: Can you see something like that as a television series? We're pitching it around right now and there's some interest. It's got that "Desperate Housewives" crossed with the "JLA" vibe that interests people. There've been talks about both a live action and an animated version, so I wondered what other people thought. Any preference?

CBR: I can see it on a network like FX or, and this may be the stereotypical response, HBO, because they would probably approve the tone I know you're looking for. Making it work in a live action show would require some quality costumes, since you don't want to undercut the adult themes of the series. In animation, I think it'd be a bit too…predictable? I mean, lots of anime has those same themes and types of battles, so it may not stand out as much.

Austen: Good point. FX is a good one. We should talk to them or maybe tone it down a bit.

CBR: I'd imagine it would be pretty easy to move from comic script to filming script, so you could get this running really easily, using those three issues as a outline for the first season.

Austen: Actually, my wife and I have already written a pilot based on the first issue. We're looking at the best way to produce it. I would love to see it turned into a series.

"Flywires" #1, Page 5 "Flywires" #1, Page 6
CBR: So, what's your preference in format?

Austen: My preference is live-action and my wife's is animation, because she likes the idea of doing big, explosive parts of the story full-bore, which is costly in live-action. But my idea is that I like playing around with the soap opera aspects more, and could sacrifice the action for a smaller budget TV show, so live action is stronger to me.

CBR: You know, "Passions" is on the Sci-Fi network, so your show might fit in really well there.

Austen: "Passions" is on there? Really?

CBR: Yeah. With all your super powers and soap opera, it could fit in nicely with that show.

Austen: That's really interesting. "Passions" was a daily, network soap, right?

CBR: A horribly low-rated, near cancellation soap. But since you're appealing to the viewers of that show, you only risk pissing off 1.3 million people. As opposed to the 8.1 million who bought "X-Men" #1.

Austen: [laughs] Well, the reason I'm laughing is because I sold a maximum of about 124,000 per issue, in the comic book industry and pissed off, like, ten percent of those people. I can live with 1.3 million people watching my show and maybe pissing off ten percent or less. [laughs]

CBR: I just figured it'd be up your alley…the show, not pissing off people.

"Flywires" #1, Page 7 "Flywires" #1, Page 9
Austen: No, that's up my alley too [laughs].

CBR: That's true [laughs].

Austen: Remember the ratings when "Star Trek: Enterprise" was cancelled recently? Weren't the viewers a million and a half in total? Pathetic, compared to the original series and that got cancelled with maybe ten times their numbers! The market's changed so much. They're looking to make their money back on DVD sales and merchandising. Fox made a ton on "24," on "Family Guy"- that's why they brought the show back. Things are changing so much that it's hard to predict where it's going. First run television is no longer the be-all and end-all. DVD sales, syndications strips, it all comes into play. 1.3 million in DVD sales would make a network very, very happy. But trying to get a handle on the changing sales market is challenging.

CBR: So, challenging you might return to superhero comics? And yes, that sound is 20,000 people out to get me.

Austen: [laughs] What are you thinking? Didn't I answer this question, already? No, no, and no. I could have worked on "Eternal" or "Metropolis" or "War Machine" for a long time, and the readers seemed to react well to those projects because they wanted something different. When Eddie was talking to me about working under a pseudonym, we talked about doing "Blue Devil" but… I don't know that I could ever work for DC again with the way that was handled. Not that they'd want me to, but … [laughs].

It's a weird situation, the superhero comic book market now, the way it exists because of the way the companies run it, has a myopic vision about how they have to handle their projects. They have to focus on selling to comic shops and long term fans, because there's no impulse buying anymore, no man on the street who would suddenly decide to change his daily living habits rather abruptly, and come in every Wednesday to get new books. I can't see myself getting into that mix again, where the audience isn't broadening, where they only want stories by top people about the top characters, and I'd rather go for the people in the manga market, who are just average teenagers who like reading about good characters and stories they can relate to. Like novel readers. Or a film and TV audience. You can't really do that in superhero comics. You know that, better than me!

CBR: My official answer is "Yes, I'm reading everything." But honestly, I do read some superhero books still and at the same time, I can see where you're coming from.

"Flywires" #1, Page 17 "Flywires" #1, Page 22
Austen: If they were to let me do something like-- and don't worry people, this will never happen-- an "Ultimate X-Men" or "Ultimate Avengers" or something like that where I could start from scratch, and no one cared if I changed things or diverged from continuity, that might appeal to me.

CBR: But Mark Millar did get hell for his "wife beating" issue of "Ultimates."

Austen: Really? Well, there you go. I can't even do that, so…y'know, the thing is…I don't know. It's hard to say. You're right. You're tempting me. Like the snake in the Garden of Eden. And I'll suffer for it.

CBR: But wouldn't fans thank me for that? [laughs] You're still friends with Geoff Johns and others involved with superheroes, so for you, when you guys talk comic books, do you disagree a lot or do you just have different ways of expressing the same passion for superheroes?

Austen: We just have different ways. Actually, Geoff and I are not friends [laughs]. Don't stop buying his books [laughs]. Support Geoff. We hate each other. [laughs] Geoff, to his undying credit, loves continuity and minutia. There's a comic shop that I used to go to, where he spends a lot of time researching, because they have a huge back issue vault and he loves researching all the details, all the subtleties and the hidden moments, and he loves to drop them in, to tickle fans. He is absolutely passionate about that. But he can also talk about films, television, writers, sports. He's got the capability of stepping out of that world. I've always been a fan of comic books and superheroes, but honestly, a few months after reading an issue, I may not remember all those details so well. Nor do I care. I remember specific stories and emotional moments, like "Days Of Future Past," or the death of Gwen Stacy. So I've never been a huge continuity guy, except for early in writing X-Men, which is where all the things people hated came from, since I looked back at old issues to see what the relationships were and the details of character's personalities. This business is continuity, and so I researched. But that's not my interest. I'm still friends with lots of people with whom I can talk about things besides the industry and there are many I've never gotten along with, not because they're not wonderful people, but their interest is comics, comics and more comics. I just can't relate to them. So we're cordial and have dinner, but I don't call them up to see a baseball game or watch a movie or talk politics.

CBR: So what's next for Chuck Austen? World domination?

Austen: I think so. George Bush has shown me the way, that the Constitution does not apply to the President of the United States, so I can get in there and I'm gold. Look how much love and admiration he has throughout the world. That's me, baby. Then I'll write super hero comics, and no one will be able to complain, or I'll bomb them. We all know that once you become head of the U.S, you are the head of the free world.

CBR: Plus, they already hate you on the Internet, so you're half way there.

"Flywires" #1, Page 23 "Flywires" #1, Page 24
Austen: That's ok, because I'll live in the insular world of the White House, surround myself with yes men and hear only what I want to hear [laughs]. Which means, unfortunately, you wouldn't be invited and I might have to execute you, for the hell of it, because you're a foreigner who makes international phone calls to dark-skinned people. Seriously though, I'm writing comics, movies, television shows and I'm not going to let myself become bored. I don't know what my future holds. But the constant will be that I love my wife and kids and they will still be the biggest part of me. The rest is just for fun.

CBR: Are you saying this to garner sympathy from fans that hate you?

Austen: [laughs] Ooooh, Arune. When have I really ever had fans who hate me? People love me. This whole internet thing is just a publicity con. No one realizes it, but I'm really just the most talked about man in comics. Lots of people outside of comics have heard of me even if they've never read comics, and have judged my work on its own merits, which has opened a lot of unexpected doors. The more you hate me, the more you blog, the stronger I become. [laughs]

CBR: Do you ever see yourself picking up where your wife left off and running "Power Rangers?"

Austen: Only if I can be one of the Power Rangers.

CBR: You could be a villain under the makeup. You actually look a bit like the guy from Dino Thunder, the father of the White Ranger.

Austen: [laughs] You mean without the dino costume on, right?

CBR: …if you'd like.

Austen: [laughs] No, I don't see myself going there. I'd much rather do "Worldwatch" or "Flywires" or "Boys of Summer." Those would be much more satisfying.

CBR: Ok, Chuck, last question, for the fans out there… which is just your family, right?

Austen: [laughs] No, even they don't like my writing. You can't even say you're a fan, because you don't want the backlash.

CBR: So, any closing words?

Austen: All right. In all seriousness, I know I did have a lot of fans out there, like TJ Shoun Jr, and others whose real names I never even knew because of internet anonymity, and I really appreciate their support. You have no idea how much it meant to me. Whether they stood up for me or not, and I don't blame them if they didn't, I appreciate them taking the time, spending their money and buying the comics I wrote. I had a lot of fun writing those characters and I will always look back on it fondly. Really. Other than when I'm talking to you, I don't think of bad things [laughs]. So, for those who did like me and bought my work, thank you so much. Thanks for making it such a fun time in my life.

CBR: And for the non-Austen fans, have you ever tried not being a hack?

Austen: Yes, but it was physically painful. Like those Capitol One commercials where they try to rehabilitate the barbarian hordes. You just can't fake it. You just have to be what you are. And like them, what I do best is beat people senseless, and run. [laughs]

 
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