SUPER-Stars (Part 4): Chuck Austen talks "Action Comics"

With the "Year of Superman," as DC Comics has dubbed 2004, already underway with "Superman/Batman," "Superman: Secret Identity" and "Superman: Birthright," one might assume, erroneously, that the excitement around the Man Of Steel is due to all the new series. But Superman's first comic book, "Action Comics," is receiving a makeover of its own that seems to excite everyone around the DC water cooler. Enter artist Ivan Reis (whom CBR News spoke with earlier) and writer Chuck Austen. In Part 4 of CBR's Superman celebration, Austen spoke to CBR News about he plans to make "Action Comics" live up to its name with Darkseid and more!

"That was Eddie's [Berganza, editor of the Superman line] idea, but yeah, we want to liven up to the name 'Action' as much as possible, and so far I'm having a blast with it," said Austen. "The plan going in was to have maximum visuals and cinematic storytelling with a minimum of text to let the images tell the story, to let the action fly. So far it's working well. The letterer should be really happy with the latest issue. I think there are thirty words in it, total [laughs].

"And Ivan's making this book cook! There's no other way to describe the intense, all-out action-fest he's drawn. The visuals are detailed, fast-paced, flowing and a ton of fun."

As he's stated in the past, on CBR and at conventions, Austen is a huge fan of Superman and when asked what makes the character so unique, and not able to be duplicated by "similar" characters, those keeping score at home will need pen and paper. "What makes him so unique? Dude. Everything. He's the original. The first. There were no super heroes before Superman. He is the most unique. He created this genre, and everything that came after him is simply an attempt to do something as interesting as him. But Siegel and Shuster got it right the first time. Superman is the greatest super hero, ever. The reason characters like Supreme can't replicate him is because of that, because of the elegance and beauty of his basic concept. From Clark to Lois to the job at the Daily Planet and finally Superman himself. Anything else is just an attempt to 'replicate' him. To improve upon the original.

"Can't be done. Superman is the one-and-only. There is no replicating him. Even Spider-Man owes a debt of gratitude to Superman."

Every writer who approaches superheroes from both DC and Marvel looks for an "in" to the character, something that clicks with them and opens up worlds of possibility. With Austen, it's as simple as, "He's the best," states the scribe. "It doesn't matter if there are stronger, more powerful, more flashy or intense super heroes out there. Superman is the greatest. It's because of who he is, his charm, his sense of honor and duty, his humanity and zest for life. He's the hero for the ages, the champion of the little people, unafraid in the face of death and danger, and ready to stand in against all odds. And people like him. They like him a lot.

"The biggest change I wanted was to alter Clark, slightly. He's basically the same as he's been since Byrne revamped the character way back when, talented writer, nice guy, etc. But as often happens in our own lives, his life has taken a negative turn. No matter what he does, he can't seem to get a break. The chips fall someone else's way. It winds up making his being Superman far more important to him -- as an outlet, and as a need.

"And in the process, I think it makes us identify with Clark far more than with the Pulitzer winning journalist with the Penthouse apartment and the Norah O'donnell, Maria Shriver, Elizabeth Vargas, gorgeous, fashion-model cum brilliant, tele-journalist wife. And he doesn't have to be a loser. We all know talented, brilliant, wonderful people that just get a rash of crap thrown their way. Sometimes we are those people [laughs]. Maybe it's Karma, but life is unfair, and it's about to become unfair to Clark Kent."

[Action Comics #815]Having worked on some of the most well-known characters in comics, from the X-Men to the Avengers to Elektra- one might expect Austen to be prepared for the twists and turns of working on the biggest character in comics. And you'd be half right, as Austen explains how "Action Comics" is different from his past work. "No different in some ways, diametrically opposed in others.

"When I'm given a book, the mandate is to take the series and make it work as best it possibly can, and get people excited. Bottom line, I believe, is sales and marketability of the character. Which sounds crass, but this is a commercial business, and contrary to popular opinion, that doesn't negate art. So I look at what made a concept popular in the first place, and try to recapture that. If there was nothing, I try to find what should work, and go with that.

"Superman worked. He's always worked. But my sense after researching the character was that he worked best in his original incarnation -- as Siegel and Shuster created him. Fun, charming, witty and entertaining, with big action that everyday people could understand and be amazed by, while Clark was the guy we could relate to on a personal level and bring us into how fun it would be to become Superman. Clark was like us, fallible, misunderstood, and always thinking 'If you only knew.' The man who couldn't get a break no matter how good he was or how hard he tried, and never got the girl. So I wanted to go back in that direction.

"To that end, I asked to make some alterations in the existing direction, the current concept, as I always do when I begin writing a book, and that's what's the same. Less alterations in this series than in others, but my same, basic approach.

"The difference is -- and Eddie and I were just talking about this today and I think Kurt Busiek touched upon it in the 'JLA/Avengers' crossover -- the difference is that the DCU is such a fun, upbeat place. Superman is a hero, he's loved, and he's a blast. People like him, and the world wants him to succeed. There are statues of him in Metropolis. The city appreciates him. He's witty, charming, handsome and likeable, and he wins in the end. The book, as I'm writing it, is intended to be fun, always entertaining, and always a ride with a hopeful tone. Knock on wood that I succeed. So far people around the DC offices seem to like it.

"When I'm writing another project, 'Exiles,' or the X-Men, say, the overall themes are oppression. Racism. Fear and hatred. People who are put upon by a world that fears and loathes them. It's an inherently negative worldview, perhaps more realistic, but nevertheless a very dark one. Often, at times, it becomes oppressive even to the writer. But it's how the concept works best, and when you alter that, it becomes something else, and doesn't work as well.

"So Superman is inherently positive, and X-Men is inherently negative in their respective messages. That's the basic difference. Not that one is necessarily better or more "right" than the other. Both work in their own way. That's just what the difference is."

This isn't Austen's first foray into the world of Superman. Along with two previous stand alone Superman tales, Austen wrote a Jimmy Olsen centric "Superman: Metropolis" series that makes some wonder if Jimmy will play a large role in "Action." "Jimmy will have a small role, " said Austen. "I've come to really love Jimmy -- and Lena, for that matter. Even Killgrave. But the book is about Superman, so Jimmy isn't a central figure, and isn't around much at all in the first few issues."

Though everyone's favorite young carrot top- besides Archie Andrews- won't be in the series too heavily, expect some other familiar faces to make a splash. "Other cast members include Jack Ryder, and most likely his alter ego the Creeper. Lana Lang plays a big role. Lois, obviously. Grace, Perry's assistant. A few others. A new STAR lab tech who's a lot of fun for me. There are also some great guest stars in the first issues. Some of the Teen Titans, particularly Superboy, who I have to thank Geoff Johns for loaning me. Wonder Woman. Steel. Others. So much fun."

[Action Comics 814]Lana Lang is character who saw some spotlight in recent years, but with her prime role in television's "Smallville," it seemed inevitable her star would rise. That said, the television show didn't dictate Austen's decision to include her and he says, "[The idea] was mine, actually. Or maybe it was Eddie's when I suggested another woman? I think it was actually a mutual thing between he and I. I can't remember for sure, but since the initial reaction was negative, I definitely remember that the idea came from outside the DC front offices [laughs]. So that means Eddie and me being rebellious [laughs]. We'd been discussing something like it since before 'Smallville' became such a hit, and things just fell that way in the TV series, so it became easier to convince DC. But how big a role Lana plays, I'm not saying."

The reaction to Lana Lang's inclusion in "Action Comics" included accusations that Austen was going to cause Superman to cheat on his wife, Lois Lane, with Lana. "People accuse me of a lot of things that have nothing to do with me," laughs Austen. "I'm surprised someone hasn't tried to connect me with Tim McVeigh. But as far as Lana is concerned -- does anyone really think DC would let me get away with that? Well, maybe they would (laughs). Time will tell.

"If you've read the short that precedes my run [found in the February issue of 'Action Comics'], you have a pretty good idea of where I'm going with Lana. She and Clark share a history. They were lovers, they love one another -- Lana on possibly a different level than Clark -- possibly (laughs). And she has feelings for him that are unrequited. She named her son by another man after Clark. For various reasons they went their separate ways, and she now regrets it. Has always regretted it, on some level.

"They grew up together. They went to school together, the prom, were very close. They share a ton of life, and not a few in-jokes. Those ties are not easily broken -- and some would argue they shouldn't be.

"Does that mean an affair? Doubtful. But it does mean a closeness that could cause problems. Or would in my life if an old girlfriend moved in nearby with a son named 'Chuck' [laughs]."

Any magic Austen is creating on "Action Comics" will be done with Ivan Reis, whose work on some previous Superman efforts have blown fans away. Oddly enough, Austen isn't sure how he was so lucky as to end up with Reis, but isn't questioning fate. "Man, I don't know, but I go to sleep on my knees every night thanking whatever God there is in this universe that I got paired with him. He is absolutely nailing this book. I can't imagine doing it without him. He brings a level of sophistication and detail to the pencils that is going to blow -- people -- AWAY. I know a lot of people out there right now are now thinking 'Hype! All Hype!'

"Trust me. Not hype. You will be stunned and amazed. I am, and I thought I knew what to expect [laughs]! I wrote the things [laughs]!"

While Austen has worked with very many popular artists, he finds that Reis brings something very unique to the creative process and to his scripts. "He surprises me by following them really, really closely [laughs]. Really. That's the truth. And whatever he adds makes it so much better. Character, expression, personality, and detail that will fry your eyes. If I ask for it, I get it in the panel -- times ten. I can't believe the work this guy puts in. What an incredible find. He focuses on beautiful composition, detail, and structure, and adjusts whatever mistakes I may have made in storytelling. It works so well. And he gets in these little, charming character bits that I live for. There are some exchanges between Superman, Superboy, Kid Flash and Wonder Girl in the second issue that are among my favorite moments in the series so far.

"Our goal is for me to write as little text as possible over his art, keep the action clean, and flowing smoothly, convincingly, and quickly, and so far, I've been able to pull out a lot of expository dialogue and meaningless text because the information is already there. People may think it reads fast, but it's also fun to read more than once, I think, the visuals make for such an intense story. So I think we've got a nice balance. Right in the drawings. Never seen such amazing work, other than maybe Dave Finch, Sal Larocca, or Tom Derenick when we've worked together. Ivan's reached a new level. Superstar status. Do I see him as the next big thing? If there is any justice in this world!

"Really. Wait until you see it. The two issue Gog slugfest is mind-blowing."

Ready to go back to writing "X-Men" and working on some other top secret projects, Austen has a few parting words for Superman fans. "Try not to worry. I know it's always scary when a new writer takes over a long-lived and beloved character like Superman -- especially when that writer is me [laughs]. But I respect and admire this character tremendously, and want to do well by him. He deserves it. He's the best, and everyone should know that."

Discuss this story here on CBR's Superman Forum.

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