Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Into the breach - a defense of Chuck Austen!

For the past few months, Chuck Austen has become the go-to guy for shitty comics writing in the comments of various posts. Back a while, Friend Of The Blog T. wondered if he would ever see a defense of Austen that was heart-felt instead of just a knee-jerk reaction to all the Alan Moore Love on the Internets. Well, to all out there who agreed with him, your prayers have been answered!

Now, Chuck Austen has a lot to answer for in Hell. After I faithfully bought Uncanny X-Men for 15 years, it was Austen who finally drove me from the title. He almost killed Miracleman with some truly horrid art, art so bad he couldn't even put his real name on it! Anyone connected with any Elektra solo series is going to spend a little time in Purgatory (before the Catholic Church does away with it, that is, and yes, I'm including Peter Milligan in that, even though I like his writing a lot). Austen's takes on the Avengers and the JLA are apparently enough to cause people's heads to spontaneously explode. And I've heard that they had to create a new, separate space in Perdition just for his work on Worldwatch. So he has much to justify when he comes before that Great Comic Book Critic in the Sky. However, he can always point to the one piece of work that doesn't cause rectal bleeding: U.S. War Machine.
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This, my good friends, is a truly great read. Remember the good old days at Marvel? Jemas and Quesada were mad scientists, throwing everything into the test tube and seeing what bizarre concoctions they could, well, concoct. We got Morrison on Marvel Boy and then on X-Men. We got Milligan and Allred on X-Force. We got Alias. We got the whole MAX line, which has, I guess, pretty much died, but gave us Fury and Supreme Power and The Punisher and this fantastic series. Not everything worked - Casey/Churchill and then Austen on Uncanny X-Men, The Brotherhood - but the point is, they tried a lot of new stuff. The turn of the century was a heady time at the Marvel offices. Out of that spirit came a hard-nosed look at Tony Stark and his armor-building capabilities.

War Machine seems like the kind of thing Austen does well. It's a tense, morally ambiguous, politically charged thriller, and it's surprising that Marvel and DC kept giving him superhero books when it's clear he's good at this sort of stuff. It begins with Jim Rhodes getting caught up with A.I.M. terrorists on the freeway. They're just driving down the road with a hostage, and Rhodes happens to be flying by in the War Machine armor. He tries to rescue the hostage, but bad things happen. It always annoys me in comics when there is no collateral damage - the Hulk always destroys abandoned towns, that sort of thing - but here there is collateral damage, and you might not like it, but it's certainly what happens. This just shows that Austen is not interested in making this a "fun" read - he wants you to be uncomfortable and consider what happens when A.I.M. terrorists and War Machine start shooting at each other on the freeway. Tony Stark fires Rhodes, of course, even though it's quite obvious that he shares the blame for the incident with Rhodes. Rhodes ends up working for SHIELD, who are setting up a "War Machine" unit - they have various suits of armor that they've cobbled together and they want Rhodes to command it. A great deal of fighting ensues. Lots of bloodshed.

The interesting thing about War Machine is that it addresses race. It does so in a far less obnoxious way than, say, Black Panther apparently does (I only read the preview for issue #1 that was posted on-line, so I can't say if it has remained as ham-fisted as that was). When Rhodes confronts the terrorists in the beginning, he hesitates taking action because they're black. The mission his unit goes on is against HYDRA, which has been taken over by a white supremacist, and Rhodes and his team have to deal with the implications presented by his master plan. There's also a redneck on the team, who's not exactly racist, just a bit ignorant. He learns his lesson, but it's not in an annoying, "after-school-special" kind of way. The way the characters interact and change is organic, so it's a fascinating read.

There is a lot of violence in the book, and some of it is presented graphically, but again, it's something that Austen doesn't glorify but doesn't shy away from either. There's also a lot of drama, too. Will the SHIELD guys rescue Parnell's wife? Will they stop HYDRA in time? How is Doctor Doom involved? Doom shows up late, because HYDRA is operating in Latveria, and he proves, once again, what a bad-ass he is. A MODOK is there, and so is Darkhawk. Darkhawk is a truly goofy hero, but Austen makes him viable and even scary. He also pokes some fun at superhero culture, as Darkhawk is kept in a virtual reality world where he is a provisional member of the West Coast Avengers. "Continuity" in this world is very important to him. It's not mean-spirited at all (well, maybe a little), and it fits well within the context of the story. Darkhawk, in this title, is crazy. Not a bad thing.

(Speaking of continuity, I have never figured out where things fit in the MAX Universe. Alias obviously takes place in the "real" Marvel U. I guess The Punisher is in the Marvel U. I doubt if this does. It uses some of the characters and some of the personality traits of the Marvel U. (Tony Stark drinks, for instance, and we're supposed to know the backstory), but it seems like it takes place in the "real" world. Who knows. I don't care that much, it's just something interesting.)

Anyway, if you like ultra-violence, interesting race questions, thrilling rescues and attacks, some clever fun lines, pretty good art (not great, just pretty good), and a lot of twists and turns, check out the trade paperback of this. It probably won't make you change your mind about the awfulness of most of Austen's work, but it might make you say, "Hey - he's not a complete hack!" And if you can't overcome your Austen hatred, just pretend that Garth Ennis is writing it. That should do it!

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Blogger Unknown said...

I actually enjoyed this quite a bit when it was coming out. It was weird; Marvel launched their MAX line with a black and white, bi-weekly, $1.99 book. I re-read it a little while after it finished, and some of it bothered me (the gratuitous nudity, for one; what was up with that girl's breasts?), but overall I still find it a good read. Other than this, I've avoided Austen since I've heard nothing but bad things about anything else he's been involved with (although I didn't mind the first Elektra arc. Halfway decent writing by Bendis, fairly poor art by Austen)(and Worldwatch looks hilarious, in that Jim Balent manner). I did try to read the US War Machine 2.0, but the CG art was so terrible I couldn't make it past the first few pages.

P.S. Sorry about all the parantheses.

1/18/2006 12:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's surprising that Marvel and DC kept giving him superhero books

Not really, considering that's all they want to publish. Kabuki's not at Icon because Avi Arad likes the theatre, after all...

War Machine vol. 1 was all right, I thought, Posercomic or otherwise. I liked Darkhawk. I guess, in hindsight, he was a bit of a homage to Evangelion, or something, the poor boob.


1/18/2006 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

I cannot speak for T, of course, but I thought his point was to come up with a defense of Austen's derided work, not pick one of Austen's good works.

If someone could adequately defend his Uncanny and Avengers run, now THAT would be intriguing!

But yeah, US War Machine Vol. 1 was pretty good.

I think Superman:Metropolis was even better!

1/18/2006 01:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked that one issue of Uncanny X-Men where Northstar joined the team. I thought Austen presented a believable take on the character, and brought him through an emotional change that resonated. Even though I knew where the story was going, that issue of Uncanny X-Men really got to me.

Then he wrote the crappy story with the wolves where Archangel hooked up with Husk, and the Draco. Every issue, I knew I should just drop the book, but I kept coming back...

1/18/2006 02:00:00 PM  
Blogger ADL said...

For my own part, I thought Austin's run on Action Comics for the "Wrath of Gog" storyline was quite good overall. True, it's mostly sold by Ivan Reis & Marc Campos' solid art, but I particularly liked the exploration of Diana and Lana's feelings for Clark/Kal. It managed to infuse a bit of Smallville into the main without collapsing under its own weight. Also, while it copped the whole "Superman is DEAD!! ...Isn't he?" plot device, I liked that it explored how little people, including Supes himself, know about his physiology: "Did you know your APPENDIX is a fully formed ORGAN?"

1/18/2006 02:46:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Sorry, Brian, I thought everyone was deriding ALL of Austen's work, and that ain't right. I can't defend his run on Uncanny X-Men - that's indefensible!

1/18/2006 03:23:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

"I can't defend his run on Uncanny X-Men - that's indefensible!"

Actually, if you go with Mike's tact, there WERE a couple of good issues mixed in with all the crap issues of Austen's Uncanny.

" For my own part, I thought Austin's run on Action Comics for the "Wrath of Gog" storyline was quite good overall."

What I liked about his Action Comics run was, as you mentioned, he took a side step to Reis/Campos. He treated the book like the title was a mission statement - Comics with ACTION!

But whenever he had anyone talk, I really disliked it.

He reminded me of that Seinfeld episode. "Every instinct I ever had was wrong." Well, pretty much every characterization decision he made was, IMO, wrong.

1/18/2006 04:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There have been two things I've read by Austen that I didn't entirely hate. First was his run on ACtion Comics. It was pretty good, not great but good (though he did have Superman say "Dude.").
The second was The Eternal that he did for Marvel's MAX line. I really enjoyed that and would've liked to see where he would've taken it given the time.

1/18/2006 04:04:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Foss said...

I really enjoyed Austen's "Superman: Metropolis." It made me psyched to hear about his upcoming run on Action.

His fill-in issues on the Superman titles, and his entire Action run, on the other hand, were not so enjoyable. He didn't write Superman, but a more violent Spider-Man with a cape.

1/18/2006 04:26:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

" He didn't write Superman, but a more violent Spider-Man with a cape."

Yeah, that was essentially the problem. Why WRITE established characters if you don't want to USE them, but rather, just make up new characters with the same name and appearance as the established characters?

1/18/2006 05:53:00 PM  
Blogger Sleestak said...

I can't support Austen at all.

A few months ago, after ignoring the title, I read the entire Exiles series from #1 with out paying attention to the credits. Everything was going swell and then I hit this period where all characterization and sense was suddenly gone from the book. All I could think was that the team must have had a bad couple months, then I looked and saw "Austen" in the credits and it became clear. His entire career is 'a bad couple of months'.

He will also have a special hell-circle designed for him for his part in creating 'Tripping the Rift'.

1/18/2006 10:02:00 PM  
Blogger MarkAndrew said...

I generally liked his X-men stuff.

Except when I didn't.

I liked that he wasn't afraid to tell jokes with the characters, and I thought there was some genuinelly funny stuff. I'm pro funny.

Like, Claremont seems ta regard his characters as being almost sacrosanct and above ridicule. Austen wasn't afraid to have fun with the sorta-ridiculous concept of superpowered mutants.

I'd rate his stuff as better than most of the X-runs from the fifteen or so years pre-Morrison revamp. He just had the bad luck to be competing with writers 'n artistswho were particularly good.

Dug the two-or-three issues of Superman:Metropolis I read, too.

1/19/2006 12:15:00 AM  
Blogger Cap'n Neurotic said...

"Why WRITE established characters if you don't want to USE them"

I think Brian summed up my thoughts on Austen pretty well; my biggest beef with him is that anytime he gets his hands on an established character, all previous characterization gets thrown out the window. I know he's not the only writer to tinker with characterization (Morrison springs to mind), but the difference is, Austen does it to every character he touches and (here's the really key thing) he does it so badly!

Liked War Machine a lot, was dissapointed with his X-men run, disgusted with his Avengers, about had an embolism from his JLA, and was *this* close to actually liking his Action run and then he would have Superman make some unbelivably snide, sarcastic, juvenile crack, and the "why does he keep getting work?" rage would resurface.

And don't even get me started about his Exiles run . . .

Thank heavens for my Public Library, which allows me to indulge my comic obsession without having to actually shell out money for crap like this.

1/19/2006 09:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually really enjoyed Austen's run on Uncanny X-Men. Some of the stories were let down by the artists involved but for the most part I thought they were great fun.

1/19/2006 10:21:00 AM  
Blogger by Jim MacQuarrie said...

Having seen the horrific trashing that Austen committed on the late Dan DeCarlo's "Lower East Side" (which God willing his family will prevent from ever being published), I say there is no defense for him. He's a hack, and a vulgar one at that.

1/20/2006 02:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alright, I'm not even sure anyone will ever come back and look at this, but I finally have a chance to stand up for a writer I love, and I'm going to.

1) Uncanny X-Men - Did Dominant Species suck? Yes. However, did Hope give us the most believable villain becomes hero story ever? Yes. Just as he allowed characters to grow in War Machine, he allowed Juggernaut to grow here. It wasn't just "Sabertooth's on the team now" like they did years back. Austen gave you a good reason to believe this was happening. Furthermore, he had such AMAZING lines. After a flgiht from Westchester to China of nothing but Iceman whining about Havok's decision to let Cain join, Rogue says "And you wonder why you're alone" I've never seen anyone shut Bobby up so perfectly.

2) JLA: Pain of the Gods. Stellar? No. But an interesting angle from which to look at the characters. 'Nuff said.

3) Eternals. Phenomenal. Pseudo-Biblical Marvel universe stuff. Neat.

4) Captain America. His run was solid. Very enjoyable.

5) This is less about Chuck than the other points really, but seriously... he gets compared to Morrison and Claremont and people say HE'S the bad one. Let's see... who made Xorn? Morrison. Who made Xorn turn out to be Magneto? Morrison. Who "killed" Magneto? Morrison. Who said, "Oh, no, wait, that wasn't really Magneto. It was someone pretending to be Magneto disguised as Xorn. Magneto's here and still alive because I'll overturn anything any writer does." CLAREMONT! Thank god for Bendis and that whacky Witch of his, with whom Marvel has since explained away the Xorn fiasco as a Disassembled side effect. Seriously, Morrison's stuff is interesting, but obtuse. Claremont can't accept the changes that have been made to the Marvel Universe over time, and writes everything in Claremontinuity. And then there's Milligan, who took over for Austen and simply can't handle characterization without making the characters into charicatures. This was Austen's gift to comics. Whether you liked the direction he took or not, he made the changes he made and he made them be believable. He allowed Havok to grow out from under Cyclops's shadow until Milligan returned and said "Wait! Havok has always been the second best Summer's brother. Why change that now?" and regressed the character to pre-coma infantile outbursts and pseudo-psychotic Polaris stalking. Now Claremont's poisoning both Uncanny and New Excalibur, Milligan's got Adjectiveless, and all I have left is Mr. Whedon's amazing dialogue on Astonishing paired up with BMB's New Avengers. Good books? Yes. But I miss Chuck, and I'm not talking about Xavier.

2/04/2006 12:00:00 AM  
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