Monday, April 14, 2014

I Used to Have the Runs: Chuck Austen’s Uncanny X-Men

Here at The Matt Signal, we live by a simple code: If we don’t have anything nice to say about a comic or a particular creator, we don’t say anything at all.

So let’s talk about Chuck Austen.

(Cue record scratch)

Austen is an easy target. Just ask Chris Sims. When you Google Austen’s name, the first thing that pops up is a fan-requested treatise Sims wrote for Comics Alliance in early 2012 on the bizarre trajectory of Austen’s career, from penciling Miracleman for Alan Moore to porn comics to Little Mermaid comics to superhero comics back to porn comics.

To be sure, there’s oh-so-much he got wrong about the X-books. But like it or not, from 2002 to 2005, he put his stamp on Marvel’s mutants.

It should be noted that this was during the X-Men’s hellbent for leather period, when it was decided the team should look more like its counterpart in the movies and Grant Morrison was writing some of the most interesting X-stories since ’80s Claremont in New X-Men. Austen picked up Uncanny X-Men from Joe Casey (and would later pick up the other X-Men from Morrison) and inherited a team that included Nightcrawler, Angel, Iceman, Wolverine and a mutant prostitute who hits on everyone. Over time, he would expand this team to include former X-Factor members Havok and Polaris, reformed baddie Juggernaut, former Alpha Flight member Northstar and former Generation X member Husk. Generally the three main X-books were pretty compartmentalized at this point (though the idea of blue and gold teams had long gone by the wayside), so characters like Cyclops, Jean Grey, Emma Frost, Beast, Storm, Rogue, Gambit and Bishop were all out of play. And Psylocke and Colossus were dead, but they eventually got better.

And, full disclosure, there’s a reason I unloaded my Austen X-books in a garage sale in 2009. I remember reading many an issue saying to myself things like, “This scene where Angel is lovin’ on Husk in the sky over her mom is clearly pushing statutory rape.”; “Wait, Nightcrawler’s dad is the devil, but not like the Mephisto or Belasco devil?”; “Why is this nurse in love with a coma patient?”; and “I have to believe there’s a way to make Polaris an interesting character beyond just making her a jilted, crazy witch.”

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. Herewith, a shortlist of the things Austen got right, in the X-books and beyond:

He gave Juggernaut a redemption arc: Before Austen, Cain Marko was ne’er not a ne’erdowell. He was a big lug who wore a helmet that made him look like a big, red chode. He liked to run through things and smash them. He hated his step-brother, Professor Charles Xavier. He fought the X-Men, Spider-Man, the Hulk and others. And he once got punched from Canada to Hoboken. But it wasn’t until Juggernaut started forming a friendship with a young mutant named Samuel “Sammy the Squid-boy” Pare that anybody could rightly call Juggs a good guy. Austen made the character someone worth rooting for, to the point where, when the character ends up in bed with She-Hulk in issue 435, you can’t help but smile and say, “Go ahead and enjoy; you’ve earned it.” (Though if you ask Dan Slott, that never happened).

He returned Havok to the X-books: From 1999 to 2001, Alex Summers starred in a book called Mutant X, in which he led a troupe of alternate-reality X-Men that weren’t the Exiles. The book was canceled after 32 issues. Austen brought a comatose Havok back to the 616 almost immediately, albeit in a subplot in which the nurse who’d been tending to him falls in love with him (in her defense, as an X-vegetable, he was the strong, silent type).

He brought Northstar into the X-fold: Alpha Flight is a book that’s really great at being canceled, leaving its characters to be ignored until the next time a creator says, “Hey, I’ve got a pretty decent Alpha Flight idea.” Austen took AF mainstay Northstar and made him an X-Man, giving the team its first openly gay member and laying the groundwork for Marvel’s first highly publicized same-sex wedding about a decade later.

Azazel: Wait, hold on, hear me out. I said Azazel, not “The Draco,” the storyline that introduced him and canceled many a pull subscriptions. Did you see X-Men: First Class? Were you OK with the red demon guy who kinda looked like Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas with evil-Nightcrawler powers. Thank Chuck Austen. Did you think the first arc of Amazing X-Men was the Nightcrawler storyline you’d been waiting for since “Second Coming,” even with Azazel leading a horde of demon pirates? Thank Austen. Without Austen mixing Kurt Wagner up in a bunch of stories about exploding wafers and his never-before-seen demon father (flying in the face of the Cartman’s mom is his dad theory), you wouldn't have writers like Jason Aaron and Chris Claremont giving you make-good Nightcrawler stories today. [Matt's aside: Also have to add, that while looking for an image to go with Azazel, there are a much larger number of disturbing, shirtless, slashy drawings of Azazel in Google image search than I would have expected in my wildest nightmares. Way more.]

He cut the fat from the lesser X-teams: During a storyline involving the Church of Humanity (not to be confused with the Friends of Humanity or the Purifiers, even though it clearly sounds like a sex-baby of the two), the church crucifies a number of unused X-detritus on the front lawn of the Xavier Institute, including Generation X’s Jubilee (who survived), the New Mutants’ Magma (who survived), and X-Force’s Jesse Bedlam and Generation X’s Skin (who did not). Bedlam was introduced to X-Force long after I stopped reading the book, and Skin was basically Mr. Fantastic but worthless, so, to quote Jay Sherman, “And nothing of value was lost!”

He kept the Avengers warm for Brian Michael Bendis: Austen took over Avengers in 2004 from Geoff Johns, who of course went on to fix Hal Jordan for DC and mastermind many of its big stories and characters. During his brief period on the book, he created a new, female Captain Britain codenamed Lionheart. Lionheart hung around just long enough for Bendis to come along and Disassemble the team.

He supports the real heroes: In the early 2000s, Austen wrote a series of The Call of Duty stories for Marvel, starring New York City emergency responders, a fitting tribute to the city’s finest and bravest in the wake of 9/11. Except they fought ghosts, so now all I can picture is Ghostbusters, and I’m sad about Harold Ramis all over again. THANKS A LOT, AUSTEN!

Austen’s run on Uncanny X-Men is available in six volumes of trade paperback. May God have mercy on your soul. 

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