Comic Watch interviewed animation producer Chuck Austen, who’d done some comics writing in the early 2000s (years before, he may have drawn Alan Moore’s Miracleman under the name Chuck Beckum for Eclipse) that wasn’t well received, and when he worked for Marvel for a few years, Austen’s work included the MAX imprint title US War Machine, along with several X-Men and Avengers stories. He even worked on a number of Superman stories for DC before finally disappearing from view, returning to the animation world. He told the site:
CW: The move to animation happened so quietly that many missed it completely. Could you talk to us a little bit about how you landed at DreamWorksTV?
Chuck Austen: Sure. Most of my career has been in animation, actually, so the ‘move’ was more of a return. I started in video games working for Activision many years ago, back in the caveman days when there were only sixteen colors, two of which were black and white, and eventually moved into traditional animation in my thirties. My so-called ‘career’ in comics was actually a three year break from animation work.
My main gig, King of the Hill, was on hiatus, and Tripping the Rift, a SyFy show I had co-created with my friend Chris Moeller, had gone badly, and I wanted out of the business. Marvel had just asked me to write the X-Men, I was in the middle of US War Machine, they were asking about additional availability, and I thought, “well, I guess I’ll try this for a while.” Careers were notoriously short in comics, and blacklisting common, so I knew it wouldn’t last. But I wanted to write, and it seemed like a good place to make that transition. I told my wife at the time that I’d be lucky to get five years in comics, and I got three. It was fun while it lasted.
If he thinks people of his standing get blacklisted that easily, he should take a look at how different it’s become today. Dan Slott, one of the worst modern writers to get his mitts on Spider-Man, is kept comfy well after Axel Alonso’s departure, and Jason Aaron’s faring quite well too. I’m honestly surprised if Austen did get booted out when he did, because again, if he’d gotten his comic gigs just a few years ago, he’d surely still have them, much as Slott does. By contrast, it’s conservatives like Chuck Dixon, Mike Baron and possibly Carl Potts who’ve been largely blacklisted, foremost by the Big Two, and do liberals like the ones Austen’s working with give a damn? Not likely.
As for “fun”, does he think his embarrassing story in X-Men called “She Lies With Angels” qualifies? Ugh. That was surely the worst of his brief side career in comicdom, and was despised because of its spotlight on Archangel winding up in a bizarre affair with Paige Guthrie/Husk, who was possibly still below legal age, and they have full-fledged sex in the sky while she’s near-naked (her gown falls off while they’re at it?!?) in UXM #437. While her mother was in the vicinity, no less. Would this kind of horrid scripting have passed muster if it had been written 5 years ago, when the PC/SJW crowd became as notorious as it did by then? Good question. I get the feeling, however, that if Dan Slott had written it, his career would suffer little or no damage. Or, if Austen had been working with them in just the past 5 years, neither would his. Despite what Austen says, nepotism can ensure writers as awful as he was won’t be lacking in jobs they don’t deserve.
As for Austen’s cartoon career, what’s really eyebrow-raising was the realization Austen was involved in production of the recent She-Ra remake, which earned some notoriety for emphasizing uninspired art, even as it apparently put an additional emphasis on lesbianism, and simultaneously made its star protagonist look almost masculine:
After it was all over I contacted some friends, and went back into animation, assistant directing on The Cleveland Show. The cartoon business is notorious for being show-to-show, one season and canceled, so I moved around a lot as most animators do, boarding, directing, whatever was needed. Eventually I found that—given my experience—I had the ability to teach and mentor younger people, and my career shifted to being what I call a “Support Producer”. It started on Steven Universe at Cartoon Network, and continued on when they needed someone at DreamWorksTV for Dawn of the Croods helping my friend Brendan Hay. Dreamworks has had a consistent need for someone like me, someone with no ego who’s happy to play second banana, so I’ve stayed here and continued helping on various shows. Croods, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Kipo, and most recently, She-Ra. I actually love my work, which is part of the happier thing you commented on earlier.
CW: She Ra landed on Netflix and took off like a bottle rocket. I’ve heard nothing but high praise in my circle of friends with kids, both in terms of how much the kids love it but also that it’s sophisticated enough for parents to enjoy as well. With Season 2 coming in April, can you talk us through the origins of this series a bit?
CA: HA! Actually, I can’t. I was brought in to help Noelle midway through the process, almost a year and a half in. I wasn’t there for any of the development. Again, I was the ‘Support Producer”. Noelle did most of the heavy lifting. I was there to oversee the episodes, give notes to get it playing the way Noelle wanted, and move it to completion, on time and on budget. I had no hand in the original, creative pitch or development.
Well this is most fascinating. Indeed, depending how you see this, Austen, as bad as his writing on X-Men was, may have shifted over the years to a more PC approach for the wrong reasons, and, who knows – maybe he disowns “She Lies With Angels” today, though probably not for the right reasons. It’s clear the interviewer doesn’t want to acknowledge the crowd that was turned off by dismal cartoon character designs in the She-Ra remake, which were deliberate to spite the original, and that’s one of the biggest faults in this weak interview.
CW: Similarly, for She Ra you were also a showrunner (along with Noelle Stevenson). What does that title entail?
CA: All of the above. With Noelle, she was essentially in charge of the creative aspects of the show. My job was to help her get the episodes where she wanted them to be. For example, we would watch a board pitch, or an animatic, and she would give a note about a scene that wasn’t working for her, and I would offer suggestions for how to easily fix it so the board people, and the director could get it where it needed to be in the most efficient way possible. You want to make every episode its best, but you don’t want to kill your crew. Television is a marathon, and people have lives. So I try to be specific in my notes. “Move the wide shot there, do a push-in on this shot, put an over the shoulder shot there, and you’ll get more of what you’re looking for.” Sometimes it’s as simple as: “this scene is a repeat of an earlier beat. You can cut it, we won’t miss it, and we’re down to time.” My experience would allow me the ability to offer easy changes with the fewest number of drawings and time spent. The scripts on She-Ra, as your friends may know, are very emotionally powerful, and funny as hell. So part of my job was to take what Noelle and the writers had written, and help push those emotional moments so they played their strongest, and work the comedy so it played its funniest. I would also handle retake board revisions, fixing color files in post, offer suggestions at the mix—a whole host of things. Essentially I was The Hand of the Queen. LOL. Like Peter Dinklage, I would offer advice, and sometimes be listened to, and sometimes shot down. It was Noelle‘s dragon to ride.
The scripts also involve LGBT pandering, and there may be obesity pandering to boot, which social justice advocates may absurdly describe as “body positive”. No concern for cancer and other illnesses coming with obesity either, I guess.
CW: Television in the Digital Age has changed so much in the past decade as more and more production companies are moving into the streaming arena but DreamWorksTV has long been one of the frontrunners. Can you tell us anything about where DreamWorks is headed in the future as more and more streaming services rise and what your role will be?
CA: DreamWorksTV has a lot of fun and interesting projects coming down the road, none of which I can talk about, including the show I’m currently working on now that She-Ra is over. But everyone is trying to figure out next steps, overall. […]
If She-Ra’s been kiboshed, how can it truly be considered a success, as these buffoons are making it sound like? Maybe he was just let go from the gig. Though it sure is interesting to learn the studio once co-founded by Steven Spielberg has sunk to this level. Then again, they probably already did years ago, and Spielberg himself started losing direction post-Sept.11, as his work became more politically influenced (War of the Worlds, Munich, to name but some). When art becomes that heavy handed, all entertainment value becomes soggy.
CW: You mentioned once that when Joe Quesada approached you (pardon my paraphrasing here), part of the logic was to appeal to a larger audience, tap untapped markets and that, in turn, led to a different sort of comics writing than most fans were accustomed to. Television work, on the other hand, seems to really embrace a very different sort of writing than comics writing. Can you talk a bit on the differences between television and comics and your feelings towards writing/producing for the television audience?
CA: Yeah, sure. Um… wow. This could take a bit to explain. First, to let Joe off the hook, I approached him, and he responded. I sent the first eight, or ten pages of the US War Machine comic to him as a sample of how I would approach comics and storytelling, using what I’d learned over the years in animation.
I’ve always wanted to write and draw, work in comics or television, so I was always reading, and studying up on how to improve those skills. In college I took a lot of classes for both, and got a lot of classical training in both. Light, shade, reflected light, proportion, perspective, in art; classical three act story structure, Shakespeare’s five-act structure, Hero’s Journey, midpoint, character arcs, viewpoint character, all that stuff in writing. I’d also worked with the writers on King of the Hill and listened when they talked about writing, especially comedy, story, character development, setups and punchlines, efficient storytelling, how best to stage a gag, and a lot more.
I mean, I lived and worked in LA. If you want to create anything in this town, you have to prove you can connect with an audience—preferably a broad and diverse audience. A large audience. It’s the core need, around here. Everyone talks about writing, story, all the latest books get recommended and handed around, and there are classes to be had, pretty much on every street corner beside a Starbucks.
Now that “diverse” stuff sure is fishy. In any case, for somebody blabbing about how he studied comedy, he’s being almost unintentionally funny given how poor his writings for comics were, and he wound up being widely disliked long before Slott could earn that distinction. Like I said before, I doubt Austen would be put down so easily, no matter his writing angles if he’d entered the business today, and messed up Spider-Man much like Slott did. I don’t know about the TV and cartoon audience, but Austen certainly didn’t connect with the comics audience, and sure didn’t make an effort to learn the curve through which he could develop an entertaining story within the printed medium. Though it’d be true a large audience should apply to comicdom as well as TV, something the marketers have epically failed to achieve. How can Austen say he studied, when he didn’t, and IIRC, approached criticism of his comics work with a thin skin back in the day?
So, agree with it, or disagree with it, that’s where I was coming from. My training was all in how to connect with a general audience. Jemas and Quesada were, I think, as any business people would be, looking to broaden the market, and my timing was good.
Nope, it was very, very bad. And recent history’s proven neither Jemas nor Quesada succeeded in broadening the market, seeing how pathetically low sales figures are at this point, with very few selling above 100,000 copies in pamphlets, which are already reaching 4-5 dollars or more an issue. Speaking of general audiences, does he think they’d appreciate bad writing any more than the comics audience? If they didn’t appeal to comic readers, why should we assume the TV audience would respond any differently?
So I wound up with Mike Marts and Mike Raicht on the X-Men, which was great. We had a real affinity, I thought. I loved the working process with them and we started by discussing long-term ideas and direction, they suggested characters, like Northstar, and I asked for characters like Juggernaut. I created my ‘viewpoint character’, Sammy the Fish Kid, and off we went.
No mention of the Angel/Husk affair? How odd. Guess he really doesn’t have the courage to bring up a storyline that was considered awful, and admit he made mistakes. IIRC, he even dredged up the Hank Pym-as-wife-abuser story from 1981 in a very insulting way when he worked briefly on Avengers at the time (I think it was soon after Geoff Johns left, and before Brian Bendis came aboard), and then he wonders why the fans would find it a turnoff?
Comics fans, or fans in general, are looking for a different entertainment experience than what I laid out. Continuity, evolving powers, characters who stay basically the same, and fight the same villains in bigger, better battles that end basically the same way. How much do sales spike when Hulk fights the Abomination? When Batman fights the Joker?
A non-comics example would be the last season of Enterprise, and an episode that puts me squarely on the fanboy side of things. I love Trek. All forms of Trek. But Enterprise wasn’t registering with me, and I gave up mid first season. Then a friend told me, “You gotta check out the new season! It’s amazing!” So I I watched an episode with a different friend that was essentially the ‘other side’ of the Tholian Web, an episode from the original series, and I thought, “Oh, my, God! We finally see a Tholian! OH! This is where the Enterprise went when it blinked out of space/time!” I watched with a friend who wasn’t a Trek fan, and he looked at me and said, “Dude. What the fuck is going on? I don’t understand any of this. Why is the old Enterprise there?” I started to explain this wasn’t the ‘old Enterprise’, it was technically the future Enterprise, even though it’s from the original Trek, it’s technically a ship from this timeline’s future … and slowly his eyes glazed over! He stopped listening, and caring. And I realized… I’m enjoying a different form of entertainment.
And most comics are geared that way, appealing to their longtime fans and devoted readers. Nothing wrong with that, but obviously not where my head was when I was writing. I followed continuity when it gave me what I thought was a good springboard, but ignored it when it interfered with my story. When I wrote stories like Fall Down, Go Boom, or the birth of Nightcrawler—both drawn by the brilliant Sean Phillips, I still have the originals for Nightcrawler’s conception hanging on my wall—my guidepost was Rod Serling, who was the master of story, to my mind. What comics fans are looking for is more Brannon Braga.
I’m not sure if that’s admitting he screwed up in terms of merit, or if he’s alluding to his resentment of audiences for not liking his work. Nor can I understand his point in the following near the end:
Stepping back I could see why Enterprise had failed as a commercial venture, and I walked away from Trek, then not long after I also walked away from comics. It’s not how my mind should work if I want to connect with a general audience and keep working in this business. I love writing, and writers, and I love when characters go against expectations, change, evolve. Fans do not like that. It’s not a criticism. Fans just want a different form of entertainment than non fans. I don’t understand YouTube videos of gamers gaming. Lots of people do, my son included. I do not understand tentacle-sex anime. I do not understand or enjoy embarrassment humor, or gifs of people in pain, or Adam Sandler. But a lot of people do.
Interestingly, the things I got the greatest response to were the characters or concepts with the least continuity, and fewest fans. I still get compliments for Exiles, and Metropolis, two of my favorite things I wrote while in comics, and two of the lowest selling. Metropolis was the most fulfilling writing experience I’d ever had, up til that point, and Danijel Zezelj, and Teddy Kristiansen were bloody effing brilliant.
So he doesn’t understand tentacle-sex in Japanese anime. Hey, neither do I.
But if he doesn’t understand why his Paige Guthrie garbage was such an embarrassment in its own way, I can’t see what he’s getting at here either. Austen also doesn’t seem to comprehend that change needs to be consistent with past establishments for the cast members, something Brian Bendis didn’t seem to either when he changed Iceman to homosexual. You also need to maintain some likability for a cast member in order that the audience find them palatable. And that’s why his talk about fans defending what they consider the best ideas for how to convey a superhero and/or a co-star smells like a boomerang to unfair criticism. Note how he alludes to minor titles that aren’t considered as canonical when he discusses the “greatest” response, which for all we know probably wasn’t much higher than what his Avengers/X-Men/Superman work got.
Since we’re still on the subject, the above topics also prompted me to look for an interview he gave to CBR from the mid-2000s, which features his political side as he talks about single and divorced mothers:
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.
This isn’t funny. He was basically trying to defend his approach to writing the female cast in his comics scripting, but considering how bad his rendition of Husk was with Archangel in Uncanny X-Men, along with his depictions of Lois Lane and Lana Lang in Superman, that’s why this older interview falls plain flat along with the newer one. And for somebody who’s anti-Republican, does Austen have any issues with Bill Clinton and other Democrats who’ve committed serious offenses? Austen’s failure to recognize wrongs come in many forms is galling in the extreme.
Still, these interviews do serve to give an idea how leftist industrialists like Austen think. And, as I’ve said before, if recent history is any indicator, he wouldn’t be pushed out of comicdom so easily today, and not just because he might be able to build up a bigger following through social media, but also because nepotism’s become far more influential than in the past. I’d like to say his departure from comicdom is a good thing, but since potentially worse individuals have succeeded him in roles they don’t belong in, that’s why it’s not so easy to heave a sigh of relief, alas.
Originally published here.