Leave It To The Greek 1.27.03: Chuck Austen

Chuck Austen is the current writer of Uncanny X-Men & The Call of Duty for Marvel comics. He is also known for his work on U.S. War Machine and has a stint on Captain America as well as the maxi-series Superman: Metropolis upcoming

Disclaimer: If you haven’t read Uncanny X-Men #417 and don’t want to get spoiled about the character dying in it, don’t read further into this interview

The ending pages of issue 417 featured the death of a much-loved character of the online comics fans community: Paige Guthrie, a.k.a. Husk. This coincided with the death of several “limbo” characters’ (including the x-man Maggott) death in the pages of Weapon-X #5, and the end result was a literal maelstrom of opinions thrown back and forth in online message boards from disgruntled fans of these characters.
I got in touch with Chuck Austen to discuss death in comics and the reactions of the fan community to it.

Manolis: Hello Chuck, and welcome to 411comics! To start this off, why choose to kill one of your main characters?

Chuck Austen: The reason is simple, really. It goes to story. If it makes for a good story, and something that affects and changes the other characters in a dramatic way and engages your readers emotions, then you do it.

More importantly, it’s a long-standing, time honoured dramatic device, and a dramatic necessity. I’ll agree that many of the recent deaths in other books have been meaningless, but usually there is a point to doing it.

The biggest point is: readers develop a genuine sense of peril for characters they love. Look at the reaction to Paige dying. The last page of Ultimate Spiderman where Mary Jane lies unconscious and presumed dead in Peter’s arms. Fans go nuts. It wasn’t that long ago when people said “Oh, ho-hum, they’ll be back next issue.” In fact, people STILL say it about Colossus and Psylocke. If that’s going to be their reaction, you’re never going to get them emotionally involved in your story, or in any salient story points.

Comics have, since I can remember, had a seriously damaging lack of emotional involvement because the fans know from experience that characters will return from the dead, stop being evil, go back to boyfriend/girlfriend “X”, return to the fan-accepted semblance of normalcy because it has always happened that way. This makes the stories “comic book stories” and not real or engaging in any personal way. Imagine if at the end of Gone with the Wind, Rhett and Scarlett reanimate their dead daughter. The story becomes meaningless. Take away the dramatic tension and all stories become meaningless.

And that’s been the case in comics for a long time, now. Everything that is not the accepted and fan-loved status quo is meaningless, ultimately. Don’t kill Paige. Don’t make Lorna crazy. Don’t make Cain a good guy. No one changes in any real way because the fans, who are so overly attached to certain characters, cry and scream and whine, and eventually become creators and put things back the way they were.

Jean Grey should have stayed dead. Period. Her death was powerful, and meaningful, and the ultimate sacrifice for the man and people she loved. Reanimating her cheapens that story, and cheapens the medium of comics as a whole. And it has always been this way, so fans feel obligated, justified, empowered even, in raising a stink and screaming for the return of favourite characters. Threatening to kill people at Marvel. Threatening to kill writers of the book. It’s insane, and has become the status quo.

Not anymore. That’s a valuable dramatic tool for a writer, and it was lost until recently in the recent era of “Oh, they’ll be back.” If Paige dies, maybe Warren, or Kurt, or Bobby could die. If she lives, people will have been genuinely concerned for a fictional character, and that is gold, to a writer.

Manolis: But it wasn’t Warren, Bobby or Kurt that got killed. They’re Marvel’s “a-list” characters, while Paige isn’t one of the front-runners, thus “expendable”. With Marvel branching more and more out in Hollywood, no one would expect characters from the movie to get killed.

Chuck: Not true at all, and I’ll go so far as to say “A” list characters will die, and sooner than you might expect. Everyone knows Colossus is in the movie, and he’s very dead. Characters don’t have to be actually alive in the comics to still be available for licensing and merchandising. And if a licensor wants them to be around so their merchandising can be more successful, and the character they paid for more visible, there’s always the Ultimate line, or other lines, the Evolution line.

Obviously it’s going to cost Marvel a little money, though I’d argue not much, if Colossus turns out to be a breakout character in the film and everyone wants to see him in a comicbook. But he’s in Ultimate. And he’ll probably be back in 616 comics if that happens. But the movie universe and the comics universe are different, and I’d argue that they need to be.

Manolis: Could some other “b-rate” (not my terminology) character have taken Paige’s place in this story? What about the rumours that you were originally planning on killing Monet but weren’t allowed to do so cause Morrison had dibs on her?

Chuck: No. You’re missing the point. If Paige dies, and it matters, it’s because people cared about the character. Because she wasn’t “b-rate” or a “red shirt”. And there are a lot of people who would argue that Paige IS a “b-rate” character (laughs). You happen to like her and that makes her not “b-rate”. I loved her. Such a charming character. She was my “A” list.

If Paige dies, it has an effect. On Warren, for getting her into this mess, on Jubilee, on Skin, on Jono. It has repercussions. If readers miss her, it’s because I and other writers before me made you care about her as a character, and that’s our job. To make you feel. Comics are in the mess they’re in, largely, because no reader can read them and genuinely feel something. The reason fans are so outraged is because they are suddenly feeling something, and that’s not why they read comics. But they’re fans. They’ll buy the next issue anyway. I’m looking for readers. Any writer worth his typing skills will tell you, audience involvement is necessary for communication and entertainment, otherwise, people go elsewhere.

And yes, I was going to kill Monet, but mostly because I didn’t understand how the pseudo-science in the X-Universe worked. It’s a long and stupid story, and it had nothing to do with Grant.

Manolis: What criteria you follow to choose who gets to die. Do you categorise some characters as expendable from the get-go?

Chuck: The story always determines who lives and who dies. If it makes for a powerful story, a surprise and has lasting affects on the characters involved, then you do it. If it tells the story you want to tell, you do it. Rhett and Scarlett’s daughter dies, and the only link between husband and wife is severed. The one thing that Rhett loved above all else is now gone. That motivates significant changes in the story, and is necessary for the story that needs to be told. D’Artagnan’s love in The Three Musketeers. Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. Death is for the purposes of story.

It’s ridiculous to let the needs of the fans overwhelm the needs of the story. Not if we want to expand and grow this medium out of the stigma it has.

Manolis: Do you categorise some characters as expendable from the get-go?

Chuck: Are you asking if there’s a “hit list”? No. There’s no hit list. We look at who would have meaning in a given situation, and we use that individual. Otherwise it’s just as bad as never killing anyone.

Manolis: once the decision about a character’s death is made do you continue to develop him/her like the rest of your cast or single him/her out and provide more/less spotlight, counting down to the imminent demise?

Chuck: If you don’t develop them, who’s going to care when they die? In some instance you won’t have time. Someone dies in a future issue, and their body is found in the opening pages, and there was no developing that particular character. But most of the time, you want to do this because there’s an emotional connection for the other characters and the audience.

Manolis: Do you think this particular motif has been overused lately in comics?

Chuck: No. Underused. There’s too damn many stupid characters wandering around who should be dead. 😉

No, but in all seriousness, I do think it’s underused. No one ever really died until recently, and now everyone is whining because people are dying. Every single superhero comic book out there is about fighting and violence and peril, and no one ever dies? Not even at the hands of a supervillain? Come on. It’s ludicrous. At least, unless we view this as a children’s medium, which I don’t think anyone wants us to do.

Manolis: when do you think a character’s death becomes gratuitous?

Chuck: When they’re cannon fodder. Red Shirts in Star Trek. When there is no emotional reaction or connection to the rest of the characters in the books.

Manolis: marvel’s no-return-from-the-dead policy: pro or con?

Chuck: Pro. The fewer resurrections we have, the more dramatic potential this medium has. Constant, cyclical, returning from the dead destroys dramatic plausibility.

Manolis: do you think it’s right for a writer to kill off a character someone else created, or a character who has a loyal fanbase?

Chuck: Absolutely. By definition, Marvel created all these characters. That’s work for hire. If someone else owns the characters, like Eric Larsen owns Savage Dragon, he has a right to stop whoever might follow him (not that anyone will, but this is a hypothetical) from killing off Dragon, or any of the characters he created. Marvel has a right to stop the people it hires from killing Wolverine. I have to get approval before I can kill anyone off. Marvel also has the right to hire writers who kill characters created by previous writers, because Marvel owns those characters. That’s how work-for-hire works.

Previous creators have little or no stake in the characters they create under work-for-hire once they’ve left the book or the company. If they think they do, or fans think they do, they need to look again at the agreement they signed before they cashed their paychecks. Marvel owns the property. End of story. There’s no professional courtesy in this business, so let’s not try to pretend there is.

If there’s a loyal fan base for a particular character, well, that’s terrific, but unfortunate for them if I determine that said character needs to go. I was hired to get Uncanny sales out of the slump they had fallen into. To do that, I have to engage the reader and make them want to come back next issue to find out what happened. If they don’t honestly believe anything can happen, I haven’t engaged them emotionally and intellectually, and sales most likely will not go up and I will lose my job. That’s just the way things are.

Sales on first printings of the Direct market comics is around 90,000, up from around 78,000 or less when I took over. If a loyal fan-following of one of the characters is strong enough to cost me ten readers who drop the book because their one particular character is dead or misrepresented, well, I wasn’t reaching those people anyway, nothing else in the book is enough to keep them, so goodbye, sayonara, I hope you find another character on another book to adore and worship. Since sales are going up by the thousands every month, it seems I’m finding more than I’m losing, so in the long run, Marvel and more readers are happy than upset. I must be doing something right, for the majority.

It worries me, this fanatical following of certain characters anyway, especially limbo characters no one’s seen or heard from in years. I bring a character in no other writer was using, or cared about, and give that character “air time”, and fans are upset. I’m not treating them right, I’m not showing them as they should be, I’m not respecting their history, the complaints are a mile long, online, and people are threatening my life. Threatening my life! These are fictional characters, people, not your personal love-slaves that no one else can touch. Grow the hell up.

People are always saying online that Annie needs a good slap upside the head because she’s in love with a comatose man she’s never met and doesn’t know. Then these same people go off and rage on me about “characters they love” that have never been more than inklines and splotches of color on paper and react as though I have raped their baby on their front lawn. Get a grip.

By the same token, if someone comes along after I leave and slaughters Sammy, Annie and Carter in one horrific scene of bloody violence, I have no say in that situation. They will always live in my mind, as I created them, and in the printed copies of the books I wrote, so what the hell, you know? I’m a big boy and I’ve seen it happen time-and-time again in this industry, and I have no delusions that Marvel owes me anything after I leave. I hear from editors up there all the time “Well, when you’re done with Juggernaut, and we turn him back into a villain again, and –“. If they see a way to make a buck, find a hotter writer than me who wants to replace me, and said writer wants Juggernaut a villain, hates Sammy, Annie and Carter and wants them all to die, horribly, and burn their bodies, guess who’s going to die horribly and be burned, probably by Juggernaut?

If I want to create characters I control until I die, I should do creator-owned work for Image or someone else, and probably will someday. But right now, I’m a hired gun, as are all the writers who have ever worked on this book and created characters for it, trying to write stories that engage the reader’s emotions and brains, and keeps them interested in what’s coming in the next issue, and makes them talk with their friends about the latest issue and gets their friends to try reading it.

And those readers are not going to be interested if it’s more of the same, perfect, happy, never die characters, over and over and over again.

If the loyal fan base of certain characters is so strong on certain characters who are dying and/or being changed, then why were these characters in limbo in the first place? I’ve got a newsflash. If they were that popular, they would have been out in public somewhere, selling a gazillion copies of their own books. The online community that hates Gambit, those same people are angry right now about Lorna and Paige and Maggott, but Gambit is always around. He had his own book and it sold well. More people reading X-Men now are fans of Paige now as the “new recruit.” Most of them never knew or heard of her in Gen X. If they did, they didn’t care much then.

The inherent problem with X-Fans is that they gravitate toward unique characters because there are so many of them, and they don’t want to follow the crowd. So they love Maggot, or Jono, or Paige, or Lorna because those characters can belong to them, personally, without being the character everyone else loves, without being the popular “sell-out” character like Wolverine. It’s their own, personal little character. Mine, mine, mine. Those people feel very deeply when that character is screwed with, but said characters “loyal-fan-base” is actually very small, hence the fact that there’s never been a long-running Maggott, or Chamber, or Husk, or Polaris, or Iceman series.

I’m trying to write a good team book, and to do that I need conflict, and to have conflict, not every character can be nice and sweet and wonderful, and someone that can develop a loyal fan base. In the process, I’m creating stronger, more well-rounded characters (whether Juggernaut fans believe that or not), that will have a bigger fan base, a stronger readership, and make Marvel, and consequently me, more money.

Because ultimately, and I hate to break it to you, that’s the bottom line.

Manolis: Most of your points are valid to me, but you also theorised that more people made a connection to Paige’s character through your run, than in her previous incarnations. You did a new take on Paige’s personality (a take I personally liked more than any of her recent previous appearances), somewhat different than the original character, as written by the various writers of generation-x. Why not attach this new personality you crafted on an all-new character and have her join the team instead of revamping Paige?

Chuck: Again, you miss the point. I could have created a new character instead of Juggernaut, but I chose Juggernaut because of his history with the team, and more specifically with Charles Xavier. It’s that dread demon “continuity”. Juggernaut brings a lot of awesome personal baggage with him that needs to sort itself out, some of which will never sort itself out. The tension between he and Xavier is not over, and may neverbe over. And I like it that way. That’s GOLD. I couldn’t just randomly throw in a new brother for Xavier and make it plausible within existing continuity. It becomes like the Third Summers Brother bullshit. At what point are there no more long-lost secret brothers and sisters in the family, especially when we’ve got enough already, just lying around in limbo. If there’s already a great relationship in the family, one the fans are familiar with, why not use that relationship?

The same goes for Paige. She has a history. She’s wanted to be an X-Man since forever, and now she’s got her shot. On the eve of her big break, she’s killed. Like so many rookie cops who get overly enthusiastic, she buys it on her first mission in the big leagues, and it’s Warren’s fault. Just like the X-Men do, he stuck around to fight the bad guys because they’re bad guys, and he gets the newbie slaughtered. If I had made up a new character, I wouldn’t have Jono coming back to tear Warren a new one for that. I wouldn’t have Jubilee suspicious of Warren’s abilities, and angry at him for getting one of her best friends killed, because Jubilee would never have known the “new recruit”.

Manolis: Wouldn’t it be better to feel more free to develop a character truly as you like without having any constraint to previous history and murderous fans?

Chuck: No. No, no, no. You people want continuity, but you don’t want to face the repercussions of continuity. It’s the “return to normalcy syndrome”. Everything has to go back to happy, and all your favourite characters have to be loveable. But EVERY character is someone’s favourite, so who do I make that creates tension and interest and who also has history with the team? If I create new characters and every time said character is a bitch or bastard, it’s going to get old and look like I don’t know how to create likeable characters. Hell, people are upset now that Stacy is leaving, and they used to HATE her.

SOMEONE has to be unlikeable. It’s just how stories work, and it’s reality.

This concept of “return to normalcy” is ruining the stories and bringing them to the point where they all have a feeling of “ho-hum” when you get to the end, and the only readers who stick around are the “murderous fans”. To a writer, continuity is just back-story. And you use back-story to tell your frontstory. You use the characters you have, stir up the emotions you can, and keep the reader on the edge of their seat. That’s what we do. Previous history is not a “constraint” it’s the fertile ground in which you plough out a new story.

And I could care less about murderous fans. The people who make those kinds of threats rarely wander out of their basements and away from their glowing computer monitors, unless it’s new comics day. So let them rant all they want. I’m here to tell a story, and I use the material given to me. They can’t scream “FOLLOW CONTINUITY!” and then scream “HEY! STOP USING CONTINUITY!!” when they don’t like that I used continuity they don’t care for. Make up your minds. “OH, AND BRING BACK CHAMBER, MONET AND MAGMA WHILE YOU’RE AT IT! But make them nice.”

They don’t like Paige dead? Hey, they shouldn’t have asked me to use her in the first place. They don’t like Polaris crazy? Hey, take it up with Grant. I’m just following his lead, on this, and the idea made for some great material and incredible stories, so when you’re done with Grant, you can come back and complain to me if I haven’t fixed her the way you like, but by then, she’s going to be set in stone, because it’s continuity. It’s canon. You want continuity, you got it. Live with your choices.

Manolis: Chuck, Thank you for your time and insight in this subject!

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The rest of you, tune back in 411comics during this week for more creators giving their views on death in comics and the fans’ reactions to it… And don’t forget to check the weekly version of “Leave Your Spandex @t the Door” every Saturday. (This week the spotlight is on the Vertigo Pop: London mini)

Do you want to discuss this article? Visit the message boards and voice your opinions (but please no death threats!). As always, I’m waiting for your comments at through or in the boards…

Manolis Vamvounis

a.k.a. Doc Dooplove

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