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Cronin Theory of Comics – Chuck Austen: Harbinger

by  in Comic News Comment

My pal Sean Whitmore referenced Chuck Austen’s Avengers run the other day, and it struck me – Chuck Austen’s comics were a perfect harbinger to the style of comic books that both DC and Marvel produce right now.

Let me explain.

The concept of “You changed Character X!” has been a constant complaint since the beginning of serialized comic books (which was roughly Marvel Comics in the 60s).

Steve Gerber got complaints when he brought back the Guardians of the Galaxy in the pages of Marvel Presents that he was ruining their established characterizations.

Fabian Nicieza got complaints during the early issues of New Warriors about how he was ruining Nova’s established characterization.

Other changes got more pleasant responses from fans. Like Chris Claremont’s changes to Magneto’s characterization, or the changes in Sue Richards and Janet Van Dyne from ditzes to heroines who could seriously be considered peers of their fellow males heroes (a change that was more dramatic in the case of the Wasp).

However, in these cases, either the characters involved were minor (see Grant Morrison’s changes to Triumph, or Giffen/DeMatteis’ changes to, well, pretty much every member of the JLI), the changes came gradually (the Invisible Woman becoming actually, you know, competent and Wally West becoming, well, also competent) or there was some sort of revamp involved(many of the Post-Crisis personality changes).

Chuck Austen’s comics changed that.

Austen comics followed what Sean nicely described as an “algebraic approach to comics.”

I want C (plot) to happen, and I want B (inciting incident) to be the cause, and I will change A (character) however I have to to make that happen.

In Avengers, characters would act dramatically different than they did from, say, two-three issues earlier.

In Action Comics, Lana Lang would be trying to break up Clark and Lois’ marriage out of nowhere, and Lois would be acting like an astonishing bitch to make such a separation seem possible.

In JLA…I don’t think I even want to get into “The Sobbing of the Gods,” except to note that Ron Garney did a really nice job on the artwork.

Fans complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained (this could go on for a few entries, so I will just stop it right now. Suffice to say, people complained).

Ultimately, Austen ended up off his titles.

But a funny thing happened – while people complained a lot about Austen’s comics, they still sold basically the same as before. So while Marvel and DC decided that he was not the right writer for their comics, they seemed to be saying that perhaps other, possibly better writers could use the SAME approach as Austen!

Since then, the “algebraic approach to comics” seems to be precisely what Marvel and DC have used on their titles, from Avengers Disassembled to Identity Crisis to Infinite Crisis to Civil War, it seems like Plot C has been determined, with Reason B being decided as the motivating factor, and so Character A will have to be changed however necessary to make the formula work.

And fans complain and complain and complain (etc.) and sales remain basically the same.

This does not mean that the comics with this approach are BAD (and it does not mean that they are GOOD, either). It just means that the same approach that Austen took to his comics, which was something dramatically different than Marvel and DC had done before, is now the standard being used by Marvel and DC on most of their comics today.