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232: Chuck Austen Retrospective

Introduction to Chuck Austen

Let me come right out, be clear, and not mince words: I AM A CHUCK AUSTEN SUPPORTER. Yea, I said it. That's right! Come at me. (Throughout this blog, whenever I put a Chuck Austen comment in quotes, you can assume it came from a Graymalkin Lane podcast interview.) I would probably be like one of these fans (my first quote from that podcast):

“The hatred and the anger was so prevalent that even fans were aware of it. Some fans would come up to me at cons and whisper ‘I actually really liked your writing.’”

I had never read Chuck Austen until a few months ago, but I had certainly heard plenty of banter about how terrible this run is. At first I was simply entertained, but I assumed that would stop. You know what, though? I never stopped being entertained. Was the writing good? Not really. Were the stories innovative? Absolutely not. But...was I smiling and enjoying the character interactions? Definitely.

“(There were) some people who loved what I was doing and others who passionately hated what I was doing. One of the strangest situations of my life. People would literally come up to me and yell at me because I made them quit reading and collecting X-Men.”

Whether you loved or hated Austen, you certainly remember the crazy shenanigans that took place on his watch.


Major Themes

Emotionally Charged

Austen says:

“If you watch your average emotional television episode, the whole point is to get your audience emotionally engaged in television, but most fans in comics are less interested in emotions, they are looking for the power fantasy, the excitement seeing the big fights…it’s more of an adrenaline rush.”

I think this helps explain why I liked his style so much. I can appreciate a good fight, but I've always been more interested in character growth than anything else. Claremont was known for turning the X-Men into a soap opera, but Austen ratcheted up the drama to give us The Real Housewives of Graymalkin Lane.





“Most of the stories that I looked for were all about raising the stakes as much as I could to try to find out what, on a personal, individual, level was the toughest struggle for them to go through. ”

This makes a lot of sense as the characters on the roster all dealt with their own version of an existential crisis.


Very Horny

So Horny. Chuck Austen writes incredibly horny characters. I recently learned that he was a pioneer in comic porn, and of course he was.

“At the time there was just a lot of sexual shame. It felt like we were in this bridge period where people were trying to be more positive about sex, but a lot of people were attacking them for showing. I wanted to take a few characters and show that sexuality was a real part of their life and there wasn’t anything wrong it, but at the same time you can be a victim of your own hormones.”

So let's talk about some of the greatest hits. You have this random sexy Genoshan Empath who is sitting in the square hitting on Warren, and then Iceman.

Warren realizes a bad idea when he sees it, but Iceman needed to exude Alpha Male tendencies to hire the truth, so he went with it. This didn't make her husband happy.

Who can't forget Warren and Paige having sex in the sky above her mom. Yea...we'll attack that one more later.


Remember the time (In rules of Engagement) that Paige tells nurse Annie that Warren cured her with his tear and Annie immediately asks if he's sexually active. Then Paige nonchalantly informs her that mutants can't get AIDS because of the X-Gene so everything's fine. Perfectly normal conversation.


There's the bachelor parties prior to Alex and Lorna's wedding, where the entertainment (shapeshifters) are taking requests to mimic other sexy heroes. I'll never forget seeing Beast yell "Tigra! Tigra! Tigra!"


Lol @ "Or something under-age for my friend with the wings!" Hahahahaha.


And in my opinion, the most memorable scene of the entire run. Stacy X saying goodbye to Warren by recording a video of her jump roping naked which is playing on the TV while his new teenage girlfriend walks in the door. Oh, Austen. I'll miss you.



Historically Bad Arcs

Yes. Really bad arcs. I'm going to get into each of them more below, but here's some things that took place throughout this run:

  • The one where mutant wolfpack's come together and attack the X-Men

  • That time a rogue church tried to plant Nightcrawler as the pope and then execute a plot with exploding holy wafers.

  • Don't forget when Nightcrawler, the mutant who is mistaken for a demon when really he's a mutant ended up actually being a demon.

  • Remember when Angel had sex with a teenager in the sky above her mom?


I know that I am defending Austen here, but I really don't know what he was smoking with some of these ideas. While there are many subjective opinions, it's pretty much a fact that Austen's run (thanks to these arcs) routinely shows up as the most disliked era of X-Men comics.


Juggernaut


I think Austen's greatest contribution was related to Juggernaut! I absolutely love how he turned him into a big softie and I'm eager to see if he cracks my top ten in my next blog: Favorites as of 2004!


“He ended up being very personal. He was very similar to the relationship with my dad. Having him bond with Sammy was the way to get him to bond with his own internal child. It was intentional to have him playing catch with Sammy and talking about the hot girls.”

Pretty tragic that Austen thinks his childhood was similar to Juggernaut, but perhaps drawing from personal inspiration is the best way for an amazing character to come to life. I absolutely adored Juggernaut and Sammy's relationship, which is why I was wrecked when it all came to an end!


Breaking down the Arcs


This opening arc, Hope, gets us started with some fun action. We got a little Monet at first, which ended up being a bit of a tease since she didn't show up again. This is the plot where Juggernaut calls the X-Men for help when Black Tom starts going insane and they decide he needs a little help. Austen was the first one to find a way for Stacy X's powers to be helpful (giving BT an orgasm to calm him down), but it still wasn't enough to keep her in the series for long. It did, however, give us a nice reason for Juggernaut to stick around.


Juggernaut is the first character to be faced with a strong emotional challenge. His "best friend" is losing control and he has to get help from his enemies to put him down. In a way Black Tom is the one who set Juggernaut on the path to becoming a hero and will be the one later on to cement his fate.



The Real Housewives of Graymalkin Lane (UXM 413)



Who are we kidding, I broke this issue (UXM 413) into it's own category for one reason and one reason only:





Fall Down and Go Boom (UXM 414)


UXM # 414 (Fall Down and Go Boom) is when Northstar officially joins the team. Austen leans into him being openly homosexual right away.


“Someone actually got mad at me because I made them cry. ”

In this story there is a mutant kid who keeps blowing up. His bombs keep getting progressively worse and only a speedster (Northstar) can get him help in time. The boy finds out that Northstar is gay and demands to be put down, but Northstar continues trying to save his life. Ultimately, he failed and the boy died.


This is a great example of the "emotionally charged" storytelling mentioned earlier. Austen know that Northstar is a world record holder and is incredibly smug about how talented he is. But in this instance he's still not fast enough to save a life and it becomes incredibly humbling for him.


“I wrote that Fall Down and go Boom story and we got hate mail.”

I'm not sure if that's because of bringing in a gay character or because people couldn't handle a kid dying, but apparently Austen got that strong emotional reaction he was looking for.


Juggernaut Rising (416)

After living with the X-Men for a few weeks, Juggernaut takes Sammy with him in UXM 416 to quite literally face his demons. He goes to his old house, thinks of his dad (who abused him) and destroys the house. In a way, it helps him start to put his past (and anger) behind him. It also helps that Sammy fish face is telling him that he might be a villain too and Juggernaut is like "We're not villains buddy."


Dominant Species (417 - 420)

“I get into the dominant species stuff with the Wolves.” 

In the Graymalkin Lane podcast, Austen talks about how he was trying to tell a story of society branching off into sub-species. We'll later learn more about ancient angels and demons (during the Draco), so in hindsight this pretty boring arc makes a bit more sense why Austen thought it was worthwhile to introduce a mutant wolf species. It just seemed random at the time and unfortunately doesn't hold up well.



Rules of Engagement (421 - 422)


Rules of Engagement is a bit slower of an arc where Havok and Polaris join team. Alex wakes up, spends some time learning what happened while he was unconscious, then is quickly proposed to by Loran. Also, Alpha Flight shows up and takes Sammy Fish Face away.



Holy War (423 - 424)



Holy War is another one of Austen's most famous and ridiculous story arcs.


It actually starts incredibly sadly with a number of notable X characters hung on crosses. Skin dies unceremoniously in this issue.


“Editorial had wanted to thin out the total number of mutants. He thought the total number of mutants degraded the value of the rest of the Marvel characters.” 

This reminds me of how the Mutant Massacre was created solely to fix an artistic error when the Morlocks were drawn to show that they had hundreds of followers instead of dozens. Claremont decided to fix this oversight by killing them off, but then Louise Simonson pushed him to do more with it...ultimately creating the first epic X-Men cross over. Here Morrison had created an exponential amount of mutants and we see that editorial wanted to thin it out. Perhaps this is a precursor to House of M (which I still have never read yet, but know exactly what's going to happen).


Here's how I had previously summarized the ridiculous plot:

"Wow. So Nightcrawler never truly became a priest. In fact, he was secretly being groomed. They wanted Nighcrawler to continue using his image inducer and rise up the ranks to become Pope. Then, they institute a master plan of replacing real communion bread with exploding communion wafers. Then Nightcrawler's image inducer would stop working, the Catholic Church would fall apart, and the Church of Humanity, who know one's heard of, will take over as the real Church."

Sacred Vows (425 - 426)


We start be learning that Lorna is, in fact, the daughter of Magneto.

“The decision was basically that I wanted to have that big moment. We really wanted to draw that connection really solidly. Mostly just for the power aspects of it. We wanted people to understand how powerful and dangerous she could really be. She’s going to come across much more powerful if she is (the daughter of Magneto) than if she is isn’t.”

The main event is when Alex and Lorna finally have their wedding, but Alex leaves her at the altar. Like any normal woman would handle being jilted at the altar, she freaks out, puts on a Magneto helmet and almost kills Alex and Annie (Alex's true love).


The Dead Have No Rights (427)

An issue so great, I just realized I forgot to cover it in my original blog coverage.


The Draco (428 - 434)

The Draco is quite possibly Austen's most controversial story.


“When I started working on the X-Men I had this weird idea to create an Angels vs. Demons thing. An idea about their being different races from time to time and they would need to fight it out.”
“Azazel is not a demon, but he’s a mutant from a previous punctuated equilibrium. He was the Magneto of his time. He had brought all of his crew together to fight against the angels.”

As mentioned above with the Maximus Lobo wolf story, Austen was focused on this idea of punctuated equilibrium where from time to time there would be these concentrated races of similar being. The Draco somewhat touches on Azazel and his race of demons who had at one point found a race of Angels, which is why they try to attack Warren.


Here's what I said previously:

"First, it's a pretty poorly written story. Second, but most importantly, the most important quality about Kurt was that he looked like a demon, but he rose above that knowing that he wasn't one and still had a great, positive demeanor. Here, Chuck Austen decides "No, he's actually been a demon all along." At least the son of a red, creepy, ancient mutant demon. I understand why people would be pretty furious about this as it lies in the face over everything we believe about Nightcrawler.


Here's what CBR had to say about it:

"That muddies the message needlessly and gives those who would assume the worst about Nightcrawler based on his appearance some credence to their beliefs. On top of being a messy story overall, it almost takes the principal aspect of Nightcrawler and makes the prejudice of others an actual part of his origin. It makes everyone who has ever called him a demon based on his appearance at least partly correct."

So how do I feel about it? I don't know. It isn't a great story. It certainly wasn't the worst. It's not even close to the worst case of my screaming at the pages saying "This character would never do that!" Jean killed a billion asparagus people. Scott cheated on his wife and ditched his child. Storm was just making out with Gambit behind Rogue's back. Magneto was a complete pussy in Planet X (I just read that a few days ago, can't wait to blog about it).


It's also not the weirdest story retcon. Remember when Amara was a secret Roman, then she was a brainwashed Brit, then she was Roman again? That was really weird. Remember when Stryfe was definitely the son of Scott, but then he wasn't? Remember how Kitty celebrated her 15th birthday with fake Courtney Ross (who maybe tried to kiss) her and then she was 18 a few issues later when she started dating a 30 year old? Marvel comics are weird. At least this was interesting. I wasn't bored. I feel like hanging myself halfway through every X-Treme X-Men arc. So this wasn't great, but I wouldn't say it's the worst."



The Trial of Juggernaut (435 - 436)


The Trial of Juggernaut was a 2 parter that wasn't anywhere near as dramatic as past trials we've seen (Magneto, Gambit, etc.) In this case, Juggernaut was quite literally on trial for the damages he caused when trying to rescue Sammy from his dad. It's not a trial about his soul, however that is touched on. Juggernaut is also touched on by She-Hulk.


She Lies with Angels (437 - 441)


Here's what I said previously about She Lies with Angels:


"Angel has sex with Paige in the sky, in front of her mom. Is this great? No, it is not. Is this the worst thing ever? Maybe not. Let me explain. I've seen seen this panel numerous times in various "worst things ever" X-Men articles. While this is pretty bad, it's missing some context. Angel spends the entire night talking to Lucinda (Paige's mom) about his feelings for Paige. While Lucinda probably didn't want him to go sleep with her in the air, she actually encouraged him to pursue her. The other part of this that's described as her being terrible is that she's underage. After hearing about this, I assumed she must be a young teenager, however they have gone out of their way (in New X-Men too) to clarify that she's 19. That's young, but it's a year past legal age. It's less messed up than Kitty being 13 dating a 19 year old. And just as messe

up as Kitty being "18" and dating mid thirties Pete Wisdom."


What's most interesting is to learn that Austen had plans to take this story further:


“I really wanted to get to the story where Sam finds out about it. There is a creepy guy who goes around collecting Paige’s Husk skins. There was a story where this guy wants her to keep changing shapes. Sam starts kicking his ass for screwing his sister in from of his mother. Warren can’t get a chance to explain that he’s trying to help in between beatings. Sam thinks ‘you don’t really love my sister, you shamed her’ but then later he realizes that they really do love each other.”

Bright New Morning (NXM 155 - 156)


Bright New Morning is Austen's attempt to conclude Morrison's arc while introducing a new status quo that did not stick around very long. We deal with the aftermath of Jean dying and Scott moving right on to Emma. People like Beast were offended by this. Me too, but I hear these two are great together so I'll see where it goes.


Of Darkest Nights (UXM 442 - 443)


Of Darkest Nights is basically a two part series where Austen (and I'm assuming editorial) wasted no time retconning Xorn and bringing him right back as a real character.


Day of the Atom (XMV2 157 - 160)


Day of the Atom is the beginning of the end for Austen, now moved over to X-Men Volume 2. He brings in Rogue, Gambit, and Xorn as new members of the team with Havok leading. We see more of the status quo with Scott and Emma running the school and Scott "passing out" new team assignments.


Heroes and Villains (161 - 164)


Heroes and Villains, one of my favorite storylines from this era, tells the final Juggernaut and Sammy story.

“Sammy was intended to be the viewpoint character. This is someone who is new and is learning about the X-Men at the same time that a new reader would be doing.”
“He was also intended to be a character who transitions Juggernaut from one side to the other.”

Juggernaut considers going back to his evil ways (which is still a bit head scratching) until Black Tom murders Sammy. This causes Juggernaut to go nuts and is the final stroke in Juggernaut detaching himself from Tom and staying as a good guy.


Characters

In General...

Austen is asked:

“I’m picturing you sitting down and looking at a list of all the available X-Men characters and thinking of who you want to focus on. How did you select your cast?”

Which is funny, because you know I am very focused on rosters and even did my own fake fantasy comics draft pretending how this might have gone down. Here was his response:


“I wish I could say that I choose them for specific reasons. I wanted a bit of a balance. I wanted the powerhouse and I wanted the sensitive character. The cast really came out of talking to my editor. Grant Morrison and Claremont each got their pick. Mike said ‘Here’s who is left over.’ I was a big fan of the Claremont/Cockrum era. I wanted Colossus, Kitty Pryde, etc. That’s actually how I got Juggernaut. 


(Arch)Angel

I would argue Chuck Austen did the best job to date of making Warren Worthington interesting.

“We had talked about the Neal Adams run of the old X-Men and there was something unbelievable about the way Neal drew him (Angel). There was something visually spectacular about him.”

Warren has been a mainstay since the very first iteration, but always a side character. In this run, leadership suit him well. I like how Austen started with Nightcrawler leading, which would be natural from his time leading Excalibur, but over time Nightcrawler was struggling too many of his own demons. Warren naturally took charge and for the first time in an X-Men comic, was able to use his family's wealth and reach as an asset for X-Men interests.


Everyone got a love story, and Warren's happened to be with a teenage girl (Paige Guthrie). Austen did establish that for as long as Warren has been around, he's still in his twenties due to Marvel's sliding timeline. They also clarified that Husk was 19. It's still icky, but not as bad as my original assumption that he was 40 and she was 16.


Husk (Paige Guthrie)

“The people on the internet were saying that I was only picking the pretty characters.“

I liked Husk a lot during Generation X, but I enjoyed her here a bit more. Austen did the best job I've seen so far of demonstrating her power. You can make an argument that her most important quality was being someone's girlfriend, but she also got a chance to be part of the X-Men in this run, which was her dream from Day 1.


Northstar

The editors asked if I would put Northstar on the comic.

He never had as big of a role after his initial story or two, but Fall Down and Go Boom was such a good story that it was worth it.

“He was a character who was incredibly popular because of the overall approach of what the X-Men is about: tolerance and understanding.” 

While it had been announced over a decade earlier that Northstar was gay, Chuck Austen was the first author to lean into it and demonstrate how that would impact his teammates and fellow man.


Iceman

“My take was to have Iceman gay and closeted. He was always intended to have a strong confrontation between Northstar and Iceman. He needed to stop hating himself because that anger is spreading out to the rest of the world. 

I LOVED hearing this admission after reading the arc because that is EXACTLY how it seemed. Iceman was a gigantic prick throughout this run and it totally makes sense that he was repressing his true feelings and hating himself, and others because of it.


Once again he got a classic "my ice powers are out of control" story, this time with his body turning to ice, but it never really went anywhere. I fully expect that this will be either retconned or forgotten entirely.


Juggernaut

As mentioned above, I believe Juggernaut was Austen's best contribution to the X-Men. He took him from a one note villain to a complicated hero.

“He doesn’t fit in with the intellectual characters.”

I love how he didn't fit in, but he also didn't care. However, that never stopped him from pushing to join the team. Asking to be a PE teacher, going on away missions, mentoring Sammy.

“In some ways he’s been wronged. Xavier comes in and in some ways is the better brother. And he ends up getting jealous.”

This backstory between Xavier and Juggernaut had always been there, but Austen was the first to really mine that. Yes, we've seen that Juggs was terrible to his half brother Charles, but Austen further explores how this also means that he had a rough childhood. Austen has Cain face both his past (father) and his "best friend." He has to cut ties with both of these toxic relationships to truly embrace who he is, and that's just beautiful.

Narrator: Did you view Juggernaut’s relationship with Black Tom as a gay relationship?
“I did not actually. See I was basing his characterization on J2 where he got married to a lawyer and had the next generation of Juggernauts.” 

Ha! Austen didn't even know that people assume him and Black Tom were gay. I figured as much when Juggs nonchalantly slept with She-Hulk.


Nightcrawler


Nightcrawler got a lot of screen time, but he didn't really improve much as a character, in my opinion.

“I asked if I could get him out of the priest collar. I didn’t want him to be a priest.”

I was pretty happy to see NC ditch the collar and get back on the team, but to do it by making it part of a an evil plot to have him infiltrate the Papacy and institute exploding communion wafers was a ridiculous story decision.

Sammy


Oh, Sammy. I really liked Sammy. I won't soon forget him either. By the time I realized that he was a plot device to help Juggernaut become a true hero, it was too late. He started out as a very troubled young man.

In time, Juggernaut took him under his wing. I'll never forget how Sammy kept telling Juggernaut that he was a villain, like him, but Juggs always denied that he was one.


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