Ask Chris #89: The Rise and Fall of Chuck Austen
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Q: Chuck Austen: Go. -- @atnorwood
A: I hate to break this to you, Andrew, but that is not actually a question. You can tell because it doesn't have one of those little squiggly things at the end of it. But just this once, I'm going to let it slide, because -- and I am not joking -- I am fascinated by Chuck Austen.
I mean, this was a dude who seemed like he had been handed the keys to the mainstream comics industry for one brief minute, and then pretty much vanished after a series of increasingly bizarre events. He's one of those creators that somehow managed to rise and fall like a meteor -- and the whole thing was about as pleasant as having one dropped on your house.If you were reading comics in the early 2000s, it might've seemed like Austen came out of nowhwere, but that's not actually the case. He'd gotten his start in comics fifteen years before he started getting mainstream attention from Marvel, and in the first of many strange turns that his story takes, he did so by drawing Miracleman with Alan Moore. It was a pretty brief tenure, sure -- Austen drew a total of 26 pages over the course of three issues -- but working with Alan Moore in 1986? That's about as good a start as any artist in the history of comics could've asked for.
And things start to get a little weirder with how he followed that up: 1991's Strips, a semi-autobiographical porn comic. And believe it or not, what I've seen of it is actually pretty good. Admittedly, I've never been able to put together a full run or anything and it's certainly no Small Favors, but there's some solid cartooning in there, with some really funny gags. Jokes, I mean. Not the BSDM kind.
Anyway, there was another eyebrow-raising moment when Austen went directly from porn comics to penciling Disney's The Little Mermaid, but neither Strips nor its baseball-themed erotica follow-up Hardball was the book that launched Austen into the height of his career. That happened in 2001.
At the time, Marvel was taking a lot of chances, and with good reason. Joe Quesada had just risen to the position of Editor-In-Chief the previous year, riding a wave of success that had pulled Marvel out of bankruptcy. And the way that he and then-company president Bill Jemas had done it was through a series of huge gambles that had paid off big-time, most of which involved pulling in new creators to give a fresh spin to books. Some of them were creators who had acclaimed works elsewhere, like Garth Ennis, and some of them were people who had written in fields outside comics. But there were a few in there who were brought in after doing independent comics, like a guy named Brian Bendis, who was best known at the time for a black-and-white true crime story and an indie murder mystery.
And then there was Austen, who had been working in animation in the late '90s on shows like King of the Hill, who made his Marvel debut as a writer with a 12-issue mini-series called U.S. War Machine.
I haven't actually read this thing since it came out, but I remember really enjoying it. Take that with a grain of salt -- believe it or not, my taste in comics when I was 19 is even more suspect than my taste in comics now -- but it was like this crazy over-the-top action movie done with Marvel characters, back before that was something Marvel was actually doing.
It's all done with this super-serious tone, but when it's the story of Jim Rhodes leading a team of custom War Machine suits -- one of which has a metal bowler hat -- and a zombie MODOK into Latveria as a strike force to go explode a bunch of AIM stuff, that tone just makes it better. In my memory, it's like somebody at Marvel thought it would be fun to do Commando as a manga, and then did it.
Of course, now that I'm actually looking at pages from it, that might be an opinion that I have to re-evaluate. There's a scene where a computer-rendered Dr. Doom shows up that's just awful, and the lettering alone makes it look like this was sent back in time from a future where LOLcats evolved from man:
But then again, it matters less whether or not U.S. War Machine was any good than what it meant for Austen, which was a pretty massive break. It wasn't just a mini-series, it was a stunt: twelve black-and-white issues that were released weekly at the cheap price of $1.50, promising all the gory violence and profanity that the new MAX line had to offer. Readers had already seen Austen as an artist thanks to his gig relaunching Elektra with Bendis (already a star thanks to the massive success of Ultimate Spider-Man), but with War Machine, he was being shown off as a writer, too. And folks, that is where the rocket took off.
Within a year, Austen was writing one of the crown jewels of Marvel comics: Uncanny X-Men.
It wouldn't stop there, either. Between 2002 and 2005, Austen would rack up a resumé that anybody in comics would be jealous of: Avengers. Captain America. JLA. Action Comics. These aren't just high-profile writing gigs, these are comics your mom has heard of. There's a big difference between being able to say "I write comics" and "I write Superman," and Austen has that junk on lock. The dude even got a twelve-issue Jimmy Olsen series published, although they didn't call it that.
But it's X-Men that's probably going to be his lasting legacy -- such as it is -- in mainstream comics. It's the book he was on the longest, the book that got the most attention, and it's also where everything started to go wrong.
I have to admit that I sympathize with Austen up to a point. He's said in interviews that he essentially had two goals with the book. First, he wanted to give the readers what they wanted, and second, he wanted to do so in a way that wasn't the same story that they'd seen a million times. Those are admirable goals, especially in a time when it seemed like a lot of people were just content to rehash the same stories over and over, catering to an increasingly small audience by becoming a cover band that only played songs people already liked until they eventually got sick of them. The biggest success at Marvel at the time was the Ultimate line, an entire imprint of titles that were based on the idea of re-telling old stories, but with longer hair and more earrings. Even great stuff like Grant Morrison's run on New X-Men -- the other half of the franchise during the Austen era -- was largely rooted in echoing Chris Claremont's greatest hits, from the death of Phoenix to "Days of Future Past."
And as for giving the fans what they wanted, Austen was quick to figure out that the appeal of the X-Men franchise was that it's a big ol' soap opera starring dudes who can shoot laser beams out of their face. It's the character relationships that are at the core of that book more than anything else, and it's easy to see that Austen made a conscious decision to emphasize those over anything else during his run.
Unfortunately, those new things that he wanted to do and those relationships that he wanted to develop were done in what can best be described as a spectacularly catastrophic failure.
As much as you can try to follow his logic for the choices he made in his stories, you inevitably come to a point where things just get downright incomprehensible. Take, for instance, the particularly infamous storyline about a romance between Angel and Husk that culminates with the two mutants just straight up f***ing in mid-air in front of Husk's mom:
The scene got a lot of attention (for obvious reasons), and I can't even begin to figure out why anyone thought this scene was a good idea, but here's the thing: That's not even the weirdest thing in that story. That dubious honor goes to the fact that it's all based on Romeo & Juliet, to the point where there are lines lifted directly from Shakespeare and put into the characters' dialogue with no alteration. And it's not like they're meant to be quoting the play either -- it's just what they're saying.
It makes no sense on any level, and adds this weird pretentious veneer to a story that ends with mid-air hillbilly sex. It gets to the point where it's impossible to figure out if Austen is making choices because he thinks they're genuinely good, or if he's doing them out of irony, or if it's just a joke and nothing more.
And then there's "The Draco."
This one is unquestionably Austen's most infamous story, and it is most certainly one of the worst X-Men stories of all time. To be fair to Austen, it's not entirely his fault. Philip Tan's art in this story was so bad as to be damn near unreadable, but the reading wasn't much better.
The story is equal parts complex and stupid, but the main idea behind it was that Nightcrawler discovered his father was a demon. This certainly lives up to Austen's goal of doing something that nobody had ever done before, but the reason for that is that it's a monumentally terrible idea.
You may be aware that there's a metaphor for racism at the heart of the X-Men, and with Nightcrawler in particular. The whole idea behind his character is that he looks like a demon, but he's not. Pointy ears, the classic devil tail, the misshapen hands and creepy glowing eyes -- he even smells like brimstone when he uses his powers. But underneath all that is a person. The lesson is that you can't judge people by their appearance or be afraid of someone because they look scary or different, and it's a lesson that we learn all the way back in his first appearance in Giant Size X-Men #1, where a bunch of dudes are chasing him because they think he's a demon. We learn that those guys are wrong, not because Nightcrawler's a good demon or anything like that, but because he's a human being, just like you and me. That's the whole series in a nutshell. That's the metaphor that the X-Men operate on.
And along comes Chuck Austen and "The Draco," and oh hey, it turns that no, he's an actual demon and those dudes who wanted to burn him at the stake were completely and totally right all along. It turns a story that was just bad and dumb into one that fundamentally misunderstands not just a character, but the entirety of an extremely popular franchise and what it means to its fans.
It did not go over well.
I was working in the comic book store by then, and I remember the backlash against Austen being even more immediate and furious than it usually is when X-Men fans don't like a story. It was vicious -- Austen has spoken in interviews about getting death threats and having people constantly tell him how bad those stories sucked, both online and to his face at conventions -- but it seemed like such a sudden, complete turn that there's a level that I can't help but be fascinated by. It's this one time in comics where everybody picked up a story, read it, and then we all agreed without even speaking that nope, that never happened. Austen's run was essentially retconned by the fans.
The backlash was so severe that it followed him to DC and his brief tenure writing Action Comics. According to an interview Austen did with CBR, it got to the point where his editors at DC came to the conclusion that people just flat-out hated anything with the words "Chuck Austen" on it:
"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."
It led to a full-blown debacle, where Austen was replaced by "J.D. Finn," a pseudonym that some people believed was actually Austen himself, trying to dodge his own reputation or create a publicity stunt. I even remember hearing that it was meant to be Austen referring to "Jaded Fans," but that seemed like a bit of a stretch. Austen himself maintained that Finn was actually DC editor Eddie Berganza.
Either way, it led to a pretty abrupt departure from the company, and the end of Austen's career writing for Marvel and DC. But he wasn't quite done yet.
Shortly after his departure from DC, Austen would self-publish WorldWatch, and man, this thing is hard to figure out. I've seen it referred to as a parody of super-hero comics, a parody of books like The Authority that were satirizing super-hero comics, and even as just straight up porn. Either way, it's terrible. The whole thing's full of ham-handed political comedy like having characters quote George W. Bush's flubbed words like "misunderestimated" in between shots of naked ladies and fountains of blood.
The only thing that's notable about it is that Austen used WorldWatch as a platform to satirize his own experience at DC, "firing" himself from the book and "replacing" him with a new writer called Sam Clemens who was, of course, Austen himself. In that same CBR interview, Austen laments that people didn't get the joke, but to be honest, there's not really much of a joke there to get. Like most everything else that he did in his career, it was just weird, a choice that you can kind of see the logic behind but never actually comprehend.
Which brings us to Austen's last book, the one thing that completes the almost perfect arc of Austen's career in comics: 2006's Boys of Summer.
With Super-Hero comics clearly not working out for him, Austen ended up going back to the last thing he'd had success with in comics before he'd broken into them: baseball porn.
Except that despite being drawn by hentai artist Hiroki Otsuka and being billed as Austen's return to stuff like Strips and Hardball, it wasn't actually porn. Even the solicitations tried to make it sound as transgressive and porny as possible:
"Bud Waterston is a decent looking guy in full hormonal bloom. It's his first year in college, and he and his best friend Manny can't wait to begin their 'education'... in the opposite sex! But like all best 'laid' plans, nothing goes as Bud hoped or expected. Not only is Manny's roommate a sexual exhibitionist, Bud discovers all the good looking girls in the dorm are interested in somebody else... or in the case of one especially gorgeous baseball player named Chrissie, interested in him dead last. But when Bud's killer fastball gets him placed on the team, will he make it past home plate?"
In reality, though, it reads more like a softcore porn with all the dirty stuff cut out so that it can air on USA Up All Night, with a pretty similar quality in the writing. I guess it might've lived up to the solicitation's promise in future volumes -- it was planned as a series of three, with a big collected edition to follow -- but thanks to a combination of toxic mold, the collapse of Tokyopop as a publisher and the lingering backlash against him from super-hero readers, it never happened.
With that, Austen left comics, leaving behind a bunch of people writing top ten lists of the worst moments in X-Men history.
They're not wrong. From X-Men to Worldwatch, Austen's stories are unfailingly some of the worst comics of the past ten years. That's what makes him so fascinating to me. When you look at that crowd of new comics writers that was really making waves at the start of this century, guys like Bendis and Geoff Johns, Austen was right in there with them, with four solid years as one of the most prominent writers in that crop of creators. And yet, the best thing you can say about Austen's work in super-hero comics is that occasionally, it wasn't absolutely terrible.
By all accounts, he's done with super-hero comics, and I think we're all a lot happier that way.
That's all we have for this week, but if you've got a question you'd like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!