In Depth With Chuck Austen (Part One)

NOTE: The following interview contains artwork of an adult nature.

Name your favorite superheroes. Spider-Man. Superman. The X-Men. Now name some of your favorite real life heroes. Athletes. Firefighters. Police Officers. What do they all have common? Chuck Austen has written about them all, and this summer, he'll tackle baseball in Tokyopop's "Boys Of Summer." It's been some time since CBR News last spoke with the writer, whose 2005 exit from "Action Comics" surprised many, as the series had seen a sales upswing, but since then, fans have seen little of Austen. For the loudest of his detractors, that's a blessing, but for the devoted fan base, it's been a burden to bear.

CBR News sat down and spoke in depth with Austen, who some would like to hail as the destroyer of comics, and spoke honestly (and at times humorously, so be forewarned) about the man, the myth and his legend.

CBR: So, we're talking with Chuck Austen.

Austen: Unfortunately.

CBR: Hey, I'm getting paid to do this. It dulls the pain. So, you worked on Captain America, X-Men, Superman…everything big.

Austen: Including Witchblade.

CBR: Yeah, I'm surprised you didn't manage to destroy that book forever too.

Austen: It was only one issue. The best I could do was hobble it.

CBR: But now it's tainted forever. Austen: Yeah, it's just one big taint.

CBR: Here's the question on most people's minds: when you came back to comics with "U.S War Machine" and "Elektra," was it imperative that you try to destroy the artform or was that a decision you made later?

Austen: No, that was my goal all along. I came in with the full intent of destroying both the artform and the industry.

CBR: And how do you feel you did with that?

Austen: It's obvious I succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. It's not like they're publishing X-Men or Superman comics anymore.

CBR: [laughs] Well, what do you think about controversial reactions you got in response to some of your work?

Austen: Some of it was well-founded, some people didn't like my work and I'm OK if someone doesn't like my work. Our first phone interview, you told me you didn't like "War Machine," and we're still friends [laughs].

CBR: [laughs] True. But I was calling to tell you how much I loved your "Superman" story with the cop, so it balanced out, and I did eventually change my mind about "War Machine."

Austen: Yes, you did. And you never threatened my life. Much [laughs].But the over the top death threats, the personal insults, those were pretty bizarre and I just don't get that. It actually turned me off the Internet for quite a while. I still meet people who say "Oh yeah, I heard about you on the Internet" and I cringe [laughs]

CBR: Did they ever hear good things?

Austen: No. The nice thing about it is, that, with the exception of one person, most people would come up and say "You know, I actually like your writing, but I didn't want to say anything on the Internet because I didn't want to have people dogpiling on me." There was actually this one guy, whose friend I was buying lunch, as well as some other X-Men fans at San Diego con, and the guy refused to come because he hated my writing. That's the only time I've ever run into anybody who didn't want to have anything to do with me. [laughs]

CBR: What about that time, it was a CCI in San Diego a few years ago, where that guy brought up that binder with two copies of all your "X-Men" issues and wanted you to sign one, even though he didn't like your work?

Austen: Yeah and he wanted different colors of ink on various different ones. But he was polite and he didn't like my work, but he was nice about it, so that wasn't a problem. Plus, no one else wanted my autograph so I figured it'd give me something to do. [laughs]

CBR: So, when I tell you I didn't like "Draco" [an "Uncanny X-Men" story], you're not going to go off and hide in a cave like Dick Cheney?

Austen: [laughs] Yeah, actually Dick and I live in the same cave. I'm Robin to his Batman. laughs] And I mean that in every sexual way you can imagine. [laughs] A lot of people didn't like "Draco," but we tried. It's really tough, because people say "Y'know, we've been reading the same old thing" so then you give them something different and they say "Oh I hate what you did." That's another time I ran into someone who didn't like my work. So, we're up to three, now. Maybe I got more complaints than I realized [laughs]. He said, "That Draco thing-- it sucked" and I replied, "Ok, so what do you want me to do about that?" to which he replied "I've been collecting X-Men for 16 years and now I've stopped." So I say, "Well, I guess I saved you three dollars a month!"- what am I supposed to say to that? "Draco" got some negative response, but we were trying to do our best and put out something that everyone would like. And we failed. [laughs] No one died.

CBR: But more seriously, some people think you're a misogynist, you hate women, you're obsessed with sex…

Austen: Aren't we all obsessed with sex? And misogynist? Who says that? Some guy trying to pick up on a feminist? "Hey, baby. Wanna go out with me? I can use the word misogynist in a sentence." [laughs]

CBR: You know, I think I've seen worse pick up lines online [laughs].

Austen: "When I read my comics about hot women with enormous tits, I want them to be realistically portrayed as strong, independent babes who don't need a man, but still feel good enough about themselves to wear skin-tight clothing and pose provocatively while settling their differences with violence!" I mean, really. Come on. That's a bizarre thing to say: do people even know what misogynist means? It means "hates all women." Really, do you get that out of my writing?

CBR: Well, you have a wife and a couple of daughters, whom you love…

Austen: Exactly. I think I'm pretty happy with them and I treat them pretty well, and they haven't filed any lawsuits against me. Why do people say that? What makes them think I have an issue with women?

CBR: Maybe…I know a lot of it came out of the soap opera feel of your work, the whole thing with Nurse Annie in "Uncanny X-Men" and the claim that your women are too needy for men.

Austen: But I also write men who need women. And men who need men. [laughs] I'm writing for Marvel Comics: these guys made their reputation on soap operas. Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker, Mary Jane. Sue Richards, Ben Grimm, Matt Murdock, Karen Page. People are always picking on Annie. I asked for a women with small breasts, who was funny and independent, raised a child on her own, with no powers who stands up to a super heroine for her son's life, and because she -- I mean, you're a soap opera fan, right? Can you write a soap opera without men and women wanting each other?

CBR: Hey, it's no fair using my love of "All My Children" against me. And if I support you, people may just send me death threats too. Evil osmosis if you will.

Austen: So, you don't want to get involved? [laughs] Fine, leave me dying on the road, here. I've only known one woman in my life who didn't want a relationship, who was very involved with her work and wanted to get her career going. We just went to dinner with her a few months ago and she asked if we knew any good men. Everyone wants a relationship. I don't see how you can write characters who don't have one or want one. And why is it "hating women" to write a character that wants love? It wasn't the be all and end all for Annie. She walked away from Havok at the end of my run because she was concerned more about her son and she felt she didn't need the X-Men or Havok in her life. She very happily walked away from the whole thing. Captain Britain wasn't interested in a man. She mentions she'd like to have a male role model for her son who wasn't a violent American, but I never said anything about her wanting a date or a man.

Here's the thing, and this is apparently bugging me more than I realized, largely because it's bullshit. Imagine. Something on the Internet that's bullshit [laughs]. I was raised by a single mother in a unique situation. After my parents divorced, I lived with my mom in HUD housing surrounded by other single mothers raising their kids. All poor, all struggling. Now, my mother, like most of those women, had made a choice to be single rather than live in a bad marriage that was negative for her and her children. Through the years, my mother had offers of relationships and marriage, but turned them down because the men weren't good enough for her or her children. Not that she didn't want to be married, not that most of these women didn't want relationships with someone, man or woman, that would hold them and support them, and tell them they didn't have to do it alone, anymore. My mom's sisters also went through divorces, and raised kids alone for a while, and occasionally we lived with them, or they lived with us. Suffice it to say that my life experience was centered around single moms with very little fatherly influence. It may have left me with anger towards men who abdicate parental responsibility, but not towards women.

Those women had the strength to make what they felt were better choices for themselves and their families, largely because HUD helped them afford to be on their own. It's one of the reasons I hate the Republican party, and the Bush administration in particular. They made them, and continue to make, now, those women feel small and damaged because they didn't stay in their marriages. Often bad marriages. They make the kids feel less because they come from broken homes. Republicans are always telling people like us we're not as good as everyone else because we didn't have a stable, family unit. I disagree. I think most of us are stronger and more resourceful because of our experiences. And I, for one, appreciate women a lot more than most people because of my experiences. My wife made a similar choice to get out of a bad marriage, and didn't want to be alone, but made a difficult choice for the sake of herself and her kids. Strength of character comes, not from being invulnerable and making easy choices from a position of power; strength of character comes from being vulnerable and making difficult choices from a position of weakness, but making those choices nonetheless because they're right. My mother made those choices for us, above her own needs. My wife made those choices for her girls because their needs were more important to her than her own. Annie made those choices in X-Men. There is no human being on the face of this earth more valuable and important to me than single mothers raising kids alone.

So if I hate women, I hate everyone [laughs]. I'm a misanthrope. Which may be true [laughs]. But in all seriousness, women, making difficult choices by themselves, sacrificing and caring, and staying with their children to give them the best they can in difficult circumstances? There is no better human being. It may be why I was attracted to Lana Lang as she had become at DC. Annie was my love poem to those women, and having her held out as an example of my "misogyny" because, like most of those women I knew and some I still know, she wanted to be loved, is someone talking out their ass because their mouth knows better. It's an insult to me, and an insult to those women who deserve better. They deserve our respect, not our contempt.

Wait..hold on…thanks. [chainsaw noise in background]

CBR: That your wife? She mad at you?

Austen: Yeah, because I hate her! Bwah ha ha! Honey, put down that chainsaw! I'm only kidding! See? How could I be a misogynist when I let my wife use a chainsaw around me? [laughs] We've got a gardener here doing some yard work. He's not a comics fan. [laughs] He'd hate my writing if he was, though. He has that look about him.

CBR: Some of the criticism also came from your work on "Action Comics," where you seemed to pit Lana Lang and Lois Lane against each other. What do you think about that?

Austen: You know what, people always complain about stuff where I was actually following the characters' histories. Then they complain because I didn't follow histories. People just frickin' complain! [laughs]. Lana was established as someone who was still having ambivalence about her feelings for Clark. She had gone through divorce from Pete, named her son after another man "Clark" [laughs], Y'know. I didn't write that stuff and had nothing to do with it, but I wanted to follow continuity. I was trying to instill, and this may come as a shock to people, but conflict is the basis of most good storytelling, so I just used what was there for me to turn it into something. Eddie [Berganza, Superman editor] and I had conversations where we discussed the situation, how I felt about Lois after reading hundreds of thousands of Superman comics and come to the conclusion that I didn't particularly care for Lois, the character, as she'd been portrayed.

CBR: I think the term you used was "gold digging bitch," more or less.

Austen: Wow, I can't believe I actually said that somewhere, but I've said stranger things [laughs]. That was me trying to be funny or making a joke, probably: I'm want to be a smartass, you may have noticed, and it was a mistake to say that. It's a thing about working in this industry that devalues creators so much. You get swept up in devaluing creators, yourself, sometimes. I realize now that I had neglected to associate creators with Lois when I made some of those disparaging remarks. I considered her a "DC entity" with no real creative direction behind her, and as such, fair game. Calling her a "bitch" may be true, and it may not. But to say so in print denigrates fellow creators, and it's just wrong to do. I shouldn't have said it, and I won't go there, again, and I apologize to any creator I may have offended by saying that.

But the fact is that I don't think of her as a gold digging bitch, anyway. I just didn't feel their relationship was working for me, as a reader, as far as two people who really love each other and are married. Eddie and I talked about it, and he said, "Why don't you write it more the way you're describing?" He liked my take on it, that this is two wealthy, powerful people doing their own thing and having a high-powered marriage. They really love each other, that much I know, and I wrote this one story that never saw print, it was a fill-in that I did before I even took over, where Lois is going through her day and thinking about her husband. She's thinking about things she wants to do for him and she buys him this new DVD-Recorder player thing and she gets really excited, because she knows he's a bit of a techno geek in a way. Typical guy. The whole thing with Lana was leading up to the strengthening of the Clark/Lois relationship and we liked to tease people, scaring them into thinking we might have Clark with Lana, but obviously DC is never going to let that happen. So, anyone thinking that is smoking something that isn't legal [laughs].

My goal as a writer was to raise the conflict level as high as I could and basically make the audience like Lana enough to maybe make someone want to see the change, and see how she could be with Clark, creating some tension and conflict. But I guess they don't like tension and conflict [laughs].

CBR: Let's discuss the end of your run on "Action Comics." J.D. Finn was credited as writing the conclusion to your storyline, not you. Are you or are you not J.D. Finn? Because I remember reading your script for "Action Comics" #825 and it was quite different from Finn's story.

Austen: No. I think Eddie is J.D Finn. Maybe. That's a guess. I had a completely different ending in mind, one that left Gog a major villain, and…I mean let's be honest…I was ashamed of this initially, but let's just get this out there: I was fired and blackballed from DC. I was off Superman, period. It became complicated very quickly, from there. I was given the option of finishing the final issue of the arc I had begun, but being suddenly, and very unexpectedly, unemployed, I needed to find work right away doing something else. I was given the option to still write for DC, but not on Superman or any other top, or even mid-level character. I would have had to write under a pseudonym and take some lower tier project like "Prez" or "Blue Devil" that would have probably lasted an issue, and then I'd be out of comics, anyway. I turned that down because I knew that there were people who do like my work and I didn't want to go out with two strikes against me, I wanted to have the opportunity for anyone who did like my work to find it. So I went back to a hectic animation job that left me no time to finish my final script in the week allotted and they got "JD Finn" to do it.

CBR: If sales were up, can you say what their reason was for firing you?

Austen: They were having problems with my scripts and general direction, and sales weren't where they wanted them. They wanted a top ten book, and felt another writer could get them there, when I couldn't. What I was told was that Dan Didio had a conversation with various retailers who said they would never order anything with my name on it because they hated me so much, and that it was creating a ceiling of sales on "Action" that I would never be able to break through. So, I was off Superman. I refused to work under a pseudonym, so DC fired me and blacklisted me from the company. I took that as the opportunity to get out of comics and back into other forms of creativity.

CBR: Let's talk about that. What perspective do you think you've gained on this industry, as both a fan and creator, after stepping away from it?

Austen: Well, y'know, I haven't really looked back at it much since I left, but from what I hear, you can tell it's gone in the opposite direction. When Joe [Quesada, Marvel EiC] brought me onboard, he was trying to reach out beyond the current market and was trying to find someone who could write outward to new readers. From what I hear, they've completely pulled back from that and they've come to the realization, as I did near the end, that there are no new readers. It's all the long-term fan base that's been there for many years and you have to appeal to them or you don't appeal to anybody. So, everyone's doing more crossovers and big events to spike up sales numbers, so it sounds like they've kind of reverted back to what it was in, what, the early nineties? I have to wonder, and I don't know the sales figures, if sales are still overall generally on a decline, but I don't know what to think about the market. Obviously the direction I was going wasn't working for them, especially if you've got stores that won't carry your book because they don't like you personally, no matter what their customers, fans and readers may think. That's a pretty strong message to a company to go the other way. Appease the fans, or die.

CBR: You don't think you could appease the fans?

Austen: [laughs] Are you high? [laughs]

CBR: Here's what you should do: go to Comic-Con International in San Diego this year, set up a celebrity boxing ring and let people come beat you up for a fee that is donated to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Austen: [laughs] I would do that. I would do that for the CBLDF. I would do it. Seriously.

CBR: Would your wife be ok with that?

Austen: No, no. Not even remotely. She doesn't even like people saying bad things about me online. It really upsets her. She wanted me to get out long before I did, because she though the Internet thing was horrific. She would experience it peripherally when we would go to parties and very rarely we'd run into a comic book fan, so inevitably someone would say something like "You're the most hated man in comics!" and that hurt her on a personal level. No way she'll want me to get in a boxing ring and let people hit me. [laughs]

CBR: [laughs] We just won't tell her. Hey Ann, we're borrowing Chuck for…something good.

Austen: [laughs]

CBR: For you personally-

Austen: You can come kick my ass for charity if you want, Arune.

CBR: I'd do it for all the CBR readers.

Austen: You'd do it just because you could, screw charity [laughs].

CBR: I decline to comment. The NSA may be listening and I don't want to end up in Gitmo.

Austen: True, then they'd go reprogram you to torture Al Qaeda operatives [laughs]. You'd be the real life Jack Bauer. No rules! [laughs]

CBR: So, with those kind of negative comments from message boards and all, with the fake Chuck Austen blog last year, did it get to you? How do you deal with that? With the anonymity of the Internet, people often say things they wouldn't say in real life.

Austen: Oh absolutely, they say things they wouldn't say to my face. I heard someone the other day equate the Internet with "Lord Of The Flies." I have to agree. The negativity rises to the top. It just degrades, attacks and tears down. Before long, we'll all wind up like poor Piggy. How much did it bother me? Well obviously enough that I stopped going online. I used to enjoy going on websites and contrary to popular opinion, before I took over X-Men, I used to troll the websites. I trolled a lot of Iron Man websites before I pitched "U.S War Machine" so I could find out what they liked, what they wanted and, honest to God, the direction I chose for X-Men came from every X-Men website I went to: who is dating whom, who is friends with whom, etc. It's all about the relationships, teams, leader and such that everyone was saying they wanted. I took all this stuff very, very seriously and when it all started getting ridiculous, and I got death threats, I decided that this is just comics and not to get worked up about it. I would go online after I'd worked for the whole day and read these attacks and go inside and just be seething with anger because of the cruel and pointless things people would say about me, and I couldn't stop thinking about it, which wasn't fair to my family.

That's why I decided to stop going on the websites and start having fun, instead. [Marvel Editor] Mike Marts suggested it, and he was right. Do something better with my time, and I might enjoy life more. Even though other people wanted to keep talking that way about me, I didn't have to wallow in it. But even though, eventually, it may not have been affecting me on a personal, emotional level, it did affect my job. I wasn't doing anything with Marvel when I went to DC and I got fired because some store owners are fans who hated me. That was brutal. So, of course I was depressed because no one, and I mean no one, wants to get fired or lose their job for any reason. You always want it to be your choice. I had plans, I had stories I wanted to tell in the next several issues of "Action," and instead they got this J.D Finn character to do it instead, who did a lot of things they said they didn't like me doing: the guest stars, too much stuff going on. They specifically wanted me to create more villains for Superman and I had gone out of my way to make Gog into someone potent and they go, and in one issue, turn him into some hero at the end, I think, didn't they? Everything I did was rendered pointless. So yeah, I had some bad times. But in the long run it was the best thing for me and probably for the industry [laughs].

CBR: Some people may not disagree [laughs]. But some might also say that you're a paid writer, so get a thicker skin.

Austen: This is from people who are still mad about what I did to Juggernaut [laughs]. Maybe a thicker skin would help them [laughs]. I don't think anyone could argue that I haven't had a dinosaur hide, through most of this. Anyone who says that you should have a thicker skin has never experienced what I went through, or most creators in this business now seem to have to go through. Most people get one flame and it ruins their day, or their week. I had an endless flow of it, and at the end, I lost a career that I loved and was passionate about and an income that took care of my family. I'm human. I only play a super hero on TV [laughs]. I may have lost my cool a time or two online, or in interviews, but never in public, even when people were insulting me to my face, and in the end, after four-plus years of hounding even now, years after I've left the industry entirely, I can still laugh about it. How much thicker does it need to get? And realistically, I'd say that with the Internet the way that it is, I don't think anyone can have a thick enough skin. When you've got people writing into J.K Rowling about "Harry Potter" and telling her she screwed up the series because she had Harry end up with Ginny Weasely instead of Hermione, there's something seriously wrong here. When the woman who created these characters is the only one who can say how things "should" go is attacked by fans, calling her names and threatening to boycott her books, that just tells me it's way off kilter and the only way to deal with it is ignore it, go offline. I don't know any other way. It's not like you can make it go away or you can change it. You can't police that kind of thing. Do you agree? I mean, you're not the focus of it, but you see a lot of it and it's incredibly difficult for some people, not just me.

CBR: There is a lot of negativity and I remember talking to Ron Marz about all the threats and anger over Hal Jordan. Do you think that's something specific to this industry or just entertainment in general?

Austen: It's everywhere. Every kind of fan entertainment. Sports, oh God, you think this is bad, the fans in sports have been worse and for a far longer time. They throw stuff! [laughs] At least comics fans don't do that. Hell, I've been to sporting events where people I'm with think they have the right, because they bought a ticket, to throw beer, or cups, or frickin' batteries at their own players! Sports fans are constantly online or in newspapers or sports radio talking about how coaches should be fired or replaced, how players should do this or that and sometimes it's just after one bad game or situation. Look at the Chicago Cubs and the Bartman ball: that whole situation where the ball comes to the guy and who's not going to reach for it? Then this guy, literally, people were trying to kill him. It's insanity.

To me it's an overall problem with the world today: everyone's so angry, feels so entitled and feels like everyone owes them everything. But nobody agrees on what. I remember sometimes when I was online and said "OK, that's a little too much, let's back off here" and somebody would say, "You're going to listen to me. I have a right to say this. I'm a customer! You need to get a thicker skin!" Maybe I do, but let's keep this in perspective: back off a little. The more angry you are, the more people are going to want to back away from you and I think it's an overall problem with this particular industry, because we keep pushing fans away enough as it is and diminishing our market.

CBR: I want to get into your new comic stuff in a second, but let's talk about your creator-owned title "Worldwatch"-what happened?

Austen: Uh "Worldwatch," wow, it was too expensive to produce. I was paying the creators their normal rates and wanted to make sure they were happy, feeling well compensated and Dan, the colorist, actually was kind to me and gave me a cut rate on coloring when I decided I wanted to color the book. Great guy, terrific guy to work with, but I couldn't afford it. To pay people the kind of money I was paying, you needed to have minimum sales of 10-15,000 copies sold and I didn't think it was all that insurmountable. I pulled high numbers on my bigger Marvel books, but even with "The Eternal" I was pulling in at least 25,000, so I figured 10-15 wasn't a real stretch, but apparently the Marvel name does mean something even when you're selling a book about characters that most people don't care about. The bottom line was money.

CBR: But how much did the series sell? Were you even close to hitting that goal?

Austen: I was close, I probably could have gotten there if I'd stuck with it for a year or so and probably would have made money back on the trade paperbacks, but after losing six grand and having to take a couple of months to scramble & find new work after being fired, I didn't have the money to bankroll it anymore. It was about 5-7 thousand in sales when I gave it up, but we were getting re-orders, we were selling it out and I assumed I could get higher, how much higher I don't know. I could have made money, but in the long run I think I needed to get out of the industry and I needed to find another way to express myself creatively. Even doing a superhero comic book in the independent market, there were still a lot of people that hated me and wouldn't order the book, so it was probably better that I got out. I'm certainly happier, now.

CBR: You were "Fired" in issue #3 and replaced with "Sam Clemens," Did it surprise you when people didn't get the joke?

Austen: [laughs] Yeah and the really funny part was that I had done that up and sent it to the printer the week before Eddie called me and fired me from "Action." I told him it was going to come out and say the "Editor of Worldwatch" fired me off the book and for all the same reasons Eddie gave me, so I didn't want him to think I was taking a swipe at him. It's one of those weird ironies in life. I mean, I saw it coming: Eddie kept telling me that my head was on the chopping block and it was part of the reason I did that joke in the first place. It shocked me when people would come up to me at cons, give me the first two issues and I can see the third one in their hand, so I'd ask if they wanted me to sign it and they'd say, "No, because you didn't write it." [laughs] Sam Clemens…kind of a joke. I'm the publisher- there's no one here but me! [laughs]

CBR: [laughs] The education system has failed us.

Austen: There will still be fans that will say I'm J.D Finn. Some people just won't let their minds be changed, no matter the facts.

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