Austen in the Machine: Chuck Austen Interview

[Chuck Austen Interview]Chuck Austen is currently the artist on Marvel's "Elektra" and will soon wow comic fans with his weekly black and white book "War Machine," as part of Marvel's Mature line (MAX) later this month.

CBR's Keith Giles caught Austen in a rare moment of downtime and found out how he creates is art, what makes "War Machine" great and why continuity doesn't matter.

Keith Giles: Talk about "War Machine." What inspired you to tackle this character?

Chuck Austen: Initially, in all honesty, the design. I loved the concept of the character and the way he looked. I was a military brat, and although I hated the military for a lot of reasons, I loved the "toys." GI JOE's were my toy of choice, and now I'm playing with an all-new toy, a GI JOE for my adulthood.

That's what drew me to the character. What drew me to the story was another thing entirely. I've had many black/African American friends over the years, one who still consults for me on this series, and as a white man it's always been fascinating to me the oppressive nature of simple daily living as a minority. Being a military brat, I have some very small semblance of what it means to be a chronic outsider. But I could never truly conceive of being a black person in a white dominated world. It's a deeply fascinating and rich subject.

When I was a kid reading comics, Jim Rhodes was one of my favorite characters. It didn't matter that he was black and I was white. I just liked him. I wanted to do stories about him and Stark and Iron Man, but his ethnicity never entered into it. He was just another cipher for me, a white man in black skin, a means to an end in any story I might think up.

As I grew older and began to take my writing more seriously, I realized what a disservice this was to, not only the character, but African-Americans in general. This is a rich heritage with significant meaning to anyone of that race. It's something that would affect the character profoundly on a day-to-day level. It's more than just a different chip from the Pantone Color System sent to a printer.

[US War Machine]This interest in the deeper meaning of race to minorities in a white civilization evolved, particularly with all the racial hatred and "ethnic cleansing" so prevalent in the world today, and led to my wanting to do this story with this character. My children's friends are almost exclusively "non-white." The world is changing, if slowly, but with huge leaps backward. Combine this with my interest in the "black experience" and the story runs much deeper than a simple "let's kill all the minorities" story. It's about the internalized views of racism and the oppressive nature of dealing with these issues constantly. There are small, simple scenes in this series that have great consequence and meaning within the framework of being a minority. If you're a person of color, when you meet someone and they treat you badly, or with no respect, you have to go through the list of questions the average white person doesn't. "Are they treating me badly because they're just a jerk, or are they disrespecting me because I'm black? Do I have more to fear than just disrespect in this situation? Is this the end of it, or do I have to watch my back with this person? Where's the exit?"

This is powerful, rich stuff. How could anyone NOT want to write a story about it?

KG: How do you feel about this being a weekly, black and white series?

CA: I love it. It's been a dream and a goal for years, and even though it was really Joe's idea, I'm grateful that he decided to do it this way. A hundred pages a month. A graphic novel in three months. It's awesome.

In all honesty, there are days when I think "GOD! I could do this monthly and make more money and see my wife and family. What the hell was I thinking?!" But then I get that reaction from Marvel when I send in a book to Ralph and Smitty, and the excitement of having achieved something no one in the US is doing, or ever considered doing, and I feel like a pioneer. A trailblazer. It's a thrill few people get in their lives, and I'm proud and pleased that Joe and Bill let me do this.

KG: Why should comic fans read this book? What makes it worth the weekly trip to the comic shop?

CA: Hopefully because it's a damn good read. Because they think it's fun and exciting story and they don't have to wait a month to see what happens next. And don't get me wrong. This book is not a "let's cheat the reader and give them 24 pages of talking heads that we drew in an afternoon." This book is detailed, and the story is one I'm very proud of. If there's anyone out there who gets all the way to the twelfth issue and doesn't think this was an amazing trip, I question their mental state.

[Elektra]KG: Were you intimidated to work on Elektra? (Following artists like Miller and Sienkiewicz?)

CA: Surprisingly, no. I never had that much respect for Frank Miller's art when he did his first run on Daredevil. His storytelling was incredible. But as an artist, he left me cold. Now, however, he's amazing on all levels. And Sienkiewicz is a God. If you beat yourself up over not being as good as him, buy some whips and chains because you've got a sado-masochistic complex.

KG: How do you create your art for Elektra? Is it all computer-generated? Are they pencils that are manipulated in Photoshop or Paint? Explain.

CA: It's entirely computer generated. We should include this in a FAQ, if there is one.

Everyone keeps asking Bendis! (like he sits in my lap while I do it) how I did the Elektra art and what the secret is behind this new, revolutionary, 3D process. So I thought I'd post it here and let folks dissect it for themselves. Then they can go back to those other message boards and bad-mouth the technique with an actual understanding of it for a change. Or buy the programs and put me out of a job. Which is fine. Whatever inspires people to tell good stories in comics form is all right by me. HAVE AT YE!

Basically I got tired of having the same answer as everyone else when they asked me the "What kind of pen do you use?" question. It's the question every professional gets asked, and the asker sits with arms folded, eyes wide, waiting for the answer that will change their lives forever and transform them into an instant professional. The gift of the magic bullet. As if they can go by an HB Tombow mono pencil and a number 2 nib and make works of art just like Brian Bolland. So I'll give you the info here, and just like that old answer, it ain't gonna make Joey DaQ hire you for anything unless you have some chops to back it up. I may use the computer, but I still know how to draw (perspective, lighting, anatomy, proportion), so I can fix the things even the computer can't get right. And yes, the computer don't get everything right. In fact, sometimes it slows me down.

It all starts with a Mac, or a PC. I mostly use a Mac, but I've been known to dabble in the DOS world. The programs I use are Ray Dream Studio (Mac), or 3D Studio Max (PC). Ray Dream has a nice little plug-in called Think Fish that takes 3D polys and renders them down to line form. MAX requires a plug-in from Digimation called Incredible Comic Shop that does the exact same thing, and is somewhat more versatile. Each program takes the 3 dimensional models and breaks them down into simplified line form with two-tones of color (which helps me not at all for this particular purpose). The models I use are either pre-existing models bought from catalogue companies like Viewpoint or DAZ, or made-up models which I build in HASH, or Animation Master, another MAC based program. I find Hash has the most artist friendly modeling features and it exports to a format read by either of the above 3D modeling softwares. I'm looking into POSER from DAZ, but at the moment I haven't had the time to invest in a learning curve. Marvel's keeping me pretty busy these days.

The models I'm using are primarily made up, since working in a fantasy environment of comics, nothing exists in the real world. It's not like the libraries I mentioned above have something like an "Elektra" model, "Sai #2" a "SHIELD Helicarrier" or a "French Bistro." The models I use were built originally for Strips and modified for the Elektra job. Elektra is a modified version of the "Kenna" model, for those of you who are fans of my old work, with a headband, Sai's and Elektra outfit. I developed the technique basically because I was looking for a way to speed up my drawing time on Strips so I could work at my day job (animation) and still do a monthly comic without eliminating my personal life. My wife wouldn't stand for that and I wouldn't be too fond of it either. One thing led to another, and now comics ARE my day job. But I'm getting into a tangent here.

Once I have the models, I import them into the animation program and set up the scenes. I arrange for them to work from whatever angle I need (or is in Brian's layouts), and then begin posing the "actors" for individual panels. I pose them in "animation time", meaning I use a frame of animation for a panel in the book. Then, once I've got all the poses down, the angles set and everything looks good, I set of a render and go to lunch (or Dinner, or bed) and come back hours later to view the results.

[US War Machine]The beauty of this system is that while I'm rendering one set of pages I can be cleaning up another, so the actual "pencilling" stage can take place while I'm not even there, and I become my own assembly line. For those of you who thinks this robs "style" from the art, guess again. I built the models, so they have the features I would draw myself if I drew them, heroic proportions, bigger eyes, larger breasts. I also set the compositions, place the BG objects, the gestures, the subtlety of the acting, all the fun stuff that makes it art to me, and makes art enjoyable again. Then the computer does the drudge work that any first year art student is already bored with, the perspective, the foreshortening, the proportions, the camera distortion. And because of that, it actually makes my work better, because I put more work into it. It's worth it to me to spend more time on something that I don't have to labor over (DAMMIT!! I can't place door correctly in the background. This arm is wrong, but why!?). It also gives me the ability to tell a story with a grander scope because I don't have to actually spend time on huge details and crowd scenes.

It also makes the comic incredibly consistent because once something is in the scene, unless I accidentally delete it, it's there in the next scene. And people with subtle characteristics have those characteristics in EVERY panel. Sunglasses remain the same, noses, facial features, proportions. Everything. And from a storytelling standpoint, this is a HUGE plus, because you don't get people pulled out of a story asking "Who is that guy? Oh, is that the agent? No. That's the, wait a minute ..."

The downside is, the modeling isn't perfect. There are tears in the models. The models don't attach correctly because of the nature of the programs involved, so you have to draw in shoulders and joints from legs to torso, etc. I'm an amateur in the 3D field, so models look like garbage sometimes when they're rendered out to file. Necks have holes in them that have to be removed, strange objects appear in the middle of the screen that aren't in the object file and I don't know why. And NO ONE has hair. All the models are bald because posing hair is such a time-consuming pain in the ass, so I draw that in by hand later. And the Elektra model I used in the cafe scenes you've seen at the Marvel sight? It's the same model I use for her in costume, so you can see the work I still have to put in AFTER the computer is done.

And no one changes their expressions. Which means I do all that by hand, too. Which is fine, because that's the fun for me.

Once the files are rendered to my satisfaction, I take each "frame" and assemble it into page form in Photoshop. Then I take each page, one at a time and clean it up by hand, drawing in hair, filling in blacks and rendering clothing and wrinkles, giving people expression and character, fixing "shadows", erasing cracks in joints and generally doing the grunt part of the job. At this point you can either print out directly on to Bristol board and finish the work with that Tombow and #2 nib, or you can give yourself carpal tunnel and finish onscreen in Photoshop.

Then I deliver the final image to Marvel and they send it to the fabulously talented Nathan Eyring for coloring. DAMN those colors look good. Let's all take a moment and give Nathan a hand, shall we?

And that's the process. Now you can leave Bendis alone. He's a writer. He needs to write.

KG: Will the artwork on "War Machine" be comparable to that of ELEKTRA?

[US War Machine]CA: Yes and no. The artwork is as detailed as Elektra, maybe more so. But the styles are different. War Machine is more open, less noir. And Bendis does most of the storytelling and layouts for Elektra, so it has a different, often better, definitely more artistic sensibility. Brian's an incredible storyteller.

KG: If the weekly, black and white format catches on at Marvel, would you be willing to extend your "War Machine" series?

CA: Absolutely. I can't imagine a better job than doing this week-in and week-out.

KG: What about starting a second weekly, black and white series for Marvel?

CA: It's entirely possible, but I want to get War Machine in a groove before I try that. Right now we're going through growing pains, and stuff is taking longer to produce than it should. Not that it's late, but I'm working long hours to make it look the way I want, and to do a second book, I need to get my time down.

KG: Are you a fan of black and white Japanese Manga?

CA: A lot of it. All the usuals, like Rumiko Takahashi, Otomo Katsuhiro. But a lot of people no one hear has heard much of. My absolute favorite comics creator of all time, in any language, is Mitsuru Adachi, and he barely gets a nod here. But a lot of Manga is crap. I'm a fan of select stuff. I'm a fan of good stories and art, whatever the language. That's why I went the other way when everyone else was going to Europe. I'm a fan of stories AND art. But particularly, storytelling.

KG: What other projects are you currently working on now or have agreed to work on in the future?

CA: The only thing I can talk about is a one-shot for the Marvel Mangaverse project, which was originally entitled Sons Of Satan. It's got Ghost Rider, Blaze, Werewolf by Night and, of course, Hellstorm, the Son of Satan in it. It was an idea that Smitty (US War Machine assistant editor Brian Smith) and I came up with together and it's a lot of fun. It think it's going to be very entertaining. There are about four proposals for other things floating around Marvel at the moment. Personally, I'm shocked and awed by the attention I've gotten for someone who literally just "walked in off the street" and to date has had two issues of "mainstream" artwork printed in recent memory.

KG: Do you feel that your use of the computer to create comic art will one day be the norm?

CA: No. Never. I think a lot more people will begin using it in varying forms, from just backgrounds to full art the way I do on Elektra. Hell, even War Machine is only partially done on the computer. Most of it is done on board by hand, the traditional way. But as a tool, it's becoming such a time-saver, and it allows for greater quality and detail in the same time it used to take to do a talking heads book. Many artists won't be able to ignore that kind of help. Especially when, in our business, time is money. We're paid by how fast we draw, not by the work, so it's only smart business.

But become the norm? No. The computer still cannot replace the human touch. Even I'll admit that. Elektra is still a little less "lively" than art done by hand, and I miss that feel. I work hard to get it back in the work, and I'm very happy with the results, but nothing replaces the human hand with a pen in it and never will.

KG: Do you feel that you have more or less freedom when you use the computer to generate art? Does it ever get frustrating to use a mouse over a pencil?

[US War Machine]CA: So much more. I actually prefer to draw this way, and I do use a mouse, not a tablet, which shocks most people. I have almost total freedom. If I "draw" a shot, then realize it would have looked better a little more 3/4, I can do it over in a snap. There's no sacrificing for time. Once the shot is set up, I can play with the camera and lighting until I drop. I become more of a cinematographer, scoping out the BEST shot as opposed to the first one I drew, "and I've gotta get my page a day done so I have to let it go as it is."

Plus, there's the undo key, which any artist would kill for when they spill that bottle of ink.

KG: What other comics work have you done previously?

CA: So much for such an unknown. Hero Sandwich for Slave Labor. Badger for First. Miracleman for Eclipse. Phantom Lady for Action Comics Weekly. Zot with Scott McCloud. And my personal favorites, Strips with Rip Off Press, and Hardball, two adult comics, one about baseball.

KG: Do you currently have any projects pending outside of Marvel Comics?

CA: Not in comics. I have some animation stuff and some screenplays floating around, but right now I'm pretty happy at Marvel. Good people who treat me well and with respect. That's rare these days in any business.

KG: What is a typical day like for you as an artist?

CA: Chaos. There is no typical day. I TRY to get up and set up the day's pages for Elektra, then set off a render. Then I go into the house and ink War Machine while Elektra's rendering. Then I come back to check the progress on Elektra, make changes and revisions, and set off another render. Then I go back inside and ink some more. By now it's lunch, I check Elektra, set up a render for the next set of pages, and go eat. Usually with the head of the studio that's finishing War Machine, often with friends from Film Roman, where I used to work.

I come back and check the next set of pages and revise, then set a new render. I go back and ink. By now the days pages are done of Elektra and I begin assembling them in Photoshop, placing them as panels instead of separate images. Once I get a set of pages roughly put together, I flatten the image, reduce it to pure black and white, and save the file. By now it's early evening and I go inside to scan the War Machine pages I inked so I can send them to the animation studio where they're printed out and toned.

Then I come back to the computer, and clean up Elektra pages until I have no energy left.

Fridays and Saturdays I write. Or try to. Often lately it's Sunday nights.

In between it's endless phone calls and day-to-day living stuff. Feeding the dogs, fixing broken sprinklers, trying desperately to get organized. Failing to get organized.

KG: Explain the "alternate universe" that "War Machine" is set in. Will we see other Marvel Universe characters? Why isn't this book set in the current continuity for Iron Man?

CA: The eternal continuity question. People love me so much when I talk about continuity.

The alternate universe is basically this: The real world with a genius like Tony Stark in it.

There are no superheroes except one (maybe), no aliens that we know of, no Gods, no unicorns or rainbows. During the Great War, the US government tried creating a Super-Soldier, or so the story goes. Captain America emerged and fought valiantly in World War Two as a symbol of our country, and was killed. Or so it was believed. Many years later, in our time, he emerged again, the ultimate soldier, and the government has been trying to create more ever since.

This leads to them approaching the brilliant young Stark, (a man trying desperately to fill his late father's shoes and prove himself his own man) about creating a War suit, a mobile infantry suit, and Stark responds with the War Machine. But when he is forced to wear the suit himself in order to escape and survive a deadly conflict, he is horrified at the results and withdraws the suit from consideration by the government. He will never allow his work to kill again.

And then, somehow, the War Machine gets loose. But you'll have to read the series to find out how.

As far as why it's not in current Iron Man continuity now, ultimately it was Joe's decision. My proposal for War Machine was "adult and violent." He liked that, but wanted to make it truly violent, not cartoon-violent. I think it was a wise and brave choice. That meant putting it into the then-barely-realized MAX line. At first we still tried to make it part of continuity and Ralph bent over backwards to fill me in on what had happened in the Marvel U during my long absence. But after a while it became untenable. Then word came down, probably because of all the MAX books and their directions, that War Machine did not need to be set in normal continuity.

To my great relief, because it instantly made the story stronger to not have Thor living down the street. The power of the War Machine actually meant something. Stark's brilliance was awe-inspiring in a world of normal people, and Iron Man was a revelation, something to talk about, something utterly marvelous in this new world.

Ultimately, being out of continuity gives greater depth and meaning to a story, as well as greater accessibility for new readers. You'll find I'm not saying this lightly by about the sixth or seventh issue. Being out of continuity gives me the chance to open up the market like it's never been opened before. And if I haven't hooked a legion of fans by the end of the series and brought in new readers who don't give a rat's ass about continuity, I will have considered this a failure, no matter how ground-breaking or successful.

KG: What Iron Man stories were your favorites?

[US War Machine]CA: All the Layton/Michelinie years. Other than that, I don't much like many Iron Man stories. Busiek's run was okay, but he's too mired in continuity for me as an inconstant reader. I don't care about the new take on Ultimo, or what happened to him since last we saw him. Who gives a shit if Whiplash has a new bondage-style costume.

I know continuity has legions of fans, and more power to them. But I don't care what happened to the X-Men before they were re-invented. They were re-invented because they didn't sell and nobody liked them. If the stuff we DIDN'T see was so interesting we would have seen it. We need to start looking forward and stop looking back. Continuity is, to me, too much looking back.

I like the character of Iron Man, but haven't liked the way it's been handled. I'm REALLY looking forward to Mike Grell's take, though. If anyone can kick it into high gear, Mike can. He's like me. Story is all.

KG: Are there any characters or titles you'd love to work on in the future?

CA: So many I don't know where to begin. Mostly Marvel stuff. I was a Marvel Geek as a kid. I love most everything that was around in my childhood, Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, Spider-Man, Captain America, Thor, Captain Marvel, SHIELD, Doctor Strange, Moon Knight, Morbius, Nova, The Eternals. Not too many DC characters. And I have some ideas of my own I want to do, as well.

As far as personal favorites at Marvel? Power Man and Iron Fist is high up there. I was raised on the new X-Men. And Spider-Man is my all-time-favorite character. Pretty much anything Marvel, so it's a good thing I wound up there.

KG: If you had your own set of Stark's armor, what would you do with it?

CA: Wow. Interesting question. Fly. Punch the living shit out of Slobodon Milosiviech, the guy on trial for ethnic crimes in Croatia. Sit around the house and make people bring me things, or else.

KG: What other artists or writers would you kill to work for?

CA: Brian's tops on my list. I like Stra(watch me butcher this)czinski on Spider Man. Oooohhh. Paul Jenkins. I think that man is an absolute God. He can touch an emotional nerve in Peter Parker like no one else has EVER in American comics. Peter at Uncle Ben's grave was incredible.

Artists? I love Ron Garney's work. Bret Blevins is the master-draftsman of all time, and so damn underrated. JH Williams the third is a great friend and immense talent. We've tried to work together so many times. I'm trying to get him interested in a Captain America companion piece to War Machine. Four or six issues. He's thinking about it, but Promethea keeps him nailed to the wall. Al Williamson. He's my hero. John Romita Sr. I'd love to work with Alan Moore again. We never really got a chance back on Miracleman. And I want to keep working with Smitty and Ralph and Stuart. They're the best. Never had editors I could brag about before. I know I've missed someone, but this is the best I can think of.

KG: If you weren't an artist working in comic books, what would you be doing with your life?

CA: Sleeping.

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