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Cronin Theory of Comics – Chuck Austen: Harbinger

My pal Sean Whitmore referenced Chuck Austen’s Avengers run the other day, and it struck me – Chuck Austen’s comics were a perfect harbinger to the style of comic books that both DC and Marvel produce right now.

Let me explain.

The concept of “You changed Character X!” has been a constant complaint since the beginning of serialized comic books (which was roughly Marvel Comics in the 60s).

Steve Gerber got complaints when he brought back the Guardians of the Galaxy in the pages of Marvel Presents that he was ruining their established characterizations.

Fabian Nicieza got complaints during the early issues of New Warriors about how he was ruining Nova’s established characterization.

Other changes got more pleasant responses from fans. Like Chris Claremont’s changes to Magneto’s characterization, or the changes in Sue Richards and Janet Van Dyne from ditzes to heroines who could seriously be considered peers of their fellow males heroes (a change that was more dramatic in the case of the Wasp).

However, in these cases, either the characters involved were minor (see Grant Morrison’s changes to Triumph, or Giffen/DeMatteis’ changes to, well, pretty much every member of the JLI), the changes came gradually (the Invisible Woman becoming actually, you know, competent and Wally West becoming, well, also competent) or there was some sort of revamp involved(many of the Post-Crisis personality changes).

Chuck Austen’s comics changed that.

Austen comics followed what Sean nicely described as an “algebraic approach to comics.”

I want C (plot) to happen, and I want B (inciting incident) to be the cause, and I will change A (character) however I have to to make that happen.

In Avengers, characters would act dramatically different than they did from, say, two-three issues earlier.

In Action Comics, Lana Lang would be trying to break up Clark and Lois’ marriage out of nowhere, and Lois would be acting like an astonishing bitch to make such a separation seem possible.

In JLA…I don’t think I even want to get into “The Sobbing of the Gods,” except to note that Ron Garney did a really nice job on the artwork.

Fans complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained and complained (this could go on for a few entries, so I will just stop it right now. Suffice to say, people complained).

Ultimately, Austen ended up off his titles.

But a funny thing happened – while people complained a lot about Austen’s comics, they still sold basically the same as before. So while Marvel and DC decided that he was not the right writer for their comics, they seemed to be saying that perhaps other, possibly better writers could use the SAME approach as Austen!

Since then, the “algebraic approach to comics” seems to be precisely what Marvel and DC have used on their titles, from Avengers Disassembled to Identity Crisis to Infinite Crisis to Civil War, it seems like Plot C has been determined, with Reason B being decided as the motivating factor, and so Character A will have to be changed however necessary to make the formula work.

And fans complain and complain and complain (etc.) and sales remain basically the same.

This does not mean that the comics with this approach are BAD (and it does not mean that they are GOOD, either). It just means that the same approach that Austen took to his comics, which was something dramatically different than Marvel and DC had done before, is now the standard being used by Marvel and DC on most of their comics today.

36 Comments

“But a funny thing happened – while people complained a lot about Austen’s comics, they still sold basically the same as before.”

This isn’t entirely true. Austen was fond of pointing out that his sales on UNCANNY X-MEN were just fine, but then he had a 25c giveaway issue AND a movie on his side. Beyond that, he wrote some titles with pretty dismal sales, and on AVENGERS, his 50c-priced debut issue actually led to a 6% drop the next month. That’s pretty much unheard of, and it strongly suggests that by that point, Austen’s presence on a title had become poisonous.

Marvel had to work a lot harder to find a way of driving X-Men sales into terminal decline – although they managed it anyway over the next couple of years…

Personally, I think Mark Millar’s work at Marvel is the originator of the algebraic approach.

Well, you could break down any general approach to writing into an equation, so it’s not to say that this is the only approach an equation could apply to.

The problem is that GOOD comic conflict comes FROM character. That’s not to say that a character can’t or shouldn’t change at some point. It’s a tough call, because comics are serial by nature, so they should, in essence, eventually return to where they started unless the intention is that the story should reach some conclusion and end.

That’s definitely the approach Millar takes to his writing.

Paul,

Given that you’ve been analyzing sales for a while, did the X-men movies actually have any REAL impact on the sales of the books? I’ve heard it so often that the films rarely, if ever, bring in any new readers to the stores, although I guess the fact that my local comic shop is swamping their shelves with Spider-Man and Transformers trades is probably a good indicator that at least SOME people get interested in the books (not to mention the stellar sales on 300 and V For Vendetta… am I answering my own question here? … no wait, the monthlies, that’s what I want to know about!)

I used to be the type that would follow a comic through the low points. Austen changed that for me. Thanks to him, I gave up on both Avengers and Uncanny X-Men…both of which I had long runs of. For example, I had Avengers from vol. 1, #11 straight on. I’d been through runs which weren’t that great, but his work combined with the rising prices caused me to finally drop these titles.

Since then, I’ve found that I drop titles a lot easier. Once you drop a title that you have nearly a 500 issue run of, anything else becomes a lot easier. So, at least in my case, Marvel shot themselves in the foot as my buying of their titles is down quite a bit since then. If it hadn’t been for Austen, I might have even continued reading more titles after Civil War instead of dropping a lot of them due to not enjoying them.

For Austen-hatred on another level, it’s worth trolling through the reviews archive of The X-Axis (www.thexaxis.com).

I think this explains very well why Chuck Austen’s very best work at both Marvel and DC was the U.S. War machine miniseries. It was set out-of-continuity. Austen was free to re-interpret and untilize the characters of Jim Rhodes, Tony Stark, etc, in any way he wanted, without causing any lasting damage to the characters because, like I said, it was an Elseworlds-type tale which had absolutely zero impact on any ongoing titles. U.S. War Machine was actually very good. Austen is capable of writing good material, but he’s probably better off coming up with his own brand-new characters, or doing more of those What If sort of stories.

Where did Sean Whitmore comment upon Austen’s Avengers run, anyway? I’m curious to read that post/blog/analysis.

“Since then, the ‘algebraic approach to comics’ seems to be precisely what Marvel and DC have used on their titles, from Avengers Disassembled to Identity Crisis to Infinite Crisis to Civil War, it seems like Plot C has been determined, with Reason B being decided as the motivating factor, and so Character A will have to be changed however necessary to make the formula work.

And fans complain and complain and complain (etc.) and sales remain basically the same.”

Except the thing is, sales did not stay the same. Sales went up. Avengers Disassembled and the ensuing New Avengers sold much better than the Avengers have in a long time (ever). And books tied to Civil War like Captain America (as a dramatic example) also had sales jumps. Seems that not only do we stick around for this algebra writing, it is rewarded with sales.

This isn’t entirely true. Austen was fond of pointing out that his sales on UNCANNY X-MEN were just fine, but then he had a 25c giveaway issue AND a movie on his side. Beyond that, he wrote some titles with pretty dismal sales, and on AVENGERS, his 50c-priced debut issue actually led to a 6% drop the next month. That’s pretty much unheard of, and it strongly suggests that by that point, Austen’s presence on a title had become poisonous.

Marvel had to work a lot harder to find a way of driving X-Men sales into terminal decline – although they managed it anyway over the next couple of years…

Oh yeah, Austen totally over-exagerrated how well his books were selling.

They were usually only mid-size sellers. But they didn’t sell worse than the people he took over from (at least nothing notable), and in the case of Action Comics, the sales went up by a lot, even putting aside the first few issues of his run (which were hyped with Jim Lee’s Superman run) and did not increase with Gail Simone taking the book over from him.

I don’t know about his JLA run. You ever see any numbers on them? It was probably too quick of a run for us to notice any changes, right?

I still argue that Chuck Austen’s best writing (and art) came from his earliest work: porn comics. It was bad, but not as dismal as his work for the big two.

Nitz the Bloody

July 13, 2007 at 2:40 pm

Had Austen’s comics been written with the intent of comedy instead of drama, it would have been considered the Family Guy of superhero comics. ” Holy crap, Logan, this is like the time I slept with She-Hulk… ”

Not that Family Guy is particularly good, but that sort of absurdist humor that comes from having no established characterization would fit Austen’s Marvel books like a glove.

Andrew Collins

July 13, 2007 at 2:44 pm

garbonzo said:
“I still argue that Chuck Austen’s best writing (and art) came from his earliest work: porn comics. It was bad, but not as dismal as his work for the big two.”

He also drew a 2-parter for Scott McCloud’s Zot that was pretty spiffy too. He did a good job of matching McCloud’s style. I never followed any of his mainstream stuff, though, and from the sounds of it, I’m kind of glad I didn’t…

Seriously, people REALLY REALLY need to stop buying comics they don’t like. And start taking a chance on smaller comics that don’t neccessarily tie into the big events. DC and Marvel really are trying to put good books out, but the “important” crap keeps selling. Too many people are treating comics like newspapers: “I don’t like what’s happening, but I need to stay informed!”

Doug Atkinson

July 13, 2007 at 7:01 pm

Sales on Austen’s JLA dropped by about 10,000 over the 6 issues, but it’s hard to prove anything by that; sales on the end of his run were at or above the level at the end of Kelly and O’Neil’s runs. (They jumped by about 14,000 at the beginning of the Claremont/Byrne run; there was a drop of 5,000 between the end of that run and the beginning of Austen’s.) Add to that the facts that a) Austen’s issues came out twice a month, so only the last two issues’ sales would be affected directly by reaction to the beginning of the story, and also that the last two issues’ decline were partially the result of a regular September sales slump (they were still in the top 25 for that month).

In short, the most that can be said with any confidence about Austen’s effect on JLA sales is that they weren’t subpar.

Of COURSE sales remained the same. They’ve already run off all but the most diehard, pathetically desperate fans— the ones for whom even a Craptacular issue of Spider-Man or Superman is (for now) still better than none at all. The ones that, like eternally disappointed fans of an eternally bad baseball team, keep coming back in the blind, glassy-eyed hope that maybe THIS issue won’t suck as bad as they expect…

I want C (plot) to happen, and I want B (inciting incident) to be the cause, and I will change A (character) however I have to to make that happen.

“And I’ll call it a ‘secondary mutation,’ so I can put Emma Frost into the Colossus role.”

Oh, wait…

I don’t think the ‘algebraic approach to comics’ is as recent a development as you make it out to be.

See for example any 70’s Cary Bates comic.

Frankly, I thought Austen was good on Uncanny X-men. His cast was primarily made up of lesser-known or second-tier X-Men without a lot of established continuity. Angel was a hard-ass, Iceman was a joker, just like they always were. Husk and Juggernaut were taken in new directions that seemd natural for them. (Though the Husk-Angel romance was weird. And them having sex flying over Husk’s mother should not have happened.) And I always liked Stacy X. Plus, Austen’s soap-opera style of writing seemed perfect for “All My Mutants”.

His work was flawed, and never as good on the series he did later. But I liked it better than Morrison’s New X-Men. Seemed to me Morrison was just rehashing old stories in a new style. Left me cold. Least Austen was taking risks.

And if your head hasn’t exploded yet, I also liked “Worldwatch”, his very short-lived self-published series with Norm Rapmund about amoral superheroes who eventually destroyed themselves. And walked around naked.

Hmm, I never realized it before, but that entire Algebraic approach is precisely why I hate (Hate, HATE) Teen Titans.
I was a YJ fan and despised how everyones characterization changed in a month or two.

Never really saw it as “Chuck Austen Style” but it does fit.

I never read Austin’s run on the X-men, but I beg to differ with mtdeeley, above:

Angel was most certainly NOT a hardass in his original incarnation: he was a millionaire, and his time in the original X-men series, as well as the Defenders, and into X-factor, showed him as more of a softie than, say, Cyclops. You could make an argument that he had been turned into a hardass by the ArcAngel transformation, perhaps, but that’s not an “always were” sort of thing.

His work was flawed, and never as good on the series he did later. But I liked it better than Morrison’s New X-Men. Seemed to me Morrison was just rehashing old stories in a new style. Left me cold. Least Austen was taking risks.

There’s so much evil and wrong in that quote, I can’t believe the universe allowed it to come into existence. I’m surprised a black hole didn’t open up and suck the letters right off the screen.

I think that what’s happening now with Marvel and DC is a slightly different equation. Instead of it being Plot Dependant, it’s now Event Dependant.

Both companies are so invested in Big Events, and their flash-in-the-pan sales boosts, that they’ll destroy any character to make it happen.

Did Civil War make any sense? Nope. Did it treat characters or readers with any respect? Nope. Was it a concept that they could hype and market? Oh yeah.

Even the plots of Big Events are screwed up and all over the place, trying to keep the Event chugging along. As much as we bemoan the various character assasinations, even plots and stoytelling engines are being sacrificed to the gods of marketing.

He also drew a 2-parter for Scott McCloud’s Zot that was pretty spiffy too.

Holy cow, I loved that…that’s the same Chuck Austen?

What the heck happened to him?!?

I quite enjoyed his X-men and Avengers runs. Not great but fun.

If there was anything that Chuck Austen’s X-Men and Avengers runs weren’t, it’s fun. They were all centered around characters treating each other meanly and being lying scummy bastards.

I really don’t understand why Brian is crediting this approach as a Chuck Austen creation. I think Bendis and Millar are the modern fathers of this style. Just look at Bendis Daredevil for example, with things like the Richard Fisk characterization.

I note that writers have been “messing” with characterizations of characters for years, but it was almost always minor characters (like Richard Fisk in Daredevil) or done gradually (Wally West, Sue Storm, Janet Van Dyne).

Austen was notable in that he took the stars of the book and did the whole Algebraic approach with them. That was a rarity, and it was something that was picked up immediately by the rest of Marvel and DC, hence Austen being singled out as the harbinger of what Bendis and Millar LATER did.

I have to concur that Bendis, and to a lesser extent Millar, are much more responsible for this than Austen. Nobody really LOVES Chuck Austen. But there are some rabid fans of Bendis and Millar. That’s why their influence is so much greater, and so much more powerful, than that of Chuck Austen.

Cronin, if people like Chuck Austen, Brian Michael Bendis, and/or Mark Millar then leave them be. Why is it you must do this pissing contest where you brag how great Grant Morrison is and how terrible every other writer is? Do you know how much disrespect this site and you as reviewer/columnist get? I have seen many other boards talk about what a joke CBR is and it’s no wonder. You guys flame everyone who doesn’t agree with your biased opinions and gang up on some one when they speak out against you. Well, newsflash, no one takes you guys seriously. No one takes this site seriously. And frankly you are a joke of a reviewer and an online columnist.

Chuck, calm down. Isn’t it time to let some of this go? Comics fans don’t like you. It’s not the end of the world.

For the record, I liked your X-men just fine and thought your Jimmy Olsen mini was VERY solid.

Bill, nothing in this piece suggests that one cannot enjoy the works of any of those three writers.

Heck, of the three, Millar and Bendis have written many good comics.

The piece merely states that Chuck Austen was the first writer to do what Bendis and Millar (and others) later did – which is the whole “I want C (plot) to happen, and I want B (inciting incident) to be the cause, and I will change A (character) however I have to to make that happen” thing.

Austen was not the first to use this “Algebraic approach”. Many other writers in the past have twisted established characters to attain their plot goals – trouble is, they usually just disappeared off the scene after a while (a bit like Mr Austen – what has happened to him, anyway?)

But, back to the point – I think that although Austen wasn’t the first to use this “Algebraic approach” he probably WAS the first to be widely noticed (but not necessarily liked!) by fans of the comic book media whose tastes, over time, have changed dramatically. Also, the fact that we have the Internet now means that we are talking (and ‘publicising’) our views and drawing peoples attention to writers as never before. And, let’s face it, Austen certainly got a lot people taliking about him, whether he wanted to or not! Because of this change in taste, Millar and Bendis have risen to the challenge and run with it.

So, I wouldn’t give Austen too much credit – it had all been done before but Chuck just happened to be in the right place at the right time, as tastes were changing. I would say the Bendis has done more to develop this “Algebraic approach” than most writers – so, what will happen next? Are people becoming bored with this approach? Is there scope to keep it fresh and develop it in different ways? How many times can you twist things just to fit a plot? I really don’t know. Time will tell I suppose!

I agree with Brian when he says Austen took this to an extreme never seen before. As Brian says:

“In Avengers, characters would act dramatically different than they did from, say, two-three issues earlier. In Action Comics, Lana Lang would be trying to break up Clark and Lois’ marriage out of nowhere, and Lois would be acting like an astonishing bitch to make such a separation seem possible”

I must admit, this drove me mad and I can only say that I think of this as poor writing. The reason I think this is because a good writer will create great stories without sacrificing all that has gone before. When Bendis ‘created’ the New Avengers he was a little more clever, basing his stories on what HAD happened in the past (although, arguably, with a different slant on things) and built upon those changes he made. Austen just made changes whenever he felt like it regardless of what even he had writen before! That’s why Marvel and DC had to clamp down on him and eventually Austen left. I don’t think Austen led the way – I think he was a ‘cautionary tale’ of what not to do.
As for comic book sales – I think the majority of comic book readers just buy comics no matter how bad they get. They need their ‘fix’ of adventure. Prankster got it right when he said:

“Too many people are treating comics like newspapers: “I don’t like what’s happening, but I need to stay informed!”

“Yet sales remained the same”?

Isn’t that another way of saying that the company has not been growing?
Or, perhaps, that you can’t sink any lower?

It was said better by someone else:

“Being unafraid to do something unpopular or refusing to do something just because everyone else is pressuring you to is admirable– if you’re in high school and we’re talking about smoking or dating the ugly girl. When we’re talking about running a business and producing a commodity, ignoring what people want is just colossally dumb.” —Scott Sharkey, 1Up.com, “Memoirs of an Urban Vigilante”

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